T/N: Any notes at the end of relevant paragraphs that are indicated with an asterisk * are usually my own translation notes, unless I say otherwise in square brackets. Words in square brackets [ ] in sentences are also words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 14: I return
The coming days pass by quickly. In a blink, it is already spring. Even though the Kuchan people do not celebrate the Chinese New Year like the Han, I still give the two brothers gifts on New Year’s Day. Rajiva gets a string of prayer beads made of sandalwood, while Pusyseda gets a Doraemon picture I drew by hand. I tell them I am now a year older, 24 years old to be precise. Truthfully, I don’t want to admit the fact that I’m getting older. My birthday is very easy to remember, the 10th day of the 1st lunar month, so I’ve always celebrated it using the lunar calendar. But after I turned 20, I stop liking Chinese New Year, since every New Year’s Day reminds me that I’m getting older and older.
T/N: It’s fitting that Lunar New Year is mentioned here since it’s coming up soon in our time, Feb 8 to be exact.
In this era I only have the two brothers to celebrate my birthday with me. I teach them how to say “happy birthday” and sing the birthday song in Han, then ask them to sing with me. Pusyseda sings like a baby learning how to talk, very funny but also very cute. Rajiva shakes his head at me, refusing to sing. But then I tell him that on birthdays, Han people will say “happy birthday”, sing the song, eat a yummy and creamy cake and give gifts. After hearing it, Rajiva still hesitates for a long while, but at last opens his mouth to sing.
His singing voice is as gentle and moving as his speaking voice, albeit a bit hoarse at certain points due to voice change [puberty], but this just gives the song a unique sound. His softly sung birthday song is the best one I’ve ever heard on my birthdays. However, his face, just as I predicted, is as red as a tomato, overtaking his honeycomb skin.
T/N: Tsk, tsk, you’re making him break his vows again Ai Qing, using your birthday as an excuse.
The next evening, after our lesson finishes, Rajiva doesn’t go to the reading room as usual. He keeps dragging his feet for a while before pulling out a silk scarf with diamond shapes coloured red, yellow and blue weaving together.
“For you,” he is blushing again, “You said you get gifts on your birthday…”
I have no time to reflect on his kindness, too busy looking at my gift. This scarf is made of Atlas silk—“Atlas” means “tie-dyed” silk, also the most commonly used silk to make clothes for women in Xinjiang today. Silk from Khotan* is the most famous of all. Silk, jade and carpets were called the three “national treasures” of Khotan. Even well into the 21st century, the Hotan* people still use the traditional silk factories and wooden looms over 5m high.
* Khotan (or Yutian in Chinese) was an ancient Buddhist kingdom that was located on the Silk Road south of the Taklamakan Desert (modern Xinjiang, China). Kucha was located north of the desert. The ancient Khotan capital was originally located to the west of modern-day Hotan (a town).
“Rajiva, do you know the Masa Temple in Khotan? Those mulberry seeds that the Han princess brought to the Western Regions were planted there.”
In the “Great Tang Records on the Western Regions”, Xuanzang described how silk production came to Khotan.
“I know. The Western Regions originally knew nothing about mulberry trees or silkworms. When the Khotan king came to ask the Han princess’ hand in marriage, he secretly told the princess that Khotan had no silk, so she won’t be able to wear beautiful dresses. The princess then hid the mulberry seeds and silkworms in her headdress. Khotan’s wealth later on was credited to the manufacturing of silk.”
Silk was originally a product monopolized by the Chinese, and the manufacturing techniques were a tightly kept secret. But thanks to the princess, the techniques were passed on to the Western Regions, from there to West Asia and then to Europe, at which point China ceased to have monopoly on silk. Khotan’s silk products became famous starting around the 4th century CE. During ancient times, Khotan was known as the “capital of silk”. Today, this invaluable silk scarf of the 4th century is lying before my eyes, confirming the authenticity of the legend about how sericulture spread along the Silk Road.
“Why do only ask about that legend? Do you not like the gift?” Rajiva looks at me anxiously, hands holding the scarf awkwardly, not knowing where to put it. “Khotan silk of course can’t be compared to silk of the Han, if you don’t like it, I will-”
“No such thing!” I yell out. Standing up, I quickly grab a hold of him and snatch the scarf away. “Don’t you dare take it back!”
Rajiva sighs in relief. I’m too used to his flushing face now so I’m no longer surprised by its appearance. He gives me a brilliant smile as if it was he who received a gift instead.
“But…” Rajiva looks at me with quizzical eyes, “Ai Qing, how did you know about the Masa Temple in Khotan?”
Not again! I just can’t seem to control my blabbering mouth.
I glare at him and pull at my hair. With his logical thinking, no matter what kind of lies I tell, he’ll be able to figure them out. It’s better to not lie to begin with.
“Stop asking me. I just know it, alright?”
Rajiva doesn’t ask any further and just smiles. But when he leaves he is still eyeing me thoughtfully, making me all anxious inside.
Not long after, the first day of spring arrives. Spring also means the re-opening of the Silk Road. I can now prepare to go to Chang’an. Kumarayana [Rajiva’s father] helps me contact a reliable group of merchants and even gives me numerous gifts. I am naturally grateful. But I’m not as happy facing the two brothers.
