Sandy's Read Receipts
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This early morning, a dense fog shrouded the forest, gloomy and obscure. As I leaned my back against the tree, motionless, those two people’s words rang crystal clear.
“...... If your Tang Mei enters the palace, she has the Wei Clan backing her. Even I need to yield to her.” Empress Xu’s soft and choked voice held none of her usual aloof aura, “Meng Jing, the Prime Minister already owns half the world. Why does he covet even this tiny square inch of the Imperial harem?”
“This is my father’s decision, I cannot interfere.”
“He did it on purpose, didn’t he?” Empress Xu stopped her low sobs, “He always harbored a grudge against my father for withdrawing from the marriage. First, making me marry the Emperor, and now, subjecting me to this insult......”
“I’ll say it again.” Wei Tan interrupted her, his voice calm, “The matter of my Tang Mei entering the palace is not up to me alone. If you are anxious about your safety, you should not send me letters again, asking me to meet you. You are already a married woman. If you run into someone, no one can save you.”
“Oh? But you still came.” Wei Tan’s words didn’t convince Empress Xu, “Why?”
“It’s up to you to listen.” He didn’t explain, instead, he added, “This is the last time I meet you. There won’t be a next time.” The sound of footsteps started.
“You feel guilty, don’t you?” Empress Xu’s voice regained its composure.
The footsteps stopped.
“Although you and I have met only a handful of times, you still come every time I call you.” Her tone was light and sharp, “You know your father will attack the Emperor, eventually. By then, I can’t escape either. You feel guilty, so you still meet me.”
Wei Tan didn’t reply.
The woods were so eerily quiet that for a second I believed they had vanished.
“Are you like this with her also?” Empress Xu’s words slowed, and a laugh escaped, “Does she know what those poppies I sent mean?”
Something struck my heart.
“She doesn’t. She doesn’t need to, either.”
“Oh? That’s right, she has Pei Qian.”
“That’s enough!” Wei Tan barked out, “You are the Empress now. Back then......”
A “crack” interrupted the two people’s words.
I stared at the swaying branch. I had just tried to creep away, but a branch caught my clothes. The loud crash alarmed the two, and I clutched my sore arm that had rammed into the branch, groaning inwardly.
Should I run? I asked myself, but when the approaching footsteps sounded fewer than ten feet away, I realized I couldn’t run.
“Who is it?” Wei Tan’s guarded voice sounded from behind the tree.
I inhaled a deep breath and stepped out after straightening my clothes.
When I faced the two people, their surprised expressions were what I expected.
Wei Tan stood rooted, his expression unrecognizable as he stared at me.
Empress Xu’s eyes widened, but she tucked away her surprise and replaced it with a mocking smile. She gazed at Wei Tan: “You said I might run into someone and indeed, someone came. Huh, what a coincidence.”
He didn’t reply, but stepped forward and walked over to me.
I couldn’t help but recoil, but he tugged my hand.
“Go.” He said, leading me in the direction we had come.
“Meng Jing!” Empress Xu’s countenance darkened.
“Go back.” He swept away the oncoming branches, not even glancing back.
On the horizon, the bright red sun peeked its head out of the clouds, tinting the forest fog a faint golden color. Wei Tan pulled me along the uneven path, and we walked much faster than when I came.
As Wei Tan’s hand clenched mine, no one spoke. The winter wind cooled my ears, which had been burning hot from embarrassment.
The walk, which had seemed endless earlier, shortened on our way back. We soon got out onto the road, surprising a squad of soldiers on patrol.
Wei Tan didn’t speak as they bowed, leading me back to the tent.
“Eldest Young Master,” the attendant at the tent saw him and walked over, “The Prime Minister dispatched someone......”
“Say that I am not here.” He interrupted faintly, “Tell that to whoever comes looking for me today.” He lifted open the tent flap.
A’Yuan, who had already risen, grew surprised when we entered: “Eldest Young Master, Furen......”
The startled A’Yuan blindly agreed before staring at me and striding away.
After the tent emptied, Wei Tan kept tugging me to sit on the couch before finally releasing me. The momentum and the strength of his hand sent me keeling backward, and I braced myself upright again. He used his foot to shift a bedside stool closer, sinking down till he sat at my eye level.
Seeing him still worked up, I tried to explain first: “I did not mean to eavesdrop. Earlier, I went outside of the tent when I heard you. To my surprise, you had already left. I followed you all the way and bumped into you there.” After some contemplation, I added: “I heard nothing.”
He stared at me, saying nothing.
In the silence, the sounds of the soldiers talking outside seeped into the tent.
Wei Tan finally spoke, “Is this an explanation or an apology?”
I deliberated for a moment and answered, “Apology.”
“Is that so? That’s straightforward.”
“Everything I said is true.”
He did not continue speaking and peered at my arm, “Did you get hit by a branch?”
I froze before nodding, “How did you know, Fujun?”
“You covered it with your hand just now.” He probed the leather pouch at his waist and fished out a small porcelain bottle, “Stretch it out and apply the medicine.”
