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 [ ], and whatever’s written in square brackets are words I added on for clearer meaning. I don’t have a beta reader, so if you spotted any glaring typos or errors, feel free to point them out!
____________________________________________________________________________Chapter 44: What is the truth
Rajiva stares at the Gillette razor in my hands with surprise. One day, while shopping with the girls from my dorm, I saw them buying these razors for their boyfriends and it made me decide to buy one on impulse as well. Since I did not expect to see him again, I thought I would never have the chance to give it to him. I would have brought shaving cream along with this razor, but in the end decided not to because I was afraid that it would get poisoned by radiation.
Of course Rajiva does not know how to use this razor. I make him sit down, then dampen a handkerchief with warm water before pressing it against his chin to soften the stubble there. I tell him to tilt his head back and to stay still, then slowly slide the razor across his chin. I have learned how to do this from a male researcher in the lab. Rajiva watches me with careful eyes. I can see my reflection in his eyes and it makes my heart beat fast. His skin is very smooth. Every time I touch it, my mind goes a bit blank. Afraid that my inattention may hurt him, I try to calm myself down and stabilize my hands before continuing on with the shaving.
Once it is all done, his face looks very clean and fresh. While I am too busy being mesmerized by his handsome visage, my stupid stomach just has to rumble right there and then. It is already three in the afternoon and I have yet to eaten since last night. My cheeks redden in embarrassment, but Rajiva has taken a hold of my hands and smiles gently at me.
"Let's go eat."
We sit across from each other as we eat. Even though the food is now cold, I still find it very delicious for some reason. I keep looking at him as I eat with that same silly grin on my face and every time, he would smile back at me. Ten years past have left behind some marks of age at the corners of his eyes and on his forehead, so when he smiles, the wrinkles are even more evident. I wish I could erase all those marks from his face. I do not want to experience yet again another ten years passing for him and it being only a few months for me. This time, I want to accompany him to the end of this journey of life.
"Does it still hurt?"
After our meal, he gently touches my back, eyes pained. I shake my head. If I had not done that, who knows how much longer he would be caught in all that inner turmoil? For that reason, I do not feel any pain.
His face suddenly reddens as he asks in a small voice:
"Can Rajiva see?"
Caught off-guard, my face also heats up and a strange feeling creeps up my heart. After a moment's hesitation, seeing that his gaze is still on me, I turn around and sweep my hair to the side before dropping my dress down to my waist.
He sits facing my back but does not say a word for a long while. I feel extremely flustered to be showing him my bare skin like this and just want to pull my dress up already, but he gently stops me.
Suddenly there is a cold feeling on my back, making me shiver. It is his hand gently caressing the welt from the whip. After a moment, his hand is replaced by a warm and moist press of lips, slowly gliding from the top to the end of the welt—a very long kiss that makes my whole body tremble.
He drags his lips to the shell of my ear and speaks in a low hushed tone:
"Rajiva will never let you get hurt again."
The atmosphere around us is coy and heavy with unspoken feelings, making me wrung tight with nerves. Perspiration starts to pool on the bridge of my nose.
All of a sudden, the doors swing open. Startled, I immediately pull up my dress and fix my clothes. How could I be so careless, forgetting that this is a prison and someone can come in at any time. However, Rajiva has used his body to shield me from sight.
The Di soldier who has been guarding us peeks his head in and says: "Great Master, General Lu has requested for you."
Lu Guang did not say that he wanted to see me but worried for Rajiva, I decide to tag along anyway. We end up in the same hall as yesterday. Upon arrival, I see that Lu Guang is surrounded by the same group of bastard sons as before.
"How was your night of tasting, Great Master? My son has witnessed with his own eyes the moment you achieved the world's utmost pleasure."
Lu Guang bursts out in cruel laughter without any care, seemingly very satisfied [with the situation].
"A person should know how to enjoy the pleasures of life. Just chanting mantras all-day, what is the joy in that? If not for Lu Guang, I'm afraid the Great Master would never know what pleasure of the flesh feels like!"
