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The Vast Desert Chapter 1


Chapter 1 – Encountering a Close Friend of Many Years in the Desert

A jet-black pearl was lying on a pile of yellow sand.

Who would have thought that such an originally simple and beautiful object would give rise to a succession of complicated and secretive affairs?

Chu Liuxiang returned to his boat, just like a wanderer returning to his home. The sea breeze was humid and warm, just as warm as his mood right now.

Far away at the horizon where the sea and sky met, there was a clump of white cloud floating leisurely. The boat was rocking on the cradle of green jade waves. Under the bright sunlight, the glossy deck looked even shinier than a mirror.

He took off his clothes, and he took off his shoes and socks. The burning hot deck was scalding his bare feet and burning his lazy mood; his entire being seemed to want to float up. He could not help shouting at the top of his lungs, “Su Rongrong, Li Hongxiu, Song Tian’er, if you don’t get some delicious thing out to eat, I will swallow the boat whole.”

There was no voice, there was no response; there was practically not even one person on the entire boat. Su Rongrong, Li Hongxiu, and Song Tian’er have disappeared.

In that instant, all the warm, cozy feeling in Chu Liuxiang’s heart also disappeared. He searched every nook and cranny on the boat, even the closet, the rice bucket, everywhere. But he could not find even a strand of hair belonging to them.

Where could they go?

From time to time, Li Hongxiu might go ashore to buy a case of sandalwood; Song Tian’er might go strolling around the marketplace. But the three of them leaving the boat at the same time, there has never been such thing.

Could it be that they were leaving without saying good-bye?

This was even more impossible. For the last many years the three of them and Chu Liuxiang have become an entity; they were practically an integral part of Chu Liuxiang’s life, something that no one would be able to separate.

In that case, how come they were not on the boat?

Could it be that they met a misfortune and suffered other people’s treacherous assault?

Chu Liuxiang rushed into the hold of the ship again. He trusted that these three girls’ martial art skill and resourcefulness were sufficient to deal with any unforeseen event. Yet he still installed forty-nine ingenious mechanisms around the cabin of the boat.

These mechanisms could, in the blink of an eye, incapacitate anybody – some could make people lose consciousness, some could lock up someone’s four limbs, some could eject somebody into the sea.

But now, none of these mechanisms have been activated. Inside and outside the cabin, there was not the slightest bit of disorder either. Inside the green jade muslin cabinet, there were three cooked-chickens. His favorite grape wine was still hanging inside the seawater. The wine cup that he liked to use had already been wiped clean and shiny.

Li Hongxiu’s journal [orig. account of true records] was still lying by her bedside; the page was opened to the ‘Awakened From A Dream’ section. By Su Rongrong’s bedside, there was a pair of socks that she had been making but not finished yet. Evidently they were leaving the boat peacefully and quietly.

Unless there was someone who could subdue all three of them together in a flash.

But such person, until now, has not been born yet!

Chu Liuxiang was even more puzzled.

He was so anxious that he was like an ant on a hot pan; he floated in and out on the boat incessantly, and ran around in circles.

After running around for seventy, eighty times, he suddenly found out that on his favorite big chair, there was a pile of shiny yellow sand.

And on top of this pile of yellow sand, there was a shiny black pearl.

This was originally the easiest place to find. But when one was so anxious, one would oftentimes miss looking at the most obvious place.

Chu Liuxiang grabbed a handful of yellow sand. The grain of sand leaked from the crack between his fingers like rain. Thereupon he also found a slip of paper buried inside the pile of sand. The note said:

Chu Liuxiang stole the horse by the lakeside.

Hei Zhenzhu [black pearl] seized the beauty on the sea.

Now Chu Liuxiang is to ride on Hei Zhenzhu’s horse.

Here is the small town of Ma Lian [lit. horse company (military)] on the river plain.

Scorching sun, sandstorm, loess [yellow sandy soil typical of north China], impoverished small town, married women with clothes-not-covering-the-body [idiom: poverty-stricken] – leading along children who looked famished, hid themselves behind wooden plank doors, peeking out at strangers.

But on the barren Loess Plateau [of northwest China], this small town could be considered prosperous and bustling, simply because within a hundred li around, this was the only place with fresh water.

Therefore, quite surprisingly, the town actually had several brick houses and several shops. After going through an arduous journey, when Chu Liuxiang arrived here, he felt like he had reached the paradise.

