I’m not sure I’m translating all of Yun Zhong Ge, so don’t ask and definitely don’t expect it. It’s almost twice as long as Da Mo Yao in length, so thinking about it already gives me a headache. But I was in the mood to do a chapter so here it is. I have no clue who will play the leads in the drama adaptation, but I know it won’t be Yang Mi, who has sorta moved past that in terms of age and popularity. But when I picture Yun Ge, I think of her performance as Guo Xiang, so for now I’ll cast her in my novel version. As for chapter 1 of YZG, It captivated me from the opening sentence and really drew vivid images of the three main characters right off the bat. The red string of fate binds Yun Ge to the two men in her life in ways that feel powerful yet playful.
Background primer: Because of Emperor Wu of Han’s (Liu Che) desire for military expansion and consolidation during his reign, when he died he left the dynasty in a downward spiral of poverty and using rigid control to temper the burgeoning woes of the common people who had been taxed and punished to the limit. He conceded in his final days that his methods had gone astray, but he was at the end of his life and could not right his wrongs. He left the dynasty in the hands of an eight year old Emperor Zhao of Han. And this story unfolds in that time period where the young Emperor had to worry about foreign dangers and internal strife.
Chapter 1: Green Woven Skirt
Thousands of miles of desert burned as brightly as the noonday sun. It glittered golden between the earth and the sky. A color long prized by the people instead symbolizes the laughter of death here. The sharp reflection of the white light shines on animal carcasses or human remains. The White Dragon Bone Desert right outside Luo Lan city is known for its windstorms and dangerous terrain. Without a familiar guide, almost no one can walk out of this desert alive.
At the crest of a sandy dune, a band of ten or so people was struggling at the edge of near death. Seven days ago their Luo Lan guide betrayed them, using a sudden desert windstorm to abandon this group of Han travelers. These people are not weak at martial arts or stamina, but in the face of deadly nature they are as weak as ants. If they don’t find a water source soon, they will forever be here, turning into one of the piles of white bones.
Zhao Puo Nu shook his water flask, it was down to a few sips of water left. He handed the flask to a boy of twelve or thirteen. The boy glanced at Zhao Puo Nu’s cracked and dry lips and lightly said “You drink this water.” Zhao Puo Nu wanted to reply but the boy added “That is my order.”
The others all believe this boy is Zhao Puo Nu’s relative, someone Zhao Puo Nu brought out during this undercover Xi Yu expedition to experience the world. Only Zhao Puo Nu and the boy knows what his order meant. Zhao Puo Nu took back the flask and didn’t drink, only putting it back around his waist. His mind had only one thought, he must get this boy out of the desert alive, even if he must use everyone’s blood here to drink as water.
“You are the only one who has been in and out of the desert many times, and you are most familiar with the desert. Whether we survive hinges on you. Drink the water and keep your mind clear and focused to think of a way to get us out of the desert. Even if we all die, you should at least be the last one standing.” The boy was talking about life and death yet his tone made it sound like it didn’t concern him.
Seven days of wandering in the desert, hungry, thirsty, under the hot sun, most people have already mentally collapsed and their faces showed their defeat and hopelessness. But this twelve thirteen year old boy, even with his lips completely cracked and his face exhausted, his expression was still cool and calm.
The sun continued to bake the earth, and bake their bodies. Their life was being steamed out of them little by little. Every speck of sand was like the dance of the reaper, coming closer and closer towards them. Walking in the front, Zhao Puo Nu suddenly stopped and everyone halted. The boy saw Zhao Puo Nu straining to listen to something and he curiously tried to listen as well.
“Clink, clink….” the sound of faint bells ringing drifted towards them. Everyone started shouting “It’s the sound of bells! It’s the sound of camel bells!”
In the face of death they saw a lifeline, this far off sound of bells was like the sound from the sky. The boy remained impassive. Facing death he never despaired, facing life he showed no joy. He continued to react as if nothing was happening to him.
Zhao Puo Nu made a gesture for everyone to quiet “The bells are odd. If it was a merchant caravan, the sound ought to be more than this lone noise. It sounds like just one camel, but who would be traveling alone through the desert. This is Xi Yu territory, so whether friend or foe, we need to be alert.”
“Clink, clink…..” with the sound of the camel bells, at the edge of the desert in the bright hot sun, a green image began to appear. In seven days they have not seen anything green so this image feels so reassuring. Even the boy felt his thirst seemingly eased a bit.
As the figure got closer, everyone could see that it was a small snow white camel with a small person riding on it. Just seven or eight years old, wearing a green robe, a smile like a blooming flower. Everyone craned their necks to look behind her but they could see no one else.
An unusual camel, an elfin-like adorable little girl, everyone only sensed the oddness of this and recollected many a strange Xi Yu legends about fairies from the Snow Mountains or witches from the desert……
The little girl smiled and waved at them “My mom asked me to lead you out of the desert.” Zhao Puo Nu asked “Who is your mom? Are you alone?” The little girl looked confused “My mom is just my mom! And I’m not alone.” She patted the camel “I have Ling Dang (Bell), she’s a friend my Second Brother gave me.” Then she pointed behind her “There is also Snow Lady, mom tasked her with protecting me.” Everyone now saw a white and silver wolf standing behind the little white camel.
This lone wolf gave off a sense of hauteur and nobility in her eyes. A camel that is not afraid of a wolf? A wolf who doesn’t want to eat the camel? Everyone was just stunned. “And…..” the little girl took out a whistle from inside her robe and blew into it twice. She looked at two condors descending from the sky “There is Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian. They are my friends that my daddy found for me.” The two white condors are not yet full grown but their fully expanded wings already give off a commanding presence in the sky.
One white condor landed on the back of the camel while the other wanted to land on the wolf’s head. The wolf gave a warning howl and tried to claw at the condor, which managed to fly away quickly. But it was feeling miffed and kept circling above. The little girl laughed “Xiao Tao, don’t tease Big Snow Sister. Just rest on Ling Dang’s back for a bit!” Everyone watching marveled and was amused, now understanding how the little girl could have found them.
Zhao Puo Nu suddenly shook and his mind lurched like thunderous waves. He kept staring at the little girl and asked “What is your mother’s surname? And your father’s? What is your name? Why did your mom ask you to lead us out of the desert?”