Even though I have mentally prepared myself and knew that I would only be hearing insults when I see Lu Guang, but upon hearing such vile words in person, I am consumed with disgust as if I have just swallowed a fly in my mouth. I glance at Rajiva out of the corner of my eyes and see that his face has changed colour slightly, but his expression is still calm and dignified. I try to tamper down my own anger. That we have to suffer such humiliation is all because our status is inferior!
Lu Guang finally directs his attention over me and comments with a leer:
"Turns out Master is not unlike me and prefers Han girls with their delicate figures. At my residence in Chang'an, I have taken in quite a number of Han girls. If Master has the opportunity to visit Chang'an later, I will definitely gift you a few girls."
Rajiva still remains silent, lips pressed into a tight line, his back ramrod straight. Even though he is dressed in a commoner's clothing, his calm and collected gaze, his dignified and otherworldly aura, all serve to make an uncouth person like Lu Guang look rather small in comparison.
Seeing no response from Rajiva after a long while must have ticked Lu Guang off, for he coughs to clear his throat and says: "The next few days, Master should rest in the palace. I will make sure there are servants around to take care of your needs."
Then he pretends to be caring and asks: "Do you need anything?"
Rajiva inclines his head slightly and clasps his hands together before replying calmly: "Rajiva has been away from the temple for far too long so my heart has not been at ease. If General Lu would allow me to return to the Tsio-Li or Cakuri Temple, Rajiva would be extremely grateful."
"Master need not be in such a hurry! I have several questions about Buddha's teachings that will require your guidance."
"General Lu's questions are not ones Rajiva can help answer. The study of chenwei* is not one of Buddha's teachings. Rajiva only knows sutras and is not able to help you divine fortunes." His tone seems to book no further arguments as he continues, "Rajiva is a monk and matters of the earthly realm are beyond us [monks]. General Lu may be able to force Rajiva to break the precepts, but my piety towards Buddha is not something that you can bend to your will. Whatever hopes General Lu has for me, Rajiva is not able to help with, so it is best that you cast such thoughts out of your mind."
* a type of divination [see end of Ch.40]
I am quite confused. When Buddhism was first introduced to the Central Plains, the Han people viewed Buddhism as something similar to Taoism and other folk religions in the area. From the Han Dynasty to the Northern and Southern Dynasties, the practice of chenwei is fairly common, so Lu Guang trying to use Rajiva as a diviner is not totally unexpected. But the words Rajiva used made me puzzled. What does he mean by "General Lu's hopes"? Could it be that Lu Guang trying to make Rajiva break his precepts was not because of some simple wager? But I have no time to dwell on such thoughts at the moment. I look up and try to signal to Rajiva to not provoke Lu Guang any further.
As expected, Rajiva's words made Lu Guang quite angry.
He shouts at us: "How dare you!"
However, Lu Zuan has stopped his father before he can advance on us and whispers something to Lu Guang. After a moment, a calculated look begins to cross over the general's face and he takes a deep breath to collect himself.
"Master must be exhausted from the past few days, you should rest." Despite such words, there is nothing friendly or gentle about his tone. He continues, "Master has helped me win the wager last night so all of the Kuchan king's concubines are now mine. I will gift a few of them to you later."
Rajiva looks over at me then back to Lu Guang before speaking in a careful voice: "General Lu needs not worry. Rajiva has practiced the monastic way many years and is void of such desires." He pauses for a second before adding, "Rajiva hopes that General Lu will be kind to those women."
Lu Guang only laughs in his face.
"Master is really as kind as they say."
Then he looks over to me.
"Han girls in Kucha are a rarity. If Lu Guang finds any in the future, I will make sure to send them to Master."
Rajiva's face hardens but he says no other word in response.
"Rajiva, Lu Guang and his subordinates have already won, so why do they still keep you captive? What does he want from you?"
We have returned to the room we were in before, and once I confirmed that no one is around, I quickly ask him the question that has been on my mind this whole time.
"Ai Qing, do you know about the defeat of [Former] Qin in their battle against [Eastern] Jin?"
