Just moments ago, I was thinking about how I couldn’t remember the last time I felt this relaxed.
Then I heard her say, “You haven’t been this happy since the year we celebrated Master’s birthday.”
It was strange to hear someone close to you mention something about yourself that you couldn’t quite remember, especially when that someone was a person you cared about the most who usually acted like she didn’t care about anything at all.
It was so strange that, for a moment, I couldn’t tell whether I was more moved or panicked.
I shouldn’t panic at all. Lian’er wasn’t “other people.” She remembered things about me and cared more about me than I expected. That was a pleasant surprise for me. Things were different now. The time when I was afraid of being understood was long gone. Now, I hoped she could understand… understand my feelings, didn’t I?
If I couldn’t convey this feeling, then the act of treating Zhuo as a rival and the bet I made with myself would be meaningless.
This had been one of my biggest concerns lately.
When it came to relationships, every bit of progress made was obvious and gratifying when starting from zero. The footprints left behind were apparent, and they helped us to determine where to take the next step, but this didn’t apply to me and Lian’er. We were too close and intimate. We were so used to relying on each other that it made it difficult to know how to take the next step.
I had to admit, when I came to think about it, I lacked…this kind of experience.
And now, just when I was at my wit’s end, to my surprise, she brought up a topic that I thought would never be mentioned again. The truth was since our reunion, this topic had never been brought up as it involved an unpleasant and prolonged separation.
After all these years, Lian’er still remembered how I felt at that time. Her sensitivity and memory were unexpected. No matter how sensitive she was, she could only know how I felt, but not why I felt that way.
So… should I make it clear?
My mind was reminding me what I was supposed to say in such a situation. Even if I decided not to make it clear, I could drop some hints, like why things started to change from then on and what kind of feelings led to that change. But maybe it was all too sudden. I moved my lips, but I just stared at her and couldn’t react other than being shocked.
And the girl in my arms didn’t give me much time to gather my thoughts either.
Lian’er said what she wanted to say and just looked at me casually. She seemed a little serious, but then she suddenly started giggling. After giggling for a while, she said, “Why are you so nervous? It’s good to be happy. I like it. Although the tune you hummed is a little strange, it sounds nice. Hum it again.” With that, she turned around, back to sitting like before, leaning against me as if nothing had happened.
This topic came and went like that. Everything seemed so casual that I didn’t even have time to sort it out. I closed my mouth and smiled bitterly, swallowing the words that I hadn’t had a chance to say. To the sound of the camel bell, I hummed the melody I had hummed earlier for her, as she asked for.
Looking at the vast expanse of the clear sky, nothing seemed to matter. Now, far away from the hustle and bustle, there was still plenty of time.
At noon, we rested under a large tree. Where there were trees, there was always water, so a lot of bushes grew around it. The midday sun was blazing, making the shade under the tree seem unusually cool. A cool wind breezed past. The camels lying in the shade were also resting, chewing blithely on the wet beans the guide was feeding them, and Lian’er was watching them keenly with a smile. Her disgust from earlier was nowhere to be seen.
I leaned against the trunk, taking a nap. Occasionally when I opened my eyes to look, I felt that the world was so vast. My eyes had nowhere to land but on one person.
Having avoided the fiercest midday sun, we continued on our journey without much conversation. The wind was kicking up, and the temperature plummeted after sunset. We picked up the pace to cover more distance. I could see that the shadows of the plants along the way were getting denser and denser. Then we spotted a few scattered houses in the desert, vaguely resembling a town, but they looked dilapidated and deserted.
While I was wondering, Old Tie turned around and announced loudly that this was the place where we would rest for the night. It used to be the border trading post in Guazhou before it was abandoned, but now only a small number of people remained, relying solely on business with the passing travelers to make a living. It couldn’t even be called a village. This place was a transport hub that spanned the past and the present, an oasis in the Gobi Desert, but at some point in history, it looked like this. There was no trace of the melon village that I remembered in the scene before us. I stood there in the darkness of night and looked around, a feeling of lostness sweeping over me.
But the feeling was only temporary. Our stay here was very short. We just settled down for the night, and as soon as dawn broke, we were on our way again. We only rested for less than six hours, but fortunately, as people who practiced martial arts, we had the energy to spare. Looking at the ruins in the dim light of dawn, I had no desire to look back one last time.
But Lian’er calmed my nerves. I thought we would have gone through a lot of trouble to getting back on the camel, but she either got used to it or forgot about it. She jumped on the camel without any hesitation. It made me realize that I had been worrying too much.
Still, as we swayed with the sound of the camel bells, I couldn’t help but wonder if our next destination, our last rest stop, would be as dilapidated as the one in Guazhou?
The last rest stop, Dunhuang.
