This piece is what I call a "hole-filling" piece which deals with the "dark period" between NIF1 and NIF2's time setting. It is mostly based on what has been written in NIF1&2 books and fits into characters' age and life experiences.
The characters featured image is attached in the end. I would recommend
NOT TO CHECK IT OUT FIRST
Cause it kind of spoils the story.
And there are further notes attached to the end of the writing. Enjoy!
The Return of Spring (春归）
Early March, Lang Ya mountain was filled with plum blossoms. The red and pink flowers dotted along the green ridges from the foot to the top of the mountain. Soaked in the misty spring fog, the mountain appeared other-worldly looking from afar.
Xiao Tingsheng slowly ascended the stone steps along the back of the mountain, stopping to take a breath every ten steps or so. As the army doctor had suggested, he should have stayed in bed for at least another fortnight before venturing out. But he could’t bare staying idle in the army camp, knowing there was one more important thing that he had to accomplish. Packing up a few simple items and bringing Lieutenant Yuan with him, he left for Lang Ya Hall under the scrutinizing gaze from the doctor and the worrying looks from his fellow soldiers.
The servant boy at the foot of the mountain rang the bell to notify their arrival for people up in Lan Tai pavilion (Note1). Xiao Tingsheng ordered Lieutenant Yuan to go ahead with their luggage, and climbed the mountain slowly by himself. He had to stop so frequently that it took him over three hours to finally nudge his way to the pavilion. Yuan Feng must have gone arranging their accommodation as he was nowhere to be found. Xiao Tingsheng held on to the pillar under the roofed corridor, breathing shallowly as waves of sweats poured down his forehead.
Perhaps he really did overestimate his abilities; it might be more sensible to wait for a couple more days.
Xiao Tingsheng felt dizzy and his vision blurred. Before he lost his balance, however, he was held up by a steady and strong support under his elbow. Turning around, he saw Lin Chen was already next to him without announcing his arrival. He immediately turned to bow to the Master of Lang Ya Hall, but Lin Chen press down his barely raise arm with a firm push. Holding him steadying while dragging him along, Lin Chen guided Xiao Tingsheng into the tea room and sat him down. Without asking for permission, he grabbed Xiao Tingsheng’s left wrist and started feeling for his pulse. After a moment of silence, he curled up his forefinger to signal his guest serving up the other wrist. Xiao Tingsheng knew very well that there was no use to argue with someone like Lin Chen, obediently, he handed over his right hand.
“Not bad, at least you’re unlikely to get down the mountain horizontally.” Finishing up his diagnosis, Lin Chen shrugged his shoulders and stuck his hands back into his long sleeves. “Although I have to say, you really are quite careless, what’s the point to rushing? It’s not like Lang Ya Mountain has legs to run away.”
Since their last meeting, Xiao Tingsheng hadn’t seen Lin Chen for almost ten years. He thought at least the Master would have changed somewhat, yet this man sitting in front of him was exactly as he remembered–as if they had only said goodbye yesterday, and now they were meeting again. Xiao Tingsheng had already sent a message ahead to explain the purpose of his visit. He was feeling uneasy all the way and worried constantly about what might happen once they met. Now they were finally sitting under the same roof, there was no telltale on Lin Chen’s face, which was completely unexpected on Xiao Tingsheng’s end.
As for Lin Chen, Xiao Tingsheng had already grown from a child into an army general stationed on the border. Apart from his face which still maintained the same look, there was almost nothing left on this young man that resembled the plain little boy in memory. Noticing the rather complicated expression on his face, Lin Chen brushed off his sleeves and retracted his out stretched legs.
A sudden silence descended upon the tea room, making Xiao Tingsheng feel even more uneasy. The tea pot on the stove beside him came to his rescue and began to boil, he thankfully shifted his attention to pouring a cup of freshly made tea for Lin Chen and then himself.
“Once you leave, will you go back to the Northern border, or directly to the city of Jin Ling?”
