Surprise! Part One!
Much like Part Two, this surprise is open to everyone who wants to get involved. So feel free to pipe up with suggestions!
My apologies for unveiling the surprise later than was scheduled. Certain difficulties arose – but we’re here! It might be a little rough around the edges. There wasn’t as much time for editing as I would have liked, as per the difficulties and a current lack of historical knowledge, but I hope that you enjoy the surprise!
English is an unfortunate language when it comes to China specific genres. France and Italy are more accommodated when it comes to translations of mànhuà. On the other hand, English fandoms tend to stick to either Japanese or English language creations. This surprise is an attempt at remedying this misfortune whilst serving the fandom that supports it!
Please refer to the poll at the end.
It was dark when Guo’er stirred into wakefulness atop her father’s fallen over piles of books and parchments. She sat upright slowly, rubbing at her tired eyes and stifling a yawn. She began pulling her fingers through her hair; undoing it from the man’s style she wore to receive an education. As she was doing this, she glanced down at the books and parchments she had knocked from their place, trying to discern where her father’s ended and hers began but it was too dark.
She rose to her feet a little unsteadily as she prepared to make her way to bed when she caught sight of a silhouette resting against the door. Suddenly wide awake, she rushed over and threw open the door. Her father lurched back at the sudden loss of contact.
“Diē!” she exclaimed. “Come in! You’re so cold!”
She threw her arms around him. His skin was icy to touch. Even his clothes felt cold. She pulled him to his feet, rubbing his arms as she fussed and half-dragged him into his study. He laughed, struggling to match her panicked pace.
“I’m fine. I’m fine,” he assured her. “Don’t worry about me.”
Guo’er crossed back to the doors, sliding them shut. Then she dug out an old blanket that he kept for her and wrapped it around his shoulders. She knelt down uncertainly next to him, wondering whether or not to go and make some tea.
“Are you unhappy about today?” he asked.
“No,” she frowned. “Do I seem unhappy?”
He sighed and drew the blanket tighter around him. “Will you tell me what you learned? Or will you tell me what’s troubling you?”
She opened her mouth to protest. “I had a nightmare… I remembered māmā.”
Her father sighed, his thick brows furrowing. Twelve years had passed since that day. The ache had yet to settle though Guo’er struggled with her loss the most.
“Do you have to go?” she whispered, as if afraid to ask.
“Yes,” he answered. “If I don’t, what will we eat? We won’t have any money for food or for clothes or for studies. Don’t worry; I won’t be gone for long this time. I’m not going on the Silk Road.”
“Really?” she brightened.
He smiled. “If you’re good, I’ll come home even sooner.”
She grinned. “I will. I’ll be good every day.”
“Come on, let’s go to bed. You’re young. You need to rest,” he stood, helping her to her feet. “I’m sorry that I’m leaving you again. I know I promised to show you the world. I will one day. You need to be patient with me.”
They exited the study. Her dad turned to close the door. She waited for him patiently.
“I don’t mind,” she insisted. “I have my studies now. When I’m finished, I can go with you.”
Pulling her into a hug, he patted her back. “Good girl.”
2 Months Later
Guo’er stared at her bedroom door. The urge to slam it shut tugged at the back of her mind. If only she could. Instead, she allowed her step-mother, Yàn, to enter.
“Guo’er, I will not repeat myself,” her step-mother scolded. “You are not leaving.”
“Father has arranged for me to st-“
“- You know how dangerous it is for you to be seen! Do you want your father to come home to an empty house? Do you want to endanger your brother or your sisters?”
“Then you will remain inside.”
With that, Yàn turned and left. The door slammed shut behind her. Her angry, heavy footsteps could be heard all the way across the hall.
Despite her outward appearance of composure Guo’er saw how step-mother’s pace increased. She had wanted to leave as soon as she could. It was an unspoken truth that Guo’er was unwanted and a burden. Her very existence threatened their well-being. She knew what fate awaited her if ever she were found to exist by the outside world.
