Okay, the third chapter of ALOL is here. It’s kind of spooky and intimidating, all these rituals. And to watch our previously soft-spoken Xi Shi turn into a femme fatale is unnerving. But then one has to do all they can to survive….
Chapter 3.1: Of Death and Mourning.
The streets of the Xue Nong Capital were crowded with people. But the silence was eerie. Only the rhythmic beats of drums were the sounds heard, as people walked behind Xi Shi holding the urns which contained the ashes of their loved ones.
Several were weeping, but not one made any sound. This is the time for the dead, and the dead are heard better when there is silence.
Xi Shi herself glided forward holding the Royal Sword in her hands, the gold and precious stones shining in the night. Priest chanted hymns, appeasing the dead. Consort Mu led the Royal women behind Xi Shi, and her face was solemn.
She knew that Xi Shi has a bigger task ahead of her, to cremate her eldest brother’s half-eaten remains that were found on the battlefield only in the morning. His would be the last body to be cremated before the Ritual. And Xi Shi would be the one to immerse the ashes of her brother in the holy lake.
Xi Shi led her people to the hillock that was the house of the Jade Buddha. Her bare feet walked on several jagged rocks on the path, but never did she flinch. She could feel Feiying turn restless in her robes, and swallowed.
Feiying had a reason to be afraid: the Buddha has been guarded by two pythons since the last three decades. The Holy Pythons.
Xi Shi’s last encounter with the pythons had nearly killed her: the only poison she was not immune to was that of the pythons’. It had taken every effort from Mother Musa to save her then. And now, she’s sure that the Pythons have not forgotten how she tasted under their fangs.
Cold sweat dripped down her back under her robes, and Feiying quickly licked it off her skin. Xi Shi shivered.
More than the pythons, it was the task she was to do next that brought her dread. Her eldest brother had been the most loving member of the family. And she dreaded to see his mangled body on the funeral pyre, how much ever it may have been cleansed.
“Xi Shi, you’re not scary. You’re just different.”
His words came back to her and she closed her eyes, willing the tears to go back. The pain was too much, the hurt too much. And thoughts of Chen He Shan nearly killed her. She hadn’t allowed herself to cry even once.
Consort Mu had told her that if she sheds tears, the pain will lessen. But she didn’t want the pain to lessen. She wanted it to grow and evolve into rage. All-consuming and potent thirst for revenge.
As they neared the Temple, she realized that the stage has been set for the Ritual. Farther from the Temple, the pyre had been set up: the pyre of the Crown Prince. Near the entrance of the Temple, a huge Crystal Glass filled with milk was arranged and a Zither lay there, as if waiting for her.
The High Priest looked at her solemnly, flanked by several other priests. His shaven head glowed in the dark, as she came to a stop in front him.
All the people halted and stood behind her, the symbolic head of the Kingdom. The High Priest inclined his head in respect and his arm stretched in the way of the Crystal Glass.
Xi Shi nodded and walked over. Holding her palm out, she held the sword high in her other hand and brought it down in an arc. Several gasps burst into the air, as blood trickled down her palm from the deep gash, and rolled down into the milk.
The ruby droplets formed a deep contrast with the pearl-white milk. Feiying huddled around her neck desperately. For a moment, the fires burning in the Temple seemed to burn brighter.
The High Priest took the Royal Sword from her and stepped back, as she slowly sat down on the ground. Bowing to the Zither, she took it into her arms. Keeping her eyes firmly on the Buddha’s glittering ruby eyes, she strummed the first chord.
It almost felt like a caress.
The strings were stained red. The hiss that emanated from behind the Buddha Statue made people gasp in shock and shuffle back in terror.
She closed her eyes and smiled, and she strummed the Zither slowly. The sound that came out was seductively entrancing. The hisses grew louder from behind the statue. Even though she could feel that Feiying herself was terrified, the pearl-white Cobra lay poised around her neck to defend her.
She slowly let the tune rise, and tried to put the huge Pythons into a trance. It was the maximum that anyone could do to the Pythons, but one wrong step towards the statue can put anybody to the goriest possible death.
Since three entire decades, only the High Priest could do anything as much as venture close enough to the Jade Buddha during the cleansing time, where he would wash the Statue with milk.
The sound of hisses grew louder when the Pythons came into sight. Xi Shi had to clamp down on the terror that rose in her at their sight. And at the same time, she couldn’t help but admire the sheer beauty and power of these beautiful creatures.
Their skin was the smoothest of all scales and inky black. Their eyes were terrifyingly red. And the jewel at their head! Oh, that jewel! Dark green and glowing in the dark night.
They slithered straight towards her, but she didn’t stop playing on the Zither, desperately trying not to flee. She directed her thoughts to her dead brother and Chen He Shan, and immediately found calm settling in. calm and grief.
The Pythons came to a stop right in front of her. One of the pythons hissed agitatedly at the sight of Feiying staring back at it defiantly. The other python silenced it with its own quiet hiss.
That Python came close to Xi Shi, close enough that she breathed in the same fiery breath as that of the Python. It slowly rose up until its head was eye-level with her. They looked into each other’s eyes for a beat, as Xi Shi kept playing for dear life. If she stopped even for a second, the Python would rip open her throat.
Even that single moment seemed like forever, as she stared into those fiery red eyes. Then she saw it, that reluctant submission. The Python slithered back, and its mate followed. They moved towards the large crystal glass of milk.
Then with the people of Xue Nong as the witness, the Pythons devoured the milk which was tainted by Xi Shi’s blood. The blood of the Royal daughter.
She’s been accepted by the Gods.
The smile that came upon her lips was as much filled with pride as much as it was filled with pain. Chen He Shan, are you somewhere around here? Are you watching me now, mourning for our people?
The Xue Nong kneeled down in reverence, at the sight of the Pythons ceremonially drinking the milk. And now, the real hurdle of the night has arrived for Xi Shi.
The cremation of her brother.
We haven’t got a glimpse of the Prince in this part of the chapter. But the next installment will be all about him.
There’s something theatrical about these rituals, but then they are symbolical too. Sort of like, speaking to the dead kind. But all this Snake business is kind of creepy, in my opinion. I’ve always had a biased dislike towards reptiles, but then, maybe it’s only me.
This chapter mainly serves to show the weight that Xi Shi has to carry, often unfairly. The girl has to get a chance to mourn her loved ones, for god’s sake!
Without a doubt, she’s hogging the limelight as of now. But soon, other characters get a chance to shine too. Consort Mu, the High Priest, Captain Zhang are all going to play a pivotal role in the story’s development. And that’s probably the reason why they are being pushed into the shadows in the beginning: to let the heroine shine as long as she can.