“No need. It doesn’t hurt.”
My tone must have been firm because he didn’t insist, and the hand holding the porcelain vial froze midair before retreating.
“Do you have questions about what just happened, Furen?”
Was this another trap? I hesitated.
“Then I will speak.” Without waiting for my answer, he said, “The Empress and I were once engaged. The engagement fell through in less than a year.”
My heart clenched at these words that came out of nowhere. Although I had long known of their past engagement, hearing it from his own mouth was different.
“Hmm.” Uncertain how to answer, I just responded perfunctorily.
“Our two families always had contact because our grandfathers were old friends. When my father faced some troubles as an official in Luoyang, Minister Steward Xu helped him from Changan. Later, when my family moved to Changan, the first family we contacted was the Xu Clan. I met Xu Ping then. Our grandfathers intended us to marry, but Minister Steward Xu wasn’t happy. My father knew her family’s thoughts and did not publicize the engagement. Within a year, Minister Steward Xu claimed Xu Ping had a disease and that the fortune-teller had warned she should not marry early. He visited our house himself and withdrew from the marriage.”
“After the betrothal, I joined the Feathered Forest unit. Because of its strict military discipline, Xu Ping and I didn’t meet each other for six months. When I finally got free and returned home, I learned about the withdrawal of the marriage.” Wei Tan smiled self-deprecatingly, “Back then I was so angry for not knowing why. I wanted to visit the Xu Mansion to ask for an explanation, but my father locked me away. In less than two months, I heard the Late Emperor was choosing an Imperial concubine for Prince Zhen, and Xu Ping was on the roster. You know what happened later. My father forged ahead to Yong Province with the Emperor, and a hundred things were waiting to be done. Minister Steward Xu was among the hundred Changan officials who followed us. After a year, the Ministry of Ceremonies submitted a memorial asking the Emperor to establish an Empress. The Emperor chose an Imperial concubine from among the hundred official families. Minister Steward Xu sent Xu Ping to the palace, and she soon became Empress.”
As I listened to these words without saying a word, my mind spun like a wheel.
Prince Zhen was Empress Bian’s son, and back then, she was in favor. It was obvious Minister Steward Xu planned to withdraw from the marriage and send Xu Ping for the Imperial concubine selection. I recalled that Wei Jue was just a Cavalry Commandant, while Minister Steward Xu was one of the Nine Ministers; it made sense he disregarded Wei Jue.
“...... He did it on purpose, didn’t he......” I recalled Empress Xu’s question to Wei Tan in the woods.
Her words made sense. The Emperor was already a puppet, and the so-called Empress establishment was a method to pair two puppets together. Wei Jue had dealt with the Xu Clan for many years and understood them inside out, so it was ideal to make Xu Ping the Empress. But in case of any trouble in the future, Xu Ping and Minister Steward Xu’s family couldn’t escape.
Wei Jue’s scheming face appeared before me, and a chill ran down my spine.
“Two years ago, the Empress became pregnant.” Wei Tan continued, “But last spring, she had a miscarriage after only four months. After that, she was always suspicious someone was trying to harm her. Disturbed, she sent me a secret letter, begging me to save her life for old friendship’s sake. As I was mostly away on expeditions, it wasn’t convenient for me to reply. When I returned to Yong Capital, she sneaked out of the palace to meet me, like today. This meeting was the fifth time.” He stared at me, “This is everything that happened between me and Empress Xu. Except for the matter of her meeting me, Zi Xian knows the rest. You can ask him, Furen.”
This sounded like a child’s pledge. Although Wei Ci was not an old schemer, he was still a sly one. He was Wei Tan’s close friend, and I wouldn’t ask him to verify this.
“Well.” I nodded.
“One more thing. She likes poppies. During the betrothal, she had this flower pinned in her hair.”
Surprised, I asked, “Poppies?”
He nodded: “After the betrothal, she gifted me a handkerchief embroidered with poppies. It was the only thing left, stored in the sideroom’s clothes trunk.”
I felt choked for a moment. By these words, he was telling me both openly and covertly that he knew I had seen the silk handkerchief. What those poppies in the courtyard meant was no longer a secret either.
“Furen.” Wei Tan gazed into my eyes, “You and I are already a married couple, and we have long days ahead of us. I am speaking frankly today, and I will do the same in the future. If you have any doubts, you don’t have to hide them.”
I stared at him, and my heart felt like something had scratched it.
“Eldest Tang Xiong!” I was about to open my mouth when Wei Ci suddenly called from outside the tent, gasping and excited, “Come out quick, Tang Xiong! The Hunt is starting! I saw them bring in a white wolf from Mount Zhongnan!”
TN: I got this chapter out sooner because I hated last chapter's cliffhanger lol + its a slower week at office. I love reading everybody's analyses in the comments - I hope this chapter cleared up some of your doubts about Wei Tan and Empress Xu's past relationship (Just like Wei Tan was clearing it up for Fu Jin ( ^^)Y)
PS: Wei Jue scares me (>_<)
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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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