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A vague uneasiness stirred in my heart at Wei Tan’s odd expression.
Just then, A’Yuan led in a few servants carrying hot water: “Eldest Young Master, Furen......”
“Get out!” Wei Tan twisted his head and shouted at the crowd, shocking them.
A’Yuan gave me a nervous stare before hurrying out the door with the rest.
Wei Tan and I were alone once more.
As I stood in front of the clothes rack, my surroundings froze, leaving only my heart pounding “thump thump”. Anger and suspicion both rose within me, but I didn’t know which I should voice.
Wei Tan’s rage didn’t detonate as I assumed. Under the candlelight, only his complexion fluctuated. He shifted his head sideways and inhaled a deep breath.
“Come in,” he called outside, his voice had regained its composure.
The door inched open, and A’Yuan led the servants inside, nimbly placing the water by the bed.
“No need to serve,” Wei Tan told them after they finished filling the water.
A’Yuan shot me another worried stare and retreated with everyone else.
“Bathe your feet.” Wei Tan glanced at me before sitting on the couch.
Though I was nervous, I didn’t dare to be slow. An instant later, I stepped forward.
With only one basin, I had to squeeze together with him. I felt awkward and afraid that my actions might touch his reverse scales again, and I couldn’t help but edge away.
He didn’t wait for me to help him take off his socks. He bent over and untied his laces in two or three sharp tugs, and threw the socks aside.
This saved me the trouble of checking. (TN: I don’t know if the author meant checking Wei Tan’s mood or checking the water’s temperature. Knowing Fu Jin, it could be anything (＾▽＾)) I took off my stockings too and dipped my feet into the basin.
Neither of us spoke, and only the warm water’s splashes sounded.
“I don’t know about Concubine Xu’s pregnancy either.” Wei Tan blurted out, “She was my mother’s servant, and I have known her since childhood. When I traveled to Luoyang once, she cried to me about the pain of living alone. My father was rebuilding Luoyang’s barracks back then. When Zhong Ming (TN: Wei Zhao’s courtesy name) was in Jizhou, I asked him to drop by Luoyang to check its construction.”
I didn’t respond.
He continued, “When you and I were still in Huainan, he traveled to Luoyang to supervise the army. Now that she is three months pregnant, I guess it was then.”
His words surprised me, and my earlier points of doubts merged into lines.
I understood Concubine Xu’s circumstances in Luoyang. Although well-clothed and fed, she was just a caged bird. The servants in that Residence served her well, but she needed to coordinate her every action with the Steward. She had no one to call on privately, let alone send a grievance letter to Wei Zhao.
If I were her, I’d be ecstatic to be pregnant. But why didn’t she announce it? As I backtracked the days, it occurred to me that it might have been because of my arrival in Luoyang.
Although Wei Tan and Wei Zhao were brothers, even outsiders gossiped about the subtleties between the two, not to mention Concubine Xu. With pregnancy as her only hope to return to Wei Zhao, she trusted no one and was cautious, more so with me.
Crying to Wei Tan was a crucial step. She didn’t confess to him, instead used their old friendship to induce his pity and help her meet Wei Zhao.
Her deep schemes showed her cleverness. If it were me, I feared I couldn’t do it.
Because she used Wei Tan’s good intentions as a stepping stone, he had nowhere to vent his bellyful of fire, and I became the scapegoat?
Yet I said nothing and just stared into the basin. Under the dim and quiet candlelight, four feet soaked in water, two small and delicate, two large-boned. I teased the water with my toes, rubbing one foot with the other. The large foot beside mine shot out and pinned both of my feet.
“Do you have any more questions?”
Since my heart had long steadied, I smiled: “I have nothing else to ask.”
Wei Tan gazed at me, his eyes a deep dark.
“To you, I am simply a Fujun, right?”
I wanted to check what filled this man’s skull. If my sincere efforts to treat you as my Fujun didn’t satisfy you, could it be that you want to be my father so that I should show you filial piety?
I didn’t stop smiling: “Fujun, you treat me with deep love and righteousness, and I cannot repay even one ten-thousandth of it. To me, Fujun means more than just the two syllables.”
“So be it.” He whispered, nodded, and turned away.
That night, he did not embrace me as usual.
I turned my back to him and was about to fall asleep when he rolled over, seemingly restless. I wanted to ask him what happened. But if I did, wouldn’t I be admitting to him I was feeling too guilty to sleep?
‘Forget it, go to sleep.’ I told myself, keeping my eyes closed.
Indeed, snow fell, one spell after another.
