Chapter 24: Men of Honor
Chen Rong suddenly halted after scampering for fifty paces.
She turned around and then smiled, slowly walking back.
As she saw her approaching, Chen Wei harrumphed and pulled down her curtain.
Unexpectedly, Chen Rong did not go to her to apologize but instead unhurriedly went on toward Wang Hong, which was also toward Ran Min.
She soon arrived at Wang Hong’s side, and then after dismissing Nurse Ping and the others, sat down on his damask mat.
She was doing what all the ladies there wanted to do but did not actually dare to. All at once, their eyes were affixed to her.
Wang Hong’s attention was held by the tuning of his zither. When he suddenly felt another presence next to him, he couldn’t help but frown.
Turning his head, he saw that Chen Rong was hugging her knees and looking to the skyline pensively.
At a loss for words, he finally spoke in a low voice: “My dear (1), it’s seldom you come to sit with me. Are you here to watch the idle clouds at the end of the sky?” There was an implied affection in his gentle voice.
He is using the word 卿 which, though a term of endearment, can also lean a little patronizing depending on context as it is one-directional from the “higher” to the “lower” person, like parents who call their child “sweetie” but not the other way around. Here, he means to be ambiguous, as “dear” is something he often uses to address scholars of lower ranks as well, but obviously, when he talks to Chen Rong there is always playful flirtation involved.
For this reason, the moment he said what he said, all the girls glared sharply at Chen Rong. Even Wang Wulang snapped his head up, looking unblinkingly at her, a conflicting struggle once again emerging on his face.
Chen Rong casually turned to look at him, her eyes remaining lucid when she was faced with that overwhelming gaze of his.
Her lips drew into a line. moc.824retsmah
Thereupon, she turned back to Wang Hong, and in a thoughtful yet artless manner, she gently said to him, “Qilang, look how free that white cloud is. If there are no storms, it can go on forever freely like that. But once a storm arrives, it would be filled with anger and grief, turning to rain that washes the Earth anew. Or, it could choose to stay in a place where, whether the wind scatters it or swirls it into darkness and rain, as long as it remembers it was once an idle cloud, then it can continue to be free.”
Regarding Wang Hong, and then Ran Min who was turning around to look, her dark, bottomless eyes slowly curved into crescent moons. Then she smiled and said, “In my mind, Qilang and Lord Ran are both men of honor.”
She stood up, adding: “And there are not very many men of honor in this world.” When she finished, she waltzed away, leaving behind an amused Wang Hong and an astounded Ran Min.
Chen Rong’s voice wasn’t high, enough for only the two men to hear.
Several girls encircled her as soon as she left. A beautiful one who had a pointy chin asked her, “What did you say to them?”
“Tell us, what did you say?” another twittered. “Qilang doesn’t like others to near him in his quiet times. Why were you able to join him, even making him laugh so merrily? Ah Rong of the Chen house, you are not worthy of those two dashing men. It’s best you stay away from them.”
She was immediately met with Chen Rong’s eyes.
Ones that were vaguely murderous. moc.824retsmah
Aghast, she quickly shut up.
Chen Rong withdrew her gaze and dismissively said, “What does it matter whether I’m worthy or not?” Then she flapped her sleeves and left.
People of this era loved to say cryptic things and loved to ponder a sentence over and over again. Despite being quite simple, Chen Rong’s line still made those who heard it begin to ponder over the hidden meanings of its words.
Before long, Chen Rong had mounted her carriage. She drew her curtain down, seeming as though she did not see Chen Wei repeatedly looking her way.
Inside, Chen Rong’s lips upturned and exposed a slight sneer. moc.824retsmah
As darkness descended, torches steadily lit up to illuminate the vast wilderness.
As usual, the youngsters spread damask mats on the lawn and gathered to talk and jest.
Wang Hong reclined against his seat and gazed up to the moon in the sky while saying: “‘Filled with anger and grief, turning to rain that cleanses Earth anew.’ Ran Min, Miss Chen has great respect for you.”