Turning on her heel, she approached the window. Dressed as she was, no one would suspect that she were anything other than a servant. Taking a breath to reassure herself, she pulled it open. A sigh threatened to spill from her lips as she watched the people down below. Their voices rang out, shrill, scolding, jubilant, stern. Seeing them, her heart ached.
If her father were home he would argue on her behalf. When she was a child he would take her outside. He would buy her food and they would stop at the bridge so that she could watch the river down below. Sometimes she dropped her food into the water, wanting to see if there were any fish. There never were.
“Come home, diē,” she whispered. “I don’t like being on my own.”
2 Months Later
Five lǐ from the city ran a cool stream. The clear water rippled gently as it hurried past. It was a popular resting place for those who were travelling to the city. At present, a group of young xiá were congregated there. They were travelling to the capital Cháng’an and had stopped to rest.
Though as xiá they were without masters, they were journeying to meet General Lǐ Xū. He had sent for them, claiming that there was an urgent task he required of them. What it was he hadn’t specified. His only insistence was that they would arrive as soon as was possible and that they would ensure his son, and their comrade, Lǐ Xiū, was also there.
However, the general’s son was of a different opinion.
He clung to his best friend, Qīng’er. “The delay would be less than a week!”
She rolled her eyes. “A delay is a delay no matter how little. You just want to play.”
“No! Why would you say that, Qīng’er? I’m hurt. I’m really hurt,” he protested, looking away. “Ow… See? My heart is hurting.”
“If your heart is hurting go to a doctor,” she retorted.
He pouted, drawing back from her. Then he noticed their other companions and brightened. Tugging on her sleeve, he pointed at the others.
“Look at us. We’re tired! We’ve travelled a long way,” he reasoned. “Let us relax. We’ll be in better health afterwards. We might even reach… Cháng’an… sooner…”
Qīng’er burst into a fit of laughter, doubling over so far that she almost toppled into the stream. The others joined in. Embarrassed, Xiū huffed, burying his red face in his hands.
“All right,” she conceded, once she’d finally stopped laughing at his expense. “We’ll go. This will stop you from complaining, right? We’ll go to the festival.”
“Really?” he brightened immediately. “You mean it? Yes!”
She caught his arm. “What about General Lǐ? Are you sure you want to make him wait? He doesn’t like waiting.”
Xiū laughed, leaping to his feet. “He’ll be fine. He doesn’t like anything that I do. Besides, we can tell him that we saved a village on the way. Then we’ll seem fast instead of late.”
Qīng’er rolled her eyes again. He was already untying his horse from a nearby tree. She let out an exasperated laugh. Their peaceful journey was over. It would be impossible to calm him before the festival began.
“We’re going then?” one asked her.
“We have to,” she sighed. “He wouldn’t shut up about it until we reach Cháng’an otherwise.”
“Spoiled brat…” he muttered to grunts of agreement.
She stood, smirking. “Don’t lie. You want to go too.”
4 Days Later
Guo’er counted the coins she had laid out on the table for the third time. She had been saving her money for a long time, foregoing meals at times. Collecting the money was something that she enjoyed. It was something that she had chosen to do of her own volition and it was hers. No one would dictate to her how and when or on what it would be spent. Only she could do that.
Today was the day of the Lantern Festival. Today, she decided, she would be free.
Stepping back, Guo’er glanced down uncertainly. She had stolen one of her step-sister’s rúqún. The low cut of the duìjīn style blouse made her nervous but she hadn’t been paying attention to which one she was taking. Hesitantly, she wondered how difficult it would be to tie the laces. Biting her lip nervously, she wondered whether or not it would be better if she stayed at home.
She flinched. Her step-mother. A terrible weight settled in her throat. For a moment she was silent, afraid that she would choke. Then she snatched up the small sewn together scraps of fabric that had been her mother’s purse and pushed the money she had collected into its confines. Reaching for a pair of shoes that her father had brought back from the Silk Road for her, she flung open the window and clambered up onto the ledge.