“Ai ya! Big uncle, my mom is just my mom! My name is Yun Ge (cloud song). My mom said she owed a debt of gratitude to an Uncle Zhao so she had me come lead your way. So are you guys coming or not? We need two days to get out of the desert!”
Yun Ge sat on the camel talking, her feet dangling back and forth on the side. A pair of leek green shoes, with a pearl the size of a longan embroidered on each shoe. One shoe she had on properly, but the other shoe was half off and exposing a snow white heel. With her swinging it back and forth, it played peek-a-boo under her green skirt.
Yun Ge saw the boy staring at her foot, and since she was at an innocent age, she didn’t know to be embarrassed and instead gave the boy a sweet smile. The boy was much too mature for his age, already knowing the ways of the world. He had been simply admiring the beauty of her foot, but with Yun Ge’s smile, his face turned red and he immediately averted his eyes. His chilly demeanor, already incongruous with his age, went down a few more notches.
Zhao Puo Nu couldn’t tell if this girl was purposely withholding information, or was simply so innocent and childish. He knew that no matter how much he asked, he wasn’t going to get any answers. The names of that pair of condors had triggered a memory from his past and the pain in his heart was just impossible to describe. He know it was impossible, but he wanted to hope that his crazy thoughts might possibly be true “Yun Ge Er, my surname is Zhao. We will bother you then to lead the way.”
Yun Ge jumped off the camel and politely bowed to Zhao Puo Nu. “Uncle Zhao, Yun Ge greets you on behalf my mom.” She pointed to a row of water bottles hanging from the camel’s back “These are for uncle.” Everyone started rejoicing even before she finished talking, sweeping away the silence of before as they said “Master Zhao, we knew you were our savior.” Zhao Puo Nu took a water bottle and brought it over to the boy, then noticing that Yun Ge had already taken her own flask and handed it to the boy “What is your name?” she asked.
The boy appeared not to have heard what Yun Ge asked, only quietly taking the flask and quietly drinking the water. Everyone was profusely thanking Yun Ge but the boy did not thank her. He didn’t even give her even one look of gratitude, his expression so impassive it bordered on cold.
Yun Ge appeared not to find it weird at all, putting her hands behind her back and lifting her head to smile widely at the boy. When the boy returned the flask to Yun Ge and saw her eyes twinkling like crescent moons, he lightly said “Zhao Ling.”
Yun Ge immediately said in a crystal clear voice “Ling gege” and paired with her smile which was as brilliant as an April sky, Zhao Ling, who had never been thus addressed, suddenly felt the normally pitch black recesses of his heart shined with a beam of sunlight.
A royally decorated room, the incense from a copper stove blowing smoke so that the faces of the people sitting high above appeared blurry. A four year old child was standing in the middle of the banquet, reciting a poem with his hand behind his back.
Everyone listening was in awe, the moniker of genius was truly well-deserved. An older gentleman sitting on high was uncharacteristically smiling as he nodded his head. When the child was done reciting, he wanted to run into his mother’s embrace as usual, but then remembered what she had reminded him beforehand. So he acted like an adult and made a bow, then straightened his back and with his face impassive, slowly walked backward step by step to return to his seat.
When he noticed that no one was looking, he immediately made a face at his mom to indicate he wanted a reward. A woman sitting next to the older gentlemen smiled and nodded her head at him, then indicating for him to sit back down.
A breezy and sunny Summer day, the sound of cicadas echoing time and again. A five year old child was hiding behind the curtains in the study, a pair of dark and lively eyes staring outside. Fast footsteps rang out and a woman’s gentle voice called out “Ling Er.” The child startled and wanted to call out a warning but it was too late. All he heard was a high pitched scream and the bucket placed on top of the door had already fallen with the opening of the door by the woman. A bucket full of inky dark water fell on the woman’s body.
The woman was turned head to toe into a crow and the serving girls beside her were so shocked they all knelt down. The child’s servant Yu An was already so shocked that he was weakly sprawled on the floor. He was feeling rivers of regret. He had just become a personal servant, he had just learned to pander, had just got a bit of pocket money, had just touched the hand of a serving sister, so was the Heavens envious of his talent and looks. He was never going to have a chance to become the world’s most devious personal servant, and his life will end right here?
The child was so nervous he was clutching the beaded curtains. His mother loved to be beautiful. He was done for this time! The woman stood silently outside the door for some time, her initial rage and shock slowly melted away into resignation “Ling Er, come out!” The child peeked his head out from behind the curtain, and with a quick swish, hid behind it again. “Sister slashed the painting I painted, so I wanted to get her back. I can memorize books, can write, always listens to teacher, never tease Sister, can….”
The woman walked up to the child and pulled him out with his clothes. She grabbed the child for a tight hug and then rubbed his face a few times. The child was becoming more and more scared and finally stopped talking. He lowered his head “I was wrong.”
The woman saw his response and suddenly started laughing. She called to the serving girls behind her “Why are you all still kneeling? Prepare a bath, and we need the largest tub around.”
The little child was dressed in the most luxurious outfit, which was now also smeared in ink. He pursed his mouth and stared at his mother. His face could not show his rage, but he know his mother was doing this on purpose. Since he was three years old and fell into pond, since then he’s hated taking a bath.
The woman looked at his expression and smiled before planting a kiss on his cheek “Either take a bath, or be punished. You decide.” The child was about to say “be punished” when he saw the woman shoot a look at Yu An. He immediately lowered his head. So it really is like the proverbs say “It’s hardest to take care of a woman and a petty man.” Some people have one and it’s already a burden. He had both! Time to resign himself to his life.
A heavy and layered curtain. He once hid here so his mother couldn’t find him, peeking out from behind the curtain to see his mother’s worry. He once hid here to suddenly jump out to scare his mother and sister. He once hid there because he didn’t want to listen to teacher’s lecture. But today, he cannot understand what the people outside the curtain are talking about.
He only knows that he is afraid, a fear he’s never experienced before. Mother was on the ground begging and her head was already bloody from bowing it hard repeatedly on the floor. But why was father staring coldly at mother, didn’t everyone say he cherished mother the most? “For the sake of Ling Er, you must die!”
Father’s words were so simple, yet he could not understand. Why must his mother die for him? He didn’t want his mother to die! He was about to scramble out from behind the curtain when Yu An tightly grabbed his arms and put his hands over his mouth. Yu An was covered in cold sweat and his eyes were pleading. Under Yu An’s pressure, he could not move.
