Edited and Proofread by KitKat
The gushing wind howled by his ears and the scenery flashed by quickly as Ta Xue carried them across the desert. The only thing An Chang Qing could discern with his eyes were the shining stars above.
They traveled for quite a distance before Ta Xue brought them to a small lake.
If he had not seen it with his own eyes, An Chang Qing would’ve never believed that there existed such a pristine lake deep in the desert. Maybe because there was a water source, the vegetation around the lake was lush and thriving as seen through the lights lit by the fireflies hiding between the leaves.
The moon and stars were reflected distinctively over the tranquil water as though there was another sky within the lake.
An Chang Qing got down from Ta Xue and walked along the lake in awe. Xiao Zhige let Ta Xue wander off to play while he followed behind An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing dusted off the sand of a large boulder and sat down. Looking up at Xiao Zhige, he asked, “This place is beautiful. How did Wangye find it?”
“I used to camp around here during the marches to Liangzhou.” Xiao Zhige sat beside An Chang Qing and began telling him about his past.
Back then, he had just joined the army as a low-ranking soldier with nothing to his name. He was traversing this part of the desert because his platoon was being transferred to Liangzhou. At the time, he was still a kid and far less mellow than he was now. Being woken up in the middle of the night by his teammates, he readily agreed to join them in sneaking off to find food.
They were all still growing up so the food taken during the day had been digested by night. Remembering the lake nearby, they decided to go there to catch fish. After filling up their growling stomach, the group slept by the lake and sneaked back before dawn.
“This is where I got to know Chang Zai Cang.” Chang Zai Cang was the ringleader for this mischief.
After that, the war in Liangzhou had turned for the worse. They had marched with haste to provide support but Liangzhou had still incurred heavy losses. Among the group that had sneaked off to catch fish, only he and Chang Zai Cang had survived.
“It must’ve been hard,” An Chang Qing said when he saw Xiao Zhige’s brows crease up as he recounted those events.
An Chang Qing was holding Xiao Zhige’s strong and rough hand. His ten fingers were slender and long; this should’ve been a beautiful pair of hands but over the years, it had to wield weapons and weather hardships, causing the palms to be coarse and filled with calluses. An Chang Qing had seen the hands of the other princes, they were all white and delicate without any trace of imperfections.
Princes should be well-fed and groomed like the Crown Prince and Third Prince. Only Xiao Zhige had been mistreated from a young age.
But Xiao Zhige shook his head and smiled, “It was hard but it’s all worth it.”
“If you want something precious, you’ll have to put something else up in exchange.” There was only An Chang Qing in his eyes when he said this.
In the last twenty years, he had indeed tasted hardships and oppression but he had always remembered his mother’s words: ‘Everyone in this world has their own destiny. Some will experience sweetness before they will have to face bitterness, some will have to brave tribulations before they can obtain happiness. Since my son has suffered much since childhood, he will have a happy life later. Just be patient, do not despair.’
These words had always followed him.
Xiao Zhige had believed An Chang Qing to be his ‘happiness after the sufferings’. If the twenty years of torment that he had to go through was the price to be paid to secure a happy life with An Chang Qing, it had not been a loss.
An Chang Qing did not know his thoughts but his face looked serene. It seemed Xiao Zhige had made peace with it.
He felt his pocket and pulled out a small paper bag. He picked a piece of pine nut candy from it and fed it to Xiao Zhige.
“You’ll have me in the future, there won’t be any more bitterness.”
“Is it sweet?”
Xiao Zhige’s eyes darkened as he lowered his head to kiss An Chang Qing and at the same time, passed the sweet to his mouth. He then asked provocatively, “It’s very sweet. You try.”
An Chang Qing was forced to receive the candy. He looked at Xiao Zhige’s face up close and his heart began to beat violently.
The sweet gradually melted but the kiss still lingered. Until An Chang Qing was dizzy from breathlessness, they held onto each other’s’ lips.
Xiao Zhige supported his back with his hands and whispered, “It’s still very sweet”
An Chang Qing glared at him and covered his mouth, “Nonsense. No more kissing. My lips are all swollen.”
The look in Xiao Zhige’s eyes darkened. He stroked An Chang Qing’s back a little heavier this time and asked softly, “The guidelines… Have you been following it? I haven’t seen you using it since you came to Yanzhou.”
Hearing this, An Chang Qing’s eyes widened and his face turned beet red. He stuttered and shyly replied, “….it’s done. I’ve reached the final stage.”
Back in Yejing, he had followed the instructions and practiced daily with the jade rods. There was no way he would tell Xiao Zhige about this so he was not updated on his progress clearly.
Seeing his neck turn deep red, Xiao Zhige chuckled and said, “When we return to Yanzhou, let’s make love.”