In the past, to boost the courtiers’ morale, watch out for winter hardships, and never forget the war prep, the former emperors hosted a Winter Hunt each year before midwinter. But, since the chaos caused by He Kui, the Emperor could not even protect himself, let alone celebrate the yearly festivals. Now that Wei Jue had returned victorious, he was in high spirits. He submitted a memorial to the Emperor, asking to reopen the Winter Hunt.
The Emperor had no reason to disagree. One day when the sky cleared and snow receded, the Emperor, his ministers, and nobles set off on a parade to Yong Capital’s outskirts, camping below Mount Mang.
The Winter Hunt allowed families to join, but the older Madam Guo disliked such noisy places, so she stayed back in the mansion. After I boarded the carriage with Zhou-shi and Mao-shi, the soldiers escorted us to the camp.
“The Winter Hunt!” On the road, Mao-shi exclaimed, “My grandfather was an Army Major, and he told me that the Emperor’s Winter Hunt is livelier than the New Year.”
Zhou-shi laughed, “My husband even said he would hunt a deer for me.” She faced me, “Tang Sao, have you seen Eldest Tang Xiong hunting? I heard he is an excellent archer.”
I shook my head and smiled, “I have never seen it.”
Forget Wei Tan’s hunting, I barely even saw his face these days. He was busier than usual, with either winter hunting, or urging the soldiers to use the slack season in farming to train. Sometimes I fell asleep without seeing him. When I woke up, the empty bedding beside me had signs of someone reclining on it.
It was hard for me to ignore that night’s complex knots. Yet, what could I do? I had done my best, and if Wei Tan still felt unsatisfied, I had nothing more to say.
Whiteness blanketed the vast mountains, snow, and icicles covering the leafless trees. From afar, the bare branches appeared especially bleak in the winter light.
Neat lines of tents surrounded the Imperial hunting grounds. The soldiers shuttled back and forth amidst the bustling carriages and horses. Used to hibernating in their heated homes, the noblemen rubbed their hands together, covered in thick furs. They grumbled over the weather and greeted each other. In contrast, those used to expeditions were more spirited, bearing swords and bows, and galloping on horses.
As the Hunt lasted two days, Zhou-shi, Mao-shi, and I had to stay overnight in the wilderness. But we had the comfort of warm tents and a nearby pavilion, built by the former Prince Yong was available for tea meetings and enjoying the snow during breaks.
When I arrived, I once saw Wei Tan from afar. He was riding a horse along with Wei Ci and Wei Lang, discussing something. But as people and carriages drifted along, he soon disappeared again.
I also saw the Emperor and Empress Xu. As a member of Wei Clan’s womenfolk, I went to greet the Emperor. He was in a good mood. His sturdy suit and long sword added a heroic spirit to his otherwise gentle mien. Empress Xu wore a silver mink fur with her hair combed into a high bun hairstyle. When she saw me, she smiled faintly and said a few words about Madam Guo’s health.
On the first day, the hunters practiced riding their horses. With nothing to do, the noblewomen and I sat in Empress Xu’s tent. Of the 30 women joining this Winter Hunt, most were young like me. Among them, two or three were from Empress Xu’s maternal family. Although they didn’t marry into families with the noblest status, they could talk with Empress Xu in this tent, and thus unlikely to receive cold shoulders.
After the first greeting, Empress Xu and I never spoke again. She sat in the head seat, talking with those around her, and I sat below with Zhou-shi and Mao-shi for company, not lonely too. As I rested and drank tea on my end, I heard their end sharing various anecdotes of the former encircling hunts of Changan.
“...... I remember the Late Emperor set up hunting grounds on Mount Zhongnan where every noble young master of the capital hunted with arrows. After the prey entered the arena, everyone released their arrows. But only Young Master Ji Yuan didn’t release his. When the Late Emperor summoned him for questioning, he replied, ‘I can’t bear to take a life that is the Heavens’ benevolence.’”
Taken aback, I shot a glance towards them. One of Empress Xu’s sisters was speaking.
“I too remember that.” Another person beside her laughed, “The Late Emperor even praised Young Master Ji Yuan for his benevolence and rewarded him with gold and silk.”
I mentally shook my head. Naive woman. Back then, Pei Qian had sprained his wrist when wrestling with my Second Brother. But people always somehow showed leniency for a handsome man with a famous reputation. Even the Late Emperor believed such nonsense.
But in the end, Pei Qian was Pei Qian. After bringing his name up, these married women became visibly excited and reminisced about that year.
“A pity that the chaos of war ensued later. I wonder where Young Master Ji Yuan is now?”
“I heard he is in Huaiyang?”
“Huaiyang? What is he doing there?”
“I don’t know.”
“It’s natural you don’t.” Another voice laughed, “But Madam Fu must.”
Surprised, I turned my head around.
