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"No need to be polite, Lord," I sat in the wheelchair and returned his greeting.
Zhao Jun sat upright, his stunned gaze falling to my injured foot.
I continued, "I sprained my ankle accidentally and can't make a full bow. Please forgive me, Lord."
He rushed to reply: "Jun wouldn't dare accept Furen's bow."
Relieved that his demeanor wasn't frigid, I said, "We haven't met for many years, but you are still energetic. I remember the last time I saw you was in Chang An."
"You are right."
I sighed: "You and my late Father were playing chess in the back garden. Even though you won thrice, my late Father refused to let you leave."
He was silent and didn't answer. Instead he said, "The last time I saw Furen wasn't in your house, but when you were leaving the capital after your marriage. I had scaled a building to watch you from afar. Jun remembers you had married into Laiyang's Han Clan."
I didn't expect Zhao Jun to mention my marriage into Laiyang.
"Is that so? Lord has an excellent memory."
"Furen flatters me. A rumor floated around that the Wei Clan had married you, and I had a hard time believing it. I still remember that when Lord Fu was alive, he prioritized family traditions. Under his upbringing, he wouldn't allow his daughter to marry twice. If I hadn't seen Furen today, I would have thought that the Wei Clan was lying."
His incisive and harsh words surprised me; it was the first time since I had married Wei Tan that anyone had mocked my second marriage in front of me. I had envisioned many refusals from Zhao Jun, but I didn't expect him to seize this as an excuse.
"Oh?" I kept a poker face, but in my heart I didn't doubt that I would have asked the jailer to open the cell door so I could kick him, and then slap him a few times.
I sneered: "In your words, it's shameless for me, a twice-married woman, to persuade you to become a turncoat official."
Zhao Jun didn't answer, but he bowed calmly: "Furen, please return."
My fingers dug hard into my palms.
I stared at him, suppressing my anger, and letting my irritation fade.
"I wonder how long the Lord has been captive here?"
"It has been half a month."
I nodded: "Why is the Prime Minister holding you here?"
Zhao Jun looked at me, and he replied in a flat voice: "To make me surrender."
"What will the Prime Minister do if you don't comply? Whether imprisonment or the chopping block, you can no longer serve Lord Tan."
His expression remained unchanged: "I never forgot the instructions I learned from my teachers ever since I bound my hair. I won't hesitate to die to show my loyalty."
"So, I wonder if Lord Tan will trust you if the Prime Minister frees you?"
He gave a shallow smile: "If worse comes to worst, it's also my fate."
Zhao Jun must have heard these words many times since they took him into custody; he answered as if he had memorized his replies beforehand.
Undaunted, I continued, "Lord keeps repeating his words; you talk of loyalty. Dare I ask why you defected to Lord Tan back then?"
Surprise flashed across his face before he shot back: "The country was in danger; how could we, as officials, abandon it? Lord Tan opposed Hé Kui and had the greatest momentum; I didn't hesitate to join him."
"In that case, is Lord Tan's current expedition also for the country's sake?"
Zhao Jun replied, "Yes, of course."
I sneered: "Your learning is deep. I wonder if your teachers ever said words of showing loyalty to the ruler after eating his salary? The country has deemed the Chens as rightful Emperors for ages. Though you resigned from your post, you still have fame for filial piety. While the Prime Minister leads the Emperor's troops against the rebels, you not only help the enemy resist, but you claim you aren't a turncoat." I smiled, "When you speak of filial piety, I don't know which family's filial piety you are referring."
As these words emerged, Zhao Jun's frozen mien cracked a hair. Although the crack disappeared in an instant, my eyes didn't miss it.
"The Prime Minister is a minister in name, but in reality, he is stealing the country." His voice hid a rage, "His heart is treacherous to hold the Emperor to command the Lords!"
"Oh?" Keeping the same pace, I added, "I wonder, according to Lord Zhao's wisdom and foresight, if Lord Tan holds the Emperor, will he respect him and return the government?"
An uncertain expression settled on his face.
