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He never sounded sincere when he spoke to me so ceremonially. Unwilling to bicker with him, I asked in surprise, "When did Fujun return?"
"I just arrived," Wei Tan replied, his brow somewhat furrowed with weariness.
I glanced at the hourglass, and it was just past midnight.
"Why didn't Fujun send a letter beforehand?" I got up, draping a coat over my shoulders.
"I was in a hurry, and I didn't have time to send someone." He poked the candle's wick, and a sudden light brightened the room. He stood up and walked to the front of the clothes rack to hang his coat.
Because I slept alone in this room and didn't care about my appearance, my hair and clothes were in disarray. As he stood in front of the rack, I wondered, "When a husband returns in the middle of the night, shouldn't a virtuous wife offer to serve him at once?"
"No need to get up, Furen. I am going to take a bath." As I hesitated, he spoke up like he had eyes at his back.
My heart relaxed, but I still had to keep appearances: "Well...... Fujun, did you eat on the road? Why don't I instruct the kitchen to make some soup?"
"No need." He wore a single-lined garment and looked at me, "Furen should sleep." With that, he walked out and spoke to the Steward.
I sat, took off my coat and lay down on the bed.
Exhausted after being woken up mid-sleep, I was glad I didn't need to do anything...... I closed my eyes.
I just wanted to take a quick nap while waiting for Wei Tan to return before resuming my attentive act. Unexpectedly, I fell asleep as soon as my head touched the pillow. When I opened my eyes, it was already morning.
I wanted to stretch when suddenly; I realized Wei Tan was lying beside me, sleeping deeply.
My outstretched arms and legs froze stiff. I carefully retracted them, moving my body away a little. After Huaiyang, we had agreed to continue as a married couple. But with the rushed journey and the wars, we didn't sleep together for many nights. I was still not quite used to sleeping with him.
A little distance away, the faint light entering through the window highlighted Wei Tan's face's profile.
As I quietly gazed at him, I suddenly found this angle very fresh. With his back to the light, shadows hid his eyebrows, his nose as straight as a mountain peak. Further down, his lips and chin were elegant, and the Adam's apple at his neck......
He moved, and I froze, closing my eyes at once.
The bed shook slightly, and I sensed Wei Tan rolling over. That breath...... he seemed to have turned towards me.
My heart clenched, and I tried harder to fake sleep.
I couldn't figure out if he had rolled over in his dream or really awake. I wanted to open my eyes to check when he shifted again.
That was close......
Before long, a hand reached over, wrapping around my waist.
A burst of goosebumps prickled my skin.
The hand was restless, gliding up my back from my waist and stroking my hair. Finally, it stopped at my nose, suddenly pinching it close.
Unable to breathe or pretend anymore, I opened my eyes.
"Furen is awake?" Wei Tan released his hand, his smile lazy in the morning light.
I touched my nose, embarrassed and annoyed that he had tricked me again. But I still needed to pretend I had just awakened. I asked with surprise, "Why did Fujun wake up so early?"
"People who travel aren't used to sleeping lazily," he stretched his back, and I heard his joints popping as he cracked his fingers. He glanced at me, "I woke up at dawn, and never slept after that."
The embarrassment on my face intensified, and I glared at him.
Yet, he ignored me, and the corners of his mouth curved in triumph as he got up from the bed. He walked to the clothes rack and took off his nightwear, his naked upper body covered with a delicate sheen in the morning light.
I tried to avert my eyes because my wet-nurse had warned me not to look at anything improper, but I couldn't help staring again. This wasn't improper, I convinced myself; I was married to him......
Wei Tan picked out a few pieces of clothing from the rack, considering what to wear. I watched his back muscles ripple as his hands moved up and down, strong but not knotted, tight and smooth. If we did the married couple's deed, I wouldn't be losing......
"Does it look good?" Wei Tan asked abruptly.
I itched to spin his face and check if he had a mirror to spot peeping eyes.
"What looks good?" I asked rhetorically, meekly admitting that I was a fool.
He shrugged on a fine linen singlet, tied the belt and spun around.
"I meant these new clothes," he smiled.