He was practically rushing over day and night nonstop; he nearly forgot what wine tasted like. Sleep also seemed to be the affair of several days ago.

If not for this horse, he practically would be unable to reach this place this quickly. From here, when the sky was clear and there was no wind, one could look into the distance and saw the battlements of the Great Wall.

But today was windy, the yellow sand on the road was rising, the shopkeeper of the small wine shop by the road constantly swept the pancake-like sand blown by the wind. As soon as his hand stopped, the pancake would have a layer of yellow dirt as if it was buttered. Such a cake, in such a place, could be considered a delicacy.

Chu Liuxiang gently stroked the horse’s mane, and said with a sigh, “These two days were very hard for you. It seems like today the two of us are going to have a good meal.”

A broken down carriage came over from the other side of the street like the wind. The big man driving the carriage seemed like he wanted to whip out every ounce of strength from the thin, pathetic horse.

Right this moment, a cat sprang out from the wine shop to cross the street. The carriage was galloping over, even if the cat wanted to dodge, it was simply too late, so it looked like it was going to be trampled to death by the horse’s hooves.

Also right this moment, there was a human figure springing out of the wine shop, as fast as an arrow. Unexpectedly he used his body to shield the cat. Thereupon the horse’s hooves were trampling over his body. The wheels of the carriage were also rolling over his body.

The people on the street could not help crying out in alarm. Chu Liuxiang’s countenance changed as well.

This man unexpectedly did not spare his own life to save the cat; could he be a lunatic?

Seeing that he had just taken someone’s life, the big man driving the carriage also could not help but was shocked. Only afterwards did he hurriedly rein the carriage and jump down to rush over to take a look. Only to see the man lying on the ground, cradling the cat in his arms, grinning and saying, “Little guy, next time you are crossing the street, you must be careful. Nowadays there are a lot of blind men with their eyes open. If you are crushed to death by this kind of muddled-egg [scoundrel/b@stard], won’t you just die in vain?”

The entire carriage was running over his body, but unexpectedly there was not even a trace of injury or harm from head to toe. However, the raggedy clothes he was wearing had become even more tattered.

The big man driving the carriage was startled and scared at the same time. He cursed, “Who’s the muddled-egg? You are the muddled-egg. If you die, Laozi [I, your father] will sue you for manslaughter.”

The more he talked, the angrier he got. His leg flew, he tried to kick the man.

With his right hand still holding the cat, the man did not even look, but his left hand lightly pushed, the big man driving the carriage was sent flying onto the roof.

The passers-by were startled and amused at the same time. On the roof, the big man driving the carriage was both startled and scared. Yet the man, holding the cat in his arm, walked leisurely back into the wine shop as if nothing had happened.

The sunlight illuminated the green, wretched stubble all across his face, while also illuminating the lazy smile on his face, and a pair of big, black and shiny eyes.

A moment ago his movement was faster than an arrow; it was indeed like lively dragon and animated tiger. But now it seemed like he was too lazy to even walk the street, wishing that someone would carry him back into the wine shop.

Chu Liuxiang suddenly jumped down from the horse and called loudly, “Hu Tiehua, Hu Fengzi [madman], what are you doing here?”

The man turned around to look at Chu Liuxiang; he also jumped and laughed heartily, “Chu Liuxiang, you, this old stinky bug, what are you doing here?”

The cat in his arm did not even move, the man flew straight and punched Chu Liuxiang’s shoulder. Chu Liuxiang did not want to lose out either; he also sent a punch toward his abdomen.

Both men were in so much pain that they cried out together, but also nearly cried from laughing.

Smiling bitterly, Chu Liuxiang said, “No wonder I haven’t seen you in many years; I thought you lazily died, turns out you are hiding in here!”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “How come you, this old stinky bug, also come here? Could it be that those girls kicked you out that you have nowhere to stay?”

Hitting each other and laughing, the two men staggered along into the small wine shop, and sat down by a rickety table. The big tabby cat also ‘Meow’ and jumped onto the table.

But Hu Tiehua picked it up and said with a laugh, “Little guy, you must not be jealous. This stinky bug is my old close friend. He is here now, you have to crouch on the side.”

