Ballad Of The Desert - Volume 1 - Chapter 7
Chapter 7: Background Identity
I'm playing with the inkbrush in my hand when Xiao Tao swoops in from outside and directly lands on my hand. I tried to pull back but the ink still spills on my sleeve. Xiao Qian lightly lands on the window and gives Xiao Tao a knowing look, and shoots me a sympathetic one.
I angrily grab Xiao Tao's neck ’’What number outfit is this? What number? Today I'm going to turn your snowy cuteness into a black crow.’’ I grab the inkbrush and get more ink to brush on Xiao Tao, who flaps his wings and cries desperately. Xiao Qian appears torn, not sure if he should help so he coo'd a few times, then put his head under his wings so he doesn't need to watch anymore.
Xiao Tao appears to understand that I am genuinely angry this time, so he stops struggling and allows me to brush ink on him. I painted a large part of his body black before releasing him.
The sound of clapping comes from the door ’’What an exciting show, picking on a pigeon.’’ Huo Qu Bing stands by the door and is thoroughly amused.
I angrily reply ’’I pick on him? Why don't you ask him how he picks on me daily? Food and clothing, there is not a single item he hasn't destroyed.’’ As I was complaining, Xiao Tao suddenly spread his wings and gave his body a big shake before flying outside. When I react and lean my body backwards, my face feels this cold splash like a thousand drops of ink sprayed on my face.
’’Xiao Tao! I'm going to braise you!’’ My raging screams are accompanied by Huo Qu Bing laughing. Flying out the window, that ’’crow’’ has become a black spot in the sky.
I turn around and use a handkerchief to wipe my face, with Huo Qu Bing behind me still laughing ’’I've seen it all, trying to hide is a little too late.’’
I hollered ’’Get out! Who said you could come in?’’
He laughingly walked out, and I thought he was leaving, but from the yard came the sound of water being fetched. In a short while, he comes back in and hands me a clean handkerchief. I silently take it from him. Once I felt clean, I turned around ’’Thanks.’’ He looked at me and pointed to his ears. I grabbed the handkerchief and wiped there. He then pointed to his forehead and I wiped, then he pointed to his nose and I wiped. I suddenly stopped and stared at him. His shoulders were shaking with silent laughter. I threw the handkerchief at him and stood up angrily ’’You should go hang out with Xiao Tao, you two would suit perfectly.’’
He asked with a laugh ’’Where are you going. I haven't discussed with you the serious matters.’’ I shot back ’’Going to change.’’
When I return to the study, he's flipping through the books on the shelf. When he hears me, he turns ’’Ms. Jin, are you looking to become a female general?’’ I snatch back my hand copied ’’Sun Zi War Tactics’’ and return it to the bookshelf. ’’Touching things without an owner's permission is a shady thing to do.’’
’’I'm not a gentleman, and you're not a lady. We're a perfect match.’’
I'm about to retort when Li Yan arrives, but she turns when she sees I have someone with me. I ask her to come, and when she walks over, Huo Qu Bing stares at her but doesn't say anything. I give him a glance ’’Do you need a handkerchief to wipe your drool?’’ He keeps staring but his lips turn up in a smirk ’’I can control myself still, no need.’’
Li Yan gives me a courtesy but looks questioningly at me. Before I can speak, Huo Qu Bing coldly orders ’’Take your veil off.’’
She gives him an icy look while I hurry to explain who he is. The name Huo Qu Bing flows from my lips when she gives me a shocked look and turns to assess him. She gives him a courtesy and gives me one last look to see if I'm making any movements, before taking off her veil. Huo Qu Bing stares at her in an extremely rude way and then says ’’You can leave!’’ She puts on her veil, gives him a courtesy, and leaves.
I ask ’’As pretty as the Empress when she first met the Emperor?’’
He touches his chin lightly ’’I don't remember Aunt's looks during her prime, but it's likely on par. This is less important though. What's rare is her demeanor was right on point. She was elegant even in a disadvantageous situation, when I was rude to her she didn't grow shocked, angry, or anxious. She was steely within her femininity. Stronger than you actually!’’ I coldly huff without responding.
He wonders ’’When are you planning to send her into the Palace.’’
I shake my head ’’I don't know. I have some doubts in my mind. If she can't give me an acceptable response, I don't want to get involved in her business.’’
He laughed ’’You slowly think it through. Be careful not to get your trump card stolen. Her looks are extraordinary, but the world is vast. First there was Chen Ah Jiao (one of the Great Beauties), next came Empress Wei, and after the Empress Weil is her. You can't predict that there isn't another woman in Chang An as beautiful as her.’’
I chuckled then ask ’’You said you came here to discuss serious matters. What?’’
