Sandy's Read Receipts
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With the performing artists’ music, dance, and laughter enlivening the hall, the palace banquet continued late into the night.
Most of the generals at the banquet were present because of their military achievements. Their unruly behavior showed their lack of high birth. After they became drunk, they laughed and talked loudly.
Their conduct was so rude to the nobles that the banquet crowd slowly split in two. On one side were the army generals, toasting and laughing at the last tables; on the other, the landed nobles gathered around the Emperor and spouted highfalutin speeches.
Wei Jue got the best of both worlds; everyone, irrespective of their backgrounds, approached him for a toast. Meanwhile, Madam Guo and a few senior noblewomen gathered around Empress Xu. After speaking with Wei Jue, several courtiers sat with Wei Tan, discussing other matters over wine.
I wasn’t alone either. The womenfolk who entered the palace with their husbands refused to be alone at the banquet. They marched between the seats, those already acquainted greeting each other. Yu Ying was among this laughing and chatting group.
Her husband, Xu Chong, was a mid-level inspector in the army promoted to a County Marquis in this wave of rewards. His family background wasn’t low, either. The Xu Clan of Linying was a high-ranking family in Henan. It seemed Xu Chong got along well with his colleagues too. After a round of greetings with Yu Ying, he headed off to drink with the generals.
I rarely attended banquets despite moving to Yong Capital almost a year ago, living mostly in seclusion. I only had brief contact with these noble wives, unfamiliar with many. But it didn’t take long for the enthusiastic Yu Ying and seven or eight other women of similar age to approach me. They occupied the seats around the table.
“A’Jin, is that Zhao Jun?” Yu Ying sat beside me and gestured towards the man who was speaking with the Emperor, her tone intimate. “I remember meeting him in your house once, am I right?”
“You are right.” After Wei Jue returned, he had wanted to appoint Zhao Jun. I assumed he wouldn’t agree since he had already resigned earlier. To my surprise, not only did he not refuse, but he also entered the palace on his appointment day. He paid his respects to the Emperor, determined to serve.
Uninterested in Zhao Jun, I shifted my gaze up towards the head table. Empress Xu was talking to the person beside her. She seemed earnest, as if indifferent to her surroundings. Twenty feet away, Wei Tan was talking to someone too, separated from Empress Xu by 2-3 people.
I watched them but no traces connected them. To my shock, Wei Tan’s gaze caught my peeping eyes red-handed. When the corners of his lips curved, I spun back as if nothing had happened.
“You are lovely tonight, Madam. I couldn’t look away when I saw you from afar.” One married woman smiled at me.
I returned her smile, “You flatter me, Madam. You ladies are the ones who are radiant.”
Yu Ying spoke from beside me: “When we were just chatting, they guessed your pearl hairpin must be from the East Sea. But I disagreed; this pure white, smooth and round pearl must be from Hepu. Also, it must be from the palace. A’Jin, am I right?”
I smiled, “The former Empress Dowager gave me this ornament. I don’t know the pearl’s origins.”
“That’s right,” said one woman softly, “The Empress Dowager’s items are rare. Of course, they must be Hepu pearls.”
Yu Ying exposed a smug expression, and I caught a flash of annoyance on a few faces.
Just then, sudden laughter boomed from the end seats, and the noblewomen unanimously covered their chests and frowned.
“Yu Ying, the Yannian Hall you mentioned last time, is it in the South market?” One person asked.
“Yes. I even bought Tian Ma to make a tonic soup for my mother-in-law.”
“Really? How filial.” Someone covered up with her sleeve and said, “I can’t. The South market is so noisy that I take a detour even by carriage. Forget going to buy medicine myself.”
Someone else said, “Yu Ying, you said last time that your mother-in-law grew up in the countryside, and when she saw cosmetics sold at one yuan for 25 grams, she thought it was too expensive. I heard that Yannian Hall’s medicines aren’t cheap. Did your mother-in-law lecture you when you bought them?” As she spoke, she sneered at Xu Chong’s side at the end table.
Yu Ying’s face twitched, and after a moment, her eyebrows lifted: “You worry too much. Filial piety to the mother-in-law shouldn’t be neglected even if they lecture you.” She faced me and smiled, “A’Jin, do you know Yannian Hall? They sell all kinds of tonics. I remember that your family used to keep a healthcare regimen.”
I didn’t want to get involved in their war of words, but since they mentioned Yannian Hall, I sided with Yu Ying.
“Yes. In my childhood, my family’s ancestors emphasized tonics, so I know a bit too.”