Ran Min was different from him. Belonging to the Wang house of Lang’ya, it could be said that Wang Hong’s surname alone gave him immeasurable glory. With this surname, whatever he did would be interpreted as courtly. If he went on to do a few things that were worth mentioning, he would even board the seats of the sages.
On the other hand, Ran Min was nicknamed Tumbleweed (2). Though he came from an exemplary lineage, his own father was adopted by a barbarian. As a man whose surname had even changed, no matter what he did, it was difficult to obtain the respect of Central Plains nobles.
Rootless, outsider, etc.
Chen Rong’s praise was certainly meant for the both of them, but though such praise was superfluous for Wang Hong, it was rather rare for Ran Min.
Ran Min was holding a blade of grass on his lips with his arms folded across his chest. Upon hearing Wang Hong’s remark, he turned his head and beheld the crowd under his deep eyes.
In the moonlight, scented garments flittered in throngs. They did not seem to be fleeing but sightseeing, more like. His eyes swept across the crowd briefly before returning to the sky again.
He did not answer his companion. Wang Hong also closed his eyes, raising his head to feel the cool autumn breeze and saying nothing more.
The two of them sat that way in silence beside each other, appearing to be very comfortable and unmindful of the other person.
In the meantime, Chen Rong merely kept her head down as she quietly ate her pastries. Opposite her, her cousin Chen Wei was laughing and joking with the other girls.
It was evident to Chen Wei that Chen Rong was sullen tonight and did not appear at all to be in a good mood.
Nonetheless, Chen Rong still hadn’t apologized to Chen Wei for her rudeness. Chen Wei’s status was much higher than Chen Rong’s to begin with. She was already condescending herself to be putting on a smiling face for Chen Rong. At the very least, other girls of Chen house wouldn’t be able to do the same.
Chen Wei finally lost her patience. She leaned back to ask: “What did you say when you went to Wang Qilang just now? Why did he look at you that way?”
What Chen Wei asked was what everyone else wanted to ask. The moment she spoke, the two girls sitting beside her turned around and watched Chen Rong as they waited for her answer.
Chen Rong slowly swallowed her pastry before answering: “Nothing much. I was only asking for Wang Qilang’s advice on zither playing. As for General Ran, perhaps he might think I’m a bold girl.”
Chen Rong ignored her.
“Since you were daring enough to discuss zither playing with Qilang, your music must be excellent, then?” the same lady asked.
Chen Rong again did not reply. She only placed the pastry in her hand down and said to Nurse Ping, who was standing behind her: “Bring me my zither.”
Chapter 25: Purchasing Food
Surprised, Chen Wei managed to put on a smile as she asked, “Ah Rong, don’t tell me you want to play a song?”
Chen Rong smiled and nodded.
The three girls simultaneously laughed – in addition to several renowned scholars, no one touched music along the way, for everyone knew that with the numerous masters in this large cavalcade, one ought not to show off lest he revealed his own incompetence.
Chen Rong was only a little girl. If she dared to play in front of the masses, might her playing be that good?
“How bold of Miss Chen,” a man’s voice sounded at this time.
Without lifting her head, Chen Rong lightly replied: “When our hearts are not at ease, music will bring us peace. When our hearts are already at peace, music will bring us leisure. Just what about music and poetry is bold, may I ask?”
A few girls wanted to say something but quickly thought better of it. They naturally heard the sublimity in Chen Rong’s words. No matter what they say now, their words would only be made to sound vulgar when juxtaposed with her brilliance.
Nurse Ping had brought a zither to Chen Rong by this time.
Chen Rong placed the instrument down and lifted her fingers. Suddenly, another series of zither notes flowed from the distant wilderness. Leisurely and pleased, they painted a picture of tall mountains and winding streams – the culmination of all things ethereal.
The crowd immediately moved that way. Chen Wei and the other girls rose to follow the sound – such music could only be played by Wang Qilang.
Before she knew it, surrounding Chen Rong was but empty space.