“It seems I got the news before you did. Your emperor father has ordered your return to the capital, I’m afraid next time we meet, I would have to call you Marquis.”(Note2)
Xiao Tingsheng froze for a moment, then he raised his arms to bow: “To Master, I’m forever just Tingsheng.”
Lin Chen held his gaze on the young man’s face for a few moments and stayed silent, then he suddenly sprang up from his seat cushion.
“I still have some affairs to attend today, and you need a lot of rest. We’ll talk tomorrow when you feel better.” Before Xiao Tingsheng could reply, he left the room like a piece of floating cloud with his incredible qing gong skill. (Note 3) Watching him disappearing into the foggy and lush mountain greeneries, Xiao Tingsheng sat still for a long while before he let out a long sigh. He turned around to look at the misty spring view outside of the window.
Deep in the mountain, time was truly as still as deep water, perhaps there really was no difference between one day and another.
In the evening, Lin Chen sent over a servant to deliver a bowl of steaming medicine. The man also delivered the message instructing Xiao Tingsheng to go to bed straight after taking the remedy. There was not much to do in the mountain anyway, so he gladly complied and went to bed early. This was, however, the first time Lieutenant Yuan Feng (Note4) visited the famous Lang Ya Hall. After the general went to sleep, he ventured out of their quarter to take a stroll. As the night grew darker, the lights in various windows went out one by one, eventually only the master’s quarter remained lit. Yuan Feng saw from downhill that there seemed to be a shadow moving across the pool of light. Unable to withhold his curiosity, he jogged up the staircase towards the source of light.
As he moved closer, he saw that it was Lin Chen practicing his sword in the small stone paved courtyard outside his compound. The courtyard was surrounded by the main building and two side buildings from three sides; the fourth side was left open. There was no roofed corridor in this compound, so the courtyard appeared more like an open platform. The fourth side was built to the edge of a cliff; a waist-high stone railing was constructed along the edge. There was a stone table inside the railing, surrounded by four stone stools. A wine jug was left lying on its side on the stone table. Lin Chen seemed to be fully immersed in his sword dance. He somersaulted onto the railing and moved across the narrow surface as if it was open ground.
The master of Lang Ya Hall was truly an exceptional person! Did he have eyes on his feet? Yuan Feng had only known the hard and blunt fighting style that relied on sheer physical strength in the military camp. How could he have ever seen such a flowing and swift fighting style? Not blinking for a moment in case he missed some great move, he looked on in awe as the sword flashed like blazing snow flakes in Lin Chen’s hand. Dressed in white, the master hopped on the top of the cliff like a dancing crane. In the dark of the night, the trees and rocks all blurred into one murky backdrop, making the flying white dot stand out even more.
Mixed in with the swooshing sound made by the sharp blade, a drunken voice was reciting a poem : “The Mayfly’s wings, so beautiful are its clothes, the sadness in my heart, where would I end up?” (Note5)
Yuan Feng wasn’t a very well read person so he had no idea what Lin Chen was saying. He could only watch in silence as if he was frozen to the ground. He wasn’t sure how long he had stood there until Lin Chen’s voice knocked him out of his trance.
“Have you seen enough? I would have to charge you money if you continued watching any longer!”
Yuan Feng jumped up in surprise. He ran along the stairs and grimaced in embarrassment, holding his arm high he bowed deeply: “Please forgive me Master, my action was inappropriate, I know watching someone practicing in secret is against the rules, please forgive me.”
“Why are you so flustered? Am I really that scary?” Lin Chen flipped the sword around with an elegant wrist turn to pushed it back into its sheath, and threw it down onto the table. Feeling slightly dizzy from the wine he drank, he was in an even better mood for making jokes than usual.
Yuan Feng fought his way up the army ranks, knowing only to live by the rules and following orders. He had no idea how to answer to someone who talked and acted in such a way. Lin Chen couldn’t help laughing secretly in his heart as he watched Yuan Feng’s confused facial expression and body language.
These army men were so stiff and boring!
