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I wanted Madam Guo to think of me as an obedient Daughter-in-law. To that end, by the time the second wife had woken up the next day, I was already waiting outside her door.
Wei Jue had stayed at concubine Zhang-shi's courtyard last night. So, I didn’t hesitate to enter the Madam’s room at that time of the morning.
"Young Furen is very early today," Madam Guo spoke amiably. "Has the Eldest Young Master not gotten up yet?"
I smiled, "The Eldest Young Master went to the camps last night and did not stay at home."
"Oh?" Mrs. Guo looked at me, her gaze observing me for a moment. She smiled, "The Eldest Young Master must be busy, so the Young Furen should be more understanding."
I replied smoothly, "I respectfully assent."
Unexpectedly, it didn't take long for the Second Young Master Wei Zhao to arrive next.
"Paying respects to my Mother and Eldest Sister-in-law." He was wearing a Jin headdress and a robe with narrow sleeves which were suitable for practicing martial arts. His every gesture was completely refined.
"Zhong Ming." Madam Guo smiled when she saw him, "You just returned from the camps last night. Why did you get up so early?"
"I have gotten used to waking up early to practice swordsmanship in the back garden with Father, so I am not tired." Wei Zhao replied.
Madam Guo took his hand affectionately and asked him more about his daily routine. Wei Zhao answered each question one by one.
Usually, Wei Zhao and I would just nod our heads in polite acknowledgment when we came across each other. Now, I could only stand to the side and watch the mother and child pair converse with deep feelings.
Madam Guo was anxious that Wei Zhao would waste his strength when practicing with the sword. So, after exchanging conventional greetings for a while, she ordered the maid to go to the kitchens and get some porridge. In that interval, Wei Zhao suddenly raised his eyes to look at me.
With our eyes making mutual contact, I nodded.
He smiled and raised his eyebrows slightly, appearing even more elegant.
After coming out of Madam Guo's courtyard, I was walking down the corridor when I suddenly heard footsteps behind me. When I looked back, I saw that Wei Zhao had also come out.
"Elder Sister-in-law." Wei Zhao said with a gentle voice.
"Second Brother-in-law." I returned the courtesy and smiled. "Where are you headed?"
Wei Zhao responded, "I’m going to the camps. Father wanted to see a lineup of the military troops today and he ordered me to go along with him."
I nodded: "You’ve worked hard, Second Brother-in-law."
"I don’t deserve your praise," Wei Zhao refused humbly. With the corners of his lips slightly bent, he resembled Wei Tan for a split second, and yet he appeared more gentle. "Compared to my Elder Brother, I am far behind."
My eyebrows twitched a little bit.
Although Wei Tan and Wei Zhao were brothers of the same father, they were viewed very differently in the eyes of the public. I had heard that Wei Tan was a man of great prestige among military generals because of his vigorous and resolute actions. In contrast, Wei Zhao was gentle to others and cultivated good writing. He was very popular with the scholars in Chang An. Wei Jue's attitude towards these two sons was also intriguing. Clearly, he relied heavily on Wei Tan in his expeditions or state affairs, but he also often brought along Wei Zhao and granted him access to go in and out.
I smiled: "With Father-in-law working hard for the country, as a son, how could Fujun dare to be negligent?"
Wei Zhao smiled mildly.
"The weather is wonderful today." He looked out of the corridor, "The spring scenery of Yong capital is gorgeous. Has the Eldest Sister-in-law ever gone out for a walk in the spring?"
I said, "I went to the temple to worship and offer incense last month, but I’ve only gone out one or two times."
"The green willows in the marshes have just sprouted, the red peach blossoms are scattered in the city garden," Wei Zhao recited slowly. "The spring colors of Yong capital are also pretty good."
I was stunned.
Wei Zhao smiled: "I was fortunate to meet Chancellor Fu once in my childhood and receive his guidance. Further, as a beginner, I used to use his poetry as a reference to model my conduct. To this day, I can still recite his poems fluently."
I looked at Wei Zhao and saw that his face was tinted with the faint morning sunshine. His eyebrows were extremely delicate up close, and the outer corners of his eyes were marginally raised. I searched through my memories carefully but had to admit that I didn't have any impression of this elegant face.
"Young Furen." At that moment, a voice came from behind us.
We turned around to see the Steward walking towards us hurriedly. He politely greeted us and then said to me: "Young Furen, the Eldest Young Master is meeting guests in the back garden and is requesting the Furen to kindly come over."
