Chapter 14: The Young Gentleman from the House of Sun
Both Nurse Ping and Old Shang were gaping their mouths outside the carriage.
“Miss, when did you learn how to play the zither so well?”
Chen Rong fell silent.
“I learned it in a dream,” she said at last.
Without waiting for them to recover, Chen Rong’s voice dropped low in an order: “Do not let this be known. If anyone asks, tell them I began learning the zither after my father and brother left.”
Nurse Ping and Old Shang looked at each other.
They had lived their entire life in the small Chen estate in the small City of Ping – they were uneducated. Despite finding what Chen Rong said difficult to believe, they could not come up with any other answers.
“Aye, miss, please rest assured,” Old Shang finally said. Next to him, Nurse Ping also nodded vigorously.
They stopped thinking about it altogether in their simple minds. These days, their lady was acting as though she had divine intervention. Perhaps she really did learn the zither in a dream.
Chen Rong nodded from her seat inside the carriage and told them: “If anyone comes to see me, tell them I’m asleep.”
At this time, the cavalcade hit the road again.
They had gone for nearly ten miles from the time the two teams met up. Flying dust was sent scattering in the air by the treading horseshoes. From the middle, one could not see the front and back.
After Chen Rong played her song, she quietly stayed inside her carriage and did not make another appearance. In the meantime, people sent by Wang Wulang were also politely rejected by Old Shang and Nurse Ping.
At first, the aggravated ladies of the Wang and Yu houses were ready to pick a fight with her. Even if they were not better than her at the zither, they ought to be able to compete with her at other things. And even if they could not compete, they could still force her to keep proving her arts. As long as she showed up, they’d have a way to win at least once.
They weren’t expecting Chen Rong to go to bed and never make another appearance.
At this time, the traveling troop suddenly came to a stop.
Chen Rong drew her curtain and whispered an inquiry: “What’s wrong?”
“I’ll go see,” replied Old Shang.
He returned thirty minutes later, jumping onto his driving seat and saying to Chen Rong: “We’ve run into a branch of the Sun clan. It appears they have encountered bandits on the way here. Most adults have died, only a young master and some servants survived.”
No sooner had Old Shang finished than a commotion boomed in the front. Forthwith, a dusty carriage was driving up to them.
The black satin and mahogany wood hinted at the extravagance it once bore. At the moment, however, the satin was worn and the mahogany was scarred with sword traces.
Sitting in the driver’s position was a boy of fifteen. He had a pair of bright eyes, a straight nose, presently tightly drawn lips, and an exhausted expression.
Even so, his back was ramrod straight, his outfit was white and clean, and only his hair was slightly wind-blown.
Wang Wulang was frowning as he said to the boy: “Sir, let a servant drive the carriage. If you don’t mind, I’ll send a few ones here.”
The young gentleman shook his head, “No need,” and offered no more words.
Wang Wulang’s frown worsened. He dragged his lips to say: “This is our Qilang’s idea. Sir, there’s no need to be unneighborly.”
This time, the young master of the Sun House gave no reply.
Unable to sway him, Wang Wulang impatiently made a goodbye gesture and ordered his carriage to return to the front.
The young lad reached Chen Rong’s carriage shortly after, making a turn when their carriages were side by side.
The team got going again.
“Young Master,” a hoarse voice was heard from his carriage at this moment, “how can you do the driving? Better to let me do it.” When he finished talking, they could hear him struggling to get up.
His young master pursed his lips and shouted without turning around: “Don’t bother.”
He made not another squeak.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
The sun began to sink into the horizon after the team had traveled another ten miles.
At a whistle, all carriages came to a stop. The servants wasted no time in preparing for dinner.
Chen Rong stepped down from her carriage. She turned and looked at the young man who was still sitting ramrod straight in the driving position. Under the golden light, his handsome childlike face was both solemn and desolate, like a lone wolf in the wilderness. In her past life, she had seen the same desolation in the mirror countless of times.
Amid the laughter which rang to them from time to time, his loneliness felt strikingly out of place.
