Chapter 6: Departure
The Chen estate resumed their work. With about a dozen servants left behind, they began to load the horse-drawn carriages with what little clothes and rice they had left.
After Chen Rong had distributed her wealth, only ten carriages were needed to transport the rest of her assets. Three were used to hold rice and silk, one was filled with her clothes, and bamboo slips occupied the remaining six.
In the past, Chen Rong had used only one carriage to hold books – the books that hid gold leaves. The rest were used to carry other items. Because of this, she spent a decade after returning to the south being stigmatized for her vulgar ways. The scholars had criticized her for she would rather fill her carriages with clothes than to bring valuable books.
In an era where even the air was filled with ‘elegance and courtesy’, the stigma of a vulgar nature could completely bring down a noblewoman’s future. In the ten years since then, despite doing everything she could and using every means she knew, she had had no way to restore the reputation that’d been destroyed.
It had been too late.
The gate was tightly shut tonight at the Chen estate. With each change of night shifts, no unexpected guests came to visit through the whole of the night. It made sense, of course, since Chen Rong’s action of dispersing her wealth during the day had spread through town. What blind thieves would take the risk to rob what was now only a small fry?
The next day arrived in the blink of an eye.
Early in the morning, the Wang estate sent a servant to inform the Chens that they were to meet at the south city gate.
By now, the Chen house had finished loading their luggage. Chen Rong sat inside a horse-drawn carriage and marched toward the meeting place.
The streets were packed with carriages. In this hubbub, everyone was rushing to the south gate.
As Chen Rong’s carriage was running on the street, people would turn to look at her from time to time. Faint judging sounds came to her ears: “That’s Ah Rong of the Chen house.”
“What a beauty.”
“I heard she had distributed her family wealth to the servants yesterday. Look at her troop, the large Chen estate is now reduced to only a dozen carriages. Was the news true, then?”
“Of course it’s true. Even the godly Wang Qilang made a personal visit.”
“Only in times of crisis can we see people’s true nature. I heard that despite her young age, Ah Rong of the Chen house still chose honor over money in this turbulent time. That is indeed a difficult thing to do. Difficult thing to do indeed.”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
Amid the coming and going buzz, Chen Rong softly smiled and slowly withdrew her gaze.
She soon reached the south gate. Here, she saw the Wang clan’s procession, whose flying flags stretched to the end of sight. It was an impressive spectacle, all right.
As Chen Rong’s carriage approached, a man of about twenty rode near and raised his voice to ask: “Are you Ah Rong of the Chen house?”
The appellation ‘Ah Rong of the Chen house’ had spread like wildfire a day ago. Had this been any other time in the past, he’d surely only call her ‘Miss Chen.’
Chen Rong drew the carriage curtain and replied, “It is I, Chen Rong.”
The young man was dressed in a purple cloak, possessing fine facial features. He laughed and remarked, “I see it’s true you’re quite a beauty. Since the Chen estate has few people, you should join the middle of the queue. It will be safer this way.”
Gratefulness showed on Chen Rong’s small, beautiful face. She bowed to the man from her sitting position in the carriage, saying: “I thank you, Wulang.”
Wang Wulang’s bright eyes stared back at Chen Rong as he shook his head and observed, “According to Qilang, Ah Rong of the Chen house carries with her a graceful ease though she is a woman. I hadn’t expected to meet such a ceremonious Ah Rong.” While saying so, he repeatedly shook his head, seemingly disappointed.
Chen Rong gave a closed-lip smile as she thought to herself: But you’re not Wang Qilang either. If I lack etiquette in front of you, I would be shunned!
Under Wang Wulang’s guidance, the Chen carriages went toward the middle of the queue. The Wangs had so many carriages that one couldn’t see where they ended even if one tried. Compared to them, the Chen estate seemed rather pathetic.
Along the way, Chen Rong learned from the Wangs’ whispers that, this time, smaller families who wanted to join the Wang house were numerous in number. Many of them even offered items much more precious than Chen Rong’s coral, but all were refused by the Wang house.
As soon as the Chen carriages joined the group, they launched full speed ahead, kicking dust with each galloping hoof that gradually obscured the crowd in sight.
Chen Rong turned to look at the city walls that were receding farther and farther behind her. In her memory, the nomadic riders would be attacking this city within a month. Then, they would plunder those who did not leave the city before torching this bustling miniature Jiangnan to ashes.
