Age of Lazurite, Tower of Glass Chapter 10
Chapter 10: Twin Steeds Fleeing
No one paid attention to Lotus over the next few days. She recited scripture, practiced her brushwork, strolled and admired the view by herself. The lake was accessible outside her tent flap. Hints of summer drifted through the great desert beneath the rays of the proud sun, but a cool breeze shook the branches of the willow trees.
“Water’s surface is calm and reflective, the lotuses raise to attention through the wind.” This familiar view often made Lotus think of Imjim Lake and the happy memories of childhood, as well as the young playmates she often spent time with. Her heart always ached slightly when she thought of Lee Fangyuan. How was he doing? Was he still fighting with the royal father? Had he made peace with the Crown Prince?
Lotus had also tried to take a further walk to look at the cows and sheep on the hills, but the guards barred her way and forbid her forward progress. It seemed that the area from tent to lake was to be her picturesque jail. Thus, she had only be able to glean from afar the saying of “the cows and sheep return home as the sun sets”.
When she thought of former Crown Prince Wang’s conspiracy as detailed by Jeong Jongseong, as well as the gazes of the Mongolians at the banquet a few days ago as if they were eyeing up prey, Lotus’ heart was extremely anxious. She’d wanted to slip away in the dead of the night several times, but the guard was heavy and she had no idea where she was. How was she to make it past the great desert and regain her freedom?
Lotus leaned on the table and kept murmuring to the tower of glass.
The treasured tower was still motionless without a sound. Lotus tapped lightly on the tower’s tip as she sighed and began to recite the heart sutra silently, “Avalokitesvara… to overcome all difficulties… The form is nonexistence, and nonexistence is the form…
The tent flap suddenly lifted as two men suddenly strode in with large steps. The one in front wasn’t tall as he stuck his chest out and had a protruding stomach, his face dark with Jeong Jongseong following close behind. Lotus gathered her thoughts and hastened to make her respects, “Crown Prince!”
The person who’d arrived was indeed Crown Prince Wang of the former Goryeo Dynasty. His expression softened a bit when he saw Lotus’ respectful expression and he said, “Rise!”
Lotus stood up, her head lowered as she moved to the side. The Crown Prince looked her up and down, “You don’t look any different from before. You’ve lived a good life these past couple of years!”
Lotus stood with a bowed head and didn’t make a sound.
The Crown Prince saw the tower of glass on the table and held it up for a closer view, “What is this?”
“It’s the tower of glass given to me by Master Zichao. Lotus recites scripture everyday, and seeing this tower feels like seeing the master.”
The Crown Prince put down the tower carelessly and was indifferent, “So Zichao has moved to Seoul?”
“Yes, master is at Anguk Temple.” Lotus answered with a low voice.
The Crown Prince nod his head, and sat down grandly, “Tell me, what are you planning to do in the imperial court?”
“The Japanese pirates are too powerful. Lotus wishes to ask the imperial court to send troops and the navy.” Lotus again replied quietly.
“How naïve!” The Crown Prince sniffed coldly, “The Li thief has always been insidious. If you want the Ming Court to help, why not just send a report or an envoy. If not, he has five sons, why would he need a weak girl like you to go there? There must be some conspiracy behind this!”
“It was me who begged for it,” Lotus quietly explained, “My father, Ah Min and Ah Xiu were all killed by the Japanese pirates. General Wu has had to retreat to Northern Cholla Province. The situation is quite difficult.”
“General Wu? Wu Benyuan? He became a general as well?”
“Yes.” Lotus’ voice was a bit low.
“These timeserving and treacherous officials all yielded to the Li thief!”
The Crown Prince ground his teeth in anger.
Lotus did not dare to answer him, so she bowed her head and remained silent.
The Crown Prince was filled with hatred and raised his voice, “I’m going to kill the Li thief one day, and kill these vile traitors. I’ll make them pay for my father’s death!”
He then glanced at Lotus, “I’m afraid you’ll have to suffer a bit and wait here. It would be the best if Li thief gave up on you. Someone has already written the petitions to censure him in the Imperial court, hahahaha!”
Lotus was shocked by these words. She bit her lip, gathered up her courage and said quietly, “Your Highness, the Japanese pirates have occupied the Cholla Province, and the people suffer!”
“Huh, whatever! They were my people, but they yielded to Li thief! They deserved to be killed by Japanese pirates!” The Crown Prince said with detest.
Lotus was shaken to hear these words, but stared into the Crown Prince’s eyes, “Are the people’s lives so cheap in Your Highness’ mind?” The Crown Prince again sniffed without replying. He returned a cold stare that sliced through the air.
Lotus continued, “Your Highness spared no effort and had the Mongols slaughter my entourage of two hundred just so I would come. Shan Xi,” she choked out a sob, “Shan Xi was with me since a young age. You remember her too, don’t you Your Highness? She was hacked to death by the Mongolians.” Lotus’ eyes held anger, criticism, resistance, and even more so exhortation, “Mongolians are ambitious, and are not content with being trapped here in the north of the desert. They would not easily withdraw if they go to Korea. Please reconsider this!”
