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The Vast Desert Chapter 22


Chapter 22 – Warrior Dies For An Intimate Friend

Zhangsun Hong suddenly burst into a silver-bell-like tender laughter and said, “You think we really failed to kill them? If Furen really wanted to take that muddleheaded king’s life, even if he had ten heads, all would be gone.”

Hearing this remark, Chu Liuxiang and the others under the cabin could not help but were stunned. General Min and Hong Xianggong were even more shocked that they were unable to say anything.

It was only half a day later that Hong Xianggong stammered, “If that’s the case, Xiansheng did not hesitate to spend huge sum of money to hire those assassins, what’s that for?”

Wu Juxuan smiled and said, “Zaixia called on those assassins to come, it’s no more than to frighten the muddleheaded king. If one feels that his life is in danger, he might speak out the secret that normally he would not want to reveal to anybody else, just because if this secret is greatly advantageous to his loved ones, how could he be willing to take it with him to the underworld?”

Zhangsun Hong added, “Who would have thought that this muddleheaded king’s mouth is tighter than a bottle’s mouth? No matter how dangerous his situation is, he still refuses to tell the secret to others; so much so that he won’t even tell his closest people.”

Listening to this point, Chu Liuxiang could not help commenting with a wry smile, “No wonder the King of Qiuci could escape alive in mortal danger; turns out other people practically did not want to take his life yet. We were nervous for half a day, in the end we are still fooled by others.”

Suddenly they heard the Stone Guanyin said with a laugh, “To fool the world-famous Chu Xiang Shuai, it really is not easy.”

Although the cabin above was full of her people, her remark seemed to be directed to Chu Liuxiang. Her internal power was so strong, unexpectedly she was able to focus her voice.

Inwardly Chu Liuxiang was shocked, but his mouth said, “Unavoidably Furen is holding Zaixia in too high of a regard; Zaixia is often fooled by others.”

The Stone Guanyin spoke slowly, “There is no need for Xiang Shuai to be too modest; in all my life Jianqie has encountered many opponents, although not a few were very able persons, but in terms of intelligence and resourcefulness, in term of high martial art skill, indeed none can compare with Xiang Shuai.”

Chu Liuxiang replied with a wry smile, “If Zaixia was really as brilliant as Furen makes me to be, how could I, at this moment, place myself under Furen’s skirt?”

The Stone Guanyin laughed and said, “Xiang Shuai ought to know that situation like this, there are people who seek but fail to get!”

Ji Bingyan coldly said, “This female devil head is provoking you using words; perhaps she does look up on you. Whether we could come out alive from here, we’ll have to rely on your, this great lover’s trick.”

Naturally he spoke with a voice so low that it could not be even lower, but Chu Liuxiang was still afraid that the Stone Guanyin might hear it; thereupon he quickly interrupted him by saying, “To be able to place oneself under a beauty’s pomegranate skirt, death is not enough reason for regret. Too bad although Zaixia wanted to see Furen, I could only toss and turn restlessly, to seek but fail to get.”

The last eight words he spoke [zhan zhuan fan ce, qiu zhi bu de] were from the poem ‘Guan Jiu’ [lit. shutting turtledove] of the Book of Songs [Shijing, early collection of Chinese poems and one of the Five Classics of Confucianism]. It was also the earliest, the most famous love song since the ancient times. Preceding the lines were ‘sweet, fair, and graceful lady, sought by the gentleman’. The meaning behind these short eight characters [yao tiao shu nu, jun zi hao qiu] was very deep. In fact, it was much deeper than other people’s thousand words, hundred sentences.

Evidently the Stone Guanyin has also heard the seductive meaning behind his words; she was silent for half a day before leisurely said, “Do you want to see me?”

Chu Liuxiang sighed. He said, “To seek but fail to get, tossing and turning restlessly.”

“Don’t worry,” the Stone Guanyin said, “I will definitely let you see me.”

“Now?” Chu Liuxiang asked.

“Why are you so impatient?” the Stone Guanyin asked.

Chu Liuxiang sighed and said, “It’s not that Zaixia don’t have any patience, but perhaps Zaixia won’t live much longer.”

The Stone Guanyin was silent for half a day. “You will live until that time,” she spoke indifferently.

Suddenly they heard Wu Juxuan shouting, “He will not live until that time.”

“Says who?” the Stone Guanyin coldly asked.

