Chapter 6: The Night Without a Moon, A Time of Yearning
Translator: Transn Editor: Transn
A ditch, no wider than a stream, lay to the south of the City of Wei, and beside the ditch rose a small slope that couldn't even be regarded as more than a tiny hill. A hut, without a functioning fence or a slate roof, was found at the foot of the slope, which was not even qualified to be called a house. The rain clouds had dispersed earlier, allowing bright stars to shed light over the ditch, the slope, and the hut, forming a beautiful silver glow.
Under the starlight, Ning Que jogged ahead, but he was dragging his feet. He slowed his pace to take a longer look at the hut where he and Sangsang had spent most of their time together. But, no matter how slow he walked, his destination would always be reached because he kept moving forward. The pathetic fence, which was only capable of warding off dogs, was pushed open. He walked towards the dazzling light of the oil lamp streaming through the crack in the door. Covering his mouth, he coughed several times to announce his presence and said, "How about we move to the capital."
The door was pushed open, with a squeak, breaking the silence of the night.
The little handmaiden Sangsang kneeled beside the door, the shadow of her thin body elongated by the lamplight. She pressed her figure against the wooden frame and responded, "Haven't you always had a longing for Chang'an? Well, I need something. When will you be able to steal some oil from the firearm camp? This door has been creaking for several months and it is bothersome."
"Who still uses those hard-to-use firearms? If you just want oil, I will ask for some from the Baggage Camp tomorrow... "Ning Que answered her randomly by instinct, and suddenly something came to his mind. "Wait! This isn't the conversation I intended to have with you! If we are really leaving, why are we still bothering with this useless door?"
Sangsang bent onto her knees. Her small figure looked extremely thin with the cool night breeze of spring blowing against her. She stared at Ning Que and uttered the following words softly, careful not to show any emotion. "If we leave, there are going to be others residing here. They would still need to use the door."
'Are there really others who would want to spend their lives in this remote and broken hut, other than us?' Ning Que thought silently, with a sudden feeling of unwillingness somehow striking him. He sighed softly and squeezed past Sangsang murmuring, "Take the night to pack up our luggage."
Sangsang randomly combed her fingers through her hair at her temples. Looking at his back she asked, "Ning Que, I can't understand why you are so crazy about it?"
"Nobody could reject the temptation of growing stronger, and moreover, it is really attractive."
Ning Que realized that his little handmaiden had figured out what he was thinking. He raised his head to see her little swan-like face. Tilting his eyebrows, he continued. "Anyway, we can't spend our entire life in the City of Wei. The world is big and just waiting for us to explore. Besides the Tang Empire, there are many other countries. In addition, in regard to making more money or getting a quicker promotion, Chang'an is more of an ideal place to live compared to the City of Wei. That's why I must gain admittance and join the Academy."
Sangsang appeared to be immersed in her thoughts. She was not fully-grown and her age was considered young. However, the sandstorms in the fortress had blown against her face, darkening and roughing her skin. Her yellowish hair was a result of childhood malnutrition. All of these things contributed to her less than beautiful, toughened face.
But, she had a pair of eyes as thin as willow leaves, as blue as crystal ice, and they seldom showed a special expression, all of which endowed her with the appearance of a mature and sophisticated lady rather than a young maid, no older than twelve, who had been born from bitterness. The extreme contrast of her true age and her eye expressions made others feel she had a cool style.
While in Ning Que's eyes, these were all fake illusions. He was well aware that Sangsang typically belonged to that kind of thoughtless girl. During this long time of sticking it out together, she had become accustomed to following his words and her laziness in thinking hence grew, which accordingly led to her slow-mindedness. Therefore, to cover her slow-mindedness she had begun to speak fewer words, making her appear even weirder.
"No, she is not slow-minded, she is just clumsy." He corrected himself in his mind as he thought of something.
After a long silence, Sangsang suddenly raised her head and bit her lip, wearing a look of timidity that was rarely seen. She uttered, "I've heard... Chang'an is rather big and has many people."
"The capital is prosperous. It is said the population there has already exceeded one million since the third year of Tianqi, and of course, the cost of living there is rather high. Anyway, it won't be an easy task... "
Ning Que sighed as he got a glimpse of the girl's nervousness. He then comforted her. "Nothing to be scared of, just take it as a bigger version of the City of Wei. I will be responsible for external affairs and you stay inside to deal with the chores, just as we have always done. If you still feel uneasy, then we can just reduce the amount of time you spend going out."
"How much will it cost for daily necessities for one month?"
Her willow-leaf-like eyes gazed in surprise, clenching the lower hem of her skirt as she queried nervously, "Will it exceed four taels of silver? That will be two times higher than the cost is here."
"If I'm really to enroll in the Academy, you'd better make me some good clothes, because there will be visitors like my classmates coming to visit us. Moreover, some masters may also come to visit my family, in the case that they appreciate me, your young master. I've figured it out roughly, it will cost us no less than ten silver taels."
