I walked calmly onto the curb bordering the street, up to my younger sister’s door. Knocking, I admired the designs above the door, identifying it as a shikumen.
After a moment the door opened, revealing Youya and Lian, my twin nieces. “Shushu!” Lian ran towards me, arms open for a hug, while Youya simply watched from the doorway, a small smile on her little face.
Chuckling, I picked up Lian and swung her around in a circle. “You little rascals, where’s your mother?”
Lian was too busy giggling to answer, so Youya replied. “Mama is making lunch, she said it would be ready in a little while.”
I felt a tugging on my arm, and Lian dragged me inside, her small black pigtails bouncing energetically. “Tell us a story, tell us a story!”
Youya shut and locked the door, the more mature and responsible of the two. Her short hair rested on her shoulders, and the bangs across her forehead made her look like the American cartoon with the little girl explorer.
I let Lian drag me to the room she and Youya shared, plopping down on a wooden stool by their beds. Even though they were already 10 years old, they still loved to hear stories, whether it was bedtime or not.
Lian and Youya both laid obediently on their beds, their ears open for my story. When they looked at me with their big eyes, I just couldn’t refuse them.
My sister appeared in the doorway, tying a unicorn apron over her clothes. “Zaoshang hao, gege. I’m making some lunch now, I’ll let you know when it is ready.”
She quickly disappeared again, leaving me with the two girls.
“What story are you going to tell today, shushu?” Youya asked.
“Is it the bird story again? Ooh, or maybe another spicy hot BL?” Lian bounced eagerly on her bed, unable to sit still. They were young and they were girls, but for some reason they loved hearing about boy’s love. I didn’t quite know what to think of that, but I guess I should be grateful I’m not straight.
Lost in thought, I considered for a moment. Was it the right time to tell them that story?
Oh well, they could hear it anyways.
I leaned forward, putting my elbows on my knees. “How about I tell you a new story?”
Both sisters leaned forward as well, eyes shining. “Tell us, tell us!”
I smiled gently. “This one is called the Spirit of the Plum Blossom Tree...”
Hong Shen rasped in pain, staggering to one knee. He reached an arm back, gasping in agony as his wound stretched. Gripping the knife, he pulled it out with a loud cry, throwing it to the side. He could feel fresh blood pouring down his back, and he almost blacked out.
He pushed himself back to standing, wobbling slightly. Slowly, he stepped forward, his gaze locked onto the dead plum tree in front of him. It was the only weeping plum tree in the city, and it was dead; no one had removed it simply because they didn’t see a point. It was way back in the alleys where no one really went anyways, so it wasn’t a concern.
Falling to the ground, Hong Shen crawled under the hanging branches to the tree, leaning his back against the trunk. It hurt even more from the pressure, but he was about to die anyways. With each heartbeat, he could feel his blood pour out into the bark.
His breaths came in great gasps, and he couldn’t rationally think anymore. He tried to remember who stabbed him, but names just flew randomly around his dying mind. The only thing he could recall was that it had been a dear comrade of his.
Such was the life of a criminal. Betrayed even by ones they perceived as comrades. In the end, they were all criminals, friends or not.
Hong Shen looked up through the dead branches, up at the blue sky streaked with the red and orange rays of sunset. The sounds of police sirens grew closer and closer.
He closed his eyes. It wasn’t a bad last sight.
Suddenly determined to die with his eyes open, he struggled to peel them back slowly. In a moment he didn’t need to struggle anymore; they flew wide open.
As he watched, dark pink buds grew on the bare branches, blooming into beautiful blossoms. The hanging branches similar to that of a weeping willow were full of plum blossoms, forming a sort of lovely cage around the trunk. Dark pink petals floated in the air around him, swirling into a little petal whirlwind.
Hong Shen watched it in shock, as what appeared to be a person took shape in the slow moving whirl. It had the form of a translucent man, but it was breathtakingly beautiful, with long silky hair and fluttering robes that blended with the petals. As he watched, the man smiled, his lips moving to form words he couldn’t hear.
At last his vision began to fade, and he saw the man float towards him, leaning down and pressing his lips to Hong Shen’s forehead. Though the man was translucent, he still felt a cool touch on his head. Through half closed lids, Hong Shen saw the petals disperse into the wind, and the man with them.
As he closed his eyes for the last time, he only had one question in his mind. What on earth had just happened?
“Aiyo, you’re sitting in my seat again Truth!”
“So what, it’s comfy. Go find a new seat.”
“Is everyone here? The criminal has arrived, we need to start!”
Hong Shen slowly opened his eyes, blinking in the darkness. The last thing he could remember was being stabbed by his trusted comrade. Now where was he?
All around him was empty space, but above him there appeared to be large figures. 9 silhouettes were reflected in front of 9 different colors, giving shape to their black forms. They loomed above to his front and sides, in three chairs on each side. Larger than life, they made an intimidating scene, looking down from their perches with shadowed figures. Even though some lounged or didn’t appear to be paying attention to the man below them, their aura was menacing.