Two guards dragged his mother out and her pleading tone turned into a devastating scream “Let me see Ling Er one more time….Ling Er, Ling Er, Ling Er……” The blood from mother’s forehead dripped on the floor, one drop, one drop, one drop…… It landed on the floor and it became a scar he could never wipe away in his entire life.
The smell of the blood lingered in the royal antechamber, and it lingered forever in his nostrils. His mother’s desperate pleas and her screams of hopelessness, in the darkness of the antechamber, it mixed with the scent of blood, never dissipating.
Night after night, day after day, month after month, year after year.
Year after year, month after month, day after day, night after night.
It never stopped…..
Ling Er, Ling Er, Ling Er……
The blood on mother’s forehead flowed more urgently, it became more and more, it covered up to his chest. “Mother, it’s not my fault! It’s not my fault…..”
It is your fault, you are the cause of your mother’s death. It is your fault……
Zhao Ling’s entire body was curled into a ball and he was covered in cold sweat. He tightly bit his lips and didn’t make a sound. “Ling gege, Ling gege…..” Yun Ge softly shook Zhao Ling. He woke up from his nightmare in a flash and pushed Yun Ge away “How dare you, servant! Who allowed you to…..”
Once he saw that it was Yun Ge, and that he was sleeping under the open expansive sky and not within the dark recesses of the Palace chamber, he immediately lowered his voice and his gaze turned from frosty to misty. Yun Ge was pushed off so fast she ended up landing on her butt, so she rubbed her butt and softly asked “Did you have a nightmare?” Zhao Ling looked out into the darkness and appeared not to have heard Yun Ge’s question.
Yun Ge sat down next to the fire and took a pouch she always carried and searched through it until she found a few sour dates. She tossed it into the water and waited for the water to boil, then handed it to Zhao Ling. He stared at the cup in Yun Ge’s hand but didn’t move to take it. Yun Ge softly said “The color looks terrible but it’s very useful. Sour dates can help calm the nerves.”
Zhao Ling still didn’t move to take it so Yun Ge’s eyes twirled once “When I refuse to take medicine my mom always sings to me to lull me into drinking the medicine. Can I sing to you?” She opened her mouth to sing and Zhao Ling looked at everyone sleeping around him and reached for the cup. Yun Ge smiled at him while he finished the water and then laid down to sleep without another word.
Yun Ge wrapped herself in the blanket and looked at him for some time, and then scooted closer to him.
She scooted closer a foot, he silently moved away a foot. Yun Ge scooted closer another foot, Zhao Ling moved away another foot. Yun Ge scooted closer yet another foot, Zhao Ling moved away yet another foot……
Zhao Ling finally couldn’t take it anymore and whispered in a low voice “What do you want?” “I can’t sleep, and since you also can’t sleep, let’s just talk. Okay? Can you tell me a story, yes?”
“Then let me tell you a story.” Yun Ge didn’t even wait for him to agree and she was already talking “One year, my daddy took me to climb the Snow Mountains…..” Zhao Ling intended to feign sleep so that Yun Ge would stop yammering, but Yun Ge was so happy just talking by herself. When Yun Ge was done with the Snow Mountain story, she started talking about her Second Brother and her Third Brother. Zhao Ling coldly said “I want to sleep.”
“Then you go to sleep! When my mom tells me a story, I just listen and then fall asleep……When my Third Brother and I went to Rome, I was just five. A lot of people there have golden hair and blue eyes, so pretty. But I don’t like them. They starve the lion for days and then let them out to fight with each other. A lot of people sit there and watch. I hate that. Third Brother liked to watch. They gave my daddy two little lion cubs and Third Brother took them to raise…..You must not believe me that there is a country like that…..”
Yun Ge wanted to keep chatting but Zhao Ling cut her off “The world is vast, there is nothing to be surprised about. When the former Emperor was on the throne, many diplomats from those far off lands came and paid homage already. Records show that farther West of Xi Yu are nations even more powerful than the Han dynasty, and even further West of those nations who knows what lies there. Those merchants come to our land for our silks and refuse to reveal what lies out there.”
When Yun Ge normally told her stories to people, they would all laugh and say she was making things up. This is the first time someone believed her and she was so thrilled “You believe my story? Have you been there, it’s so much fun?”
Zhao Ling ignored Yun Ge and she waited for a few moments and saw that he wasn’t going to answer her so she just smiled and resumed telling her stories. Zhao Ling didn’t try to stop her this time, just closing his eyes, not clear whether he was asleep or awake.
Since Zhao Ling was young, because of his position, no one dared to oppose him. When they talk to him they are extremely careful and full of fear and respect or toady compliance. This is the first time he’s met someone as shameless as Yun Ge, and shameless in a way that seems perfectly normal. She can’t even read any of his hints. Initially he was forced to endure her blabbering noise, but gradually, he didn’t know when he started to really listen to her story.
From the Northern grassy plains to the Gobi Desert, from the mountain tops to the highlands, from the churning ocean to the quiet snow cave, from Xi Yu Xiong Nu’s horseback prowess to the Roman artisans…… Yun Ge’s stories involve a world he has never experienced and only read in books. To him, these worlds were like legends that he would never have a chance to visit.
In the end, he was waiting for her next story when Yun Ge “…….that little wolf actually stole something, and it was a greedy thief, taking a priceless bauble…..I was so angry at it…..so I was slapping its butt…..slapping its butt……” and then she fell asleep.
Zhao Ling slowly opened his eyes and turned around to stare at Yun Ge. Even in sleep her eyebrows were happy, with as much freedom as her name suggested. Long lush lashes were like two butterflies sleeping under the starry night. Yun Ge was poor sleeper, wrapped up in her blanket but constantly rolling around.
He saw her roll closer and closer to the fire, and her hair was already smelling burnt but she was still dead asleep. Zhao Ling had no choice but to get up and pull her back towards him. She started to roll towards Zhao Ling, rolling closer and closer, so Zhao Ling lightly pushed her away. She started rolling out, rolling towards the fire……
Pulling closer, pushing out, pulling closer, pushing out…….
When Zhao Puo Nu woke up the next morning, this was the scene he saw: Yun Ge was grabbing onto Zhao Ling’s arm and sleeping peacefully, with a slight smile on the corner of her mouth. Who knows what happy dream she was having. But Zhao Ling was sleeping in the oddest position ever. One hand was holding onto the corner of Yun Ge’s robe, as if he was afraid she would run away, but he also afraid she would get closer. Even though he was deep asleep, his face looked resigned and exhausted.
