Heal Thyself

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~CHONG HO~

By the look of it, everyone in his house was convinced that the healer was a holy man. The guest room was scrubbed and freshly aired, and stuffed with blankets and silk pillows. Even washed clean and dressed in a comfortable robe, the healer was still a pitiful sight. He seemed to be afraid to look at all the finery and stared instead at his hands. They twitched restlessly in his lap.

"Mmgh?" Ho cleared his throat to attract his unusual guest's attention. "My... friend?" The books on etiquette did not provide a proper way to address a street healer, and the Serene Brother did not seem appropriate.

"My name is Demure Yu," the beggar supplied in a hoarse whisper. He lifted and held up his head to look at Ho with a visible effort, like that an infant. Strangely, the deep bleeding cracks on his lips had closed in the intervening hours. "I will... I will be gone before the first morning light, Master."

"So, you are not mute."

"No," Demure Yu said. "I just stay silent."

Ho bowed politely: "I came to thank you."

"No need. This..." Demure Yu waved his hand to point at his surroundings, "this is more than I've ever received."

"If you can do for others what you did today for my wife, you can earn a fortune. Unless... unless what you do is blasphemous?"

"I... I don't know," Demure Yu said and blinked. "And it hurts."

He squatted on the sleeping mat next to the healer. From the way the man spoke, in short sentences, it occurred to him that the beggar might be simple.

"What hurts?" he prodded gently.

"Talking," Demure Yu replied. "I often scream instead. Accidently."

So, neither a charlatan nor simple. Not simple at all.

"I am sorry for making you talk," He studied Demure Yu's face, to see if the man was telling the truth. Yes, it could be pain that caused a haunted inward look. There was also taut skin around the sunken eyes. But the sores he remembered so vividly from before were now gone. Pus could have been washed away, but the healer's skin was clear of any blemishes.

"Whenever you are hurt, you heal fast, is that correct?"

"Normally much faster than this," Demure Yu nodded, looking almost embarrassed with his condition. "But the Contagion is new to me."

"You are a son of the carnival entertainers, acrobats, jugglers, and the like. So you must have helped from an early age with their tricks, got cuts and bruises, maybe a few broken bones..."

Two more nods.

"...and that's when it was discovered that everything mended on you too well?"

Demure Yu sighed, "They were afraid. Even when I helped others. Anyone who's hurt. That's why I use the tricks. I don't want to be beaten as a demon-spawn."

He did not sound like he was straining any longer. Marvellously, the healer's cheeks first regained colour, then glowed with a healthy vigour of youth. As the moments trickled away, Demure Yu's face transformed from an old man's to a positively boyish one under a fringe of a shaggy mane. Under Ho's scrutiny, he also shifted restlessly, just like the young men do.

"Can I leave now?" Demure Yu jumped up to his feet. He took a few tentative steps, then paced and stretched. "See, I need to go. The Inscrutable Contagion is gone from your house, Master Chong Ho, but it is festering around Sutao. I must heal. You have to understand. When I heal more of the same, I heal back faster and faster. If I spend on every sick man as long as I did on Tien Lyn, I can't heal many. And there will be many, many, many sick in Sutao soon. I feel it."

"It is after the curfew now, and all the gates are locked," Ho said reasonably, "rest here till the morning."

"But I don't need to rest!" Demure Yu exclaimed in frustration. "You do not understand! I must go!"

"Ah," he studied his guest even closer, noting his shining eyes, his irregular breath, the way in which he was clasping his hands. "Are you drawn towards pain then? It hurts to take on the others' suffering, but as you heal through it, you –"

"Yes, yes..." Demure Yu burst out impatiently, "Yes, it makes me euphoric. So, you've figured it out. So, let me out for pity's sake!"

"Patience, young man." Ho caught him by the thin wrist. It felt hot and dry. "I will help you, but I suggest that you get out of town as soon as possible. There are charges brought up against you for blasphemy."

Demure Yu groaned. "Not now, not now, not now! The faeries, they cannot do it alone, they need me!"

Ho sighed: the boy was too agitated for talking things over. "Dress for the road. I will show you where I would have climbed the walls were I your age."

After Demure Yu made it over the lower section of the wall with an agility of a squirrel and disappeared into the gathering darkness, he made an ancient protection sign against evil and whispered, "May the Heavens have mercy on you, demon-spawn."

Having had set the healer loose, Ho went to see Tien Lyn.

His new wife sat up higher on the pillows when she heard his steps and waved for him to come in. He sat down awkwardly, about an arms' length away.

"I was glad to meet my new family, husband," she said softly, shifting to look directly at him.

Just like she was taught, no doubt, despite my family being beneath her.

"And I would like to---"

"Succor me?" He sounded resentful, and could not help it. "The insignificant man that I am?"

She shook her head gently, "I want to know more about the man born to be a builder and then became someone else. They've talked about it, but I want to hear it from you."

Ho moved nearer to her. "It is not a happy story, wife."

"Maybe," she said and took both of his hand into hers.

AN: This completes Part I of the novel. Thank you so much for reading and commenting! If you have an opinion on it, please let me know if you felt that the love scene, in the end, ended too abruptly, and should have gone longer, to unambiguously state that the couple became intimate. 

Part II will start with Shan Jiang (that's the singer if you still remember him!) arriving at the Laughing Men Islands.

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