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Unable to speak, my heart sank when I looked at Ah Yuan.
Her expression changed when she noticed my bandaged foot, "Are you injured?"
I nodded, then shook my head, "I twisted it myself."
She stared at me and started wiping her tears, "Why did this happen……"
I patted her hand and remained silent.
As servants carried the buckets out, I finally realized Wei Tan had left the room.
Ah Yuan walked over carrying a wrapped bundle, and complained, "Next time, you shouldn't be headstrong and go off somewhere. If the Eldest Young Master hadn't sent servants asking me to pack clean clothes, I wouldn't have known where to search for you."
"What is the state of affairs there……?"
"Young Master Ji Yuan left with an awful expression. He ordered the servants to dispose off the man's corpse and seal our lips about everything. Furen, I heard that the man was Wu Zhang's trusted aide, and dispatched to Huaiyang to replace the Young Master. Won't this be harmful to him?"
I shook my head, "I don't know." I declared these words with ease. At this stage, I had to accept the consequences without escaping.
I was uncertain of Pei Qian's relationship with Wu Zhang, and with Wei Clan involved, the results could grow complicated. Yet, I'd have no regrets even if they sacrificed me to pacify Wu Zhang. Next time, I'd kill Hu Zhen before he opened his mouth to utter those filthy words.
"Ah Yuan, I want to return to Yong Province."
She sighed and nodded, "It's good that Furen has decided, I'll follow you wherever you go."
I cradled her hand for a moment and added, "I want to drink wine."
Ah Yuan froze before agreeing and rising to fetch wine.
When the door closed behind her, I shed my blood-stained clothes and changed into a clean set. Before long, Ah Yuan brought a tiny wine pot and mumbled, "The Eldest Young Master said that Furen shouldn't drink too much."
Wei Tan knew that I was a lightweight; I nodded at the wine pot, "That's enough."
When I took a trial sip, the wine wasn't strong. Tilting my head, I glugged it down in a gulp.
I once asked my Second Brother why people loved to drink. He explained that drinking allows people to forget all their worries, the relief addicting them to wine.
Forget all your worries……?
As I reclined my featherweight body on the couch, light and shadows reversed and fluctuated before my eyes.
It was like I had returned to the winter of that year.
In the city outskirts' wilderness, I limped along the snowy and bumpy road. The hemp scarf on my head and the coarse Zhancui robe on my body didn't protect me from the wintry chill. Parallel to me, my Father, Eldest Brother, and Second Brother were being delivered to the gallows in prison carts.
"…… Dew on the leek, how quickly it dries……" My hoarse voice cracked in the freezing winter, but wiping my tears, I continued singing loudly. "…… Dew that dries will…… fall again tomorrow…… but a man once dead and gone, when will he come again……"
"Ah Jin!" Shackled to the prison cart, showing only a head of scattered hair, my Second Brother guffawed: "Good singing!"
"Ah Jin! Go back!" My Eldest Brother, his face covered in blood, shouted at me, "Go back!"
I gasped and my voice grew louder: "The graveyard—who makes his home in that land? Gathered ghosts, wise and fools alike!"
The jailer in charge of escorting the prison carts strode towards me, brandished his whip viciously, and shouted, "No singing!"
They paled with anger at once.
"Little bastard!" My Second Brother kicked at the prison cart and bellowed, "How dare you! She's the Empress Dowager's person!"
The jailer glared at me and returned resentfully. But on his way back, he lashed his whip at Second Brother, slashing his handsome face and drawing blood.
"Second Brother!" I cried out, staggering towards him.
"Don't come any closer!" My Father yelled from the front, "Ah Jin! Keep singing!"
I looked at his white-haired figure and wiped my tears. Choking back my sobs, I struggled to continue singing: "Lord of spirits…… Lord of spirits, why must you hurry us so! Human's life allows…… allows not a moment of lingering……"
My Father guffawed, and that was the last time I saw his smile.
He said: Ah Jin, don't cry, survive.
My Father's words repeated in my ears and my body warmed, as they had once hugged me as a child and whispered, don't cry……
The wine was so effective that I fell into a deep sleep. When I woke up, it felt like I had slept through a lifetime.
I wanted to roll over, but sensed something strange on my feet; I discovered my cocoon-wrapped, wounded leg hanging half foot in the air. Whenever I moved, the canopy curtains shook, painting a comical scene.
Ah Yuan entered the room as I was struggling to remove the tight knot on my foot, and burst out laughing.
