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Wei Tan returned to the camps after sending me back to the Wei Mansion.
By then, I was used to his actions and simply saw him off from the front door with a few perfunctory words of concern. When I returned to my room, I quickly wrote a letter to inform Li Shang about Wei Jue’s upcoming conquest of Tan Xi in the north. After handing over the letter to Ah Yuan, I also took out a jade bracelet from my jewelry box.
“Give your elder brother this bracelet if you meet him in the next few days. Ruo Chan’s birthday is coming up at the end of this month. Ask him to deliver it to the Ningxiang Pavilion building on my behalf.”
Ah Yuan was a little surprised when she heard my words.
“Furen, are you going to gift this to Chen NuiJun?” She asked with a frown, “Furen, but Chen NuiJun is now......”
“She is still Chen NuiJun.” I interrupted, “Just ask your brother to be more careful.”
Ah Yuan agreed and put away the jade bracelet.
“Furen,” she whispered after a moment, “Do you want to make a lot of money?”
“Huh?” I glanced at her and laughed, “Of course I want to make a lot of money.”
“But what's the point if you can make more money though?” Ah Yuan pouted in disapproval. “Even if you could become as wealthy as Duke Lu, wouldn’t you still have to be submissive in front of the Prime Minister and the Eldest Young Master?”
“That’s better than the refugees on the streets,” I said.
“Refugees?” Ah Yuan asked with disbelief. “Furen is the wife of the eldest son of the Prime Minister, how can you compare yourself with the refugees?”
“Why can't I be compared with them?” I tapped her forehead with my finger and said lightly, “Don't forget. Before the Emperor came to Yong Province to set up his capital, he was also displaced due to the wars and didn’t have enough to eat.”
Ah Yuan wanted to speak more, but there was a sound of salutations from the servant outside, and Wei Tan returned. Ah Yuan closed her mouth hurriedly and rushed to stand at the sides.
Ruo Chan’s reply came soon. She told me that the hibiscus flowers at the Qiong Hua Temple in the West Mountains were going to be in full bloom soon. And that she would go there to enjoy the flowers in fifteen days.
I hadn't traveled in a long time, and the invitation sparked an interest within me. In the past, the women of the noble families in Chang An used to meet at the Taoist temples to offer tributes and to see the flowers of every season. On those days, Ruo Chan and I made sure to follow our mothers to the scene. We both loved to watch the blooming flowers, play dress-up amongst the flower fields, and dream of a similar future with our little daughters.
Fifteen days later, I took leave from Madam Guo in the morning and proceeded to Qiong Hua Temple with the offerings.
Unlike the BaiHe Temple which was also on the same mountain, the Qiong Hua Temple was small. Even on days like the New Year or the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, not many people came to worship there.
When I entered the temple, I did not see Ruo Chan. After I stepped inside and offered my tributes, a young temple servant came forward to salute me. He told me that a Taoist Master was giving a lecture about the scriptures in the back garden. I nodded and instructed Ah Yuan to deal with the rest of the tributes in the temple, and followed the boy to the back.
As expected, in front of a patch of hibiscus flowers in the back garden, Ruo Chan was sitting at a stone table and making tea. However, she was not alone. Across her, a young man was also sitting at the table and sipping tea. The tall and thin figure was Gongyang Gui.
I was surprised to see them together and stopped moving.
“Ah Jin,” Ruo Chan called out with a smile. She was wearing a clean-colored dress, her black hair was coiled up with a silk ribbon and decorated with a pearl hairpin. She didn’t have any rouge or powder on her face, so much so that she looked a bit like the young lady from the past.
“Ruo Chan.” I walked over and looked at her, and then looked at Gongyang Gui, and greeted him, “Young Master Gongyang Gui.”
He returned the greetings with a calm expression, “Fu Furen.”
“Come sit down,” Ruo Chan poured some tea in a cup and said, “It's Mount Lu’s Mist tea, I had a hard time buying it.”
Her voice was soft, and she had lost the aggressive attitude that she had at our first encounter the other day.
“Really?” I relaxed and smiled, “That's good.” As I spoke, I sat down at the stone table, and Ruo Chan handed the teacup over.