Of course I know about it. The Battle of Fei River is known by practically every Chinese. The night before the battle, Fu Jian was known as the most successful emperor in the Sixteen Kingdoms period. In terms of territory, he was the first to rule over a unified northern China (whose area was even larger that when it was under Shi Le's* rule). In terms of character, one could say that Fu Jian was a benevolent and righteous ruler, a rarity in such turbulent times, where almost every monarch or prince in the period was known to be a tyrant. In terms of ethnic policy, in an era where it is believed that "if not same ethnicity, then (the) heart must be different", he had quite progressive policies, which helped ease the tensions between the different ethnic groups considerably. However, the Battle of Fei River had changed everything, to the point where it drowned out all of Former Qin's previous glory and achievements.
* Shi Le (274-333 CE) or Emperor Ming of (Later) Zhao was the founding emperor of the state Later Zhao, who rose from a slave to a powerful general under the Xiongnu state Han Zhao, where he conquered most of northern China and eventually broke away to form his own state.
That strange battle happened about a year before I arrived here [in this time jump], November 383 to be exact. The disparity between the two armies was one of the most significant in Chinese history: 87:18 being the ratio. What was more perplexing was the way the entire battle carried out, where the winner did not have any expectations of winning and could not explain how they got their victory, and the other side lost, but lost in confusion, in bafflement. Just like that, the Former Qin Empire fell apart seemingly overnight.
Lu Guang's expedition to the Western Regions occurred in January 383, and the Battle of Fei River happened later that year. Lu Guang conquered Karasahr (or Ārśi in Tocharian and Yanqi in Chinese), then moved on to attach Kucha in 384. It was known that this expedition to the West was a cause of much argument in Fu Jian's court. Many ministers thought it was unwise to divide up the troops at such a time, since they needed all their resources to deal with (Eastern) Jin. But the string of consecutive battle victories has made Fu Jian arrogant, and in his eagerness to become the next Qin Shi Huang [First Emperor of Qin], the next Emperor Wu of Han, he decided that the remaining troops were enough to defeat Eastern Jin. If not for this Western Expedition, one would probably only be able to meet Lu Guang at the Battle of Fei River. And if that was the case, the state Later Liang would not have been formed.
But what kind of connection does that battle, significant as it was in Chinese history, have with this faraway kingdom of Kucha and with Rajiva himself?
"Lu Guang has heard of the defeat of the Emperor of [Former] Qin. Right now, Qin is in complete disarray: Yan [of Xianbei people] wanted to restore their state, the Qiang people are also rebelling, and the Emperor no longer has the capability to supress these uprisings."
Rajiva's eyes shine brightly as he grasps my hands: "Ai Qing, in your opinion, with Qin being in such chaos and in desperate need of troops, why is it that Lu Guang is choosing to remain in Kucha with his troops instead of returning to help his emperor?"
After contemplating it for a bit, it becomes clear to me: "He wants to become the ruler of the Western Regions?"
During the Sixteen Kingdoms period, pretty much anyone who holds military power all want to become a ruler of sorts. Lu Guang does not hold against Shi Le [see above] in terms of fearlessness; he is also not as treasonous as Yao Chang [who later killed Fu Jian], nor is he as cunning as Murong Chui. If not for the Battle of Fei River, how would he dare to even think about betraying Fu Jian. But the situation is different now, with him holding fort at some faraway place and Fu Jian having his hands tied dealing with uprisings everywhere, so how could he [Fu Jian] even have any spare thought for Lu Guang. That is why it is not hard to see how Lu Guang could have developed the ambition [to become king]. In this vast sky, at a place where the emperor's shadow does not fall, he can easily dominate this small kingdom in the West without any fear.
"That's correct! Lu Guang's ambition is that of a ravenous wolf. All of the titles the Qin Emperor has given him are not enough to satisfy his growing greed for power."
This is why there is the idiom "better be a chicken's head than a cow's tail"!
