Fanfiction3: A-Li's Three Lives, Three Worlds - Chapter 44 (Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms 三生三世十里桃花)

Chapter 44

Written by Ligayacroft
Editing by Kakashi and Panda
Consultant Bunny and TVAddict

There were people who were born to live just as there were people who were born to die.

Huo Zheng had known early on that she was the latter.

Her parents had stopped believing in gods after she was brought to the temple to be blessed and had her future told after the first month of her birth. It was said that the priest took one look at her tiny face and her hands — and had prophesied she wouldn’t live past fifteen summers and that she would live to see her elders die before her.

In defiance to the gods, her parents left the temple and decided to give her another name — a boy’s. Her birth records had also shown her as a boy, which had paved the way for her education early on. Dressing up like a boy, spending time at schools with them, thinking like a boy, being able to do things only boys were allowed to do — her Father, Huo Shen, had theorized was the sole reason why his daughter lived past her prophesied age.

Death still came early to the Huo household as Huo Zheng’s mother died while attempting to deliver her stillborn brother. She saw Death take something from her mother’s body, and Death had also seen her. It flew toward her and started sniffing the air around her, its fathomless and joyless face suddenly changing into something more sinister. It was the day that Huo Zheng had resolved to be the best midwife and healer there ever was, if only to steal people from the clutches of death even for a while.

She had been nine.

Still, for somebody who was cursed by the Heavens with a short life, Huo Shen had made sure his daughter didn’t live like one. Responsibilities were dumped on her shoulders from a very young age and she was trained to do them as if she would live to ninety-nine.

Once, a massive storm had made the Bailong River surge for several days. It had consequently destroyed the zhúlóng [1] that had helped fortify their dam.

Huo Zheng had to spend several nights weaving bamboo strips together to form new ones. One night, exhausted and with her hands bleeding from paper cuts and from the slivers of bamboo fibers which had slipped under her skin, her Father had caught her crying.

Are you crying, Xiăohŭ? Stop being weak, child. You should not let anyone see you cry! Your life is already hard enough by being born a girl. How else can the village trust you in the future if they know you're not stable like a rock?

Huo Zheng had buried her emotions the same day the zhulong she had made were submerged and tied back to the dam.

She was twelve.

You control your destiny, Xiăohŭ, Huo Shen would often tell her growing up as they would drink together to toast her departed Mother. As important as it is to have somebody to live for, it takes wiser thought to know who or what you will be willing to die for.

Huo Shen was a hard father but he did know what he was talking about. Years later, government soldiers and a general came to the village to conscript men between the ages of fourteen to twenty-nine to man the wall being built against the bandits from the North. It was then that the duplicity within the house of Huo was exposed, when it was found out that the Imperial School’s former scholar Huo Zheng was a woman, not a man.

Huo Shen was publicly executed as a stern warning for having blatantly deceived the Emperor’s office.

Rain formed the rivulets of water that ran down her cheeks the day she dug her Father’s grave and laid his body down to rest. She was surrounded by what was left of the village after the Emperor’s forces took most of their men.

Huo Zheng was twenty-two.

And she did not cry.


Huo Zheng opened her eyes, and squinted a bit at the sharp light that hit directly on her face through the open east window. The servants had the curtains moved to ensure no sunlight hit the Duchess’ face but it always came at Huo Zheng’s expense. Every day she would ask for the maid to give her some shade, and every day for the past twenty days, she still kept on waking up to light on her face.

Twenty days.

Like at the start of each of those twenty days, Huo Zheng tried to move her fingers and toes.

And just like the past twenty days, they had remained immobile despite her mind’s best effort.

Gods. I had never believed in gods.

And yet —

Twenty days.

A-Li had been gone for twenty days.

And twenty days after, everything still felt so surreal…

A-Li was an immortal, a god, and even Death held him in high respect.

His parents are Emperor and Empress of our realms but have I ever told you he's our realms' future Crown Prince?

Now, Mei Lin’s stories made a lot of sense. And maybe, Huo Zheng thought as she felt her cheeks grow warm, it was also why he had spurned her attentions that day at the shepherd’s hut.

