Sandy's Read Receipts
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Of course I had to attend. My Aunt had invited me to her birthday banquet. But because she informed me so last minute, it was too late to prepare a gift.
A'Yuan said to me privately, "Furen, I asked around and learned that Madam Ding's family's current circumstances aren't great. The servant who delivered the invitation said that the Madam hasn't held birthday banquets for several years. But she suddenly wanted to celebrate this year."
Taken aback, I pondered for a moment before nodding. Times had been bleak since my Uncle had died. Like many noble families, the Qiao Clan's ancestral property was mainly farmlands. But since the rebellion and chaos had uprooted the citizens, farmlands had lost their harvest. My Aunt's entire family had relied on the extra money saved by my Uncle. Yet, in troubled times, families losing money because of instability was common. It wasn't surprising for families to live beyond their means.
I guessed my Aunt's greatest hopes laid on my Elder Cousin Qiao Ke.
The purpose of her birthday banquet suddenly dawned on me.
When I asked Wei Tan if he would go with me, he agreed readily, contrary to my expectations.
"Have you prepared any birthday gifts?"
"No." As I rummaged through my chest for clothes, I continued, "I'll go to the market with A'Yuan and pick out a few fabrics." My Aunt was my elder, so gifts of fabrics and silks and other practical things would please her. I wasn't familiar with any textile merchants in Luoyang who could deliver a catalogue to my home for my choosing. Besides, time was short. After contemplating, I decided it would be faster to go out and pick them myself.
"We have a few fabrics at home, left behind when we fought Dong Kuang last year. Do you want to check them out, Furen?"
Ecstatic, I walked to the Residence treasury at once.
Dong Kuang was fond of hoarding wealth, so any of his articles possessed by Wei Jue as spoils of war wouldn't be terrible. As I expected, I found gorgeous fabrics of brocade, all rare in the current markets. I selected a few and had them wrapped.
As the sun descended the sky, I followed Wei Tan to board the carriage. He didn't ride a horse, but wore a bamboo hat and a Shenyi. We traveled in the same carriage, with him looking like he was visiting an eminent scholar.
He noticed my stare and asked, "Are my clothes inappropriate?"
I shook my head and smiled, "Perfect."
My Aunt's home was also in the city's north. When our carriage arrived at her front door, I saw lanterns hanging high and people waiting for us.
Before A'Yuan got off the stopped carriage, Wei Tan held my hand and helped me alight.
My Aunt greeted me with a smile, "Niece."
"I wish my Aunt a long and prosperous life," I returned her smile and bowed. I turned to Wei Tan and introduced her, "Fujun, she is my Aunt."
He smiled and gave her a dignified bow, "May Aunt live longer than Zhongnan Mountains."
She beamed at him, "I have long heard of the General's reputation. It is a great honor to have you in my humble abode today."
"Aunt is too kind. I'm ashamed to greet Aunt only today after marrying Furen."
Her smile deepened as she motioned to Qiao Ke and Qiao Ti behind her, "Quickly pay your respects to A'Jin and the General."
The two angreed, stepped forward, and met us with a bow.
Qiao Ke was older than me. After years of not seeing him, his face had developed my Uncle's upright presence, with a beard covering his chin. When he looked at me with a smile, his eyes were red. He bowed to Wei Tan with a relaxed demeanor, neither servile nor overbearing.
Qiao Ti was wearing an exquisite dress. Her gait resembled a lotus in the orange, daylily-colored gauze skirt, and she looked even more gorgeous than last time. When she bowed to Wei Tan, I noticed she had a light blush on her cheeks, as if she was shy.
My Aunt looked thrilled, took my hand and led us into the house.
The main hall was blazing with lights. Soon after we sat, my Third Aunt and Uncle arrived. I introduced them to Wei Tan, and after the greetings, I presented my Aunt with the gift I had prepared.
