Chapter 8: Meeting an Old Friend in the Desert
When Lotus came to, she discovered that all was dark around her, except for a trace of faint light towards the front. She carefully tried to discern her surroundings before, finally realizing that she was in a horse carriage with her hands and feet tied up. There was a bit of cloth shoved into her mouth that might’ve been a handkerchief or just a rag. It was oily and stank. The cabin lurched slightly as the carriage proceeded forward with great speed. She could hear the clopping sounds of the hooves of the horses and the creaks from the carriage wheels as they turned. Lotus tilted her head, but didn’t hear anything else.
Lotus struggled and emitted two groans. The carriage didn’t stop, but a whip came down harshly on the carriage roof as a man yelled viciously, “Stay still!” He was actually speaking in Mongolian.
During the Yuan dynasty, the Goryeo Kingdom was a vassal state to the Yuan dynasty. After the establishment of the Ming dynasty, subsequent hostilities between northern and southern Yuan erupted and the Goryeo Kingdom was split in two camps that leaned towards either Yuan or Ming. The civil and military officials all had their own loyalties. It wasn’t until Li Chenggui founded the Joseon dynasty and wholeheartedly threw his loyalties behind a single dynasty that Korea became the Yuan dynasty’s vassal. Therefore, all officials knew both the Mongol and Han languages. When Lotus heard the Mongol language, her heart gave a leap of fright.
The carriage continued to lurch forward. She couldn’t identify where she was going nor could she hear anything else. The carriage swung side to side and she was tied up tightly. Her hands, feet, and brain all felt a bit numb. Lotus simply decided to shut her eyes and recite scripture in her heart. The Diamond Sutra that she’d known since she was small flowed through her mind.
The interior of the carriage slowly became dimmer and dimmer as the ray of light seeping through the crack slowly faded away until it was completely dark.
After who knew how long, the carriage seemed to slow down. The occasional ups and downs and various noises all disappeared as they finally came to a stop. Someone in the back yelled, “Make camp!” before the herd of horses thundered over. There were sounds of people dismounting, changing clothes, piling on firewood, lighting up a fire, and pouring water. A delicious fragrance wafted into the carriage after a while — it was the smell of baked bread and beef. Lotus was curled up in the carriage, horror and fright spasming her heart.
It suddenly grew bright in front of her as the thick carriage curtains were yanked away. A burly man approached her and hauled her out of the carriage. Lotus’ head was facing down and she could only see the sands on the ground. The fire danced and sparkled, reflecting light onto the sands every now and then.
The burly man threw Lotus onto the ground before carelessly loosening her restraints. Since Lotus had been tied for a long time, the blood flow within her vessels wasn’t flowing properly even after she had been released. She lay there, curled up on the ground. At that point, the moon was bright amidst a sparse sprinkling of stars. She could tell that they were in a desert. The sand dunes rose and fell, extending without end into the distance until they vanished into the darkness. There was no end to the swathes of sand. Lotus had only seen deserts in paintings and couldn’t help but sigh with emotion inwardly. This was much grander and expansive than the paintings portrayed! The Tang dynasty poems that she’d read before had lines of, “vast and bare expanses of infinity” and “ten thousand li’s of desert with not a single sign of humanity”, but she’d never been able to imagine the boundless form of the desert before her. Now that she ruminated over it, it turned out that every single word in the poems was true.
There was a bonfire burning in the distance behind a small sand dune. More than ten burly men were sitting around it, eating and drinking. What was a rare sight was that although these people were eating and drinking, they didn’t say a single word or make the slightest noise.
As Lotus slowly felt feeling returnto her hands and feet, she slowly sat up, taking out the rag in her mouth and throwing it onto the ground. The stink still emanated from it from far away, giving her a wave of vertigo and almost making her throw up.
A tall, skinny man with his back to her beside the fire raised his head in indication, and a burly man brought over a piece of bread and a skin of water, throwing them at Lotus’ feet. Lotus first picked up the skin of water and rinsed her mouth, spitting it out onto the ground. The burly man hadn’t walked far yet when he heard Lotus rinsing out her mouth. He turned back to growl viciously, “This is the desert! Water is more expensive than gold! You have only this skin of water!” He also spoke in Mongol.
