Sandy's Read Receipts
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TW: This chapter contains references to topics of sexual assault, self-harm and violence.
Once, in grief and indignation, I used to curse those who destroyed the Fu Clan with the most vicious words. But I didn't realize the impact my suppressed anger could wreak after five years of burying it at the bottom of my heart.
I broke free and slammed the man hard against the wall. When he looked up in surprise, his face bled with five striking scratches from my nails.
With fury on his drunk face, he spat a mouthful of spittle and stumbled, "You ......"
"Hu Zhen," walking under the lantern, I snapped, "open your dog's eyes and see who I am."
He stared at me, his face drooping with disbelief: "You, you are Fu Jin?"
Hu Zhen was the son of Empress Bian's cousin Hu Xun. After Empress Bian gained power, Hu Xun presided as the Minister of Justice. As far as I knew, he played a key role in framing and convicting my Father with false charges.
Hu Xun led the raid on Fu Residence and imprisoned my Father and Brothers. Hu Zhen lusted after Du-shi, my beautiful Eldest Sister-in-law, and raped her. Consumed with hatred, she threw herself into a well. Unable to bear the Clan's humiliations, my Mother hanged herself in her prison cell.
Every nightmare recurred when Hu Zhen appeared in front of me, sparking my fury like a matchstick on dry firewood.
"Furen! This ......" As the man about to grab Hu Zhen turned pale with fright, Hu Zhen shoved him.
"Haha ......! Haha Haha!" Hu Zhen stared at me and burst into increasingly loud laughs.
"I wondered who it was, it turned out to be you!" He wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and commented cryptically, "I heard that you were lonely in Laiyang and hooked up with Wei Jue's son. What? Did you come to Huaiyang to meet your old lover Pei Qian and ......?"
Before he could finish his sentence, a fist arced through the air and punched him. Bones shattering, he rolled to the ground with a scream.
I didn't know that Pei Qian had arrived. Ashen-faced, he stood in front of Hu Zhen: "If you dare to talk more nonsense, I will break your legs!"
Hu Zhen squirmed on the ground, mumbling "ouch, ouch", before he propped himself up to a sitting posture.
"I'm talking nonsense?" Half his face swollen and shiny, he spat spittle mixed with blood and broken teeth. "Pei Qian! With the Empress gone, even you dare to hit me! In the past, your Father came to our doors and begged us to spare your Pei Clan. He vowed to do anything my Father wanted in return! Haha! Now that they have passed away, and the tea has cooled, you dare to vent anger on your old lover's behalf?! And you!" Hu Zhen turned to me and laughed sinisterly, "I remember your Eldest Sister-in-law's surname is Du? Haha, her screams then were delicious! Don't believe you can provoke me just because you have the Wei Clan's support, I ......"
A short knife stabbed his throat, and the dull sound of metal piercing flesh severed his words.
Hu Zhen's mouth was half open, and his eyes stared at me, as round as copper bells.
Anger and hostility stained my eyes blood-red.
Gasping for breath, I yanked the knife out and watched him collapse to the floor with convulses. Blood gushed out of the cut, dirtying both my hands.
"Ah Jin ......," behind me, Pei Qian whispered.
As I turned around, his figure was hazy under the dim lantern. Yet, the complexity and hesitation in his face couldn't escape my eyes.
"Is what he said true?"
"No!" Pei Qian denied sharply, "although my Father was afraid then, he never took part in the Fu Clan's framing!"
"He went to beg Hu Xun! If Hu Xun had wanted him to frame us, he would have, right?!"
Pei Qian stared at me, his face stretched taut, but didn't speak.
Everything was quiet. As I waited for him to deny my accusation, my hammering heart dropped to the pit of my stomach, my blood growing cold.
"Ah Jin," after a while, he whispered, "it's all in the past."
A cloud of bitterness burned and suffocated my heart, stoking waves of pain.
"It hasn't passed yet for me," I whispered. I glanced at the empty scabbard on his waist, placed the knife on the floor and rose to leave.