She bowed her head, stroking the strings with her alabaster fingers as she smiled before resting her hands on the strings.
Seeing her not playing, the man who questioned her earlier chuckled and asked, “Miss, why are you hesitating?”
Chen Rong handed the zither back to Nurse Ping and thought to herself: Though my music is notable, I would only be highlighting my deficiencies in front of Lang’ya Wang Qi’s music. What good is it to interrupt his playing? Even so, she softly replied, “A heavenly song is already amongst us. ‘Tis enough to banish sorrow.”
Tongue-tied, the man had nothing to return. moc.824retsmah
In an era that worshiped debates, uttering words where others had no answer to was a talent all nobles esteemed.
In her previous life, Chen Rong’s temper had been fierce, her speech had been clumsy, and she had always fallen prey to others’ verbal traps. After suffering time after time, she found that in this troubled world, if you did not want to become someone else’s laughing stock, you must practice the art of the tongue. If she could use sophisticated and humorous words to render others speechless, it would be good for her social advancement.
After she handed the zither to Nurse Ping, while no one paid attention, she quietly rose and retreated to the dark.
Stepping on the round moon, she wandered to the mound. Standing there, Chen Rong gazed down to the corner where Ran Min and Wang Hong resided.
That corner was forever lively and restless. moc.824retsmah
Chen Rong stared for a while before she dropped her gaze and looked at the ground where her shadow drew long.
The night soon passed.
The team left again the next day. moc.824retsmah
Whatever it was Ran Min had said, the team began to gain speed that morning.
They progressed in that way for days on out. On moonlit nights, they would charge on until the rat hour (11 pm) before stopping to rest.
Due to the previous encounters with Hu armies, the noble children did not dare to complain even though they felt incredibly miserable.
After ten days of traveling, a city fortress appeared ahead.
Looking at the tall walls, Chen Rong summoned her servants and bade, “I have some gold leaves. After we arrive in the city, the first thing you are to do is buy food. The more, the better.”
Having pressed on the entire way, the grains she brought from Ping had almost depleted. “Pawn all the fabric and silk to buy food with the money,” she added after some thinking.
“Old Shang, borrow from the Wangs, the Yus, and the direct line of Chen ten carriages each. Tell them that I’m worried there would be a food shortage in Nan’yang, so I would like to buy food here.”
Nurse Ping, Old Shang and everyone else looked at her in surprise. Nurse Ping cried: “Miss, we’ll have clansmen in Nan’yang. Why do we have to do this?”
Old Shang also cried: “Miss, thirty carriages can all be borrowed from the Chen house. Why borrow from outsiders?”
“Although Nan’yang is a great city,” Chen Rong frowningly began, “so many nobles and refugees flooding it in such a short time will surely create a food shortage. My father and brother aren’t here, so no matter where I go, I would have to depend on other people. If I don’t want people to give me a hard time, I’ll need adequate food and money. I’ll think of some other way to obtain money, but food will need to be stocked up before we enter the city.”
She then explained to Old Shang: “I want to borrow carriages from the Wangs and Yus only because I want to let them know of my speculation, lest they resent me by the time we’re in Nan’yang should there really be a shortage of food, saying I knew but did not tell them.”
“Miss, how wise and farsighted you are.”
Listening to Nurse Ping and Old Shang’s praises, Chen Rong wryly smiled: If I hadn’t experienced it once, would I have possessed this wisdom?
It was eventide by the time the cavalcade arrived in the city. After traveling nonstop for the past few days, the nobles were all exhausted. To finally arrive in a city that was still bustling and peaceful, albeit somewhat shabby, all wished they could stop and not go another step.
As the fleet entered the city, the tiny town became awash in ebullition.
Soon after, Nurse Ping said to Chen Rong outside her carriage: “Miss, food is very expensive here. A bolt of fabric can only be exchanged for nine pecks of rice. In Ping, a bolt of fabric was worth twenty pecks, you know.”
