Ning Ning returned to the theater.
Although Director Chen had booked the place to be used as a publicity venue, it would only be utilised on the premiere day, so it was still servicing patrons as per usual.
Director Chen had already left once he had taken a look at the venue. The theater began to screen a youth art film after he left.
The film was probably terrible, so when Ning Ning entered, there were only a few people scattered across the audience seats. The number of audience was already pitiable, when Ning Ning entered, one of them got up and left, brushing shoulders with Ning Ning. Ning Ning gave way to him, then took out her phone and sent a message, “I’m here.”
An arm was raised from the audience seats, waving twice.
Ning Ning walked over and sat next to the person.
Qu Yan flashed a friendly smile at her. Just as he was about to say something, Boss Qu who was beside him said blandly, “Alright, you can go back now.”
“Ok.” Qu Yan was very obedient, he immediately got up from his seat. “I’ll be on my way then, you two have a nice chat.”
After he left, there was an empty seat between Ning Ning and Boss Qu, but both of them remained seated in their current seats and did not move. Neither of them was willing to get up, neither of them was willing to change seats.
“The first ever punishment for sneaking in was not only to punish the person who snuck in.” Ning Ning stared at the screen and said, “It was also to punish the doorman at the same time.”
The doorman had accepted Zhao Da’s bribes, he had allowed Zhao Da to watch ten to twenty plays without a ticket, the characters involved in the plays numbered up to a hundred people. Moreover, Zhao Da did not have to pay any kind of price.
That seemed to have enraged Life Opera House. Thus, in the first ever ‘sneaking in’ offense, Zhao Da was the ‘stowaway’ while the doorman was forced to be the ‘executioner’. The two of them who once had a relationship as close as brothers turned on each other in this play. They fought each other with their lives as they tried to kill one another right then and there.
“The doorman usually receives protection from Life Theater. Besides the theater itself, no one could hurt nor kill him, only inside the movie <<Sneaking In>>…” Ning Ning turned her head and looked at Boss Qu, “the doorman would not be protected, he could be killed by anyone.”
Zhao Da had successfully killed the alcoholic doorman. After all, the doorman was also a human once. Without the protection of the theater, what would differentiate them would be the malice and cunning of a human. The alcoholic doorman had unfortunately lost, but Zhao Da had not fared that much better. The new doorman didn’t touch a drop of alcohol, the old tricks could not work anymore, Zhao Da could no longer enter the opera house, until one day, when he went to his neighbour’s house to steal wine, he conveniently took the Life Ticket on the table…
“That’s it?” Boss Qu said blandly.
Ning Ning was taken aback.
“You specifically looked for me just to tell me that?” Boss Qu sat in the audience seat, he looked at the screen and sneered. “I have known of these long ago. You saw it yourself, there were old people dressed in ancient clothes in the theater.”
Those who dressed like ancient ladies, down and out scholars and ninth-rank officials were mostly not playing a role, they were just being themselves. The era which their clothes came from was the era where they came from, it brought the story of when they were from.
Ning Ning fell silent for a moment before saying, “You’re doing this even when you know about it. You hate someone, they would hate you as well, you want to kill them, they would like to kill you as well.”
“Then you should go.” Boss Qu turned around and smiled at her. “I’m guessing that they don’t know about this yet, go tell them.”
Ning Ning felt stuck at once.
“…Why is it that no matter how I try to persuade you, you wouldn’t listen?” She could not help but wipe the tears from her face. “Is it because I’m not the real Ning’er?”
She looked at him and asked sadly, “Do you not treat me as a daughter anymore? Not the first daughter nor the second daughter?”
Death could not shake Boss Qu, the thought of conciliation made him fall silent for a long while. He still shook his head in the end.
“There’s nothing good to be had from being my daughter anyway. I cannot give you delicious food, delicious drinks, fun things, nice clothes and a husband who obeys you anymore. You might as well stop addressing me Papa.” Boss Qu let out a helpless laugh. “And stop trying to persuade me. After all…you are not the real Ning’er.”
These words made Ning Ning’s heart turn cold.
She looked at the seat between them. She suddenly realised that they were no longer intimate enough to have nothing come between them. What was between them was not a seat, but a person.
At this time, the male lead on the screen had unfortunately gotten shot, he held on to his last breath and didn’t die because of his feelings for the female lead. He traversed half of China and took a look at the female lead before he exclaimed and his wound started spurting blood, this magical plot made the audience laugh.
