"Hongjun had come to realize some of the emotions that he felt towards Li Jinglong."
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In the thirteenth year of the Tianbao era, on the third day of the third month, spring came to the Guanzhong region. The city of Chang’an blossomed with peach blossoms, which bloomed brilliantly and splendidly.
To celebrate the imperial consort’s thirty-fifth birthday in the sixth month, officials from all across the land had offered up all kinds of rare and precious gems in a steady stream, and messengers came and went at top speed. The Abbasids, the Semu, the Uyghurs, the Tubo… the various peoples of the Saiwai region knew that Li Longji lavished favor on Imperial Consort Yang, so to show their loyalty, nothing was better than to curry the Yang family’s favor, and they all began to make preparations early.
There were still almost a hundred days until the birthday, but Chang’an was already bustling more so than usual. Thousands of seamstresses were weaving longevity brocade in Daming Palace, and every night the lights blazed and turned the darkness into day. From Qinchuan all the way to Luoyang and the Central Plains, people were busy making lanterns, colorful candles, silk banners, and the like. For a time, the Great Tang mobilized the power of its entire nation to celebrate the imperial consort’s birthday, showing the extraordinary prowess of this long-lived dynasty.
Within the Exorcism Department, the air was filled with spring, and Mo Rigen and them hadn’t expected that after a single winter, everyone would have gathered together again. Qiu Yongsi had just returned to Jiangnan and managed to catch a breath, but before he could even eat the dishes of his hometown, he had rushed over on another long journey here and returned to the Exorcism Department to take up residence there, so he now felt a rare moment of vigor.
A-Tai, however, was facing a long ledger of red. He and Ashina Qiong were currently wracking their brains, trying to figure out how to earn money.
“Where’s Hongjun?” Lu Xu asked expressionlessly.
Mo Rigen replied, “Zhangshi will bring him back, relax ba. Where do you want to go play today?”
On the snowy night of New Year’s Eve, when Hongjun had left them all and raced off on his horse, Li Jinglong had told everyone not to move out, as he himself would definitely bring Hongjun back. Lu Xu had originally wanted to give chase as well, but Mo Rigen managed to talk him out of it. Everyone had then followed Li Jinglong’s orders and returned to the Exorcism Department to wait.
No one had expected that this trip of theirs would take them a whole three months, and in that time, the group only received a single letter -- Li Jinglong had returned to the Taihang Mountains with Hongjun. Lu Xu had nowhere to go, and at first, because of what had happened in Dunhuang, he had been angry at Mo Rigen, but after a few months had passed, when he thought carefully about it, there wasn’t much to be angry at in the first place. He was also even less willing to stay alone in Hexi, so he came with the rest of the group to Chang’an.
Lu Xu had been born and raised in the north, so he had never seen the splendor of Chang’an. It was just like when Hongjun had first entered this world; Lu Xu had never been in a city before, so as soon as they arrived in Guanzhong, he grew bug-eyed at the sights. Not to mention that after he entered Chang’an, he was even more shocked by the brilliance of these huge cities of the Divine Land, and for a time, he tossed his unhappiness to the back of his mind.
Mo Rigen, on the other hand, had been struggling the entire journey. Should he wait upon this White Deer like he would a wife, or should he treat this White Deer like a brother? Originally, this was supposed to be a destined love, but in the end, the heavens had actually given him a male wife. But if he didn’t marry Lu Xu like his tribal customs dictated, what was he supposed to do with the rest of his life?
A-Tai: “Go ask Zhangshi.”
Qiu Yongsi: “Ask Zhangshi ah.”
Ashina Qiong: “You should have said so earlier! If you don’t want him, give him to me.”
Mo Rigen: “...”
No matter how Mo Rigen asked his brothers, he couldn’t get a response that resolved his problems. But he did still like Lu Xu very much, and no matter if Lu Xu did become his future wife or not, the White Deer was still his to take care of, and he had a duty to be good company for Lu Xu.
With that, Mo Rigen, in a monkey see, monkey do way, copied what Li Jinglong had done every day. He settled Lu Xu in, right in between his and Hongjun’s rooms. When Lu Xu had entered the city, he had praised that the cherry blossoms of Chang’an were very pretty, and that he had never seen them in the north, so Mo Rigen bought a few cherry trees and planted them in the yard.
