Book 1 Chapter 2 – Pure Water Herb Hall
Original and most updated translations are from volare. Please don’t read elsewhere and stop supporting theft.
Li Yiming rested against the mattress of a hotel bed, gently rubbing the thin invitation between his thumb and forefinger as he struggled to recollect his thoughts. He did not return to his apartment as he lacked the courage to confront Ji Xiaoqin. Tonight’s events were one shock after another: his girlfriend’s betrayal, the weird uncle that labelled himself as a big brother and then this gold laminated invitation.
“Was he crazy or just a swindler?” The encounter with that weird man was somehow much more memorable than seeing Ji Xiaoqin cheat on him. ‘August 15th… It’s today. To go or not to go?’
‘Whatever! I’ll go and take a look. It’s not like my worries would disappear, but I can at least distract myself with this. I’ll indulge myself this time, and even if it turns out to be a fraud, it’ll be for once.‘
Li Yiming got up from the bed and took out his cellphone and opened the map.
“Is that place downtown?” The only result of the address search showed that Pure Water Herb Hall was a teahouse located not too far away from the Second Provincial Hospital.
He looked at the time: it was eight o’clock in the morning. He washed his face, went downstairs, checked out from the hotel, ate breakfast, and took the bus to his destination. On the bus, Li Yiming didn’t forget to update his status on social media – Here’s to a new beginning, off we go to Pure Water Herb Hall! He posted it just in case that place was a sweatshop. At least the police would have a lead to work on if something was ever to happen to him.
It took three bus transfers and twenty five minutes of walking before Li Yiming finally arrived at his destination. The shop front was not very big, but above it hung a very antique and eye-catching plaque with the name written in a bold calligraphy, giving out a certain artistic impression.
‘Well, this doesn’t seem like a sweatshop to me.’ The sight of the storefront made Li Yiming exclude the possibility of an obvious swindle. He pushed the door and entered the shop.
“Welcome.” He heard a melodious voice. It came from a demure young woman wearing a cheongsam1 She stood calmly in front of him.
A flash of surprise flit through Li Yiming’s eyes. ‘How pretty! Fresh and soothing, natural and unrestrained. Elegant like a flower reflected on still water and similar to a willow fluttering in the wind when she moves. If there was someone that could make me forget my sufferings, she would be the one.’
Li Yiming raised his eyebrows. This kind of beauty is delegated to the task of welcoming customers? What if this is a trap? With this kind of investment, it would not end at just losing a kidney. Li Yiming looked around dubiously.
“I apologize, sir. The shop is closed for today.” She bowed to him with a professional smile.
‘A fine smile! The nascent crescent formed by her eyes, the angle of her smile, not too faint, nor too exaggerated: just enough to bring out her charm.’
“Sir?” She noticed Li Yiming staring at her. A subtle blush crept onto her face.
“Ha? Oh… I have an invitation card.” He hurriedly took it out to ease his embarrassment. “This… Is it the right place?”
“Yes, it is. I apologize, I didn’t know you had an invitation. Please follow me.” She took the invitation, scrutinized it before stroking its upper right corner. Then, she politely returned it to Li Yiming and made a gesture inviting him inside.
Li Yiming took his card back and followed her. His eyes couldn’t help but wander around the young woman’s figure, not only that, he kept glancing at her legs.
‘What’s wrong with me? I’m a dance program graduate. I’ve seen my fair share of beauties. What’s more, during class, my classmates would always wear practice clothes covering less of their skin than a swimsuit. She’s pretty, but to that point…? Did the shock from last night make my hormones run amok?’ Li Yiming found his earlier behaviour rather odd. As he mulled over this thought, his gaze uncontrollably jumped back to the long legs peeking through the gap of the cheongsam. ‘Nice legs! Straight and smooth, with just the right curves…‘
The first thing Li Yiming saw when he entered the room was a four-piece screen. On it the following was written:
Three millennia of recorded history, fraught with power, lust, and greed;
Ninety thousand miles of meditation, only to return to gardening, wine and poetry.2
Black characters on yellow rice paper, the archaic rhymes of the poem embodied perfection. Li Yiming’s opinion of the venue improved, and he grew ever more vigilant.