Scanning her surroundings, she slipped her money bag into a shoe and wrapped them in her step-sister’s rúqún. Ensuring that the shoes were completely encased, she dropped the hastily put together bundle.
“Guo’er!” Yàn’s tone was sharp. “Come out at once! This is not a request, Guo’er! I will tell your diē!”
She faltered, swaying dangerously on the ledge. He had left for their sakes, so that they wouldn’t starve. If she left she would endanger them all. If he came back to find them all dead…
Slowly, Guo’er drew back. Her step-mother was pounding on her door now. She opened her mouth to tell her step-mother that she was coming when she glanced down. Seeing the carefully wrapped bundle lying in the grass her heart palpitated. Without hesitation, she swung her legs over the ledge and dropped to a crouch.
Her step-mother’s attempt to enter was immediately thwarted by the table Guo’er had shoved against the door. It was the same one where she had lain out her belongings. Now crouched outside her home, she hugged the bundle to her chest, staring up fearfully.
“I… I could… go. Couldn’t I?” looking down at herself, she bit her lip. “I haven’t in so long…”
She knelt down, placing the bundle down gently. Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath, concentrating on the form she had inherited from her mother. Soon, the scents and the sounds of the night shifted.
Opening her eyes, she stared at the garden. Standing, her head was less than three feet from the ground. She trotted over to the bundle, taking it carefully between her teeth and scarpered. There was a small section of the garden wall that remained incomplete. When she was younger, before her step brother and sister were born, she used to hide things there.
She found it with ease and slipped through. The other side of the wall faced the back of a hastily erected stall. Safely hidden from sight she swiped at the ground before dropping the small bundle. To her relief, it was as easy to transition back to her human form as it had been to transform from. Despite there being very little space to move behind the stall, she changed into her step sister’s duìjīn and rúqún. Lastly, she stepped into the foreign shoes gifted to her by her father.
Keeping close to the wall, she emerged onto a bustling street. She stilled, staring, wide eyed at those passing by. Children were running free or holding their mother’s hands. Young men and women chattered excitedly. Everywhere she turned there were sights and sounds bombarding her. Grip tightening cautiously around her mother’s purse, she ventured into the throng and was instantly swept away.
It wasn’t until much later that she found herself on the outskirts of the crowd in an area unfamiliar to her. Turning back the way she came, Guo’er glanced at her unfamiliar surroundings warily. She knew from travels with her father before he re-married that people travelled to festivals. Merchants would go to trade and peddlers would bring food to sell. It wasn’t uncommon for nearby xiá to pass through or demon hunters.
Her pace quickened. Terror clutched at her now. It filled her lungs, stealing her breaths before they could bring her any benefit and closed her throat. It ached in her veins and pounded in her ears, rendering her world silenced.
A hand caught her arm.
“Ah!” she twisted in an attempt to get away.
“I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” it was a young man. “I didn’t mean to scare you. You look unsettled. Are you all right?”
Guo’er stared at him, heart palpitating wildly. Nervously, she straightened, swallowing drily.
“I’m… lost,” she murmured.
“Did you come with some?” he asked.
“I… Yes,” her voice began to steady. “My diē. I came with my diē.”
He turned, rising to his toes and peering into the crowd. “Where did you last see him?”
“A while ago,” she began to back away. “I’m sorry. I should watch where I’m-“
“Don’t worry. I’ll help you find him,” he grinned at her. “I’m Lǐ Xiū. And you are?”
She gaped at him. “… Guo’er.”
He flashed her a dazzling, then grasped her hand. Pulling gently, he brought her back into the throng.
“Nice to meet you, Guo’er,” he chirped. “Now, what does your diē look like?”
She stuttered. “You’re… my hand…”
“Oh, that? You don’t want to lose me too, do you?” he laughed. “Hey, how long have you been alone? Do you want something to eat? I’ll get you something to eat.”