Wu Juxuan took a deep, deep breath. He said, “Could it be that Furen has not heard the saying, ‘raising a tiger breeding calamity’? If …”

The Stone Guanyin spoke in stern voice, “Could it be that I still need a lesson from you?”

Wu Juxuan did not dare to speak anymore.

Hong Xianggong cleared his throat and said with an apologetic laugh, “If it is not necessary, it is actually better to get rid of this man.”

The Stone Guanyin’s voice mellowed down, she gently said, “When an expert in calligraphy and painting finishes a masterpiece, if there is no one to admire it, won’t it feel like traveling in night wearing a brocade clothes? All mental and physical effort will come to naught; am I right?”

Although Hong Xianggong was unable to fathom the deep meaning behind her words, he was unable to reply.

The Stone Guanyin went on, “When a famous actor [in Chinese opera] lifts his voice in song, if nobody listens, he also feels that it was extremely senseless; am I right?”

“Hmm!” Hong Xianggong said.

The Stone Guanyin said, “What we are doing here is also like a painter creating a painting, like a famous actor singing his song, we want someone to admire it. Because what we are doing is also undoubtedly a masterpiece.”

Hong Xianggong laughed and said, “That’s right. Speaking about the depth of the effort, the secret of the composition, even Wang Xizhi’s [(303-361), famous calligrapher of Eastern Jin, known as the sage of calligraphy] Orchid Pavilion Gathering, Li Taibai’s [Li Bai or Li Bo (701–762), famous Tang Dynasty poet] Long Song Walk, are absolutely cannot compare to even ten-thousandth part of this matter.”

“Therefore,” the Stone Guanyin said, “I want him to live; live to see us accomplishing this thing. Famous painting needs discerning eye to appreciate, famous song needs intimate friend to listen respectfully. What we are doing, also only such talent like Chu Xiang Shuai know how to appreciate it. Am I right?”

“That’s right,” Hong Xianggong echoed, “Furen’s wise opinion, really nobody can match.”

Wu Juxuan said, “But … but this man …”

“No need for you to talk much,” the Stone Guanyin coldly said.

She was extremely polite to everybody, except to this Wu Juxuan, but her countenance never changed.

Unexpectedly Wu Juxuan also resigned himself to adversity; he respectfully said, “Yes.”

The Stone Guanyin said, “In that case, I will take the three men below with me. I wonder if gentlemen have any objection?”

Laughing apologetically, Hong Xianggong said, “Zaixia will definitely listen to Furen’s instruction.”

The Stone Guanyin laughed and said, “But please rest assured, I will definitely take a good care of them.”

After a day of being bored, Hu Tiehua practically was about to go crazy. He did not even know how much wine he had drunk. The strange thing was that the more he drank, it seemed like he grew more sober.

Seeing that the day was almost over, Hu Tiehua could not help sighing in despair. “Chu Liuxiang, Stinky Old Bug,” he muttered, “Why haven’t you returned? Did you bump into a ghost?”

He did not know that Chu Liuxiang did indeed bump into a ghost.

The door curtain was suddenly lifted, and Princess Pipa barged in. Hu Tiehua was surly in his stomach, this time finding someone he could vent his anger on, he roared, “Let me ask you: do you or do you not understand manners?”

Princess Pipa coldly stared at him and said, “What manners?”

Hu Tiehua shouted, “Mencius’s Mother said, ‘One’s etiquette, before entering the door, ask if anybody’s inside, therefore, pay respect first. When one’s about to come up the hall, the voice must be raised first, therefore, the other can guard against it’. You wanted to come in, couldn’t you call out first?”

Princess Pipa laughed and said, “Aiyo! I can’t believe you have several days of studying in your belly.”

Putting his hands behind his back, Hu Tiehua looked up and said, “You flatter me! You flatter me!”

Princess Pipa’s countenance turned wooden, she coldly said, “Too bad you have forgotten your status.”

Opening his eyes wide, Hu Tiehua said, “What’s my status?”

“Currently,” Princess Pipa said, “You are our prisoner. I practically do not need to be courteous to you.”

Hu Tiehua stared at her for half a day. Suddenly he laughed and said, “A good man will not fight with a woman. It was you who said those words, so forget about it. If it were other people, hey … hey … I am going to show him what’s good for him.”

He collapsed into bed and covered his head with a blanket; he simply ignored her.

