You could say the situation around me was quite a mess when I was first summoned.
The girl supposed to be my Master Attendant grabbed my hand, her face filled with delight.
"You must be my food soul! Help me!"
"Those mobsters are trying to take me to be their boss’s wife! Help!"
"Grab her!! Don't let her get away!!"
I looked back at the people mobbing after us before glancing at her reluctant face beside me. Banishing any trace of hesitation from my mind, I took her soft hand and ran.
It took a long time for us to escape the mob as they chased after us with torches in hand.
Staring at this happy, disheveled girl lying on the ground, I nudged her arm with my foot.
"Hey, tell me the truth. Why’d a girl like you run away from home all by yourself? Are they really trying to take you to be some mobster’s wife?"
Master Attendant rolled over and sat up, letting out a laugh unbefitting of someone from such a high-class family.
"Ah, I was running away from a marriage! My family wants me to marry someone I’ve never even met before! I’ve never, ever met him before, you know? But they wanna marry me off to him anyway."
"No fair, right? So I escaped!"
I couldn’t help but laugh as I looked at her bright smile. Reaching out, I brushed a few fallen leaves off of her hair and helped her up from the ground.
"Get up. Careful not to catch a chill!”
"What do you plan to do next?"
"Why are you looking at me like that?!"
"I don't really know! I guess it’s up to you, then!”
Just like that, I took this girl, who didn’t even pack her bags when she ran away from home, and embarked on a life of travelling around the world.
She walked out of the carriage compartment and sat next to me. Twirling around the green foxtail I picked for her earlier, she watched the scenery shrink into the distance.
"How is this world so big, Crab Long Bao?”
I quietly listened to her complain about her past.
She said that she’d never left the house before.
She said that where she came from, girls weren’t allowed to leave the house before marriage and had to listen to their family.
She said that she envied girls who lived out of a suitcase, even though they had no choice if they wanted to make a living.
One day, as she listened in on a few little girls from ordinary families kicking shuttlecocks, playing cat’s cradle, and jumping hopscotch, she had an epiphany.
I want to leave.
And that’s what lead up to our meeting.
A ridiculous start, but one we’ve never regretted.
She suddenly stood up from the bumpy carriage. Facing her palms to the wind, she happily enjoyed the caress of the spring breeze.
"Careful, don't trip!"
"Haha, I won’t! You’ll definitely catch me before I do! Thank you for showing me this world!"
I looked at the smile on her face and couldn't help but laugh.
In actuality, it was I who wanted to say “thank you” to her.
It was you who taught me that you can do anything as long as you stay strong and work hard.
II. Trust And Promises
I took her to many places. We went to the beach and saw the endless sea; visited an ancient city and witnessed its history of a thousand years.
A few days ago, I heard that there was a royal chef who had returned to his hometown and opened a small restaurant there.
Rain was drizzling steadily the day we arrived, caressing her cheeks as willows swayed in the wind.
It was a town very similar to her hometown, but without the red tape.
When we first entered town, she laughed when she saw the girls on the street.
I couldn't help but poke the side of her face.
"What’s so funny?"
"I just feel happy for them. They don't need to leave their homes and families like I did to be free.”
I took her hand and walked to the rumored restaurant.
"What will ya two have for today~?"
A brisk voice caught our attention. If my eyes didn’t deceive me, the guy bustling around the restaurant was a food soul too.
I sat down at a table with Master Attendant, planning to inquire about their signature dishes. However, it didn't take long for extraordinarily exquisite meals we never ordered to be sent up.
An old man came over. Dragging along his slightly squirming Food Soul, he smiled and said to me:
"Would’ya make friends with this kiddo here?"
Before I could say anything, the punk beside me agreed in my place. I looked at her a bit helplessly and sighed as I pulled a pair of chopsticks out of the chopstick holder.
Contrary to its exquisite appearance, the dish had a flavor so overpowering it left an ache in my throat.
The Food Soul, who went by the name of Long Bao, quickly sent the old man away.
He told us that this old man has lost most of his taste, and that Long Bao had asked everyone in the village to pretend nothing was wrong.
Back then, I couldn’t understand why he did that.
I just knew that it definitely wasn’t the right thing to do.
However, Master Attendant stopped me before I could criticize the already awkward guy in front of me any further.
We left the little restaurant after we finished eating. Before we left, I couldn’t help but look back.
Master Attendant suddenly took a peek at my face. I saw two tiny reflections of myself in those eyes, eyes that were almost always shut in laughter.
"Crab Long Bao, what would you do if you were Long Bao?”