Everyone started to laugh while Zhao Puo Nu gaped in shock at Yun Ge and Zhao Ling. He had long heard that when Zhao Ling slept, no one was allowed to get close. In fact, no one was allowed to even remain in his chamber to guard over him. Only Yu An was allowed to stand outside the door. During this trip, he was also like this. So how did Yun Ge make Zhao Ling concede defeat?
Past this stretch of the Gobi Desert and entering into the grassy plains ahead meant they have safely entered into the border region of the Han dynasty. Zhao Puo Nu relaxed considerably. He did not fail, they are now safe. Snow Lady suddenly gave a low growl and shielded Yun Ge. Zhao Puo Nu ordered everyone to form a circle around Zhao Ling.
In a few moments they saw some people wearing tattered clothes running for their lives, with some Han officials chasing behind them. The officials see they are about to escape out of the Han borders and start shooting arrows at them, and a few people collapse on the ground.
Yun Ge saw the arrows fly out and sent Snow Lady ahead, but Snow Lady was only able to knock one young man down. “Reckless fools! How dare you help these criminals. Kill them!” The officials on the horse are about to launch their arrows when Zhao Puo Nu shouted “Good sirs, we are all Han people, law abiding merchants.” The official looked at them and motioned them over to talk, discussing merchandise and money.
Zhao Puo Nu understood the official’s meaning and sneaked a peek at Zhao Ling, then offered a heavy bag of coins “Good sirs, you worked hard to protect the border, please use this to buy some wine to warm yourself in the Winter.”
The official looked at the bag of coins and smiled “You guys make one trip between the Han and Xi Yu and you can go home to your wife and kids. We have to stay here and keep this area safe from rebels.” Some people were getting annoyed with the official and wanted to say something but one look from Zhao Puo Nu and everyone kept their silence. Zhao Puo Nu had another bag of coin offered before the official was satisfied and said “You guys can go now.”
Yun Ge refused to leave, insisting on taking that now passed out young man along. Zhao Puo Nu had no choice but to offer another bag of money and plead with the official, who laughed coldly “This is a rebel who deserves to die! Do you guys want to die as well?”
Zhao Ling coldly scoffed “How old is he? Thirteen or fourteen? What type of rebellion could he undertake?” The official was furious and tried to whip Zhao Ling, but Yun Ge deftly moved Zhao Ling aside and with one sweep of her hand a black misty substance was released. The official grabbed his eyes and cried out “My eyes, my eyes.”
The other soldiers drew their weapons and a bloodbath was about to commence. Yun Ge was not scared and instead laughed “Good kid, don’t cry, don’t cry! Your eyes will be fine. It’s not poison, just a spice produced by one of the Western nations. All it will do is prevent you from striking anyone for now. Once you rinse it out with water you’ll be fine.”
The impassive Zhao Ling heard Yun Ge’s laughing words and how pathetic the official looked and his lips curled up in a slight smile. He crossed his hands and stood off to the side as if watching a good show. These two kids…..such a young age, but their tempers are one more outrageous than the other.
To save the lives of this band of soldiers, Zhao Puo Nu had to sacrifice himself. He sighed and took out a letter and handed it over “This was given to us by our master before we left the house.” The servant was going to open it, but once he saw the seal his eyes bulged. He read the letter and immediately conferred with the official, who hurriedly said “Why didn’t you say you were General Zhao’s relatives? Misunderstanding, it was all a misunderstanding…..”
The officials apologized and wanted to return the coins and take everyone out to eat, but Zhao Puo Nu kept saying no and that he didn’t mind. He managed to calm everything down and the soldiers left. Everyone laughed “Master Zhao, why are you so polite with them? Isn’t that just making it harder for them later?” Zhao Puo Nu saw Zhao Ling’s seemingly casual expression and inwardly sighed.
The young man they saved must’ve have been starving and under huge stress. He woke up late into the night. He had no tears, only eating the biscuits one after another. He scarfed down eight sheets and asked for more. Yun Ge cried out in alarm “You’ll die from over-eating!” The young man continued to stare at the biscuits “After this meal I won’t have a next meal. Dying from over-eating is better than dying from starvation. Father said that those who starve to death cannot even reincarnate.”
Yun Ge furrowed her brows and stared at the young man, and the normally reticent Zhao Ling spoke up “Give him the rest of the biscuits.” Yun Ge immediately put all the biscuits in a bag and handed it to the young man, who stared at Zhao Ling with delayed comprehension. Zhao Ling nodded his head slightly.
The boy took the bag and clasped it tightly to his chest, afraid someone will take it. Suddenly his tears start to fall “Mother, I have food. Mother…..father….I have food. You don’t need to sell sister anymore….Mother……Mother starved to death. Father…..my father died, my father also died…..”
In the beginning his tears fell silently, and then it turned into loud sobs which finally became heartrending screams of pain. It rendered the silent night with the sound. Because of the bad crop season, they couldn’t pay their taxes, and if they can’t pay their taxes the officials will confiscate their land. To save their land, his parent sold his younger sister. But in the second year, because of a locust infestation, their crop yield was still not good, and this time they had nothing left to eat. Even the tree bark in the village was stripped bare. People were so hungry they even ate dirt.
When they couldn’t survive anymore, they went to steal food from the wealthy. They only stole food, but the officials claimed they were rebels. They didn’t care anymore, as long as they can survive, let them be called rebels! But they still died one by one, they still died…..
“Why do you have food to eat? Why don’t we have food to eat? Mother says this is our lot in life! But who decided that?” The young man’s face was covered in tears and his gaze brushed over everyone, but no one could give him an answer.
“A man who rebelled with us who could read said this was the fault of the Emperor. Because he was always fighting wars and needed a lot of money, he kept increasing our taxes. When people couldn’t pay taxes, they would lose their land. To keep the people under control, our punishments greatly increased and with the tiniest infraction an entire family would be executed. If this is the fault of the Emperor, then why shouldn’t we rebel against him? Who says rebellion is wrong?”
Zhao Puo Nu quickly said “Don’t talk anymore, be quiet” but he couldn’t stop the young man from talking. Yun Ge actually didn’t really understand what the young man was saying, she just felt sorry for him. So she kept nodding her head “When I do something wrong, my mom will always punish me. If the Emperor did something wrong, you should rebel against him. You guys did nothing wrong.”
