The Witch Nichang– Chapter 73
Through the Pass
Whether it was a camel or a horse, when two people rode together, the one in the back often took the reins because there was only one pair of stirrups. That way, they could stabilize themselves and also protect the one in front. That was why whenever we saw two people riding together during our journey, it was always the one on the back who took the lead.
Lian’er learned that on the way. Even though she didn’t have much experience, she undoubtedly understood it.
I was still wondering why she had given in so easily last night, especially after she left that smirk remark. It turned out she was waiting for me here.
I didn’t mind where I sat if I was dressed in my usual clothes. After all, this camel was the last in the group. There were always camels ahead of us to lead the way. We didn’t even need to hold the reins. Lian’er, with her limited experience, would still be able to sit tight. As long as she didn’t frighten the camel, there was nothing to worry about.
It was just… Looking at the black Hu clothes I was wearing, I gave a resigned smile to the girl in front of me and said softly, trying to convince her, “Lian’er, why do you have to sit in the back? Isn’t it better to sit in front? No one will be blocking your sight, and you’ll have a better view…” But she shook her head and said, “It’s not about someone blocking my view. I don’t like that the hump is in front of me. Out of sight, out of mind. You sit in front.”
Her words sounded both genuine and spurious. She said it with such seriousness that I couldn’t argue with her. I saw that everyone around us was busy preparing, so I leaned closer to her and whispered, “But…Lian’er, look at how I’m dressed now… So many people on the street are watching. How can a man be protected by a woman? If we sit like you said, I’m sure we’ll be laughed at…”
“You’re just wearing men’s clothes, not actually a man.” She didn’t seem to care at all and said unapologetically, “Besides, so what if you’re a man? What do I care what others think? I dare them to laugh at us! Anyway, on this trip, either you sit in front or you don’t dress up as a man. Godfather worried too much. If anything happens, I’m here. You don’t have to dress up as a man to intimidate other people.”
Sure enough, all the beating-around-the-bush was just to say that she didn’t want me to dress up as a man when she couldn’t.
After thinking about it last night, I understood why Lian’er did that. Once I understood it, it became easy to see. She always wanted to win, liked to be ahead of me in everything. That part of her had been obvious since she was young. She even refused to call me her martial sister. Now that I was dressed in men’s clothes and she was still in women’s clothes, we were a man and a woman in people’s eyes, so it was clear who was in charge. Even though she said that she didn’t care about what people thought, and for most of the time, she really didn’t, when it came to this, I didn’t think she meant what she said.
Her attitude was clear. It was just a matter of figuring out how to deal with it. If I were to go with what she said, I would have to convince Old Tie. Dealing with one stubborn person was hard enough, but two? It was a real pain in the neck.
Besides, the clothes fit me well and felt familiar. Personally, I didn’t want to change out of them so soon.
Now that I had made up my mind, the only question was how to persuade her. I leaned closer to her ear and pleaded fawningly, “Lian’er… You see, we’re about to leave, and the room is paid for. Where am I supposed to change? Let’s go first. There are a lot of people on our way out of the city. Bear with me for a bit. Once we’re in the desert, we can swap. The reason the old man asked me to wear Hu clothes is to avoid attracting too much attention. Why don’t we each take a step back? When we get to a place where no one is around, I’ll sit where you want me to sit, wear what you want me to wear. That way, it’d be easier for me. Okay?”
When dealing with her, you always had to go along with her to get things done. After hearing what I said, the girl’s face brightened up a little, showing signs of giving in, but she continued to be unforgiving with her words and asked with a side-eye, “Do you care so much about how others think?” Seeing me nod repeatedly, she said with a smile, “Alright then, just the part where there were people around. You said so. Once we get into the desert, you’ll listen to me.”
With her consent, this hiccup was resolved for the time being, and I could finally relax. We still had a long way to go before we reached an area where there was no one. At least, not today.
By the time things were settled on our end, the guide on the other end was getting impatient. Everything that we needed was in place, and we were ready to go. The Gobi Desert was a hot and barren area. The journey through it had to be carefully planned and timed, so there was no room for delay. The old man had already mounted his camel. After rocking for a bit and getting used to the ride, he turned around and told us to hurry.
Without further stalling, I stepped into the stirrup on the side of the kneeling camel, and as soon as my other foot was in another stirrup, I turned to the girl beside me and smiled. Though reluctant, Lian’er didn’t dawdle, and with a jump, she sat firmly in front of me.
When the guide saw that everyone was seated, he ordered the camels to stand up. This was the bumpiest part. When the camels raised their front legs, those on their back would lean back with the momentum. I had experienced this before, but Lian’er hadn’t. Fortunately, I was prepared. I held her as she fell back to keep her stable, so she wouldn’t be thrown forward when the camel tipped us forward as it raised its hind legs.
After the bob was over, the camel below us finally stood up completely. We had a clear view ahead. With a shout from the front and the jingle of camel bells, the journey began.
We first passed through a street market. The sky was brighter than when we first started out. More people had come out to go about their day. After rocking on the camelback for a while, the street started to get busy.
