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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?”
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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