“Tell me, what do you think of my martial art skills?”
“Master’s movement… it’s quite…unthinkable, I’m not qualified to speculate.”
“Unthinkable?” Lin Chen found the wording rather funny, “Well then, tell me how do I compare to your General Xiao?”
“Um…” Yuan Feng was a little uncertain about what to say, “ Our general is a military man, his martial arts skills are intended for realistic uses, I’m afraid it not compar…” The moment these words left his mouth, Yuan Feng felt it was quite inappropriate to say such things, so he swallowed the last two syllables before he could finish the sentence.
Li Chen broke into a loud laughter, “Well said! Well said! It’s very true! My movement may be quite showy, but if this is a battle field, I’m afraid it would be quite useless! Of course he learned from that uncouth man Xiao Jingyan.”
Hearing him calling out the Emperor’s name directly with “uncouth man” added on top, Yuan Feng almost screamed had he not always been a calm and collected person. He barely managed to hold his shock in yet Lin Chen was totally unaware of his reaction; he seemed to be lost in thoughts as he stared into the dark void of the mountain valley.
“The skill of fleeing is still worth learning though. He was lucky this time, but if something like this happened again, who else would be there to…” Lin Chen’s voice grew fainter and fainter until Yuan Feng couldn’t make out what he was saying. The young Lieutenant stood silent and still beside the Master of Lang Ya Hall as the night sank into total darkness.
The medicine from Lin Chen wasn’t something one should try lightly. Yuan Feng had been in and out of Xiao Tingsheng’s room since early morning, seeing that the general was deep asleep, he dared not wake him up. By the time Xiao Tingsheng woke up, it was already mid-day. Even Xiao Tingsheng was quite surprised. When he was a child living in Ye You Court, he had to rise up early every morning to do his chores. Later when he entered Prince Jing’s manor and then the imperial palace as the Prince became the Crown Prince then eventually the emperor, for over ten years, he had grown used to getting up early to practice martial arts. He had hardly missed a morning workout, not even during the New Year's holidays. He tried to recall the last time he got up this late, but nothing came to mind. To his delight, the Master of Lang Ya Hall was as capable as legend had it; he felt much better and energetic than the day before.
After washing up and taking his lunch, Xiao Tingsheng went to meet Lin Chen on his own. Yuan Feng knew that he didn’t want to be followed, so he stood afar outside the meeting hall Lin Chen had for his guests, watching the general entering the room and sliding the door shut behind him. It was a fine day; the bright spring sunshine warmed up the lush vegetation in the mountain, raising a pleasant floral aroma into the air. The plum blossoms burned vibrant against the blue sky. Yuan Feng stood in the warm sun, squinting his eyes in the bright daylight. Less than twenty days ago, he was trapped in the blazing snow storm and bone cracking cold of Plum Ridge (Note 6); how was it possible that now he was enjoying such a peaceful day in this beautiful and unworldly place?
Plume Ridge in the first lunar month was a terrible place. The storm had been raging on for days. The only way out of the valley was blocked by layers of Da Yu’s Imperial Army. In the faint light of daybreak and the blinding blizzard, the outline of the young man in a blue cape that fluttered wildly in the wind was so deeply imprinted upon Yuan Feng’s mind that twenty days later, he could still recall exactly what he had seen on that freezing cold morning. No one knew for sure how the young man cut through the surrounding enemy troops without alerting anyone. Yuan Feng had been serving the general for almost four years, during which time he had only heard him mentioning the name twice. Even though he had never met this young man before, he was almost certain the first moment he laid his eyes upon him that this remarkably handsome man was “Fei Liu ge ge “ (Note7) in Xiao Tingsheng's words.
The worst storm in decades was both their hope and their doom. The heavy snowfall and howling wind prevented the reinforcement from entering the mountain, but it also blocked the enemy from advancing. However, everyone knew that once the storm stopped, with a few hundred Da Yu Imperial Army soldiers against their less than seventy men on Da Liang’s side, they were only waiting to be slaughtered.
