Trigger warning: Mention of rape, suicide and abortion
Ruilan never thought she would ever reach a point in her life where she was meditating on a river. It was very cultivator-like of her. Surrounded by the fresh fragrance of bamboo leaves, and the gentle lapping of the river, she was beginning to understand why her parents – the great leaders of the Jia Sect of Yunhe – always meditated; it was good for the qi.
“Lan’yi!” She had been so deep in her meditation that such a voice was enough to startle the rickety boat into almost tipping itself. Aunty Lan, Aunty Lan; when did she become the kid’s aunty?
Ruilan looked towards the shore, catching the reflection of the adolescent in the water. She could still call him a kid even when he wasn’t anymore, but there was no denying that time had slipped through her fingers as easily as the currents pushed past one another.
“A-Yin, could you not see that I was meditating?” Ruilan said, rowing her way to the river bank where Hua Yin’s toes were teetering at the water’s edge.
Pieces of hair had been pulled from the immaculate top-knot she did for him this morning, there was dirt on his cheeks as well as a sizable tear across his robes that she would undoubtedly need to stay up late sewing back together.
“Forget about your meditating, aunty,” Hua Yin said, holding out his basket filled with miscellaneous ingredients. “I bought the supplies for zongzi, it’s Duan’wu’jie tomorrow.” Ruilan had forgotten about that – granted, she hadn’t been to town in a while. She peered into the basket; bamboo leaves, red beans, sticky rice – at least the kid knew his ingredients.
Ruilan’s heart softened at the smile on his face – stretching from ear to ear; he looked just like his mother. She shook her head – she had found herself thinking about Ying Chan too much these days; she really was getting old.
You only just turned thirty, is there a need to be so dramatic?
Hua Yin’s disguise was still intact; to passersby, he was a normal-looking young man with ebony hair and dark eyes. Ruilan wished he didn’t have to wear it, but it had been the case for a long time that humans couldn’t handle anything that had a Yin air about it.
Ruilan touched two fingers to Hua Yin’s forehead, dissolving the disguise; she didn’t like him having it up around her. Ebony melted into white – the crystalline kind, pure like snow. Eyes swirled deep red. Skin paled. Two horns protruded from his hair – black, and curved on the end.
Hua Yin watched his appearance change on the water’s surface, the look in his eyes seemed muddled, but he shook it off with another smile. “Let’s go inside,” he said, grabbing her by the wrist and pulling her to the cottage.
Ruilan rolled up her sleeves as Hua Yin unloaded the ingredients from the basket. “Do you know how to make zongzi?” she asked sceptically, because she had no idea how. Privileges of growing up in a prominent cultivation sect; you didn’t make the food yourself – most of the high cultivators didn’t even eat.
Usually Ruilan would take Hua Yin to the market to eat zongzi. The zongzi in Guangling were different to the ones in Lishui, where Yunhe was, but Ruilan always took what she could get.
“Niang taught me how to make them,” Hua Yin replied. “Shi’fu would make them with her.”
“Of course she did,” Ruilan muttered. Hua Yin didn’t often speak about his mother, or his mother’s shi’xiong. Ying Chan and Hua Jing. The former had punished herself into isolation, and the latter… was dead. “Well then, it’ll be up to you.”
“I can teach you, aunty,” Hua Yin said.
“You know how disastrous that inevitably ends up,” Ruilan replied. “I’ll watch.” She observed him prepping the rice, readying the bamboo leaves, moving about their little kitchen humming a quiet song.
Ying Chan taught him that song.
The Chan in her name meant beautiful. If ever there had been somebody deserving of that name – it was Ying Chan. Her features were carved from white jade, luminescent under the moonlight. Eyes slim, fitting of an artist’s stroke, lips shone red as a rich plum blossom.
“Do you think this child… do you think it could be normal?” Ying Chan said. They had been on a boat sitting atop the idle waters.
“Norms are made by other people,” Ruilan said.
“It is the child of a mo’gui, a demon,” Ying Chan said. The reason Hua Yin came about wasn’t the result of some scandalous love affair with a wayward demon. The truth was the demon had forced himself on her, silenced her screams for help with a clawed hand over her mouth.
Thinking about it made Ruilan think it would be lovely to see his head on a stick. Banish his wretched spirit back to the bottom of the eighteen pits of hell.
“Not all people in the blood sect are bad,” Ruilan said. “So not all demons are bad.” She put her hand into the cold water. “Plus, you’re the one carrying it, it’ll be like you more than that demon.”
“Being like me is not a good thing to be,” Ying Chan said. “It doesn’t matter if not all people in the blood sect are bad. If people paint it that way, then that is the way we are.” The cultivators of the blood sect practised a unique discipline; the manipulation of spiritual energy in blood to cultivate their qi.
Ying Chan only ever used the blood of animals who had died naturally, but to the people whose only knowledge of the blood sect was the name on their tongue – they were blood-hungry cultivators who killed humans to gain power.