It makes me recall a funny story that happened in Southern Yan [state] during the Sixteen Kingdoms period: There was a man named Wang Shi who managed to mobilize tens of thousands of people and settled in the Tai Shan [Mount Tai]. He then self-declared himself as Taiping Huangdi [meaning 'emperor of peace and security'], named his father Taishang Huang [Emperor Emeritus], his brothers Zheng Dong, Zheng Xi Jiangjun [General who Conquers the East/West], and also titled hundreds of others. After he was defeated by Southern Yan's army [403 CE], at the time of his execution, someone had asked him "Where are your father and brothers?", to which he replied, "Taishang Huang is taking refuge at a safe place, and Zheng Dong, Zheng Xi Jiangjun have been killed in battle." His wife had yelled at him angrily: "That we found ourselves in these circumstances is all because of your loose mouth, and yet you still refuse to wake up!?" He then answered: "My dear Empress, from the beginning of time, has there been any dynasty who has not fallen, any state who has not come to perish. Now that our state is in ruins, no matter what I have to suffer, I refuse to change our state's name!"
How ridiculous! The truth is that during these 130 years of history, China was not made up only sixteen kingdoms. Those sixteen kingdoms were merely states with officially declared names and with known hereditary line of rulers. But if we were to be accurate, there were probably twenty, thirty states altogether. Wang Shi was a foolish man, but what he said echoed the common greed for power that many rulers had at the time: Nobody is born an emperor! All dynasties will fall eventually, as will their states, so let's just declare yourself as emperor first and deal with the rest after. Lu Guang has an entire army in his hands, so it is no wonder that he would harbour such ambitions.
But what does this have to do with imprisoning Rajiva?
Seeing that I am still confused, Rajiva continues to explain: "Lu Guang is a foreigner, and his troops are only 70,000 in numbers, so how could he possibly create a lasting reign here?"
Ah, I understand now! This has to do with the relationship between politics and religion. Lu Guang wants to take roots here, but with such a small army, he would never be able to conquer and govern the entire Western Regions with over a dozen of small kingdoms. That means he must depend on the influence of religion to legitimatize his rule in the region—a region that is steeped in Buddhism. And Rajiva happens to be the most prominent religious figure in the area. If Rajiva publicly recognizes Lu Guang's administration, then he will not only gain Kucha's but also every other kingdom's allegiance. When that happens, he will no longer have to depend only on force to conquer the region.
"Rajiva, Lu Guang wants to rule the Western Regions, but since his army alone is not sufficient to achieve this goal, he had to ask you to help. But you did not submit to him and refused to recognize his position, correct?"
A spark of approval lights up in his eyes. Rajiva gives the barest nod and takes a hold of my shoulders: "It is only you who understand Rajiva best. Lu Guang wants Rajiva to spread word that he is an incarnation of Guanyin Bodhisattva, and that he was asked to come down here to liberate the people of the Western Regions."
I shake my head. Those with the ambition to usurp the throne always like to come up with some divine reasoning behind their actions such as that they are an incarnation of a deity. But this kind of posturing often needs backing by a religious figure of authority. Lu Guang does not know that Rajiva is not Buddhasimha (Fótúchéng) [232-348 CE], an Indian monk who lived during the times of Shi Le, Shi Hu of Later Zhao, who submitted himself to their rule. Rajiva is also not Xuanzang, who sang praises about the royal family and deliberately chose to have close ties with the emperor [Emperor Taizong of Tang]. Rajiva is of noble birth and has been a reputed figure since young, so he has always viewed the respect and honour given to him by the ruling family as a given. That is probably why he has never thought that politics would one day dare to supersede religion.
"You refused and unable to think of anything else, he decided to force you to break your precepts?"
He nods, his face stern:
"He doesn't know that making me break my precepts does not mean Rajiva will submit to him. Rajiva is not doing this because he is a foreigner. If Lu Guang is a benevolent ruler who thinks and cares for the people, Rajiva would have supported him. But he has proven himself to be a man who is cruel, perverse, and selfish, and not once has he thought of the public good. If Rajiva recognize his power, I will not only harm the hundred of thousands people of Kucha, but also hundred thousands of people in the Western Regions."