Yet, changing tracks, I eased my words, "I remember that you have a son and a daughter. The Young Master was my age, and NuiJun was ten years younger, right?"
After a moment of silence, Zhao Jun replied, "You are right."
"You were there when I got married that year. Do you know what I was thinking?" I slowed, articulating each word, "I lacked virtue and didn't understand righteousness in life or death. Instead, I wished, if I had another chance, to be born in the countryside; to find my parents alive, and my brothers healthy. Even if I was illiterate, lacked wealth or nobility, I would keep something precious; a happy family, and my parents alive to send me off as I got married."
"Lord Zhao might as well contemplate; if you die, who would grieve most? And if you return alive, who would rejoice the most?"
Speechless, Zhao Jun looked straight at me.
Yet, I ignored him, pained by my earlier speech. Desperate to leave, I turned my head and called out, "Someone come."
A jailer appeared and bowed deferentially, "Furen."
"Take me out."
The jailer answered and walked to the wheelchair.
"Furen." Just as I was about to leave, Zhao Jun spoke.
I turned to face him.
Seated on the woven mat, he bowed to me: "Thank you for your visit, Furen." After a pause, he whispered, "If I offended you, please don't blame me. I did not mean to insult you."
I stared at him, but turned away without answering.
To my surprise, I saw Wei Tan standing in front of the door when I exited the prison cell. Light filtering through the gaps in the wooden panels cast streaks on his profile, his expression calm and obscure.
When he saw me, he asked nothing. He just said, "Let's return," taking the wheelchair from the jailer.
I assumed that even if I had moved Zhao Jun, it might take two or three days before he replied. Unexpectedly, that afternoon, a soldier arrived to inform me that he had surrendered. But he claimed he surrendered to the Emperor, not Wei Jue.
Is there a distinction? I cheered on the surface, but in my heart, I disagreed.
Wei Jue was, of course, ecstatic. He went to the prisons to welcome Zhao Jun out himself and hosted a banquet. As a member of the inner courtyard, and having already completed my task, I was rightfully cast aside at once.
Wei Tan stayed in the big tent, supposedly joining Wei Jue and Zhao Jun to talk details.
Bored to death, I searched for Wei An to thank him for the wheelchair. Unexpectedly, when I reached his tent, the soldier told me that he and Wei Ci had gone out.
"The Fourth Young Master said he wanted to test a trebuchet."
I didn't know what a trebuchet was, but I figured I didn't need to worry if Wei Ci accompanied him. Finding it inconvenient to move around with the wheelchair, I returned to the tent.
Wei Tan finally returned that evening.
He asked me, "Did you eat?"
"Yes, I did."
He nodded and asked a soldier to bring boiled water for soaking my foot. He had been treating my foot for half a month, and I wasn't shy anymore, often chatting with him.
Yet, I wasn't in a mood to chat today, and just watched as he moved my foot from bucket to bucket.
"How come you're not saying anything?" He broke the silence.
I stared at him, "Say what?"
He massaged my injured foot and shrugged, "Furen has even survived the extermination of her clan, but can't bear when others speak of second marriage?"
His words were direct, and I narrowed my eyes in suspicion, "Did Fujun hear everything?"
"The prison cell doesn't have walls; it's hard for me to not." He glanced at me, and asked, "Do you regret marrying me?"
I froze for a moment.
His deep eyes seemed indifferent, yet I knew he wasn't joking. He was so crafty; he lobbed questions at me occasionally, catching me off guard.
While I slandered him in my heart, I wasn't in a dilemma. After marrying Wei Tan, I experienced more sorrows and joys than I had encountered in the past five years. But regrets? I couldn't think of any.
"No," I answered honestly.
He lowered my wounded foot and looked at me, "Then what made Furen unhappy?"
What made me unhappy? Zhao Jun intended to trigger my withdrawal with his words of second marriages and family traditions, and I had long disregarded them. But two things infuriated me; someone accused me in my face for the first time. The second reason was because of the Wei Clan; it was depressing to be a broomstick.