At the beginning, he had even suspected if Lu Xu would treat Hongjun as his sweetheart, but slowly he began to realize that Lu Xu was not unwilling to be friends with Qiu Yongsi, A-Tai, and even Ashina Qiong. Before, in Dunhuang, Lu Xu had dogged Hongjun’s every step, just because he had only known Hongjun, so after stealing his body back, he naturally felt a sense of closeness with him.
But Lu Xu’s attitude towards Ashina Qiong was a little unbearable for Mo Rigen. Ashina Qiong had also declared loud and clear that he liked pretty youths. Li Jinglong hadn’t even clearly taken Ashina Qiong in as a member of the Exorcism Department; they were really raising a wolf in their own home!
Even though the real wolf was Mo Rigen himself, he still did his best to avoid letting Lu Xu and Ashina Qiong grow too close… thankfully Ashina Qiong didn’t seem to be very interested in Lu Xu, and though he often took some liberties in speech, he wasn’t too hospitable in his actions. It was because of that that Mo Rigen often took Lu Xu out, while Ashina Qiong stayed with A-Tai at home, counting their money and figuring out where they could go to get some more, so that they could support their troops that were thousands of li away.
That day, Hongjun had personally witnessed Chong Ming and Qing Xiong’s epic fight, but thankfully, the battle of the two great yao kings had ended as quickly as it had started, and after exploding a few mountains, peace was restored.
“Let’s go home ba,” Li Jinglong said easily.
Hongjun knew that from today onwards, Yaojin Palace was no longer his home, and when he left, that look that Qing Xiong had given him seemed to have also encompassed everything: go ba, go to where you should be.
Too many things had happened to him in this short half a year. The truth had rushed over him in twos and threes, almost drowning him. At night, he and Li Jinglong sat by a campfire in the desolate wilderness. He asked absent-mindedly, “Zhangshi, will I die?”
“Call me Jinglong ba,” Li Jinglong said. “It’s been a long time since anyone called me that. You will not, I promise you, Hongjun.”
Hongjun looked at him, his heart filled with complicated emotions. Ever since that night when Li Jinglong had climbed up the mountain with great difficulty and appeared in front of him, Hongjun had come to realize some of the emotions that he felt towards Li Jinglong. The dim sense of disappointment that he had felt along the entire journey, and the sudden thumping of his heart when he met Li Jinglong’s eyes… he could never resist recalling all those moments that they had spent together, even if Li Jinglong was right in front of him.
But Li Jinglong hadn’t talked about their relationship at all, as if everything was going as it should. When he found that Hongjun was looking at him, he turned his gaze away. After going through what had happened in Yaojin Palace, both of them felt a little awkward. On the way back, they spoke very little, and Li Jinglong didn’t even ask to ride the same horse as him.
But as soon as Hongjun opened his mouth, Li Jinglong would think of a way to satisfy all his requests.
“I don’t want to ride a horse anymore,” Hongjun said to Li Jinglong. “Riding is so tiring.”
Li Jinglong replied, “I’ll head to the village up ahead and hire a cart.”
Hongjun had originally wanted Li Jinglong to let him ride with him, because for reasons that he couldn’t articulate clearly right now, he only wanted to stay by his side. He hadn’t expected Li Jinglong to misunderstand him, and after leaving the Taihang Mountains, he hired a spacious cart with an open roof, which was heading west with a spring merchant caravan to Bashu.
The two of them sat together with a large pile of ceramics, glazed pottery, wine, silk, and similar goods, which were stopping by Chang’an on their journey. Along the way, Li Jinglong had Hongjun admire the scenery of Guanzhong in the spring, and if they had nothing to do, he would find some words to amuse him, clearly afraid of him growing melancholy. In the end, Hongjun did have the temperament of a youth, and his mood slowly grew better as well.
When they took up lodgings for the night, Hongjun had a guilty conscience, so he no longer cracked jokes with Li Jinglong like he had before. Li Jinglong, however, also sensed it a little, and he no longer teased Hongjun. The two of them laid there, all prim and proper.
As Hongjun slept, he could never resist wanting to take a few liberties with Li Jinglong, but Li Jinglong acted like he had before, neither taking the initiative nor refusing him, which caused Hongjun to feel a little like climbing the walls with frustration.
