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‘I paid a visit to Xiao Yan before she passed away. She said that though she was about to die, she had already given you the reward you wanted, so you had to fulfil your promise to her. This is her face. She wants you to give her face to a woman named Ning Xishi.’
His slender hand, white as jade, hovered above me before pressing down on my shoulders.
My gaze wandered past his hand and paused at the wooden box he carried. The wooden box was a fraction larger than a person’s face, and several grotesque demons had been carved onto its surface. At once, I recognised this as a box Painted Skin masters used in preserving a person’s face. My expression grew sombre.
He continued, ‘Ning Xishi was Xiao Yan’s playmate in their childhood. Xiao Yan said that she had not managed to do anything for Ning Xishi in this lifetime, so now that she is dead, she wants to give Ning Xishi her own face. At least… to let Ning Xishi’s husband treat her better.’
I was a Master of Destiny, tasked to uphold God’s will. I was able to understand the movement of celestial bodies, familiar with concocting strange potions, and privy to the mysteries of life and death. My responsibility lay in protecting the balance on Earth by defending it when things went awry, but occasionally, I would use my abilities to earn extra income.
Xiao Yan was my previous customer. She sought a potion from me but passed away before I could give it to her. Yet she still entrusted someone to deliver my payment to me, and the person who had come was my senior, Mo Ran. But apart from the night pearl I sought from her, Mo Ran also brought with him a wooden box containing Xiao Yan’s face.
‘And,’ Mo Ran continued, ‘Xiao Yan instructed us to never let Ning Xishi know that this face belonged to her, for she would never accept it, even though she does require a face.’
Mo Ran lifted his wine goblet and took a sip from it. He added, ‘A beautiful face.’
‘En.’ I nodded, raising my head to stare at Mo Ran, who was leaning against the wall, slowly savouring his wine.
Beyond the windows, the rain which trickled across the grounds was translucent against the dark skies.
Standing, I accepted the wooden box from Mo Ran and moved to retrieve my umbrella.
Ning Xishi was the main consort of Prince De, Su Zicheng.
She was originally the unfavoured daughter of a low-ranking official and his concubine, but after performing the Startling Swan dance in an imperial banquet, she caught Su Zicheng’s attention and was immediately conferred the title of his main consort.
According to rumours, Ning Xishi’s ugliness was incomparable, but when she had danced at the imperial banquet, her face had been veiled and she appeared to be a beauty. The amorous and unruly Su Zicheng was tricked into thinking that she was a peerless beauty to immediately ask for her hand in marriage, only to lift her veil on the night of their wedding to discover that his bride was a hideous woman.
Furious, he immediately banished her from his manor. Ning Xishi was exiled in a side manor from the night of her marriage and was never spoken of again. Therefore, during my first meeting with her, she was not residing within Prince De’s manor, but was instead at a side manor located in the outskirts of the city.
‘I heard you were looking for me,’ Ning Xishi said, her voice lined with exhaustion.
Ning Xishi was the one who had searched for me and had me brought to her manor, and I guessed that this was the result of Mo Ran’s interference.
Without delaying, I reached into my sleeves and retrieved the wooden box containing Xiao Yan’s face.
Bowing, I said, ‘I am Ye An, a Master of Destiny. I was entrusted by a person to help Your Highness change your face.’
‘Change my face?’ Ning Xishi was momentarily dazed. Slowly caressing her face which had been veiled by gauze, she continued in slight disbelief, ‘Is that face beautiful?’
I did not reply, only uncovering the box to reveal Xiao Yan’s countenance.
Xiao Yan’s face was stunning. She possessed the features of a cold beauty, and just one look at it was enough to capture Ning Xishi’s attention, her gaze lingering upon it.
A moment later, Ning Xishi laughed, clapping her hand as she stood from the bed. ‘Beautiful. A beautiful face, not bad indeed.’
As she said this, she waved me over and led me into the bedroom, smiling as she walked. ‘I, Ning Xishi, am indeed pitiful if even a stranger knew that I needed a beautiful face. What do you require from me?’
She turned to face me, and a pair of intelligent eyes met mine. Beneath the gauze, the faintest hue of grotesque pink scars could be seen. Ning Xishi’s elegance was intertwined with terror, and she possessed a strange kind of deformed beauty.
I pointed towards the bed. ‘Your Highness, please lie down. You can entrust everything to me.’
Wordlessly, she laid down.
I retrieved my tools from my medical box and prepared a potion for Ning Xishi ingest. Then I picked up a scalpel and walked over to stand next to her.