She was a toad who had lusted over a swan’s flesh. For who would want a mortal medicine woman who grew teas when you lorded over all mortals and immortals alike?

Maybe not at first. Maybe her actions in the shepherd’s hut eventually spurred his lust. Whatever, he had admitted to wanting her — eventually.

Twenty nights ago.

You’re my drug, Xiăohŭ.

And it had been so sweet when he had said it twenty nights ago.

Better be careful with this group, Xiăohŭ, her Nǎinai had warned the night the Three Monkeys first arrived, while she sat in the kitchen calculating the impact of the West Farm fire. They are not the usual kind who get lost around these parts.

And she had wisely tried to keep her distance but Bai Li… A-Li…

How naturally she had fallen into his arms for comfort that night by the bamboo grove.

How she would always find her head turning to look for him, as if there was music emanating from his direction that only her ears could hear.

She had even started paying closer attention to her looks, doing feminine things she had long since forgotten until the Three Monkeys had arrived in Huicūn. She brushed her hair, pinched her cheeks, and would even check if her face had gotten shiny just in case she ran into him.

And a newcomer he might have been but A-Li did not only draw her attention but those of men and women all over Huicūn as well. He was an all-around natural at whatever he did around the village — a dragon among men. He was adored by her grandmother, respected by tempestuous Mei Lin and aloof Gun Gun, followed by the men, sighed over by the women, and adored by children especially her Ling’er, the little traitor.

For the first time in a long while, Huo Zheng had felt inadequate and not needed — and these were feelings she hadn’t known she would appreciate feeling. As the months progressed and A-Li’s proficiency at running the farm — and subsequently, the village — grew, she had begun to feel lighter and less worried whenever she left the town for her day trips to Nanking. She had looked forward to arriving home too. She had gotten used to the routine of finding A-Li waiting for her at the courtyard where he would take and tie her horse then lead her inside the house to partake of the dinner Mei Lin and Gun Gun had had prepared to help her recover from her journey.

It was… pleasant, having someone other than her grandmother and daughter to wait for her to get home.

It was… satisfying, to be the one who was served and waited on, for a change.

By — as it turned out — three gods.

Yet, no matter that the distance between her and A-Li actually transcended the distance between soil and sky, she was never — not once — made to feel inferior in his presence.

And as much as the thought felt unsettling to her, she was not that dense to realize that the only time she had felt safe to be weak were the couple of times A-Li had her in his arms.

These past several months they had never said more words to each other than what was necessary, but in those spaces of time when her gaze had locked with his — like fingers clasping the spaces between another’s, like puzzles pieces that fit — Huo Zheng had felt she already knew him.


As it turned out, she did not know him at all.

The knowledge that the A-Li who had followed her around and allowed her to do things on her own terms, and the A-Li whose mere presence had caused Death to bow was still hard to digest even twenty days after he had first appeared in a cloud of smoke in front of her.

For twenty days, Huo Zheng fell asleep and hoped to wake up and realize it had all been a bad dream.

To think that twenty days ago her day had started out so well. She woke up to find A-Li sleeping beside her, facing her. She had stayed for as long as the time it took to drink a cup of tea just to marvel at the small miracle of seeing him there, so close she could smell his strangely fragrant breath. She had relished the comforting kind of warmth that had enveloped her chest as she let her gaze travel from smooth forehead to his straight brows to his sooty lashes, down to the slim line of his nose and the curve of his rosy lips. Her fingers had reached out and played with the ends of a tendril of his hair that laid across his neck and had fallen in dark contrast to the white bedsheet. Her eyes had run her gaze down the hardened planes of his body all the way to where the spare haphazardly-thrown quilt covered his modesty, not that she didn't already know the wonder that laid underneath.

Huo Zheng remembered wishing she could wake him up so he could make love to her again. But she hadn’t, so alarmed was she of the need to have him close and to cuddle in his arms. Considering she had always seized each day as if it were her last, what was it about A-Li that had always made her take one step forward and two steps backward?

Huo Zheng felt her eyes grow hot — I will not cry! I will myself not to!