On the last day, the two of them mounted their horses again, bidding farewell to the caravan that was heading towards Shuzhong.
“We’re home,” Li Jinglong said to Hongjun, upon seeing the city of Chang’an.
Hongjun stopped his horse on the mountain slope, looking towards that towering capital of the Great Tang, on those eight hundred li of Qinchuan, and he felt like he had found a place to return to. Pingkang Li was bright with gaudy colors, while Zhuque Street was solemn and lofty; the glazed tiles of Xingqing Palace flashed with light, and the Eastern and Western Markets were bustling with commotion. A spring breeze blew through the Exorcism Department, sending ripples across the spring waters.
Li Jinglong asked, “Let’s see who gets there first?” And saying this, he actually kicked his horse into action, galloping towards Chang’an city, leaving a cloud of dust in his wake. Hongjun let out a loud shout, following closely behind.
In the third month, Chang’an glittered brightly with promise, and when they were about to enter the city, Li Jinglong slowed. The Longwu soldier that was guarding the city hurried to say, “Li-zhangshi! You’ve finally returned!”
Li Jinglong had Hongjun first enter the city. As expected, after being gone for so long, both the Judiciary Department and the Six Armies were looking for him, so Li Jinglong sent someone with a message for the Six Armies. Hongjun stood to the side for a while, but he couldn’t resist feeling a little disconsolate, and he said, “You go take care of things ba.”
“They can wait for a few more days.” Li Jinglong looked around at his surroundings, as if he was studying the geography of Chang’an, before he smiled at Hongjun. “Let’s go!”
The two of them passed over the Xingwu Bridge, which was filled with peach blossoms. Li Jinglong then said, “After a few days, the cherry blossoms will also bloom. When that time comes, I’ll go ask the right people for a few trees and plant them outside your room.”
When they got to the entrance of Jincheng Ward, their path was lined with trees, which had sprouted new leaves, thriving as they grew. Li Jinglong and Hongjun chatted easily, speaking of how Chang’an had a spring hunt in the spring, and perhaps this year, the city would also celebrate the imperial consort’s birthday. They turned the corner, only to see almost a hundred members of the Shenwu Army decked out in armor, blocking the little alley outside the Exorcism Department en masse.
“... celebrating a birthday in such a grandiose manner…” Just as Hongjun was speaking, he saw this many people, and he immediately thought, damn, it couldn’t be that something bad’s happened, can it?
“Li-zhangshi’s come back!”
Li Jinglong gestured for Hongjun to remain silent and leave it to him to explain. They passed through the alley, and the Shenwu troops parted to the two sides, revealing a Hu woman holding a long whip, and several Shenwu soldiers collapsed on the ground, rolling around and moaning. Behind the Hu woman stood A-Tai and Ashina Qiong, their faces ashen, their bodies trembling, and there was also a fish head draped over the wall.
“Hongjun!” that fish head shouted immediately upon seeing Hongjun.
Hongjun hurried to gesture for the carp yao not to speak. Li Jinglong furrowed his brow and demanded, “What’s going on?!”
That Hu woman put her hands on her hips and shouted angrily, “Who’s in charge of things here?! Come out and talk!”
The Hu woman’s skin was dark, and she had bells around her wrist. She only wore an undergarment that covered her chest and stomach and a long dress. Her hair was curly, her eyelashes were full and thick, and her eyes were as clear and bright as obsidian. Her figure was slender and extremely attractive, and when she turned and gave them a look, Hongjun’s heart thumped, and he couldn’t help praising her beauty.
“Turandokht,” A-Tai immediately said, “that’s our leader!”
At this time, the carp yao had already shrunk into itself. The Hu woman who had been called Turandokht pointed towards Li Jinglong, saying, “Come, come, come, you come over here.”
The members of the Shenwu army immediately said, “We’ll leave this place to Li-zhangshi, we’ll take our leave now!” And as they spoke, they hurried to evacuate the area, bringing their comrades that were lying on the ground, crying out piteously.
Li Jinglong looked at that Hu woman, and he asked, “What business have you come here for?”
“I’m here to take my fiance back,” the Hu woman said bossily. “Why are you harboring him? Him right there! Him! Tegla! You, explain this to me clearly! Also you! Ashina Qiong!”
Li Jinglong: “...”