Beside Empress Xu, a young woman stared at me with a provocative smile. Many faces, including hers, seemed familiar. But I couldn’t pinpoint them. They either shared winks or gazed at me meaningfully, like the young woman.
Empress Xu sipped her tea, apparently not hearing anything.
Zhou-shi and Mao-shi’s colors dimmed, but I looked at them, calm and unruffled.
This wasn’t new. Because of that disastrous relationship with the Homme Fatale Pei Qian, I was used to dealing with many rude strangers in Changan.
“What did you ask, Madam?” Neither slow nor rushed, I continued, “If you’re asking about Huaiyang, my knowledge is shallow and I know little. If you’re asking about Young Master Ji Yuan, your Residence also houses court officials. If you want to know, why don’t you return home and ask?”
The young woman’s eyebrows twitched like she had more to say. But Empress Xu smiled and spoke: “Though Madam Fu lives in Prime Minister Wei Jue’s mansion, she is deep in the inner Residence. How would she know of outside matters? Not only Young Master Ji Yuan, only a few famous families are also remaining from past Changan. Luckily, the Emperor has set the capital in Yong Province, reuniting people’s hearts, so that we can regain prosperity again someday.”
Her words relieved everyone. They smiled and praised, talking about how blessed they were.
Various gazes still cast towards me, but I didn’t bother. I just refilled my tea and sipped a few mouthfuls. When I raised my eyes inadvertently, I caught Empress Xu’s gaze. She was drinking tea too, but after a moment, she averted her eyes.
When we exited the tent, the sun had sunk west.
The soldiers held torches and patrolled among the tents. In the distance, someone had returned from hunting and was roasting meat on the campfire and drinking wine.
In the end, the earlier dialogue in the tent had been awkward. Zhou-shi’s and Mao-shi’s faces held a deliberate avoidance. I didn’t plan to explain, and just acted as if nothing happened, chatting along the way and returning to my tent.
At first, I believed Wei Tan would return to rest that night. But a soldier reported he had gone to the military camps tonight and would return to the hunting grounds tomorrow. Somewhat expecting these words, I was unsurprised. After washing up and warming myself with another footbath, I laid down and rested.
I might have slept early because I woke up to a black sky the next day.
The charcoal fire had burned all night, the smoke making the inside of the tent suffocating. I didn’t want to disturb the sleeping A’Yuan or return to sleep either. I dressed quietly, intending to venture out for fresh air.
“Eldest Young Master.” A voice sounded outside just as I was about to lift open the thick fur curtain.
“Is Furen not up yet?” The whispering voice was Wei Tan’s.
“Furen isn’t up yet...... Won’t you enter, Eldest Young Master?”
After a moment, the outside quietened again.
I hesitated, wondering whether I should go out when I recalled yesterday’s events. I cursed inwardly, ‘If I hesitated again, and can’t hold on to my husband anymore, wouldn’t I be allowing that flock of women to see a joke for nothing?!’
My heart raced, and I tore open the tent flap.
A gust of wind greeted me. Not much, but it made me jerk.
When the two soldiers warming their hands at the campfire near the front flap saw me, they both looked surprised.
“Furen.” They bowed.
“Where is the Eldest Young Master?” I searched around but found no sign of Wei Tan.
“He just left.”
“Which way did he go?”
One soldier pointed in the direction: “That way.”
I nodded, and without saying another word, I went after him.
It had barely dawned. Other than the patrolling soldiers, nobody loitered on the road. Yesterday’s trampling had discolored the snow on the ground indistinguishable. I picked up my pace the further I walked, and after a long time, I finally caught sight of Wei Tan’s silhouette. Just as I meant to call out to him, he spun around a corner and entered the woods.
I scrambled after him.
A circle of orange appeared on the horizon, and the trees loomed tall with their bare branches intertwining. The woods weren’t dense, but unmarked snow concealed any forest roads. Only one set of footprints remained stark, one after another, tracking forward.
What was he doing here, so early at dawn, with nobody around? Doubt arose in my heart, heavier and heavier. The silent woods seemed to tell me that a secret hid within them. I put away the thought of shouting for Wei Tan and carefully followed his footsteps, tiptoeing forward.
The thin branches of the trees scraped me occasionally, and I brushed them away as I tiptoed around the corner, afraid of making a noise. The footprints extended all the way. After a quarter of an hour, fragments of sobbing sounds rang through the air. Soon, beyond some undergrowth, two figures appeared before my eyes.
My heart jolted, and I ducked behind a large tree.
It was a man and a woman. Without doubt, the man was Wei Tan. The woman wore a working maid’s plain clothes. Yet, it was impossible for me to not recognize her - it was Empress Xu.
PS: A big thank you to all the readers for your support, comments, and donations! Please hang on to this cliff while I work on the next chapter :p
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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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