Zhao Puo Nu no longer had the courage to even peek at Zhao Ling’s face. The only thing he wanted to do was raise his head to the Heavens and cry. Did he kill too many in his lifetime on the battlefield, so the Heavens is choosing today to punish him?
Zhao Ling stared at the flames and calmly said “The officials have forced the people to rebel, it’s not your fault.” The young man said “You saved my life, this gratitude I will never forget. I heard people call you Yun Ge, but young man, what is your name?” Zhao Ling replied “You don’t owe me anything, there is no need to remember my name.’
The young man said nothing more and turned to walk into the night clutching the bag of food and water “You are rich people, I am a poor person. We have different lots in life. I ought to thank you for saving me, but it was also because of you rich people my mother and father died, so I cannot thank you. My name is Yue Sheng. I will remember this debt of gratitude, and I will repay it one day.”
“Hey, where are you going?” Yun Ge called out. “Don’t worry about me, I will survive, I still need to find my sister.” The young man turned and looked at Yun Ge one more time before his staggering figure disappeared into the night. Everyone around the fire remained silent.
A while later, someone lowered their head and said “These days most of the officials are like the one we met, using power to oppress the weak, greedy and self-serving. They claim to be following Han law, but can easily bend it to serve their own bottom line.” Zhao Puo Nu didn’t even have the mental energy to stop this conversation, he only called out “It’s late, everyone to sleep!”
Zhao Ling stood up and walked out, and when Zhao Puo Nu moved to follow Zhao Ling said without even turning his head back “I want to take a walk by myself.” Zhao Puo Nu stood there torn and saw Yun Ge following Zhao Ling and she pointed to Snow Lady, telling him not worry.
Zhao Ling walked for a long time and never paid any attention to Yun Ge. He finally sat down on the grass and silently stared at the night sky. Yun Ge stood behind him for a long time but Zhao Ling never moved an inch. Yun Ge used an ink brush to draw two figures on each of her hands, one was an old man with a beard, the other held a bouquet of flowers.
Yun Ge held up her hands in front of Zhao Ling and began to play act. She used an old man’s voice “Why are you unhappy?” “I’m not unhappy.” “You’re lying, it’s not like you can lie to yourself and stop being unhappy.” The old man had a stern face and didn’t respond so the bouquet hand asked “Why do you have such a cold poker face all day long?” “Because I think it will make me seem more serious and mature, and make me stand out.” “Even though I think you are pretty good looking with your stern face, but I think it’s better if you smiled….”
“Yun Ge!” Zhao Ling finally couldn’t endure it anymore and turned his head, and all he saw was a smiling face more brilliant than all the stars in the sky. The two of them were nose to nose, so close they could feel each other breathing.
Yun Ge softly said “Ling gege, I’m leaving tomorrow.” Yun Ge didn’t know why, but suddenly her throat felt dry. Maybe because Zhao Ling was the first person in her life who listened to all her chatter. He understood her grumbles about her brothers. She had two brothers, but because her father didn’t have her until he was in his forties, so her Second Brother was much older than her. Even though he adored her, there wasn’t much they could talk about.
Even though her age gap with her Third Brother wasn’t as large, he had zero tolerance to listen to her talk his ear off. Yesterday night, if it was her Third Brother laying there, he would have grabbed her by the scruff of her neck and tossed her into the desert already.
Zhao Ling startled for a moment before accepting this reality. Yes! She’s just this little girl he just met. She’s not someone who will be accompanying him back to Chang An. But this glorious smile…… In his daze, he felt like he knew her for a long time already and was already accustomed to her non stop talking. Is this what was referred to as “White hair like new, lowered cover like old”?
Yun Ge saw Zhao Ling staring at her and zoning out, so she smiled and stuck her face in front of him and blew air in his face “I’m about to leave, so you can’t think about anything else, you can only think about me!” Yun Ge’s smile was completely innocent and carefree, but Zhao Ling’s heart was suddenly beating faster and he quickly averted his face “Yun Ge, tell me another story.”
This person who seemed to never want to talk suddenly asked her to tell him another story. Yun Ge was so excited she yelped in happiness “Lay down, lay down! You watch the stars while listening to my story. I have many more really fun stories.” Yun Ge didn’t wait for Zhao Ling to agree before pushing him down by his shoulders and laying down herself next to him. Zhao Ling instinctively inched away from her but Yun Ge appeared not to care and just scooted herself back closer to him. She rested her head on Zhao Ling’s shoulder “What kind of story do you want to hear?”
Zhao Ling’s body remained rigid but he made no move to scoot away, saying calmly “Tell me why you are so shameless (thick-skinned)? “Oh! Eh? What? Really? I am…..?” Yun Ge nattered for a few moments before angrily saying “In what way am I shameless? The shameless one in the family is my Third Brother. In fact, he’s beyond thick-skinned, he has no skin at all! He doesn’t care about anything other than eating. I’m actually pretty thin-skinned….”
Yun Ge talked and started laughing, her laughter sounded like bells ringing under the starry night. Listening to her laugh, Zhao Ling suddenly thought about the dark and lonely Palace in Chang An. Perhaps if that place had Yun Ge’s laughter, the Palace might become just like Yun Ge, warm and bright. Perhaps if he followed in her light as air footsteps, he could also traverse the skies and visit the world. Or at least his heart can.
When Zhao Puo Nu came to get them both to go to sleep, he saw them laying side by side under the stars. Yun Ge was resting on Zhao Ling’s shoulder and talking non stop. Zhao Ling said nothing but his expression was a never before seen type of gentleness. Zhao Puo Nu’s heart thundered and he boldly said “It’s already very late and tomorrow we need to get an early start. Hurry off to bed!” Zhao Ling shot him a look and Zhao Puo Nu felt like Zhao Ling could see right into his mind and knew what he was just thinking, making his knees feel weak and he almost kneeled down.
“Yun Ge, I’m thirsty, go bring me some water, and then bring two blankets over.” Zhao Ling said to Yun Ge. She smiled and nodded her head, running off to grab the items. Zhao Ling laid there not moving, just staring at the night sky. “Who are Yun Ge’s parents?” Zhao Puo Nu’s heart shook but he kept his face impassive and answered “I do not know.”