She accepted it with a smile. After taking her seat again, she sighed: "Ever since your Uncle passed away, I have been uninterested in feasts and parties. But A'Ti is more attentive. When she mentioned this today, I thought of your arrival in Luoyang. I hadn't met your Aunt in long either, so I hastily arranged this banquet." She glanced at Qiao Ti at the side.
Qiao Ti didn't speak, lowering her eyes slightly.
"Cousin's virtue is the grace of my Aunt's good upbringing," I smiled. I looked back at Qiao Ti, but noticed she was looking elsewhere. When I followed her gaze, it led across the room to where Wei Tan was talking with Qiao Ke and my Third Uncle Tao Zhu.
Just then, my Third Aunt asked me, "I heard the General returned a few days ago?"
"You are right," I replied.
My Third Aunt nodded, "They say that the Prime Minister's eldest son is very handsome. Indeed, they weren't lying."
This military man? I smiled, "Third Aunt is too kind."
"Why are you modest?" My Aunt laughed, "He's an outstanding man - an elite of today's country."
I laughed but said nothing. I shot a glance at Qiao ti, who was looking elsewhere, apparently not listening to us.
After we exchanged pleasantries, my Aunt instructed the servants to serve the meal.
After the servants brought out the wine and meat, and everyone toasted my Aunt for her birthday, I took in my surroundings. Only a few servants manned the front gates and the banquet. With no dancers or musicians entertaining, I surmised that the family no longer housed performers. The hall's furnishings, the couch, the screen, were old with fading lacquer. Everything pointed to the host family's lack of money.
The servants presented a few snacks after the meal. My Aunt asked them to refill everyone's drinks at each table.
Wei Tan sat sandwiched between Qiao Ke and my Third Uncle. He understood this arrangement; he chatted with Qiao Ke, asking him about his studies and teachers. Qiao Ke answered each question one by one. They also discussed Luoyang's recent affairs, the refugees' rebellion, high market prices, etc.
I broke out in sweats when I heard those words from my seat. Why was Wei Tan asking these questions? Although Qiao Ke lived in Luoyang, he was a junior of a noble family. How would he know of citizens' livelihood? But to my surprise, Qiao Ke responded calmly. Though he quoted pedantic classics, a few insights were fresh.
Wei Tan listened to him attentively. While I couldn't see his expression, I sensed his focus. Just then, he seemed to notice something and glanced towards me.
I whirled my head away, pretending to listen to my aunts' conversation.
My Third Uncle, Tao Zhu, was a fat man in his fifties, and his family was also influential in Luoyang. He used to oversee Jiang Province, but he returned to Luoyang because of his health, and began working as a Chief Clerk. During Wei Jue's attack, Tao Zhu, together with the Luoyang Governor, pledged his allegiance to Wei Jue. My Third Uncle kept his job as the Chief Clerk, becoming connected to Wei Tan with the added link of a subordinate official.
I wasn't very fond of this uncle. I didn't blame him for not helping when the Fu Clan was in trouble. Yet, later on, when the trouble had caught up to my Uncle Qiao, he didn't allow my Third Aunt to communicate with my mother's family, despite being in Luoyang. Although everyone had the heart for self-preservation, his cowardice in times of trouble still disappointed me.
In high spirits, he kept offering toasts to Wei Tan. He repeated a set of speeches, making it obvious that he was a person who frequented banqueting houses. Wei Tan was no slouch either, drinking every toast from my Third Uncle. Yet, my Third Uncle exposed his drunkenness first. He began telling crude jokes and calling Wei Tan "my nephew-in-law" with a big smile.
My Aunt glanced over there. Her face remained placid, but I sensed her discomfort. Although my Aunt aimed to make friends with Wei Tan, she stepped carefully. Even when he met her, she still called him "General", for no other reason than caution. She didn't dare to call herself an elder or presume seniority, just to prevent arousing his disgust. Yet, my Third Uncle's drunkenness had somewhat embarrassed my Aunt.
