In spite of his disappointment, Liang Shanbo went to Yin and assumed his appointed office there, working diligently for long days and nights. He approached the work of a magistrate with the same systematic focus he had applied his entire career as a student. Soon he had the reputation of a wise man, familiar with the law, who exercised judgment carefully and with unusual sensitivity.
People in the city could usually pass by his offices and see candles glowing in the windows, even in the middle of the night. It was clear their new magistrate was singularly dedicated to his work. While this engendered universal admiration, it also caused some worry, especially when Liang began to lose weight and grow pale.
“He’s making himself sick through overwork,” people began to say. “He needs a wife to come home to and make him eat.”
Liang had made a fine enough impression on everyone that the fathers of eligible young women saw no reason not to approach him. One by one, they met with him at home, were treated with supreme courtesy, and then left with the understanding that Liang Shanbo needed time to overcome a heartbreak that he could not bring himself to describe. Moved by the young man’s grief, the fathers who visited did their best to discourage others from trying, and talk petered out of finding the handsome young magistrate a wife.
Liang continued to work hard, but his health also continued to decline. He developed a dry cough that took a lot out of him after a fit, and he grew paler and weaker until finally he was confined to bed, with a pair of nurses set to take care of him. Between fevers and chills that left him sweaty and miserable, he could only lie and wait for the death he knew would come.
But death had apparently decided to let him linger. Liang spent hour after hour with only the nurses for company. They could treat his symptoms with the remedies they knew, and make him more comfortable with sponge baths and fresh sheets, but they weren’t doctors and couldn’t cure him. Liang drifted from his pains to half-remembered conversations with the nurses, but always he came round to the subject he had been avoiding ever since coming to Yin in the first place.
He was sick for her. His clever friend, whose suffering would last longer than Liang’s. He constantly put himself in her place, feeling this longing for one and being obligated to be with another, to go to the marriage bed with one she had never met instead of with the man she knew and loved more intimately than anyone else. It was more than he could bear. Would her husband walk with her in the mornings, point out the beauty in ordinary things by extemporizing poetry for her? Would her husband throw his arm across her shoulders during concerts and relish the warmth of her against his side? Would they share encyclopedic glances in crowded rooms and laugh at all times of day and night? He didn’t know what answer could comfort him; he desperately wanted Zhu to be happy, but he desperately wanted to be the one to make her happy.
He was a fraud. He knew that he had a reputation as a gentle, polite man of letters, but it was baseless. He had a selfish passion for Zhu, stronger than anything he had felt before, even for learning. Perhaps she was better off marrying a man whose passion could only be perfunctory. Surely this ardent love was a dangerous thing.
With these thoughts, a fever came, and he thought himself back at Zhu’s house, on his knees, embracing her legs. She was standing in a silk dress, the look strange on her, like when a young man wore a woman’s clothes in the theater. Unutterably compelling.
“Zhu, I’m supposed to be intelligent. How did you fool me this long?”
She reached down, the same slender wrist he had always admired, and stroked the hair back from his face.
“I tried to tell you, but you were always too distracted by ants and butterflies and the law.” She laughed the same laugh he had always known from his friend, and he realized what a fool he had been. She smiled down at him, fingers lingering at his brow. “But we’re together here and I have all your attention. That’s what matters.”
“Zhu, I have never felt this way for a woman before. I think… I think that while I had you for my friend, at school, that I never wanted anything else. Now it is overpowering.”
She knelt down and kissed him. “I feel it too.” Her slender fingers caressed his temples, coolness against heat, and his fever washed him away from this one memory of being together, far out of Zhu’s reach. It was fine. He knew what happened next: an interruption from Zhu’s mother, whose mouth was turned down with a sadness she couldn’t hide. She had had news of Zhu’s betrothal to another man.
Liang slept fitfully, by turns burning and shivering. When he could think clearly, he compared it to being in love, burning and shivering unto death.
Liang woke to an orange glow coming through his bedroom window. The fever still thrummed in all his veins, either sickness or longing for Zhu; he couldn’t tell. But he knew it wouldn’t be long. The light had the certain cast of a sunset, not dawn, and he felt weak in a way he never had before. Liang had lived 23 years and loved his friend for four of them. In moments, that would be over.
Death, he had contemplated often, considering the matter from all the angles of philosophy and legality. Death could be known. Death seemed plausible. But to stop loving Zhu? Such a thing seemed fantastical at best, profane at worst. He would die in the coming seconds or minutes, but it seemed impossible that he would stop loving Zhu.
The nurses had left him alone in his room, so he had to raise himself up and stretch his legs out himself to the floor, fighting a desperate gravity. How often had he and Zhu paused from memorizing texts to look out the window and describe the sunset to each other? Four years of friendship and want of nothing else.
He made it two steps before he had to lean against one of the chairs the nurses had left by his bed. Gasping, with his heart pumping too fast, he made a break for the window but fell instead.
Strong arms caught him before he could hit the floor. One of the nurses? But a familiar scent hit Liang as he allowed himself to be dragged back to the bed, overpowering him with memory and vertigo. He struggled out of the grasp of the person holding him and did fall this time, hitting the floor on his back and staring up at a figure who couldn’t be there.
Zhu looked down at him with tears in her eyes, but she only said, “Come now, Liang, get into bed. I didn’t study medicine for four years for you to die.”
It was her voice, impossible but still the only true thing. Liang threw his arms about her legs like a child and held on. “Zhu, are you here?”
Just as in his dream and their one day together at her home, Zhu reached down to push his hair from across his forehead. Her touch was cool and clarifying.
“They wanted me to marry someone else,” he told her. “But I could only be with you.”
“The same thing happened to me,” Zhu said. She crouched down and embraced him, holding him up. “I told them I had to go to you or die, and they wanted me to live. Here I am.”
Liang held on to her. Outside, the sun continued its gradual climb.