The Crown Prince was stunned and couldn’t answer for a second. His eyes then sparkled and he said acrimoniously, “It’s none of your business! The horses will be upon the Li thief’s place in a few days. Stay there docilely until I give you further orders. Don’t think of coming up with any silly plans!” He swept the curtain aside viciously and strode away. Jeong Jongseong followed him out of the tent, without any emotion on his darkened face.
Lotus stood there and didn’t know what to do for a while. She sat down slowly and looked at the tower of glass with great anxiety weighing down her heart. What to do?
Nothing happened over the next two days. The maid brought in food during meal times, and though it was all vegetarian, it was quite substantial, with vegetables, fruits, bread, and cheese. Servants were present to help with cleaning and disrobing, and they sometimes even brought over some cosmetics. All this made her almost forget that she was in the empty Gobi desert.
Lotus counted the days and believed the Crown Prince has almost made his way to Seoul by now. How might His Majesty deal with this? Of course, he won’t trade himself for her. Would he send some troops to save her? But how would they find her? Ransom her? The Crown Prince didn’t care about money. Tell the Imperial court? He would then be afraid that the Crown Prince would take drastic measures. Pay the ransom and trade her for someone else? There was no way that the Crown Prince would agree to that.
And what would Li Fangyuan do if he knew? His temper…Lotus still remembered when they were young and had become angry at each other for some reason. Li Fangyuan had stood outside her door, annoyed, and didn’t eat, drink, move or talk. She’d hidden herself and her tears in her room and wouldn’t open the door. It had been a snowy day after the winter solstice, and he’d stood next to the door, downhearted. No matter how Madame Cao had pacified, how Cao Min had attempted to drag him away, or how the servants of the Li family had kneeled and begged, Li Fangyang just would not give up and remained standing there for some hours. It wasn’t until Lotus had opened the door to talk that he finally relented. His hands and ears were frostbitten, and the injuries didn’t recover until early spring. Madame Cao pointed at the two kids later and said, “You two were sweethearts in your past lives.”
The candlelight flickered, casting a lonely shadow on the tent. Lotus held her face with one hand, looking at the tower of glass beside the candle without moving. She didn’t know how long she had held this position. “A spring silkworm’s silk won’t vanish until its death, and a candle’s tears won’t dry until it became ashes.” The candle’s melted wax dropped along its body drop by drop and eventually gathered into layers of wax on the bottom. When Lotus was young, she could not understand how silkworms was mentioned in the same breath as candles, but now when she mulled over it, the meaning became heavy.
The curtain moved slightly, and a black clothed man with his face covered snuck quietly in. Lotus’ mouth was covered before she had time to cry out. “It’s me! Jongseong!” Lotus looked at him with surprise and confusion.
“We need to go, now!” Jeong Jongseong lowered his voice and spoke in a rush. Lotus looked at his long eyes, filled with earnest anxiety, and nodded without a second thought, “Ok!” Lotus didn’t have time to bring anything, so she slipped the tower of glass on the table into her clothes and followed Jeong Jongseong.
Jeong Jongseong handed a cloak to Lotus that was black on both sides. Lotus put on the cloak and covered her head. The cloak was so big that it dragged on the floor a bit. They bent down and snuck out of the tend. The two guards of the tent laid on the ground, and Lotus was unsure whether Jongseong had hacked into them with his blade or his fists.
Jeong Jongseong secretly took Lotus to the lake banks, and they walked along the shores. The surrounding area was completely quiet, with the faint moonlight and splendid starry sky spilling out over the lake with crystalline sparkles. There were the occasional guards on the way. The two hid or concealed themselves accordingly and managed not to get caught. It was a long while until they reached the end of the lake. They were already a far distance from the tents. There was two horses tethered beneath a big tree. Jeong Jongseong untied the horses, and gave the reins of one to Lotus. “Get on the horse and follow me!” Lotus nodded her head.
They mounted the horses and set on their way. Jeong Jongseong had carefully covered the horses’ hoof with soft cloth earlier, so that although they were riding horses on a quiet night, there were no loud disturbances.
After this kidnapping experience, Lotus’ horse riding skills, particularly those used for escaping, had certainly improved greatly.
They formed a line and concentrated on driving their horses forward, unable to say much. Cool breezes stroked their faces and dew adhered to their clothes, making things a bit chilly. The desert’s terrain rose and fell, and there was no route that they could trace. However, Jeong Jongseong showed no hesitation, obviously extremely familiar with this place.
Lotus followed him closely. Seeing his slim figure on the horse, she suddenly recalled a time when they were young. No, it had actually been only six or seven years ago. Dozens of kids from the Jeong, Li and Cao families often played together in Kaesong City. They would also run like crazy and chase each other. They always laughed, screamed and romped together, and would not leave each other until the adults scolded them. How could they have imagined that one day, they would be fleeing for their lives together in this vast desert?
The sky gradually become bright, and the first light of dawn slowly appeared in the sky. The sun began to show itself, with the round solar disc leaping out of the horizon. It then slowly rose into the air, illuminating the boundless, golden desert. Lotus had never known that long exposure to the color yellow would be so aggravating.