Rajiva always wears a calm expression so it’s not as bad, although once or twice I would catch a strange look in his eyes, like on the day he gave me the silk scarf. That look makes my heart go pitter-patter but I pretend not to see it. Acting dumb is my specialty after all. Who asked him to be Kumarajiva? I am not so daring that I’d mess with someone so untouchable. I can only leave quietly. Pusyseda, on the other hand, I can’t deal with. Just a little provoked and he will cry a river and beg me to not leave. The little guy makes me feel like I’m saying goodbye forever [as in death] so I can only keep reassuring him that I will return.
There are six, seven days left until I begin my journey so I want to take a bath. What’s so worth mentioning about me taking a bath? Truthfully, not much, but it’s because this time a major incident occurs. Don’t misunderstand, it’s not like that vulgar scene you often see in romance novels where the male lead breaks in while the protagonist is bathing. That kind of ‘interesting’ thing would never happen to me. Actually, the incident occurs when I finish bathing and return to my room.
I am wringing my wet hair in the room when I see Pusyseda messing with my time travel watch, which I took off before I went bathing and left on the table. Seeing me, the little guy happily shakes the watch back and forth.
“Ai Qing, this toy is very fun. It jumps and makes this tick tick sound. Give it to me please?”
My heart skips a beat. At that time, the sky is very bright and lots of sunlight is streaming in the room. I jump over and grab the watch. It’s working again! The signal light that I tried so hard to turn on but failed before [chapter 1] is now counting backwards. Oh god, what did Pusyseda press to make this damn watch working again? The countdown is for 3 minutes, now only has 2.5 minutes. I try to press the stop button but this stupid thing, when I want it to work it doesn’t, when I want it to stop it also doesn’t. This, this is too sudden. I just went bathing to find this happening when I return. Should I go or not?
“Ai Qing, what’s wrong?”
I jerk my head up and see a pair of innocent eyes blinking at me. In minutes the watch will emit radiation rays, I cannot let him get affected. I hurriedly grab the kid and push him outside. I used too much force and ended up hurting him, making him scared. As soon as he is outside, I hear him wailing. I bolt the door with the speed of a track runner, rush off to find my Northface backpack in the cupboard, and pull out my anti-radiation jacket. Moving quickly, I take off my clothes while turning towards the door and shout, “Pusyseda, listen up. I am a fairy and I now have to return to the sky. Soon there will be a great light coming out, you must close your eyes tight and not look at it, else you will turn blind. You got it?”
It’s actually not that serious, but it’ll be dangerous if the kid happens to look at the radiation directly.
Terrified, the little guy cries even louder.
“Don’t be scared. I won’t disappear, I’m just returning to my own world. I will look after you in the sky.” I console him since I don’t want to leave him behind with traumatic memories.
I hurriedly put on the anti-radiation jacket and it’s so cold that it gives me goosebumps. No matter, time is almost up. I am fumbling with the zipper when I hear Pusyseda speaking in a choked voice, “Please don’t go! Pusyseda promises to not be naughty anymore, to listen to you well and study hard. Don’t go please.”
I sigh. This watch will only work once. If I don’t go, I’ll be stuck here forever. I am not like the other time-travelling heroines in novels who want to stay in ancient times out of love. My purpose has always been clear. I came here to research, so if I don’t return, there will be no point.
“Tell Rajiva for me, he will become a great figure in the future and remind him not to forget his mission to travel to the Central Plains and promote Buddhism!”
“Wil you return?”
I don’t know, really don’t know. Perhaps this is where our fate ends. I don’t know if I’ll be continuing with the project after my return. Even if I’m able, I don’t know if I will be able to go back to Kucha. Even if I get to Kucha, I don’t know if they will still be alive…
I put on my safety helmet and my watch. There are 3 seconds left. I take a deep breath just in time to shout, “If you study well and memorize the Book of Poetry, I will return-“
Dazzling light burst out and I feel that familiar sensation of flying on clouds again, where my internal organs seem to turn upside down. One second before I’m about to lose consciousness, I suddenly remember that my sketchpad full of pages I painstakingly drew; my notepad full of research totalling thousands of characters; precious Tocharian books that I collected; the artefacts I bought from the market and secretly hid under the bed; the gifts I got from Jiva, Kumarayana and countless others; and my Atlas silk scarf, are all left behind! God, this time-travel trip has all come to waste!
XD That, my friends, is the end of Book I (or Part I, not to be confused with Volume 1). It’s the first goodbye so Xiao Chun chose to do it on a rather abrupt and humorous note. She saved all the angst for later, that evil woman. We’ve all known from the novel’s summary that Ai Qing will be returning (how else are we gonna have 100 chapters to cover), so it’s not much of a spoiler at this stage.
Book II will begin with chapter 15, which I will combine with chapter 16 for you readers’ sake. I’m hoping to finish them in short order but I have a couple school assignments coming up so timing might be a bit off. But fear not, I won’t do that disappearing act for 1-2 months again! Until then, my friends.
P.S. Oh I almost forgot, since I probably won’t see you guys until after, Happy Lunar New Year for those who celebrate it! Hope you all will have a fantastic year ahead with all your loved ones, and may you succeed in all your endeavours.