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 words I added for clearer meaning.
Chapter 28: Returning to Subashi
I barely sleep that night, my mind a jumbled mess, spinning round and round. My heart keeps trembling at the thought of Rajiva being so near, only to twist in pain a moment later when I recall his aloof expression prior. Dawn arrives and I get out of bed groggily. I pace around the room nonstop, until I cannot stand it anymore and let my feet take me running to where his room is.
It’s almost 4:30 so Rajiva must have been up by now. His morning mantra starts at 5 o’clock. Where would he go, I wonder? Probably the Tsioli Temple. The Cakuri Temple is too far away. What would he think if he knows that there is this lovesick fool who runs to his room at dawn? Truthfully, I have never been up at this hour before.
I pace in front of his door, heart beating like mad. My hands tremble for no apparent reason. Heavens above, why am I so nervous?
The door suddenly swings open, startling me so much that I step back in reflex and hit my head with the pillar behind. I double in pain.
“Young miss, you’re up already?”
I forget about my pain and look up to see the owner of the voice stepping out of Rajiva’s room. This is the maidservant in charge of cleaning the Residence. She is currently holding a trash can in her hands. What about Rajiva? Where is he? Anxious, I crane my neck to look into the room.
“Young master has already left, said he has to return to Cakuri Temple.”
He left that early? Without even saying goodbye? Disappointment floods inside me, making me forget the pain of hitting my head earlier.
My eyes suddenly take note of something in the trash can she is holding. I am frozen for a few seconds before shouting at the girl to stop: “Wait!”
It’s a white girdle and a belt in the same colour, as well as a…lion mask and a light brownish wig. I turn into a statue as recognition begins to seep in.
“Young master said I should just throw it out. What a waste! They’re still so new…” the girl rambles on, which only makes my heart tighten in pain all the more.
Pusysdeva steps out of his room and finds me sitting in the corridor of his doorway. He is surprised at first, glances up at the sky, then at me, before a huge smile breaks out on his face.
“Ai Qing, why didn’t you enter? You know you can enter my room at any-”
“Pusysdeva, I’ll be heading out for the Cakuri Temple today,” I cut him off, unable to hear any more of those honeyed words.
“Sure. I know you like to sketch those boring sights so I’ll take you. But…” he scratches his head and appears a little embarrassed, “Wait ten days, okay? My shift as a palace guard begins today and it’ll be ten days before it ends.”
“No need. You just do your job. I will hire a horse carriage myself.”
“Ai Qing, don’t be so stubborn and listen to me. It’s only ten days-”
“You don’t need to come with me. I am not some frail girl who always needs someone else to protect me. I have my own plans. Besides, I will be back in a few days.”
I promise him that I will return to Kucha within ten days. He tells me that when his guarding shift is over, he will take me to sight-see the Tian Shan Grand Canyon. When I was touring [modern] Kucha for research, I heard that about 70km from the county is the Keziliya Grand Canyon [“red cliff” in Uyghur], which is part of the Tian Shan Range. Rufous massifs, rugged cliffs and oddly-shaped rocks fill up the sight, a scenery so magnificent that it is said to rival that of its cousin in Arizona, United States, if only smaller in scale.
In 1999, a grotto from the Tang Dynasty [618-907 CE] was discovered by two Uyghur farmers who were scouring the mountain sides for medicinal herbs. The grotto is named Aay after the proximity of the nearby ancient city. This grotto is very small, less than 5 meters deep, but a tenth of its wall surface is covered with frescoes that were very different from the ones found in other sites in Xinjiang. Numerous Han inscriptions were found on the frescoes—an indicator of how far the Han culture spread during the heights of the Tang Dynasty, and how deeply it permeated Kucha. The Aay Grotto is thus an extremely valuable site of research today. However, due to time constraint, I was unable to visit this grotto during my research trip. As for the present, I time-travelled to this era to conduct research, not to simply sight-see nature. The frescoes are of greater importance to me than the Grand Canyon. The grotto has yet to be built during this time, so my interest in Pusysdeva’s offer is low. Except he keeps holding my hand and refusing to let go, I just nod vaguely as if in agreement.