Xiao Tingsheng had already accepted this fact. When Fei Liu showed up out of the blue, he was really shocked and overjoyed, for a moment, but he soon realized that if it was only the two of them, Fei Liu might be able to get him out of the encirclement without the enemy’s detection. However, if he wanted to get all of his men to safety, it would be an impossible task even for someone as powerful as Fei Liu. Xiao Tingsheng had never considered abandoning his men and fleeing for his own life. No matter how hard Yuan Feng and his other subordinates argued and tried to persuade him, he insisted on staying behind.
“Fight the way out.”
Plus what he said when he first showed up and grabbed Xiao Tingsheng’s arm, which was “Follow me”, Yuan Feng only saw Fei Liu opening his mouth twice. This young man whose gaze was as cold and hard as ice, whose build was slender and tall, was only dressed in a thin layer of clothing in the freezing winter. He seemed to be operating in a world of his own that nobody else could enter.
After sun rise, the storm finally stopped. The valley was covered in a thick layer of fresh and loose snow. It was so quiet that even the sound of pine needles falling can be heard. The sky was washed crystal clear and deep blue; the snow flattened out the rise and fall of the topography and hid all the imperfection under its white blanket. The breathtaking winter scenery had an eerie beauty that made everyone nervous. Xiao Tingsheng shot his last signal into the sky; its loud cracking noise echoed inside the spacious mountain valley.
Seeing the signal, the generals of the Da Yu Imperial Army also knew it was the beginning of a difficult battle. In order to retreat safely, they must capture this enemy general with imperial status before Da Liang’s reinforcement arrived. As for Xiao Tingsheng and his soldiers, they had been trapped in the snow storm for days; no one had extra energy to spare for digging a way out in the deep snow. They stayed still and waited in silence, leaving the task of making a way out to the Da Yu Army.
It was the hardest morning to live through in Yuan Feng’s entire life. There was nothing he could do besides listening to the sound of the Da Yu soldiers’ approaching shovelling noise. Xiao Tingsheng’s men were all resting and storing up their strength, waiting for their opportunity to break through. Yet the anxiety on their faces was too obvious to hide. Unlike everyone else however, Fei Liu showed no fear or concern. He leaned his back on a spruce tree, still as a rock, as if what was about to take place had nothing to do with him at all.
By mid day, the two armies finally clashed. With only his fists and a short dagger, Fei Liu took down whoever was in his way or whoever was attacking Xiao Tingsheng with one strike. His move was so swift and lethal that Yuan Feng would never have believed someone like this could really exist had he not seen everything with his own eyes. He followed closely behind Xiao Tingsheng, benefiting from Fei Liu’s protection as they pushed their way through the oncoming enemy soldiers.
Hot blood spewed and splattered in front Yuan Feng’s eyes, within minutes, no one could tell the whether the blood on their armour and clothes belonged to themselves or someone else. It was hard enough to walk on the snowy ground, let alone riding horses. The road that was dug out of the deep snow was also quite narrow, making it impossible for either side of the battle to spread out their forces. The trail carved into the snow was stained red by blood, colouring its way out slowly from the depth of the valley.
Yuan Feng couldn’t be sure how long it took for them to cut their way through the snow and the enemy force. The slaughter seemed infinitely long, yet at the same time as short as a flash of lightening. In the end, blood had covered his sight so everything he saw took on a tint of red, and his mouth was filled with the salty and metallic taste. Looking back, he still couldn’t quite sort out the order of events that took place; how the reinforcement converged with them, how he managed to get behind the protection of his army buddies, everything seemed to have been scrambled up in his memory.
Eventually, only thirteen men managed to fought their way out, among whom Yuan Feng sustained the lightest injuries. He had only a couple of cuts on his forearms and shoulders, by the third day afterwards he was able to walk around without much difficulty. He thought there was no other words beside “fate favoured” to describe his pure and dumb luck. Although Xiao Tingsheng had Fei Liu by his side all the way, he still got stabbed quite badly by a spear, which left him unconscious in bed for five days. As for the rest of the survivors, five of them were still bed ridden when they set out for Lang Ya Hall.
