Chapter 18: Storytelling beside the Bonfire
Translator: Transn Editor: Transn
A chubby and lovely boy raised his head out of the arms of Lee Yu, the princess. He took a curious look to the side, and then buried his head again into Lee Yu's arms like the way Sangsang was sitting beside Lin Que. His face rubbed randomly against the princess, leaving snot all over her clothes.
Lee Yu, however, fumbled out her handkerchief to wipe his snot away somewhat clumsily, without any disagreeable look. She then turned back to Ning Que and indifferently, she said, "How about serving me after arriving in Chang'an? I can promise you a good prospect."
In his heart, Ning Que had already figured out the status of that little boy as a member of the Tribe of Savages, but yet he never expected that the princess favored her step-son so deeply. Moreover, he experienced a subtle change in his attitude towards Her Highness when he saw her wiping snot for the little boy. As expected, he was slow to reply with his mind occupied on these thoughts. He paused for a while before answering, "Your Highness, I have to take the academy entrance exam after arriving in Chang'an."
Different people perceived in different ways which, hence, produced different understandings. Those words could be regarded as Ning Que's regret over his inability to serve the princess, or his tactful turndown with a bit of self-confidence: 'Your Highness doesn't need to bother with my future. I could earn my own prospect so long as I am admitted to the Academy'.
"Are you sure you can successfully take the academy entrance exam, or even pass it without any hitch?" Lee Yu said dryly with a cold look, "Although our Tang Empire want officials with talents, the word 'want' is not the one you normally understand. If men with talents could all find chances to make full use of their abilities, like what you have thought, then scholar Liu from the previous dynasty would not have wasted his life so resentfully in brothels."
Ning Que looked at her comely face and earnestly responded, "I know what you mean, so I beg Your Highness to wipe away those unnecessary obstacles for me. I don't want to lose the opportunity to enter the Academy just because of my poverty."
Lee Yu also looked at him, yet with undisguised suspiciousness. She kept in silence for a long while, wondering what had made this youthful soldier refuse her invitation in such a calm and direct manner.
After all, she was the emperor's favorite princess, and highly respected by the whole nation. Therefore, it was already a huge luck for Ning Que, a humble soldier, to keep such a close distance with her. If it were other soldiers in the border town, despite their qualification of taking the academy entry exam, nobody would escape from being moved to tears of gratitude and kneeling down to worship her in response to her invitation.
Then she broke this long silence and said nonchalantly, "I promise I will, because that's what I owe you."
After uttering those words, she henceforth lost her interest to chat with Ning Que. She merely held the little boy tightly, staring blankly at the bonfire, with tears gradually moistening her eyes. At the moment, Lyu Qingchen was still in meditation with legs crossed beside the bonfire to recover his energy, while those bodyguards at the other side had already sunk into a sound asleep. Night came deep over the forest, with several chirps by birds that were occasionally stirred by the twinkling stars.
Surprisingly, Ning Que caught the sight of her watery eyes and following her vision, he saw that she was looking across the bonfire at the scene of the piles of corpses of bodyguards and grassland barbarians.
Thinking of her wiping snot for the little boy and witnessing her lamenting over the death of her bodyguards, Ning Que's impression of this princess has somewhat changed. Silently he figured, "Even if she was an idiot, she was a humane kind of idiot."
Sangsang had fallen sound asleep on his knee, leaving only Lee Yu and Ning Que still awake alongside the bonfire. The two continued sitting there without any words, and suddenly the little boy struggled out from the arms of the princess, rubbing his eyes and asking her to tell him a story because he couldn't fall asleep, which made Lee Yu embarrassed. The stories she had heard in the palace during her childhood had already escaped from her mind, while the romantic stories she favored as a young girl were not suitable for such a kid.
The boy, airing his grievance by being unwilling to look at his step-mother, and yet refraining from causing disturbances, looked quite pitiful. Ning Que just grinned aside at the embarrassed princess and gently made several coughs.
"The golden wheat, and the glossy green oats... The duck eggs cracked one by one, but nothing had happened to the biggest one... Mother duck looked at her big and ugly baby paddling cheerfully in the water, and proudly said, 'Look, she is not an annoying turkey, she is my baby.'"
"'But she is too ugly, and others will make judgments of her wherever she goes'... the wild duck said, 'Anyway, it has nothing to do with us so long as she doesn't marry any of the ducks from our family.'"
"One night, when the glorious sunset towards the western wilderness, the ugly duckling saw a flock of big birds flying out of the woods, whose beauty had never appeared in her life. They were bright white with slender and soft necks, unfolding their beautiful wings and flying to warm states.
"When winter had passed, the ugly duckling found she was surrounded by some big swans, which made her extremely ashamed because in her mind she was so ugly. However, those big swans were tenderly pecking at her feathers... And suddenly she glimpsed at her reflection in the water and unexpectedly found it was so beautiful... When spring came, the sun shone warmly again. The lilacs dangled their branches into the water and people began to sing and dance cheerfully when they saw the ugly duck. They excitedly yelled at her, 'Look! How pretty that swan is!'"
Ning Que randomly drew something on the ground beside his feet with a piece of scorched wood, with a smile he told that very old story with his head lowered. The story sounded simple yet indicated mixed feelings of sorrow and happiness. The little boy listened with his eyes opened widely, his body lying on the princess, and even the princess herself had been engrossed in the story. It hadn't been noticed that Sangsang woke up and joined them. She had heard the story when she was very young but still listened carefully, with childlike smiles occasionally emerging on her face.
The night went deeper, and finally the children fell into a sweet dream when the story had finished. All of a sudden Lee Yu opened her mouth after a long period of silence and said, "Your story is too profound for Little Wild to understand. But I still have to thank you for reminding me of these things... I'll learn from that mother duck to treat him as my child and be proud of him. He'll never be mocked at and even discriminated against after we return to Chang'an. But whether he can soar up like that swan... It all depends on himself."
Ning Que rubbed his head with a smile and then responded, "Actually I haven't thought about it so much. It's just a story that I trumped up to comfort Sangsang when she was a child, because she always felt self-abased for her darkish and not-so-pretty appearance."
"Anyway, it's a good story," Lee Yu smiled and said, "and it sounds encouraging for a disdained ugly duckling to finally grow into a respected white swan through her effort."
The hand of Ning Que holding the scorched wood slightly stiffened. He then raised his head and said earnestly, "You have misunderstood me. This story is desperate to a larger degree, because it's impossible for an ugly duckling to grow into a swan. And she can... because originally she is a swan, just like Your Highness and the little prince in your arms. But a real ugly duckling will in no way grow into a swan."
Lee Yu silently stared at this lad. Reflecting on his words, she faintly understood something.