Their detour to the peddler’s stall was not the last. Upon coaxing her to admit this was her first festival in years Xiū was insistent that she see everything it had to offer. Midnight was close when they finally reached the bridge where Guo’er used to drop food for non-existent fishes.
“I’m sorry,” Xiū sighed. “I wanted to help but I’ve only made things worse. You probably would have found your diē if not for me.”
She shook her head. “No. I-“
It was Qīng’er. She was standing on the opposite side of the river and she wasn’t alone. His other comrades were there too. None of whom looked happy to have been searching for him all night.
Qīng’er frowned at her. “This is where you’ve been hiding? Stop flirting! We have to travel early tomorrow!”
“We don’t have to leave so soon!” he yelled back. “I’m sorry, Guo’er, they’re- Guo’er?”
She was pushing against the tide of people in a bid to get off of the bridge. The sight of their weapons had been enough to alert her to the nature of their work. She recognised them. They were much the same as those used against her mother as she fled from their home, luring away the xiá.
A hand closed around her arm. “Guo’er? Are you all right?”
“Let me go!”
“What’s wrong? Has-“
“I have to go!”
Fortunately, the crowd began moving en masse again. Xiū was pushed away. He shoved against the oncoming tide of people but it was too late. Guo’er was gone. The only trace that she had even been there was a shoe.
The Next Day
“Xiū, you didn’t sleep last night?” Qīng’er sighed.
He tripped over the bottom step. Barely avoiding falling onto his face, he meandered over to her. His knapsack was slung over his shoulder, but on the verge of slipping.
“Xiū,” she rolled her eyes. “Listen to me.”
He stifled a yawn. “Where is everyone?”
“They’re gone,” she answered simply. “I told them to go ahead. You’re just wasting time. Again. If we brought you to General Lǐ like this… Is this the shoe she left behind?”
Eyes widening, he snatched it from her. “How did you get this?”
“Your snoring drowns out everything else. I stole it from you. When you finally came back,” she shot back. “She lives around the corner. Her diē sometimes goes along the Silk Road. Everyone here knows him. Now, is there something you would like to say to me?”
“Thank you, Qīng’er,” he laughed. “This is-“
“- Enough,” she interjected. “Go and talk to her. Or we’ll never get to see General Lǐ.”
Xiū yanked her into a hug before running off, yelling his thanks.
“Other way!” she laughed.
As he came to house, he found Yàn outside with a servant.
“Excuse me,” he forced himself to slow as he approached her. “Does your husband travel the Silk Road?”
“Who are you?” she frowned. “Why are you here?”
“I’m Lǐ Xiū. I’ve come to see Guo’er. She lives here, I think,” he answered. “I’m sorry to inconvenience you.”
“There is no one here by that name,”she snapped. “Please leave.”
“I’m sorry,” he stepped closer. “But I don’t suppose you have a daughter? I may have misheard her name. She vanished last night. I need to know that she’s all right.”
“My daughters are six and four,” she glared. “They are not who you are looking for. Leave.”
Sighing, he nodded. “I’m sorry to have bothered you.”
Scowling at his retreating figure, she waited until he was gone before hurrying inside.
“Do not speak of this. To anyone,” she instructed the servant. “I will have you removed from this house if you do.”
Immediately, she made her way towards her husband’s study where she intended to write to her husband of what had just transpired. She was hoping that this would finally make him see sense and send Guo’er away.
“Who was that?”
She flinched. “Guo’er! What are you doing here?”
“You forbade me from my studies,” she answered. “Who was that?”
“A beggar,” she lied.
“I saw him,” she retorted.
Yàn rounded on her. “You know who he is. He’s the man who you ran away with last night. Was he worth endangering our lives?”
She fell silent, shrinking back from her step-mother.
“I sent him away,” she continued. “I’ve fixed your mistake. I won’t do it again. And I will tell your diē about this.”