Chen Rong’s decisive voice returned to her: “Exchange everything into food based on that price.”
She took out a bag and handed it to the older woman: “Nurse, here are thirty pieces of gold leaves. Use them all to buy food.” The city was full of nobles at this time; nobody would dare to design for these gold leaves.
“But miss, we’ll need money for everything after we reach Nan’yang. We only have a dozen people, why are we buying so much food?”
Chen Rong’s displeased voice came from inside: “Just do as I say.”
Because of Chen Rong’s adamant attitude, the servants started moving. That night, they filled all thirty-three carriages with food.
This was a very small town. After Chen Rong’s food had filled the carriages, she heard Old Shang muttering that food had gone up in price again, from a bolt of fabric for nine pecks of rice to one bolt of fabric for five pecks of rice – leaving them with no money left over.
The Wang house and those who also came from the City of Ping did not question Chen Rong’s ability to buy grains though she had dispersed her family wealth. Any noble family would accumulate wealth for decades, and no one would really squander his own emergency funds. Those who dispersed their family wealth for the peasants and then reduced themselves to beggars were fools, not wise men.
Chapter 26: Change in Status
Early next morning, the cavalcade pressed on amid the noble children’s grousing.
Chen Rong was very reticent as of late. Unless she felt the need to appear, she remained quiet the rest of the time.
After twenty days of traveling day and night, they found themselves only a hundred miles away from Nan’yang.
When they heard Ran Min’s announcement, the crowd erupted in loud cheers. Only a hundred miles more before they could settle down. There would be no living in tents and constant fear any longer!
As they approached their destination, each clan began to tighten its watch on the children. Chen Rong’s carriage was also not allowed to freely come and go. Additionally, she was grouped with the Chen queue and had to stay with other young ladies of the Chens.
As for the position of the carriages, hers was right next to Chen Wei’s. This was not a trifling matter, for her status after arriving in Nan’yang was decided at this very moment.
Chen Rong let out a long exhale and finally relaxed. She had often showed off along the way, never giving up any opportunity to display her talent. She at last received her rewards.
One ought to know that a gentlewoman’s position in the clan typically decided her marriage. In the past, she was pushed to the outermost peripheral of the Chen unit. As soon as she arrived in Nan’yang, she was almost promised as a concubine to a decrepit man by her uncle, Chen Yuan. Had she not thrown out a series of schemes, she wouldn’t have been able to escape that dreadful marriage.
Wang Wulang and his sister who had long paid attention to Chen Rong quickly noticed her change in status. While they were lost in thought, another Wang youngster laughed: “Hey, isn’t Ah Rong of the Chen house now a direct descendant? It seems that if any of us Wang wanted to marry her, it’d be a tad difficult to take her in as a concubine.” He turned to Wang Wulang and teased him with a grin: “Wulang, you should be content and marry her as your wife. Despite her humble background, she has extraordinary talents, is viewed highly by Qilang and praised by the elders. You can deign yourself to marry her, methinks.”
On their journey, Wang Wulang had struggled regarding Chen Rong’s matter. The Wang children had taken notice. When the opportunity arose, they all took the chance to make fun of him.
Wang Wulang harrumphed and responded, “My marriage will be decided by the elders.” Irritation was detected in his voice.
A surge of restlessness suddenly broke out in the forefront at this time.
At the crowd’s puzzlement, Ran Min was seen riding away on his red stallion as he led his army to a smaller path.
Watching their figures going farther and farther, the noble children were quick to cry:
“Why is this happening?” moc.824retsmah
“What is going on?”
A middle-aged scholar responded: “General Ran has other business to attend to and must leave first. Everyone, we can only rely on ourselves from now on.”
Commotion ensued. “Then what are we waiting for? Hurry, let’s go, else the barbarians will catch up to us,” a young boy yelled out.
“Aye, aye, we should make haste.” moc.824retsmah
“Hurry along. What are you still standing around for?”
These nobles had been full of complaints all day every day along the way. Now that Ran Min left, they automatically urged themselves on.