“If you want to seek revenge, then you must save your strength,” said Chen Rong as she walked up to the young Mr. Sun. “Only a weakling would reject all the help offered to him and the changes bound to happen, and keep himself immersed in sadness and anguish.”
Her voice was soft and cold.
The young Mr. Sun whipped around, staring at Chen Rong with his dark eyes.
She paid him no attention, turning away and not giving him another look.
After she had returned to camp, she lowered her voice in an order: “After the meals are ready, send two portions to Mr. Sun.”
By the time the last golden ray sank into the horizon, the houses had finished their meal preparations. Meat and wine from the Wang and Yu houses were laid out in two straight lines.
As she ate, Chen Rong noticed that both houses had sent food over, but the young lad from the Sun House only took hers.
She smiled and shook her head.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
After the two groups joined as one, everyone became much more relaxed. Laughter could still be heard till the moon had climbed high in the sky.
Chen Rong walked ahead, stepping on the moonlight as she went.
The campsite was on an open field by a river on the hillside.
Under the moonlight, the river quietly ran in a silvery glow.
As she walked on, she heard the playing of a zither.
The music was serene and ethereal. As soon as she heard it, Chen Rong knew it was being played by Wang Hong. Unconsciously, she followed the sound.
But she stopped in her track after only a dozen paces. Under that far-spread moonlight, Wang Hong was indeed holding the zither and plucking it. In front and behind him, however, were a huddle of fashionable girls.
Chen Rong shook her head upon seeing them and slowly backed away.
She had just retreated to the riverside when a raspy, pubertal voice sounded: “Are you called Chen Rong?”
“I’m Sun Yan, yet to have a courtesy name.”
Chen Rong nodded again. She tilted her head and looked at the tall, handsome boy beside her. Under the moonlight, his chiseled features seemed to her mountain ridges and sinuous canyons.
Sun Yan stared into the sparkling silver water and again raised his raspy voice: “The Wangs and Yus both feel sorry for me. All of them want to make me a charity. Hmph! I’m a man, why would I want pity from other people?”
He was explaining to Chen Rong why he had treated so coldly the people of Wang and Yu.
Chapter 15: Near the Yellow River
Chen Rong fell silent.
Sun Yan turned his head and solemnly watched her, suddenly asking, “How old are you?”
“Not yet fifteen,” she replied after a moment of stupefaction.
“You’re younger than me.” Then he looked at her and said matter-of-factly: “Call me gege (older brother), then.”
Chen Rong looked up at him in surprise.
Under the moonlight, her stunned expression apparently pleased Sun Yan. He smiled a smile that swept away the desolation on his face.
Chen Rong glared at him and retorted: “Hmph, it’s not for sure you’re older than I.”
Sun Yan smiled again. It was apparent he had often smiled in the past. When he smiled, his whole face came aglow.
He gave Chen Rong a once over, nodded and said, “Yes, but if you didn’t say, nobody could’ve guessed you’re only fifteen. Tsk, you’re clearly just a little girl, but you already have the comportment of a woman.”
Chen Rong’s small face at once flushed. She drew a deep breath to suppress her anger, but since she had a quick temper, she needed several more before she could move her lips to respond: “That’s still better than your quacking voice!”
Sun Yan burst out laughing.
He laughed and laughed. When his mirth finally subsided, he tilted his head and continued to look at the silver water running in front of them, murmuring: “Your eyes are like those of wolves… I like them.”
Chen Rong snapped her head up. She wanted to refute but couldn’t get her words out.
Turning her head, she followed his lead in watching the rippling waves, quietly thinking to herself: I keep telling myself to forget the past, but it seems I’m not doing enough. It’s not acceptable to be like this. I have to make myself truly at peace, so that even if I see that person again, I will not let it affect me.
The two stood side by side, both wordless.
But perhaps because they were in the same boat and felt to be kindred spirits, they did not need to speak in order to enjoy each other’s company.
With campfire aglow, sounds of laughter unceasingly rang in the distance. Contrastingly, the two shadows by the river bank seemed to dissolve among heaven and earth, as if they had been standing there since time immemorial and would continue for eternity more.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
Time flew by. In the blink of an eye, three days had passed.
