The Witch Nichang– Chapter 24
Down the Mountain
I have to say there are people in the world who are born with unparalleled talent, even in more than one field.
I admit that such an explanation is somewhat biased. In some ways, sword training and pottery have something in common, especially the basic breathing, strength control, and even the most crucial aspects—finger precision and flexibility. Those who can master the former can achieve twice the result with half the effort and sail through the latter if they try.
Just like what was happening before me. After being guided step by step by me once, she tried again by herself several more times and seemed to get the hang of the hand positioning, getting skillful at it and becoming more involved, like a child who just experienced the joy of playing with mud, focused and enthusiastic.
When I saw her fingertips brushed over the clay, keeping the subtle balance, throwing it into shape, even figuring out other techniques that I had yet to teach her from those she learned, I could think of nothing else but to sigh.
Finally, she made three small cups within four hours. They looked plain and simple, nothing fancy, but the edges were smooth and neat. From the look of the finished products, it was almost impossible to tell they were from a novice who had never done this before. I cut the cups off the wheel with a cutting wire and placed them in the courtyard to dry in the shade. The old potter came over to look at them and praised her profusely, saying that it was a pity that she was a girl. Otherwise, he would have taken her as his apprentice.
I just smiled, not giving him any response. Lian’er, who came out from the room while tying her bamboo hat, tilted her head in disapproval, wanting to say something, but I held her back before she could do so. I held her, bowed to the old man, and said with a smile: “While the cups are drying, my sister and I have something to attend to. We’ll be back in a while to trim the cups. Please look after them for us.” With that, I took Lian’er out of the shop at once as soon as we got his consent.
Taken away by me, Lian’er was so baffled. She asked once she was out of the shop: “What’re you doing? What’s the rush? Do we have something else to do?” I looked back at her when I heard that and asked her instead: “If I hadn’t held you back, what would you have said to the old potter?”
“About that—” She nodded and answered: “I don’t want to be his apprentice. I just don’t understand, so I wanted to ask him why he said a girl can’t be his apprentice. What is it about boys? His two apprentices aren’t even as good as me.”
As expected, I smiled in resignation, shook my head, and sighed: “Lian’er, there aren’t many things on earth a man can do that a woman can’t. You’re not wrong about this, but in the eyes of most people, women are, after all, inferior to men. This is due to both biological factors and the various constraints imposed on women by the world. You and I are lucky enough to have met Master and not have to be bound by these ridiculous constraints, but we can’t change the opinion of most people in this world. If so, it’s pointless to talk about it as people of different principles don’t get along. We came to the old man for something, not to make friends with him, so why bother with what he thinks, right?”
For she grew up in the mountains, it might still be too early for her to talk about these norms. But I would have to tell her eventually, so when I had the chance, I just went along and told her to prevent her from causing trouble in the future.
After hearing that, she didn’t answer me right away but spaced out in silence as if she was digesting these words. Perhaps she had doubts about it before. It was impossible not to notice the villagers’ manners whenever she came down, though she had only been down the mountain a handful of times over the past few years. I didn’t know why she didn’t ask, probably because it didn’t matter again after she returned to the mountain.
I only hoped while she lived as she willed, she wouldn’t be too much at odds with the world and have no place in it.
The two of us meandered down the road while holding hands. Since we said we were out for something, it wasn’t fit to turn right back. Besides, we would just be hanging around if we got back before the clay dried. The sun was waning; it was already three in the afternoon. Lian’er and I only had some snacks at noon to fill ourselves up. We had nothing else to do now, so I took her to a clean-looking restaurant on the main street and ordered some food to treat ourselves.
We rarely had the food down here. Firstly, we seldom came down the mountain. Secondly, when we did, we didn’t like to stay for too long and were always in a hurry. This time, I deliberately ordered a few meat dishes that I couldn’t make myself, wanting Lian’er to have a taste of something new. But after she curiously took a few bites when a few plates of red and green dishes were served, I didn’t see much expression on her face when she chewed.
“How’s it?” I could not tell if she liked it, so I could only ask: “Does it suit your taste?”
She chewed again and swallowed it before giving me a vague response: “It’s okay…” Yet her hand reached for the tea beside her, and she took two sips before sticking out her tongue and added: “Just a little salty.”
Yeah. Because of her unique childhood experience, she had never been able to take strong-tasting food, and under the influence of the health concept I once had, I thought it was pretty good too. It was good for our health, so I was happy to make milder meals. As time went by, the three of us got used to it. When I was ordering just now, I only remembered not to order anything too spicy or too salty, but I didn’t realize even the usual dishes were salty to Lian’er.
Though she said it was salty, she didn’t put down her chopsticks—probably because she was hungry. Instead, she was eating and drinking at the same time, downing the food with tea. I frowned as I watched her. With dishes like these, the more you eat, the saltier it gets. I saw her drinking more and more often. Apparently, it couldn’t quench her thirst. Yet, it would be too filling if I ordered rice. I looked outside, and my eyes alighted on a vendor at the far end of the street. Suddenly, I got an idea. I told her to wait for me for a moment and went down the stairs.