Meeting guests? I was a bit astonished. I turned to Wei Zhao and said, "Fujun has requested my presence, I must leave first."
Wei Zhao smiled and said: "Eldest sister-in-law, go slowly."
In the past, the Wei Mansion used to be the official residence of the Marquis of Yong. In the turbulence of recent times, the princes and generals of the nation had all become as worthless as dirt. Further, the family of the Marquis of Yong had perished in the hands of thieves and bandits. When Wei Jue had entered Yong capital, the mansion had already been vacant. So, he had set up this place as the Prime Minister's residence.
The Marquis was also considered to be of Imperial family background. Although the Marquis Mansion's courtyard was not much compared to those of noble houses in Chang An, its construction was still elegant. It was pleasant to stroll under the blossoming flowers of the ancient trees. And, I could amuse myself by walking across the bridge which spanned over some running water.
When the steward had informed me that Wei Tan was meeting guests, I had thought it would only be one or two visitors. Unexpectedly, I found that there were more than twenty people there when I finally arrived in the back garden, .
Several tables and mats were in place for a banquet. Wei Tan was sitting in the seat of honor in front of a painted screen. He was dressed in elegant clothes with wide sleeves and a bamboo hat. When I entered the garden, I could feel the sharp glance of his eyes.
"Young Furen." A family member who was standing at the gate of the garden greeted me. The voice was neither high nor low but it was still at a volume that traveled across the entire banquet.
The conversations suddenly stopped, and all the guests looked over in my direction.
"Furen." Wei Tan got up from his seat and moved forward with a smile.
In everyone’s view, I walked up to Wei Tan and bowed: "Fujun." Before I could finish bowing, he supported me up with both hands. When I raised my eyes, I saw that Wei Tan’s expression looked warm. His usual stern facial features had transformed into bright smiles under the public's eyes.
"Gentlemen, this is my wife, Fu-shi." He held me with one hand and turned to the guests.
I turned with him and observed the faces of the people carefully. I was shocked. Except for a few people who I had never met, I could recognize most of them.
"Furen, all these gentlemen at the banquet today are scholars of Chang An. They were all the same guests at the banquet arranged by Chancellor Fu many years ago. I wonder if Furen can still remember them?" Wei Tan asked warmly.
With his head lowered, his profile resembled the tender posture that a refined husband would show towards his newlywed wife. However, only from my angle could one see the quiet scrutiny behind his eyes.
"I was young at that time, so I can only remember a few voices and faces," I replied tactfully in a quiet voice.
Wei Tan smiled, took me into the room, and introduced the scholars to me one by one.
As all the scholars gave their salutations, I greeted them calmly and gracefully like my Mother used to. A few of their faces were full of deep emotions. They reminisced nostalgically about their friendship with my Father and Elder Brothers.
I listened to them and maintained my dignified smile.
In the past, I had never seen these people once after the collapse of the Fu clan. And yet, to be surrounded by these distinguished friends once more in the Wei Mansion, I felt inexplicably strange in my heart. However, I understood that this was where my value lied. I didn't like that I was being used, but I would continue to play my role and do what I had to do until my wings were full-fledged enough to break free from everything.
These scholars did not pledge their allegiance to the Wei family for the sake of me, the last remnant of the Fu clan.
Dong Kuang was destroyed, Shandong Province entirely belonged to Wei Jue, and half of the lands in the Central Plains were already in his control. That was enough to waver the hearts of some of these scholars who were waiting on the sidelines and forced them to realign their allegiance. Wei Jue had the “Son of Heaven”; whose foundation and claim to the throne was right and fair. Then, the addition of my former identity only made their grounds for yielding to Wei Jue more palatable.
Just as I had expected, their angry talks soon turned towards bitterly commenting on Empress Bian’s manipulation of power. Her struggle for power had harmed the whole country and the noble houses. The twin words of praise and lament for the Fu clan seemed to have been this loud and clear all along. Yet, I did not even know that the time when I had followed my Father and Brothers to the gallows while wearing mourning clothes was included in the revised version of the "Biography of Women".
Some of these scholars were old with gray beards and some were still in their youth. I had heard of many of them. It was just that I was very young back then, and I had never taken the trouble to remember them.
However, there was one exception.
Sitting at the last seat of the banquet was Gongyang Gui, the second son of Imperial Physician Gongyang Ou. He was the only guest whose name and face I could match.