Wang Hong and Yu Zhi had been swarmed by the young ladies in these three days. When they occasionally met, all they could do was smile at each other, having no opportunity to speak.
Sun Yan stuck to Chen Rong’s side since that night. He used the Chen estate’s driver, ate the Chen estate’s food, and naturally formed a small group with Chen Rong.
By this time, the cavalcade was getting closer to the Yellow River.
Major noble clans all around the state were turning up from time to time. In the far distance, one could see the large road covered with flying dust and a clamorous din.
“Miss, we’ll soon reach the Yellow River! After the Yellow River would be Luo’yang. Miss, we’re almost there!” After the Yellow River would be Luo’yang. If nothing unexpected happened, they would be settling down in Luo’yang.
Nurse Ping went up beside the carriage and called out in joy. Her small eyes stretched into lines when she smiled. Nearby, everyone else also beamed.
Chen Rong showed no joy on her face.
She looked up and stared out ahead. At the end of the blue sky were puffs of white clouds. Blocked by the mountain range, she could not see the city’s many ornate houses.
Thinking that the Yellow River was less than forty miles away, the exuberant group did not want to take a rest. One after another, the carriages hastened forward.
After dashing for twenty miles, they found the road packed with other groups. And it wasn’t just the road; even barren fields on either side were full of guards on horseback.
Chen Rong turned to look. All around her were people and carriages. Even if two people leaned in close, they’d have to shout to be heard.
“Miss, there are so many people.” Nurse Ping looked left and right while gasping.
Chen Rong didn’t answer. There was a faraway look in her eyes, her lips drawn into a tight line.
Twilight soon descended.
They were now only about ten miles away from the Yellow River.
After they finished dinner, Chen Rong, who had been in a daze up until now, suddenly walked ahead. Sun Yan had just placed his utensils down by the time he saw her unusual behavior. “Ah Rong, the Wang house is still dining,” he spoke in his raspy voice, frowning at the same time.
In accordance with aristocratic etiquette, meals were not times to talk, much less times to visit.
Chen Rong paused and turned to look at Sun Yan. She watched him with her vacant eyes for a while before murmuring: “Only now have I thought it through. Even if my life is already destined to turn out that way, I still have to try my luck.”
Her words had no rhyme or reason, so how could Sun Yan know what she was talking about? He blinked and looked at her quizzically.
Chen Rong withdrew her gaze, walked on, and again said, “The house of Wang takes an hour each time they dine. I cannot wait that long.”
Sun Yan frowningly stared after her for a while, then sprang to his feet and followed her out.
On the wild plains, the Wang house had laid damask mats into two lines and placed tables on top of them. Fragrant meat and wine filled these tables.
The nobles kept quiet when they dined. From her position, she could see Wang Hong and Yu Zhi to the left of Wang Zhuo.
When Chen Rong arrived, people would look up at her from time to time. The Wangs couldn’t help themselves from staring when they saw her walking straight to Wang Zhuo.
She curtsied to him from the distance.
Wang Zhuo, Wang Hong, and Yu Zhi all looked up, appraising the beautiful girl who stood under the sunset glow.
Before Wang Hong could speak, Chen Rong had said in her crystalline voice: “Sir Wang, Luo’yang has always been a battleground since the time of yore. At present, the five Hu tribes are invading the Central Plains. I don’t think they will let go of Luo’yang.” (1)
The five Hu tribes are Xiongnu, Jie, Xianbei, Di, and Qiang, but the term actually includes all nomadic non-Han tribes in northern China and was often used with a negative connotation to mean barbarians.
She was commenting on the state’s affairs. Including Wang Hong, everybody stared at her in surprise.
The contemporary literati did not like to discuss politics.
Ever since scholars were killed one by one for talking about politics, philosophy and merriment became the only two subjects they discussed. They had not talked of politics in a long time.
For that reason, even Yu Zhi was frowning this time to hear Chen Rong, a female, talk about “battlegrounds” and similar such.
As though she didn’t see anything, Chen Rong directed her attention solely on Wang Zhuo and solemnly added: “In my humble opinion, the city of Luo’yang is no longer safe for settlement. If we went there, I fear we would fall into the traps the tribesmen had laid.”
