His brother was clearly Yao Xiao Shan, that fat guy who always got into fights with thugs on the street. The two of them always ended up bruised and battered, but it was always him who was punished by their aunt, kneeling for hours at the courtyard, while that guy would lay in bed whining and moaning in pain. How did he become Fu Lan? Qi Yin watched Fu Lan enter the house as his aunt and uncle took the account book he had brought back to look at it. The youth stood in the house. His cold, pale profile and silent expression indeed belonged to Fu Lan.
A black cat walked around Qi Yin’s feet, and his eyes lit up as he picked it up and exclaimed, “Lord Cat.”
The black cat ignored him and continued to lick its fur.
A crash sounded, and a cup of tea hit Fu Lan’s forehead, drenching him. Qi Yin trembled in fear and looked inside the house, seeing his aunt pointing at Fu Lan, her fingers trembling with anger. “It’s your fault! We don’t have much money, and you went out and lost it all! I must have owed you in my past life to have raised such a money-sucking burden. Now, you’re here to collect your debt!”
The title of a “money-sucking burden” used to belong to Qi Yin, but now it seemed to have shifted to his brother. Qi Yin felt embarrassed.
“Let it go, let it go. Let’s consider it a lesson learned,” Uncle intervened.
“A lesson worth 300 taels of silver? That’s like learning with gold!” Auntie pointed at Fu Lan’s head and scolded, “If I had known that he was so stupid, I would’ve thrown him to his death when he was born. Look at Qi Yin; he’s so smart and capable. Many matchmakers have come to propose, and all the girls in town want to marry him. But look at you! You’re a perfect match with that beggar girl across the street. You two should get together!”
Girls in town? Qi Yin couldn’t believe it. In the past, he was a loser who never got any female attention.
“I have someone I like,” Fu Lan said.
“Which girl is that?” Auntie asked. “It’s no use liking someone. They won’t marry a fool like you!”
“I like Xiao Yin,” Fu Lan replied.
Ah, this was the real Dai Ge. Qi Yin sighed as he crouched under the eaves. With Fu Lan around, Qi Yin felt at ease, and he wasn’t afraid of the raging waves.
Auntie was furious. “You’re really a fool! If you were a girl, Xiao Yin is a good person and wouldn’t mind that your brain isn’t very bright. When you marry Xiao Yin, you’ll have someone to rely on for the rest of your life. Why do I have to worry so much about you!”
“I can’t marry, but I can be married off,” Fu Lan said.
Auntie was so angry that she almost fainted. “Are you trying to kill me on purpose? Go and kneel there until noon!”
Uncle helped Auntie back into the house to rest, and Fu Lan knelt properly in the courtyard, his tall and thin figure casting a shadow in the sunlight like an independent ink bamboo. He had always been like this, as if he were isolated from dust and all worldly things when he was alone.
Qi Yin peeked out and saw that there was no one in the courtyard. He quietly crept up to Fu Lan’s side, wiped his face, and whispered, “Where did you go last night? I turned around and you were gone. I thought a monster had taken you away because of your looks. What do we do now? Where are we? Do you have any ideas?”
Fu Lan remained silent. He lowered his head, and pulled out a handkerchief from his pocket, placing it in Qi Yin’s palm.
“What is this?”
“Plum blossom cake from Jin Ling,” Fu Lan said.
Qi Yin took a bite. The cake was still warm. It was sweet and sour, just what he liked. While eating, he said, “Actually, I have a suspicion that we are in the same illusion. The people here are all my acquaintances, but it’s strange. My cousin used to be Yao Xiao Shan, but now it’s you. My aunt used to dislike me, but now she treats me like her own son. Except for these, everything in the house is exactly the same as in my memory.”
He fed some crumbs to the black cat and clapped his hands, saying, “Illusions arise from the mind. I think the key to breaking this illusion is mostly with me. What do you think?”
Fu Lan looked at him with blank eyes, as if he didn’t know what he was talking about.
Suddenly, Qi Yin felt that something was wrong. He and Fu Lan had climbed down the mountain together, but when he turned around, Fu Lan was nowhere to be seen. The plum blossom cake was only available in Jin Ling, and it would take at least an hour to travel by sword from Wu Tang to Jin Ling. Qi Yin felt uneasy and asked, “Brother, you are Fu Lan, right?”
Fu Lan nodded.
Qi Yin breathed a sigh of relief. “That’s good. Where did you go last night?”
“I just got back home from Jin Ling,” Fu Lan said. “Mom sent a message saying you woke up.”
Mom? He actually called Auntie “mom”?
“…” Qi Yin looked at him incredulously. “What’s your name, your full name?”
“Yao Fu Lan,” Fu Lan replied.
Oh no. Qi Yin grabbed his face and lamented in his heart. It turned out that this Fu Lan was also fake. The real Fu Lan must have gone somewhere else and was probably trapped in another illusion. Qi Yin quickly picked up the black cat and shook it hard. “Lord Cat, say something. You’re not fake too, right?”
The black cat meowed and wildly waved its paws in the air. It was a real chubby-faced cat, not a demon.
