Sandy's Read Receipts
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The Emperor and the nobles led pampered lifestyles. Of course, they couldn’t venture into the mountains and woods like the hunters did. The so-called hunting was building an arena in the wild into which soldiers corralled beasts. Meanwhile, the Emperor and the nobles only needed to stand gracefully behind the fence and fire their arrows at the panic-stricken beasts.
Of course, the men from military backgrounds scorned such hunting. As those weak noblemen drew their bows, low boos emerged from a group of soldiers who were on guard nearby, led by Cheng Mao.
He noticed me too, but since I was sitting with the other noblewomen, it wouldn’t be proper for him to walk over here. He saluted me from where he stood.
“Is that Eldest Tang Xiong’s Deputy General? I remember his name is Cheng Mao.” Zhou-shi spoke up from beside me.
“Right. After Fujun and I got married, General Cheng escorted me to Yong Capital.”
She nodded and smiled, “Eldest Tang Xiong treats you very well, Tang Sao. I heard he dispatched a full 200 soldiers to escort you to the capital.”
I returned her smile, but didn’t reply.
As I watched the bustling arena, albeit distractedly, my mind was sorting out this morning’s events without rest.
Wei Ci’s interruption had been serendipitous because Wei Tan’s speech had stumped me.
He dragged me back from those woods and as soon as we sat, he talked non-stop about his relationship with Empress Xu. Finally, he added something about how long days are ahead, no need to hide my doubts, etc.
I didn’t care how genuine or fake the relationship between Wei Tan and Empress Xu was. Although he had told me a lot about his attitude towards her, what I needed to know were his next steps. If she wanted to see him again, would he still meet her? In the woods, he had warned her this was the “last time”. But I feared he himself wasn’t sure that he could be cruel enough to refuse her.
Uncle Qi had once told me, “Young love was sincere”. My heart smiled wryly. As the legitimate wife, I was trying to fathom my husband’s mood during his clandestine meeting with his old love. Was it because I too had Pei Qian, a person I had never forgotten?
The only good in this matter was Wei Tan’s initiative to explain it to me. It showed he was still willing to continue with me as a married couple, despite his coldness these days.
As for what he said about candor, I didn’t want it. But I had to admit that when I first heard his words, they had tempted me. Yet later, I felt confused.
We have probably already shown the utmost sincerity to each other in this marriage. But the word “candor” wasn’t fair to us. The wolf’s candor to the sheep was a benevolence, but the sheep’s candor to the wolf was seeking death, right?
After two rounds of archery ended, the soldiers dragged the dead and wounded beasts away from the arena. The drum roll resumed, announcing the start of a new bout.
“Who’s that guy?” Mao-shi pointed to a few people near the arena ready to fire their arrows. “That green robe and armor. I’ve never seen him. How can he stand with the Imperial family?”
The tall man, towering over seven feet high, seemed very familiar to me.
“That’s Liang Ren.” Zhou-shi replied, “I heard he is the sixth son of Emperor Wen, Prince He Jian. He joined the Prime Minister during the campaign against Tan Xi. According to seniority, the Emperor calls him ‘Imperial Uncle’.”
“Prince He Jian of Emperor Wen’s time?” Mao-shi sneered, “That was two or three hundred years ago. His Majesty and this ‘Imperial Uncle’ are so far apart.”
“Don’t underestimate him.” Zhou-shi replied, “Because a few acres of barren land weren’t enough to support his destitute family, he learned to weave mats from others and mixed in with the markets. When the Yellow Turban Army rebelled, he gathered villagers to kill the bandits and guard the city. He got elected as an Assistant County Magistrate. Later, when He Kui rebelled, he defected to Dong Kuang. When Dong Kuang lost, he defected to Liaodong’s Lu Kang. When Tan Clan’s army retreated North, and Tan Xi’s second son, Tan Yao sought refuge in the Liaodong Peninsula, Liang Ren instigated Lu Kang to kill Tan Yao. The Prime Minister then endorsed him as the Governor of Jiaozhou.”
Shocked speechless, Mao-shi stammered, “So, this person has been throwing himself around everywhere.” She paused and stared at Zhou-shi ambiguously, “Tang Shu is good to you. He tells you so much.”
Zhou-shi blushed, but she didn’t hide her glee: “How much can he say? Still, I’m not good at asking.”
When Wei Tan, Wei Zhao, and a few others stepped onto the field, the soldiers burst into loud cheers. As Wei Tan stood in the lead, he tested his bowstring. Just then, he peered towards us.
From afar, his gaze seemed to linger on me, but he soon turned his head away.
“Huh? Who is Eldest Tang Xiong looking at?” Zhou-shi covered her expression with her sleeves, glanced at me with a smile twinkling in the corner of her eyes.
“I don’t know,” Mao-shi chimed in, letting out a light chuckle.
I played deaf and mute, but unconsciously looked towards the Emperor. He was only 30 or 40 feet away, clad in a hunting outfit and a fur coat. Beside him, Empress Xu stood immobile as she stared at the arena, her face caked with layers of powder.
Below them, Wei Jue wore a large cloak and a spirited expression, his stout physique full of momentum.
The wild beasts stampeded into the middle of the arena. At the Master of Archery Affairs’ call, arrows swished off their strings, felling every beast without a single missed shot.
The sound of applause thundered. Wei Tan smiled and said something to Wei Zhao and Wei Ci, looking relaxed.
Both the Emperor and Empress Xu looked impassive.
Wei Jue stroked his beard with a smile.
The Winter Hunt’s most solemn moment finally arrived when the Emperor shrugged off his fur coat and took a golden arrow from the Gentleman at the Yellow Gates. Drumroll rose and a snow-white wolf streaked into the arena.