Xiao Zhige had had too many concerns before and was unwilling to force An Chang Qing. But now that they had openly declared their love, Xiao Zhige could no longer hold back.
An Chang Qing squinted at him and teased, “Who was it that refused to sleep with me before?”
Xiao Zhige laughed and kissed his hair, “I was wrong. Can Nuo Nuo give me another chance?”
“I’ll go look for Ta Xue,” An Chang Qing wriggled out from his embrace and ran to Ta Xue, “Didn’t you say that you’ll teach me how to ride a horse?”
Xiao Zhige laughed helplessly and walked up to him.
By the time they returned, the hunting team had already come back. A captured rabbit was now being roasted over the fire.
An Chang Qing was sitting on Ta Xue while Xiao Zhige was holding the reins. As they approached, the soldiers were all stupefied. They had never seen the Northern Warlord this gentle before! It seems marriage can indeed change a man.
As the soldiers tried to act normal and kept their eyes to themselves, only Chang Zai Cang dared to move a muscle and spoke disapprovingly, “We are here to discuss issues of national importance with the Xi Wei Empire, not for you to go on dates!”
The words seemed to hit An Chang Qing hard and he looked down with blushing cheeks.
Xiao Zhige, on the other hand, stared at Chang Zai Cang menacingly and said with disdain, “Say one more word and you’ll be attending this meeting by yourself.”
This was Chang Zai Cang’s Achilles’ heels. He had no choice but to shut up and stay put.
After resting for the night, the group departed early the next morning. By noon, they had finally arrived at Liangzhou.
Although Liangzhou and Yanzhou were geographically close, they had many dissimilarities. There were many foreigners with high noses and deep eyes living in the city and even the commoners were dressed very differently compared to the people of Da Ye.
Xiao Zhige explained, “Since Liangzhou is right next to the Xi Wei Empire, many of the Xi Wei natives who were mistreated would escape to Liangzhou for refuge.”
Running to Liangzhou would render them homeless but it was a better life than being oppressed and treated as less than livestock. With time, a large community of Xi Wei natives had settled in Liangzhou and many had interracial marriages with the people of Da Ye. This integration introduced the traditions and cultures of the Xi Wei natives to Liangzhou and eventually, created this unique diversity.
Everything in Liangzhou seemed exotic and eye-catching to An Chang Qing. He was in awe with the items on sale by the street vendors.
After they entered the city and arrived at Chang Zai Cang’s Manor, Xiao Zhige went on to discuss their upcoming dealings with the Xi Wei Empire. An Chang Qing had nothing to do so he went to explore the city accompanied by a guard.
Both cities were located at the border but Liangzhou was clearly more lively than Yanzhou. Of the three cities bordering the desert, Yanzhou was the most prone to be attacked due to the Beidi people’s hatred for Xiao Zhige. Therefore, its streets were not as bustling as that of Chenzhou and Liangzhou.
An Chang Qing browsed the streets and saw many interesting items. After going through two streets, he came across a teahouse which had dancers performing with monkeys to entertain guests. An Chang Qing was intrigued and decided to stop by.
Liangzhou’s tea was also quite different. What was added to the tea was not tea leaves but spices and herbs. It tasted strange at first but would grow on you as you got used to the fragrance.
After having two cups of tea and watching a dance performed by monkeys, it was time to head back. An Chang Qing was about to leave when he saw a crowd gathering outside the teahouse and heard the voice of a man shouting.
Peeking in between the onlookers, he saw a large man pointing a bamboo stick at a young girl of about ten. She was wearing a sleeveless top and a large leather bag in the shape of a fish tail was wrapped tightly over her from her waist down. She was sitting next to a large water tank, hugging herself and shivering.
An Chang Qing grimaced. He squeezed through the crowd and tried to find out what was happening.
It turns out that they were a pair of father and daughter street performers. The little girl was to wear a fishtail to imitate a mermaid while performing acrobatics in the large water tank. It seemed she hadn’t been able to hold her breath just then and was being punished for her failure.
Many onlookers disagreed with the man but seeing that he was her father, it was not reasonable for them to meddle so they could only try to persuade the man politely. However, the man claimed that they were trying to earn money for the child’s mother who was seriously ill and yet, she could not even do a simple act properly.
The little girl huddled silently in a corner, her hair and clothes dripping wet.
Until the man said that he had sacrificed a lot to raise her, the little girl looked up and shouted in frustration, “You’re not my father! You didn’t raise me!”
The man was stumped. He flogged her harshly and said, “Shut up! If I’m not your father, who is?!”
The little girl was scared but she still insisted, “You are not!”
The man was furious. He was about to pick up a small stool to hit her when An Chang Qing stepped in. He signaled for the guard to hold the man back while he blocked the girl behind him. “No father will act this way!”