"Fujun looks exquisite wearing these linen clothes," I climbed along the pole and nodded sincerely.
Though Luoyang was under the Imperial Court in name, everyone understood that the Imperial Court was under the Wei Clan.
When Wei Tan and I were having breakfast in the main hall, a messenger arrived with an invitation. Zhou Kang, the Governor of Luoyang, was hosting a banquet this evening to welcome Wei Tan after his long travel.
Wei Tan took the invitation, giving his consent to the messenger.
I finished the congee in the bowl, wiped the corner of my mouth with a napkin, and asked him: "Fujun originally said we would return to Yong Capital, I wonder when we will leave?"
"No hurry. I need to stay in Luoyang for a few days."
"So it is."
Yet, he looked at me, a question in his gaze.
"Fujun has something to say?"
"Nothing to say," he withdrew his gaze and bowed his head to eat his congee.
After breakfast, Cheng Mao arrived and informed that all was ready to go out.
"I'm going to the city walls to inspect the city defense," Wei Tan told me.
"Elder Brother, I'll go too." Wei An, engrossed with his food until then, finally spoke.
Wei Tan agreed, but looked at me.
Not interested in city defense even one bit, I smiled at him virtuously, "Allow me to serve Fujun to change his clothes."
Wei Tan wasn't as fastidious as those Chang An dandies who spend half a day choosing a leather belt. It was easy to help him change his clothes; I just needed to choose a thick robe from the chest that didn't seem old.
After he put the robe on, I straightened it for him, and then tied the sash. He was much taller than me, so I raised my arm, tugged the cloth near his chest and tied it again.
No one spoke, and as I raised my eyes, Wei Tan stared at me.
"Is this robe too small?" I gazed at his shoulders and chest which filled out the robe without a trace of wrinkles, recalling the scene in the morning light.
"It's not small," he replied, "it's just right."
I let out a "hmm" before moving to fetch his leather belt.
"Wu Zhang died of an illness, passing the throne to his younger brother Wu Kun."
I froze and raised my head. Wei Tan stared at me: "Ji Yuan and Wu Kun are good friends. After Wu Kun succeeded to the throne, he appointed him as the Protector of the Army."
He said these words so suddenly that I nodded blankly and wrapped the leather belt around his waist.
"That's all I know," he added. "If Furen has something to ask, speak plainly."
I stared at him, astonished. He was right; when I asked him at breakfast when we were returning to Yong Capital, I wanted to seize the chance to ask about Pei Qian. But quickly realizing it would be awkward, I planned to pry into the matter myself and forgot about it. So after Wei Tan said we would stay for a few days, I said nothing further.
But I forgot eyes covered his entire body. He had noticed it and raised the topic in front of me with no qualms.
Was this candor, or a test?
Anger surged in my heart and I sniped, "How does Fujun know if I have something to say?"
Stunned, he stared at me, his black eyes pensive.
The room quietened. I averted my gaze and bowed my head to fasten his leather belt.
"I'm leaving," he said indifferently after he strapped his sword to his waist. He walked towards the door.
My mind shifted, and I rushed to chase after him, "Fujun!"
Wei Tan turned back.
I peered at him, annoyed and resentful. But I didn't wish to get into a deadlock with him.
"You......" I wanted to say thanks, but when I opened my mouth, I changed it to, "Come back early." I bowed.
"Hmm," he answered, hiding his mood.
I wasn't someone used to introspection, but when he sent someone to inform that he was going directly to Zhou Kang's banquet, I regretted it a little.
I couldn't help but wonder, was Wei Tan really offended?
A voice in my heart sounded, "So what if he's annoyed? Who let him test the waters with those words?"
But another countered, "Maybe he felt wronged?"
What felt wronged? He wasn't a child. Somewhat agitated, I absentmindedly put down my chopsticks after two bites of my evening meal.
I walked out of the courtyard. The setting sun hung on the horizon, the clouds colored in a strange ashy purple. The evening breeze blew in gusts, and the Autumn grass on the ground trembled. Why did everything seem bleak?
"What is Furen doing here?" I spun around at the voice, but it was Concubine Xu.