Boss Qu did not laugh.
“Besides, I am truly not afraid of death.” He looked up at the screen, the reflections on his mask moved about like flames. “Long ago, in that fire, I had already been burned down to my last breath. This breath had been saved for the Chen family. No matter what happens in the end, I just want to take this out on them.”1
It looked like he was really not afraid of death, which was why he defied the rules of the theater.
Before the movie finished, Boss Qu had already got up and left. Behind him, Ning Ning sat on the audience seat in a daze. It was a long while later that she looked down and opened the folder on her legs.
The rules of Life Theater were not set in stone. Like humans, like a refined artificial intelligence, it would (continually) examine itself. Once it discovered a loophole, it would patch it up.
Coincidentally, it seemed that every time something was patched, they would change the doorman.
In other words, every time a doorman started to have desires they were not supposed to have, did something they were not supposed to do, the theater would hang red lanterns.
“Do you even know that there were red lanterns hanging at the entrance of the theater? They are its warning to you.” Ning Ning murmured, “If you were to continue this way, it would change its doorman.”
As to which rule Boss Qu intended to defy? She was only afraid that…it was the rule of not being allowed to kill the stowaway.
A month passed by very quickly.
In the same movie theater.
Celebrities gathered, the seats were filled, looking across the theater, even the aisles were filled with standing audiences. The staff members had to check everyone’s tickets one by one again, bringing out the stowaways that had mixed in with the crowd and away from the place.
The backstage was in chaos.
“Where’s my headdress? Where did my headdress go?”
“Quickly! Quickly help me look for it! Are my eyebrows crooked?”
“Is everyone ready? We are going on stage soon.”
Ning Ning was also at the backstage.
Due to the fact that they would be acting in a play and not a movie, their makeup was extremely exaggerated—garish and gorgeous colours were spread on her face, she looked like she was wearing a Venice mask.2
“There is an eighty-to-ninety percent chance that he will make his move on you on stage.” Ning Ning told Chen Shuang He, “You have to be careful. Protect yourself, run to the audience seats if you feel anything is off.”
Then she told Shi Zhong Tang, “Protect him well.”
Chen Shuang He and Shi Zhong Tang exchanged looks. Shi Zhong Tang asked her with a smile, “What’s the matter? It’s like you’re entrusting your child to me before you die… Did Boss Qu say anything to you?”
Ning Ning nodded, then shook her head.
“I tried to persuade him, but he wouldn’t listen.” Ning Ning sighed, gazing at Boss Qu’s direction. “In this play, there is an eighty to ninety percent chance something will happen.”
Boss Qu gazed at her from a distance before he followed Qu Yan to the stage.
Amidst the applause, the curtains were pulled open from each side, revealing the court behind it.
The court was extremely dim. The bench, the plaintiff seat and the witness stand were all empty—only at the dock sat a white-haired man, it was Qu Yan dressed as an old man. He wore an extremely old and torn Chinese tunic suit,3 both his hands and feet were cuffed, he was sitting in a forward bend position on the chair.
The sound of a gavel rang out, a dignified voice followed, “Zhu Yan, why did you kill Romeo?”
“Romeo?” Qu Yan repeated the word, slowly looking up.
“First, you used despicable methods to take away his assets, slander his reputation, transforming him from a human into a street rat.” That dignified voice said, “Then you killed him just like killing a rat, why?”
“Why?” Qu Yan slowly stood up from his seat. He looked up and gazed at the bench, raising his hand and shouting, “Because he killed my daughter!!”
“Nonsense! Your daughter clearly died in a car accident!”
“If he had not eloped with my daughter, if they had not met with an accident while eloping, would my daughter have died?” Qu Yan shouted angrily, “He only saved himself! He did not save my daughter! My cute, pitiful Juliet…”
A sigh rang out from behind him, “Papa.”
Qu Yan turned around quickly. He saw Ning Ning standing behind him in a white wedding dress, her hands held a blood red bouquet, her blood had not only dyed the flowers red, it dyed her dress red as well.
“Juliet!” Qu Yan reached his hands out towards her, but Ning Ning was holding the bouquet, walking away from him. She did not walk towards the backstage area, walking across the stage instead. Amidst the cries of the audience, she walked to the audience seats.