‘You will not be in much pain, but there will be some discomfort. Why don’t you talk to me? Perhaps you will feel better.’
‘Talk to you?’ Ning Xishi laughed lightly. She thought for a moment, then said, ‘There is nothing for me to say. The only thing worth mentioning in my life is him.’
As she began her story, I lifted my scalpel, slicing it across her face, the blade reflecting silver.
Ning Xishi said that she was 8 years old when she first met that woman.
Back then, she had been playing with the Prime Minister’s daughter, Xiao Yan, by the roadside when that woman suddenly appeared before them, screaming at Xiao Yan’s father as she hurled a pot of boiling water in their direction. Yet the young girl who had been standing at the forefront was Ning Xishi. The pot of scalding water splashed across Ning Xishi’s face and she cried out, pain besieging her senses.
From behind, a white robed young man suddenly shoved his way past the throng of people gathered around her. Swiftly, he lifted her into his horse carriage, before speeding towards the physician’s inn.
Within the horse carriage, the excruciating pain burning Ning Xishi’s face, combined with her immense terror, caused her to burst out crying. As tears slid down her cheeks, the agony in her heart only intensified, a deep helplessness suffocating her.
At that time, the person who had been accompanying her by her side was that white-robed young man who possessed a striking face and wore tastefully embroidered clothes. His lilting eyes, at first glance, danced with flirtatiousness, but when he stared at her, only grave concern remained.
He held onto her hand in a tight grasp, and in a deep, soothing voice, murmured, ‘Young lady, don’t be afraid. You will be fine. Don’t be afraid.’
His soothing words became Ning Xishi’s only source of strength in that moment of terror.
Yet things did not turn out fine.
That incident left Ning Xishi permanently disfigured. In the aftermath, Xiao Yan was also forbidden from leaving the Prime Minister’s manor, and the two of them eventually lost contact.
Later, Ning Xishi’s mother came to console her, yet she remained in a stupor.
Her silence was only broken when finally, she whispered, ‘That white-robed man who was with me… Who is he?’
‘Him…?’ Her mother sighed. ‘It’s Prince De, Su Zicheng. Despite his reputation, he turned out to be surprisingly kind-hearted.’
From then on, this name was etched into Ning Xishi’s mind. At the same time, she also understood that she had been disfigured, and would never be worthy of him.
Yet she did not resign herself to fate. For him, she studied the classics, learned to dance, mastered needlework and composed poetry…
She thought that if she were to master every skill a woman ought to possess, then even if she had been disfigured, she should still be worthy of him.
Later, as the days passed and she slowly grew up, so did he, becoming infamous for his amorous liaisons with several women across the city. At dawn, he might be found at Willow Alley; at dusk, he could have been sleeping at the Song and Music Tower. Today, he might be accompanied by the courtesans of Heavenly Fragrance Pavilion; tomorrow, it would perhaps be the dancers of Intoxicated Flowers Inn.
Ning Xishi possessed everything a woman could have wanted apart for beauty, while Su Zicheng did not care about anything a woman had other than her looks.
When Ning Xishi turned 16, her father wanted to betroth her to the son of a fellow court official, but she was unwilling, and pleaded with her father for permission to attend the imperial banquet instead. Then, at the banquet, when the Emperor invited for those seated to offer a performance, she volunteered herself.
‘I performed the Startling Swan dance,’ Ning Xishi said, her voice warm, as though lost in fond memories.
I continued to focus on my task at hand, and assented in a low murmur.
‘I spent three years practicing this dance.’
This was the dance Ning Xishi had mastered for Su Zicheng. She had heard that he loved the Startling Swan dance, but as the music accompanying this dance had been lost in history, she only managed to piece them together after searching through countless ancient records.
A slender waist; dainty footwork; the slanting lilt of her eyes.
Her performance caused a flutter of hushed whispers to ripple across those seated at the banquet. Later, exaltation of her stunning performance spread through the common people to pass into history as a legend, such that even several years later, no one was able to replicate her Startling Swan dance, nor did anyone dare to.
When the dance came to an end, she stopped quietly before Su Zicheng, meeting his gaze.
Back then, she had thought to herself that this was likely the last time she would be able to see him in this life.
Yet he stood from his seat.
His eyes were filled with tears, and beneath the tears, shone with deep love. Swiftly, he strode round the table and in full view of everyone seated, embraced her tight within his arms, saying hoarsely, ‘Xishi, you’ve finally returned.’