As for Fei Liu, by the time he dragged Xiao Tingsheng behind the shield of their reinforcement army, the general was already unconscious. The soldiers rushed to help their commander, no one paid any attention to the quiet young man. They only turned to look when they heard a loud thud in the snow. Fei Liu was on his knees. Nobody knew him apart from the soldiers who fought their way out with him. His face was covered in clotted and frozen blood which made him almost unrecognizable. His blue clothes had turned black with blood drenched through the fabric. The dagger was still grasped tightly in his hand, blood was dripping slowly off the tip of the blade into the snow. The trail of his coming steps wound through the snow like a blood red snake, disappearing into the wall of the formation of soldiers.
Yuan Feng shuddered when he recalled the picture in his mind; he realized he had wandered off in his memory for quite a while. Though it was a lovely spring day and he was standing in the warm sun, he still felt a rush of freezing cold climbing up his spine, spreading to his finger tips in moments. He turned to look at Lin Chen’s reception hall: the door was still tight shut, and he wondered how far the general and the master’s conversation had gone.
“Master hardly wrote to me all these years, I thought you didn’t want to deal with anything or anyone concerning Jin Ling, then how come Fei Liu ge ge…?’
The tea in their cups was no longer steaming; the atmosphere in the room was so heavy that one could almost feel the weight pressing down on their shoulders.
“These years spent at Lang Ya Hall, he never cared for any other news, apart from one thing, which he constantly reminded me to inform him no matter what.”
“What was that?”
“Tingsheng Didi.”(Note 8)
Xiao Tingsheng’s vision blurred and he quickly lowered his eyes, afraid of looking straight at Lin Chen. Lin Chen turned his gaze to the low table in front of the window: a clay vase with a freshly picked plum branch stood still on top, the pink petals blossomed with a refreshing scent. They sat face to face in silence. Xiao Tingsheng waited for a long time before he mastered the courage to continue speaking.
“Sir, you don’t blame me?”
“Why would I?”
“Because if I didn’t insist…” Xiao Tingsheng lowered his head and sobbed; the sound of the tear drops breaking on his lap was loud and clear.
Lin Chen let out a long sigh.
“Even though you are not your emperor father’s biological son, your stubborn and dull brain is somehow an exact replica of his.”
Xiao Tingsheng raised his head in confusion, and he saw that Lin Chen’s expression took on a softer but more serious look.
“You did what you thought you should do, he did what he thought he should do, how was that different from the choice your mentor (Note 9) made all those years ago? If I must blame someone, do I have to blame each and every one of you?”
Lin Chen spread out his sleeves and straightened his back, not remembering ever talking to someone in such a serious and formal manner. It was at this moment, looking at the weeping young man, that he first realized clearly he was no longer the Lin Chen who used to travel the world with a carefree attitude and an unburdened heart.
“The greatest fortune anyone could have in this world is to live their life following their true intent. Fei Liu might appear to be unlucky to others, being afflicted in his mind. But he had lived his life without the need to pretend or to compromise. Whatever he did, he did them with his true intent, isn’t that much more fortunate than most of those ignorant people? As for his ending, whether it’s here or there, now or some other time, does it really matter?”
Xiao Tingsheng had broken into an unstoppable cry; it took him a long time to finally calm down and slowly raise his hands to bow to Lin Chen.
“I’m grateful for Master’s guidance.”
Lin Chen sent out his first message to Jin Ling city in many years on that night, directly addressed to Xiao Jingyan, informing him that his precious adopted son would need to recuperate on the mountains for quite some time before he could set out for the capital. In the days that followed, he personally took care of Xiao Tingsheng’s health and prescribed medicines for him. He also took him on an in-depth tour around Lang Ya Hall, showing him many secret and intricate places that no one outside had ever seen. Xiao Tingsheng had the feeling that if he stayed any longer, Lin Chen would have turned him into his elected disciple. Maybe it was due to the fact that now they shared a common pain of Mei Changsu and Fei Liu, it somehow brought them closer. Lin Chen didn’t know much about Xiao Tingsheng as a person previously, but the days they spent together made him realize this young man was not as boring or dull as he initially appeared to be, and Lin Chen was quite happy to have made a friendship between generations.