“Do not know? The Snow White Camel from the Sky Mountains and the Blood Sweat Horse are the two treasures of Xi Yu. It took tens of thousands of Han soldiers attacking the Da Wan kingdom before the Blood Sweat Horse was acquired. How many people in this world could use a Snow White Camel? And own the king of the desert skies the condors as pets? And have a proud queen wolf following alongside. Yun Ge said you knew her mother. How many such lofty personages could you possibly know?”
“I really don’t know. In helping us out of the desert is a good thing, so why do we need to investigate who they really are?” Zhao Ling was quiet for a moment before calmly saying “I don’t want to investigate their identities. I…..I would like to keep Yun Ge.”
Zhao Puo Nu lost all color in his cheeks and immediately kneeled down “No! It cannot be! Yun Ge’s parents would never agree!”
“This is not the place for you to be kneeling. Get up.” Zhao Ling’s face had an almost smile “Are you worried for Yun Ge’s parents, or worried for me? I would like to meet them. If I keep Yun Ge, then even if her parents are the dragon gods, they would have to show their faces……”
Yun Ge came running back and Ling Dang was carrying the blankets “Ling gege, the water is here.” Zhao Ling gestured to Zhao Puo Nu for him to retreat. Zhao Puo Nu left with his heart heavy. If Yun Ge is really her child, then what happened many years ago……what really happened back then? He didn’t dare think any further. He already made up his mind. Even if it meant his death, he would never allow Yun Ge to be detained.
Zhao Ling wrapped the two of them up in the blanket. One wolf and one camel was behind them, and the two condors were resting on the camel. The night sky in the desert plains is vast and low, with stars dotting the entire sky. Added to it their odd little group, it lent it a type of mysterious beauty.
“Ling gege, will you come back to Xi Yu? Or go to the Northern plateaus? Or go out to sea? I hear that the Southern regions are a lot of fun, but I’ve not yet been. We can go together.” “I don’t think I will. This trip was something I did everything in my power to make happen. This will probably be the furthest I will ever venture in my life. You’re younger than me, but you’ve been to places much farther than I have ever been.”
The two of them quieted for a moment before Zhao Ling suddenly asked “Yun Ge, your stories never mention Chang An. Would you be willing to visit Chang An?” Yun Ge sighed “My daddy and my mom will never permit it. My daddy and my mom will not permit me or my Third Brother to step foot in the border regions of the Han dynasty. Plus I have to go home. But…..” Her eyes brightened “My daddy says that children are like little eagles. When they are grown they will fly away. My parents never care where my Second Brother goes. In a few years when I am grown, when I can fly away by myself, I will come find you in Chang An.”
Zhao Ling stared at her shiny hopeful eyes. How could he let this pair of eyes become shielded with dark shadows? After a few moments, he nodded his head “Okay, I’ll wait for you in Chang An.” Yun Ge clapped her hands “Let’s pinky swear. We can’t go back on our word. When I arrive in Chang An, you will have to play the host, okay?” Zhao Ling didn’t understand “What’s a pinky swear?”
Yun Ge showed him while asking quizzically “How can you not know what a pinky swear is? What did you do when you were a kid?” The two of them made a pinky swear and Yun Ge’s voice was clear as she said “Pinky swear, promise, one hundred years, it won’t change.” When their thumbs met, Yun Ge laughed and added “And the person who changes is a little piggy!”
For the first time ever Zhao Ling had a hint of a smile. When he was not smiling his dark eyes were deep and soulful. But his one smile made it appear that all the stars in the sky had melted in his eyes. Within the dark orbs there were little dots twinkling.
Yun Ge stared at him with her mouth agape, and then said “You look so beautiful when you smile, it’s prettier than the stars in the sky.” Zhao Ling’s smile disappeared as he tried to remember when the last time he really smiled was? Since that night, hiding behind the curtains, hearing his father order the death of his mother? He wanted to forget it, and was trying to forget it, but every moment it remained ever clear……
Zhao Ling took out something from inside his robe and put it around Yun Ge’s neck “When you reach Chang An, show this to the guard at the gate, and you will be able to see me.” Yun Ge lowered her head and looked at what appeared to be a rope made from black thread. It felt odd in her hands, but wasn’t that unique. Hanging from the end was a woman’s earring. Zhao Ling lightly explained “This is my mother, on the day before she left, pulling out her own hair and making this rope and hanging a memento on it for me.”
Yun Ge heard this and quickly tried to take it off “Where did your mother go? Your mother made this for you, I can’t accept it. If you’re afraid I can’t find you, then give me the jade you are wearing around your waist!”
Zhao Ling grabbed her hand “Next time you see me you can return it to me. This may be my treasured possession, but sometimes I don’t want to see it. When it hangs around my neck, sometimes I feel like I can’t breath. This jade…..” Zhao Ling used his pinky to shake it, the intricate carving like a dragon come alive shining under the stars “I hate it myself, so how could I let you wear it.”
Yun Ge didn’t understand what Zhao Ling said but she could see his eyes turn emotional which made her feel this ache, so she turned docile and just nodded her head and accepted the hair rope. Yun Ge touched her hair but there was only a dirty ribbon on it. Around her neck was the whistle, but she needed it to communicate with Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian. She didn’t have any accessories on her, and around her waist pouch was just pieces of ginger, pepper, and sour dates. She can’t give that to someone….. From head to toe she finished touching herself but finding nothing.
Zhao Ling could see that she was anxious so he softly said “You don’t need to give me anything.” Yun Ge furrowed her brows “One does not take without also giving. Oh…right! When we first met, I noticed you staring at my shoes like you really liked them. How about I give you a shoe. Okay?” Yun Ge had already taken off one shoe and brushed away the dirt on it before handing it to Zhao Ling.
Zhao Ling startled for a moment, not sure if he should laugh or cry “Do you know what it means when a girl gives a boy an embroidered shoe?” Yun Ge dumbly looked at Zhao Ling, her eyes blinking. Zhao Ling looked at her for a long time before smiling and accepting the shoe that was the size of his palm. He carefully placed it in his robe and his every word was clear “I accept it. Yun Ge, you must remember!”
Yun Ge vigorously nodded her head “Daddy and mom told me the importance of keeping one’s promise. This is my promise and I will keep it. I will go find you, so you must wait for me.” Yun Ge’s gaze was unwavering and Zhao Ling knew that, despite her young age, she had a very self-assured mind. She will fulfill her promise. He reached out his hand and clapped against her hand three times “With the stars as witness, no regrets, no change.”