I clasped the teacup with both hands and took a light sip, the fragrance of the tea was long-lasting.
With only my half-baked tea-brewing skills, I was ashamed to say that I had a Father who loved tea. Although Ruo Chan’s parents didn’t like tea, her tea-brewing skills were impeccable.
Without the usual formalities or pleasantries, the scene felt so familiar. It was like we had returned to the old times once again.
“How is it?” Ruo Chan asked me.
“It's still so fragrant,” I praised her, genuinely impressed.
Ruo Chan looked at me and the corners of her lips curled up. After a moment, she looked at Gongyang Gui, “Do you want more?”
He nodded and pushed the teacup over.
She ladled out a spoonful of tea broth and poured it into his cup.
I looked at Ruo Chan, her eyebrows were slightly lowered, and her profile was graceful. The hand holding the ladle was shaped like an orchid, and the other hand was lightly wrapped around the sleeves of her clothes. Her aura had an indescribable charm. I looked at Gongyang Gui again and saw that his expression was relaxed. There were faint creases of a smile showing at the corner of his eyes, his original cold face turning gentle.
“You came out alone, didn't your family say anything?” Ruo Chan asked me.
“My Mother-in-law is a devout believer of God and had no objection,” I said. “My Father-in-law and Husband are both busy and don't care much about household matters.”
“Oh?” Ruo Chan smiled, “Contrary to what I expected, you’re at ease.”
I smiled noncommittally and said, “The weather is perfect today. Ruo Chan, do you come here often?”
“Not often,” she replied, sipping her tea. “My pavilion has a lot of social events, and I usually have only two or three free days in a month. The sun was shining just right today, so I came out for a walk. I have to go to Duke Jia’s place tomorrow......”
“Duke Jia?” Gongyang Gui suddenly interrupted, “You’re going in person?”
Ruo Chan looked at him and smiled faintly. “Of course I have to go in person. I’ve asked around and found out that three of the Nine Ministers are going to be guests at Duke Jia’s banquet.”
“You said that you would never go to the banquet in person again!” Gongyang Gui's face sank, and he said with anxiety, “That old man is famous for his lust, how can you still go?”
“Which man is not lustful?” Ruo Chan disagreed. “These days, there’s no lack of brothels in Yong Province. If I don’t keep a tight hold of a rich family like Duke Jia myself, many others will be rushing to take my place.”
“Is a salt trader who struck it rich during the wars also regarded as a rich family now? Ruo Chan, even if you......”
“Even if I don't respect myself, I should pick someone respectable. Someone like your Father?” Ruo Chan sneered.
Gongyang Gui's face suddenly turned ashen as he stared at her.
However, Ruo Chan turned her head away and nonchalantly added water to the copper kettle.
“Indeed, my words are unnecessary!” Gongyang Gui gritted his teeth and said in a low voice. He kicked over his small stool, turned, and walked away.
I was a bit embarrassed by his furious departure and couldn't help but look at Ruo Chan.
Ruo Chan was also looking over in his direction, her face was a little pale, and her complicated gaze seemed a little regretful. After a while, she looked at me and curled her lips up unnaturally.
“He's like that,” Ruo Chan said, “Stubborn, and can’t say more than two words without losing his temper.”
The tea in the kettle boiled again, and Ruo Chan reacted to the sound and ladled out the tea broth. She filled my cup with steady gestures, but clearly, was a little absent-minded.
Neither of us spoke for a while, the surroundings were calm, and birds were twittering in the bushes.
“Go ahead and ask whatever you want.” After a while, Ruo Chan finally seemed to have had enough of my peeping eyes and put down the ladle.
I had a good look at her and asked, “What's going on between you and Gongyang Gui?”
“It’s exactly what you see,” she said indifferently.
Because of my relationship with my Second Elder Brother, Ruo Chan and Gongyang Gui have always known each other for a long time. But in the end, there were differences between men and women. And as far as I knew, they didn't have many interactions in the past.
Ruo Chan and Gongyang Gui had met again two years ago. At that time, Wei Jue had coerced the Emperor to set the capital, and Ruo Chan's pleasure house had just opened. At a banquet, she had brought the dancers from her pleasure house to liven things up. Among the guests, Gongyang Gui had immediately recognized her. From then on, he frequently visited the brothel, not to listen to music or to be accompanied by other women, but only to see her.