Lotus started and didn’t say anything. She picked up the bread on the ground and slowly tore it apart, eating slowly. She mused, “Did he only give me bread because he knows I’m vegetarian? Or is it simply because he couldn’t bear to give me beef?”
That night, this group of people rested where they had made camp, and no one came back to tie up Lotus’ hands and feet. There were two people who slept behind her, subtly surrounding her. Someone had thrown a thick blanket to Lotus which she used to wrapped around herself before lying on the sandy ground. The sky seemed to be the roof of a Mongolian hut as it covered the four directions, a dark abyss. A sliver of the waning moon hung high in the sky, pouring its cold rays over the earth. The numerous stars seemed to be jewels that dotted the sky.
Where was this place? Lotus silently recited scripture as she slowly fell asleep as well.
Nights in the desert were incredibly cold, and she seemed to recall the sound of someone adding to the fire deeper into the night. Lotus held tightly onto the blanket as she curled into herself, trying to hold onto warmth with all her might and curl back into a safe world. Someone seemed to be watching her, but she couldn’t seem to open her eyes no matter how she tried. Forget it, sleep, just sleep, Lotus said to herself.
The sky was already bright when she opened her eyes. A burly man walked by and threw a bundle of items onto the ground, “Go into the carriage and change into this! You’re riding a horse by yourself today.”
Lotus took a look and saw that it was a set of light blue clothes and shoes of the Han people. Although it was made from ordinary cloth, but it was new and clean. Lotus walked to the carriage and changed hastily. The sizes were a perfect fit. Suspicion started to surface in her heart as she bundled up her original Korean clothes and carefully hid the Glass Tower on her body. When she emerged, she saw that the burly men had dug a deep pit and buried all traces of the bonfire. The carriage had also been pushed in and everything had been buried without a trace.
One of them men brought over a tawny horse and gave it to Lotus, snarling, “Don’t you dare think of running away!”
And so, more than ten horses galloped forward, five in front of Lotus and seven behind her. They both escorted and surrounded her. The skinny, tall man brought up the rear and occasionally directed the way. He wore a mask that revealed only his long, thin almond-shaped eyes. No expression could be gleaned from his eyes and he spoke Mongol a bit oddly, but nothing could be gleaned from his accent either.
And so, the group of people ran in the vast desert. Sand and yet more sand greeted the eye. There was only sand. Lotus’ initial shock and delight at seeing the desert for the first time had vanished completely. She wearily galloped from one sand dune to another and yet another, not knowing where the end was .
By the time she laid down to rest every night, it was like her bones had already scattered. The bread that had originally been hard to swallow suddenly became delicious, and the murky, suspicious water in the skin became a sweet spring.
She’d gone from not knowing how strong the sun at the start of summer was to feeling practically cooked as it shone straight down at noon. Lotus was privately grateful for the simple Han clothing she was wearing. If she had still been wearing the layers of clothing that comprised Korean court dress, she probably would’ve died from heat exhaustion a long time ago.
Lotus was reminded of when she’d gone to the springs on Mt. Yongxing with her little brother. He’d been playing around, refusing to come on shore and ended up fainting in the springs due to the heat and humidity. Her little brother had been so scared by that experience that he’d never gone back to the springs after that. Her little brother had just been a kid then, and only a big boy even at the very end. Lotus could still not believe that her little brother was gone just like that, and her father and older brothers were also never to be seen again.
And Shan Xi and Hai Shou, were they really gone as well?
Lotus crouched down on the horse and galloped forward unconsciously. Her tears flowed down her cheeks and dripped onto the sand. At this moment, it didn’t seem to make a difference where they went. Where could she go to find her family again?
The tall, skinny man followed behind her, his gaze focusing on Lotus.