It turned out that he was the only one in this illusion.
Qi Yin felt a little disappointed as he looked up at Fu Lan, who was staring at him with a bewildered look.
“Forget it.” Qi Yin lowered his head. “Brother, come with me.”
Fu Lan hesitated for a moment. He still had to kneel as a punishment.
“I feel more at ease when I see you.” Qi Yin pulled his sleeve and said, “Just accompany me, brother.”
Fu Lan looked down at the fingertip that was touching his sleeve. He nodded and said, “Okay.”
Sunlight shone down over the wall, and yellowish leaves fell like withered butterflies. Qi Yin stood across the street and looked at Feng Xian. She was still the same as before, with a green and yellow hairpin sticking out of her black hair bun like a flower. Women were like this; they wanted to be strong and dazzling even in the dust. Unlike him, who had accepted his fate and didn’t care if he rolled in the mud.
Feng Xian was still unmarried, which was a bit of a surprise. He deliberately wandered around the pharmacy, and Feng Xian pursed her lips and gestured to the back alley. Qi Yin secretly marveled at this illusion; Feng Xian really seemed eager to talk to him.
After they left the door and turned into the alley, he asked Fu Lan to stay at the entrance. Feng Xian stood there and greeted him with a pout. “It’s been three months since we last met. I thought you were really dead. They all said you had amnesia. Did you forget about me?”
Qi Yin felt a little embarrassed and took a few steps back. “I did forget many things. Um, did we have any relationship before? I can’t quite remember.”
Feng Xian glared at him. “You forgot our vows and pledges? Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for you? The master of the house said he wanted to take me as a concubine, but I refused and waited for you every day and night. I prayed for you in the temple every day. You…you…”
Qi Yin was in so much pain from being pinched by her that he couldn’t even scream. This girl looked gentle, but she turned out to be a female demon. Qi Yin pulled back his arms and hurriedly said, “I won’t forget, I won’t forget. Please let go first!”
Feng Xian bit her lip and said, “If I don’t give you a taste of my tough side, you’ll think I’m easy to bully. I, a young lady in her prime, have given you my whole heart. If our affair were to be exposed, you would have to marry me even if you didn’t want to!” Feng Xian gritted her teeth and suddenly untied her belt, pulled her clothes apart, revealing her round and tender breasts. She charged straight into Qi Yin’s embrace.
Qi Yin had lived for so many years but had never seen such a scene before, and was immediately stunned. Someone grabbed the back of his collar with great strength, and he was pulled backwards. He fell into the arms of the person behind him. The scent of the mountains after a rain enveloped him. Fu Lan twisted his body and kicked Feng Xian into a pile of bamboo baskets stacked against the wall.
Fu Lan grabbed his wrist and turned to flee. The two of them ran to the riverbank, and jumped into a black canopy boat. Qi Yin picked up a bamboo pole and pushed the boat into the water. Turning his head, he could no longer see Feng Xian’s figure. Qi Yin had lingering fears, feeling that the world had gone crazy. Feng Xian was willing to give up even a young lady’s reputation just to marry him.
The black canopy boat passed through the archway and swayed forward. The banks were lined with blue-tiled white-walled houses, and laundry women squatted on the steps by the water beating their clothes. Old cowhide paper lanterns were reflected in the clear river water, like watery red suns. Suddenly, something was thrown into Qi Yin’s boat. Qi Yin picked it up and found that it was a net of water chestnuts. He looked up and saw a girl smiling at him. “Qi Yin, I heard you’ve recovered from your illness. Come and pick water chestnuts with me when you have time!”
Qi Yin scratched his head shyly and replied, “Okay.”
“Young Master Qi, look over here!” More fruits and vegetables were thrown into the black canopy boat, and the girls on the riverbank waved at him. After only a few steps, the boat was almost full. Qi Yin had never been so popular before and was somewhat overwhelmed. He turned his head and saw Fu Lan standing at the stern of the boat, transparent like a ghost, not saying a word.
He grabbed Fu Lan’s neck and shouted to the girls on the shore, “Hey! Sisters, who do you think is more handsome, me or this young gentleman?”
“Of course it’s you, Young Master Qi!” the girls exclaimed. “With your sword-like eyebrows and starry eyes, you’re handsome and charming, just the type we like!”
Qi Yin pinched Fu Lan’s face with both hands. “Look at this delicate skin, don’t you like it?”
“We don’t like it!” the girls shouted. “We like suntanned guys!”
Qi Yin was speechless. It used to be that pretty boys were popular, but now the tables had turned and tanned guys were in demand.
As the boat entered Wu Jiang River, the girls blushed and watched him go as if they had taken aphrodisiacs. Qi Yin did not feel happy at all, instead, he shuddered with goosebumps. He turned his head and realized he was still pinching Fu Lan’s face. He shook his hand and let go.
“I also think you’re quite handsome,” Fu Lan whispered.
“Dear brother,” Qi Yin said helplessly, “even if my face was covered in pockmarks, would you still think I’m handsome?”