’’What happened between you and Shi Enterprises?’’ I answered ’’We went our own ways.’’ He reminded me ’’Shi Enterprises may not as be powerful as it used to be, but it's still prominent in Chang An. If you are a lone tree now, be careful that when a tree grows too large it will attract the wind.’’
I smile ’’That's why I want align with the Princess!’’
He asks ’’How big do you want to grow the business?’’ I thought and then shook my head ’’I don't know, one step at a time I guess.’’
He shared some information with me ’’Meng JIu of Shi Enterprises is an interesting person. Supposedly his mother was a good playmate of the Emperor when they were kids. The Emperor has even held him as a baby. But now he refuses to enter the Palace. Every time he is summoned he refuses. There are few in Chang An who have seen him. One of these days I'l like to meet him.’’
My heart felt odd and I opened my mouth, but then closed it and swallowed what I wanted to say. I looked outside and didn't continue the conversation.
After I walked Huo Qu Bing out, I went to see Li Yan. Along the way I pass Fang Ru's residence where she is playing the flute, and as a newbie she's already better than I am. Suddenly the flute stopped playing. From Li Yan NIan's residence came the sound of the lute, and then the flute started back up. I looked between the two residences and smiled.
Li Yan welcomes me and asks for an explanation. I wanted Huo Qu Bing to see how she stacked up with the Great Beauties, then I ask her to explain to me about her past. If she wants to enter the Palace and needs my help, I don't want to be used and fooled. She pretends not to understand me, so I laugh and ask to see her hand because I understand a bit of hand reading.
I take her right hand ’’Lots of lines, a very complicated mind prone to overthinking. The criss-crossing pattern shows the mind is often conflicted, but one line goes ahead, revealing the desire to pursue a goal at all costs. One of your parents is likely Han...’’ She tries to pull her hand away but I continue ’’Pursuing a lonely path, vengeance in the heart, the turn upwards to fly high.’’
She asks ’’How did I reveal myself?’’ I point out ’’Your eyes are beautiful with lush lashes that are naturally curly, with very white fair skin, and a dance that has its unique flavor.’’ She doesn't think it's that odd. I tell her that only people who grew up in the desert appreciate green nature, which is a life source in the desert. It's all my conjecture, of course.
I continue - she knew I set up ’’Hua Yue Nong’’ to make friends with the Princess and she purposely came here for that, which means she wants to enter the Palace. Her brother doesn't seem like the greedy type to sell his sister to the Emperor for riches. The Palace is a horrid place with thousands of women vying for the Emperor's attention, and she is clearly not stupid. Why would she single-mindedly want to go there? She doesn't appear to covet riches either. So the only answer is ’’vengeance’’ But I can't understand why she, with her intelligence and thoughtfulness, she can't work this out in her heart. At the age of sixteen, she is at her first blush of beauty, but her eyes are so cold. I found out from her second brother Li Guan Li that her father pampered her but her mother was strangely very strict with her. That means she grew up relatively happy, so where did this vengeance come from?
She explains that her mother was a Han, and they grew up in the Central Plains, but her mother never thought of herself as a Han, and made Li Yan also feel the same way. She gives her real last name, which is a Luo Lan last name. She asks if I am familiar with Xi Yu territory and it's kingdoms. I nod, Xi Yu has 36 different kingdoms and tribes, including Luo Lan, et. al.
Luo Lan is situation right outside the Yu Men Gate, which makes it at a critical juncture. If the Han want to attack the Xiong Nu, or the Xiong Nu want to attack the Han, passing through Luo Lan is a must. The culture of Luo Lan is closer to the Xiong No so it has always aligned with them. But the current Han Emperor refuses to allow Xiong Nu to block the Han's westward expansion so has set out to align with the Xi Yu kingdoms, with Luo Lan being the first to be persuaded to change sides. Papa used to tell me the exploits of the Han Emperor and how he set out to make new allies one by one and succeeded. Papa would get excited and say that the Han conquering the Xiong Nu was just a matter of time.
The same story as told by Jiu Ye turned into something more. In passing through Luo Lan, there was a very dangerous and deadly desert region. The Han Emperor demanded the Luo Lan King provide assistance to the Han conveys. But the Han conveys constantly abused their Luo Lan guides, so the Luo Lan King decided to refuse to comply with the Han Emperor's request. In a fury, the Han Emperor had the Luo Lan King assassinated. Stuck between the Han and the Xiong Nu, Luo Lan was between a rock and a hard place, If either side got angry, Luo Lan would suffer. In order to keep the peace, Luo Lan even had to send one of its princes to the Han dynasty and another to the Xiong Nu as pawns.
