Chapter 8: Drinking at Night, Dreaming of the Ocean
Translator: Transn Editor: Transn
Staring at the ceiling of the tent, in his mind, Ning Que went through all the details and traces since they left City of Wei.
The curtain of the extravagant horse carriage stayed firmly closed throughout the time, while the little boy with obvious barbarian features would occasionally leave the carriage to play, the princess had seldom appeared. The pretty but arrogant maidservant was the one giving orders.
Strangely, that maidservant seemed to enjoy chatting with Sangsang.
And even more strangely, she never bothered to conceal her contempt towards him.
Ning Que considered her to be an excellent actress. Back in City of Wei and throughout the journey, nothing out of the attitude of the grassland men or her own manners and behaviors suggested that she wasn't a real maidservant.
That was precisely what baffled him, since he never imagined anyone from the real nobility of Tang Empire should care about sympathizing with Sangsang.
Nevertheless, this wasn't something that really mattered to him. Over the past few days, he had been keeping a close eye on the elderly man. If he guessed right, this kind-looking elder should be a sublime being from the South School of Haotian Taoism, the one mentioned earlier by general Ma.
Since a very young age, Ning Que had been determined to gain access to that enigmatic world at no avail. The presence of a true cultivator was the real reason why he agreed to travel with this group to the capital.
Unfortunately, he was given no chance to speak to the well-protected elder. Only occasionally when they stopped to eat, his gaze met that of the elder, and he could swear he felt a sense of kindness or even encouragement from the look in the eyes of the elder. This again left him rather perplexed.
Failing to reach a conclusion, Ning Que stopped thinking and realized the pair of little feet he held on his chest simply refused to warm up and stayed cold like ice, making his chest and abdomen feel just as cold. He frowned with concern.
Sangsang, the little handmaiden, went through a lot of hardship as a baby, surviving in cold wind and rain among a pile of rotting corpses. She fell critically ill after Ning Que found her, and didn't recover for months.
She had been looked at by military doctors at Wei, and he even took her to the faraway Kaiping, and all the doctors shared the same opinion: prenatal insufficiency of weak and cold nature.
Due to her fragile and cold-prone body, Sangsang hardly ever sweated, and consequently, she was unable to expel all the harmful toxins her body produced daily. Over time and accumulation of the toxins, she became even weaker. That was why Ning Que followed the doctors' advice and made sure that she endured a huge amount of physical exercise on a day-to-day basis to improve her circulation, and that was the real reason why in the eyes of others, he constantly made his skinny, dark-skinned little handmaid work like a slave.
Nevertheless, despite copious physical exercise, Sangsang could not necessarily warm up her body, and it felt freezing cold right now on the wool blanket.
Rubbing his freezing tummy, Ning Que decided to get up and take out the liquor sac made of cowhide as he woke up Sangsang and handed over the sac to her lips.
Half-asleep, Sangsang opened her eyes and grabbed the sac without hesitation. She unscrewed the lid and poured the liquid down without leaking a drop of it. The tent was immediately filled with a strong and spicy scent of the typical hardcore grassland liquor.
The tiny handmaiden held the large sac and gulped down the liquid as if it was water. In no time she managed to finish almost half a sac of liquor, of which two bowlfuls could easily leave a strong adult man unconscious. She didn't stop until her stomach started to bulge out. It looked rather valiant, if not utterly bizarre.
She then wiped her lips, and her long, willow-leaf shaped eyes became even brighter in the darkness of the night, and one would not have guessed that she had been drinking. After smiling at Ning Que, she fell back and slept off again.
The fragrance of liquor reminisced in the room, and the cold little feet he held on his chest gradually warmed up. Ning Que was finally relieved to see a few droplets of sweat emerging from the tip of her nose, and at last, he remembered to wipe off his own sweat from his forehead.
Cuddling the wool blanket tightly, he slowly closed his eyes. Not far from his face rested the worn-out booklet of 'Article on the Response of the Tao'. He would normally read or recite from memory a few pages every night before going to sleep, it was a habit he stuck with over the years.
"Shall all living creatures cultivate in aging and death, so that thy lives shall not be harmed by any evil."
"Shall all living creatures, suffer from no aging nor ailment, prosper in longevity, and gain wisdom with fierce courage."
As he gradually fell asleep, his mind and spirit began working alongside the seemingly simple yet deeply abstract and enigmatic words on the pages.
As time went by, the wool blanket that covered Ning Que and Sangsang seemed to have disappeared, as did the little tent, the grass outside, and the little stream evaporated into a cluster of fog and vanished, too. The whole world became an abstract realm where he became the world, and the world became him. In this realm, one could almost feel a subtle sound of breathing in an enigmatic rhythm, and the breath of nature slowly abounded into a vast ocean of warm.
Ning Que was not unfamiliar with the sensation. In fact, he was often able to sense it ever since he read 'the article' many years ago. But at the same time, he was clearly aware of the sad fact that it was not a genuine form of "sensing" upon meditation, but merely a dream.
The vast warm ocean was probably an illusion of the dream, since the tightly wrapped little feet he was holding finally started to warm up. At least it was a wonderful illusion after all.
While consoling himself, Ning Que fell soundly asleep throughout the night.
Waking up the next morning, Ning Que slept really well, even though he looked utterly surprised and upset, as if he craved to sleep for another three days.
"Why change the route at such short notice?"
Looking at the poker-faced maidservant, he contained his temper and as gentle as possible he explained. "We will go through Min Mountain to go straight to Huaxi Path. There will be no problem with this route I have chosen."
No one in the tent showed any response to his concern, not even the maidservant.
"I'm the guide, and none of you are familiar enough with the Min Mountain," Ning Que looked at the maidservant again and after a brief silence went on to say, "I understand you are worried about being ambushed. I can assure you that, no one can stop you if you listen to me."
The maidservant glanced at him as if he was insignificant, almost like saying, who gave you the right to request any sort of explanation from me?
As he returned to his tent, Sangsang was packing their belongings. He told her, "We shall part from them soon as we send them off the main path."
Looking at the simple map he drew years ago, he pointed at a place and said, "This is the furthest we will go, because if we went further in, we could all be annihilated if the enemy sent a few cavalries our way."
"You should go and convince them." said Sangsang looking at him.
"I guess the princess is expecting reinforcements once they get there. Therefore they won't listen to me." Replied Ning Que. "It's not my strong suit to convince a bunch of idiots."
Sangsang said nothing but looked at him inquisitively. If there will be reinforcements, what is worrying you so much that you have even decided to run off halfway?
"My gut feeling tells me that something is not right."
"Because I'm confident that, a tough character who dares to plot the assassination of Fourth Princess of Great Tang shouldn't be as stupid as that woman, and I bet there will be a few backup plans." replied Ning Que.
Sangsang hesitated but went on to remind him. "You should respect her a little... "
"I already know her real identity," said Ning Que with a raised eyebrow and mocking tone. "she is the princess and so what? I said it back in the City of Wei, and I insist, she really is a stupid princess."