This is the first time someone has treated her this way, like a precious thing, like an adult. Yun Ge smiled and then remembered last night “Ling gege, do you have nightmares often?” Zhao Ling didn’t answer. YUn Ge rubbed his forehead “When I have a nightmare or when I’m not happy, my mom will sing to me. In the future when you have a nightmare, I’ll sing to you. I can sing a lot of songs. And I can tell you even more stories.”
Yun Ge cleared her throat and started to sing. Her voice was childlike, but it was warm and comfortable as it wafted through the night sky, letting the person listening to it feel relaxed. Yun Ge noticed Zhao Ling’s slight smile and she felt happy.
Even though it was a lullaby, the lyrics did have a deeper meaning. Yun Ge didn’t realize what the lyrics meant, but Zhao Ling did and he kept staring silently at Yun Ge. In the middle of singing, Yun Ge didn’t manage to lull Zhao Ling to sleep, but instead she lulled herself to sleep.
Silly Yun Ge, it’s not a lullaby that chases away the nightmares. It’s the love within the voice singing the song, because the person singing the song has a heart wanting to protect the other person. Knowing that she slept all over the place, Zhao Ling lightly pulled her into his embrace and wrapped the blanket tighter around each other.
Since he was eight years old, this is the first time he has been so close to another person. When he was using his body to keep her warm, he was really warming his heart.
The sun had already come up when Yun Ge drowsily woke up. By the time she cleared her head, she called out in frustration “Ai ya! How could I have fallen asleep? Ling gege, why didn’t you wake me up? I didn’t finish telling my story! Yesterday I wanted to finish the story about the wolf in my household that loves to steal precious gems.”
Zhao Ling carried Yun Ge and placed her on the camel “You can finish it next time. When you come to Chang An, we’ll have lots of time to listen to you tell stories.” From the sky came the sound of condors calling. Xiao Qian and Xiao Tao zoomed into the sky, heading towards two large condors circling above.
Yun Ge pursed her lips and stuck her tongue out “Ai ya! Who knows where daddy look mom, so he made my Third Brother come get me. Third Brother has zero patience and hates waiting for people. I have to go now.”
Zhao Ling nodded and watched as Yun Ge rode away on her camel, turning back to wave to him. Under her green woven skirt her two feet were danging, one white and one leek green. Zhao Ling suddenly remembered something and called out “Zhao is my mother’s last name. In Chang An my last name is Liu…..” He saw Zhao Puo Nu and the other walking over so he swallowed the rest of what he was going to say.
Yun Ge cupped her hands around her mouth and turn back to yell “I’ll remember it!”
Zhao Puo Nu didn’t get a wink of sleep all night, wondering how he was going to convince Zhao Ling to give up on keeping Yun Ge. Who knew the first thing he would see this morning was the two of thing saying goodbye. His heart relaxed, but then he felt a sense of loss. If Zhao Ling did keep Yun Ge, then he would get to see her parents. Before he could think this through he chided himself for even allowing his own personal desires to come forth. He needed to think about the big picture. If one thought about it, Zhao Ling and them might even have a bloody deep grudge between them. This goodbye today is for the best, and hopefully they will never cross paths again.
Snow Lady accompanied Yun Ge to the edge of the market and stopped. Yun Ge smiled and said goodbye to Snow Lady “Big Snow Sister, thank you.” Snow Lady elegantly turned and left, her figure regal and proud.
Yun Ge took a look at herself. Her skirt was all wrinkled, one foot had a shoe that was dangling half off, the other foot wasn’t even wearing a shoe. She started laughing. No wonder every time Second Brother said their house had a refined young lady, Third Brother would give a cold scoff and sarcastically say “Our house does have a lady, but it’s not the lady Second Brother refers to, it’s Snow Lady. At most Yun Ge is an oddly behaved idiotic little witch.”
Right as she arrived at the edge of the oasis, she saw Third Brother. Her beautiful as a peacock, narcissistic as a peacock, arrogant as a peacock Third Brother was sitting on a tree branch just looking at the sky. Under the tree some beggars were beating up a boy who looked around the same age as Third Brother. The boy’s hair was covered in a tattered hat and his body was curled into a ball. He was letting people just kick and beat him without making a sound. If his limbs didn’t still twitch now and then, people would have thought he was a dead body.
Yun Ge signed. Third Brother called her a witch, but she actually thought Third Brother was the weird one at times. Someone was about to die and Third Brother appeared not to even notice, still looking towards the sky and admiring the clouds. Forget one against many. He ought to see they were the same age and be willing to as a “kid” to help another “kid.”
“These uncles, please stop hitting” Yun Ge said with a soft smile. The beggars were really into it and paid no attention to this little girl. “These uncles, please stop hitting” Yun Ge said even louder but they continued to ignore her. “These uncles, please stop hitting” Yun Ge even more loudly but they paid her no heed.
“These uncles, please stop hitting” a sound like a wolf howl reverberated through the trees and shook all the leaves. The beggars were so shocked they stopped, and a few of the more cowardly beggars felt like like their guts have been sucked out of them.
Yun Ge smiled and bowed to the beggars, her smile like a blooming flower but her voice was as low and throaty as a wolf howl “Uncles, I’m sorry, I didn’t know I needed to speak this loudly before you heard me. I spoke too softly before.”
A young beggar got angry with his ears still ringing and wanted to berate Yun Ge, but an older beggar stopped him, remembering the legends about a wolf girl raised in the plains. He smiled at Yun Ge “Little girl, our hearing is fine and we can hear you. Don’t talk like that anymore, you might lure the wolf pack here and that will terrible. We people sleep outside at night and our biggest fear is them.”
Yun Ge smiled and acted all docile, lowering her voice until it was tiny “So uncles can hear well. Then will the uncles stop hitting this little brother.” The oldest beggar immediately agreed and motioned for the others to leave.
“You little demon! You little bastard!” the young beggar kicked the boy on the ground a few more times for good measure. He looked at Yun Ge and appeared disappointed, moving to leave when he saw the pearl on her shoe. His eyes lit up and he swallowed before saying “It wasn’t our fault, little lady. This little bastard…..he stole our money…..”
From the tree top came a cold scoff “Yun Ge, are you done or not? I’m leaving.”
Third Brother whistled and then lightly swung down from the branch, landing on the saddle of a horse that appeared quietly out of nowhere. Yun Ge knew that Third Brother would leave when he said it, he wasn’t trying to scare her.