“Traps?” Wang Zhuo finally placed his chopsticks down and asked, “You’re saying those barbarians have captured Luo’yang?” Chen Rong had twice displayed her prowess. He had begun to take this girl’s words seriously.
Chen Rong shook her head. “The city of Luo’yang is too strong to be attacked that easily. I only meant I am afraid they have planted their soldiers in the vicinity of Luo’yang and the Yellow River banks, just waiting for us to walk into their trap.”
Wang Zhuo ruminated before turning his head to look at Wang Hong. “Qilang, what do you think?”
Wang Hong was regarding Chen Rong with eyes that called to mind the reflection of an autumn sky. He had heard that the girl before him had twice prophesied like a god – she was a young lady entirely different from other girls.
He quietly watched Chen Rong for a moment before asking: “Then in Ah Rong’s opinion, which Hu tribes will be there?”
“I do not know,” Chen Rong shook her head with a wry smile. “I’ve come to ask Sir Wang to allow me to separate.”
Everyone simultaneously looked up at Chen Rong in shock.
Chapter 16: I much prefer you
“I am only a woman,” Chen Rong continued after a pause. “I am bound to be incomplete in my assessment. It is merely a guess that nomadic tribes would be intercepting the Yellow River. I dare not delay Sir Wang with what is only a speculation. I only want to part ways with you and find another path on my own.”
Sir Wang frowned. After some quiet contemplation, he glanced to Wang Hong again.
Wang Hong observed her for a while before saying: “Ah Rong, I’m sure you know that each family has sent guards to scout the road. If there really are Hu tribesmen, why has no one reported back to us? Or are you referring to the other side of the river?”
Chen Rong nodded: “Indeed I mean the other side of the river.”
Wang Hong knitted his brow this time. He told the people around him: “Send a few men to cross the river ahead of us. Make sure to check carefully.”
In doing so, he was acknowledging her opinion.
But Chen Rong wasn’t made happy. She again said, “Whether barbarians are on the other side or not, I do not want to cross the river. Sir Wang, Qilang, please allow me to bid goodbye.”
She was very firm. Wang Zhuo lapsed into silence.
Behind him, Wang Wulang furrowed his brow. He watched Chen Rong’s innocently beautiful face for a moment, stood up, placed his hands together and said, “Ah Rong, why are you in a rush to leave? Qilang has sent scouts ahead, so why not wait a while longer?” Then he added: “You are only a vulnerable woman, and you do not have many guards by your side. What would you do were you to encounter bandits?”
Wang Zhuo nodded on the side and said, “That’s exactly right. Ah Rong, if you believe your Uncle Wang, then don’t speak of leaving any longer. Go go, this old man still wants to finish his dinner.”
Wang Zhuo waved his hand, indicating he did not wish to talk any further.
Chen Rong startlingly realized that if she insisted on leaving, she would not be considerate of the Wangs’ faces.
She pressed her lips and then at length curtsied to Wang Zhuo before turning around to go.
After she went roughly ten steps, she saw Sun Yan standing under a poplar tree, his posture as straight as a sword.
But as soon as she glanced his way, the boy turned away and sprinted back to the team.
Chen Rong was preoccupied and paid him no further attention. She put her head down and also returned to the team.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
She had just mounted the carriage when Nurse Ping’s voice sounded outside: “Miss, Sir Wang thinks highly of you. Perhaps he has chosen you for a Wang gentleman.”
She stopped in her tracks, turning to look in the direction of the Wang house.
Old Shang laughed: “You’re exactly right. What kind of man is Sir Wang? He must have picked out our lady. If we separate from the Wang house at a time like this, we would never meet again. Where would the Wang lads find another lady like Ah Rong?”
Chen Rong’s expression sank upon hearing this. She thought to Wang Wulang’s attitude toward her along the journey. Could this be true?
As the sun slowly descended into the horizon, the wilderness broke into a commotion. All cavalcades stopped and hurried to prepare the ships for the next day’s departure.
Absentmindedly, Chen Rong stepped down from her carriage.