This pleased Yu Ying: “I’m planning to buy more medicines in a few days. Do you want to join me, A’Jin?”
“Madam Fu has a steward. Why would she buy them herself?” Someone mocked.
Yu Ying took exception: “Health is a delicate matter, what do servants know!”
I pushed the boat along the water, and smiled at them: “Since Yu Ying invited me, I am happy to accept.”
By the time we returned to the Residence, the moon had moved west.
After a night of barbed conversations with the noblewomen, I was sleepy soon after I hit the bed.
Wei Tan blew out the bedside lamp, got under the covers, and reached out to put his arm around my waist.
I was used to his intimate actions, but when his hands wandered, I was reluctant.
“Fujun, I’m tired,” I whispered.
“Well, just sleep, Furen,” he replied, his hand still reaching into my clothes.
With no choice, I rolled over to see him.
He seemed in good spirits, and in the dim light, I sensed his teasing gaze. He pressed against the side of my cheeks, and whispered in a bewitching voice, “With the repeated hints you were giving me at the banquet, I thought you were pining for your husband, Furen......”
I mentally rolled my eyes.
“I didn’t mean to distract you,” I smiled, pressing my hand against his lips. Catching the restless paw on my chest, I trailed off, “It’s just......”
“Just what?” Wei Tan’s breathing was unsteady.
I suddenly pressed my foot to his leg.
“Hiss ......” As my icy foot pressed against his, he winced for a second.
“My feet were freezing, and I wanted to ask you when we would return home.” I smiled triumphantly, my tone pitiful and unashamed.
“You woman,” he gave me a pinch on my waist.
Not showing any weakness, I twisted to pinch him back, only to have him catch my hand.
“Sleep,” he whispered, putting away his teasing smile.
‘Prude’, I thought, before turning away and closing my eyes.
His hands circled back up, and he held my feet between his legs. Well, it was quite warm......
“A’Jin......” In the fog of my renewed sleepiness, he said from behind, “Don’t pay attention to those old things anymore.”
Who cares about your old things? What I wanted to understand was your past people.
I just agreed perfunctorily and sank into sleep.
Wei An was still brooding over the saddle he had promised Cui Ting that will “keep him on the house when riding”.
When I visited him the next day, he was in his shed next to the kitchen. He had piled up many charcoal sketches drawn on wooden boards in one corner.
On the latest piece, he had drawn a saddle with a low backrest, a rope running from the saddle to the stirrups. I understood that the thick rope’s purpose was to hold the rider in place.
I laughed: “If Young Master Cui sits on this, wouldn’t he look all trussed up, Fourth Shu?”
He scratched his head, “I also want to make it good-looking, but otherwise, he will fall.”
“You have a good idea, but if you want to bind him steady, have you considered using leather straps?”
“Leather straps?” His eyes lit up, and he picked up the charcoal strip to draw on the board.
I sat with a smile and then stared at A’Yuan.
She understood and walked out the door.
Just past noon, the servants had no duties and were resting. The small courtyard was quiet except for the singing birds. Warm sunlight streamed through the doorway.
Of course, I hadn’t visited Wei An to see him work and sunbathe. I wanted to meet him for something important.
“How do you plan to give the saddle to Young Master Cui after making it, Fourth Shu?”
“Dispatch someone to Boling.”
I nodded and said, “The Cui Clan once lived in Changan. In the olden days, you could have handed it to him yourself.”
He scratched his head, “My mother didn’t let me go out to play because I was too young then. I couldn’t even distinguish between the Changan’s East and West markets.”
“Oh?” I smiled, “I am familiar with the East and West markets. But Changan is too big; not to mention you, I’ve met even Fujun only once.”
Surprised, he asked, “You’ve met my elder brother, Eldest Sao?”
“Yes,” I lied, without blushing. “Fujun was a Gentleman of the Feathered Forest, right?”
“Didn’t he guard the Palace?”
“I remember that he often met with a woman named Zhang Ping.......”
“Xu Ping,” he corrected me at once.
“Oh?” I looked at him and smiled.
He froze, realizing his slip of the tongue, and his face jerked.
In the entire Wei Residence, Wei An was the most innocent and least capable of lying. He didn’t even realize that my questions were a trap. I blocked his every retreat, and before long, he confessed the true story.
It was a surprise, or indeed a shock.