The Hu woman grabbed A-Tai’s collar, and A-Tai, who usually exuded an air of calm, was like a mouse that had seen a cat. He trembled as he was tugged out, and he hurried to use his eyes to send a message.
“Hey, hey!” Hongjun was not one to sit still either, and he grew angry. “Let go of him!”
“What?” The Hu woman also grew incensed and sent A-Tai sprawling to the side with a kick. “Come here, and we’ll fight it out?!”
“Don’t fight!” A-Tai and Li Jinglong hurried to shout.
Only after a long while did Li Jinglong realize that it turned out that it was A-Tai’s fiancee who had come to their door, and as soon as she had appeared, without saying another word, she was about to take A-Tai and leave. A-Tai seemed to be very afraid of this fiancee, and the members of the Exorcism Department hadn’t even heard of her.
Qiu Yongsi was afraid that this Hu woman would see him as one of A-Tai’s accomplices and beat him up, so he immediately turned tail and ran away; Mo Rigen was also not a fool, and he immediately took Lu Xu out to see the sights. Each of those manly men immediately took off on their own once this great catastrophe was at hand, and though Ashina Qiong had also wanted to run, A-Tai blocked his way out by standing outside the main entrance to the Exorcism Department.
It just so happened that the members of the Shenwu army that were patrolling the city stumbled across this scene, and decreed that the Hu woman was not to create such a ruckus outside a government office. However, all the Hu woman had to do was wave her whip once...
“... It hurts that much?” The corners of Li Jinglong’s mouth twitched.
“You must never offend her!” A-Tai and Ashina Qiong had already become birds that startled at the sight of a bow.
“This is a government office,” Li Jinglong said to the Hu woman. “Royal consort, as soon as Tegla enters these doors, he takes on the role of an exorcist. Right now, he is on duty, and even if you have personal matters to settle, you cannot come to the government office to capture him.”
“Who believes you?” the Hu woman said. “You don’t know how much I suffered trying to find this guy! And you all are still protecting him?! How about me? Will anyone care about me?”
Although the Hu woman looked like she wasn’t afraid of anything, when she spoke these words, Hongjun’s heart ached a little.
“How long have you been searching for him?”
“Three years! It’s been a whole three years already!”
A moment earlier, Hongjun was still helping A-Tai, but now he immediately switched sides and said angrily, “A-Tai! How could you be like this?”
A-Tai: “Whose side are you on?! Hongjun!”
“In Chang’an, Tegla resides right here,” Li Jinglong explained patiently. “He is registered as an exorcist on the books, so he won’t leave. How about we… go inside to talk?”
Li Jinglong raised a hand, and that wall of the Exorcism Department dissolved, revealing the main entrance. With that, the Hu woman finally let out a breath, and the group and the fish entered. Upon seeing Hongjun return, the carp yao immediately hopped to its feet and leapt into Hongjun’s arms.
The two of them went inside, still covered in the dust of their travels, and not long after, Qiu Yongsi, Mo Rigen, and Lu Xu returned. Upon seeing Hongjun, Lu Xu let out a joyful cry, kicked off his boots, and leapt over, climbing onto Hongjun’s back, the two of them tumbling into a pile of laughter. As for later matters, Li Jinglong indicated that they could be saved for a little bit later. They first set out tea to welcome Turandokht.
When she saw this many people, Turandokht was no longer as fierce and tough as she had before. Instead, sobs began to intersperse themselves in her words as she began to cry. She first used the Tohkarian language to soundly accuse A-Tai, and A-Tai, who usually had on that insouciant, “hai mie hou bi” attitude, hurried to apologize over and over to the Hu woman.
“You can do whatever you want,” A-Tai said, “as long as you don’t use that whip to hit me.”
Ashina Qiong hurried to say, “Saozi, this matter has nothing to do with me at all. I only found this bastard Tegla right before the new year.”
Turandokht then said to Li Jinglong and the rest, “Do you know how hard it was for me to find him?!”
Everyone hurried to nod as they all looked towards the whip. The Hu woman then said, “I won’t use the Deathly Painful Whip to hit you all, don’t worry.”
“So that’s called the Deathly Painful Whip.” Hongjun understood, and he nodded.