As Li Yiming went past the screen, he was finally able inspect the teahouse in its entirety. The shop facade was small and the inside was… even smaller. The place was not meant to accommodate a lot of customers, and it resembled more the study room or the living room of a wealthy family than a tea shop. It was at most 50 square meters. The inside was nicely decorated with wooden furniture: a sculpted wooden tea table, complete with a set of six chairs…
‘There’s only one table in the entire shop?’ thought Li Yiming.
Three of the six wooden chairs were occupied. Occupying one of them was an elderly woman dressed à la mode. A thick dark green shawl wrapped around her head in two layers and covered her head like a cloak. Next to her sat a bespectacled man in a suit, whose golden rimmed glasses hid eyes which showed the temperament of a layman. The third person was a woman, a big sister type with deep cleavage. Although the corners of her eyes were marked by crow’s feet, they only served to accentuate her elegance and maturity.
“What took you so long?” The elderly woman looked at Li Yiming with disatisfaction. Her voice was hoarse and rough.
“It didn’t take that long, at least he’s not late. ” The big sister interposed with a chuckle. Her eyes glossed over the young woman in the cheongsam and the latter seamlessly nodded back. “Thank you for coming today. Please take a seat. Qiaoqiao, give some tea to the customer.”
“Sir, what would you like to drink? Black tea, green tea, scented tea or fruit tea? I apologize in advance, we only have tea here.” The cheongsam young lady led Li Yiming to his seat with a beaming smile and asked courteously.
“Hot water, please.” Li Yiming looked at the patently expensive tea sets in front of the other three people. He had barely 500 yuan, including the 300 he had on his card: it was wise to stay within his limits.
Qiaoqiao turned around and left. Meanwhile, the fashionable elderly lady stared at Li Yiming coldly, and the big sister type sized him up with a smile. As for the bespectacled man, he continued to wholeheartedly sip his tea, as if Li Yiming was nothing but air.
“Qing Linglong. The proposer for this time. Hi!” The big sister put down her cup, and stood up with her eyes on Li Yiming. Her actions had a kind of grandeur embed with natural grace.
“Li Yiming.” Li Yiming stood up cautiously and shook her hand. It was very soft and the nails were beautifully trimmed.
“She’s called Grandma Wang and he’s called Eyeglasses.” Qing Linglong introduced the other two people, but Eyeglasses, just as before, remained motionless while Grandma Wang nodded coldly.
“Your water.” The little waitress in cheongsam lightly deposited the cup in front of Li Yiming.
“She’s my little sister, Qing Qiaoqiao.” Qing Linglong pointed at the young girl wearing a cheongsam.
“H-hello.” Li Yiming wanted to say something else, but didn’t know from where to start. This situation was quite strange. He assumed the welcoming big sister type was the shop owner’s wife. Then, was the indifferent bespectacled man the owner or a customer? What about the unfriendly Grandma Wang? Was she Qing Linglong’s mother? And this waitress was… very attractive. Her appearance might not be extraordinary, but she was very charismatic, and his gaze would always inadvertently gravitate back to her.
“The time has come. Although it’s our first cooperation, let’s not waste time on formalities.” The big sister returned to her seat. “Everyone should have a look at the information I provided. My main purpose is to accompany my little sister Qing Qiaoqiao. She’s a newcomer, so I hope that everyone can take care of her. What I have promised before still holds true. I, Qing Linglong, would absolutely not renege on my promise. Any questions?”
‘Cooperating? Cooperating for what?’ Li Yiming was puzzled. Eyeglasses picked up the teapot and poured himself another half cup: it seemed like he drank red tea. Grandma Wang scrutinized Qing Qiaoqiao with squinted eyes.
“That…” Li Yiming took out the invitation, intending to obtain some clarifications from the others. He had barely opened his mouth when darkness veiled his eyes; the lamps in the room flickered as if the electric voltage became unstable and extinguished.
The light returned before Li Yiming could give it another thought.
“It has started.” Grandma Wang’s hoarse voice could be heard.