"Still laughing……" My voice jamming, I cleared my throat and said in shame, "Why did you tie me up in this contraption?"
Ah Yuan smiled: "It wasn't me but the Eldest Young Master. He said that if you don't sleep steadily at night, you might hurt your foot more, so we have to support it."
When she mentioned Wei Tan, I stiffened as last night's events flashed through my head. I fell silent, staring at my swaying, injured foot.
Ah Yuan sensed my peculiarity and was also a little embarrassed.
"Is there any news?"
"I made a few inquiries this morning; they've already buried Hu Zhen's corpse. They say that Liang Chong had mobilized assassins to murder the Fourth Young Master. When Hu Zhen came to the rescue, the fleeing assassins killed him."
I stared blankly with shock: I had expected many consequences, but never imagined this ending.
I feared that Pei Qian and Wei Tan had invented this idea together. Liang Chong? I didn't know whether to cry or laugh at their justification. Hu Zhen's deeds were so sinful that even a death penalty couldn't compensate them, but he got a righteous and courageous name? Should the Wei Clan pretend to give thanks?
"What about him?"
"There is no news from Young Master Ji Yuan."
I frowned slightly and nodded.
"The Eldest Young Master had the kitchen make fish porridge before he left home, and the Fourth Young Master said he would make a cart for Furen."
"Cart?" As I puzzled over Wei An's words, I recalled another matter: "Where did the Eldest Young Master sleep yesterday?"
"I left to pack our luggage last night. When I returned this morning, I noticed the Eldest Young Master emerging from the adjacent room."
"Oh," I nodded. Even when I was unaware, he had only been a nominal husband. Of course, with all the cards exposed now, it was more important to continue our charade.
Since I couldn't walk, Ah Yuan fetched water for me to wash up and rinse my mouth. When I finished eating, Uncle Qi visited.
He brought medicine for my injuries and although he didn't persuade me to stay; he was more sentimental.
"This old geezer with one foot in the grave has lived most his life. I believed I could die without regrets if I only waited for your and Young Master's marriage, but……." He wiped his eyes, "NuiJun, I still say, Young Master had no alternative. He's been feeling guilty to you all these years…… Alas, what an injustice!"
I have always respected Uncle Qi and wasn't at ease to see him shedding tears at his age.
"Uncle Qi, don't cry like this," I whispered, handing him my handkerchief.
"I'm unwilling to……" He shook his head, "In those days, so many envied NuiJun and Young Master's betrothal. How can it end in this plight?"
Bitter in my mouth, I said: "Uncle Qi, 'he and I' are two words impossible to solve."
He gazed at me and exhaled a long sigh.
As I couldn't walk, Ah Yuan accompanied him to the gates.
I stared at the doorway a long time after his figure had disappeared, motionless.
My worries of confronting Pei Qian appeared to be excessive now; he won't visit me……
Last night's incident cut off my hesitations like a sharp blade.
I believed I'm a person who'd advance without second thoughts once I've chosen a path. But having arrived to this point, why did my heart still hurt?
I snapped out of my daze at the sudden sound and hastily wiped the tears that blurred my vision. Wei Tan had returned and entered the room.
"You've returned." Unwilling to show him my lame appearance, I spun my head away.
He said nothing, but from the sound of his footsteps, I sensed him walking towards me.
When I turned around, he was already standing in front of me.
His gaze paused at my face briefly before shifting to my feet.
"Does it hurt?"
I shook my head, "Not too much."
He didn't speak, but sat on the couch and cradled my injured foot in his hands. Layer by layer, he untied the knot and unwrapped the binding cloth. Although his gentle hands didn't cause any pain, I was nervous and kept staring at his movements.
My bare ankle had swollen up to a large lump.
Wei Tan raised his eyebrows: "It's really swelled into a hoof."
"Don't glare at me." With no shame, he added, "If I hadn't treated it in time last night, it would have swelled bigger." He asked servants to bring water and soaked my foot again.
I watched as he squatted in front of me, adding water and massaging my foot. Since yesterday, he appeared just in time to take thorough care of me. This low-browed and attentive demeanor was unlike the earlier aloof and remote Wei Tan.
Was it my delusion? Or was he remorseful?
I didn't know if he perceived my gaze, but he raised his head.
"The man I killed last night, is it a big deal?"
Wei Tan peered at me, his expression unchanging.
"Wu Zhang's trusted aide, dispatched to replace Ji Yuan in guarding Huaiyang." Wei Tan continued to spin my foot in the lukewarm water, "You tell me if it's a big deal?"