I finally set off. Pusysdeva told me to take his family’s carriage, but because I do not want anyone to know that I was staying at Rajiva’s personal house in Subashi City, I declined his offer, adamant on hiring my own carriage. Unable to persuade me, Pusysdeva gives up after a while. This playboy is suddenly full of talk today, kept insisting on helping me find a carriage, telling me this and that, as if this is my first time going away! At last, when his nagging voice is no longer ringing in my ears, I tell the coachman to go as fast as he can. My mind has already left this place and flew towards the peaceful house forty li away.
My original plan was to set off to Chang’an after the conclusion of the Su Mu Zhe Festival, but if I leave right now, I might regret it for the rest of my life. I want to see him. Even if we don’t get to exchange words, just being able to see his face is enough.
A warm feeling washes over me as I enter the courtyard of that small house. Masavu welcomes me back gaily.
“During the days when Miss Ai Qing was not here, young master would be found reading into the dead of the night before returning to the temple.”
My heart swells at those sweet words. I converse with Masavu for a long while before telling him to announce my return to Rajiva. After that, I sit listlessly in my room, waiting for Masavu to come back with word. It turns out to be pretty short: Rajiva gave a half-hearted nod in reply before returning back to his work. Could that be his answer? Does that mean he will not return tonight?
That worry gnaws at me until I hear the sound of the gate swinging open later that evening.
I rush out into the courtyard, and when I see those immaculate brown kasaya robes, those bottomless eyes, that tall thin figure and that solitary shadow, my heart beats so fast and so loud that I wonder if the whole world can hear it.
He glances at me, expression the picture of calm, the corners of his lips rising ever slightly in a smile that does not reach his eyes. All of a sudden, that hint of a smile vanishes. Rajiva’s face transforms into a panic as he rushes forward to where I am. Before I can even react, a hand reaches out to hold my head, while the other hand gently holds up my chin. I can see my surprised face reflected in his light grey eyes.
I feel like fainting. He, he wants to kiss me? That romantic scene I could only see in dreams is about to happen in reality? My lips part slightly as I close my eyes.
His breath ghosts over my cheek. That warm honey voice of his makes me tremble in response. My face comes into contact with something…but is it not on the lips but the…nose?
I open my eyes and find Rajiva looking intently at my face, his eyes full of worry. A handkerchief is placed on my nose. He, he did not kiss me. And here I had thought…
“Don’t tilt your head!” he quickly says.
An arm wraps around my shoulder, and my feet, as if they are not touching the ground, float after Rajiva as he leads me back into my room. His hold is entirely different from Pusysdeva’s, warmer and much more gentle, making me want to be enveloped in it for hundreds of years.
“Would you like to see a physician tomorrow?”
Exactly what has happened to me? I pull the cloth covering my nose down and freeze in shock. There is a large blot of dark red on it. I-I got a nosebleed as soon as I saw him again? Dear God, having a nosebleed is a sign of [sexual] frustration! But I swear I had no dirty thoughts earlier. Could it be the result of missing him too much?
The blood continues to drip down. Rajiva places his hand on my head and tilts it back, voice soft: “Stay still. It’ll be over soon.”
The cloth returns to its place on my nose. Rajiva guides me to sit on the bed.
I wish my nose would continue to bleed, so that I can continue to stay in his arm like this. But alas, sweet moments are always fleeting. When the bleeding stops, I only wish I can give my nose a hard knock.
Seeing that I am no longer bleeding, Rajiva takes the handkerchief back and places it on his lap. My cheeks heat up.
“That handkerchief is all bloodied now, let me wash it and return it to you.”
Rajiva does not reply, merely stands up and walks over to the cabinet nearby. He takes out a new handkerchief and hands it over to me. I am puzzled. When did I ever put handkerchiefs in there?