Unfazed, Wei Tan asked the servants to support my Third Uncle. When my Aunt saw this, she quickly ordered someone to fetch tea.
My perceptive Third Aunt smiled at her, "The wine in Sister-in-law's house smells so appetizing that my husband kept drinking and became drunk. It is getting late, so we will say goodbye."
My Aunt stared at my Third Uncle before facing my Third Aunt. With an amicable expression, she replied, "Alright. It's just that I'm sorry to treat you and brother-in-law to such coarse food and wine."
"We are relatives; why do you speak these words?" My Third Aunt then ordered her household servants to prepare the carriage, asking them to help Third Uncle.
As the banquet dispersed, Wei Tan and I didn't stay long either. We got up from the table and thanked our Aunt again.
"General and niece, don't blame me for the poor hospitality," she spoke as she tugged my hand.
"Don't say these words, Aunt. I enjoyed the banquet today," I replied politely.
She sighed, "I don't know when we will meet again after today."
"Don't worry, Aunt," Wei Tan interjected. "Furen and I will stay in Luoyang for a few more days. If you miss us, you can visit anytime."
She beamed, "That reassures me." She asked Qiao Ke and Qiao Ti to bid their farewells.
Although Qiao Ke also drank wine, his salute was still meticulous.
Wei Tan smiled at him, "The Imperial Court prioritizes filial integrity. The world's scholars need only talent. If Bo Gong has the ambition, you can go to Yong Capital."
His words delighted everyone. Qiao Ke bowed again and thanked Wei Tan.
"General," Qiao Ti stepped forward, her demeanor different from her earlier silence. She smiled at Wei Tan brightly, "General is my Cousin's husband. As the younger cousin, can I call General 'Elder Cousin'?"
Surprised for an instant, he laughed, "Of course."
She smiled shyly and bowed to him with her eyes shining. She then looked at me before turning away to withdraw.
I smiled too, but anger surged in my heart. This cousin, I was most familiar with her gaze. She had this exact look whenever she stared at my things.
After we returned to the house, I first took a bath.
I wondered about the future realistically. With Wei Tan's status, various people would deliver concubines. More than I had seen in the past two months. As I had mentioned to A'Yuan earlier, only a fool wouldn't accept them. Wei Tan wasn't a fool, so I never expected him to refuse concubines.
Yet, that didn't mean I would accept my cousin as one of them.
She dared to fancy Wei Tan? Was it her idea or my Aunt's intention? I found it ridiculous. Even if Wei Jue was strong, he wasn't the Emperor. As a famous family in Luoyang, the Qiao Clan's ancestral shrine still existed. The patriarchs and clansmen were still alive. Sending the daughter of the main family to be a concubine? Weren't they afraid of being scolded for insulting the family traditions?
Oh, no. Since she dared to snatch my things, Qiao Ti's purpose should be to drive me away.
Drive me away? I leaned my head on the bathtub's edge, staring at the ceiling. I feared many in this world desired to get rid of me. Both now and in the future, right?
Wei Tan wasn't in the room when I returned. A'Yuan told me he had gone to bathe as well.
I sat at the mirror and gazed at my reflection. In the diffused light, that woman had dark hair and snowy skin. Her eyes were dark with emotion, as if asking me, 'Are you panicking?'
Panic? Maybe. But people like me who loved pretending had a characteristic; we became more bold in the face of covetous people. And if we feel disadvantaged, we'd instead give birth to a great courage.
Qiao Ti would have the same end as those five beauties.
When Wei Tan entered, I was still sitting at the table, combing my hair. Dressed in a single robe, he stopped behind me. In the mirror, I glimpsed his roving gaze. Before long, he stepped forward and picked me up in his arms.
Ever since I had injured my foot, I had gotten used to him lifting me. So when he hoisted me into the air now, I didn't get startled or scared. I held my comb and continued to comb my hair.