Director Chen was also sitting in the audience seats, his lips curved upwards ever so slightly from the cries of the audience. Li Shan Zhu who was sitting beside him congratulated him, “Director Chen, the publicity this time is successful again…hmm?”
Ning Ning walked past the “Ghost Seat” that had been prepared for her. She took a glance at it dully. She walked towards the exit instead of sitting down.
Director Chen stood up. “Where are you going?”
Ning Ning took a look back at him, then she simply lifted her dress up and started running.
She had accidentally bumped into people along the way. Once Ning Ning said her apology, she was stupefied. Standing in front of her was Ning Yu Ren and a young Ning Ning.
Ning Ning looked at them for a moment. She noticed all of a sudden that Director Chen was chasing her, so she frantically ran away.
“Ah, Yu Ren, you are here.”
“Please call me Miss Ning, thank you.”
Director Chen did not chase after her. Ning Ning successfully ran out of the door, she then laboriously got rid of the reporters outside the door and got on a taxi before she had time to answer Chen Shuang He’s call.
“Where are you going?” Chen Shuang He asked.
“My scene is already done, there’s not much use for me to stay around.” Ning Ning took a deep breath and told him, “I want to go to the next place.”
Life Theater exists in every era, this era was no exception. Ning Ning carefully walked in. She was afraid that once she entered she would be immediately sent back to reality. It was a good thing that the situation with <<Sneaking In>> was special. She breathed a sigh of relief and looked up at the dark screen in front of her.
Thirty days time was enough for her to do a lot of things. For example, finishing reading the folder Teacher Li gave her.
Its predecessor had left a lot of information on Life Theater, the most valuable one was…
“I want to meet your owner.” Ning Ning said.
Based on the records of the predecessor, the theater was not something without an owner. In many of the strange tales, in many of the predecessors’ notes, besides masks, masked people, and a doorman, the opera house also had an owner.
There were very few records regarding the owner. Based on the records, the owner didn’t seem to be a single person. It changed in every era. In troubled times, the owner could change up to four to five times sometimes. This showed that the owners were all flesh and blood, they were most probably all mortals.
Ning Ning waited for a long while. The theater was silent, no one spoke, all the masked people were lurking in the darkness, staring at her silently through their masks.
“If you have no owner at the moment…” Ning Ning clenched her fists tightly, because of nervousness, her voice was a little husky, “I am willing to accept your test…”
Desperate times call for desperate measures.
Who could stop the doorman? Who could order the doorman around? Besides the theater itself, it would have to be the owner.
Based on the information she had on hand, since the Republic era up till now, records of the owner had not appeared. Did that mean that…the previous owner was already dead? Life Theater was without an owner now?
“If I pass the test…” Ning Ning looked at the screen like a gambler, besides that, she did not have a better idea, no other…she could only solve the problem at the source, “Please let me be your owner.”
Just as her voice fade out, a pillar of light shone down within the theater, shining directly on Ning Ning. The sudden burst of light made Ning Ning squint her eyes, she took two steps back involuntarily, but ultimately, wherever she backed up to the spotlight would follow her.
Clap, clap, clap. A masked person gradually started clapping, the masked people beside him seemed to be influenced by him and clapped along with him. Amidst their applause, a man’s voice rang out in the darkness.
Ning Ning had heard that voice before, it appeared during the masked people’s night of revelry, the sound quality was very weird, it sounded like a child for a moment, a teenager the next, a young adult one moment, an old man the next, it finally fixed itself on the young adult voice, asking her slowly, “Are you willing to gamble your entire life? To accept my test?”
1There’s a wordplay here, getting back at someone literally translates into breathing out this breath.
2Venetian masks can be made of leather, porcelain or using the original glass technique. The original masks were rather simple in design, decoration, and often had a symbolic and practical function. Nowadays, most Italian masks are made with the application of gesso and gold leaf and are hand-painted using natural feathers and gems to decorate. Wiki article
3The modern Chinese tunic suit is a style of male attire originally known in China as the Zhongshan suit after the republican leader Sun Yat-sen. Sun Yat-sen introduced the style shortly after the founding of the Republic of China (1912-1949) as a form of national dress with distinct political overtones. The four pockets are said to represent the Four Virtues of propriety, justice, honesty, and shame; and the five buttons the branches of China’s government (Executive, Legislative, Judicial, Examination, Control). Wiki article