She had lived in the City of Ping for fifteen years since her previous life, but it was to become just a name in her memory now. Only at night in her dreams would she ever see the familiar courtyard and its occupants again.
Upon this reflection, Chen Rong gave a soft sigh.
Suddenly, Wang Wulang’s chuckle gave rise: “Why does Ah Rong sigh?”
Chen Rong replied in a low voice: “My heart saddens to think I’ll never see this place again.”
Wang Wulang grew silent.
After four hours of traveling, Wang Wulang had exhausted the etiquettes required of him as the host. He bade goodbye and returned to the forefront of the team.
Chen Rong closed her eyes to rest. From afar, the Wang girls’ laughter could be heard ahead. These young ladies were raised in the privacy of their chambers; how far beyond the door could they have left? Although they were fleeing at present, in their hearts, this journey still felt more exciting than anything they’d yet encountered.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
At noon, the crowd began to eat.
Chen Rong sat in her carriage looking to the Wangs’ damask mats and satin cushions spread out on the grass. She quietly shook her head.
The fragrance of meat and wine wafted from the tables. She noted that in front of every young gentleman and lady were four tables, on which filled with food.
She knew these were people who would throw everything away if they didn’t finish it.
She gave some thought and bade Old Shang, who was driving the carriage: “Old Shang, go forward.”
As Chen Rong’s carriage pulled up during the Wangs’ mealtime, dozens of eyes turned her way. From the distance, Wang Wulang stood up, raised his glass toward Chen Rong and flashed a grin: “Is Ah Rong here? Come, come, come and eat with us.”
Chen Rong shook her head, gave him a slight curtsy, and then told Old Shang to drive the carriage toward the Wang patriarch, Wang Zhuo.
She gave a quick glance, but not detecting Wang Qilang, quickly withdrew her gaze.
She stepped down from her carriage, faced Wang Zhuo, who was having his meal, and said in her crystalline voice: “Good greetings, Sir Wang.”
Wang Zhuo was surprised to see her. A congenial smile emerged on his round face: “Ah Rong? Why are you here?”
“I have something I would like to say,” Chen Rong said, bowing again.
“On this trip south, there are also a large number of migrating commoners in addition to gentry folks like us. In my humble opinion, even if these commoners had brought all of their wealth along, what they could take would only last for half a month at most, if not ten days.”
The Wang clan was presently partaking their meal. At her sudden appearance and eloquent talk, all the young ladies of Wang house instantly frowned: It’s said that we do not talk during meals and sleep. This Ah Rong of the Chen house is already very rude for coming when others are eating. Now that she’s here, she has to speak of the dirty and crude commoners, how very inconsiderate. What was wrong with Qilang’s eyes that he praised this woman incessantly?
Chen Rong recognized the dissatisfaction in the eyes of the Wangs, but she just smiled and continued. “They say honor and disgrace can only be discussed after our stomachs are fed. In Ah Rong’s humble opinion, after those commoners finish their food, they might turn desperate due to hunger and cold.”
Chen Rong’s eyes gave a glance at the line of food heaping high on the tables: “I’m sure you’re not afraid of one or two refugees, but what if there are hundreds and thousands of them? At a time like this, I think meals can afford to be simpler.”
When she finished, she again bowed to Wang Zhuo and bade Old Shang to turn the carriage around.
As soon as her carriage made the turn, Chen Rong heard a ripple of disdainful laughter behind them: “Ah Rong of the Chen house is such a worrywart. She is the one who is afraid of the commoners. How could she point fingers at us when it was she who dispersed her wealth?”
Chapter 7: Refugees (1)
After they had turned around, Old Shang muttered to her in displeasure: “That Wang missy was very rude. You were obviously well-intentioned.”
So saying, he turned to look at Ah Rong. The Chen Rong he saw was one with clear lucent eyes and no trace of chagrin.
After lunch, the company hit the road again.
By suppertime, the house of Wang still dined as sumptuously as before. It was as if they were not fleeing but taking an outing, rather.
The Wang girls’ excitement gradually dissipated with each passing day. Slowly, Chen Rong heard more and more grumbling.
This was also when Chen Rong found out Wang Qilang did not join them because he had gone to greet another scholar.