I sensed something odd: "Why does Wu Zhang want to replace Pei Qian? They both……"
"This I don't know," Wei Tan interrupted faintly.
I shut up once I realized that I had asked too many questions.
"There is something that I want to ask you," he continued smoothly. "I'm leaving day after tomorrow. Since the road from Huainan to Yong Province is dangerous, I want to take my Fourth Brother to Luoyang first. From there, I'll dispatch men to escort him back to Yong Capital." After a pause, he asked, "Are you leaving with me?"
I had expected him to ask me my plans, but not so soon.
Silent for a moment, I replied, "Well, I'll leave with Fourth Brother-in-law."
Wei Tan raised his eyes and gazed at me.
"Nothing," he said calmly, fetching a towel and drying my foot.
With my mind set to leave, the rest was no trouble.
Ah Yuan had packed our luggage and belongings, and the soldiers and horses had rested and recuperated. The day after next's morning, after washing and eating, we were ready to begin our journey.
Wei Tan entered my room and tried to carry me out like last time, but I refused. "No need, my feet don't hurt anymore," I said, pushing him away. I clung onto Ah Yuan's shoulders and hopped out the door on one foot.
Although the walk to the carriage through the courtyard was short, the style I was "walking" was truly exhausting.
When I finally sat, Wei Tan stood beside the carriage, his eyes narrowed in a half-smile.
"Young Master!" A servant ran over to report, "Everything is ready, shall we leave?"
Wei Tan nodded: "Let's leave." He spun around and walked to the front.
It was another sunny day and when the carriage reached the main street, the Huaiyang citizens and soldiers were moving as usual. They gave way to the carriage line and stood on the sidelines to enjoy the bustle. Just as they had when I arrived.
I watched for a moment before turning my head.
"Furen!" Ah Yuan suddenly spoke when the carriage reached the city outskirts, pointing out the window in surprise.
In the lush countryside backdrop, I spotted a man on a white horse waiting by the roadside. The green robe clad figure was handsome and yet, desolate.
My heart sank and I couldn't help but stiffen.
The procession halted, and Wei Tan spurred his horse to ride forward and meet him.
As they spoke, each looked calm from this distance. After a while, Pei Qian steered his horse and rode towards me.
"Ah Jin," his voice sounded outside the carriage window.
Ah Yuan looked at us and got off the carriage tactfully.
I closed my eyes, and said, "I'm here."
The wind carried the sun-drying grass' scent, and the carriage curtains swished silently.
"Are you okay? Does your foot still hurt?"
"It doesn't hurt anymore."
In the brief silence, even the wind seemed to stand still beyond the curtains.
"Do you hate me?"
When the low words sounded, my eyes welled up with bitter tears.
Hate? Despite many years passing, he reappeared in front of me and dealt a heavy blow. Even if I complained, got angry, or suffered, I learned that I could never hate him.
Tears moistened my palms as I covered my mouth to keep myself from crying out.
Pei Qian waited for a while, but didn't receive an answer.
"Ah Jin," his muffled voice was self-deprecating, "I always felt guilty. I believed if I get you back, I could always compensate for it, but……," he paused and drew a slight breath. "I know everything seldom works as one wishes, but I have only one sentence. Ah Jin, I will always be the same Ah Qian whenever and wherever, okay?"
Just as a warmth rose in my heart, the sound of a horse's hooves began.
I scrambled to open the carriage window's bamboo curtains: "Ah Qian!"
Pei Qian pulled in the reins and spun back in surprise.
I peered at that face, and amidst the blue sky and green fields, his handsome, jade face was as blinding as daylight.
"You……" I strived to keep my voice from choking, "You take care."
As he stared at me, rooted in his spot, the frown on his sullen face faded.
He nodded and spurred his horse to gallop towards the main road.
As I watched the figure through the carriage curtains, someone shouted "let's leave".
The carriage resumed its journey, and the boundless wilderness covered the horizon.
The wind blew and swept up the grass leaves in waves. Mixed with the ocean-like sounds, a bygone singing voice echoed, childish and hoarse.
She sang, Dew on the leek, how quickly it dries……
T/N: Sorry for the delay, I started watching the Chinese drama Go Ahead. It's amazing so far. Someone had asked for email notifications of new blog posts - I'm working on setting it up.
In case I don't update a new chapter by then - Advanced Happy New Year! Lets hope 2021 is a better year than 2020! :)
Edit 1: I've added a subscribe form to multiple locations on the site. Subscribe if you want email notifications of new chapter releases!
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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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