Wei Tan and Xu Ping had once been engaged. When Wei Jue was a Commandant in northern Luoyang, he had once offended a few powerful bigwigs. But Xu Ping’s father, Minister Steward Xu, spoke to the former emperor, and got Wei Jue exonerated. Later, when Minister Steward Xu’s family had an accident and needed money, Wei Jue helped them generously. The two families became so close that they straightaway set an engagement between Wei Tan and Xu Ping. Yet, for unknown reasons, they never publicized the matter, few aware of the engagement. But in less than a year, they dissolved the engagement. After that, Changan was in turmoil and the two families went their separate ways.
“I was still young then. I learned everything later only when I heard my sisters talking.” Wei An reddened, “Father forbade us from mentioning this matter again.”
Uncertain what expression to show, I stared at him, smiling stiffly.
“Don’t worry, Fourth Shu. I won’t breathe a word.” I stood up and said to him, “You don’t need to tell Fujun about today’s incident either.”
I was about to leave when he suddenly called out to me, “Eldest Sao.”
When I turned around, he hesitated before asking, “You’re not angry, are you?”
I smiled: “You worry too much, Fourth Shu. How could I be angry?”
I didn’t lie to Wei Tan – I really had my period. But I had to confess. An indescribable joy filled me when his expression changed after I told him right at the peak of his excitement.
He seemed very reluctant, nibbling on my neck for a while. Finally, he said he would “wash up again”, donned his clothes, and disappeared through the door. By the time he returned, I had straightened my disheveled clothes and worn my robe.
Although his expression was a little bummed out, he wasn’t resentful. Even after he got under the covers, he didn’t let his hands wander.
Yet, it was my turn to be bad.
Perhaps I caught a cold during the earlier fuss, but that night, my lower belly swelled up, erupting in waves of pain. I was so uncomfortable that I couldn’t help but moan aloud.
In the darkness, Wei Tan asked, “What’s wrong?”
“......” I didn’t know how to answer. Feeling faint with pain, I bit my lip and didn’t reply.
One hand touched my forehead, and soon, another moved out of the quilt and gripped the hand I had laid over my belly.
“Why is it so cold?” As he spoke, I sensed him propping himself up on his arms. “Stomach pain?”
“Hmm......” I moaned feebly.
“Is it ...... your period?” His voice’s volume dropped.
“Hmm ......” I replied, my volume dropping even more.
He sat up: “Shall I call the doctor?”
If it leaked out that we created a commotion, calling a doctor at midnight for my period, people would laugh to death. I blushed and whipped my hand out to catch his robe’s hem: “No need...... Just tell A’Yuan, Fujun.”
He agreed and got up to wear his clothes.
I heard him call A’Yuan, and the lights flickered on behind the screen. After a short exchange outside the wall, Wei Tan returned.
He asked me, “Are you cold?”
I shrank under the covers and nodded.
Wei Tan said nothing. He undressed and lay down again, holding me under the covers.
“Get some sleep.”
As the pain in my belly persisted in waves, I didn’t have the strength to speak more. I buried my head in his arms and closed my eyes.
A’Yuan brought a steaming bowl of rice wine and ginger soup. Wei Tan helped me up and told me to drink it. Muddled, I sipped one mouthful before slumping down again.
My abdominal pain continued through the night until I fell asleep. But I slept peacefully, wrapped in warmth. I was uncertain if what helped me was the soup or the person holding me.
Over the next few days, Wei Tan still left early and returned late, but he returned a little earlier than before. When going to sleep, he held me under the covers. He teased me, saying if I couldn’t sleep, he’d tell me a story.
I smiled and declined, asking him to sleep earlier because he must be tired.
But in my heart, I wished, 'Alright, you tell me about Empress Xu.'
The silk handkerchief from the clothes trunk lingered on my mind.
A’Yuan informed me that Wei Tan had gone to that room, coming back out within 15 minutes.
When I had first discovered the handkerchief, I had noticed a hair strand caught in a crack. But when I returned to check, the strand had disappeared.
Someone had moved the clothes trunk, and without doubt, it was Wei Tan.
He must know what was tucked in the winter coats. That silk handkerchief was an old gift from Empress Xu, right? The trunk was full of old mementos, and the way Wei Tan had stored them so carefully showed how much he treasured them.
As I pondered, my mood wilted.
Wei Tan and I, like birds resting on the same tree, were different species who became husband and wife by freak coincidences. He knew that Pei Qian and I had ended things back in Huainan. But I still didn’t know what happened him and Empress Xu. I could only guess their past, entanglements, and their current thoughts from a few isolated words here and there. Without the silk handkerchief embroidered with poppies, I wouldn’t even have connected those poppies planted in the courtyard.