Everywhere around her was bustling with busy servants. She wandered aimlessly for a while before unconsciously coming to a mound.
She stood on the mound looking at the servants from five hundred meters away. There, laughter filled the air, and satin mats draped the lawn a pure white.
Hundreds of nobles had gathered there.
Of course. All the majors clan had gathered at the Yellow River shore. The youngsters wouldn’t miss this chance to meet one another.
“Why aren’t you going over there?”
A male quacking voice suddenly rose behind Chen Rong.
“I’ll go over soon,” she smilingly answered.
Sun Yan took two steps to join her on the mound. After a brief silence, he suddenly said, “You seem a little nervous. Why?”
Chen Rong’s back stiffened. She kept her smile on: “I’m not nervous.”
“You are too!”
“I said I’m not!” She turned and snapped at him.
With the last ray of the setting sun, Sun Yan fixed his gaze on her. His eyes were so sharp that Chen Rong was made to feel the awkwardness of being seen through.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
She quickly turned away, avoiding his gaze.
Sun Yan withdrew his gaze and murmured: “Chen Rong, you are only fifteen years old. Why is it that there are so many secrets hidden in your eyes?”
She scoffed and vehemently countered, “I don’t have any secrets!”
Sun Yan didn’t refute her. He looked to the distant horizon where heaven and earth joined and, after a while, turned to the nobles’ gathering place while saying: “I thought you like Wang Hong. Why aren’t you sticking to his side like the other girls? Qilang of the Wang house would never know that you’re standing here.”
She? Likes Wang Qilang? Chen Rong snickered.
She turned around, smiling at Sun Yan with her midnight eyes. “Who says I like him?” Looking at the boy whose beard had obviously just begun to form a shadow but was always putting on a grown-up demeanor, Chen Rong mischievously winked and said to him, “Compared to him, I much prefer you. Didn’t you know?”
His handsome face instantly turned red.
She didn’t expect this reaction from him. Surprised, she couldn’t help herself from curiously staring at him. Under her gaze, Sun Yan turned even redder. He harrumphed and turned to the side, his raspy voice speaking angrily: “Never repeat such nonsense!”
Then he flapped his sleeves and left the mound, rushing off and disappearing in the blink of an eye from Chen Rong’s field of vision.
Chen Rong stared after him in befuddlement, murmuring: “Did he have to react so strongly? What a strange fellow.”
Chapter 17: Beautiful Still
Brought by the wind from time to time, the sounds of laughter coming from the nobles’ gathering place made Chen Rong itching to go. If her mind weren’t preoccupied, she would have gone over already. It wasn’t every day she got this kind of opportunity. If she performed well, it would be advantageous to her in the future.
After some deliberation, she returned to the carriage to change her clothes and then walked over to the crowd.
The nobles had chosen a barren field just beyond the woods. Damask mats were spread out on this field.
People had formed circles, sitting behind tables that were filled with meat, wine, and pastries. Encircling them were bright torches. Chen Rong gave a glance and found that the corner in the south actually used candles in place of torches.
Weren’t they burning money by illuminating the wilderness with candles?!
Chen Rong shifted her gaze and then walked to the east. Occupying that corner were people from the Wang and Yu houses.
At this time, she was wearing a loose robe and a pair of wooden clogs. Her hair was pulled back and simply tied. There was an easy-going charm in her casual way of dressing.
Amid the clopping of her clogs, the boisterous crowd looked up to her from time to time, many lads rendered silly.
Chen Rong’s had excellent features to begin with, her allure completely different from other girls. Her style of dressing now added to her beauty a bewitching languidness.
Chen Rong did not seem to notice the young men’s eyes. She continued to walk forward with each clomp of her clogs, showing a faint smile in the swaying torchlight.
Before long, she reached the corner where the two families of Wang and Yu sat. She had barely arrived when she heard the 7th lady’s cry: “Father, father, why don’t we also use candles? Look at the Shi family’s laughing faces. I’m irritated just by looking at them!”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
Dozens of other youngsters followed suit in grousing.