It was no longer hot, being early autumn. But as carriages and people moved along, dust would roll up and dirty the crew.
When this happened, the Wang family who had always paid attention to the upper-class’ propriety would bathe several times daily. For this reason, they could only cover twenty to thirty miles a day.
They continued this way for seven days when more and more refugees appeared on the road. These commoners were rushing south in droves. After using up all of their dry rations, they had automatically begun to follow the Wangs’ caravan, the reason being that there would be plenty of leftovers each time the Wangs finished their meals.
The house of Wang began to feel irritated when more and more people tailed them. These filthy refugees were covered in dirt and stench. As they followed behind, the wind would pick up their smell and send it drifting for miles, and it is unbearable. Nonetheless, they didn’t dare to do anything detrimental to their good names, such as driving the refugees away. All they could do was to reduce their bathing time and increase their speed.
None of this had anything to do with Chen Rong.
She was the only master to be served in the Chen house. At mealtimes, she also ate one simple dish. After she finished, she did not sleep in a large tent like the Wangs did, but stayed in her horse carriage.
Recently, she mostly sat inside for an hour or so before changing to horseback riding or simply walking.
Because Chen Rong was proficient in martial arts and had good physique, she could follow the team for miles without pausing for a breather.
“Let’s stop to eat.” Amid the clopping hooves, a rider called out loudly while riding toward the back of the team.
Chen Rong gazed to the bright red sun in the west and then dismounted her horse.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
At this time, everyone was busy at work again, either securing tents or bringing out food.
Upon seeing Chen Rong approach, Nurse Ping lowered her voice as she carried food into the carriage: “Miss, it’s as you said.” At the same time, she cast a glance at the Wang house three hundred paces away.
The sun was now setting in the west, casting a golden light on the still-verdant poplar trees. At present, thick damask mats were spread under the poplar trees, on which stood tables, and behind these tables were family members of the Wang clan in rich, vibrant clothing and footwear. They were all handsome, and in the sunlight, appeared to be fairies from above.
However, these refined ladies and gentlemen were now frowning. Their faces displayed loathing mixed with frustration. They stared at the food in front of them, but none could bring himself to raise his chopsticks.
That was because there were, at least, hundreds of refugees about three or four hundred paces behind them. These refugees towed their wives and children along, all dressed in rags, their eyes glazed over as they looked to the Wang clan. Some children were staring in a trance at the food and wine on the tables, saliva drooling from their dirty mouths.
Receiving such stares, the Wangs were made to feel as uncomfortable as though they had swallowed a fly. A middle-aged man leaned toward Wang Zhuo and whispered, “My lord, what do you think?”
Wang Zhuo shook his head, placed a piece of dog meat into his mouth and whispered back: “Ignore them.”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
He had great tolerance, but the younger ones were not as good. A girl about fifteen or sixteen picked up her chopsticks, bitterly picked at the rice in her bowl and said in disgust: “Honestly father, how can you not get rid of these peasants?”
Next to her, a young lad replied: “It’s easy enough to get rid of them, but if the literati in the south found out we mistreated the commoners, it would inevitably lead to idle remarks.”
“Isn’t it strange?!” another lad began. “These peasants normally respect us as if we were gods, wishing to prostrate and kiss our toes, even. Why are they so audacious now?”
This question apparently stumped the youths who had been living inside a dream and who did not know what the word ‘hunger’ meant. While everyone was busy mulling over this, a girl yelled out: “Hey, this is as Ah Rong of the Chen house has said! Someone call her here. Let’s ask her what’s going on.”
The girl’s voice had just faded by the time another slightly sharp and equally anxious voice gave sound: “Certainly not. I’m sure Chen Rong was only making things up.”
This young lady had a pointy chin and a long, thin face. She was pale and pretty, the very one who had laughed at Chen Rong for being a worrywart that day. Seeing the way she looked, everyone knew she didn’t want to lose face. In the midst of their laughter, a round-faced girl spoke: “Are you afraid Chen Rong will gibe at you, Seventh Sister?”
The pretty girl with the pointy chin was about to refute but then decided to close her mouth.
Nevertheless, though these people laughed at her, in the end, they did not mention Chen Rong again.
Inside the horse carriage, Chen Rong placed her chopsticks down after she had had enough to eat and told Nurse Ping: “Tell everyone to sleep in our carriages for the next few days. Don’t wander around unless it’s necessary.”