While I inwardly cursed, I turned my cheek: "I received classical teachings since childhood; I am ashamed that although I aspire for righteousness, I couldn't abide by those principles."
"Oh?" Wei Tan raised his eyebrows, half-smiling, "So, Furen used to study?"
"What have you read?"
"The Four Books and Five Classics." I paused, before adding, "Oh, and the Lessons for Women."
"Oh?" As he dried my feet with a towel, he asked, "What is the first sentence of the Lessons for Women's opening chapter?"
I glared at him, and replied curtly, "It's been too long, I forgot."
Without caring, Wei Tan smiled and applied medicine, binding my injured foot in cloth.
"I must go out, you sleep first," he said as he straightened.
"Go where?" I blurted out the words, and then instantly regretted them.
He bowed his head to gaze at me, his lips curving up ambiguously.
"To bathe; is Furen coming?" He murmured, reaching out to lift my chin.
I skewed my head, raising my left foot to his leg to pivot him away. I smiled, "Take your time, Fujun."
Yet, I didn't expect Wei Tan to not return from his trip even as the night deepened.
I didn't see him even when I woke up, but around noon, a sudden racket started outside the tent.
"Furen!" Ah Yuan ran in terrified, "Furen, Lord Tan has attacked the front camps, and the soldiers said that they are afraid they won't be able to defend it!"
The well-lit tent was hot because of the weather, and Wei Jue sat at a table's chief seat, wearing a thin shirt.
Of the several men wearing scholar robes, I recognized Wei Zhao, and Wang Ju, who had served as the Master of ceremony at my wedding.
After Wei Tan lowered me into Ah Yuan's hold, he bowed to Wei Jue: "Father."
I joined his salute, "Greetings to my Father-in-law."
He nodded and shifted his gaze to me with a smile, "So it was true when I heard that my Daughter-in-law had sprained her foot."
I flushed with shame, and bowed my head, "I let Father-in-law worry." But in my heart, I couldn't help but break out in a cold sweat. He even knew of my sprained foot; this old fox's eyes and ears extended so wide?
He stroked his beard: "You can punish Meng Jing for failing to take good care of you."
Wei Jue's smile widened when he saw Wei An, who followed us into the tent.
"Young son, come here!" He beckoned him with a wave.
When Wei An walked over, Wei Jue stared at him: "You shot Liang Chong's son to death with one arrow?"
He pursed his lips, "No, it was the soldier who shot him to death; I made the crossbow."
"Oh?" Wei Jue laughed and pulled Wei An to sit beside him. He turned to Wei Zhao: "The next time Ah Rong says that Ah An isn't doing his duties, just let her join us in the war; let's see if she wins one battle."
Wei Zhao smiled, "You are right."
After the spell of greetings, Wei Jue seated us and had someone serve tea to relieve our fatigue. With no seat for a woman in the military tent, and me wounded, Wei Jue had someone bring a Huchuang and place it beside Wei Tan.
Wei Jue told Wang Ju: "Uncle Huang and my Daughter-in-law's family are old friends, and you were also their Master of ceremony, so you must be familiar with each other."
"You are right," Wang Ju turned and bowed to me, "Furen, I hope you are well."
"Nonsense." Wei Jue laughed again, "My Daughter-in-law hurt her foot, how can she say she is well!"
I replied to Wang Ju in a harmonious voice, "I am well; it wasn't a serious injury."
As the attendants brought more tea, Wei Jue and the others began discussing war with no reservations because of me.
Except Wei Tan and Wei Zhao, the rest were strategists, aged in their early thirties and with graying hair. I sat as straight as I could and listened to them.
Despite expectations for Wei Jue to conquer Tan, Tan Xi's momentum was so powerful that he attacked all the way from the North, and forced Wei Jue to retreat. Now that Tan's army had arrived at Wuzhi, only Luoyang remained as Wei Jue's retreat. By then, most of Henan Province would fall into Tan Xi's clutches.