Jeong Jongseong slowed down to wait for Lotus to catch up and asked, “You must be tired, right? Let’s rest for a moment. The horses need rest too.” Lotus nodded. They dismounted, and Jeong Jongseong sat down on the ground. Lotus was too tired so she laid down without thinking about her image. Jeong Jongseong did not mind. He gave Lotus the water pouch and some bread, getting up to feed the horses.
Lotus felt recovered after a while and sat up, holding her knees with her arms, watching Jeoung Jongseong, and quietly asked, “Why?”
Jeong Jongseong was looking at some place far, and answered after a while, “I overheard Soren Timur and Bei Erzhi‘s secret meeting. You were right, they wanted to invade Korea, and make the country supply resources for Mongolian army.”
Lotus wasn’t surprised. How could the Crown Prince and Jeong Jongseong not understand such simple logic? Their eyes had been covered with hatred, so they chose to pretend that they knew nothing.
“This is Mount Cecer, we will travel south, and will arrive in the Imperial court’s Daning Prefecture in four days. The Imperial court’s army will be stationed there.” Jeong Jongseong narrowed his eyes as he faced the sun. His thin, long eyes now became a narrow crack, “Do you have the paperwork with you?
Lotus became speechless, and answered, “I have nothing. When we were robbed at Tieling, all the paperwork was with Nan Huo. The letters were in the baggage, which I didn’t have time to bring with me either.”
“Then this will be a little troublesome. You’ll have to prove your identity in order to request the Ming Army for help. It’s fine, we can think of something when we get there! Things will work out anyway as long as we reach Ming territory.” Jeong Jongseong sounded as if he was comforting Lotus, but at the same time sounded like that he already had a plan.
Lotus looked at his profile, and noticed how withered and aged he was. She could guess that throughout all these years, he had hidden and stowed away in various places, nursing hatred and enmity deep in his chest. Moreover, he’d to escape to the desert and serve the Mongolians. The agony in his heart was hard for her to imagine, not to mention how swarthy his skin had become.
Lotus felt apologetic. The king had taken the crown that year by all means necessary. Even if killing the old king of Goryeo was against his will, he hadn’t done right by the Jeong family. As for her own family, they’d chosen to protect themselves by removing the family from the situation. Lotus couldn’t help to say, “Jongseong, I apologize!”
Jeong Jongseong returned a wry smile, “What does that have to do with you?” He lowered his head and shoved a piece of bread into his mouth.
Lotus stared at him, and said with sincerity, “Don’t worry, I will find a way to rehabilitate Master Jeong, and make people treat the Jeong family the way they should.”
Jeong Jongseong had not heard such sincere words for years, and was greatly moved. His eyes filled with tears, and so he had to lift up his head to pretend that he was looking at the sky in order to hold them in. The two did not talk for a long time.
Suddenly, two cries of vulture pierced the sky, halting the very movement of the clouds, and scaring off all the birds. Jeong Jongseong lifted his head even higher. He murmured with grim face, “So fast!”
Lotus also lifted up her head, and saw two black vultures hovered over their head, crying out loudly with their neck stretched.
Jeong Jongseong dragged Lotus up, “The Mongolians have found us, we need to go!”
They leapt back on their horses and followed fiercely.
But how could they escape from the Mongolians in this empty and vast desert?
Boundless desert, endless desert filled their vision.
Lotus felt that her mouth was dry, her tongue scorched, head swirling, and her vision blurring. They had been on the run for more than twenty hours, and she was exhausted. She felt that all her bones had fallen apart, and wondered if the sound of the horse galloping had mixed with the sound of her bones bouncing with each other. Her hands were abraded and with blisters, and it was very painful to continue holding on to the reins. Her two legs has lost their feeling, and she could only clench the horse’s belly torpidly. What’s worse was that, the horse was foaming at the mouth, and no matter how she beat it with whip, it wouldn’t go faster.
The two vultures followed them over their head, occasionally crying out, and continued circling in the sky.
Jeong Jongseong hadn’t brought bow and arrow with in order to lighten his baggage. However, the bow and arrows wouldn’t have helped because they would be unable to reach the vultures. He tried several times to call the vultures with concealed weapons, but the vultures were very vigilant and weren’t hit.
“Don’t they need to eat, drink or sleep?” Lotus was panting as she asked. She felt that her throat was going to break because of dryness.
“Black vultures are tough, so they are fine not eating or drinking for days.” Lotus’ face turned gloom when she heard the despair inducing reply.
Jeong Jongseong then added, “The sky is turning dark, and it looks like there will be no moon tonight. Hopefully the stars won’t be out either. If it is completely dark, we might be able to escape in the darkness.”
Lotus nodded. It was the first time that she looked thus forward to the night in all her night. She wished mightily that would be a completely dark night.
Two exhausted horses carrying two exhausted people, continued to gallop in the endless desert. No, they continued slow short trot.
The sky turned dark, and heavy clouds lowered over their head. The wind was strong, stirring up the sand, and causing pain when blown into people’s face. What kind of weather would it be tonight?