This place was…special to me. It made a strong impression on me. If we thought of my experience in the two lifetimes as a butterfly effect, then the first flap of the wings that set everything in motion happened here.
I was young back then. Faced with a new beginning in life and the last trip with my old friends who were to go our separate ways, we headed west and landed in this place, where we experienced the bleakness of a faraway place, the magnificence of nature’s creations, and the grandeur of history. It cleansed my anxious mind and sowed the seed for my love of travel later.
So when I knew that we were going to pass by this place, I felt an inexplicable joy, as if I were revisiting an old place. I even thought of taking Lina’er to see the Crescent Moon Spring and climb the Mingsha Mountain during our free time while we were there and let her experience how it felt like to be in the timeless Mingsha and Crescent Moon, a whole new world of mountains and water, hoping to pass on to her the joy I had experienced before.
However, reality was always different from the imagination. When I actually set foot on the place, I realized that it wasn’t exactly what I thought it would be.
After crossing the brownish desert, more and more greenery started to appear. As the day grew darker, we finally arrived at this “old place” that I had been looking forward to. It was better than Guazhou, at least it looked like a normal town and didn’t seem all that desolate. There were only a few people walking listlessly on the street, giving off a feeling of lifelessness.
“Aside from the elderly, women, and children who couldn’t leave their hometown behind, the rest stayed behind mostly for money, to do business, or to work as guides. Otherwise, who would want to stay in a deserted town? I heard that the town has been affected by the war recently, and there are fewer merchants. We must be careful.” Old Tie reminded us when we stopped at the inn as he jumped down from his mount, turned to us, and pointed his whip in the direction of the street. Then, with a grin, he added nonchalantly, “But then again, who are the three of us afraid of? Anyone who chooses to stay in a place like this has to have some wits about them. We don’t have to worry about it too much.” With that, he laughed and took the camel to the stable behind the inn together with the guides.
I realized this only after being reminded. A spark of spirit lit up in the dull eyes of those listless townspeople only when they looked at us, the visitors. In the spark was hope, flattery, and even greed.
Their gaze was too direct, and their intent was obvious. It made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but frown, but at that moment, I felt a warm touch on my left hand. Even in the scorching heat, Lian’er’s hand was dry and soft. It was nice to hold. Standing next to me, she turned to look at me before slowly scanning the surroundings. I was half a step behind her, so I couldn’t see her face, but I saw that wherever her eyes had been, people who had been looking at us quickly looked away. Some who weren’t as bold even walked away.
Lian’er seemed quite pleased with the result. After looking around the place, she lifted her chin and gave a disdainful snort before taking my hand and walking towards the inn.
As the old man had said, the people here had some wits about them. Even though I was the one dressed as a man, Lian’er in her usual clothes was more intimidating. It couldn’t be that she had a sword at her waist, right? The fact was plain to see, and there was nothing that I could say. I laughed self-mockingly and let her take me through the door.
For the next two days, we hardly left the inn. First, the sandstorms were too strong, and second, there wasn’t much to do outside. We left everything to Old Tie to deal with. The rest of the journey was too risky for the two local guides, so they were only willing to go so far with us. The camels were still ours to ride since we had paid the deposit. We only had to find a suitable replacement for the guide. Many people here made a living as guides, but we had to be careful when choosing our guide since we didn’t know where they were from and our lives were at stake.
I felt bad seeing the old man come back covered in dust every day, so I would ask for the innkeeper’s permission to use the kitchen and prepare two nice meals as a token of appreciation and also to take care of our bodies in preparation for the hardships ahead.
But the longer we stayed and the more we interacted with the locals, the more a certain idea began to stir in my mind.
On the third day, just before noon, Old Tie returned with two men, an old man and a young man. He happily pointed to them and said that they would be our next guides. He said that we would leave before dawn the next day, as usual. At that moment, the thought in my mind grew so strong that I couldn’t hold it back.
I wanted to go to a place. I wanted to go to a place before we left.
There was no reason, I just wanted to see.
Since it had been decided that we were leaving the next day, there was no room for hesitation. Without thinking twice, I immediately got up from the table, informed the person at the door, and walked out. This confused the old man, and he shouted, “Hey, where are you going by yourself? Why isn’t Jadey with you?”
I spun around and replied, “She just went into the room, probably taking a bath or resting now. Don’t disturb her. I’m going somewhere, and I’ll be back before sundown, don’t worry.” Afraid that the old man would ask more questions, I stepped out of the inn as I said that.
It wasn’t because I was hiding anything that I was afraid of being questioned, but because this impulse of mine was hard to explain. Besides, if the conversation dragged on for too long, I was afraid that the one in the room would come out.
I didn’t want to bring her along on this trip.
I could share everything with Lian’er. Zhuxian was willing to share everything with Lian’er. It was just that this impulse didn’t belong to Zhuxian.