The crowd broke into excited chatters.
White wolves were a rare breed and the exclusive prey of kings since ancient times. Once upon a time in Chang’an, the Imperial palace housed a special enclosure to breed white wolves for kings to hunt. After Chang’an’s destruction, these beasts became hard to track, and the Emperor could only hunt stags instead.
As many on this field were seeing the legendary white wolf for the first time, they craned their heads, struggling to catch a glimpse.
As the Emperor drew his bow and arrow, he looked solemn. Yet, his arm lacked the strength to handle the unique, large bow, and I spotted his hand trembling a little.
The crowd hushed and stared at the Emperor as he aimed. In an instant, a twang sounded as the arrow left its string. It flew for a stretch before landing in the field, while the white wolf continued to run around unharmed.
The expressions of the spectators turned subtle, and many of them shared glances in tacit agreement.
His expression somewhat awkward, the Emperor quickly calmed himself and accepted the second arrow from the Gentleman at the Yellow Gates.
Just then, Wei Jue drawled, “Your Majesty, this bow seems defective. Please let me have a look.”
The Emperor stared at him, apparently weighing for a moment. He then easily replied, “Thank you for your trouble, Prime Minister,” and handed over the bow.
Wei Jue took the bow, plucked the string, and tugged it a few times. Without warning, he drew an arrow from a quiver, nocked it on the bow, and pulled the string to aim.
A “whoosh” split the air, and before the crowd could react, the arrow left its string, piercing through the white wolf’s head. The wolf collapsed, and its crimson blood pooled on the ground, stark against the snow.
In the sudden silence, the merry crowd’s faces had frozen stiff.
“Master of Archery Affairs, why aren’t you calling the capture?” Wei Jue faced the audience and took it upon himself to ask.
The stiff Master of Archery Affairs’ pale mien changed. He hastily called, “Reporting to the Prime Minister, first kill.”
Wei Jue smiled calmly, turned towards the taut-faced Emperor, and handed him the bow. “This official tested it once, and this bow is fine.”
The Emperor stared at him as his face paled with undisguised shame and anger. His right hand clutched the hilt of his sword.
My heart tightened. Just when I worried he wouldn’t be able to restrain his rage and draw his sword, a hand took the bow from Wei Jue.
“Thank you, Prime Minister.” Empress Xu’s voice was mellow, and she gazed at the Emperor.
His expression overcast and indistinct, the Emperor faced Empress Xu for a moment before reaching out to take the bow from her.
I sensed the crowd’s relief. As the Emperor and Wei Jue both returned to their stations, I opened my clenched palms and found them wet with a clammy sweat.
Everything happened so fast that when the two-day Winter Hunt finally ended, everyone’s faces carried unspoken relief.
As we returned to the Residence, Zhou-shi, Mao-shi, and I sat in silence, contrasting to the earlier cheerful chatter.
Unable to endure further, Mao-shi stared at us and hesitated, “The Prime Minister’s arrow......”
“Shh!” Zhou-shi rushed to stop her. She shook her head and gestured towards outside the carriage.
I studied the fluttering carriage curtains, silently recalling the olden days.
After my father and elder brothers were executed, Empress Dowager Liu gave me asylum. Yet, like a zombie locked in my chambers, I only muddled through the days. The only person who visited me, apart from Empress Dowager Liu, was Prince Chen.
Back then, I considered everyone in the royal family a nightmare, full of fear and hatred. Prince Chen was no exception.
I only saw him as an enemy. So much so that when he once handed me a pastry, I grabbed his hand and bit hard. It must have pained him a lot, as he began bleeding. But he didn’t say a word, nor did he tell the Empress Dowager. The next day, he still brought me rice cakes.
I recalled his gaze, and the calmness on his face that didn’t match his age. He said, “You miss your parents, don’t you? I miss my mother too. But if you die, you can’t even miss them.”
I didn’t know if his words reminded me of my father’s instructions before he died or if I understood he was not my real enemy. But I never confronted him again. We were fellow sufferers empathizing with each other. Without him, I wasn’t sure I could have passed those painful days.
The memory of the young and kind Prince Chen overlapped with today’s pale Emperor, and I sighed heavily in my heart.
Indeed, when it rains, it pours. Crashing Wei Tan and Empress Xu’s meeting earlier had just left me confused. But the events in that arena terrified me. I didn’t dare imagine how things would have ended if the Emperor had drawn his sword at the scene.
I had to hand it to Empress Xu. She displayed her intelligence in today’s incident. In that strained stand-off, she took the initiative to step forward and ease the tension. It showed her importance to both the Emperor and Wei Jue.
Meanwhile, I, on one side had an old friend my father had died to support. The other was my husband's family under whose roof I lodged. If the day arrived when they warred, what should I do?
As I sat preoccupied with these worries, a sudden burst of hoofbeats broke my trance. Before long, the carriage came to a screeching halt, knocking Zhou-shi, Mao-shi, and I askew.
I was about to ask what happened when Wei Tan’s voice rang out: “Is Furen in the carriage?”
The coachman replied, “Reporting to the Eldest Young Master, Furen is inside the carriage.”
I froze. Zhou-shi and Mao-shi both looked surprised, and after a moment, they shared a smile.
A corner of the carriage curtains lifted open, and indeed, Wei Tan was outside, his face flushed with the north wind, and his breath condensing white.
Zhou-shi teased ambiguously, “Why are you so impatient, Eldest Tang Xiong? We haven’t reached the Residence yet.”
Wei Tan smiled, “I’m only stopping for a moment.” As he spoke, he directed his gaze towards me, “I’m setting off to Chang’an at once. Do you want to join me, Furen?”
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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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