Nurse Ping looked at Chen Rong in puzzlement. At long last, she replied with an “Aye.” Her lady kept changing day by day ever since she had those nightmares. Before she even knew it, the nurse had developed a kind of trust in her.
Nurse Ping cleared away the dishes and stepped down from the carriage. The moment she stepped away, she heard her lady’s murmuring: “I had also once admired them, but they turned out to be mere dolls carved from wood and clay.” Great disappointment was detected in her voice.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
The night wore on.
Tonight, a bright moon hung in the sky, sprinkling silver beams across the ground. On such a moonlit night, even the deathly exhausted youngsters of the Wang house reveled in the poetic atmosphere.
Chen Rong slowly neared the Wang crowd who was, at present, praising the wind and admiring the moon.
Under the moonlight, there was something indescribably beautiful about her willowy figure and her clear watery eyes. Unconsciously, several Wang lads turned around to look at her.
Wang Wulang lead the reception by saying: “Ah Rong, we have a moonlit sky tonight. With an illumination that shines for miles, we are trying our hand at composing poetry. Won’t you come join us, as well?”
At Wang Wulang’s words, a girl began chortling. “Fifth brother, are you asking Chen Rong to wax poetic? You might as well ask for her life.”
As soon as she said these words, amusement arose all around.
Watching Chen Rong’s loveliness under the moonlight, a young lad could not help but remark: “Ah Rong is indeed a very beautiful lady. Surely, you are as accomplished in poetry as you are beautiful.”
The same girl laughed again. “Everyone in the City of Ping knows Ah Rong of the Chen house likes whips and horses; she does not like poetry and verses.”
Using whips and riding horses were interests of northern nomads. People from the Central Plains scorned northern nomads with a bone-deep contempt. The girl’s laughter had contained obvious derision.
Chen Rong lightly smiled. She curtsied to the general crowd and gracefully replied, “I beg your pardon, but I’m afraid anything I might say would only offend the moon.” And then she took leave.
Her words were remarkably classy, and she had the crowd in a daze. It took a good long while before delight rang out. While listening to their laughter, Chen Rong’s mouth upturned and revealed a slight sneer. She had originally come for she had seen the refugees acting strangely, their eyes looking unkind. She had wanted to remind everyone else. Now, she did not want to tell them. The team had more than enough guards, in any case. Even if the refugees were to come on strong, they would not be able to damage the cavalcade’s overall might. She’d just let them teach certain people on her behalf, then.
Chapter 8: Refugees (2)
The moon gradually climbed atop the poplar crown and moved to the west. Eventually obscured by the clouds, its beams faded from the landscape.
The Wang youngsters’ laughing voices also disappeared into the distance and at length completely vanished.
Chen Rong lay in her carriage, not feeling sleepy. She tilted her head to look outside where it was pitch black. There was only a faint light issued from a single torch staked into the ground. In the dead of night when all were asleep, loneliness and mystery seemed to hover in the air with the swaying of that lone light.
Her eyes were wide-open in the dark.
It’s not for certain how long she had been listening by the time her mouth suddenly curved upward and revealed a little smile.
Her bright eyes were now staring at some approaching figures. These shadows made audible noises when they walked by. From time to time, someone also stumbled and fell. Faintly, there were also gasps, wheezes, and coughs that couldn’t be suppressed, as well as low barks.
They were not great sounds, but the contrast was rather blatant in the dead of night.
Chen Rong quietly watched them, her eyes following the clusters of shadows in both the front and back of the caravan. The front was where the principal members of the Wang household stayed; there were many riches to be had there. The back was where the Wang kept their food supply.
After these people snuck into the troop, Chen Rong could hear waves of low barks and sounds of things being carried away.
Fifteen minutes later, the shadows were retreating with bags of various sizes. Just as they were pulling back, another group of shadows entered the team.
A dwarf shadow hurtled forward and ran into something, the contact making a sound. This sound was low, but whatever got knocked into suddenly grumbled: “Who bumped into me?”
The sudden grumble startled everyone. The owner of this voice opened his eyes. He stared with eyes as large as brass bells at the tiny figure in front of him and finally yelled out in shock: “Who are you people? Wake up, everybody wake up!”
Despite being in a deep sleep, people immediately roused at this man’s howl. For the time being, clamors began to spread.