“Are you playing dead?” Princess Pipa scolded, “Get up!”

From under the blanket, Hu Tiehua roared in laughter and said, “If I want to sleep then I’ll sleep; if I want to get up then I’ll get up, it’s none of your business!”

Stomping her feet, Princess Pipa came over and yanked the blanket away.

Hu Tiehua shouted, “I am not the Old Stinky Bug, you are looking for the wrong person!”

Princess Pipa’s face blushed beet red, but the tone of her voice softened as she said, “Wangfei wants to see you, quickly get up and come with me!”

Hu Tiehua was stunned. With a twist of his waist he sat up and said, “Wangfei wants to see me? What for?”

Princess Pipa said, “She has never liked to see people, this time she wanted to see you, naturally there is an important matter to tell you.”

Rolling his eyes, Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Since she wants to see me, have her come here then!”

As his mouth was speaking, his body collapsed into the bed again.

Stomping her feet, Princess Pipa said, “You … how come you seem like a man without any bones [fig. moral character]?”

Sticking his foot up, Hu Tiehua leisurely said, “Don’t forget, she is the one who wants to see me, not me wanting to see her.”

Princess Pipa bit her lip. Suddenly she laughed coldly and said, “I know it, you must feel guilty as a thief, hence you do not dare to see her?”

Before she finished speaking, Hu Tiehua already sprang up and roared, “What do you mean I feel guilty as a thief? Why don’t I dare to see her?”

Holding back her laughter, Princess Pipa said, “If you have guts, then come with me!”

The tent of the Queen of Qiuci was really a lot more gorgeous than Hu Tiehua imagined. The air inside the tent was full of the scent of sandalwood and medicine; the smell was so thick that he nearly could not breathe.

Behind the hanging curtain of pearls, the Queen of Qiuci was half-sitting, half-reclining, as if she was too weak to stand. Although separated by a layer of muslin screen, she still appeared to have a magnificent style unmatched in this generation, which one must not gaze intently. Even Hu Tiehua, as soon as he came here, he seemed to be overwhelmed with shame of his own inferiority.

The Queen of Qiuci smiled slightly and said, “With the body devastated by illness, I cannot get out of bed to welcome the guest; hoping Gongzi would forgive me.”

Clearing his throat, Hu Tiehua said, “No … no need to be overly courteous.”

Actually, he also wanted to say a couple of sentences, “I am your prisoner, you needn’t be polite.” But when the words reached the tip of his tongue, unexpectedly he was unable to speak it out.

The Queen of Qiuci sighed and said, “The misfortune of the night before is indeed regrettable.”

At the mention of this matter, the anger in Hu Tiehua’s heart flared up; laughing coldly, he said, “Could it be that Wangfei wanted to interrogate me? Please forgive Zaixia for not being able to accompany you.”

He turned around and left. But the Queen of Qiuci laughed and said, “Gongzi, please stay. Gongzi is overly suspicious.”

Hu Tiehua responded with a cold laugh, “The one overly suspicious is not me; it’s you.”

The Queen sighed again and said, “We erred in suspecting Gongzi; we really shouldn’t do that. Would Gongzi please forgive us?”

Hu Tiehua was stunned instead. “You … you admitted that I was not the killer?” he stammered.

The Queen spoke softly, “Naturally Gongzi was not the killer; otherwise, how could Gongzi still stay here? If Gongzi wanted to leave, who could possibly stop you?”

Hu Tiehua was speechless for half a day. Heaving a deep sigh, he said, “When being accused wrongly to the death, suddenly seeing someone who understands reason, it indeed makes one extremely happy.”

“Is Gongzi still angry now?” the Queen of Qiuci asked.

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “At first Zaixia was indeed a bit angry, but Wangfei said so, Zaixia feels embarrassed instead.”

The Queen smiled sweetly.

After half a day, she went on, “Jianqie asked Gongzi to come here, there is indeed something I’d like to ask.”

Puffing out his chest, Hu Tiehua said, “A warrior is willing to die for an intimate friend. Whatever Wangfei wants Zaixia to do, as long as Zaixia is able to do it, you want me to go into the water I’ll go into the water, you want me to go through the fire I’ll go through the fire.”

The Queen said, “Gongzi’s lofty righteousness [or friendship], let Jianqie thank you in advance.”