Two predicaments troubled the Wei army. Besides the scarcity of army provisions, Tan Xi had built a hill outside the Wei camps, aiming strong crossbows at our soldiers. Without the provisions essential for a battle, the tired soldiers' attack and defense lacked strength. Tan Xi had occupied the high ground and attacked the soldiers with strong crossbows. Wei Jue was helpless without room to advance or retreat, and the army morale had plummeted.
I listened on the sidelines, my heart alarmed.
Was the status so serious? But when I glanced at Wei Tan, not even a frown marred his calm and unruffled expression.
The crowd didn't talk for long, and Wei Jue turned towards me without warning.
As my heart thumped, I knew my turn had arrived.
Yet, Wei Jue just smiled, "Meng Jing doesn't know to be compassionate; Ah Jin has suffered on this long journey. You don't need to sit with us old men, go rest."
Although he mentioned Wei Tan first, he addressed his words to me.
After sharing a look, Wei Tan and I bowed to Wei Jue: "Son and Daughter-in-law follow orders."
As I sat on the bed in the tent that Wei Jue had especially prepared for me, I couldn't help but breathe a long sigh of relief.
No need to sit with old men? That discussion was for my ears; to understand their current circumstances, and so that I would think of ways to convince Zhao Jun.
Asking me to rest wasn't to be polite either. They chose me as their mediator only because of Zhao Jun's past friendship with my Father. How could I convince him if I rushed to him now with no preparation, and in this haggard and travel-worn form?
As I reclined on the bed, I wondered, was Zhao Jun that important? In the past, I had seen him at home; although good at chess, he was taciturn. Was such a reserved person so worthy that Wei Jue forced me, his son's wife, to step in and make him surrender?
The tent was quiet, and no one disturbed me. After eating and washing up, I fell asleep.
When I woke up, it was already dark. As I rolled over, I recalled Zhao Jun, and couldn't sleep anymore.
Before long, a few voices sounded outside the tent. The light reflected Wei Tan's silhouette onto the tent flap as it lifted.
He had already changed his clothes; he unhooked the sword from his waist as he walked to the bed.
Surprised to see my eyes open, he asked: "Still awake?"
His gaze flashed, and he sat on the bed: "Thinking of tomorrow?"
"Yeah, talk to me, okay?" I didn't intend to measure my words now, and Wei Tan arrived just in time to answer my questions.
He placed the sword on the table and took off his boots.
His body smelled like he had just bathed, and the faint hint of sweat wasn't unpleasant.
"Go ahead." He balled the blankets high on the mat, semi-reclining beside me.
"Do I have to make Zhao Jun surrender?"
"I won't say that you must make him surrender," he shifted his body, trying to find a comfortable position. "When Tan Xi warred with Dong Kuang, Zhao Jun offered several ideas to help Tan Xi capture Hebei."
I only half-understood: "How did the Prime Minister capture such an important person?"
Wei Tan intoned: "Tan Xi is a man who uses his cronies, but he still suspects them. Zhao Jun and my Father hailed from the same hometown and were good friends in Court. With Tan Xi and my Father at war, Tan Xi avoids Zhao Jun despite his contributions. To avoid suspicion, Zhao Jun asked Tan Xi for a chance to guard the city borders, allowing our army to intercept him on the road."
"Oh?" As I pondered, I couldn't help but sneer, "Then why didn't Zhao Jun surrender?"
He forced a smile: "It would be good if he surrenders. But he values his reputation and will never carry a turncoat's name."
So he wanted to save face.
Dumbfounded, I stared at the tent ceiling and sighed.
Wei Tan looked at me and murmured, "Don't worry too much. Stuck in a gridlock, my Father wishes to get Zhao Jun's ideas. But he knows Zhao Jun's stubborn nature, and won't blame you if you can't persuade him."
"Okay," I smiled.
In my heart, I thought something else.
At this crucial stage of the war, I had to persuade him to surrender. Since Wei Jue chose me to enter their family because of my identity, this was my duty. If Zhao Jun's surrender aided the war, it would be both a collective and a personal gain; I had no choice.