I wasn’t jealous. But after my decision to stay in Wei Residence, it never hurt to learn more about this husband who can control my fate.
By the time Wei Jue returned to Yong Capital, the sky was snowing.
The weather was so nasty that the Emperor sent the Minister of Ceremonies and Gentlemen at the Yellow Gates to welcome him instead. After Wei Jue entered the city, he visited the palace to greet the Emperor.
With the North unified, grand rewards were indispensable.
The Emperor was generous. Apart from raising some of his Court officials to nobility, he gave away many titles to the soldiers and generals. He used the countless treasures seized from the Tan Clan as army fees and gifts.
Wei Tan’s fief grew by 2,000 households, and to the already rewarded beyond measure Wei Jue, besides gold and jade given according to tradition, the Emperor rewarded a sedan chair to ride in the Imperial Palace.
The most noteworthy was Wei Zhao.
After Tan Xi’s death, the Wei army advanced at every turn. Wei Zhao launched a surprise attack on Tan Meng in Youzhou and not only beheaded him with his own hands, but he also seized the long-stolen Imperial Jade Seal from him.
The Imperial Jade Seal was a national treasure. During the chaos in Chang’An, the seal had vanished from the palace. After the Emperor set the capital in Yong Province, the missing Jade Seal was a constant regret. The pacification of the North and the Jade Seal’s reclamation was a double joy.
The Emperor heaped praise on Wei Zhao and raised his title from Marquis of Shanyang with 5,000 households to Marquis of Xiangling with 12,000 households. This was a huge gift because since settling in Yong Capital, he had only granted one other “Marquis of 10,000 households” title—to Wei Jue 2 years ago.
Wei Zhao was staying in Jizhou, only returning next month. The formerly sad Madam Guo cheered up at this news. Even her thick white makeup didn’t conceal her joy.
A’Yuan told me privately, “Furen, I heard them say that the Second Young Master is going to surpass the Eldest Young Master.”
“Who are ‘they’?” I looked into the mirror and carefully examined the rouge I had just dabbed on my lips.
“Just the people in the mansion. They say that Madam Guo is the legitimate mother now, and Second Young Master is her biological son. The Prime Minister allowed him to join the attack on the Tan Clan, giving him the opportunity to win merits. Perhaps, the Prime Minister will even assign him as the heir.”
“What a load of nonsense.” I wiped my rouge-stained fingers on a handkerchief and rebuked her. “Avoid them if they say these words again. Understand?”
A’Yuan agreed and stopped talking.
As I stared into the mirror, though the person inside had a calm expression, her gaze didn’t stay calm.
Although I chided A’Yuan, my heart had similar thoughts. In this battle, Wei Jue had arranged for Wei Tan to guard the rear. While it made sense that the merit didn’t surpass Wei Zhao, I couldn’t help but doubt if Wei Jue’s approach was intentional.
I understood the sensitivity of this matter.
After they distributed the rewards, apart from telling me how much money and territory he received, Wei Tan didn’t say more. Whenever someone mentioned Wei Zhao in front of him, he looked the same. And despite her happiness, Madam Guo treated Wei Tan as if nothing had changed.
As for Wei Jue, only he knew his mind.
Preoccupied with these thoughts, I checked my clothes and makeup again. Pleased, I stepped away from the mirror.
The Emperor was hosting a banquet in the palace to dine with his praiseworthy officials. To show harmony and happiness, the women would join them. Madam Guo and I were among those dining at today’s banquet.
Although we didn’t have to keep a formal audience’s restraint, it was still a palace banquet. As Wei Tan’s wife, I couldn’t be careless in my attire. I asked around about Madam Guo’s jewelry and discovered that she was planning to wear a gold and jade buyao lined with tortoiseshells. After contemplating, I picked out a set of pearl and jade hairpins; the style was bright but wouldn’t suppress Madam Guo.
Wei Tan didn’t care about these matters, but after my persuasion, he changed into a gold hat and a brocade robe, his leather belt inlaid with a jade buckle. After he finished dressing, he stood in front of the mirror, exuding a rare aristocratic aura.
“How is it?” He caught me looking and turned around to ask.
I smiled: “Excellent.”
My efforts didn’t go to waste. When I boarded the carriage in front of the Residence, Wei Jue examined us and smiled appreciatively: “A’Jin is indeed a worthy wife for my son.”
I bowed modestly: “I’m flattered, Father-in-law.”
Madam Guo looked on silently, her smile faint.
