Chapter 4: Leaving the Mountain
Although Jun Huang was mystified, she still docilely fetched a few pails of hot water.
“Alright, off with your clothes and get in.” Ole Cragfiend tested the water temperature and spoke with malicious enjoyment, “All the herbs today are to strengthen bones and tendons. Hop in for four hours; this will only bring benefits and no drawbacks.”
“Take off my clothes?” Jun Huang looked hesitantly at the old man.
“What, you want to sit in a medicinal bath with your clothes on?!” The old man’s crankiness immediately started to boil over.
Jun Huang saw that the old man hadn’t even given a thought for her privacy, so she hesitantly spoke up, “A distinction should be made between males and females, if you don’t mind…”
“How dare you throw me out!!” Ole Cragfiend was hopping with fury even before Jun Huang could finish speaking. “Fine, I’ll leave, I’ll leave!” he yelled irately and threw in another large handful of herbs. He jabbed at the wooden tub with his finger as he spat. “You stay in there four hours! Don’t you dare get out before four hours, or I won’t cure you of that poison!” He threw the door open and stalked out, his muttering still audible, “How dare she want me to leave, how dare she throw me out of my own house…”
Jun Huang sighed resignedly as she watched the departing figure. The old man wasn’t a bad person, but that mercurial temper of his… She shook her head and softly closed the door before she turned to the tub with a frown. The water within was already turning black. She didn’t doubt his words; this concoction definitely would strengthen her bones and tendons, but when she thought back to the look of malicious glee on his face, she felt that she was overlooking something. But, she didn’t have any other choice, did she?
She took off her clothes and sank into the tub. The water temperature was just hot enough to be comfortable as the water swirled around her like a warm hug. She could feel her tendons slowly relax under the effects of the medicinal bath. She was warm all over, and the fatigue from the day’s studying ebbed out in one long sigh of comfort.
But in the next second, the warm comfort was replaced by piercing discomfort that radiated from her meridians. It felt like thousands of ants were gnawing at her bones. That heart-wrenching pain drilled into her entire body. Jun Huang gritted her teeth, but cold sweat still slowly poured down her face.
Pain. It was so painful that even breathing was uncommonly difficult. She finally understood what that expression on the old man’s face meant. She screwed her eyes shut and clenched her fists tightly. Her nails dug deep into her flesh, carving out ravines of blood in her palm. But what was this pain compared to the vengeance of family and home?
Ole Cragfiend kept busy outside the hut, but his eyes kept flitting back to the hut every so often. There was nothing out of the ordinary after an hour, and he still didn’t hear any cries of pain after two hours. It was still dead silent after three.
Bam! He suddenly flung the herbs in his hand onto the ground and looked huffily in Jun Huang’s direction. The herbs he’d added were quite potent, and he was well aware of how much it would hurt if someone was immersed in an herb infused tub. But that chit was holding up through the pain! She’s taking the pain! Soon, four hours had passed and he still hadn’t heard anything. He finally couldn’t sit still and kicked open the door to his room with a loud bang. Sleepsleepsleep! That darned chit, she can take this much pain, huh!? You watch how I’m going to increase the dose tomorrow! Let’s see if she begs for mercy then!
A month passed by in the blink of an eye. In the first half of the month, Ole Cragfiend would toss several books of medicines or poison to Jun Huang at the crack of dawn every day, then headed into the mountains alone to harvest herbs. He would then return at sunset to prepare medicinal baths for Jun Huang. By the second half of the month, she’d completed her studies of the books and would accompany him on his daily harvest, continuing the tradition of the bone piercing medicinal baths at night.
A month later.
The agreed upon date was here before they knew it. Ole Cragfiend shoved a large packet of medicine for injuries at Jun Huang, nattering nonstop, “This is medicine for cuts and scrapes. This is confusion powder—it’s far too dangerous outside without these. This is a laxative, dump some into whoever irks you, their butthole will wish they’d never been born! This is…”
Jun Huang put away the packet, her heart suddenly tightening when she noted the unconcealed concern within the old man’s eyes. Although he usually would ramble and hop around in irritation, always showing a vicious attitude towards her, she was well aware that he had taught her all he knew in this month. He hadn’t held anything back, and even that gut wrenching nightly medicinal bath had been just for her benefit. She’d thought that she would be forever alone after her home and country were lost. Just what had she ever done to deserve such heartfelt treatment from Ole Cragfiend?
“And what are you looking me like that for?!” The old man quickly took a step back when he happened to glimpse Jun Huang’s gaze. He immediately tried to cover his tracks, “Don’t get any funny ideas! I’m only giving you this because I’m worried about my test subject dying! Don’t think too much!”
Jun Huang knew that the old man was crusty on the outside, but extremely soft-hearted. She paid his bluster no mind and thanked him sincerely, “Thank you.”
“Thank your butt! Just hurry up and beat it!” Ole Cragfiend tamped down the yearning in his eyes and kept pushing Jun Huang out the door.
She took a look at the straw hut that she lived in for the past month. It was raggedy and run down. In every aspect, it couldn’t compare to the palace of her youth, but it was still uncommonly warm and cozy. It’d been her only safe harbor during her most difficult time of need.
The old man had said he was going to throw Jun Huang out, but he couldn’t help but pause his rant when they reached the door. “I don’t know what you’re going to do, but I can tell that it’s something dangerous. You must be careful and come back alive no matter what!”
“I know.” A wisp of a smile drifted onto Jun Huang’s face with this raw display of affection from the old man. “Thank you.”
“Go on, go on. Remember to come back in a year!” Ole Cragfiend sighed and waved his hand.
Jun Huang walked to the door and recalled her time with the old man during the past month, feeling an upswell of sadness and yearning now that they were about to part. Although he had been extremely strict with her and the daily baths had been very painful, it really had been all for her own good. Her injuries had all been healed within a month, and even her own constitution had been vastly improved. Apart from this, he’d diligently taught her medicine and poison from his various tomes and books. Even though he’d bluster and harrumph whenever she didn’t understand something, he’d still explain things patiently to her.
“Master!” Jun Huang looked at Ole Cragfiend, standing there and sending her off with his gaze. She finally couldn’t help but turn to face him and fall to her knees, kowtowing solidly three times in a row. She’d long since taken the old man as her master in her heart, even though he had a mercurial temper and ordered her around. She was well aware of his concern for her.
“And who the hell’s your master!” Ole Cragfiend might have yelled back, but his eyes were rimmed with red. “Hurry up and go! Remember, you only have one year before you get your butt back here!”
Jun Huang nodded and stole one last glance at the straw hut, striding off without another backward glance.
Eastern Wu, Western Que, Northern Qi, and Southern Mu were once the four great countries of the lands. Now Western Que was no more, and Southern Mu didn’t have any relations with the fallen nation. Only Northern Qi had kept good relations with Western Que. If she sought revenge, she wouldn’t achieve it by herself. So she set a course for Northern Qi.
Jun Huang changed into men’s robes deep in the mountains and took a deep look in the direction of the palace. With a final glance, she turned resolutely and started her journey for Northern Qi. She really wanted to keep staring at her home, but her nation was nothing but a name right now. She still hadn’t exacted revenge. What face did she have to go home?
Father. Mother. She silently vowed in her heart. Jun Huang will always be a princess of Western Que. Jun Huang will not set a foot into Western Que before the call of revenge has been answered!
She walked off into the distance, her lonely shadow lengthened by the setting sun with each step she took.