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Ning Que woke up and sighed before he even opened his eyes due to a splitting headache. The pain confused him, and he could not remember the last thing that happened at the Building of Pines and Cranes. He wasn't sure if his headache was due to a hangover or something else.
He thought for a long time before he remembered the tall old man in fox-fur robes. He thought about the thick, short rod in the man's hand and understood the reason for his headache. He could not help feeling angry, or perhaps, a little ashamed. He was angry that the man had actually dared to hit him, and was ashamed that he, a core disciple of the Headmaster of the Academy, had been beaten by a frail rich man of Chang'an.
Was he still lying on the balcony of the Building of Pines and Cranes? Ning Que felt around himself subconsciously, and knew that he was in the Old Brush Pen Shop by the hardness of the brick bed beneath him and the scent of the bedding. Who had sent him back? Was it the manager or the evil old man?
The familiar scent of the bedding wafted past his nose. It wasn't an odd scent, but one that made him feel at ease. It was his and her scent. However, he also smelt another unfamiliar scent that he remembered clearly. It was a scent of beef and egg porridge. He suddenly felt confused, as if he had returned to the past.
Many years ago, he brought Sangsang along with him to join the army in the City of Wei. When they pa.s.sed through Tus.h.i.+ town, they had met a barbarian cook from the gra.s.sland selling beef porridge. An old man had cracked an egg in his beef porridge in a very particular manner. The boiling beef porridge cooked the fresh egg into a slurry, and it became an amazingly fragrant and smooth dish. It looked tasty even from afar.
Sangsang wanted to eat the beef and egg porridge, but Ning Que did not buy it as he was trying to save money. The two walked past the town silently. After that, he had killed a Horse Gang with the team in the City of Wei. When he received his first payment, Sangsang made beef and egg porridge for four days straight. The two ate it till they felt sick. That was when they realized that beef and egg porridge was very nouris.h.i.+ng, but was ordinary after they had too much of it. And from then on, they never made it again.
Ning Que opened his eyes and looked at the white paper stuck on the roof. He smelt the scent of beef and egg porridge wafting in through the cracks of the door. He rubbed his hurting head and sat up.
Tugging on his robe from the foot of the brick bed, he pushed the door open and walked into the courtyard. He looked at the neatly stacked firewood in the corner where some pieces were missing on the very top row, as if a rat had come by and stole some in the middle of the night.
Then, he looked towards the shop and realized that the vegetables, rice and roast duck that were left on the table the day before were missing. The table was wiped down and the floors had been scrubbed clean and were devoid of any dust.
Hot steam floated from the kitchen. Ning Que walked over and discovered that the leftovers had been thrown out. The stove that had been cold for two days was heated up once more by firewood. A bowl of porridge bubbled noisily on the stovetop, steam and fragrance escaping from it.
There was a small stool before the stove. Sangsang sat in her usual spot. She looked at the firewood, listened to the porridge cook and controlled the fire. She seemed a little tired, and her slightly tanned face was flushed by the fire. The tendrils of yellow hair on her forehead curled even more in the heat.
Ning Que looked at her frail back. After a moment of silence, he walked up and patted her shoulder.
Sangsang woke up. She raised her face to look at him. "You've woken up?"
Ning Que made a sound of agreement. He said, "It seems that you haven't slept much all night."
Sangsang murmured in agreement.
Ning Que said, "Go and sleep. I'll cook the porridge."
Sangsang stood up from the stool and pushed the curly hair on her forehead back. She suddenly remembered something when she exited the kitchen, and turned back, "Mind the fire, don't let it grow too big."
Ning Que said, "I know."
Sangsang continued, "You can't drink, drink less in the future."
Ning Que said, "I know."
Then, he sat down on the stool before the stove. He removed the firewood that was burning too fiercely, and adjusted the heat, turning down the heat in the stove.
Sangsang woke up at noon. She retrieved her towel and toothbrush and washed up simply. She went to take a look at the porridge in the kitchen, and then, walked to the front of the shop.
There was a plate of deboned and skinned roast duck on the table as well as two plates of vegetables with spring onion and garlic. Also on the table was a pot of beef and egg porridge, two pairs of chopsticks and two empty bowls.
All the dishes were the same as the previous day other than the beef and egg porridge that Sangsang cooked. Ning Que had gone to the market and made them while she was asleep.
Sangsang looked at the dishes on the table and suddenly lowered her head to look at her shoes that stuck out from beneath her skirts. She said in a low voice, "Have your injuries healed? If they have, I'll return to the Scholar's Mansion."
Ning Que said, "You don't have to go back."
Sangsang froze slightly. She thought for a moment before scooping him a bowl of porridge and placing it before him. Then, she handed him chopsticks and began to serve herself porridge.
"Let's eat some rice." Ning Que placed a drumstick in her bowl.
Sangsang said seriously, "This is a dish, not rice."
Ning Que replied, "It's all the same."
Then, the two began to eat in the shop silently. He would occasionally place some vegetables in her bowl, and she would dip duck skin in sauce and place it in his. Then, she scooped another bowl of porridge for him.