Ning Xishi stilled, and it was in that moment of hesitation that he grasped her wrist to pull her to the ground, the pair of them kneeling before the Emperor.
‘Your Majesty,’ Su Zicheng said clearly, a tremor lining his voice. ‘The woman I’ve been waiting for has finally returned. Your Majesty, please allow us to marry.’
In a daze at the confusing turn of events, Ning Xishi married him.
On the day of their wedding, she had been giddy with bliss. As she sat within their nuptial chamber, awaiting his arrival, she thought about the many ways she would tell him about herself: how much she liked him, and how grateful she was to have been able to marry him.
But when he finally stumbled into their nuptial chamber and, with a joyful laugh, lifted her veil, everything came to an end.
Dumbstruck, he stared at her. A long moment passed before he said in an uncertain voice, ‘Xishi?’
‘Your Highness,’ Ning Xishi smiled, her eyes shining.
Yet he paled, and extended a hand towards her, fingertips caressing her hideous scars. In disbelief, he said, ‘What happened to your face?’
‘When I was 8, I met with an accident…’
Before she finished, a loud thump abruptly cut her words off. He had flung the steel beam onto the floor!
‘Leave!’ His eyes were red-rimmed as he exhaled heavily, glaring at her as though she had committed a heinous crime. His gaze landed at the crowd of servants who had frozen in place. Raising a hand, he pointed towards the door. ‘Everyone, leave this instant!’
No one understood the sudden turn of events, but they could only act as ordered by Su Zicheng, and hurried Ning Xishi towards the door.
Dressed in her wedding gown, Ning Xishi stumbled out of their nuptial chambers, shoved by the servants. As she stood outside the closed doors, she heard his loud and despairing cries.
He seemed to be crying; crying in extreme sadness.
She caressed her face and discovered that she seemed to be crying as well.
She did not understand why.
She did not understand his surprising declaration of love at the banquet, just as she did not understand his sudden hatred.
Yet she could only do as he wished – when he wanted to marry her, she wedded him without word, and now that he wished for her to leave, she could only disappear from his life without protest.
Ning Xishi found an inn to stay in for the night. The next morning, Su Zicheng came.
His face was deathly pale as he apologised to her, his voice lined with exhaustion.
He said, ‘Xishi, I’ve always been searching for a person. When you performed the Startling Swan dance, you looked so much like her that I thought you were the person I was looking for. But it turns out – you are not.’ He stopped. ‘It was I who did you wrong.’
Su Zicheng raised his gaze to meet hers, and she saw the guilt haunting his exquisite eyes.
‘Apart from her, I will never love another woman. If you cannot accept this, I will annul our marriage today and aid you in remarrying into a good family. If you wish to stay, then, before she returns, you can have everything I possess.’
He spoke sincerely. The 16 years old Ning Xishi was momentarily stupefied, before she exhaled a defeated laugh, kneeling gracefully at his feet.
With a wan smile, she said, ‘I am willing to stay by your side, never to part.’
Su Zicheng did not say a word. Murmuring in assent, he called for his attendant and made the necessary arrangements.
From today on, Ning Xishi would become Princess Consort De.
In the days which followed their marriage, Su Zicheng never once touched Ning Xishi, and she never spoke about it, but this did not stop her from rising early to prepare his breakfast every morning. When night fell, together with the servants, she awaited his return by the manor gates.
Just like that, the days passed one after another, until three years had gone by.
Once, Su Zicheng had been caught up in a discussion between the court officials. When the night grew long and still, he did not return, Ning Xishi called the servants, prepared a horse carriage, and waited for him just outside the gates of the imperial palace.
That night, the skies were dark. Ning Xishi held onto a lantern and stood quietly by the horse carriage with a few servants, watching as court officials slowly exited from the palace gates in twos and threes.
When Su Zicheng finally emerged, his gaze immediately landed on her. She was dressed in liquid blue robes, her hair pinned. Within her outstretched hands was a pale-yellow lantern.
On this windy night, Ning Xishi stood there, her smile blissful and gentle, as though she would always be waiting for him, no longer how long it took.
Quietly, the two of them stared at the other across the long road.
A long moment passed, and Su Zicheng’s lips finally lifted in a faint smile. Swiftly, he strode over, before coming to a stop in front of her. Under the moon-lit night, he reached out, engulfing her tightly within his arms.
Many years later, when Ning Xishi recalled this memory, she finally understood that, it turns out, this was the closest they would ever be in this lifetime.
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