The doors to the study opened.
“Guo’er?” a quiet voice called out.
Stirring, she sat up slowly. “Diē, is that you?”
He sat down opposite her, head lowered. Solemnity radiated off of him, as did guilt.
“Diē, are you all right?” she reached for his hand.
“We need to talk,” he sighed.
“I didn’t mean to endanger us,” Guo’er exclaimed, scrambling around to her father’s side. “I just wanted to enjoy the festival. I wouldn’t have gone if I’d known. I won’t do it again.”
He patted her shoulder gently. “Guo’er, you need to understand – your māmā’s was a senseless death, but it wasn’t without its reasons. Xiá don’t roam the world, searching for demons to slay. There was someone, I don’t know who it was, but he was causing trouble, hurting people. When the xiá arrived to help they were finding it hard to understand who was to blame. When they learned that a demon was living among the villagers they fell back on widespread misconceptions. It was wrong, but it was an easy mistake to make. We all make mistakes based on assumptions.
“They pursued her because someone was to blame and by their beliefs she was a likely candidate. You didn’t endanger us by going outside. You’ve been going outside for years without incident. Don’t think of yourself like this. You are not a danger. You are my beautiful daughter.”
Guo’er whimpered, wiping at her wet cheeks. “Thank you, diē.”
“And that is why you should go,” he took her hands in his.
“But you said-“
“With him,” he urged. “You should go with him. What was it again? I keep forgetting… Xū… No…”
“Lǐ Xiū?” she sobbed. “But- why?”
“He cares for you. He wants you to be happy,” he said.
“You want me to leave?” she covered her face. “Why? I thought you… I don’t even know him. Besides, I can’t. A human and a demon, they can never be together. Heaven has said so.“
“You’re not a demon, Guo’er,” he pulled her close. “You know, I still love your māmā. I still miss her. I think of her every day. If I pass someone, I’ll think ‘there’s my wife’, but it isn’t. What we had, all those years… Even though she’s gone, I don’t have any regrets. She didn’t have any either. Even though it hurts, it was worth the pain.”
Burying her face in his shoulder she whispered “But I don’t want to leave you…”
“I love you, Guo’er. I always will. No matter how much distance there is between us,” he took a deep breath. “I know you aren’t happy here. And I know, it won’t be with me, but you can see the world. Xiū can give you that. He can protect you too. He will. He wants to help you. He promised me that he would.”
“I’ll be all right,” he smiled sadly. “Do what’s best for you.”
“Do you think this is?” she whispered, her voice hoarse with crying.
“I think you need to be away from your step-mother. I think you want to see the world instead of reading about it,” he stood then. “If you don’t like it, or you don’t like him, you can go on your own, find your own place in the world. Or you can come back. I’ll always be here for you.”
She was silent for a moment. Then she reached out for her father’s hand and he helped her up. Together, they made their way through the house. Xiū was waiting for them outside.
“I want you to promise me you’ll take care of her,” he demands. “Teach her gōngfū. Make sure she can protect herself. But don’t let her get hurt.”
“I will,” he promised.
Taking Guo’er’s other hand, he placed it in Xiū’s.
“Be safe, my Guo’er,” he urged. “You can come home anytime.”
“Thank you, diē. I love you.”
She walked away slowly, glancing back at her father every few seconds until the wall stood between them.
Wǔxiá / Shénmó Twist is an attempt at creating an English language gateway to the aforementioned genres. It does this via re-tellings of fairy and folk tales as this is a familiar field for tellings and re-tellings and should build upon a fanbase already present. However, it’s also meant to serve as a platform for those who are fans of these genres already.
Five more of these stories will be made available online for free. Please select which ones you’d like to see. Or make a suggestion! Even those that are not in the top five may make it into the work-in-progress book.
[Those that are may be altered slightly when it comes time for the book’s publishing too]
As for the other polls, well, they’re surprise Part Two.
Happy Mid-Autumn Festival!