Unexpectedly Chu Liuxiang has become an old stinky bug. Thinking about this, Chu Liuxiang wanted to laugh until his tummy hurt. He laughed aloud and said, “I haven’t seen you for many years, unexpectedly you, this lazy cat made another friend … Come! Little guy, since you are his friend, let’s have a couple of cups with me!”

Opening his eyes wide, Hu Tiehua said, “Only a couple of cups? If I don’t pour two hundred cups down your throat, just consider me an inadequate friend.”

He slapped the table and shouted, “Wine! Wine! Quickly get me more wine! Can’t you not kill my friend with thirst?”

A thin, small, black, and withered woman came out with a tin wine pot. ‘Bang!’ she tossed the wine pot onto the table, turned around, and went back.

She did not even give Hu Tiehua a glance from the corner of her eye, yet all along Hu Tiehua’s unblinking eyes were fixed on her, as if she was the most beautiful woman in the world.

Inwardly Chu Liuxiang found this amusing, “Must be this lazy cat has not seen women for too long that I am afraid he has already forgotten what beautiful women look like.”

The woman could not be considered ugly at all, she was not too old either, her eyes were not too small, it’s just that she was so thin that he doubted there was even four taels of flesh on her entire body; she looked like a small air-dried hen.

It was not until she had disappeared from his sight that Hu Tiehua turned his head around, poured two cups of wine, and said with a laugh, “Chu Liuxiang, you need to be a bit more careful; the Hu Tiehua of today’s wine capacity cannot be compared to the Hu Tiehua of the past. I remember you made me drunk eighty-eight times in a row. Now I can begin to exact revenge.”

Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “Eighty-nine times. Did you forget that time with the wine jar?”

Laughing heartily, Hu Tiehua said, “How can I forget? That time I only put half a catty of croton seed [a strong purgative] into your wine, but your threw me into the Zhang Family’s big wine jar, making me drunk for three days.”

Chu Liuxiang pensively said, “Do you remember how long ago was that?”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Eighteen years … perhaps will be nineteen soon. At that time I was no more than eight, nine-year-old boy. If I hadn’t met you, this bad friend, how could I learn how to drink wine?”

Chu Liuxiang laughed aloud and said, “Don’t you forget, the first wine we ever drank was the wine you stole!”

Scrunching his face, Hu Tiehua said, “Really? I forgot about that …” Finally he could not help laughing heartily and said, “Honestly speaking, stolen wine tastes the best. In all my life, I have never drunk such a good wine anymore.”

He only stretched out his neck and threw his head back, the big bowl of wine suddenly disappeared.

Chu Liuxiang also drank the wine, but quickly wrinkled his nose and said, “This is really wine?”

“If not wine, then what is it?” Hu Tiehua asked.

Chu Liuxiang laughed, “I thought it was vinegar!” he responded.

Hu Tiehua roared in laughter. He poured another cup of wine and said with a laugh, “In this kind of place, we have this kind of wine to drink, you can be considered very lucky already.”

Chu Liuxiang took the wine he offered, and muttered to himself, “Looks like not only this lazy cat has forgotten the appearance of women, he has even forgotten the taste of wine.”

In the blink of an eye, more than a dozen pots of wine already went down their belly. Naturally that small lady also came out more than a dozen times; each time she banged the wine pot heavily on the table, turned around, and walked away. Until later on, whenever she came out, Chu Liuxiang tensed up immediately, he nearly could not stop using his hands to cover his ears. Too bad he had to use his hands to support the table first; otherwise, the rickety table would have been broken down by her.

But Hu Tiehua, as soon as he saw her out of the door, his eye lit up, his laughter was also getting louder, his lazy demeanor became like he suddenly had spirit.

Chu Liuxiang could not help sighing. He said, “Poor kid. How long have you lived in this ghost place?”

Hu Tiehua blinked. He said, “Do you remember the last time I met you? How long ago was that?”

Chu Liuxiang sighed and said, “Seven years. I can’t believe seven years have passed in the blink of an eye!”

Casting his gaze into the distance, Hu Tiehua pensively said, “It was summer, at the Mo Chou Lake … That year, the lotus on Chou Mo [sic] Lake were blooming beautifully. We used lotus leaves rolled into wine cups. We drank one cup, and tossed one leaf, until finally our boat was nearly full of lotus leaves. The pile of lotus leaves on your side was higher than your nose.”