“It wasn’t your fault, A-Chan,” Ruilan said. Ying Chan’s sword Biyue lay across her lap, under the gentle curve of her stomach.
The same sword she had unsheathed and pressed to her neck in a fit of hysterical laughter entwined in tears. “If I die, I can take this monster child with me!” The blade became lined with red, biting into her pale neck.
“The child is innocent, A-Chan,” Ruilan wrapped her hand around Ying Chan’s wrist, staring into those bloodshot eyes blurred with tears, laced with fear and desperation – a poisonous concoction. “Remember what we were taught as children. A human’s nature in the beginning, is kind.”
“This thing is not human!” Her grip on Ying Chan’s wrist tightened as she struggled.
Some part of Ying Chan had been lost to that demon. One that she could never get back even if Ruilan tore him apart.
“Please, A-Chan.” Ruilan knew she would probably have to resort to begging eventually. “Your life isn’t something to be toyed with. If you do not want the child, we can ask a doctor about it, we will find a way. Please…” You know I can’t live without you.
The moonlight pooled on the river like molten silver. “I wonder what it would be like… to hold the child in my arms,” Ying Chan said, her fingers traced the jade hilt of her sword. “… If I will even be able to.”
“You will,” Ruilan said. “I will make sure of it. If I have to travel down to the Yin world to wrangle you back, I will.”
Ying Chan’s hand was pleasantly cool on Ruilan’s cheek. “My lucky orchid, what could I do without you?”
Five years later
It was midday when the prominent sects aligned their powers to defeat the blood sect once and for all. It was midnight when the battle finished.
Ruilan had wobbled down the wet cobblestones, blue robes stained red. The sky was covered in a heavy layer of mist, as if to keep the pungent smell of blood from dissipating. She hadn’t found Ying Chan’s body amongst the dead.
Ruilan muttered a prayer to Guanyin; that Ying Chan was alive, that she had fled with Hua Yin to a safe place.
The next body she came across wasn’t Ying Chan’s. It was Hua Jing’s. Ying Chan had respected him as her elder, admired him as her mentor, loved him as her brother – given her child his surname.
Ruilan had known him as gentle, modest, respectful even to those who despised him, and respected in the sect as the master; an embodiment of the virtues taught to them in childhood. Now, he lay with a hole in his chest and cuts on his face.
The other cultivators stepped on his body as they walked past, spitting on the ground beside him. This was what the great noble families, who held up virtues like scripture, called justice. Upon the wrongdoers. The evil. Associations with the Yin.
Ruilan gripped her sword Xiangrui, knowing that within every person – there was a monster. Oftentimes, that monster was cloaked in silken robes and crowned with gaudy titles.
Ruilan found Ying Chan in a cave deeper into the mountains – what had been called Guixue Shan, or Ghostblood Mountains. She was holding an unconscious Hua Yin to her chest, stroking his hair and singing to him.
“A-Chan!” Ruilan cried, racing over to her. Ying Chan’s robes were much like Ruilan’s – covered in blood, none of it hers. “Thank goodness I found you.” Ruilan pulled her into an embrace which wasn’t returned. Ying Chan’s body was stiff, and low on spiritual energy. “Let’s go,” she said. “I’ll take you somewhere safe.”
Ying Chan only shook her head, tears carving fresh paths down her dirtied cheeks. “My shi’xiong is dead, the blood sect has been destroyed. If I go with you, they will find me and kill me.”
“I’ll take you into hiding, we will hide together,” Ruilan said. “What else would you do, A-Chan?”
“In the centre of these mountains, there is a place that shi’xiong often went to practise secluded meditation. It is marked with wards, they will not find me,” Ying Chan said. “Three years of seclusion to mourn my family, and then… I will see to what needs to be done.”
‘What needs to be done’ could only be revenge. “I will stay with you,” Ruilan said.
“Please, Ruilan,” Ying Chan said. “Let me do this.”
“What will you do about A-Yin?” Ruilan asked. “He is just a child. Seclusion is not what he needs.”
“He has been secluded in the blood sect his whole life,” Ying Chan said. “So no, I don’t plan on taking him. He probably shouldn’t be around me during the three years.”
She didn’t ask Ruilan to promise that she would take care of Hua Yin, but it had been an unspoken agreement between them. Ruilan parted with her, thinking that in three years, they would be reunited.
“It’s been ten years…” Ruilan murmured, raising her gaze to the moon. Hua Yin was beside her at the river bank, munching on the freshly-made zongzi. She had helped herself to one, then insisted that the rest be left for later.
“I know,” Hua Yin replied. Shortly after the siege on the blood sect, Ruilan had been found harbouring Hua Yin. She hadn’t said anything to her parents or her sister. Only bowed once to each of them, packed her things, took Hua Yin’s hand, and left.
Hua Yin shuffled closer, so their shoulders were touching. “Lan’yi, I miss her too,” he said.
Ruilan placed a kiss between his horns. The demon child which Ruilan had raised and known only to be kind in nature and pure of heart.
Wherever you are, A-Chan, your boy is safe with me. We will be waiting for you.