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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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Beginning as an avid reader, I am translating novels with the help of machine translation and online dictionaries.
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