Hu Tiehua suddenly discovered that only he and this Queen, facing each other – remained in the tent, Princess Pipa and all the servants and maids have quietly left.

For some unknown reason, his heart was suddenly thumping very hard; he seemed to feel that the Queen behind the muslin screen was just smiling at him. Immediately he cursed himself inwardly, “How did I become so lecherous today? Others treat me as high-minded and righteous person, I must not let silly thoughts moving randomly inside my head.”

Immediately he spoke loudly, “Wangfei, no need to be courteous, whatever instruction you have, please just say it.”

The Queen of Qiuci said, “I don’t know if Gongzi remembers, tomorrow is the day that we and the other side will exchange the ‘Star of Happiness’. I wonder if Gongzi could …”

Although Hu Tiehua was doing his utmost to suppress his thought, but somehow, his mind went back to the night of the bridal room and ornamented candles [fig. wedding festivities], the evening of tenderness and touching emotions.

Unexpectedly the Queen of Qiuci behind the screen seemed to turn into … Hu Tiehua did not dare to continue looking at her; he shouted, “I wonder if Wangfei wants Zaixia to exchange the Star of Happiness back?”

The Queen sighed; she said, “My entire family, big and small, are homeless and miserable on the outside, it is indeed finding oneself utterly isolated [orig. people rebelling and friends deserting]; unexpectedly in this kind of trivial matter I have no choice but to trouble Gongzi. In my heart Jianqie find it difficult to feel peace.”

Hu Tiehua indignantly said, “If Zaixia cannot exchange the Star of Happiness back, I would rather have this head removed as a substitute.”

The Queen said, “Gongzi is this righteous, you really make JianqieJianqie …” Speaking to this point, her voice choked, she could not go on.

But suddenly from behind the gauze screen she stretched out her soft, seemingly-boneless – hand. Under the lantern light, he saw her slender fingertips trembled continuously, like a tiny orchid struggling in the storm; if no one helped and cherished it, it would be devastated by the rainstorm.

Hu Tiehua felt a burst of hot blood rushed forth in his chest, while a burst of daze attacked his head. By the time his mind cleared up, he suddenly discovered that somehow, he had actually grasped this hand tightly.

Surprisingly, the Queen of Qiuci did not flinch, neither did she evade his grip; she only spoke in trembling voice, “When Gongzi go, you must be very careful; Jianqie is entrusting everything to Gongzi.”

Hu Tiehua felt his heart was about to jump out from his chest cavity; he was not sure if he ought to let go of her hand, or whether he should continue holding it. He did not know what to say either.

He felt that the Queen of Qiuci’s hand was also grasping his hand, as she spoke softly, “In addition to this, Jianqie has a personal matter that I’d like to entrust to Gongzi.”

Hu Tiehua’s mind was still hazy; without even thinking, he spoke in loud voice, “Zaixia has already stated before, as long as it is Wangfei’s matter, ten thousand deaths will not be able to stop Zaixia.”

His natural temperament was passionate and impulsive, someone who would consider the beginning but not the end; if others were good to him, he would practically be willing to gouge his own heart and give it away to that person.

At this moment he only felt that not only this Queen of Qiuci was the first person to understand him, but also the one who treated him the best in the world. Based on the Queen’s status, unexpectedly she treated a Jianghu man like him with such courtesy, not only he was so grateful, he was practically overwhelmed by favor from superior.

The Queen of Qiuci said, “Jianqie only asks Gongzi to inquire about the Star of Happiness’ secret for Jianqie.”

Hu Tiehua was stunned. “This secret,” he said, “Even Wangfei does not know?”

The Queen sighed and said, “Wangye and I have been married for many years; although we could be considered having mutual respect between husband and wife [orig. treating each other as an honored guest (idiom)], yet in only this matter he has never been willing to tell me.”

Pondering over it, Hu Tiehua said, “If even toward Wangfei Wangye did not want to reveal the secret, how could he be willing to tell Zaixia?”

The Queen slowly said, “According to age-old legend, the previous generation Qiuci ancestors had enormous hidden treasure, which, in normal times, nobody can use. Only when the country is in desperate situation for its survival will the treasure be used to restore it. As for the location of the hidden treasure, only the current king, who will unify the Qiuci nation – knows.”

Hu Tiehua suddenly understood, “Could it be that Wangfei thinks that the secret of the Star of Happiness is related to the hidden treasure?”