Abruptly, a powerful voice shouted: “Insolent vagrants!”
With this shout, torches began to light, and the entire team woke up.
The Wang patriarch, Wang Zhuo’s voice quickly rumbled: “Stop these refugees!”
He was referring to the shadows that were now scattering and fleeing away after they had stolen from them.
At Wang Zhuo’s command, the group was sent into a flurry. The guards rushed out of their tents without being properly dressed. Amid their chaotic shouts, a young girl also dashed out on bare feet, her hair untied, while angrily wailing: “My necklace is gone. My pearl necklace from the Southern Sea is gone!”
Another member of the Wang house shouted: “Seize them, seize them all! These peasants dared to attempt thievery. They dared to offend traveling nobles. Men, kill them. Don’t let a single person escape. Not one single person.”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
The guards who were chasing after the refugees were quite riled — who were they? How capable were they? Yet they had allowed these unarmed refugees to actually near them and even steal things under their noses! With this mentality, the previous shout had fueled their courage to vent their anger.
Thus, a shrill scream soon resonated in the night sky. It rang out in the distance and attracted echoes all the way from Shanming Valley.
These were the cries issued from dying people!
Everyone stopped what they were doing in shock.
At this point, the Wang patriarch, Wang Zhuo, yelled out hastily: “Stop the killing, stop the killing…”
His panicking call broke the stupor and also brought everyone back to his senses.
After the red-eyed refugees heard these words, bloody fervor receded from their heads. They gave repeated shouts and quickly pulled back.
Wang Zhuo’s voice rang again: “Sirs, please leave what you have taken! Otherwise, don’t blame me for being ruthless!”
By the time his voice resounded, hundreds of guards on horsebacks had surrounded the refugees.
Seeing that they could not escape anymore, a brutish voice came forth among the refugees: “Brothers, don’t listen to this fogy. We are going to starve to death if we don’t take these things. If we’re going to die sooner or later, we might as well go big before we die!”
Another voice, slightly sickly, next said: “Sir Wang, one of your meals can feed hundreds of us for three days! Please be gracious and give us some food.”
These refugees were all honest people who knew their places. If they hadn’t been forced into a corner, they would never dare to rob the nobles. On the heels of the sickly voice, dozens of people cried out in chaos: “Sir Wang, let us have some food.”
“Give us some food and we’ll go away.”
“Aye, aye, give us food. All you have to do is eat a little less, and you’ll have saved countless lives.”
“If you won’t give us food, then my life isn’t needed!”
“We’ll return these things as long as you give us food!”
The clamor grew louder and louder, and louder still.
A young lad hurried to Wang Zhuo and exclaimed, “Father, you must not. We must never be threatened by these peasants!”
“Uncle, I think we should give them food,” said another youth standing beside them.
Wang Zhuo frowned, raised his right hand to stop the few youngsters from their yapping. He gloomily shouted: “Give them food! Wang You.”
“Order the team to leave immediately.”
“Lead the guards and herd these refugees to the side of the road. Tell them food will immediately be distributed to them. Ask them to give back all that they took.” He composed himself and called out solemnly: “If there are still those who want to lead a riot, don’t hesitate to kill off a few!”
“Give them food after we leave. Untie five sacks of corn, then drive the carriage away and just leave the corn on the ground.”
The moment Wang Zhuo finished what he had to say, several Wang youngsters lit up with pleasure. “It should be this way,” a young lad blurted. “How dare they threaten us. We shall let them sprawl on the ground to eat grains mixed with dirt!”
There was no need to speak of the trained guards’ stalwartness. Twenty starving refugees could not fight one of them. And so the situation was soon brought under control. In a short time, all that were taken had been recovered. These unarmed people couldn’t run a few short steps even if they wanted to. After several of their leaders were slain, they stood transfixed on the sides of the road and watched the Wang cavalcade drive away. They remained so until they walked to the stream of corn outflowing from the last carriage, their woodenly and helpless eyes abruptly lighting up.
Chen Rong lazily leaned against the carriage wall as she listened to the refugees’ cheers.
By the time a brilliant red glow hung in the eastern sky, the team had finally left the refugees behind, dashing through the vast wilderness.
At this time, a burst of hooves arrived outside her carriage, followed by a respectful inquiry: “Is your lady still awake? Sir Wang would like to see her.”