“You never use handkerchiefs, always use your hand to wipe your mouth instead, such a bad habit.” It’s still the same warm voice, but his eyes are staring at the ground. “There are many handkerchiefs in the cabinet, so don’t forget…”
Happiness washes over me. Rajiva, this is proof of your affection for me, isn’t it?
I bite my lips to suppress my happy smile and turn my eyes on him, “Rajiva, I have not finished sketching the Cakuri Temple…”
He is startled for a second before a small smile appears: “You can visit at any time.”
We look at each other for a long moment. I do not know what to say next. Then I suddenly burst into a giggle. I don’t know why, but my heart is full of joy right now, and I feel that if I don’t laugh, I’d feel sorry for myself. Seeing me laugh so innocently, Rajiva presses his lips together, but it seems he cannot help himself, for the corners of his lips keep curving up and up until they break into a brilliant smile. We laugh freely, unable to supress ourselves. My laughter is of course more joyful and louder than his.
All of sudden, Rajiva steps forward and pulls me into a hug. The last of my laughter dies on my lips. I do not know what expression I should put on my face right now.
He does not say a word and just continues to hold me. I rest my head on his lean chest, lost in the sound of his heartbeat. A moment later, his chest begins to rise up and down in rapid breaths, which blow on my neck.
“Rajiva…” I call out softly, not sure if my heart is waiting for trembling.
He suddenly pushes me away, his face pale, chest still breathing hard, before his feet take him running out of the room.
“Rajiva!” I rush after him but in my haste and inattention, I end up hitting my elbow hard against the doorframe. Pain shoots into my brain, making me cry out loudly.
Rajiva pauses in his steps and turns around to face me, “What’s wrong?”
He then helps me back into the room.
Under the oil lamp, he gently pulls up my sleeves, slowly revealing the old wound. For some reason, even though it has been almost two months, my arm is still not healed. Of course a part of it is due to my carelessness, always letting water hit the wound during my baths, and when the scabs formed, making me itchy, I kept scratching it. I also used my right hand to sketch and just tended to ignore the pain. To top it off, I spent a whole day in the water splashing event, breaking the scabs that took so long to form, re-opening the wound and making it all red and swollen. That knock against the doorframe earlier only serves to worsen the injury. A bruise is forming and blood has begun to seep out, soaking my sleeves in its wake.
He glances up at me, the expression in his eyes conveying both concern and reproach: “How could you be so careless? You neglected treating the wound so it could never heal properly. You really shouldn’t have played with water yesterday too.”
I smile to myself. If I didn’t play with water then how else would I have known that he came looking for me in a disguise? But if he wants to hide it then I will continue to play the fool.
Rajiva applies a medicinal rub on my arm, which stings so badly it brings tears to my eyes. He lets out a long sigh and lowers his mouth to the wound before blowing on it gently, his face completely focused. Seeing him taking care of me like this, I forget about the pain and stare at him the whole time. The oil lamp casts a soft glow on his wide forehead, his sculpted face, long elegant eyebrows, and honey brown skin, making me fall into a trance I do not want to wake up from.
Rajiva then bandages my arm in silence before pulling my sleeves down. Every movement is extremely gentle. In twenty-four years of my life, this is the first time I get to experience that unadulterated happiness of a woman being taken care of by the man she loves. If Rajiva does not look up and flushes, I would have continued to gaze at him forever.
Rajiva turns away. A long beat passes before he tells me that I should avoid contact with water. We fall back into silence after that.
“Earlier…” He stands up with his back towards me and says hesitatingly, “Rajiva has overstepped-”
“Rajiva…” There are words I want to say but I have lost all strength. What exactly can I say? That I did not find fault with his action and instead welcomed it? Or tell him that I am greedy and long for more than just a hug from him?
“It’s late, I should head back.” It seems he has gotten back his calm demeanour. He is at the door when he suddenly pauses and says, “You can visit the temple at any time tomorrow.”
I lie down on the bed and watch as his figure becomes smaller and smaller in the distance. Alas, he is still unable to untangle the knots in his heart and open it up. That warm embrace earlier feels just like a dream. Or perhaps I am still dreaming. Ah, but what a beautiful dream this is…