Looking out over the lake at night was like looking out into the void of space. It was glorious on clear nights, with the full moon reflecting off the fine ripples in the water, but Ma Qianle preferred it on overcast nights like tonight. The orange glow of the city lights reflected off the clouds and the water, erasing the horizon and giving the illusion of a single vast plane stretching from the ground below far up into the sky above. It was a calm and peaceful contrast to the raucous party behind.
It was the 300th anniversary of the end of the war that nearly razed Dongqiu City to the ground, and there had been celebrations all week not only in the city itself but across the country. It had been a day full of parades and speeches, battle reenactments and displays of might, and Ma Qianle was mentally exhausted. Unfortunately, his friends had organized an evening bonfire party by the lake and he knew he couldn't get away with failing to at least make an appearance, so here he was.
Still, there was only so much drunken revelry he could take in one sitting, so Ma Qianle had made some vague excuse even he couldn't really remember and slipped away for a little while. Now, he sat, feet hanging over the water, on the stair-like blocks of limestone that bordered the shore of the vast freshwater sea that some joker long ago had named "East Pond". He was lost in thought, his eyes unfocused as he stared out over the lake, and so he didn't hear when footsteps approached him from behind.
"Something interesting out there?"
Ma Qianle jumped and scrambled to his feet, turning to see who had spoken. There was a tall man behind him, dressed in the robes and long hairstyle of three centuries past. His mouth curved in a faint smile, and his amusement showed in the set of his eyes. 'Must be one of Hongya's reenactor friends,' Ma Qianle thought. There were too many of them to keep track of, and he didn't see them often besides, so he wasn't terribly concerned by the appearance of someone he didn't recognize at the party.
"Did I startle you?" the man said, still smiling.
"Ah...sorry, I was spacing out a bit, I didn't hear you come up behind me," Ma Qianle replied, feeling a little strange for reasons he didn't quite understand. 'Sure, he's kind of handsome in an oldey-timey sort of way, but when have I ever been one to be flustered around guys?' he thought, trying to come up with a way of covering his awkwardness. "Did you want something?"
"You were sitting out here alone, so I was curious what you were doing," the man replied, unfazed by Ma Qianle's somewhat brusque question.
"Oh, just getting some fresh air. The noise and the smoke was making me a little sick," Ma Qianle said vaguely.
The man nodded as turned his head to look out over the lake. "It is much quieter over here."
The noise of the party seemed to fade deeper into the background, as if travelling away from the lake and leaving just the two of them behind. Ma Qianle felt strangely compelled to fill the silence with words.
"I like to come out here at night, even when there's not a party to get away from. It's kind of comforting, you know? Looking out into the emptiness I feel like I'm just a tiny part of something too big to imagine. As though my problems, the world's problems, are just an insignificant speck of dust." 'The hell!' he thought. 'Why the hell am I rambling at this guy? I came out here to be alone!'
"You're not wrong," the man said, looking at Ma Qianle from the corners of his eyes. "There's way more out there than you can see from here."
Ma Qianle let out a small laugh. "You know, I think you're the first person to agree with me on this? Most of my friends think I'm weird for finding the insignificance of mankind in the grand scheme of things to be comforting."
The man turned back towards Ma Qianle, smiling more broadly now. "There's nothing wrong with taking solace in the knowledge that there are bigger things at play than oneself."
"That's one way of putting it." Ma Qianle stretched out a hand towards the stranger. "I'm Ma Qianle, I don't think we've met before?"
"Ruan Ye. We haven't." Ruan Ye pulled a hand from where he clasped them behind his back, long sleeves swaying in the breeze, and took the one Ma Qianle offered. Suddenly, he jerked it back, pulling Ma Qianle close to him, and looked closely into his eyes as if searching for something.
"What the hell?" Ma Qianle shouted, stepping back hurriedly and trying unsuccessfully to pull his hand out of Ruan Ye's surprisingly strong grasp.
"Yes, I think you'll do," Ruan Ye said. His smile did not fade as he released Ma Qianle's hand.
"Wha…" Ma Qianle started to say, but before he could get the sentence out he was hit with a wave of severe dizziness. His vision started to close in from all sides and he could feel his body tilting, and as he faded into unconsciousness, he toppled off the revetment and into the lake with a splash.