I didn’t know if it was because she wasn’t used to riding slowly through the street, or because of her clumsiness at the start of the ride. She wasn’t in a great mood. Lian’er and I were sitting close together. Looking at her stiff back, I found it amusing but also was a little worried. Riding a camel was the same as riding a horse—if you didn’t relax and move with the rhythm of your mount, you would feel very uncomfortable after rocking on it for some time, and worse, you might feel sore from your lower back to your thighs, making it difficult to even walk on flat ground. The desert was different from other places. In other times, we still had carriages when we got tired of riding. Here, we could only spend the entire journey on the back of a camel. There might not even be time to rest.
Despite knowing that, I couldn’t just say the obvious. After thinking for a moment and going over what I wanted to say, I gently placed my hand on her shoulder and pulled her back. As expected, Lian’er resisted, not only refusing to comply but also turning her head to glance at me, and asked, “What are you doing?” Her tone was slightly hostile, but I was prepared for it. I softened my voice and replied, “Lian’er, sitting like this, we’re at the same height. I can’t see what’s in front of me. Could you lower yourself a little?”
She seemed to like the way I said it, and her budding displeasure dissipated. She said, her face brightening up, “We are both already about the same height. Maybe I’m a little taller than you. We just never compare it. When we have the chance to compare, we’ll know…” As she spoke, she began to relax. I listened to her with a smile as I gently guided her to lean back until she rested comfortably against me and finally let out a secret sigh of relief.
Then we were rocking our way forward. After about ten minutes, the caravan left the crowded area, through the north gate, across the bridge, and arrived at the north bank of a muddy river. The two locals stopped the caravan and said that they needed to pray to the gods for a safe journey as they entered the Western Regions.
When Old Tie saw that, he jumped off his camel to join in the prayers. Lian’er didn’t care. She never believed in gods and spirits. She probably felt comfortable after relaxing. She didn’t resist this kind of contact and used my body as a cushion. She just sat there and watched. Since she didn’t get up, I couldn’t get up either, so I just sat there and watched with her.
After praying, we continued on our journey. It was mostly desert along the way, with some trees, grass, and low shrubs sparsely scattered around the desert. Occasionally, we came across sand dunes. A few mud houses were scattered on either side. As the sun rose higher, the blazing sunlight was scorching hot. Lian’er seemed listless under her veil. I, on the other hand—I didn’t know whether it was because of the clothes I was wearing or the person in my arms—felt a tinge of excitement swirling within me.
When a majestic and imposing structure appeared at the end of the barren desert under the vast blue sky, it stoked my excitement.
“Lian’er, look, Jiayu Pass!” I couldn’t help but shake the person in my arms and point ahead, wanting her to share my excitement, but the girl just sat up slightly and looked at it for a moment before saying, “This is the first great pass that godfather talked about? Hm, it’s pretty tall, but it can’t stop me. There’s nothing special about it…” After saying that, she lost interest.
She wasn’t interested, so I didn’t force it on her and continued looking by myself. As we drew near, the tall structure became more and more magnificent. As we got closer, there was a market. Many merchants had set up stalls here to do business with travelers passing by. It was a lively scene with all the carriages and horses passing through.
Unfortunately, we didn’t stay for long. After showing our documents at the pass and having our luggage checked, we rode through the city gates without stopping and began our long journey.
As I took one last look at the majestic pass that spanned across the Gobi Desert and the fire beacons that seemed to shimmer in the scorching sun, a pang of sadness washed over me, and the lines of a poem came to mind. I recited them softly, “The hundred-foot wall spans the western sky, travelers of a thousand miles halt at its majesty…” The rest of the verse seemed to escape me.
“You’re reciting poems again. It’s so annoying. Don’t disturb my rest…” When I recited a few lines of poetry, there was no applause but a protest from the girl in my arms. I smiled and put what she said behind me, not dwelling on it.
We were still in the Gobi Desert after leaving the Jiayu Pass. If we were to compare the difference between the inside and the outside of the pass, it was more expansive and desolate outside. There was hardly any elevation in the terrain, just a sea of black and brown sand, and the sky was like a huge blue dome. No matter which way we went, we seemed to always be at the center of the dome. With the camel caravan in front of us guiding us, we didn’t have to worry about the direction, not even the time. All we had to do was sway with the camel and listen to the jingling of the camel bells.
Despite the desolate landscape, the sun was shining, and the wind was blowing. It somehow brought joy to my heart.
I couldn’t remember the last time I had felt so relaxed. I felt an indescribable sense of happiness like a bird flying freely in the vast sky. Throughout the journey, I was full of energy and found the red willow, the camel thorn, and other desert plants in the distance special. I would either point them out to Lian’er or enjoy them myself from afar.
Amidst the vastness of the clear sky, the boundless expanse of the desert, and the pleasant jingling of the camel bells, it felt as though time and space had ceased to exist. I could hear the soft humming of a song—a tune I had hummed myself, a melody as familiar as yesterday.
“You are humming a strange tune again…” The girl in my arms suddenly spoke, her voice casual, as if it was just a random remark. “But you seem to be quite happy. I haven’t seen you this happy for many years.”
“Oh, really?” Because her tone was so casual, I also responded with a casual answer. I didn’t give it much thought. I even looked around as I spoke.
However, the response that followed was unexpected. “Yeah.” Lian’er’s tone remained light-hearted, as if we were chatting, “The last time I saw you this happy was when we were young. I remember it.”
As she spoke, she turned to look at me. Under the clear blue sky, her eyes were as clear and transparent as ever, imprinting themselves on my heart.
“You haven’t been this happy since the year we celebrated Master’s birthday.”