He and my Second Elder Brother were good friends of the same age. The Gongyang family were the descendants of a great Confucian scholar. But, Gongyang Gui had a rebellious personality and admired knights-errant. He was a different kind among the Chang An dandies who loved to apply rogue and consume Five Minerals Powder. Maybe it was for this reason that my Second Elder Brother who also admired knights-errant became friends with him. He had often invited Gongyang Gui to the mansion for sparring contests.
Further, he and I were not unfamiliar with each other. Gongyang Gui had taken me to the market a few times when I had wanted to go but my Second Elder Brother had no time to spare.
In the several years that I hadn’t seen him, he had changed. Gongyang Gui was no longer the eager young man who rode across the streets of Chang An on horseback. He was leaner and taller and with a beard below his cheeks. Now, he even attended this kind of gathering of influential officials that he had once disdained. Only one thing had not changed; his eyes still contained an acute vitality when he looked at people.
I fixed a gentle expression on my face and listened to Wei Tan's introductions. I called out "Young Master Gongyang" and made my salutations. Gongyang Gui also did not say much, and instead, he sat back at his table after returning the greetings.
It was said that military men were not eloquent, but I didn’t find that to be true. Wei Tan was considered a military man, and yet, his words were not lacking. He knew how to take charge of discussions. When the topic began to center around the Late Emperor, Wei Tan only had to mention the current political affairs in a few words. Then, the scholars followed his lead and switched to talk about the affairs of the country.
Wei Jue currently occupied a large area from Western Liang until Shandong Province. Although the Emperor had set his capital in Yong Province, the world was still fragmented. The most arrogant and strong one in the north was Tan Xi. Most of Henan, Hebei, and the remote Yun Provinces and counties were all set up as an independent regime under him. Also, Wu Zhang ruled the Huai region; Liang Chong, of the Emperor’s lineage, ruled Jing Chu; Wang Mao ruled Baiyue, and apart from them, every road was filled with countless small groups of young brave soldiers.
People who could be invited as guests to a banquet arranged by my Father and Brothers were not of ordinary caliber. As I sat next to Wei Tan, I listened to them comparing the strengths and weaknesses of each side. They discussed the attacks on the expedition, and just as they started to plan the retaliation, a voice suddenly sneered: "You gentlemen are so enthusiastic. Don’t forget that the Prime Minister has only cut down Dong Kuang while Yong Province’s money and grain coffers are almost empty. If there is another war, is it to teach these hundred or so counties to die of starvation?"
It was Gongyang Gui who had spoken up.
As everyone at the banquet looked over, I also looked at him with surprise.
"Zhong Ping," a middle-aged man who was sitting in an adjacent seat glanced at Wei Tan, seemingly embarrassed. He smiled at Gongyang Gui, "Why did Zhong Ping say this? The Prime Minister is a wise man, and there will be no famine."
Gongyang Gui stared at him with a cold face but didn’t speak further.
Then, someone brought up a few recent events in the Yong capital at just the right time. The topic was averted, and everyone began to talk enthusiastically once more.
Wei Tan smiled faintly, he listened to them, but seldom spoke.
I popped a cherry in my mouth and eyed the last seat at the banquet.
Gongyang Gui was silently holding a cup in his hand. Suddenly, he looked at me and our eyes met.
Without any expression on his face, he drank the wine in the cup and turned his head away.
The banquet was considered a success for both the host and the guests.
Afterward, I asked Ah Yuan to find out more details about the guests at the banquet. She came back and told me that most of the people at the banquet had been appointed by Wei Jue. Except for one person, Gongyang Gui.
I was shocked, and Ah Yuan continued to tell me the whole story.
Before attending the banquet, Gongyang Gui had already entered the Imperial court as the official deputy of Taicang city. But, his family was not very satisfied with this position. So, Gongyang Gui's clan uncle, the Deputy Grand Servant, Gongyang Hong had brought him to the banquet that day to introduce him to Wei Tan.
I remembered the middle-aged man who had been sitting next to Gongyang Gui and realized that he was his uncle.
Although Gongyang Gui's few words were unpleasant to hear during the banquet, Wei Tan had not been disgusted. After the banquet, Wei Jue had personally met with Gongyang Gui. Ah Yuan told me that Wei Jue believed that he was a talented man. He wanted to bring him under his command as a military counselor or an official. But, before the emissaries who were sent with the appointment offer had arrived, Gongyang Gui had already hung up his seal and left. He had not even taken up the post as the deputy of Taicang city.
"What a strange man, isn't he?" Ah Yuan said with confusion while she helped me untangle the mess beside the loom.
I smiled mildly and nodded. I looked down at the weaving shuttle in my hand and continued to densely interlace the warp and weft on the loom.
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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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