Ruo Chan was accustomed to the coldness and frivolous nature of people, and at first, treated him like a customer. But just half a year later, he suddenly announced that he wanted to marry her.
This was a complete shock to Ruo Chan. Further, Gongyang Gui's family didn’t allow it at all.
Yet, he was born with a rebellious nature, so much so that he didn’t hesitate to move out of the house after things ended in a stalemate with his family. The road was full of bumps; Ruo Chan needed to survive and the pleasure house couldn't be abandoned. And Gongyang Gui's family firmly did not allow her to enter their doors. They threatened him that if he dared to marry her, the clan would strike his name off from the family records.
I recalled the previous resignation of Gongyang Gui from the Imperial court. I said, “I heard that the Prime Minister intended to recruit Young Master Gongyang to serve in the military. But, he resigned and declined that as well.”
“Minister Wen Zhen was impressed with him and recommended him to the Prime Minister. But Imperial Censor Gongyang desired more and wanted to go one step further. He wanted Zhong Ping to marry Wen Zhen's daughter. Zhong Ping was furious, turned around, and resigned from the Imperial court. ”
I looked at her with amazement and was speechless for a moment. I knew the temperament of Imperial Censor Gongyang, he was a man of his word. Now that Gongyang Gui had reached such a plight, I was afraid that his and Ruo Chan’s matters were probably even more hopeless.
“He treats you so well,” I spoke up after a while.
“Yes,” she sighed softly.
“He was furious just then,” I said.
Ruo Chan smiled bitterly, her eyes were distant and quiet. She didn't speak for a moment and then turned her head to add more tea to her cup.
“I heard that the Prime Minister is going to start a war with Tan Xi. Your husband has been busy lately, hasn’t he?” She asked.
“Hmm,” I nodded.
“I heard that he always stays overnight at the camps?”
I froze and stared at Ruo Chan.
“How did you know?” I asked.
Ruo Chan gave a forced smile, “You forget what I do for a living. What news from Yong Province can be concealed from the gossipmongers at the banquets? Ah Jin, it's been a little over half a year since you married into Wei's family, right?”
I nodded, “Almost.”
“Have they ever urged you to add a son to the family?”
I blushed with embarrassment.
Ruo Chan's eyes were profound, “The husband was out on the battlefields, and it was not easy for him to come back. And yet, the couple sleeps together only for very few days. Ah Jin, I’m not faulting you, but you should pay attention to these matters.”
What very few days? The reality was much more miserable, I thought inwardly, my face hot.
Ruo Chan seemed to see my embarrassment and smiled slightly.
“Ah Jin is still a shy person,” she said softly.
“Who says!” I retorted with a glare.
Ruo Chan laughed out loud and stroked my hair like she used to do when I complained to her about my grievances in the past.
“In fact, it's not that hard to keep a hold of men,” she spoke with a mysterious smile as her fingers lightly stroked the hair on my temples. “Ah Jin, I'll show you something.”
The evening breeze carried a delicate smell of the smoke from the kitchens. The multicolored glow of the setting sun was dim but still magnificent. But I felt that the beauty dressed in rich clothes in front of my eyes was both familiar and yet strange.
"You and I are not so old that we are bald and gnarled, how could I not recognize you?" I whispered after a long time.
This was an inside joke between the two of us. One day, both of us had visited Furong Temple outside the city with two of our clan elders. There, we had seen an old woman with her hair falling out, who had also come to burn incense. I had stared at her for a long time and then asked Ruo Chan if we would also grow old to be like that in the future. Ruo Chan simply smiled, pinched my face, and said, “If you dare to grow old like that, I won't recognize you.”……
Ruo Chan didn’t reply and there was no great change visible under her impenetrable makeup either.
"Ruo Chan," I stepped forward, "Are you okay?"
Ruo Chan smiled: "So what if I’m okay or not. I heard that you are now the wife of the son of Prime Minister Wei, am I right?"
"Better than me." She sighed faintly, and then looked at the darkening sky and said, "I should go back."
"Back to where?" I asked in surprise.
