The Witch Nichang– Chapter 72
Old Tie was a simple man who wasn’t particularly eloquent, but this time, what he said sounded like a criticism but was actually a compliment, and they were all true. Lian’er’s beauty was of the finest kind beyond gender. Her appearance bore no resemblance to her bold, decisive, and relentless personality.
Lian’er knew it herself too, so she couldn’t talk back. She was unruly by nature but not to the point of being unreasonable. She just refused to give in. She couldn’t talk back, so she stared back at the old man in defiance.
At times like this, it was best for me to stay out of it, as nothing was going to happen anyway. I got out and stepped back quietly, leaving the two of them to continue staring at each other, and went to do my thing.
The so-called “thing” I had to do was actually the first thing Lian’er wanted to do when she returned to the inn. After all, this was the western border where sandstorms were frequent and the conditions on the road were poor. Whenever we went out these days, we always took a bath and changed first thing when we got back. Fortunately, there was no limit to water use here. The more luxurious inns even had large Western-style baths, but because of our personalities—she disliked strangers and I was too shy—neither Lian’er nor I had ever been to those.
But thanks to those bathhouses, hot water was always available. Even if you wanted to bathe in your room, it’s convenient to ask someone to prepare the bath. In no time, the air behind the screen became misty. The water didn’t need to be that hot in this dry and hot region. It just had to be warm enough to wash away the sweat.
As I sank into the warm and cozy embrace, sweat and dust washed away, my body finally began to relax. The thought that we might be on the road the next day, starting the toughest part of our journey, and that I wouldn’t be able to enjoy this luxury in the desert, made me all the more reluctant to leave the bath. I didn’t want to get up, bathing in the warmth and subtle scent of plants. The water was mixed with some sort of crushed leaf that the locals used to repel mosquitoes. I didn’t know what it was. It had a faint lemony scent that was refreshing.
Perhaps I was too happy and relaxed. I found myself humming softly as I leaned back against the tub with my eyes closed.
It was a melody from a distant memory, connecting two different worlds.
“What are you humming? That melody is so strange. How come I’ve never heard it before?” There were things I should never have done. I had just started humming, and there came a voice from behind the screen. With the voice came a figure who casually walked in as if it was her own room.
“Lian—Lian’er!” I shouted after the initial shock. I almost put my head under the water. Of course, I wouldn’t be able to talk if I did that, so I switched from leaning against the tub to lying on my stomach, clutching to the edge of the tub and curling up, and said anxiously, “Wha…what are you doing…no, how did you get in? Did I forget to lock the door?” I made sure that I had locked it earlier.
“It’s locked. It didn’t budge when I pushed it.” The girl nodded slowly and replied, “You’re taking too long. I’d already finished washing even if I’d gone after you and brought you your clothes. I figured you weren’t done yet when I saw the door was closed, but there was no point waiting outside, was there? So I came in through the window. You locked the door but forgot about the window, dum-dum, always making me worry about you.”
“Lian’er!” There are only three rooms in this small courtyard in the west wing. We each occupied one and the other was empty. I locked the door to prevent people from entering by mistake. Who would climb in through the window? Besides, how many people in the world could get in as silently as she did? Even a cat might accidentally knock over a flower pot!
I wanted to be angry but I couldn’t; I wanted to reason with her but I couldn’t. The situation was a little awkward. I stumbled over my words until I saw she hadn’t come any closer after coming behind the screen and had stopped at the small table where I kept my clothes. Then I began to calm down and said, “Why the rush to bring me the clothes? I have clean clothes right here on the table.”
“You don’t. These are the new clothes Godfather bought. He only knew that we were staying in this courtyard but didn’t know which room each of us was in, so he got our room wrong and put them in my room.” Amidst the steam, I saw that Lian’er had a small bundle in her hand. She held it up and shook it, saying, “Oh, and before he left, he asked me to tell you to try it on. If it doesn’t fit, we can still make adjustments. Otherwise, it’ll be too late tomorrow.” With that, she swung her hand and tossed it onto the small table.
It was strange. She was so upset about who the clothes were for earlier, but now she didn’t seem to care anymore. Of course, it wasn’t the best time to be wondering about such things. I stayed curled up in the warm water and replied with a nod, “I got it. I’ll try it on when I get out…” I was waiting for her to leave.
Little did I know that this person seemed to enjoy going against me. Not only did she refuse to leave, but she slowly came closer to me and said, “Oh, by the way, how’s that injury on your chest now? Let me have a look.” How big could the room be? In just two sentences, she was standing next to me. I didn’t even have time to say no. For a moment, I wished that I had gone under the water.
I knew very well that I was the one who was acting strangely compared to her calm composure.
So no matter how embarrassing it was, I had to pretend to be calm. It wasn’t the first time she had checked on me since I had taken the palm strike at Yunu Peak. Although it was embarrassing, I just had to pretend that she was a nurse in front of me. Back then when I was in the hospital, hadn’t they touched everything? As a civilized person, there was nothing I couldn’t handle.
I kept comforting myself, but when the warm touch laid on my skin, I couldn’t help but flinch and look away.
In contrast to my self-consciousness, she was thorough with her check. Lian’er did look a bit like a nurse at the moment with her hand moving around the injured area and occasionally asking how I felt. Actually, after several months of recovery, the once terrifying dark purple bruise had faded and was now long gone. As for internal injuries and whatnot, I didn’t really know much about it. I figured it was fine as long as I felt okay. After some time, I felt that it wasn’t a big deal anymore, but it wasn’t wise to question Lian’er too much, so I just let her do what she wanted.