Ning Que suddenly smiled.
Sangsang smiled as well.
There was a horse carriage outside the Lin 47th Street.
Mo Shanshan sat by the window and peered at the Old Brush Pen Shop through the curtain. The doors to the shop were not closed and she could clearly see what was happening in the shop. She saw many things and many nuances.
Her expression was calm as usual. However, her lashes fluttered slightly.
She had seen the Chicken Soup Calligraphy, and had also imagined many things about that boy due to that calligraphy. She had even begun to like the boy even before she met him due to the calligraphy. She had been very familiar with the name at the beginning of the calligraphy since summer of last year.
She even understood the importance of that name before Ning Que had. Therefore, she had ruminated over it several times in the Wilderness, and it was also the reason why she had to meet Sangsang.
She had met Sangsang on the first day they entered Chang'an. Beyond her expectation, Sangsang was a very ordinary handmaiden. Then, she saw Sangsang again today.
The Sangsang she saw today was one that interacted with Ning Que alone.
She looked at Ning Que and Sangsang who were eating in the Old Brush Pen Shop. Mo Shanshan finally believed that the two had already formed a world belonging to them many years ago. To them, everyone else in the world was outsiders, and any affairs of the world did not affect them either. It was difficult to leave even a trace in that world.
They were like eyes and lashes. It was just that the eyes would not usually see the lashes and the lashes would not fall into the eyes. However, they would notice the existence of each other when a wind blew from a world outside theirs.
"But I am a
am a hill, not a wind."
Mo Shanshan pulled down the curtains slowly and handed a letter to Zhuo Zhihua who was sitting beside her.
Zhuo Zhihua said hesitantly, "Are we going to leave Chang'an just like that?"
Mo Shanshan said calmly, "After all, it was Mr. First who had invited me. We shall head to the Academy in the south and meet him before leaving."
Zhuo Zhihua sighed and did not try to change her mind. She took the letter and got off the horse carriage.
After eating, Sangsang did the dishes while Ning Que opened the letter by the table.
The letter bore the familiar handwriting of Mo Shanshan. Her handwriting was not delicate, and one could see a feisty spirit that could not be hidden in the calm.
The letter ended like this.
"Perhaps fate had arranged for both your worlds to be an individual one. You do not need someone to knock on the wooden doors from outside, and you do not need someone to call and disturb under the winter trees outside the courtyard. But I do not believe in fate."
"We have traveled together in the Wilderness, and I have benefited plenty from it. I liked it a lot when we traveled together in Chang'an winter."
"You have once told me in the snow by the red walls that you liked me. And I have also once said that liking is not enough. And it is proven that it is indeed insufficient. But at least you have once said that you liked me. I like that a lot."
"Chang'an and Great River Kingdom are quite a distance from each other, but the distance is not as far as that from the Wilderness. If you really wish to come, and if I wish to go, the distance is not an issue. If you wish to visit me in the future, or if I wish to visit you, or if we meet anywhere else, all would be happy occasions."
"After experiencing so many things, I have many new ideas. When we meet again, everything that I have written in this letter will become stronger and better. I hope that you will work harder and not disappoint me."
Ning Que was silent for a long while after reading the letter. Then, he walked to the bedroom and lifted the baseboard of the bed. He removed the box beneath and discovered that all the notes in the box have returned.
He looked at the thick wads of notes in the box and could not help smiling. He understood that Sangsang already had the intention of moving back even if he had not said anything before lunch.
He placed the box beneath the bed and looked at the letter in his hands. He thought for a moment before putting it in the pile of recycled paper on his desk. Then, he retrieved the big black umbrella and told Sangsang that he would wait for her outside the shop.
Sangsang got water from the well after she was done with the dishes. She had already got some water at dawn and the water vat was pretty full. She quickly finished her ch.o.r.es and wiped at the non-existent sweat on her forehead out of habit. She began to dress when she returned to the bedroom, and then, saw the letter in the pile of waste paper.
After a moment of silence, she wiped her hands dry on her ap.r.o.n seriously. Then, she picked up the letter, and took out the box. She placed the letter into the depths of the box carefully before placing the box where she found it.
This was Sangsang's little black box. There were things inside that were important to Ning Que, but he had thrown away for some reason or another. For example, the calligraphy that Ning Que had written on the night that Zhuo Er had died.
She knew that the letter was precious to Ning Que, and kept it well for him.
Sangsang opened the big black umbrella as she walked out of the Old Brush Pen Shop. She followed Ning Que out of Lin 47th Street.
Ning Que was used to her making the bed, was.h.i.+ng the dishes, and holding the umbrella.
After a while, he suddenly took the big black umbrella from her hands.
Sangsang looked up at him confusedly.
He smiled, "Let's go."
Sangsang smiled, her willow leaf-shaped eyes creased. She nodded and hummed in agreement.
The first rain in spring in Chang'an was very precious.
The two looked at the rain from under the umbrella as if they were looking at the past and future.