He turned his head and saw Wu Jiang River in front of them, which eventually flowed into the Ying River, the Yang Tze River, and the vast sea. The water was gray and the foam was white. The sky and the river were the same color. In the distance, white walls and black tiles were scattered like pebbles thrown into the mountains.
Qi Yin thought of Feng Xian’s infatuation with him and those girls, and said with a slight headache, “Feng Xian has changed. I know she married her master, the old man. Have you seen him? He’s rich and owns five shops on the main street in town. He collects rent every month and makes a fortune. I used to think Feng Xian liked me, but besides saying things like ‘three packets of medicine for one silver coin,’ she never said anything else to me.”
Fu Lan looked confused, as if he didn’t understand.
Qi Yin smiled and said, “Now that I think about it, Feng Xian probably doesn’t even know my name. Brother, do you know why I know this place is fake? Even though everyone said I was hit by a carriage and lay in bed for three months, and the nine-headed bird monster and immortality were all nonsense in my dreams. But why do I know this is an illusion?”
“Why?” Fu Lan asked.
Qi Yin crouched down and brushed the icy river water with his hand. The face of the boy in the water showed clear sadness. “Because here, my aunt likes me, my uncle likes me, my grandmother likes me, and even Feng Xian likes me. Everyone likes me.”
In the east, there was a creature called the tapir, which had the power to weave dream worlds with a strange fragrance. Sect Leader Qing Shi had taught them about it in the demon-catching class, and Qi Yin had paid close attention and remembered it clearly. Lan Xian’er carried a bewitching fragrance of orchids, and every time he saw her, he felt like he was enchanted. He used to think it was just his weakness for beautiful women, but now he realized that the fragrance had a bit of a sinister nature to it. Together with the surreal dream world, Qi Yin finally understood that the beautiful girl was actually a demon.
Only those with spiritual awareness could see demonic aura, and Fu Lan was too naive to realize this, since he was used to seeing things other people couldn’t see. The Daoist priests of Feng Huan Mountain were only half-baked, letting a demon walk around the mountain as if it owned the place. Qi Yin was frustrated, thinking that this was one of the Four Great Immortal Mountains, but it probably couldn’t even compare to a third-rate immortal sect.
He remembered what Qing Shi had said: the tapir was not easy to deal with, and those with deep cultivation could weave thousands of acres of dream worlds that made it difficult to distinguish reality from illusion.
He lifted his eyes and looked at the vast gray water, stretching endlessly towards the horizon, with no end in sight.
But he knew very well that this must be fake, just a dream of his, because everyone here liked him.
“Don’t you like it here?” Fu Lan asked softly.
“I do.” Qi Yin shook his head. “I’m not stupid. Everyone likes me, why wouldn’t I like it? When I was a kid, I used to think that I was the reincarnation of a great god. I thought that I was the beloved son of Fuxi and Nuwa who came to the mortal world to experience some tribulations, but eventually, all the hardships and difficulties would come to an end, and I would return to the heavens and live a good life. So I would have golden light above my head, tread on auspicious clouds, and fly away into the sky. But this is not the most important thing. The most important thing is that when my aunt and uncle saw me, they realized that I was actually a deity, and they cried and apologized for being unkind to me before, saying that it was unintentional. They promised to hang my picture in the main hall and light three incense sticks every day to worship me. Then I smiled falsely and said it was okay, I never took it to heart. You are still my aunt and uncle, and I wish you a long and prosperous life. And then I ascended to become a deity, leaving behind a beautiful story on earth.”
“But you didn’t dream of becoming a deity,” Fu Lan said.
“Yes,” Qi Yin sighed deeply, “as I grew up, I suddenly realized, what’s the use of becoming a deity? My aunt and uncle worshipped deities because they wanted something. Who would like to play with mud dolls? I just…” Qi Yin tucked his sleeve. The wind blowing into his clothes was cold. “I just sometimes, very occasionally, can’t help but think, if I were my aunt and uncle’s son, would they like me then?”
The river breeze blew quietly, and both of them fell silent.
“Xiao Yin,” Fu Lan suddenly spoke up, “I am foolish, and there are many things that you think about that I don’t understand. Your aunt and uncle’s love has conditions. They love their son, and if you are not their son, they do not love you. Their love is sometimes limited. They loved you before but not now, or they did not love you before but now they do. But my love has no conditions, no time limit. I love Xiao Yin, no matter who you are, no matter past, present, or future, I love you.”
Qi Yin was stunned.
At that moment, it was as if the sky was breaking and the grey world suddenly became colorful.
Fu Lan gazed at him with concentration and seriousness, his black eyes calm and tranquil as always, as if nothing could disturb him. Qi Yin suddenly felt familiar with those eyes, as if in the depths of his memory, in the gentle rain of the south, or in the white snow of the countryside, there was a pair of eyes that had once looked at him like that.
For the first time, he couldn’t distinguish whether this was an illusory dream or a tangible reality.
He sniffled and held back the stinging in his eyes, then smiled brightly. “Brother, let’s go home.”