She smiled as she walked towards me and bowed: "I heard the Eldest Young Master wasn't here. I had nothing to do, so I wanted to ask if Furen was weaving tonight?"
Finally, I remembered I had something to do.
"Weaving." I smiled and agreed, "Of course I will."
Silence filled the courtyard that night, except for the loom's creaks and the nightingale's chirps outside the window.
"Furen, that isn't the correct way to weave. It can get tangled." As I was working, Concubine Xu pointed out from the side, "I'll show you how to do it."
I agreed and stepped aside to watch her take over my shuttle and skillfully intersperse it between the warp and weft.
As I kept watching, I couldn't help but glance at the door again. The moon was almost at mid-sky. Was the banquet still not over?
"Is Furen waiting for the Eldest Young Master?"
I looked back, Concubine Xu had paused and was staring at me.
Embarrassed, I smiled: "How did Concubine know?"
"How could I not?" Her voice softened as she continued, "I used to do the same thing; always looking out the door."
"Oh?" I understood she meant Wei Zhao.
She smiled and looked out the door, apparently reminiscing and meaningful: "But when I couldn't see it, my thoughts faded."
Sensing that she implied something with her words, I let my imaginations run wild. Just then, Ah Yuan entered the room: "Furen, the Eldest Young Master is back."
"Oh?" My heart relaxed, and it suddenly changed from dark to light.
Concubine Xu stared at Ah Yuan, surprise flashing across her face. She looked at me and smiled, "Since the Eldest Young Master has returned, I will leave first." She got up and bowed.
I left Madam Wu's courtyard, heading straight to my residence.
Just outside the courtyard door, I ran into a follower named Wang Hui.
"Furen," he bowed, "The Eldest Young Master is drunk and has returned to his room."
I nodded and continued forward. Unexpectedly, before I entered my courtyard, I met the Steward.
"Furen." He bowed with a somewhat troubled expression, "The Eldest Young Master brought back a few beauties from the banquet. Now that he is drunk, Furen see......"
I froze, before following his gaze. Twenty feet behind him, five 16-17-year-old girls stood under the porch, all with dainty faces.
Observing the Steward's interaction with me, the women shared glances. They stepped forward to bow, their tinkling voices falling to the ground: "Greetings, Furen."
T/N: I apologize to everyone for the irregular updates so far. After searching for a job for a really really really long time due to the pandemic, I am finally starting at a company tomorrow. I will keep translating this novel but I might schedule it to 1 chapter a week on Mondays. After a couple of weeks at work, I will have a better idea of how to schedule the updates. Thank you for all your comments and support so far.
Also, look forward to next week's (steamy?) chapter. (⁄ ⁄•⁄ω⁄•⁄ ⁄)⁄
As a busy man, my Uncle Qiao Yu rarely visited Chang An. Though I wasn't familiar with him, he was nice in my memories. In contrast, I was more familiar with my Aunt Ding-shi and my Cousin Qiao Ti. They used to visit Chang An almost every year and stay at our home.
My Aunt Ding-shi also came from an influential family and treated me well. She used to bring me many gifts every time she visited Chang An. I still remembered the time when she gifted me my favorite silk figurine as a child.
Yet, despite her kindness, I never liked my Cousin Qiao Ti.
Although two years younger, thanks to my Uncle's tall physique, she was always as tall as me. She liked pretty things, and that too, others' pretty things. The first time she visited Chang An, she was only eight. But she knew how to act sweet, innocent, yet admiring in front of elders. She told my Mother, "The jade necklace worn by my Elder Cousin is so beautiful, I have never seen one like that in Luoyang."
My Mother always treated her relatives well, and when she heard this, she smiled, "Since Ah Ti likes it, I'll gift it to you." Over the years, my Mother forced me to give away many of my things, jewelry, toys, perfume, etc. One time, Qiao Ti even wanted the paper in my study. Pure white mixed with orchid petals, I loved that paper Pei Qian made for me.
I gave her a hard, blank stare and refused, "Won't give," prompting my Mother to laugh at my pettiness.
I wasn't sure if that was the reason, but two days later, when I overheard Yu Ying and the girls gossiping about me and Pei Qian, she was with them. She sneered, "Elder Cousin Ah Jin isn't worthy of Young Master Ji Yuan."