“Presumably so,” the Queen replied.

Smiling wryly, Hu Tiehua said, “If that’s the case, I am afraid there is more reason for Wangye for not wanting to tell this secret to me.”

The Queen said, “However, relying on Wangye’s, one person’s power, it is absolutely impossible to bring the ancestor’s huge treasure out, isn’t it?”

“That’s right,” Hu Tiehua replied.

The Queen said, “Not only he will need people to transport it, he will also need people to protect it, right?”

“Yes,” Hu Tiehua replied.

The Queen sighed again and said, “Just now Jiangqie said that among Wangye’s subordinates, there is not a single capable man; furthermore, there is no one has the power to escort this treasure.”

Muttering to himself irresolutely, Hu Tiehua said, “Wangfei is saying that Wangye might come to me to escort this treasure?”

“Precisely,” the Queen replied.

Hu Tiehua said, “But if Wangye trust me, he could not possibly accuse me wrongly as the murderer.”

The Queen spoke in soft voice, “Although Wangye does have some misunderstanding toward Gongzi, but after Gongzi exchange back the Star of Happiness, his opinion will undoubtedly change. Besides, other than Gongzi, he has no one else to trust.”

Hu Tiehua laughed and said, “Wangfei ought to know, Wangye trusts that friend of mine a lot more than he trusts me.”

The Queen was silent for half a day, “But if Wangye entrusts this matter to Gongzi, would Gongzi be willing to tell the secret to me?”

Hu Tiehua replied, “Didn’t Zaixia already promised …”

The Queen cut him off, “What if Wangye swears Gongzi to secrecy?” she asked.

Hu Tiehua thought about it, then he laughed and said, “Zaixia already promised Wangfei first, didn’t I?”

This matter was somewhat out of keeping with customs and reason; if it were someone else, he could not possibly give his promise. But in his conduct, Hu Tiehua never cared about reason; he was irrational. As long as it was something that he thought he ought to do, he would simply do it. Right now he was wholeheartedly thinking that the Queen of Qiuci was the nicest person in the world, while the King was a muddle head. If, for the sake of a nice person, he deceived a muddle head, wouldn’t it be heaven’s law and earth’s principle, and was extremely rational?

As for why this Queen of Qiuci insist on knowing the secret? This fact, Hu Tiehua did not even think about it; naturally he was not going to ask even more.

Midday. The blazing sun was burning like fire.

Leading three camels, Hu Tiehua rushed straight to the west.

Although he had layer upon layer of very long plain white cloth wrapped around his head, inevitably he was still scorched by the sun that his head was dizzy. Although the martial art skill of the three Qiuci warrior escorting him was far below his, but they had been tempered by the sandstorm and scorching sun of the desert that they had steel muscle and iron bones; they appeared to be much more comfortable than he was.

Sighing and mumbling to himself, Hu Tiehua said, “It looks like maybe I drank too much wine; how come I am like a sweet, delicate girl, being exposed to the sun and immediately my head spins? If I continue like this, won’t I be done for?”

Actually, it was also because he had been severely exhausted for many days; not only he drank too much, but the drama in the night had also greatly consumed his physical strength.

Last night, although he went to bed quite early, but thinking about the beautiful image of the woman behind the screen, which was like a Chinese peony in the mist, thinking about that slender lily-white hands, which was like it did not have any bones at all, he was tossing and turning, and was unable to sleep.

The more he thought that he should not indulge in flights of fancy, that he should not treat a beauty irreverently, the more he cursed himself as lecherous and shameless. Yet for some reason, the beautiful queen was like the lover that he yearned to the bones. The more he did not want to think about her, the more he thought about her.

Normally Hu Tiehua was not like this. Until later on, he tried to comfort himself, “Perhaps that passionate stinky old bug infected me.”

But as soon as he remembered Chu Liuxiang, he could not sleep even more.

Chu Liuxiang had been gone for more than two days. Not only he has not returned, there was not even the slightest bit of news from him. Could it be that he and Ji Bingyan have fallen into the mysterious assassin’s treacherous plot?

As far as the eye could see, the great desert extended a thousand li and to infinity; there was not even the least bit of life; no human, no birds and beasts, no cloud, no wind.

Occasionally, one or two disgusting big lizards would crawl out of the rocks and climb onto the camel’s hoof, but it somehow elevated the taste of death of the desert even more.

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