It was a food vendor selling sparkling bright red candied hawthorns, sticks of plump and juicy hawthorns coated with glistening sugar syrup sticking out of the stall. I could taste the salivating, sweet and sour flavor just by looking at it. I asked for the price, and it was fair. Then I fished out my coins, paid for it, and took two sticks from the straw bundle full of fruit sticks. But when I was about to go back, I accidentally bumped into someone.
The village market was always held in the morning. The crowds would be much smaller past noon. Perhaps that was why I wasn’t as careful as I was in the morning when I was threading through the crowd. Now that I bumped into someone while not paying attention, I could not help but feel regret. I bowed my head, apologized softly, and was about to turn and leave.
But as I turned around, I felt a tight pressure around my arm and was stopped by a strong force.
The sensation on my arm was repulsive. I turned my head around calmly, and there before me stood a sturdy man. Though sturdy, he was vulgarly dressed, with a short knife strapped to his waist and evil in his eyes, resembling those thugs I had seen before who bullied the people in their neighborhood with brute force and barbarity. At that moment, I knew the bump wasn’t because of my carelessness but a wilful act from him.
This set-up was so common that I was in no mood to say anything more than a curt, “Let go.”
There were levels to thugs too. If you bumped into an observant one with some senses, the person would know how to act based on your reaction. Unfortunately, this one in front of me lacked some senses. Instead of letting go when he heard me, he grinned cheekily and tightened his grip even more: “I’m blessed today. It’s rare to see a beauty, with a little temper too. Where do you come from? You’re too imprudent to be alone outside. I’m most gentle towards women. How about I’ll come with you?”
I was so used to seeing Lian’er and Master, so I thought I looked average. Now it was a little infuriating and funny to be roguishly called a beauty. But I had been impatient, so I passed the two sticks over to my left hand in secret, freeing up my right hand to channel qi. I warned him sternly for one last time: “You’d better let go right now, or else…”
I stopped before I could finish my words because I caught a sight of the light-colored figure over the man’s shoulder that leaped down from the restaurant and floated down to the ground at the other end of the street.
“Lian’er, what’re you doing?” I called her subconsciously, frowning. It wasn’t because she made the leap, but because we had taken off our hat to eat for convenience after the food was served as there weren’t many people around after lunchtime. If it weren’t for that, I wouldn’t have come across such a drama while making a quick purchase. Seeing her leap out of the restaurant with her face uncovered and swaggered over with her head up, I was a little unhappy.
My stream of thought and Lian’er’s leap happened in a split second. By the time the thug reacted and turned around, Lian’er had come much closer. When I saw the guy standing there, dumbfounded, eyes fixated on her, unblinking, I only grew more unhappy.
Lian’er didn’t care about the different expressions on our face. She stopped a stone’s throw away from us and asked curiously: “What’re you guys doing?” As she asked, she glanced seemingly unintentionally at the hand gripping my arm. Then she shifted her gaze upwards, looked at the thug, and asked: “What’re you trying to do to her holding her like that?”
When she said that, there was even a hint of a smile tugged at her lips. With her voice and expression at the moment, coupled with her young age, she actually looked like a naive girl asking a question. Only someone who knew her well, like me, could notice something was wrong from that glimpse, so I simply stopped moving to see what she wanted to do.
The thug had no idea of death or danger. He was snapped back to reality by the voice, and as if he had come to himself, he grinned and let go of my hand, instead, he moved in on Lian’er, his face beaming with joy: “I’m not going to do anything to her, nothin’. What’re the other women when you’ve got someone as gorgeous as you standing here? Haha, what d’you say?”
As soon as this was said, Lian’er’s smile grew softer, her brows slightly raised, and she asked: “Oh? So you’re saying I’m prettier than her? How much prettier?”
“That’s…that…how can the light of the fireflies compare with the light of the sun and moon?” The man probably thought she would be easy. He showed off his eloquence while smiling cheekily, leaning in even more and reaching out his hand: “Let’s not talk about this. Why don’t…”
He had no time to finish his sentence because the girl in front of him, who was smiling a moment ago, suddenly disappeared, and right after that, his world was turned completely upside down!
He wasn’t sure what was happening at that moment, but I knew it very well. Just as his hand was about to touch Lian’er, she grasped his pulse, and with a leap to the back, she took advantage of the momentum to pull and twist. It was just a simple grappling technique, but she flipped such a burly fellow weighing several times her weight and slammed him down on the ground.
With the flip and slam, the hand being grasped must be dislocated. I could only hear the man’s howl, as loud as a pig being slaughtered. But Lian’er was still clasping his dislocated hand behind his back, clamping him down on the ground, not moving the slightest bit.
“What’re you?” She stood there sneering, looking baleful and violent. Her eyes were cold and vicious, looking down at the person on the ground with disdain as if she was now stepping on nothing more than an ant that pissed her off: “When do something like you get to judge our appearances?”