They ran like this for five days before all the men suddenly cheered, despite the fact that the desolate landscape continued to greet their eyes. They waved their whips and sped up. The men behind Lotus spurred past her horse and cracked their whips as they went by, making her horse speed up in a frenzy as well. Lotus almost fell off the horse as she hastily tightened her grip on the reins, lowered her head and kept her body glued to the horse’s back. The wind howled as it rushed past her ears.
She slowly smelled the presence of water and grass, and the scent of sweet flowers wafted through the air. There was also the fragrance of meat, fruit, wine, and milk. The men yelled as they galloped even faster, leaving Lotus in the dust. The tall, skinny man followed beside her at a stately pace.
After making it past a tall sand dune, a large patch of green suddenly appeared in front of them. There was no end of the grassy plain and all sorts of brightly colorful flowers were dispersed amidst the grass. Herds of cows and sheep were walking leisurely as they grazed. Several shepherding dogs either lifted their heads alertly or lazily crouched on the side. There was even a large lake in the distance as the jade green color of the waters gave it the appearance of a grassy plain. Water fowl paddled around on the surface of the water. There were rows of tents next to the water, both large and small. Some tents had smoke wafting out of their tops, slowly rising towards the blue sky and merging with the low-hanging white clouds.
Lotus had only ever seen this kind of scene in paintings. She rubbed her eyes, almost unable to believe that this was real. Cows and sheep in the distance moo’ed and baa’ed as a flock of birds passed lowly overhead. This truly illustrated the lines of “flocks of birds by the desert’s edge, herds of sheep gathered by the water shore”. Lotus felt an involuntary surge of completely relaxed and happy. Although she knew that nothing good could possibly be awaiting her, she still couldn’t help but smile faintly when presented with such a beautiful sight in front of her.
The tall, skinny man was a bit surprised to see Lotus smile. He started and then said in a low voice, “Let’s go.” He shook the reins after saying that, making straight for the tents. Lotus recollected herself and spurred her horse to follow.
They arrived at a tent in the center of the plain not too long thereafter. There were two guards at the door. The man jumped down from the horse and flicked a glance at Lotus, “You wait here first.” He entered the tent himself. Lotus alighted and looked around curiously. This looked like a place where the Mongols resided, with the sounds of soldiers practicing coming in vaguely from a distance. Was it the camp of a large army?
After a short while, the guard yelled at Lotus, “Go in!” before roughly escorting her inside.
The tent was exceedingly large, almost like a palace. Inside, gold and jade vied with each other in exceedingly exquisite designs. There were two rows of guards standing upright, with the tall, skinny man sitting at their head. A Mongol general wearing light armour and no helmet set himself above all the others at the end of the procession. When he saw Lotus enter, he swept a cold glance up and down her body, appearing a bit threatening at times.
Lotus didn’t kneel or bow. She only made a noncommittal gesture and then stood there unmoving, not saying a single word.
The general suddenly smiled, “You’re a princess alright; you have a certain way of doing some things. I am General Sorin Timur of the Yuan Empire. The princess has travelled a long way.”
Lotus made another gesture. “Sir.” Her thoughts spun rapidly.
The Mongols had already been expelled from the Ming Empire to the Gobi Desert by now (what history called Northern Yuan). Although the Khan Kun Timur still held the banner of the Yuan Empire, in reality, all the sons and descendants of the family held their own court. The generals that possessed military power were all divvied up, fracturing the entirety of Mongol into multiple portions. Sorin Timur1” was one of the local despots with military power who ruled the Gobi Desert. Why had he spent so much effort and time hiring so many people to capture her?
With a smile on his face, Soren Timur only asked her about the sights she’d seen, if she was used to the climate and other such shallow questions. He called out after a short bit, “Come! Help the Princess Yi Ning to her quarters.” Two maids answered the call and walked up. Lotus couldn’t help but think of Shan Xi again. Her heart ached, but she could only retreat with a smile.
Lotus followed the maids to a tent by the lake. Although it was small, it was exquisite and clean. After a few days in the desert, her hair and face had become completely matted and stiff thanks to all the dust and sand. Lotus showered and changed. When she saw that the Han clothing laid out on the table was the pale blue that she liked, her heart grew even more confused and she pondered silently.