"Ah Jin!" Pei Qian rushed to grab my hand, "Where are you going?"
When I raised my eyes, Pei Qian's gaze was like a deep well, covered with a film of water. It was hard to distinguish whether heartache or despair filled them.
I wrestled my hand away, whispered, "Don't follow me," and inched towards the door.
As the crescent moon cast shadows on the murky ground, I saw mine lumbering forward like a zombie.
Soldiers patrolled the streets, and many people moved in the shadows. But it was none of my business.
What am I doing? Where am I going? I didn't have answers to my mind's questions.
I just wanted to keep walking away from the past's nightmares.
"...... Furen?" A soldier walked up to me and asked, "Where are you headed?"
I ignored him and kept walking straight.
In the street's dead silence, the singing of some lady playing with her children drifted over, "bright moon, shining on the ground ......"
"...... Under a bright moon, a scholar rides, on a white horse, across a lily pond." A long time ago, my wet nurse crooned to me as she waved a sunflower hand fan, "Chives planted on the pond's bank, offered for matrimony!"
My mother said, "What countryside folk song is that? Makes little sense."
The wet nurse laughed and said, "Not a random song, but one for our NuiJun and scholar Pei, a match made in heaven."
My mother also smiled and looked at me with eyes full of pride ......
I choked back a sob, wanting to cry, but no tears fell. Ahead, dark shadows shrouded the city walls, while below, candles burned.
Suddenly, my feet stepped on empty air, and I stumbled to the ground. When I looked down, I noticed a pit in the ground. A sharp pain seared my sprained ankle, and I gasped, tears streaming from my eyes.
"Furen!" As someone ran towards me, I raised my teary eyes and recognized Yang Ke.
"What happened?" Before Yang Ke could reach me, a deep voice sounded behind me, and then a shadow loomed.
As I froze, Wei Tan squatted on the ground, held my foot in his hand, and frowned: "sprained?"
When I saw him, his eyebrows, eyes, nose and ears, I hated every bit of his face. A hidden anger surged, and despite the pain in my foot, I shoved him away: "none of your business!"
Without a trace of anger, he caught my hand and pulled me closer.
"Look beside us," his voice was low, "are you going to let everyone continue staring?"
I looked around and stopped moving. Soldiers on patrol under the city gates surrounded us, every pair of eyes curious and eager.
"If I walk away, you'll have no choice but to crawl back," Wei Tan warned.
As I bit my lip in hesitation, he loosened his grip on my feet.
My forehead temples throbbed, and I hastily tugged his sleeve.
His lips curving, he glanced at me, and picked me up into his arms.
"Nothing to see here! Everyone, return!" He yelled to the soldiers and carried me away.
The night wind blew and mixed with the warm breath near me.
I let Wei Tan hold me, not moving a muscle. Behind his shoulders, the moon hung in the sky, bright and almost gaudy.
"What are you thinking?" Wei Tan asked suddenly.
I didn't answer. He didn't ask again either, and continued walking, his lone footsteps echoing in the deserted street.
"Elder Brother!" As he strode into an alley's entrance, Wei An's voice sounded.
He ran over and froze when he saw Wei Tan carrying me.
"What happened to Eldest Sister-in-law?"
"Sprained foot. Go have someone fetch a bucket of well water and boil it warm."
"Oh ......" Wei An nodded and ran back into the alley.
Wei Tan followed him, carrying me, and before long, a Mansion appeared in front of us.
"Young Master," several servants in the courtyard greeted him. When they saw me, they froze simultaneously and bowed again, "Furen."
I gazed at them and nodded awkwardly.
Wei Tan said nothing and walked into the house.
He lowered me onto the couch, gentle and careful not to bump my injured foot.
When I finally left his embrace, I couldn't help but relax. Whenever I was with this man, I was inexplicably on tenterhooks.
A servant brought a basin of water, and Wei Tan said, "Wash your hands."