I was running alone on the wide dirt road. Fortunately, I didn’t have to worry too much because I was wearing men’s clothes. Sometimes when I came across some looks that made me feel uncomfortable, I would show off my qinggong a little. It would speed up my pace, and at the same time, act as a warning or intimidation to any potential threats. After all, strength was more useful than anything else in this lawless melting pot.
It was in the southwest. Although this place was a deserted and unknown place at the moment, at least the locals knew about it. I got a rough idea of the route from talking to the innkeeper over the past two days. Whenever I got a little lost, all I had to do was ask the people living next to the mud wall, and they could usually point me in the right direction.
It wasn’t too far. At least, a half-marathon distance was relatively easy for me now, but stopping now and then took more time than expected, so much so that the sun began to set.
As dusk fell, I finally arrived at the destination of this trip at the foot of the eastern side of Mingsha Mountain.
Not far away stood a towering sandstone cliff, with row upon row of caves carved into its surface at various heights. From a distance, it looked like a majestic palace with a unique style. This place was known by the locals as the Thousand Buddha Caves. I remembered that it also had another name, the Mogao Caves.
Looking at it, it was as if I could hear the story told by the tour guide back then. She said that a Buddhist monk from the Former Qin Dynasty had once traveled to this very place and saw that golden light emanating from the Mingsha Mountain, as if there were a thousand Buddhas, so it inspired him to start digging, and later, he continued to carve and build, and eventually, it became this sacred site.
It was at that moment the sun was setting. The setting sun was golden and so was the yellow sand, so it seemed as if the whole world was coated in gold. As I stood in the midst of the golden glow, the story of Gandharva dancing in the light appeared before my eyes, pure, magnificent, and indescribable.
Even more indescribable was my feeling.
Before I reached this place, I wasn’t sure why I felt so compelled to come here. It was a vague feeling that I couldn’t explain stirring inside me. And now, I felt as if a weight had been lifted off my chest when I saw the sandstone cliff. It was a feeling that came from the deepest part of my heart.
Here it stood, desolate and forgotten, yet still standing tall. It had weathered a thousand years of wind and sand. A few centuries later, the world would one day be shocked by its presence.
I met it twice, once hundreds of years later, and once hundreds of years ago. The time gap between the two encounters was unimaginable, yet here it was, and here I was. All of it…was real.
I stood there for a long time, feeling my eyes grow warmer. It was an inexplicable feeling that had been building up since the beginning of this lifetime, and it finally found release in this moment. I didn’t try to stop it, nor did I want to. I just stood there looking, feeling my cheeks gradually become moist and then slowly dry in the wind.
There was nothing else around, only the sound of the wind and the presence of the cliff. It would take a very, very long time for this place to become lively again.
Suddenly, there seemed to be another sound in the evening breeze. It was extremely faint, muffled by the sand. What made me notice this other presence was a slender shadow on the ground, stretched out by the setting sun.
When I turned around and saw her, my face was still wet.
Lian’er stepped towards me. Like everything else in this place, she was tinted with a soft golden hue. Under the effects of light and shadow, her already exquisite features seemed even more profound, even imbued with a touch of maturity.
Or perhaps she had matured more than I had realized, because when she came to me, she didn’t blame me for going alone without telling her. In fact, she showed no sign of anger on her face and just looked at me with piercing eyes, her face as calm as still water.
Under her unwavering gaze, I remembered that she might have seen everything that had just happened. Embarrassment flared up in me. I quickly wiped my face and attempted to explain, but at that moment, I found myself at a loss for words. Lian’er was too calm. It threw me off. I could only wait for her to speak first.
But as soon as she spoke, it felt surreal.
“There’s something bothering you. I know it.” The girl stared at me intently, her voice unusually calm. As if she was stating a fact, “It’s okay even if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll figure it out myself.”
I had heard that before, years ago. A girl had said that. She said, “Are you dreaming again? What are you afraid of?” She then said, “There’s something inside you that you’re afraid of. I know it. It’s okay if you don’t want to tell me. I’ll figure it out myself.”
At that time, hearing those words filled me with fear, the fear of being understood, of being scrutinized, of being seen through.
“You’re not thinking about running away from me again, are you? Don’t forget, you made a promise when you came back!” Lian’er reminded me warily and raised her eyebrows when she saw that I remained silent. She accentuated her tone on the word “promise,” and only then did she seem like a child.
I burst out laughing, the two lingering tears falling from my eyes, but I couldn’t care less. I shook my head and said, “I’m not running away from you. But there’s more than one thing in me. I wonder which one you want to figure out?”
She lifted her chin unapologetically and replied proudly, “All of them!”
“Okay.” I nodded, then I smiled as I looked down and said, “Then, I’ll wait.”