"Ai Qing, did you know, this is the man that chose to bury alive 20,000 Kuai Hu soldiers who have already surrendered to him." Anger and grief gather at his brows as Rajiva balls his hand into a fist. "Killing people in war is already a despicable act on its own, but he then goes so far as to bury alive those who have surrendered themselves. He has taken the lives of 20,000 people. Such a person will never escape the karmic cycle of life and death. If Rajiva offers a hand to him and harms the people, then how can Rajiva call himself a disciple of the Buddha?"
Burying people alive in pits was one of the most common methods for dealing with the defeated army in the Sixteen Kingdoms period. The numbers of people who suffered such fate totalled tens of thousands. This was because during this period, almost every war was between different ethnic groups. "If not same ethnicity, then (the) heart must be different," is the belief, so they chose to bury people to weaken the enemy's army and to prevent future uprisings.
The worst instance of such practice happened in the aftermath of the Battle of Canhe Slope [395 CE], where Northern Wei buried 50,000 soldiers of Later Yan alive. In the second year after the battle, Murong Chui had personally commanded a campaign against Northern Wei in revenge, but when he passed by the pit in Canhe Slope where his people were buried, him and his soldiers screamed and wept with their whole bodies at the sight. After that, he coughed up blood and became violently ill, and not too long after, passed away, ending his legendary life and the reign of Later Yan.
Before, when I read these passages in the history books, I used to tear up, but that is nothing compared to the fear I felt yesterday, when I found myself right in the burial pit. The moment numbers became rows of real corpses in front of my eyes, is the moment I finally understand the true horrifying nature of wars behind those soulless numbers. What I experienced yesterday made me vow to myself to never be a bystander in the face of such events. If I have the ability to prevent such tragedies, then I will not hesitate to do so even if it changes history.
Filled with determination and a sense of purpose, I look at the quiet but steadfast man in front of me. This is the first time I have seen Rajiva being so unyielding against authority figures. The person I love is now also the one I admire the most.
I grab a hold of his hands and look at him with a wide smile: "You must remember, no matter what you decide, I will always support you."
He puts his hand atop mine and it is almost as if I can feel his emotions.
"Before you showed up, Rajiva was not afraid of anything. Rajiva even thought that if my back is forced against a wall, then I would bite my tongue—"
I rush forward and place my hand on his lips.
"Please do not say such things! I will protect you."
He smiles back at me sweetly and holds my hands in his again, before saying gently: "But you have returned, so Rajiva no longer have such thoughts. Do you remember the lecture you gave to me from "Mencius"? 'Thus, when Heaven is about to confer a great office on any man, it first exercises his mind with suffering, and his sinews and bones with toil. It exposes his body to hunger, and subjects him to extreme poverty. It confounds his undertakings. By all these methods it stimulates his mind, hardens his nature, and supplies his incompetencies.'* These tribulations are merely a test for Rajiva from the Buddha. How can my aspirations be worn down by the likes of men such as Lu Guang?"
*This passage comes from Gaozi II of the book "Mencius", by James Legge.
"But Lu Guang will not stop at making you break your precepts. He will surely use other cruel methods to make you submit to him."
The historical records say that Lu Guang will force Rajiva to ride a mad horse, a mad cow, in order to make him into a laughing stock in the public's eye. But that was merely a brief passage in the books, whereas actual methods will probably be much worse.
"Rajiva is not afraid." He caresses my cheek then let outs a sigh, a hesitant look crossing his eyes: "But I fear it will be hard on you…"
"Rajiva, you don't have to worry about me. I can protect myself."
We stand there lost in each other's gaze, our hands clasped tight. Streaks of light from the setting sun have crept inside the room and cast its glow on his wide forehead. A smile of happiness blooms on my lips. Rajiva, no matter how rough the road ahead of us is, I will always be by your side.
Ramblings: Phew, this chapter was long. Also, lots of historical figures and battle stuff, making it quite the challenge to translate (though later chapters will only get more intense, ahh). At one point, I had twenty tabs opened… Next chapter is not filled with as much historical tidbits so should be fairly easier to translate, if I can stop myself from blushing while translating that is (cough).