The other Xi Yu kingdoms all have the same fates, trying to survive while stuck between two warring giants. One wrong move and they are wiped out. When Jiu Ye told me this story, while he acknowledged the Emperor's vast conquering strategy, in his voice was more pity for the Xi Yu kingdoms.
Li Yan tells me she knows what she is doing. From the moment she was born, she came with her mother's hatred of the Han. Her mother's master, and also Li Yan's birth father, was a Luo Lan man who once refused the unreasonable demands of a Han envoy. In rage, the Han envoy had her father whipped and then tortured to death. Her mother escaped, though she was pregnant with Li Yan at that time. She met a traveling musician and married him, becoming his second wife and mother to his sons. When Li Yan was small, her mother took her back to where her father was tortured and died to pay their respects to him.
’’She pointed to a spot in the desert, telling me this was where father was whipped, and this is where father was buried alive. How father slowly died, mother will never forget the image of father buried in the sand by the Hans. A handsome young man who eventually shriveled up into a dried up human being the size of a child. Her descriptions were vivid and I felt like I could see what happened back then. I had nightmares every night and would wake up in tears. Mother laughed and said that was father's vengeance. Year after year, mother took me back to Luo Lan, telling me never to forget.’’
While Li Yan's eyes fill with tears, she's smiling and I tell her not to smile. ’’Mother would not let me cry. Never cry. Mother said that tears would not save me. I can only smile, I can smile.’’ I asked if Li Yan Nian knew her background, She says they don't. When her mother married her step father, she lavished all her love on Li Guan Li as an outlet for the guilt she felt towards her birth father.
I paced, wondering what to do. We all have hate, but my Papa only wanted me to be happy, whereas Li Yan's mother only wants her to get revenge. The sun is setting and the birds are returning, accompanied by the sounds of the lute playing, I lean against the window and look outside.
’’Li Yan, I suggest the smartest thing is for you to forget this all. Your mother is your mother, she cannot force her vengeance on you. She was not a good mother, using her pain to torment you. If your birth father was a good man deserving of a woman's love, then he would want what brings you happiness and not for you to struggle your entire life in hatred. If you choose revenge, then your life is over before it even begins. Because the target is the Han Emperor, so by default it is the entire Han Empire. The price for your revenge is your entire life, you will never find your own happiness.’’
She thanked me ’’It isn't just for revenge, I am also the daughter of Luo Lan, with love towards Luo Lan. I am proud of being a Luo Lan person. We may not have the riches and etiquette of the Han, but we have our plains, laughter, and warm embrace.’’
I continue ’’We don't have warm houses but we can see where the sky and earth touch. We don't have wide streets but we can race our horse anytime.’’
She responds ’’The world is so vast, and we just want a piece of land where we can herd sheep and sing songs. Why won't the Han dynasty stop tormenting Luo Lan, give us a chance to live?’’
I tell her that the ’’Tao Te Jing’’ (Ethics and Morality Manual) tells us that there is no permanence in this world and things will disappear in time. One day there will be no Han dynasty or Luo Lan.
She retorts ’’I won't argue these principles with you. Let me ask you. If a young man is about to be killed, will you say to him 'If you don't die at 40, you'll die at 50, if you don't die at 50 you'll die at 60. Since you're going to die anyway, why struggle, just let yourself get killed now.'’’
She asks for my help. I tell her she'll get into the Palace regardless of my help, but she believes going through me is the best way. I agree, though I don't know what she is thinking, If she tries to assassinate the Emperor, it doesn't solve anything since there is already a Crown Prince, plus we would all get punished along with her. She smiles, that is not her way. She doesn't know martial arts and this is not a long term solution.
I shrug ’’I suppose it's curiosity. I don't have a side I stand with, so I can support whatever I want.’’ She can tell I have agreed to assist and her eyes grow red-rimmed. She has never shared her thoughts with anyone, and thanks me for listening to her, it made her feel much better.
I ask her what the heck is going on between Li Yan Nian and Fang Ru, and she laughs, blaming me since I asked them to create a new song together. She goes to peek but I don't follow since I don't want to be a third wheel.
I go back to Hong Gu's quarters and she hands me a handkerchief, needing to talk to me. The handkerchief is worn after many washes, and instead of being embroidered with the usual flowers or leaves, instead it has a vine along the side that formed the character Li. It was beautifully done and seductive.
Hong Gu explains that the third young master Li (name Li Gan) found it in the courtyard and wants to know who it belongs to. She knew it was likely Li Yan's but didn't know what I was planning so told him she would find out,.