Hong Shen found himself kneeling unconsciously, his neck bowing before the supreme beings above. He heard a brief rustle of paper and shift of cloth.
“Criminal Hong Shen,” a deep voice resonated within the dark chamber. Hong Shen refused to flinch, grasping onto his pride. He was fairly certain he had died, so these people must be the judges to condemn his criminal lifestyle.
“23 years old, born in Shanghai on November 13, 6:23 a.m. Has a younger sister Hong Mei, deceased parents. Became a criminal at 14, now wanted in both America and China for several murders as well as theft. Died August 4, 8:02 p.m, stab wound in the back. Criminal Level: 6.”
A detached voice stated the general details of his life, as though reading from a book. Hong Shen’s eyes were wide, and he felt the briefest twinge of fear. But it was quickly erased; the great Hong Shen had no room for such a weak emotion.
A feminine voice tittered to his left. “Level 6, eh? That means it’s my turn to give the trial! It’s been so long since I got to give one, what fun!”
A man sighed on his right. “Justice, that’s not necessarily a good thing.”
“Wait wait wait, we haven’t even told him who we are yet! He still has to choose anyways!” The same voice that had asked if everyone was present exclaimed loudly.
Justice humphed in annoyance. “Oh, fine! Hurry up already!”
Hong Shen couldn’t decide whether to laugh or cry. For having such threatening appearances, these judges didn’t act very fearsome.
“Criminal Hong Shen. You have been brought before us today, the Hell Lords Who Judge Crimes. Your heinous acts in life are unacceptable, and now that your life has ended, you have landed on the path to hell.
However, that does not mean this is the end.”
The booming voice paused for a moment. Hong Shen narrowed his eyes. What did he mean this wasn’t the end? Of course it was; his life was over and now his punishment would start.
“You have two choices: you can choose to die and face eternal punishment in hell for your crimes, or you may have a second chance to redeem yourself; complete a trial in the past to return to the present.
But be forewarned: many who take the second chance do not complete it. These trials were designed for criminals, not grade schoolers.”
“To be fair, some criminals actually are grade schoolers…” that small voice quickly shut up.
A trial? Return to the present?
Hong Shen wanted to jump for joy; hell yeah he wanted to return to life! Return so he could murder that bastard who killed him, whatever his name was!
So what if the trials were hard? This was Hong Shen they were talking to, no way would he back down from such a challenge!
Little did he know these were the exact same thoughts all the other criminals had thought.
“I choose.. the trial,” he said hoarsely, his voice not having been used for a while.
Justice clapped her hands above him. “Excellent! Then let’s get to business. Criminal Hong Shen, for your trial, you will be sent back to the past for one year to complete the task I give you. If you complete it by the time a year has passed, you will be permitted to return to the same time you left. Should you fail to complete the trial, or give up at any time during the year, you will forfeit the trial and be sent to hell. Got it?”
Hong Shen considered for a moment. So if he successfully finished the trial, he would return to the same time he left. In other words, he would still have his stab wound and be on the run from the police.
Eh, no matter. He could escape from them again, he had done it before.
But never with a critical wound.
He silenced his inner voice solemnly.
“Hmmm, let’s see. For your trial, I want you to…”
There was a collective holding of breath from the other 8 figures.
“...fall in love.”
A moment of dead silence. Then:
“Fall in love? What are you, a hopeless romantic?!”
“BAHAHA, this will be interesting! A criminal falling in love? Glorious!”
“What time period?” The detached voice spoke over the rest with an uninterested tone.
“Ooh, I forgot about that! How about… the Guan Baiye period!”
This moment of silence was far heavier and solemn. A lone voice cleared their throat.
“Wow, Justice. You really are cruel.”
“What?! They seem pretty similar if you think about it!”
Guan Baiye period? Hong Shen racked his brains, but the name didn’t ring any bells. From the reaction of the Hell Lords, it seemed like a questionable time period.
Suddenly, the edges of his vision began to turn black again. He didn’t feel weak or in pain, so now what was happening?!
“Trial activated,” the bland voice said.
“Well, that’s it then! You will be sent to the time Guan Baiye died, and your year will start from there. Good luck, Criminal Hong Shen! I hope you succeed where others did not!”
The last thing he heard was Justice’s bright voice echoing in his mind.
Pain. An unending agony that throbbed with each heartbeat.
Hong Shen’s eyes flew open as he panted. This pain was so familiar…
He looked down at his chest, at the knife sticking out from it. What the hell?! What the actual hell?!
He was stabbed in the front this time?!
“Guan Hongye! Your Highness!”
As his vision began to blur for the third time, he heard someone call out a name. Guan Hongye? Who was that?
A dark pink petal floated down in front of his face. A plum blossom…
It seemed vaguely familiar to Hong Shen, but he succumbed to the darkness before he could remember.