Ning Que answered with his eyebrows furrowed, but actually, he was just spouting out nonsense in a careful way, for he was unaware that, in the eyes of the Academy disciples, that amount of money could only buy a not-so-good dinner in Tianxiang Restaurant. As the famous joke went, in the countrywomen's imagination, the empress is always baking meat pies as big as an ocean and the imperial concubines peeling onions as high as a mountain.
However, even though it was actually less cruel than the reality, that answer had far exceeded the bottom line for the little maid. She stared at him, frowning, and suggested. "That's too expensive... Ning Que, how about we don't leave and give up on the Academy?"
"You're so ignorant!" Ning Que scolded, "I will most certainly be an official after graduating from the Academy. You and I will need ten taels of silver each month, but I can earn at least 70 or 80 from the local government! Moreover, what's the matter with Chang'an? They have a variety of cosmetics which can be found in the Chenjinji Cosmetics Store."
Clearly, the little handmaiden sank in a fiercely mental struggle as if she were stricken by the word "cosmetics". After a while, she lightly bit her lip and gave an answer in a pig's whisper. "What about the years you will spend studying in the Academy? My needlework can't compete with the ones in Chang'an. How will we support ourselves?"
"That is indeed a concern, and what's more, hunting is prohibited around Chang'an, because the forests there can only be utilized by the emperor... How much money do we have now?"
The two of them exchanged meaningful looks with their eyes and went over to the two large elm-wood boxes in agreement. They opened up one of them, fumbled around and pulled out a tightly-packaged wooden case from deep within.
There were small pieces of silver in the wooden box, with only one big piece in the middle. Clearly, these were their day-to-day savings, and only a small amount.
Neither of them moved to count the pieces, and then in a soft voice, Sangsang said, "As usual, I counted them every five days, and the latest one was done the night before last. The total is seventy-six taels and thirty-four cents."
"It seems that we should be able to manage to make more money in Chang'an." Ning Que replied earnestly.
"And, I will strive to improve my needlework a bit." Sangsang also replied thoughtfully.
When night fell, Sangsang was kneeling to make Ning's bed. Her skinny knees moved quickly and nimbly. She then pushed her little palm against his pillow to make an arc in the middle, so Ning Que could enjoy a comfortable sleep. She held up her quilts and leaped off the bed, and then she walked towards the two elm-wood boxes in the corner to make her own.
Putting out the light, Ning Que put a bowl of water on the windowsill and got into bed by starlight. He put his hands on the edge of the quilt and made a big comfortable yawn. A familiar rustling from the corner of the room came to his ears several minutes after he closed his eyes.
This night appeared to be no different from any other night where they would fall soundly sleep under the starlight in this fortress city. However, they both suffered from sleeplessness this night. The excitement of arriving in a new world, seeing the prosperity of Chang'an, all of the honor and wealth at hand, or even the fascinating style of makeup, had greatly stirred the two of them. Their breathing was far from placid this time.
After laying there for a while, Ning Que opened his eyes and stared blankly at the faint silver glow before saying, "I've heard... girls in Chang'an are not scared of the cold. They wear thin clothes with wide-open collars and have fair complexions. I'm not sure if it is true or not... I was too young to remember."
He then turned over onto his other side, looking toward the dark corner and asked, "Sangsang, how is your illness these days? Do you still feel cold?"
It seemed that the little handmaiden shook her head no in the darkness. Through the faint light, he caught sight of her and saw that she was grabbing her quilt while keeping her eyes tightly closed, though her mouth wore a hint of a rare smile. She muttered, "Of course they are fair, nobody would be tan after putting on such good makeup!"
Ning Que grinned and then answered, "Take it easy and you can buy anything you like from the Chenjinji Cosmetics Store after I, your young master, make a fortune."
Suddenly Sangsang opened her long and thin eyes; he could see the bright starlight reflected in them. Seriously she asked, "Ning Que, you promise?"
"I told you; call me young master in Chang'an. That's the way to show respect."
Seven or eight years had passed since Ning Que had dug the icy-cold Sangsang out from under a pile of corpses beside the road and struggled to get to the City of Wei. Although Sangsang was registered as a maidservant in the census and did work as a maidservant, she never called Ning Que young master. This was just a habit. There was no other special reason.
And today, she was compelled to give up this habit.
"Ning Que... young master... remember that you've promised to buy me cosmetics from the Chenjinji Cosmetics Store."
Ning Que nodded as his sight fell on the frost-white starlight that illuminated the ground beside his bed. Somehow this made his heart tighten a bit, and the feeling of emptiness from many years ago came back to attack him again. He looked back at the dark sky outside the window, glancing at the stars and was then immersed in nostalgia. He muttered, "Still a night without a moon... "
Lying on the elm-wood boxes in the corner, Sangsang was curled up in her cool quilt like a small mouse. She stretched out her hand to pull the quilt behind her waist to keep out the chilly air, which somewhat alleviated the uncomfortableness brought on by the gap between the two elm-wood boxes. Hearing his dream-like words, she figured. 'Ning Que... young master is beginning to utter this nonsense again.'