Hong Gu follows with more ’’The third young master Li is the son of General Li Guang, one of the highest officials in court. Even though he was born of such high standing, he's nothing like young master Huo. He has no arrogance, but his martial arts prowess and scholarly learnings are one of the most accomplished among the young men of Chang An. With the war with the Xiong Nu, he has a bright future ahead of him. Just by looking at a handkerchief with the word ’’Li’’ embroidered on it has made Li Gan head over hells for Li Yan, if he ever saw her face, he might as well give his soul to her.
Initially I wanted to return the handkerchief to Li Yan and tell her what happened, but I changed my mind and kept it, telling Hong Gu to find some random girl named Li and tell Li Gan that the handkerchief belongs to her.
Hong Gu stares at me ’’I can't figure out what you guys are doing. Your actions towards Li Yan indicate that you want to make her famous, but thus far you haven't done anything. And if the third young master Li isn't even good enough for her, it's hard to find a better option in Chang An.’’ She proceeds to eat but keeps staring at me ’’You two....you two....’’.
It's late and Xiao Tao and Xiao Qian still haven't returned. I'm about to get impatient when suddenly Xiao Qian returns bearing a cloth wrapped around his leg. I smile and take the cloth where small characters are written on it.
’’What mess did Xiao Tao get into? How did he become a black crow? You guys fight and I'm the one who suffers. I wore a white robe today and Xiao Tao landed on me. Even though he was half dry already, he was still dirty and my white robe was completely ruined. Now it needs to be thoroughly cleaned. I heard your throat wasn't feeling well yesterday? Did you boil water accordingly to my recommendation?’’
I take out an already cut handkerchief and write ’’Don't spoil him, he's not even afraid of me now. The littlest infraction and he'll run away. My throat is much better. It's just that the medicine is bitter so the second time around I didn't put as much in.’’ I secured the cloth around Xiao Qian and sent him flying into the sky.
I look down at the ceramic jar in front of me, with gold and silver flower vines intwined that seem especially pretty in the lamp light. I take a drink of water and take out another cloth to write ’’After researching in a book, I learned that the gold and silver flower have another name of ’’Yuen Yang Teng’’ (Lover's Vines). The flowers first bloom white, and then turn yellow, which creates this gold and silver contrast. The flowers always remain intertwined, never leaving each other. I decide to help Li Yan, because her mind is set and she's going to do it regardless. Until I am certain of your [she is addressing Jiu Ye in this diary entry] real identity and intentions, why not have Li Yan owe me one this time. In the future, our goals might be aligned, it might not. Neither of us gave each other any promises. I don't know if I'm doing the right thing, but my feelings towards Li Yan are complicated. Some grudging respect and some sympathy. And perhaps some disgust at myself. Like someone said to me, she is more capable than me.’’
My heart hurts and I finish writing. I put the cloth away and see that I've already accumulated so many diary entries. Xiao Qian has returned and I remove another cloth where Jiu Ye has sent another detailed medical recommendation, this time with honey in it to alleviate the bitterness. He tells me Xiao Tao refuses to come home, so likely Xiao Qian will go back to spend the night there. He tells me to go to sleep early.
I tap Xiao Qian's head ’’You have no backbone.’’ He cocked his head at me and I wave my hand ’’Go find your precious wifey!’’ and then he takes off.
I kneel and bow before the Princess who tells me to rise and asks why I am here. I explain I wanted the Princess' guidance. There is a woman whose looks far surpass mine, with elegance in dance, intelligence and wit, and a melodic voice. The Princess laughs, knowing that I am running four dancing houses, so for me to praise a woman like this means she really is special.
I explain that she is the younger sister to the musician Li Yan Nian and has her brother's talent. The Princess orders me to bring her. I bow and ask the Princess for more time, I am preparing a jade carefully before unveiling it. She naturally wonders why I told her this early then?
I tell her that a good war tactician needs to announce the battle in advance to prepare. I am just preparing the weapon, but it is up to the Princess to set the stage. She replies ’’You are so forthright, reminding me a bit of Huo Qu Bing.’’
’’Your highness is wise and thoughtful. I don't need to beat around the bush and hide, which would only make the Princess think less of me.’’
She thinks and asks ’’I heard that the money you used to buy the dancing houses, half of it was borrowed from the girls who work at the dancing houses. In your promissory note, you promised to repay it all - one year, with an interest of 20%, within two years with an interest of 50%.’’
I reply that I couldn't find so much money right away but couldn't let this great business opportunity pass by, so this was my last resort.
She gives me an assessing look. ’’This last resort move was brilliant. Luo Yu House is doing booming business, and the other dancing girls who see this would be eager to bet their money on you. The word profit unites a pile of loose sand so that everyone is now aligned with you. Once you have everyone's heart on your side, that is already half way to success. You can go now! Seeing how you handle things, I know you will not disappoint me. I wait to meet this beautiful jade of yours.’’