Since then, I had never been friendly to Qiao Ti.
Times change; the former mind of an adolescent girl was a forgotten book. By the time you pulled it from a corner again, the mood was different.
"Paying respects to my Aunt," I bowed to her at the front door.
"Ah Jin," she held me, her eyes in tears from a mixture of grief and joy.
Qiao Ti gazed at me, her face, which had inherited my aunt's fine eyebrows, filled with probing and caution.
"Elder Cousin," she walked up to me and bowed with her brow lowered.
"Cousin," I smiled and returned the salute.
After my Aunt took my hand and poured out her regret, I invited the mother and daughter pair to sit in the main hall and asked Ah Yuan to serve tea.
Staring at Ah Yuan, my aunt said, "This maid looks very familiar. She looks like former Steward Li's daughter, the one who served Ah Jin......"
"You are right," I smiled, "After I arrived in Yong Capital, I ran into Steward Li's family by chance, and we reunited."
Ah Yuan stepped forward and bowed to my aunt, "Paying my respects to Madam."
She helped Ah Yuan up and smiled, "I thought you looked familiar, so you are an old friend."
I explained how Li Shang had survived that year, and how he left his hometown to return to Yong Capital.
"Fortunately, I went to town that day and ran into Steward Li's son Li Huan, reuniting with their family."
My Aunt nodded and wiped her eyes, "I know that Steward Li is faithful. It is fortunate that you can see each other despite disasters." She paused, patted Ah Yuan's hand and sighed to me, "Ah Jin is a new bride in the Wei Clan and your servants and maids are all strangers. How can you handle the ones above you? I am relieved that you have Ah Yuan."
I smiled, "That's very true, Aunt."
Then we talked about trivial matters. The mention of my Uncle made everyone sad, and my Aunt couldn't help but sob.
"Throughout his life, your Uncle was righteous; he respected elders and was kind to youngsters. When the Fu Clan's difficulties started, he and the ministers jointly submitted a petition to appeal for justice, offending Empress Bian. He traveled to Chang An to save you, but he was only halfway when the Late Emperor had already moved the blade......"
She choked on her sobs, "Your Uncle never slept peacefully after that, but didn't dare tell your grandmother. He had to cover up whenever your grandmother asked for your Mother. After you married into Laiyang, he wanted to meet you. But when war engulfed Luoyang, your Uncle trusted Dong Kuang. Didn't expect......," she covered her face with a silk handkerchief and wept.
"Mother......" Qiao Ti shed tears, glanced at me, and whispered words of comfort.
When my Aunt finally relaxed, I asked, "I wonder if Elder Cousin Ke is well?"
She wiped away her tears and replied, "Bo Gong is fine. He is studying at home behind closed doors. The Emperor is going to reopen the annual Xiao Lian in Yong Capital, and Bo Gong wants to take part."
I approved, "It's great my Elder Cousin has such ambition."
My Aunt sighed, "Although the Qiao Clan is an influential family in Luoyang, since your Uncle only has Bo Gong to carry on his blood, he doesn't dare neglect his work. But after the war, most of our acquaintances in the capital scattered. Even your Uncle isn't here, and no one can endorse him."
I finally understood; my Aunt had a favor she wanted to ask me.
I have met Elder Cousin Qiao Ke only two or three times. Though I wasn't familiar with him, I remembered his talent in learning. When my Father once tested him, he answered all the questions fluently, and even earned my Father's praise.
At first, Xiao Lian promoted the virtuous into Court officials. But for ages, the nobles have controlled the exams. During the Late Emperor's reign, even scholarly families weren't good enough without a noble's endorsement. In the past, this would be easy. But now the Qiao Clan had weakened; my Aunt had no choice but to come to me for help.
For the first time, I felt the power this "Wei Clan's eldest son's wife" identity held.
"Since my Aunt trusts me, I am obliged. But I have something to tell you. It has been less than a year since I entered the Wei family, and I have been mostly away from my husband. I am stuck in the Residence and unexposed to the Imperial Court's affairs. When I meet my husband, I will tell him about my Elder Cousin's issue. The Prime Minister has always loved talent, and with my Elder Cousin's ambition, he will be fine."