"...I would tell him the truth. No matter how cruel it is, he has a right to know. I wouldn’t leave; I’d face it with him.”
"Really? Then what if I was that old man?"
"I wouldn’t lie to you either! I swear on my heart I would never lie to you!"
"Hahaha! Why so serious? Okay, okay, I get it~ Let's go. We should come back to visit them if we ever get the chance.”
Back then, I had no idea how naive I was to say that.
I didn't know how desperate a situation would have to become for someone to decide to deceive their loved ones.
III. Peach Blossoms
We visited many places after we left that little town. Fine snow melted on eaves as buds sprouted from tree branches. Spring was here again.
I took her to see flowers that bloomed all year round and we tasted food from all sorts of different places.
Finally, on the day winter had completely disappeared without a trace, we found a forest of the peach blossoms she had always been longing to see.
We’d seen countless types of flowers, but her favorite was always the peach blossoms that bloomed into a beautiful sea of flowers.
I found a beautiful patch, and we admired the flowers and enjoyed some wine under the drifting petals.
But some things are too good to be true.
I caught her in my arms as she turned pale and collapsed.
I called her name, but didn't get a response.
I sent her to the medical center in a panic, but the old, bearded doctor shook his head in regret.
"Her body...she must have been born with this illness. She’s lucky to have even lasted this long. If she still has things left on her bucket list, you should help her tick them off soon so she can leave without regrets.”
"She probably...won’t live to see next year... Her illness will gradually steal her strength and all her senses too… Just stay by her side.”
Later, she fell into a coma.
When she woke up, it was already autumn.
The peach blossoms in the peach forest had long since withered away.
I hesitated for a long while before telling her what the doctor said.
But what I didn't expect as she looked at me apologetically was for the one who should have been comforted, be the one to comfort me.
"I always knew I’d never live as long as others, but I wanted to live a life as colorful as the peach blossoms that were in bloom the day I was born. So I escaped. I’m already very satisfied with the life I’ve lived since then...sorry. I scared you, didn’t I?”
She was so frank, it left me at a loss for words.
I thought that she’d go hysterical, unable to accept reality, but never would I have imagined she’d accept such a sad ending so calmly.
In the days that followed, it was as if nothing had ever happened. Her smile was as soft as ever as she followed the treatment the doctor prescribed for her.
But one late night, I heard a choked sob as I passed by her room.
That night, on the other side of the door, she lamented her situation and her fear of a future where she’d lose all her senses one by one.
And all I could do was listen quietly by the door.
I insisted she tell me one wish after another.
I didn’t know if it was to alleviate the guilt in my heart, or if it was so I didn’t have to watch her pretend to be strong.
I just wanted to see her smile.
So, I worked hard to fulfill every wish she had.
However, I hit a roadblock with her final wish.
She hoped to sit under that splendid peach tree again.
Drinking wine and admiring flowers with me, just like the days before she collapsed.
As of today, winter, in all its cold glory, would arrive soon.
However, she...wouldn’t be able to wait until the next spring.
I searched high and low to find this house built near the forest of peach blossoms. The owner of this house is a bit strange. He has a little friend named Wanton.
After discussing it over with the owner, we decided to stay here. The owner called it the Courtyard of Forgotten Sorrows.
He had a friend who was skilled in healing come treat her. However, the woman, who donned a large-brimmed rain hat, shook her head apologetically at me after taking her pulse.
That day, Cloud Tea had told me.
Her eyes...had already gone blind...
Little by little, she’d lose her sense of smell, too…
After that, on the days she’d feel better, I’d take her on a walk through the peach forest.
I swore to her many times that I'd definitely fulfill her wish.
It was on one of these walks that we picked up Long Bao, who had then recently lost his Master Attendant and with him his spirit.
Day after day flew by. I started leaving the house as soon as day broke, searching high and low for a way to make peach blossoms bloom in winter.
Fortunately, Long Bao took it upon himself to look after that girl.
This put my mind at ease when I traveled outside.
But soon, I found that she lost not just her sight and smell, but she could no longer hear my voice either.
Eventually, she lost her sense of taste.
Returning to the Courtyard, I heard her speak.
For some reason, I didn't dare enter, listening to the murmur of her clear and weak voice.
"Why does this tea taste so light?”
Long Bao, having heard the same words out of someone else’s mouth before, tipped his hand and added a good amount of vinegar into the tea before handing it to her. It emanated a sourness so strong you could smell it from a mile away.
Taking a gentle sip of the tea, she froze before lifting her head and smiling at Long Bao.
"It’s good. Thank you."
I smiled bitterly as I stared at the sour tea in her hand.