Ruo Chan smiled lightly: "The guests at the banquet are still here. Ah Jin, you also saw just now, didn't you?"
"Ruo Chan, you......well, they all say that you own the Ningxiang Pavilion?" I asked in a low voice.
There was a hint of teasing in her smile.
"Yes, Yu Ying and the others must have told you." She asked softly, "Ah Jin, do you think that I’m pitiful?"
"No," I said evenly, "Ruo Chan, are you facing any difficulties? I can……"
"Difficulties?" Ruo Chan’s smile deepened, "I am. There are too few stunning beauties in our pavilion, so we need to find newcomers. The new Yusheng Pavilion on the same street as us is gaining momentum and flourishing, and I need to suppress it. Also, Duke Jia is arranging a banquet in the east of the city and I need to ask him to replace the dancers with my own people. Ah Jin, can you help me?"
I was dumbfounded.
Ruo Chan looked into my eyes, her rouge-tinted eyes shone with a cold light.
"I am no longer called Ruo Chan, they all call me Tao Niang," she said indifferently. "You should go back to the loft. The Furen of the Prime Minister house’s Eldest Young Master can't be seen standing with me, a courtesan.” She concealed her face with the silk fan once again, turned around, and left.
I choked on my words and stared at her retreating back in a daze, feeling very uncomfortable.
The laughter floating out from the loft was still merry. It seemed ear-splitting when it was compounded with the noise of the dancers and the singers.
I jolted forward suddenly, caught up to Ruo Chan in a few steps, and grabbed her sleeves.
"Let go." Ruo Chan turned back and said with a cold voice.
"Won’t let go." As if the frustration in my chest had found an outlet, it gushed out in a rush. "I have never offended you, so why do you speak so harshly? Do you think I am proud? That the Fu Jin in front of you is a woman who has been married twice? My entire clan is destroyed, and all that I had in the past is now gone. Do you want to hear me say these words? Do you think I’m proud of the fact that Wei Tan only married me because of my background? Do you think that I’d be proud to exchange the death of my whole family for this? Let me tell you, if it’s possible, I would exchange my life for those of my parents and brothers!"
I finished speaking in one breath, my voice choking with pain. I said in a low voice: "If you think I am proud of myself, I was mistaken about you!"
Ruo Chan stared at me with a steady gaze, biting her lips tightly. But when her eyes gradually became watery, she turned her head to the side, raised her sleeves, and pressed them against her eyes.
Her movements were quick and practiced. When she raised her head again, except for the faint redness in her eyes, her powder makeup was not smeared at all.
"You have changed. If I had said something like that in the past, you would have cried before I did." She said, "And you never contradicted me."
I bit my lip and said nothing.
"You have changed too," I said after a while, "You never used to say things like that to me."
Ruo Chan looked at me for a moment. Wordlessly, she stretched out her hand and stroked the top of my head.
"……Furen……" At that moment, there was a call from the shades at the waterfront. It seemed that Ah Yuan was looking for me.
Ruo Chan looked over there and said, "I should go, I can't let them see you talking to me."
I opened my mouth to speak but closed it again.
She was right. No matter what I wanted in my heart, life has changed. Even though we were once as close as sisters, a wide gulf has been opened between us.
As if she could read my thoughts, Ruo Chan sighed and lightly grasped my hand with her fingertips. She whispered, "It's enough that you still recognize me."
The light in her eyes flashed slightly and Ruo Chan concealed her face once again with the silk fan. As she walked towards the other side of the bridge, she disappeared into the image of the flowers gently swaying in the evening breeze.
"Furen!" Soon after, Ah Yuan appeared at the end of the bridge, and when she saw me, the anxiety on her face suddenly cleared.
"I’ve found you," she said as she hurried over, "Furen, the Eldest Young Master is here. He is in the front courtyard right now."
I was stunned.
What was Wei Tan doing here? I remembered that in the morning, he had said that he was preoccupied with something today. His proud posture, with his head high and chest upright, made it seem like he was going to be working hard until late at night. How did he find time to come here?
I gave an acknowledging sound and followed her out of the garden.
"Furen," Ah Yuan took two steps, looked back, and whispered, "I thought I saw Ruo Chan NuiJun, she......"
"Shhh!" I shook my head.