"You and I still haven't finished the matter from this morning, Furen. Why don't we continue now?" His lips pressed against my ear, his voice husky.
'Lecher', I slandered him in my heart, but smiled, "What unfinished matter do we have?"
He didn't reply. Instead, he just released me on the bed and pounced on me, kissing and stroking me. His bite tickled my neck, and I giggled. When he tried to undress me, I grasped his face between my two palms.
"You haven't put out the lights yet, Fujun."
"Put out the lamp?" His eyes were hungry, and the corners of his lips hooked. "For what?" Then he leaned down again.
My hands struggled to hold him steady: "How can you not put out the lamp at nighttime?"
"What nighttime?" He smiled slyly, "The day's unfinished business should naturally continue in the day." He tugged my hands aside and reached out to undo my clothes.
I disagreed, twisted my body, dodging left and right and not letting him have his way.
He had no choice but to brace his arms at my sides in a push-up: "Furen has seen me naked many times, what's the harm in me seeing you once?"
Embarrassed, I blurted, "When have I seen you naked, Fujun?!"
"Whenever I change my clothes," Wei Tan replied confidently, "Isn't Furen always staring?"
I choked at these words, and my ears burned.
"That's fine," his deep eyes stared at me, his expression contemplating seriously. He murmured, "I will show you again to refresh your memory, Furen. In exchange, you will show me too. Sounds fair?"
Even the hooligans in the markets weren't as shameless as him. Pushing back my frustration, I laughed, "Why don't you put out the lights first, Fujun? Both of us can be candid together. Isn't that fairer?"
He laughed and didn't press further. Instead, he hugged me and plopped beside me.
He nipped my ear, "You really don't want to see?"
"No," I replied firmly.
"Don't I look good?"
There he went again, with his sudden, inexplicable questions. I read a person's body language well. Sometimes Wei Tan won't become angry even if my words were offensive. For instance, he liked it if I wasn't as blindly considerate as usual, or exposed my temper a little.
"Don't look good," I opened my mouth, not even weighing my answer.
"Hmm?" He turned my face towards him: "What's not nice?"
I stared at him, "The dark face."
Wei Tan: "......"
He frowned, "Which crusader isn't dark?"
I stretched out a finger and stroked his eyebrows, "It's too thick here."
He objected, "That's inborn."
I blinked, "The eyes. They always like to stare at people."
He froze for a moment, before chuckling: "Can that also be unattractive?" As his fingers stroked my chin, he stared at my lips, "Are you scared, Furen?"
"What do you think, Fujun?" I whispered with a smile, watching his face get closer.
He stopped before he touched my lips, our warms breaths entwined and mingled. His deep voice seemed puzzled, "Then according to Furen, which part of me looks good?"
I smiled, saying nothing and staring at him. My hand deliberately reached out, caressing his chest. It followed the contours of the muscles, sliding down, inch by inch......
The rationality in his eyes smoldered out, the fire seeming to burn me. As my fingers streaked across his abdomen, his muscles suddenly tightened, and his lips smothered mine.
Our bodies intertwined, his powerful kisses overpowered me, disturbing my breathing. As I panted for breath, his hand roamed to the bottom of my clothes. I caught it: "You forgot one thing......"
He caught my hand back and continued without raising his head, his voice muffled: "Not putting out the lights."
"It's not putting out the lights......," I gasped and braced myself against his shoulders. My lips curved into a smile, "You wanted to show me something just now. Did you forget, Fujun?"
TN: So many "aunts, uncles and cousins" in this chapter! I know it can get confusing. (・_・ヾ
Should I change to using the original Chinese terms for relationships? They are much more nuanced than the simple English translations. Vote on this poll and I'll go with the style that the majority prefer. I'll have this poll open for the next week, so that I can implement the changes from next week.
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SANDY'S READ RECEIPTS
Beginning as an avid reader, I am translating novels with the help of machine translation and online dictionaries.
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