Amid the calls and noises, a young lad from Ran Min’s departing group suddenly turned his horse around and galloped straight for them.
He cantered quickly and soon darted to the Chen house to the surprise of everyone. Chen Rong raised her head to see that it was he. She quickly told Old Shang to steer the carriage over.
The person who came had a small, dashing face, fair and soft skin, a tall nose and rosy lips. Enchantingly beautiful, it was indeed Sun Yan.
He looked up at Chen Rong. moc.824retsmah
Facing him, she smiled and said, “Young Mr. Sun, you’ll have to be careful of swords and arrows now that you’ll join the general.”
Here, she thought to herself that the place he would be following Ran Min to wasn’t just any ordinary battlefield. With her voice suddenly lodged in her throat, she took a good long while before saying: “Protect yourself. Only when you stay alive can you take revenge.”
Sun Yan grinned, his smile resembling moon beams breaking through the clouds.
He smiled with squinted eyes. “I’ve come to hear you say this. I’m glad I got to hear it.”
He kicked the horse’s girth, causing it to trot to Chen Rong’s side. Then he leaned in so close that his face almost touched hers.
Pressing against her ear, he used his pubertal voice to huskily say: “Ah Rong of the Chen house, you’re not little anymore.”
Chen Rong turned a supercilious eye.
Sun Yan’s voice continued to pour into her ears. Whether he was intentional or not, his breath blew straight into her ear, raising goose bumps on her skin.
“I’m sure you’ll be promised away after you arrive in Nan’yang. But your birthright is too humble that most of these proposals can’t be great. Listen to me, don’t compromise so easily. You must drag your feet, drag them until the day no one wants you anymore and until I have come back.”
Whatever he was thinking, Sun Yan suddenly laughed. He was still cackling by the time Chen Rong shoved him away.
Watching the boy merrily ride off, Chen Rong muttered under her breath: “I can’t believe he had the nerve to laugh with that quacking voice. What a grating sound!”
Though she grumbled, at this moment, Chen Rong thought she saw faint tears from the young boy who had suddenly returned.
The team went forth again. moc.824retsmah
As night fell, they could not go on for the sky was moonless. While they set camp, the youngsters almost caused a scene after some relentless pressuring.
Fortunately, their journey was free from harm. Three days later, the city gates of Nan’yang came into view.
Looking at the towering gates, the crowd abruptly broke into ecstatic cries. These were cries from people who used all their strength to howl after they had survived the worst. They attracted turning heads at the city gate where numerous people looked in their direction.
A scene of joy ensued. There were still clansmen in Nan’yang, all of whom came out at this time to welcome them. Since he belonged to the primary Lang’ya line of the Wang clan, Wang Qilang even received a reception from the Prince of Nan’yang. As for other clans like the Chens, despite being direct descendants, they were only branches instead of the main household of Yingchuan, and they thus could not meet the city’s master.
Through the hustle and bustle, Chen Rong’s horse carriage followed the Chen clan’s enormous queue and headed for a residence. This residence had belonged to the Chen house of Nan’yang before they vacated it for them.
Room assignment came next. Even though Chen Rong was only a concubine-born daughter of a subsidiary branch, she was the only member of her branch. Furthermore, she had displayed extraordinary wisdom on the journey, and thus was given her own courtyard. This courtyard was a bit removed from the main compound, and next-door was the courtyard belonging to Chen Wei and her younger sister.
Nurse Ping led the group and began to busy themselves with sorting out the rooms and then storing away their food. When everything was taken care of, they went and returned the carriages.
Because she was understaffed, Chen Rong was also put to work. Of course, the tasks she did were of the scholarly variety such as organizing her study and cataloging her books.
This flurry of activities was one that spanned two full days.
Whew, we finally got to Nan’yang! That sure took forever.
I’ll try to keep the weekly updates coming but don’t be surprised if they come a little later from now on. Our workload at work isn’t very consistent so I might be running into a heavy spell as soon as this coming week -_-