Exhausted from the journey, Wei Tan did little, and after a few words, his breathing evened as he fell asleep.
Because of my earlier nap, I found it hard to sleep again. When I woke up after a restless sleep, the sky was bright, and Wei Tan had disappeared.
Ah Yuan walked in with a mysterious smile.
"You'll find out later, Furen."
After I changed and washed, Ah Yuan called to the outside, "Enter!"
When the tent flap lifted, a soldier entered, pushing in something.
"Furen, the Fourth Young Master has made a wheelchair overnight," Ah Yuan cheered.
I looked at her in amazement and then stared at the "wheelchair". A simple Huchuang with a backrest and between two wheels; a full-size model of Wei An's charcoal drawing.
"Over night?" I asked, "Where is the Fourth Young Master?"
"He couldn't wait for Furen to wake up and went to sleep."
Although it was a new toy, Wei An's mind was truly magical.
To my surprise, when I sat in the wheelchair, I found a place to rest my feet under the seat. Ah Yuan pushed me around, moving with ease. My appearance had worried me; both hopping along with Ah Yuan's support, and Wei Tan's method of carrying me, were embarrassing. Although being pushed around might also look foolish, it was better than my original two options.
With important things on today's agenda, I didn't dare play too much. After Ah Yuan and I messed around for a moment, I ate the porridge brought by the guards.
Not long after I had eaten, Wang Ju arrived.
"Greetings, Furen," he bowed.
"Lord Wang, no need to be polite. I wonder what Lord Wang wants?"
"Furen must know Zhao Jun's matter."
Sure enough, he came for this.
I nodded, "I understand."
"Does Furen have any countermeasures?"
I stared at him and replied, "I haven't thought of it yet. Do you have any pointers?"
"I don't dare." Wang Ju said, "Furen, I am long acquainted with Zhao Jun, and he is a man of great righteousness, but he is most filial to his mother. The Lord has ordered someone to receive his mother, wife and children at Yong Capital."
I froze; of course, Wei Jue didn't receive Zhao Jun's family at Yong Capital to welcome them as guests. Such a tactic was clearly blackmail.
What long acquaintance? What men from the same hometown?
I smiled, "If Lord Wang is Zhao Jun, I wonder if you would surrender after hearing this?"
His expression still mild, he replied, "This matter is only a pretext; Furen can use it if you find it difficult to persuade him."
I said nothing, and nodded after a while: "Thank you, Lord Wang. I have a plan."
Wang Ju understood my words of send-off and didn't stay long.
"Furen," he stood up and whispered, "Don't worry, if you need any help, just ask."
I looked at him and smiled: "I appreciate your kindness, Lord Wang."
Wang Ju surveyed me, gave a bow, and walked out of the tent.
Although everyone told me I didn't need to care too much, I still ruminated over it.
When I finally arrived at Zhao Jun's prison, I inhaled a deep breath.
"Do you want me to go in with you?" Wei Tan asked me.
"No," I declined.
"Really?" He asked, raising his eyebrows.
I looked at him, "I'm just meeting an old friend, not death."
He smiled, asked the guards to open the wooden barricade, and pushed me through them.
The prison in the barracks was rudimentary, but Wei Jue treated Zhao Jun especially well. The clean, single-room cell even had a table and bed.
Born noble, Zhao Jun had a strict upbringing. When I reached the door, he was sitting in a welcoming posture, hearing noises of someone's visit.
When he saw me, a puzzled look appeared on his face. A few moments later, as if remembering something, his expression changed.
"Fu Nui......" He began in surprise, but paused, and changed my title: "Furen."
With that, he straightened his clothes, and bowed to me in a dignified manner.
T/N: Good news, everyone! We reached our first milestone - we are 25% through Fu Jin and Wei Tan's story! Thanks for joining me on this journey! ^_^
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Beginning as an avid reader, I am translating novels with the help of machine translation and online dictionaries.
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