She took several cleansing breaths to dispel the ache that settled in her face and chest — and failed — but at least only one tear escaped and slid down her temple.

“Huo Zheng Yīshēng,” the maid who attended her day in and day out quietly said, her hands gently pulling to turn Huo Zheng on her back. The task meant two incense sticks had already passed. She had asked that she and the duchess be turned to their sides at regular intervals to prevent bed sores from developing. “Please continue to be strong. Your husband will find the cure soon. I know it.”

Huo Zheng gave a soft grunt as her back rested on the bed. That was one upside of letting her thoughts roam freely; time flew a bit faster than if she just laid staring at the ceiling, listlessly.

Once settled after she was given a sip of water, the maid respectfully left and Huo Zheng was left all alone to her own thoughts once again.

“Well, you wanted my services and so I am here. Do not stand in my way,” a female voice, unfamiliar and grating, broke through Huo Zheng’s thoughts. She cast her eyes toward the direction of the door until a most unusual woman broke though.

The newcomer was dressed in golden yellow— a color that usually could only be used by members of the Imperial Family — the neck lapels of her robe in blue the color of the sky, tied together with an emerald green sash around her waist. In contrast to the grating and low sound of her voice, this woman looked young enough to be her older sister, and Huo Zheng couldn't help but frown at the qualities mismatch.

The woman took a long look at the Death God against the wall then cackled.

“Who put you there, then?” The woman asked and same as its interaction with A-Li, Huo Zheng could see Death quiver a response, which she could not hear. The woman then gasped and slowly turned her head toward Huo Zheng. “Curious. Most curious.”

Her eyes. A-Li’s golden eyes as he had stared down at the Duke, seemingly alive with flames of fire, had surprised Huo Zheng. In comparison, this woman’s eyes unsettled her. The glint in those black orbs seemingly told of wisdom that surpassed even that of her grandmother’s. That this woman talked to Death— she concluded this woman was a blessed mortal like Huo Mao.

The woman turned to the assemblage of servants and doctors that hovered about.

“Out! Everybody out! And don't you dare try to listen in or I will curse you with a hundred years of deafness,” the woman ordered as she waved the Daoist fly whisk she was holding towards everyone. “Ouuuuut!”

Once the room was emptied and doors closed, the woman turned toward Huo Zheng with a smile. Huo Zheng narrowed her eyes. Maybe it was the limited light that filtered inside the room now that the doors were closed but she could swear she saw the woman’s face flicker.

“Who are you?” She asked, instantly hating how weak her voice sounded, a side effect of the manacles on her ankles. As her worry for A-Li had grown, her strength had considerably waned.

“Shaman. I am the Shaman around these parts.”

“You have no name then?”

“In these parts, you have to do more than ask before you can earn one’s name.” The woman who only wanted to be called as Shaman approached closer, tapping her fly whisk again and again against the palm of one hand. “But you are not from here, Sister. From where did you come from?”

“If I told you, would you tell me your name?”

The woman shook her head. Huo Zheng blinked as the woman’s face flickered once again.

“Ah, but you don't need to tell me your name anymore. I’ll name you myself. May I?”

Before Huo Zheng could understand what was being asked of her, Shaman had gently grabbed and lifted her hand.

“Sister, your life line — “ Shaman gasped as she looked at Huo Zheng’s right hand. Then she also grabbed Huo Zheng’s left hand, her initial frown now replaced with deeper creases.

“My grandmother is a seer too. I know.”

“You had an immortal running off to Diyu to save you,” Shaman gently laid down Huo Zheng’s immobile hands to the sides, her eyes small with concern. “Did he even know what he was doing was to simply delay the inevitable?”

Huo Zheng had run Nǎinai’s words before they had left Huicūn over and over again in her head, and wondered just how much her grandmother had known. It was Nǎinai’s curse and blessing to know of her granddaughter’s short life. Had her grandmother seen this ruthless act from the Duke coming and so had sent A-Li along to help hedge her chances?

“Fortune-telling is a flimsy business,” she replied, which made the Shaman’s brows rise. “The future is always changing. I’d long since come to terms with my mortality; but the Duchess just gave birth and no child should grow up without the loving arms of his mother.”