Chu Liuxiang smiled and said, “The summer that year passed really fast …”

Hu Tiehua suddenly laughed. He said, “Do you remember who else was with us that year?”

Chu Liuxiang roared in laughter and said, “Even if I could forget other people, I can never forget Gao YaNan. At that time she had just learned the set of ‘Hui Feng Wu Liu Jian’ [Circling Wind Dancing Willow Sword] from Huashan. As soon as she was drunk, she would perform this sword technique for us, so that all day long people from Jinling Wulin were staying nearby our boat, refusing to leave, because they wanted to steal her sword technique.”

Hu Tiehua said, “To tell you the truth, her sword technique really was not too brilliant. Until later, whenever she practiced her sword, I wanted to go pee. I wonder, her nickname ‘Qing Feng Nu Jian Ke’ [Cool Breeze Female Swordsman], where did it come from?”

Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “You said her sword technique is not good, but Ji Bingyan always said that her sword is thirty-percent [or somewhat] better than Huashan Zhangmen [headmaster] of the past Xu Shuzhen.”

Clapping his hands, Hu Tiehua said, “That’s right. This dead rooster may not speak a single word for three days, but as soon as he talks, he boasts about her ‘sword technique’. I am guessing that most likely he is falling for her.”

Chu Liuxiang laughed and said, “But the one she is falling for is you. Otherwise, why did she come looking for us, these drunkards, to hang around us? Do you remember, that day you were drunk, and you promised to marry her.”

With pained expression on his face, Hu Tiehua said, “How could I not remember? The next day I sobered up, I already forgot about that. Who would have imagined that she did not forget? Unexpectedly she forced me to marry her. She even said that if I reneged on my promise, she would not have any face to keep on living, so she was going to kill herself. She scared me so that that very night I jumped into the lake and fled to the wilderness.”

He has not finished speaking, Chu Liuxiang already laughed so hard that he bent over the table. Gasping for breath, he said, “No wonder the next day at dawn, I suddenly discovered that the two of you already disappeared. I thought you were eloping! You made Ji Bingyan turning to wine to drown his sorrow; that same night he nearly died of intoxication. The next day he also left, I have not seen him since.”

Smiling bitterly, Hu Tiehua said, “If not for Gao YaNan chasing me desperately, how could I flee to such a faraway place like this?”

Chu Liuxiang blurted out, “You ran away to this place seven years ago and have not left at all?”

Hu Tiehua replied, “It was after she chased me for three years that I escaped to this place.”

“So you have been hiding in here for four years?” Chu Liuxiang asked.

‘Glug!’ Hu Tiehua drank a bowl of wine and said, “Three years and ten months.”

Chu Liuxiang said, “What is it in this ghost place that it can keep someone like you for this long? I really cannot believe it.”

‘Glug!’ Hu Tiehua drank another bowl of wine. Suddenly he stared right into Chu Liuxiang’s eyes, saying, “You really want me to tell you?”

“Tell me quickly!” Chu Liuxiang replied.

Hu Tiehua brought his head over close to Chu Liuxiang’s ear; he said, “Did you see the woman who brought the wine out for us?”

Chu Liuxiang sprang up. “You … you are staying here for her?” he asked.

“That’s right!” Hu Tiehua replied.

Chu Liuxiang quickly pressed his hands on the table, as if he was afraid he might faint. He looked at Hu Tiehua, up and down – several dozen times, as if he had never seen Hu Tiehua before in all his life. Afterwards, he slowly sat down, picked up the wine cup, downed it in one gulp, before slowly saying, “Can I ask you one thing?”

“What is it?” Hu Tiehua replied.

Chu Liuxiang said, “This woman, from head to toe, which part of her is better than Gao YaNan? Can you tell me?”

‘Glug!’ Hu Tiehua drank another bowl of wine. He said, “I can tell you this: Gao YaNan wanted to chase me, but I want to chase her. Not only that, I am chasing her for four years, but I haven’t obtained her yet. This is her only good point. Do you understand?”

Chu Liuxiang’s eyes were fixed on his face; he stared at him straight for no less than the time needed to drink a cup of tea, before he was suddenly back in a cheerful mood. Crouching over the table, he laughed aloud and said, “Retribution! Now I believe that this thing, ‘retribution’ really does exist in the world.”