The Emperor’s feast was a grand affair. Apart from the Wei father and son pair, a hundred army generals and Imperial Court ministers attended.
The Emperor and Empress were in their finest clothing. I noticed that when Empress Xu entered, her eyes glanced this way. Her jewels glittered in the candlelight, highlighting her lovely and dignified face.
After the audience paid their respects to the smiling Emperor, the musicians started performing in the hall, the music elegant and gentle.
When the court servants finished serving the meal, the Emperor raised his cup: “My dear ministers, you have fought valiantly in this campaign to pacify the North, and the country is fortunate. I am very pleased, and I would like to toast you all.”
Everyone raised their cups, saluted, and downed the wine.
The Emperor refilled his empty cup, faced Wei Jue, and smiled. “The greatest contribution in this battle was from the Prime Minister. Prime Minister, this second toast is for you.”
Wei Jue raised his cup to the Emperor with both hands and bowed. “I went on this campaign as a benefactor of the Emperor’s grace. I wouldn’t hesitate to die for this country!” He tilted his head and downed the wine.
“Good!” A few loud cheers emerged from the lower seats, the abrupt noise ringing through the otherwise quiet banquet hall.
With one glance, I recognized the several sloppily dressed men seated in the end as generals under Wei Jue. The particularly rugged man whom I had met in Wuzhi county was Meng Zhong. The other tall, dark-skinned figure was Cen Han, who had killed Tan Yao. These great generals under Wei Jue came from wild backgrounds, but their several achievements in this expedition raised them to County Marquises.
As Wei Jue smiled at them, the Emperor’s expression remained stoic, as if he had heard nothing. But plain displeasure marked a few ministers’ and noblemen’s faces, their gaze at the end seats filled with contempt. A few noblewomen bowed their heads and whispered, snickering.
The Emperor asked Wei Jue, “Is Second Young Master, who had a miraculous achievement in this battle, still in Jizhou?”
“My son is leading a 10,000 strong army to stay back and clean up Jizhou, which still has the Tan Clan remnants.”
The Emperor nodded and gazed towards me and Wei Tan: “The Marquis of Xin’an guarded the Yong Capital, rendering a great service too.”
Wei Tan replied, “I am duty-bound to protect you, Your Majesty.”
The Emperor smiled: “A legendary story’s spreading that when Huaiyang was in chaos, the Marquis of Xin’an himself traveled there to save Madam Fu, calming the turmoil.”
My heart jerked as the Emperor unexpectedly mentioned this story, and my ears warmed. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed Empress Xu also glancing in our direction, her eyes of hidden depth.
“You are flattering me, Your Majesty.” Remaining calm, Wei Tan replied, “Liang Chong’s second son Liang Heng laid siege on Huaiyang. When I received a letter in Luoyang reporting the dire straits, I rushed over the night to aid them. I met my wife then, who was coincidentally paying tributes to her ancestors in Huainan.”
“Oh?” The Emperor continued smiling and peered at me.
Before I could reply, Wei Jue spoke up from the seat of honor. “Liang Chong had gathered troops in Jingzhou, daring to invade because of the circumstances. When his son, Liang Heng led an army to the city, my young son shot him to death with one arrow from the city walls. Even before the battle started!” He laughed in his booming voice and added, “That’s what happens to traitors.”
The Emperor’s face twitched.
As an Imperial family member, Liang Chong was its staunch supporter. Amongst all the warlords, his voice to “Protect the Emperor and Denounce the Rebels” cried the loudest. To regain control of the country, the Emperor needed to rely on someone like him. Wei Jue’s words were a direct provocation.
“Your words are true, Prime Minister.” From beside the Emperor, Empress Xu smiled mildly and spoke, her voice soft, “His Majesty has always regarded Madam Fu as a sister. It is a great comfort to him that she can receive the Marquis of Xin’an’s care.” As she spoke, she refilled the Emperor’s wine cup and gazed at him.
The Emperor’s face stirred again, soon recovering his earlier placid expression.
“What you said is true, Empress.” He faced Wei Tan and intoned, “Here’s a toast to you, Marquis of Xin’an.”
Wei Tan raised his cup too: “Thank you, Your Majesty.” He tilted his head to drink the wine.
I watched them for a moment before glancing at Empress Xu, only to find her staring at Wei Tan. Just then, her eyes darted around, making eye contact with me.
Her probing and quiet gaze seemed to be half-smiling.
SANDY'S READ RECEIPTS
Beginning as an avid reader, I am translating novels with the help of machine translation and online dictionaries.
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