Turandokht vented for a while longer before Li Jinglong said, “It looks like it’s getting dark too, so why don’t you…”
Li Jinglong was just wondering whether or not he should let the Hu woman stay in the Exorcism Department. Even though their marriage was arranged, they hadn’t performed the ceremony, and though the Great Tang’s customs were liberal, arranging it so would be a violation of etiquette.
“I’ve opened up a wine shop in the Western Market,” Turandokht said at the end, after wiping her tears. “I’ll come once every day. Tegla, if you dare to run again…”
“Then use your whip to hit them ba,” A-Tai replied.
“Shut up!” everyone raged at him.
“You walk her back!” Li Jinglong said, enraged. “What kind of nonsense is this, Tegla! When you get back, I still have some words for you!”
A-Tai could only remain meek and subservient as he walked Turandokht back. The rest of them couldn’t resist gathering and gossiping for a bit, all of them denouncing A-Tai for being so wanton while already having a fiancee. What was more important was that he had even brought trouble upon the Exorcism Department, which was really too much. A while later, once everything had been settled, only then did they begin to exchange information.
Li Jinglong only skimmed over the matter of him and Hongjun heading up the Taihang Mountains to visit Chong Ming. What they were worried about before, they already had a way to resolve.
Where did this way come from? Hongjun glanced at Li Jinglong upon hearing those words, but Li Jinglong merely nodded back at him, a bit of a smile in his eyes, meaning that Hongjun should believe in him.
“Hongjun left in a hurry,” Li Jinglong said. “We forgot to bring a few regional specialties with us.”
“No worries, no worries,” Qiu Yongsi hurried to say. “As long as it’s resolved, then that’s good.”
Mo Rigen said, “That’s really very great!”
Lu Xu looked askance at Hongjun, who nodded. Li Jinglong then began to ask after the various sundry matters of the Exorcism Department; in these days while Zhangshi had been gone, the department had raised Mo Rigen as their head. The Judiciary Department had sent quite a lot of scrolls, but everyone had let them sit for the time being.
“There’s more?” Li Jinglong asked.
Mo Rigen replied, “Since the imperial consort’s birthday is approaching, the Six Armies and the Judiciary Department are all afraid of something going wrong, so as soon as they ran into a case that they couldn’t solve, they sent it to us.”
Li Jinglong en-ed, thought for a bit, and said, “What happened in Hexi also has to be reported to the crown prince and His Majesty. On some other day, I’ll go see the emperor, but in these few days, everyone should first rest well.”
“What about that black jiao?” Lu Xu asked directly, without taking the hint.
Li Jinglong seemed to have long been prepared for this, and he replied, “Wait, wait until he comes to our doorstep. I have a plan, but I haven’t fully thought it through yet. When the time comes, I will bring it up, so that I can get everyone’s opinions. Let’s disperse ba.”
The group then went off to do their own things. When Hongjun went back to his room, he saw that the courtyard was filled with peach blossoms, and he couldn’t resist an exclamation of surprise. Lu Xu followed closely behind him as he came and went, and he said from outside, “This place is really nice.”
“Do you like it?” Hongjun asked.
Lu Xu was a little lost as he stood under the cherry blossom tree in the spring wind. He didn’t respond to that question, instead saying, “Hongjun, as soon as my antlers grow out, I’ll help you, don’t worry.”
Hongjun thought to himself, more or less, Lu Xu had probably already guessed everything, so he sucked in a breath, rising to stand with Lu Xu. He slung one arm over his shoulder, gesturing for him to come in, before he closed the door.
Li Jinglong came over along the hallway, and upon seeing Hongjun and Lu Xu enter the room and close the door, their movements smooth, he wondered what kind of unspeakable things they were doing, and he couldn’t resist a jolt. But Mo Rigen stood behind Li Jinglong, saying, “Zhangshi, there’s something I have to ask you.”
Li Jinglong hurried to wave his hand, scooting forward from one side to listen in on their conversation from outside the room.
“Oi!” Mo Rigen said, “Let’s go quickly!” And with that, he forcefully dragged Li Jinglong away.
moon: TURANDOKHT TURANDOKHT
Also, if anyone was wondering about why I made the choice of using “Turandokht” as opposed to “Turandot”, it’s because “Turandot” is the name of the Italian opera by Puccini, which was itself taken from the original Persian “Turandokht”, meaning “daughter of Turan”.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.