Shaman pulled a chair and sat on her bedside. “Sister,” she whispered. “You don't believe in Fate?”

“If there is Fate, I would like to believe I have a choice to reject it. I was told of my short life from a very young age but six and twenty summers have already passed and yet here I still am.”

“The Star Lord over your life will not be happy to hear about your defiance,” Shaman replied with a wry smile. “You know why healers usually die early? It’s because you constantly move in the gray lines between life and death, and are able to prolong or cut short a mortal’s life. The Star Lords don't like that.”

“And yet if Star Lords are real, somebody wrote for this old body to be a healer.”

“A cruel joke, for sure,” Shaman said softly, her queer headpiece made of deer antlers bobbing over Huo Zheng’s face. “I wonder if it was also written that you would meet an immortal. If yes, it was another cruel joke. They said you were married to him. Sister, did you know the man whom you shared your house and bed with?”

She shook her head.

Shaman’s shoulders dropped.

“Sister, I don't think he can ever take you with him to live in the immortal realms. This man — if he is who the Death God over there says he is — he can never be with a mortal.”

“I had never counted on him to,” Huo Zheng hoped her voice sounded disaffected although a gnawing pang spread outwards from the center of her chest. A-Li still had two more years to spend in Huicūn. To an immortal, it might just be a blink of an eye but to a cursed mortal like her, three years was more than long enough. Would she even live that long? “He’ll be gone from my life soon enough.”

Shaman continued to stare at Huo Zheng for a couple of breaths and to keep face, Huo Zheng moved her eyes to look at the ceiling.

“Guān Jiàn (关键).”

“What?” Huo Zheng asked, confused.

“I am naming you.”

Huo Zheng laughed against the tightening in her chest. “That's an ominous name.”

“It fits.”

“Stop calling me names. Call me by my own. My name is Huo Zheng.”

The reaction was same every time. Wide eyes, open mouth followed by a look over on her entire form.

“But that’s a man’s name.”

“My Star Lord probably thought so too,” she answered derisively. “And yet here I am.”

Shaman’s lips pursed into a tight smile but her gaze told Huo Zheng she approved.

As glad as she was for her new company, Huo Zheng was also already exhausted beyond belief so she closed her eyes. She heard Shaman push her own chair back. Not before long, the room smelled of incense. Huo Zheng peeked through her lashes and saw Shaman walking around the bed with a jade censer in hand, chanting.

A prayer to the gods.

A-Li was a god. Huo Zheng had never prayed for as long as she could remember but this time, for the first time, she closed her eyes and she prayed.

Come back to me, A-Li. Come back to me, please.

She could still remember how he had looked as he placed her powerless hand against his face, how the fury and the worry warred in those seas of gold.

“Shaman, will…” She trailed off, suddenly afraid to ask the words out loud for fear that she would hear a negative response. But she had to know. She had to! “Shaman, will Bai Li be safe?”

Shaman stopped chanting. This time the mouth curved upwards on that strange face.

“Was that the name he gave you?”

Bai Li wasn't A-Li’s real name? Huo Zheng swallowed the ball that had settled in her throat. For something as simple as a name, she and her entire village had been lied to?

Shaman placed her censer down and approached Huo Zheng again, her eyes unnervingly unblinking.

“You really do not know?”

If Huo Zheng could allow the bed to swallow her whole, she would have wanted it to. Shaman’s face was so close now, she could smell the woman’s fragrant breath.

“K-know what?”

“If only he didn't have you at such a disadvantage, I wouldn't tell you,” Shaman harshly whispered, making Huo Zheng feel all the more like she was being eaten by all the space around her. “Grandson of the Nine-Tailed Fox Emperor, oldest son of the current Heavenly Emperor, and Grandson of Father Immortal, the One who created us all — Huo Zheng, I think the better question is: will the worlds be safe with the boon of favor that has just dropped into Yánwáng’s hands?”

Chapter 45

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1. (竹笼子) Traditional levee made of long sausage-shaped baskets of woven bamboo filled with stones known as Zhulong, held in place by wooden tripods known as Macha.