By early April, Xiao Tingsheng had recovered fully under Lin Chen’s care, even the small problems he had accumulated over the years fighting on the cold north had been altogether taken care of. On the day he bid farewell to the Master of Lang Ya Hall, Lin Chen even said to send his regard to Xiao Jingyan, which surprised both men as neither of them had expected something so diplomatic could come out of Lin Chen’s mouth. After Xiao Tingsheng’s departure, Lang Ya Hall returned to its daily routine. It took Lin Chen quite a few days to finally settle back to the life where no guest would come to bother him on a daily basis.
It was the best time of year; spring was everywhere in Lang Ya Mountain. Lin Chen ordered a sapling pagoda tree (Note 10) to be brought up to his quarter. Since he buried Mei Changsu at Plum Ridge ten years ago, he had been fearing there might come a day when he had to go bury Fei Liu as well (Note 11). He was, after all, a mortal being, however legendary his medical skills were, he couldn’t raise the dead. As hard as he tried, he could never be as detached as he always pretended to be. Perhaps the heavens had finally decided to treat him kindly for once, sparing him the pain of having to send off another person who was dear to him. Just as what he did when he planted the first pagoda tree in his courtyard, burying a set of Mei Changsu’s clothes under its root, this time, he buried Fei Liu’s hair band Xiao Tingsheng brought back from the battle field.
Laying down the soil, watering and arranging the stones around the tree pit, it took him almost an hour to finally plant the tree properly. Lin Chen dusted the soil off his hands and crossed his arms. He looked from left to right to appreciate the two small trees on both sides of his stone table.
“Little Fei Liu, are you happy with my arrangement?” Tears ran down his face before he could finish the sentence.
1. Lan Tai (兰台）is written in NIF2 books as a pavilion built on the top of the back side of Lang Ya Mountain, designed to receive special guests of Lin Chen's.
2. In NIF2's books, it was stated that Xiao Tingsheng was granted the title Marquis (侯) when he was 23, then the title Wang (王) at 27.
3. Qing Gong (轻功) is a form of martial arts in the Kong Fu novel genre that means abilities to lighten one's steps and body and be swift and jump to great heights.
4. Lieutenant Yuan's full name was never mentioned so I made it up as Yuan Feng.
5.“蜉蝣之羽，衣裳楚楚。心之忧矣，於我归处。" This is a line from a poem 蜉蝣 from the oldest poems collection in China, 诗经。The poet is talking about the short but beautiful life of a mayfly, and feeling sad about the fact that he doesn't know where he would end up. I thought it's very fitting for Lin Chen to be reciting it given what he was going through.
6. Plum Ridge 梅岭，is a place on the northern border where the Chi Yan Army perished in the first NIF. It is also the place where Mei Changsu was buried and later Tingsheng was buried.
7. Ge Ge 哥哥 in Chinese means older brother, you can use it to call a male person who is the same generation as you but older.
8. Di Di 弟弟 is used for younger brother.
9. Mei Changsu
10. Pagoda tree in Chinese is 槐树，the character 槐 is pronounced the same as the character 怀，which means missing someone or in memory of some one. So it's Lin Chen's way of remembering Mei Changsu and Fei Liu.
11. In the first NIF book it was mentioned that Fei Liu was rescued by Lin Chen and Mei Changsu when they were traveling in Japan. Fei Liu was then a boy kidnapped by an assassin's league to be trained as a killer. His brain was affected by the poison those people fed him to control him. Even though later he was rescued, because of the particular martial arts he practiced and the poison he ingested, it is suggested that he was unlikely to live a very long life.