My Aunt nodded and gripped my hand, "Thank you for your trouble, Ah Jin."
I smiled, "Of course."
She sighed, "Your Uncle will be pleased if he knows your kindness." With that, she bowed her head and wiped her tears again.
We both talked about what happened after we separated, sitting in the main hall for ages. Qiao Ti sat beside us and said very little. Except helping her mother wipe her tears occasionally, she looked calm most of the times, just staring at me.
My Aunt and Qiao Ti stayed for dinner before bidding farewell. I looked at the evening sky and sighed; it was a long day.
"Furen, Madam is so talkative; others can't get a word in while she's talking," Ah Yuan exclaimed.
I smiled, noncommittal.
My Mother had once called my Aunt a shrewd woman. While I never cared before, I understood her words after spending so much time with my Aunt today. More than meeting me, I feared that the primary reason for her visit was my Elder Cousin. Yet, the Qiao Clan was my mother's parent's family, and they were my last relatives; I wouldn't refuse to lend a helping hand.
Wei An progressed with his wheelchair, but only half-way, and not without hiccups. He reluctantly admitted that he couldn't make a few parts which needed to be strong and precise; his carpentry skills were still too shallow.
"Why don't you take a break? When we return to Yong Capital, I will find two carpenters to help Fourth Brother-in-law. It's no problem," I encouraged.
He nodded and returned to making more pieces of wood.
With no one in the mansion, the days were boring. The only books in the mansion were old History Classics. I took one to read but didn't turn two pages before throwing it on my desk. Concubine Xu was idle as well, and she often visited to keep me company.
I learned from our chats that she was originally the daughter of Madam Wu's (T/N: Wei Jue's first wife) maid and grew up in the mansion since childhood. Wei Zhao took her as a concubine from Madam Wu when she was 17. Concubine Xu didn't elaborate more, and I didn't know the exact details of what happened that year. Yet, she didn't show a hint of a servant's humility. From her speech, it was clear she knew to read and understood etiquette. Although of low birth, with her beauty, it wasn't surprising Wei Zhao liked her.
In order to pass time, I cleaned out the loom used by Wei Tan's mother, Madam Wu, after I learned Concubine Xu weaved. I learned to weave from her, trying to be like the virtuous women taught in the books.
The weather cooled, and reports of victories in the North kept coming endlessly. After Tan Xi's death, his four sons divided his army. While the army remained leaderless, Wei Jue marched North, trying to divide and conquer. Now that he had destroyed Tan Xi's third son, Tan Kui, he battled Tan Xi's eldest son, Tan Meng, in You Province.
Meanwhile, in a sudden movement in Huaiyang in the South, Wu Zhang became critically ill. With no heirs, the base passed to his younger brother Wu Kun.
After I heard this news, I became distracted.
Luoyang was far away from Huaiyang, and we just got fragments of news occasionally. But I understood that power shifting hands involved many murky schemes; only a few were lucky to survive. Was Pei Qian safe and sound there?
"Off late, Furen seems distracted," commented Concubine Xu after I tore several loom threads in a row.
I smiled apologetically at her after realizing my mind had wandered off again.
"Furen must be tired," she looked at the darkening sky outside the door and continued, "It's late, why don't you rest?"
I nodded, "It's fine, we'll continue tomorrow."
She bowed and excused herself.
I felt tired, so after washing up, I laid on the bed and sighed; I recognized my habit of worrying too much sometimes.
Breaking off ties was easier said than done; how many people could do it? I couldn't help but worry about Pei Qian. Not that I still loved him, but I couldn't sweep him away as a stranger either.
I slept lightly because I had a lot on my mind.
Around midnight, I sensed a movement in the fog. The night breeze brushed across my neck, as if the doors and windows weren't closed shut.
I snapped awake when a rough touch brushed against my cheek.
I squinted as sudden candlelight streamed into my eyes. As I struggled to recognize who stood in front of me, I froze in shock.
"Awake?" Wei Tan looked surprised for a moment, before smiling, "Furen, please forgive me; I didn't mean to wake you."
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