Seeing that An Chang Qing’s clothes were not ordinary and that he even had a bodyguard, the man was taken aback but he still stuck out his head and said, “Mind your own business! This is my family’s affairs!”
An Chang Qing ignored the man. He went over to help the little girl up but found that the fish tail shaped bag had hindered her ability to stand. He let her sit down first and took off his outer coat to cover her.
“You said that he is not your father?”
The little girl eyed him cautiously, trying to determine if he held any ill will. An Chang Qing looked at her with gentle eyes and waited patiently for her answer.
Feeling that An Chang Qing bore no malice, she nodded, “He’s not my father. My father had died and I was bought by him.”
The bystanders heard her words and began pointing fingers at the man. If he were the girl’s father, they couldn’t intervene but since that was not the case and coupled with the fact that the man had been lying to them, everyone began to chastise him.
An Chang Qing looked at the little girl with some sympathy. He contemplated, then turned and faced the man, “I’m taking this child with me. How much did you pay for her? I will reimburse you.”
The man was unwilling to let the girl go. After all, she was his money tree and had helped him earn a lot of money. “You can’t force me to sell her!”
An Chang Qing had no patience to argue with the man. He glanced at the guard who then cast the man a threatening look as he drew his sword from its sheath.
The man panicked. He realized it was not wise to provoke An Chang Qing and hurriedly said, “Alright! Alright! 500 taels! I bought the girl for 500 taels”
“He’s lying! He clearly only paid 5 taels!” The little girl shouted for everyone to hear.
The man choked up and viciously stared at the girl.
An Chang Qing took out 5 taels and threw them at the man. He told the guard to carry the girl and take her back with them.
As he was leaving, he heard someone call out to him, “Sir, please stop.”
An Chang Qing turned and saw a young man dressed in blue smiling at him. He had a handsome appearance but his complexion seemed a little pale. On his side was a beautiful maid.
“Is something the matter?”
“The fish tail covering that this child is wearing, if you don’t remove it soon, I’m afraid it will hurt her legs.”
An Chang Qing followed his finger and looked at the leather sheath tightly wrapped over her lower body. He bit his lips and was at a loss. Although the little girl was still small, she was still a girl. It was inappropriate for him and the guard to strip her clothes in public.
“My maid can be of service if you would allow. We should find a place to let her remove the fishtail covering for the child.”
An Chang Qing thought it over and seeing that he only brought a maid, calculated that there was no immediate danger. He agreed and the group went back to the teahouse from before and booked an isolated room.
After entering the room, the maid picked up the child and proceeded to help her remove the fish tail covering from behind a screen. Meanwhile, An Chang Qing ordered tea and waited outside with the gentleman who offered up his name amicably, “My surname is Xue, given name is Yi. How should I address you, young sir?”
“My surname is An, given name is Nuo.” They were not familiar and the man was being too friendly so An Chang Qing couldn’t help but be wary.
Xue Yi said, “Judging by your looks, you are not someone from Liangzhou, are you?”
An Chang Qing responded, “Yes, I’m here on business.”
The two exchanged a few more words before the maid returned with the child in her arms. The child was wrapped in An Chang Qing’s robe and her face was slightly blushing.
The maid remained expressionless as she reported to Xue Yi, “The fish tail has been removed. There is no damage to the legs but this child is not a girl, he’s a boy.”
This prompted An Chang Qing to take a closer look at the kid. In fact, the boy had outstanding facial features if it weren’t for the scale shape birthmark under his left eye.
The little boy said nervously, “He told me to dress up as a girl. That way, it’ll attract a larger audience.”
‘He’ clearly referred to the man who had bought him.
An Chang Qing suddenly realized that he was rubbing the boy’s head. He took his hand back and turned to speak to Xue Yi, “Now that this has been settled, I have to take my leave. Thank you Brother Xue for today.”
Xue Yi smiled and said, “You’re welcome. Let us meet again should fate permit.”
An Chang Qing nodded and took the boy away.
Xue Yi waited till An Chang Qing was out of sight before turning to leave. His maid, Ji Xue, followed closely behind, “Minister, are we going back now? Chang Zai Cang has already arrived.”
Xue Yi, also known as Xue Wuyi nodded, “It’s time to return indeed. Chang Zai Cang should’ve brought along the Northern Warlord with him.”
Ji Xue said, “Should I prepare the carriage?”
“There’s no hurry,” Xue Wuyi waved his hand, “Ji Xue, do you think that it’s possible for two persons of unrelated origins to look exactly the same?”
Ji Xue shook her head and replied, “This servant has never heard of such a thing.”
Xue Wuyi meditated briefly before giving out an order, “Have someone do a background check on An Nuo.”