‘What’s going on?’ To his surprise, Li Yiming noticed that after the blackout, the people in front of him changed. Eyeglasses put down his teacup, the layman temperament completely gone. Grandma Wang’s turban was lowered and covered her face completely. Yet, the intimidating air she gave grew stronger. As for Qing Qiaoqiao, she stood beside her big sister with an apparent excitement and agitation, whereas her big sister, Qing Linglong, wore an unchanged smile, gentle and warm, while lightly holding her little sister’s hand.
“Since it’s already started, this old one has many words to say. Linglong is the summoner. I have no say over who she chooses to invite, but, since the invitation has been accepted, a pact has formed between us; we’re all in the same boat. You all better be serious. If anyone stirs troubles during this period, don’t blame me for being ruthless!” While she spoke, Grandma Wang parted her turban, revealing a frosty glare directed at Li Yiming. Her eyes were sinister and dreadful, and seeing them was enough to make one shudder.
Grandma Wang’s stare made Li Yiming’s blood run cold. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants and tightened his hand on the invitation card. He swallowed back the questions he wanted to ask.
“Grandma, serious as always.” Qing Linglong smiled as she interjected to smooth out Grandma Wang’s harsh words. “The first stage is usually information gathering and target confirmation. I suggest that we each go our own way to gather information, what do you think?”
Everyone nodded. As for Li Yiming, the terror that Grandma Wang incited in him made him stay silent.
“Time is of the essence.” It was the first time Eyeglasses spoke. Despite his unsophisticated appearance, his voice had a certain magnetism. As he spoke, he rummaged through his silver colored suitcase.
‘Where did that come from?’ Li Yiming stared at the metal suitcase in a daze. It was no small object, and the contrast could not have been more obvious around the wooden table, but it was clearly not around a second ago.
“Use this to stay in touch. The cellphone signal is unstable.” Eyeglasses took out several palm-sized black boxes from his suitcase and distributed them.
Li Yiming received one. The object was light, and its craftsmanship fine.
“Then, let’s begin! If you find anything, please contact everyone immediately.” The big sister sent a thoughtful glance at Li Yiming and pulled Qing Qiaoqiao into the depth of the teahouse.
Grandma Wang tidied her shawl. She flashed another gloomy glance at Li Yiming before getting up and leaving the teahouse. Eyeglasses gulped down what was left of his tea and followed suit.
‘Huh? What about his suitcase?’ Li Yiming noticed that when Eyeglasses left, he didn’t bring his suitcase with him, so he turned around and looked for it; it was not on the table, not on the floor nor behind the chair…
‘What the heck?’ Li Yiming looked around him and realized he was the only one left. ‘This…’ He looked down at the invitation card and the black box in his hand, then glanced at the cup full of hot water. ‘That’s it?’
He promptly left the shop despite his obliviousness; he did not want to stay there for too long. By the time he left, the elderly lady and the bespectacled man were nowhere to be seen. He looked around in confusion and quickly proceeded toward the nearest bus station.
On the bus, Li Yiming had yet to digest everything: those crazy people, the weird things they talked about. The whole thing was incomprehensible. He came out of curiosity for the man he met last night, but he ended up with more questions. ‘Who are those people? And what exactly are they cooperating for?’
Li Yiming aimlessly wandered on the street, pondering about what just happened, but it became no more than a maze of confusion.
“How did I end up here?” Li Yiming raised his head and realized that his steps brought him back to his apartment.
In the afterglow of the setting sun, peaceful clouds covered the neighborhood. Behind them, unknowingly to anyone, the wheels of fate had started to turn. Li Yiming stared at the window he was so familiar with, lost in his own thoughts. He hesitated at the idea of returning to his apartment. However, unbeknownst to him, his life had already spun out of his control…
- Cheongsam is a traditional chinese apparel mostly worn by women. Click here for a visual image of it: http://modernqipao.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/09/02/FMS-15150A-Birds-and-floral-Chinese-watercolor-painting-long-cheongsam-mandarin-collar-dress-002.jpg ↩
- These verses were originally inspired by a famous poem written by Tao Yuanming, about 1,500 years ago. Tao Yuanming was a famous poet that mostly wrote poem about the simple farming life and returning to rural life. For the translated version on the inspired poem, click here (english at the end): http://www.en8848.com.cn/fanyi/sx/gsc/132018.html For more information on the poet, click here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tao_Yuanming ↩