Ah Yuan understood and kept quiet.
Wei Tan was indeed in the front courtyard.
He was talking with Duke Lu, still wearing the long coat he had been wearing in the morning. A long double-edged sword was tied to the leather belt at his waist. The lights were shining bright, and his presence was striking as he towered over the other well-dressed guests.
I also saw Wei Lang and Wei Ci standing behind him, both wearing red military caps and looking travel-worn.
Nearing the end of the banquet, the guests were starting to disperse and were coming out of the main hall one after another. When they saw that Wei Tan was here, many of them had to inevitably come forward to pay their respects, thus crowding the front courtyard.
When Wei Ci finally saw me, he raised his eyebrows and nudged Wei Tan.
Wei Tan turned his head, and in the next instant, his gaze landed on me. It was strange, almost like he had eyes in the back of his head. He knew where I was, despite being separated by so many people, even without looking at the direction that Wei Ci was pointing at.
I was hesitating over whether I should go over there because there were quite a lot of people surrounding him. When suddenly, Wang-shi's voice came from behind me.
"Fu Furen." She quickly walked over with a few maids beside her and said with a smile: "I heard that Furen had gone to the back garden, I was just about to go look for you."
Her words were quite loud, and many people looked over.
I had no choice but to walk forward with Wang-shi.
Duke Lu had drunk excessively, his face was flushed bright red, and his gait staggered when he arched his hands to give his greetings. "My humble house is coarse to have neglected Furen."
"Duke Lu’s hospitality was excellent, why do you say this?" I said with a smile and then looked at Wei Tan.
He also looked at me, his gentle expression was like the one he had on that day in front of the guests in Wei Mansion.
"Can you go back to the house now?" he asked in a low voice.
I smiled, and nodded, eyes downcast.
The eyes of everyone around focused on us. I was aware that many of the people who were watching us were scholars and officials of Chang An.
Of course, Wei Tan knew that better.
"The elders of our family should have come for Duke Lu’s birthday celebrations. But unfortunately, my Father was preoccupied with some urgent affairs. I hope that Duke Lu will be forgiving." He unobtrusively came over to stand next to me as he spoke.
Duke Lu hurriedly replied: "Where do these words stem from, Eldest Young Master? Who doesn’t know that the Prime Minister is working hard for the country? The Eldest Young Master's and Fu Furen's presence at the banquet is a great honor to our house." Then, he ordered his family to prepare a seat at the banquet and invited Wei Tan to stay for dinner and wine.
Wei Tan politely declined, "Don’t trouble yourself, Duke Lu. It's already night. I am here to pick up Furen and send her home. I still have another appointment later and it is inconvenient to stay." As he spoke, he naturally stretched out his hand and supported me at the waist.
Although the action was small, it was undoubtedly full of intimacy in the eyes of those around me.
Duke Lu smiled and praised, "It has long been said that the Eldest Young Master and Furen are very affectionate. Indeed, those words were not false."
Wei Tan smiled and said: "My wife is a new bride, and still unfamiliar with the etiquette. I thank your household for taking the trouble to entertain us."
Duke Lu and Wang-shi were busy smiling and being polite again.
I didn’t speak. Instead, I bowed my head in a practiced manner and cooperated with Wei Tan to appear as sweet-tempered.
The night breeze mixed with the residual heat of the early summer, stirring up the cotton curtains of the carriage window.
The lanterns hanging high in front of the Lu Residence gradually disappeared. Yet, the cheerful noises of the music and laughter from inside the mansion still traveled out.
Wei Lang and Wei Ci were riding their horses beside the carriage. I didn’t hear what Wei Ci said, but both of them laughed and rode up to Wei Tan in the front, and ambiguously smiled at him.
As I leaned against the window, my mind wandered to my meeting with Ruo Chan, evoking an indescribable feeling within my heart.
She said that I pitied her, and yes, I indeed pitied her at that time.
Yet, she told me that she didn’t need my pity. That was also true. She was reduced to prostitution, and I had become a wife for the second time. In these troubled times, each of us was doing what was necessary, and who could be nobler than whom?
I closed my eyes in the darkness. But all I could think of was the image of the young girl who smiled at me while standing amongst the flowers.
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