The food soul I’d come to know as Cloud Tea had told me that when her sense of taste started to fade, her time was almost up.
She wouldn’t be able to wait for me much longer.
One day, I ran into Cloud Tea standing outside our courtyard. She handed me a small medicine bottle with only one pill in it.
"This will temporarily recover her five senses. However, curses may arise out of blessings, and blessings out of curses. Heed caution.”
I finally made a decision. After she fell asleep, I took two wine jars and called out to Long Bao as he was about to go rest.
"Hey, come have a drink with me."
We sat side by side under a peach tree, flowerless at the moment. I tore the cover off the jar and took a big swig.
"I once told you that your Master Attendant had a right to know the truth.”
Long Bao, who was hugging his wine jar and looking a little absentminded, dropped his carefree facade as soon as he heard me get straight to the point. Smiling bitterly, he took a sip of wine before speaking.
"Yeah...you said I would regret it, and I do regret it...but...it’s too late..."
"I did say that...but for some reason, I suddenly understood why you did what you did when she started getting worse.”
I knew the smile on my lips was a little helpless. Taking one sip too big and spilling almost half the wine in the jar on my collar, I wiped my mouth on my sleeve.
"I shouldn't have said that to you."
"Nothing. I know you’re still worried your Master Attendant died blaming you, right?”
I stood up and gazed at the moon. The moon tonight was unusually clear, glazing everything in a layer of silver moonlight.
"I don’t think you need to worry. Like how she knows real peach blossoms don’t bloom in fall, your Master Attendant most likely never blamed you for lying to him. You know, she hasn’t completely lost her sense of taste just yet.”
"Yep. She told me that the tea you brewed is sour, incredibly sour, but it’s the best tea she’s ever had."
"Because your thoughtfulness can make any flavor of tea the sweetest in the world. She told me that your old Master Attendant must have wanted to have another cup of this tea before he left. No matter where you look, you can never find this tea anywhere else.”
"But he became a laughingstock because of me. His reputation became a total joke!"
"He won't hold something this silly against you. But, either way, you still owe him an apology."
I saw the look in Long Bao’s eyes as he stared at me. Those eyes were clear, determined, no longer lost, as if he’d reached a decision.
"You haven't paid your respects yet. You should go. Cloud Tea said she can make a medicine that can temporarily bring her senses back. In ten days, I’ll bring her here to admire the peach blossoms. You must come, my friend!”
Thank you, my friend. If it weren’t for you, I never would’ve thought of this.
Although it is a bit too late now.
However, I finally know what you were trying so hard to protect that time.
It was someone important to you, and their heartfelt smile.
V. Crab Long Bao
It took Crab Long Bao ten days, with the help of his friends from the Courtyard, to stick fake peach blossoms on every tree in the peach forest.
Cloud Tea spent a long time developing a medicine that could temporarily restore that resilient girl’s senses.
When everything was ready, Crab Long Bao fed her Cloud Tea’s medicine himself.
The focus her eyes had regained when she opened them again told them that Cloud Tea’s efforts had succeeded.
Crab Long Bao helped her to the place Tortoise Jelly had prepared for them. The ground was covered with a lightly scented blanket, and sitting on the blanket was pot after pot of warm wine.
Long Bao, who had just rushed back with his own tea, chased Wanton around trying to get him to taste it.
It was as perfect as it got.
The girl, who by this point was so sick she could no longer sit upright by herself, wore a smile even brighter and more dazzling than the peach blossoms. Her weak hands trembled as she poured her friends cup after cup of wine.
Together, they smiled and laughed. Their fun didn’t stop even as the sun went down and the moon took its place.
The girl, slightly tired, leaned on her food soul’s shoulder.
"Thank you, Crab Long Bao..."
Crab Long Bao, who had betrayed his own promise, suddenly burst into tears. Perhaps it was because of the contract, perhaps it was some sort of connection—but somehow, he knew his Master Attendant was about to leave.
He grabbed his Master Attendant’s slender hand and lowered his head. Tears hit the back of her hand one by one.
"I'm sorry...I'm sorry..."
I’m sorry...I couldn’t keep my promise...I still lied to you...
"It's okay... I know...you did your best...don't cry..."
"I'm sorry...I’m so sorry..."
"It’s okay, really… From now on, when you miss me...come drink wine under the peach trees...I’ll become one with the peach blossoms and stay by your side…”
Another season of peach blossoms had arrived, and the peach blossoms outside the Courtyard of Forgotten Sorrows bloomed brilliantly. A young boy sat underneath one of the trees. Lifting his head, he watched a petal drift into his wine jar, murmuring.
"Is that you…? I came to see you..."