Prompted to look, I noticed that the blood on my hands had dried, black and ugly.
As I recalled the earlier scene, I dipped my hands into the water. I scrubbed hard, as if coated with the most disgusting thing on earth. The water rippled and overflowed from the basin, clouding with a muddy color.
When I finally stopped after the basins changed thrice, my hands had flushed red. As a servant entered the room, carrying two buckets of water, Wei Tan walked over and reached out to lift my injured foot.
I pushed him away. Wobbling a bit, he raised his eyes to stare at me, gaze sullen.
When I met his gaze coldly, he paused and reached out again.
"It's not your business!" I pushed him again, but he stayed as steady as a rock. Anxious, I lifted my other foot to kick him.
"Sit still!" He suddenly shouted.
Startled, my foot halted in mid-air.
Wei Tan glared at me fiercely and squatted on the ground. He removed my stockings, fished up the corner of my skirt, and immersed my feet into the bucket.
After soaking in the heated water, the pain in my injured foot plummeted.
"I'll do it myself," I said, my mouth still stubborn.
Wei Tan didn't reply, but held my foot for a moment and slowly swirled it in the water.
"Make a sound if it hurts."
As I bit my lip, he glanced at me, and his hands slowed.
"Are you feeling sorry for yourself? Are all of you like this? Often looking down on others, but when feeling wronged, do you pity yourself and think that everyone else is evil?"
Unable to answer, I reluctantly said, "What 'all of you'?"
Wei Tan said nothing, but raised my feet from the water and removed the bucket. As he moved another bucket from the side, I wanted to ask him to speak in plain words. Distracted, my foot bumped into the bucket's walls, and I cried out in pain, "Ah ......"
"Stop flailing." When he dipped my foot in the ice-cold water, the pain relented.
I obediently stopped talking and watched as he alternately soaked my foot in cold and warm water several times. Finally, he dried it, applied medicine, and bound it with a cloth.
"If you don't want your foot to swell up into a hoof, don't walk around, call a servant."
I shot him a glance and then at my cocoon-wrapped feet, wondering if I should say "thank you" at this point. But before I could open my mouth, the door slammed open.
"Furen!" Ah Yuan ran in, her eyes red, she pounced on me, "You scared me to death ...... When I heard noises and ran out, a dead body was lying outside and you were missing ...... They said you murdered someone......"
T/N: I wanted to get this chapter out quicker because of the cliffhanger. Merry Christmas everyone!
A tremendous battle passed through the city like wind, not harming a hair of the Huaiyang troops.
The jubilant soldiers surrounded Wei An and hoisted him onto their shoulders. They carried him down the city walls, using their shoulders as a sedan chair. The joyful crowds below the city cheered, and Yang Ke took the lead to pump his arms and hail "the Young Master is mighty". Wei An, never good at laughing, blustered red at this spectacle.
"Furen ......" Ah Yuan ran over and grabbed my hand, crying and laughing simultaneously. "Seeing Furen up on the walls worried me to death."
I stroked her hand comfortingly and laughed, "Don't worry, I was safe. Your Father said that I'm blessed."
A clamor of noises rose near, and I spotted Pei Qian leading a few soldiers to us.
"General Pei," Yang Ke stepped forward and saluted. The soldiers followed his lead and restrained their noisy laughs, lowering Wei An to the ground.
After exchanging salutes with Yang Ke, Pei Qian smiled at Wei An. "Thanks to Young Master's single arrow in this battle, Huaiyang averted crisis."
Wei An replied, his usual stony face exposing a smile, "I shot that arrow with my Eldest Sister-in-law's permission. You should convey your thanks to her."
Pei Qian and I both froze for a moment.
He glanced at me, embarrassed but swiftly recovering his smile.
"Young Master is too modest," he spoke warmly. Turning to his subordinates, he continued, "Pass the order to bring out wine and meat. Today, we celebrate the merits of our comrades."
The crowd rejoiced and resumed their loud laughter.
Wei An looked a bit uneasy.