“What are you laughing at?” Hu Tiehua hatefully said, “I know that this kind of great affection, for some unrefined people, they would never understand it all the days of their life.”

Covering his belly, Chu Liuxiang said, “Laotian [God/Heavens]! Great affection! Spare me, please!”

Hu Tiehua remained silent. He drank three bowls of wine in one breath. Suddenly he also burst in laughter. Crouching over the table, the two faced each other in a roar of laughter. They laughed until tears were streaming down their faces.

Gasping for breath, Chu Liuxiang said, “This ‘great affection’, how did it happen? Can you tell me?”

Glaring at him, Hu Tiehua said, “But when you hear it, you must not laugh.”

“I won’t laugh!” Chu Liuxiang replied, “Definitely won’t laugh.”

Hu Tiehua spoke in quiet voice, “By the time I got here, I have not seen any woman for three months. When I saw her, you may say that she is not beautiful, but you must admit that in this place, she is the most beautiful!”

“I admit,” Chu Liuxiang responded.

Hu Tiehua said, “Therefore, I wanted to be with her … to play with her. At that time, I thought that I only needed to stretch a hand and grab it. Who would have thought that she unexpectedly regarded me like a dead person? Unexpectedly she did not even cast me a single glance.”

Chu Liuxiang could not help laughing. He said, “A grand, distinguished and accomplished revered figure flower butterfly [note: the ‘tie hua’ of Hu Tiehua’s name literally means ‘iron flower’], is unexpectedly regarded as nothing by an insignificant little woman, how could it be endured? Who could endure it? Even I am angry for you.”

Hu Tiehua said, “The more she is ignoring me, the more I am interested in her. I was prepared to give her a month. Who knows that after a month I still had not made any progress? So I gave her three months. Who knows …”

He smiled ruefully and said, “Even without me saying it, you would know what happened. I spent three years and ten months, yet in her eyes, I am just a dead person. She still did not give me even one smile.”

Chu Liuxiang said, “I do not feel sorry for you at all. I only admire you; I extremely admire you!”

Hu Tiehua roared in laughter. He laughed so hard that wine was spurting all over the table.

He said with a laugh, “And now, I want to listen to you. How did you run away to this place? Could it be that someone also forces you to take her as your wife?”

Chu Liuxiang’s expression suddenly turned heavy. He was silent for half a day, before slowly said, “Do you remember Su Rongrong, Li Hongxiu, and Song Tian’er?”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Of course I do; at that time they were still little girls, but now they must be grown ups. Could it be that all three of them wanted to marry you? No wonder so ran away this far.”

Chu Liuxiang sighed and said, “Others think that the relationship between them and me is somewhat unclear, somewhat ambiguous. The fact is, they have been with me since they were eleven, twelve years old; they just consider me their Dage [big brother], consider me as a good friend. And I … you must believe me, all along I have always considered them as my Meimei [younger sister].”

Hu Tiehua replied with a straight face, “Others may not believe you, but I know you, this old stinky bug, although when you are being bad you give other people headache, but when you are good, you are so good that others will never expect it; not even in their dream.”

Chu Liuxiang heaved a long, long sigh; he sadly said, “Now, all three of them have been kidnapped away.”

Emotionally moved, Hu Tiehua said, “They are kidnapped? Who has such a big guts?”

Chu Liuxiang said, “Have you ever heard about ‘Shamo Zhi Wang’ [King of the Desert] Zha Muge?”

Hu Tiehua angrily said, “That kid dares to provoke you? I will tore him off and feed him to the dog!”

“It’s not him,” Chu Liuxiang said, “It’s his son Hei Zhenzhu [lit. black pearl, see Book 1].”

Hu Tiehua shouted, “I don’t care if he is Black Pearl, White Pearl; he has enough guts to provoke us, brothers?”

He banged the table and jumped up. “Let’s go! We’ll find him to settle the account,” he said.

“You want to go with me?” Chu Liuxiang asked.

Hu Tiehua angrily replied, “You, this old stinky bug, who do you think I am? You have trouble, if I don’t help you, who will?”

Chu Liuxiang also sprang up; he laughed aloud and said, “With you accompanying me, it would be strange indeed if we don’t disturb that Great Desert until the sky and earth turning upside down.”

He suddenly stopped laughing. Casting a glance toward the door toward the back, he asked, “But what about her? Don’t you care?”

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