At this time, Wang Hong’s indifferent voice rose to say: “The Shi family is the Shi family. The Wang family is the Wang family. It’s good enough to do things our way. Why should we imitate others?”
The youngsters simultaneously silenced. The 7th lady of the Wang house turned her head in embarrassment, her eyes diverting from Wang Hong. Casting a glance, she detected Chen Rong and could not help calling out: “Ah Rong, you’re finally here. Hey, what are you wearing? Aren’t you afraid of offending people with that androgynous appearance?”
The others glanced to Chen Rong at her words, many lighting up at the sight of her – Wang Hong not to be an exception.
Under his sharp gaze, Chen Rong shyly smiled and bowed her head to say hello, then slowly walked to a corner where a few tables were laid and took a seat.
In the firelight, her small blushing face resembled a blooming rose.
Her gait was leisure though she was bashful. Under the loose robe, her slender waist swayed attractively with each of her movement.
Her beauty and allure did not decrease because of her androgynous attire but instead gained a touch of spontaneity and ease like that of water flowing its course.
Unknowingly, Wang Hong became absorbed looking at her.
A scholar slowly said after a sip of wine: “What a beauty, indeed, if she can make the godly Wang Qilang watch her to distraction.”
The crowd all turned to look at Wang Hong upon hearing the man’s words.
Wang Hong coughed, raised his glass to block his face, and smiled uncomfortably: “Your eyes are too piercing that my thin face cannot bear the sting!”
Bursts of laughter rang out.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
Yu Zhi slapped his thigh laughing while waving to Chen Rong and calling her: “Miss Chen, come and take a seat over here.”
And then he pointed to Wang Hong: “Right there.”
Everyone’s eyes instantaneously gathered on Chen Rong’s figure.
These included both burning gazes from the young lads and jealous ones from the girls.
Chen Rong did not move. She lowered her gaze and coyly said, “Qilang’s presence is so unearthly that a mere mortal like me does not dare near him.”
Wang Hong’s soft laughter gave sound: “I’ve not been able to see you again ever since you played that song for me. Now I know it’s because you ‘dare not near’ me.”
In front of so many people, his voice was one of rich smoothness, like a flowing mountain stream. It was as if he was affectionately reproaching her. How unbearably ticklish his words had strummed people’s hearts.
Before she knew it, all the girls were glaring at her with jealousy and antagonism.
Chen Rong had a good laugh to herself, thinking in her mind: As a man, if you had any feelings for me at all then why didn’t you approach me? Instead, you want a woman like me to approach you. My, Wang Hong’s sweet words are very charming. He must be another womanizer.
The ladies’ eyes from all four sides were too threatening. Under Wang Hong’s gaze, Chen Rong merely smiled and made no other reply.
When she did not speak, Wang Hong’s attention soon turned to the topics of the scholars’ conversations.
At this time, Wang Wulang’s voice came to her from behind: “Ah Rong of the Chen house.”
“Hmm?” Chen Rong looked up.
Wang Wulang was watching her with a fiery gaze, one that was different from his previous intensity. It seemed Wang Hong’s interest in Chen Rong had roused this young man.
Under her quizzical eyes, he briefly paused and then at length laughed and said, “By the way, why did you want to leave during the day? Isn’t it better to stay with us? Or do you feel that we have not been good hosts to you?
He had wanted to start a topic, but the moment he opened his mouth to speak, his tone came out somewhat intimidating.
Chen Rong shook her head, saying: “Why do you say that, Wulang? I just… I just feel uneasy, that’s all.” At this point, she felt especially stuffy. Seeing that Wang Wulang was about to speak again, Chen Rong quickly inquired, “Have the guards come back? How is the situation on the other side of the river?”
“How can they come back in so short a time?” said Wang Wulang in an unconcerned manner, shaking his head. “In any case, everyone will cross the river tomorrow regardless of whether they come back or not.” After a pause, he added, “This is what the scholars have all agreed on just now. Ah Rong, you’re just overly worried.”
Is that so?
Chen Rong’s heart gave a start as she thought: Never mind, that man would not do anything out of line to the nobles. It’s just that, it’s just that… I really don’t want to see him…