"I'll return to the Mansion to rest." He informed me and walked away, ignoring Pei Qian.
"Fourth Brother-in-law ......" I wanted him to wait so we could leave together, but his steps were fast and his figure disappeared around the street corner.
"This boy has a temper," Pei Qian's voice emerged beside me.
Perhaps because of the recent victory, a bright expression replaced his original pale face, his aura heroic.
"That's his personality, he's the same to everyone," I smiled.
Pei Qian returned a non-committal smile.
After the victory, he became busy with the celebrations and reporting the news to both Wei Jue and Wu Zhang.
Worried for his health, I changed my daily visits to twice a day. Sometimes, I stayed longer and spent the entire day with him.
Of course, whenever someone visited him, I took the initiative to hide in the back of the main hall. It was impossible to claim these actions weren't ambiguous. Sometimes, I imagined that if someone from the Wei Clan came to accuse us of adultery, no one would believe a word I spoke.
Yet, both Pei Qian and I interacted naturally. Since everything was unclear now, I continued to take care of him. The rehashing of everything could wait until he recouped his health. Meanwhile, Pei Qian behaved like his dreams had come true. He was in a positive mood, and his health recovered rapidly.
The fleeting arrival of war postponed Wei An's return to Yong Capital for many days. But when everything calmed down, the issue cropped up again.
Pei Qian asked me my thoughts.
Though I opened my mouth, I still couldn't answer.
"Ah Jin," Pei Qian sighed, "you and I can't continue in this ambiguity."
Silent for a while, I asked, "Do your parents know about me?"
Startled, he laughed: "Are you afraid they won't approve?"
"It's not ......"
"Ah Jin," Pei Qian gently embraced me. "You know that my parents have always liked you. They had no choice in that past incident. If you don't want to meet them, we won't go to Yangzhou. We can stay at Jianye city where it's just us from now."
Though his arms were stronger than before, his body's scent hadn't changed. I shut my eyes, not pushing him away but not saying anything either.
Would everything stay the same?
The story that Wei An's arrow had killed Liang Heng soon spread. Apparently, Liang Chong cried in pain and vowed to purge Huaiyang with blood. Further, he wanted to hang Wei An's head from the city walls.
These words spooked us, prompting Yang Ke to double the soldiers guarding our Mansion. Although we waited in fear of a powerful assassin emerging to claim Wei An's life, all was quiet. Our spies sent news that Liang Chong was busy with funeral plans and wanted to bury Liang Heng first.
"Old idiot," Ah Yuan cursed as she folded the clothes drying in the courtyard. She squinted at the sunny and blue sky overhead and said, "How great would it feel to stroll around the market while nibbling melon seeds. Instead, what poisonous oaths? What wars?"
I couldn't help but smile at her words as I observed the wooden piece that Wei An had placed in the yard two days ago. Yes, what wars? What good is it to complain after provoking the heaven's fury? But I didn't worry over these deep and complicated questions. It was more amusing to stare at Wei An's contraptions.
"Where is the Fourth Young Master?"
"I don't know. But as I was returning from outside, I learned that a squad of soldiers just arrived."
"Troops? Are they from Wu Zhang's army?"
"I'm uncertain about that."
As the sky dimmed, I realized it was dinnertime and wondered if I should visit Pei Qian.
I didn't stay far from Pei Qian's office, and the outside streets were teeming with soldiers. In the quiet evening, I listened to the soldiers chatting as I walked to the front door.
"...... brother's accent sounds like you're not from the Central Plains?"
"Oh, I'm from South Fujian."
"Fujian is far away. Is it a large province?"
"It's big! I'm from Jinjiang city in Fujian, about the size of a fingernail on a palm."
"Haven't heard of Jinjiang. Is it fun?"
"Both fun and yet, not. But a local product of ours is quite famous."
"Oh? What local product?"
"Dark soy sauce! People can't mention Jinjiang without dark soy sauce ......"
When the soldiers noticed me, they stopped chatting and saluted.