After checking for a while, she was finally done. She smiled in satisfaction and said, “Not bad, it’s healed nicely. I was worried that your body couldn’t take it.” After that, probably to match her tone, she looked to the water and said teasingly, “Get up quickly. How long are you going to stay in the water? Your skin has gone all pale and wrinkly…”
It was unintentional on her part, but I was the self-conscious one. It was too much for me. I felt that my body temperature was warmer than the temperature of the water. Even the best-tempered person would become embarrassed and get angry. I hurried her out, but it didn’t seem to bother her. Perhaps she felt that she had had her revenge. She looked quite pleased and walked out smiling. As she closed the door on her way out, she didn’t forget to tell me to hurry.
When I was finally alone, I stayed in the water for a while before I began to calm down. I always reflected on myself at such times, thinking that I wasn’t calm enough and always lost my composure over some unintentional act. Even though she was someone I deeply cared about, I shouldn’t be like this, but despite reflecting on it every time, I still seemed to do it again. It was frustrating to know my flaws but not be able to change them.
After a few moments of reflection, I couldn’t stay for too long, otherwise, some impatient person might barge in and tell me to hurry. That would only be asking for trouble.
I quickly got out of the water, dried off, went to the table, and put on my undergarments. After tying up my hair, I opened the small bundle that Lian’er had placed on the table. Inside was a complete set of clothes. There was even a hat. It was made of leather with a fur trim. Both the style and the material were different from the robes and sashes that I was used to seeing over the years. I remembered that Old Tie said that they were Hu clothes. I hadn’t paid attention before, but now I could see that they were quite different.
Fortunately, the clothing was simple, so it was easy to put on. It was a black, tight-fitting robe with narrow sleeves and a lapel, giving a sense of familiarity like meeting an old friend in a foreign land. The hem of the robe split on both sides and was trimmed with fine black velvet that reached to the knee without feeling constricting. The black pants and leather boots were also clean and neat. Then I fastened the waistband and moved around a bit. It felt so comfortable.
It had been many years since I had dressed so freely. Although I had grown accustomed to the clothes of this world, they were somewhat cumbersome. How could they compare to the ease of movement these clothes offered? I started jumping up and down in the room without thinking, feeling as though I had seen the me who was backpacking back then.
Later, when I went out wearing the clothes, it made Old Tie, who was talking to Lian’er in the courtyard, laugh. He stroked his beard and repeated “Not bad, not bad” a few times before saying that it was too bad that I was too skinny and not stocky enough, and that even in the black Hu clothes, I still looked like a delicate scholar. I could hardly pass for a man, but it wasn’t too bad.
On the other hand, Lian’er, sitting under the shade of the vine trellis, just glanced over and gave a noncommittal snort before turning her head back and ignoring me. She just kept urging Old Tie to talk about the important matter after he was done laughing.
The old man finally stopped laughing, for the journey wasn’t to be taken lightly. The three of us gathered around the stone table under the vine trellis and went over in detail the things we needed to do next. No one could say for sure what would happen too far in the future, so we had to start with the immediate. Tomorrow would be the day of departure. The old man had found two local guides who could at least get us all the way safely to Dunhuang in Shazhou. He assured us that we could find another guide when we got there, and it would be great if we came across other merchant caravans along the way.
With age comes wisdom. Despite his crude manner, Old Tie didn’t take matters of life and death lightly. He listed out everything meticulously and even checked the backgrounds of the two local guides, just to be on the safe side.
At this point, we juniors didn’t really have much to say in this matter, but when they talked about the equipment and supplies for the trip and mentioned he had gotten four camels including those for the guides, I saw Lian’er’s brow furrow slightly. The old man noticed it too as he followed my gaze and asked her what was wrong. Lian’er smiled and replied, “Oh, it’s nothing.”
Lian’er didn’t really like camels. She found them strange. She had shown that during our stay in Liangzhou, and I knew that very well from the last few days of exploring around with her. Even though she disliked them, she understood how important they were. So despite her dislike of camels, she didn’t say a word about it in the end.
As she passed by me on her way out after our discussion, she said to me with a smile, “Don’t be happy too soon. Let’s see how things go after this.” Although it was a light-hearted remark, it left me with an uneasy feeling.
It wasn’t until the next day that I finally understood where this unease was coming from.
By dawn the next day, we were all up and getting ready for the long journey. In the desert, the days were long and the nights were short, and the temperature rose rapidly. It was impossible to continue in the midday sun. We had to make the most of the mornings and evenings. The four camels were ready and waiting outside, equipped. We had agreed the day before that the two guides would each have one camel, the old man would have one, and as Lian’er and I were small, we would share one camel.
The camels were all Mongolian camels, equipped with saddles and stirrups. The saddle was soft. It was really just several layers of padding cushioning between the two humps with a thick woolen rug on top to hold it in place. The two camel stirrups, like those of a horse, hung on either side, but they were slightly shorter than those of a horse.
The camels were tall and couldn’t be mounted without them kneeling. I was the last to leave, so when I got to the door, the guide had already made the camels kneel down, and Lian’er was standing to one side with her hands behind her back, waiting. While this was a new experience for her, and I wasn’t confident because I wasn’t so familiar with them either, one of us had to take the lead, so I quickly walked over, but just as I was about to mount, she said in a seemingly casual manner, “You sit in front, I want to sit in the back.”
At first, it didn’t sound like there was anything wrong with what she said, but when I looked at the saddle and then at the men’s clothes I was wearing, it put me in an awkward situation.
We were riding a camel, not a motorcycle…