Plus the horse he was riding was the Blood Sweat Horse Second Brother gave him. The moment he started galloping, there was no way a not yet fully grown Ling Dang could ever catch up. Yun Ge nervously cried “Third Brother, you wait for me, you wait for me.”
This ten year old boy, wearing a rich robe, with his noble aura radiating from him, was riding on a horse as proudly as a peacock unfurling its feathers. But his movement was as silent as a ghost in the night.
The beggars don’t know martial arts, but years of begging on the streets and they know quality when they see it. Even the young beggar knew today he wasn’t going to take advantage of anyone. The old beggar bowed to Yun Ge and then hurried everyone off.
Yun Ge was about to leave but she looked at the boy covered in blood and her heart couldn’t rest. She jumped off the camel and went to help him up “Little brother, are you alright?” The boy on the ground cracked open his eyes. A pair of black eyes as beautiful as obsidians stared back at her. It was more clear than the sky after the rain, but his eyes didn’t have the sparkle of a precious gem, it was as dead as the desert wasteland.
Yun Ge’s heart jumped. She had never seen such beautiful eyes, and she had never seen such despairing eyes. The boy wiped the blood from his face, and when he saw Yun Ge staring at his face in a daze. his heart coldly laughed and he jerked off his hair. A head of black hair mixed with silver strands floated down around his face. It billowed in the wind proudly, the black and white color creating a stark contrast, and together with his obsidian eyes lent him an aura of otherworldliness.
He smiled at Yun Ge, with some disdain and some dismissal. “Daughter of a rich family, you have displayed your pure and kind heart for the world to see now. I have also been deeply touched by your kindness. I will remember this kindness, so you can get back on your camel and leave now.”
Even though the boy was covered in blood, it could not hide his striking features. His face combined the best of the Han and the Xi Yu looks, the lines very distinctive yet smooth. He was as perfect as if he was carved from a piece of jade. Combined with his black and white hair, it lent his still childlike face an air of sadness and beauty.
Despite wearing rags and laying in a pile of mud, he carried himself proudly and made Yun Ge think that he was just like a prince. But….but he’s the prince of the devil. Yun Ge thought for a moment and then smiled “You’re trying to get me mad, but I won’t get mad. You need to see a doctor, you’ve lost so much blood.”
Yun Ge’s reaction was not what he expected and he stared at her, and then glanced at Yun Ge’s Third Brother who was on his horse in the distance. He started laughing “Daughter of a rich family, seeing a doctor is what rich people do. My life is worth nothing, I needn’t worry about that. But the more worthless a person’s life is, the harder it is to die. The Heavens still need me around to entertain them. I won’t die that easily. You can go now!”
“Yun Ge Er!” Third Brother looked at the sky with his brow furrowed. He squeezed his horse and it was about to take off. Yun Ge was so anxious she yelled out “Third Brother, I’ll cook “Feng He Yu Lu” for you. It’s a new dish I just invented.”
Even if the world’s greatest treasure was here, or the Han dynasty’s imperial seal was placed right under Third Brother’s horse, Third Brother wouldn’t blink an eye and just trample over it. Only food can make him stop his horse. Third Brother pulled the reins “To the count of twenty.”
Yun Ge nodded, this was her method of keeping time with Third Brother since they were kids. This means he would count to twenty and not a moment more. Yun Ge smiled at the boy “Does that mean if you had money, you would go see a doctor?”
The boy’s expression showed his disdain and he purposely reached out his dirty blackened hand to touch Yun Ge’s hand. One was as dirty as mud, the other as white as snow. This disparity, Yun Ge didn’t even notice, and instead grabbed his hand back and asking again “Does that mean if you had money, you would go see a doctor?”
The boy stared at Yun Ge’s hand and was stunned for a moment, saying nothing. Yun Ge smiled “No response, then I’ll take that as a yes. Third Brother, do you have any money?”
Third Brother didn’t even turn his head “I didn’t bring any money when I left the house. Plus I won’t get tricked. It’s enough our family has an idiotic one. And even if I had money, I wouldn’t give it to that useless guy.”
The boy laughed instead of getting angry. He laid back down on the ground as if he was laying on a comfortable pallet. He had a lazy smile and looked pleased, this disdainful smile on his face was full of sorrow, unclear whether he was laughing at someone else or laughing at himself.
Yun Ge stopped smiling and said very sincerely “Being beaten up by beggars does not mean he’s useless. They were older and had more people, and they preyed on the weak and the smaller. They are in the wrong.” The boy on the ground continued to smile as if he lost his heart somewhere already and no longer cared. In his black obsidian eyes there twinkled these sharp and cold pinpoints.
Third Brother huffed once and said in a cold voice “Fifteen, sixteen…..”
Yun Ge was so anxious while the boy on the ground said sarcastically “Daughter of a rich family, if you have no money, when don’t you give me the pearl on your shoe. The pearl on the shoe I can exchange for money and go see a doctor.” Since he was already deemed a trickster, why not just go all the way. The color and size of that pearl, forget seeing a doctor, he can buy an entire clinic.
“You can exchange that for money?” Yun Ge just thought the pearl was really pretty on the shoe so she asked her mom to make this shoe for her. Now she’s learning it can be exchanged for money. She smiled and nodded her head, reaching down to pull the pearl off. But the pearl was sewed on tight and she couldn’t wrench it off so quickly.
Yun Ge hurriedly took her shoe off and placed it in the boy’s hand. She turned and jumped back on the camel and started chasing after her Third Brother. From a distance she called back “Don’t forget to see a doctor. You gave your word!”
The boy laid down on the ground and watched as the green woven figure on the snow white camel disappeared from sight. His lips thinned, it was still a lazy smile. In his eyes, behind the emptiness of the desert wasteland, there resided a despair darker than the darkest night. He gripped the embroidered shoe in his hands, his disdain and rage growing stronger.
So the things that he saw as the items representing wealth and a happy life, to her it was simply a jewel used for fun. “I am not a gentleman, and I never intend to be a gentleman!”
He viciously threw the shoe away and looked up at the expressionless and merciless sky and started laughing. Is this a person’s fate? How dare the Heavens decide who will be wealthy, who will be worthless, who ought to die, who ought to live. Who decides that one person’s life is more precious than another?
Damn you, Heavens! I will never follow the fate you laid out for me. What you stole from me, I will get it all back in multiples. I will see a demon, kill a demon, see a god, kill a god!