I nodded and walked past them.
These days, I feared running into Wei An because he threw dark scowls whenever I visited Pei Qian. With his increasing resemblance to Uncle Qi, I evaded him to avoid feeling guilty.
I didn't see anyone as I entered Pei Qian's office through the backdoor.
As I reached the main hall's rear, a few chatting voices sounded.
I recalled Ah Yuan mentioning a squadron's arrival and assumed Pei Qian was in a meeting. As I made to walk away, a muffled voice drifted to my ears, jolting my heart.
I approached the window and peeped into it.
Though the figure inside the room wasn't clear, I recognized the person sitting opposite Pei Qian's chief seat. The figure with ramrod straight posture was none other than Wei Tan.
I walked out of the government office in a trance.
Unfortunately, I ran head-on into Wei An.
"Eldest Sister-in-law!" His quick steps reached me and his face didn't conceal his joy. "Elder Brother is here. Did you meet him?"
Unsure what expression to show, I asked, "When did he arrive?"
"Just an hour ago. I wanted to bring my Elder Brother to see Eldest Sister-in-law, but he insisted on meeting General Pei first."
With a nod, I replied, "Is it so."
I didn't wait with him for Wei Tan to exit. Why did he come? To pick up Wei An? It was a legitimate reason, but it was important that I was also here. He was the one who had sent me to meet Pei Qian. Was it proper for us, a nominal couple, to meet in this case?
Annoyed in my heart, I wondered: What was he thinking?
Yet, perhaps our thought process was the same because he didn't appear in my courtyard until nightfall. I ate dinner with Ah Yuan, who had already learned of Wei Tan's arrival. She stared at me, itching to speak but refraining.
"Furen ......" Finally, she lowered her bowl.
"Don't ask," I sighed.
Ah Yuan mumbled and picked up her bowl again.
After our meal, news of another squad of Wu Zhang's soldiers entering the city reached us. I didn't know their leader as I didn't recognize anyone on Wu Zhang's side.
"Furen, did you hear the noises from the government office?" A discontented Ah Yuan entered my room and spoke, "A man sent by Wu Zhang is demanding courtesans, and insisting Ji Yuan Young Master to drink with him."
"Oh?" I frowned, recalling that the doctor had advised against Pei Qian drinking wine till he recovered his health. A little worried, I asked, "Then did he drink wine?"
Ah Yuan shook her head.
The moon hadn't reached half-sky, and few people roamed the streets. Unsure of Wei Tan's whereabouts, it was impossible for me to go out.
The night was growing late and Wei An never returned. When it was bedtime, I wore a cloak and walked to the front courtyard.
The earlier noises had faded. After the wars, most of the rich families had left Huaiyang, let alone courtesans. Without them, men seeking fun didn't last long here either.
Lanterns hung in front of the main gate. As I looked out, I noticed a soldier hugging a spear and leaning against the wall. His head bobbed a little as he dozed.
Why did I worry about Wei An when Wei Tan was here? I laughed self-deprecatingly.
As I was about to turn around, a sudden bellow sounded behind me.
"Hey! That woman!"
A few steps away, a tipsy man staggered, swinging a wine jug. He pointed his finger at me and muttered, "Who said Huaiyang has no courtesans? Isn't this a woman?"
"My Lord, my Lord!" The man supporting him hastily replied, "She isn't a courtesan, she is a Furen ......"
"What Furen!" The man brandished his hand, "Drag her here to drink with me!"
I frowned and turned around to leave. But the door behind me slammed open, and the stink of alcohol assaulted my nose.
Yanking my arm, the man smiled lewdly: "Did you want to leave? Accompany me first!"
"My Lord, no!" As bystanders hastened to persuade him, they called for the soldier to pull him away.
I struggled hard, but when I recognized the face illuminated by the lanterns, my heart pounded and body froze.
T/N: Sorry for the late update everyone! I got stuck binge-watching the K-drama Start-Up on Netflix! (‾◡◝ )
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