Chapter 27: Important Affairs
It was the third day, and Chen Rong was sitting in the courtyard that had been newly remodeled while bowing her head to tune the zither.
“Miss,” Nurse Ping came over and whispered to her.
“We are running out of money and fabric,” she said, before adding: “Some furnishings will need to be replaced. You’ll also have to acquire new clothes as you have very little right now. Miss, should we mention this to the master?”
Chen Rong’s eyes did not move from the strings when she replied with a no.
Here, Nurse Ping thought to the extraordinary way her mistress had conducted herself along the journey and calmed herself down as she awaited Chen Rong’s instruction.
Chen Rong placed the zither to the side, looked up to Nurse Ping and said, “Tell Old Shang to listen around and see whether my uncle Chen Gongrang has returned.”
Seeing Chen Rong starting to play with the strings again and looking to be slightly absent-minded, the nurse asked in curiosity, “Miss, what have you been thinking about these past few days?”
What has she been thinking about? What else but the events that had happened in her previous life? For whatever reason, her memory was becoming blurrier and blurrier. She completely couldn’t recall some of the pieces of the past; even a few of the more crucial events did not come to her mind until the very last minute.
It was making Chen Rong ill at ease.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
At this time, laughter rang out from the courtyard next-door.
Chen Wei’s courtyard.
Nurse Ping sighed and couldn’t help herself from saying: “The rooms have been visiting one another in these past three days. But when I tried to make appointments on your behalf, people from the Chen house of Nan’yang would only give lukewarm responses and look to be rather unhappy.”
“I know.” Nan’yang was suddenly overcrowded by people like her and other migrants. Even if the Chen house of Nan’yang was prosperous, she wasn’t exactly a favorite guest. Since they didn’t want these people to come, they would put forward all kinds of conditions once they asked for a visit.
Of course, she was mainly shunned due to her inferior line. Chen Wei next-door had long mingled with other girls in the clan while her place had been deserted for the past three days with not a single soul stopping by.
In the past, she didn’t understand these things and would follow Chen Wei house to house each day in Nan’yang. As a result, everybody thought she was seeking charity. They looked at her as if she was a beggar, never bothering to hide the sarcasm in their words while they thoroughly humiliated her. Of course, it had been for her lack of food and money that she had had to solicit her family.
At this point in her train of thought, Chen Rong bade: “Tell Old Shang he’s never to bother the master no matter what we’re missing.”
“But miss, we’re family.”
“Do as I say,” she ordered frowningly.
“That’s right miss, the master has ordered every lady to attend tomorrow night’s banquet. What will you be wearing?”
“Tomorrow night?” Chen Rong asked, rising from her seat. Tomorrow night? Yes, it would be tomorrow night! In honor of the Prince of Nan’yang, who already had one foot in the grave, the Chen house would be hosting a night banquet. Back then Advisor Xu, an aide to the Prince of Nan’yang, had taken a fancy to her looks and demanded to have her as a concubine. At the time, she was so lovestruck with Ran Min that even her dreams were filled with his shadow. She had been thunderstruck to hear this news. Because refusal turned out to be futile, she had even thought to kill herself.
That nightmare was too dark and deep. Even now, her voice would involuntarily tremble at the mention of it.
Nurse Ping looked at her in surprise, nodded and said, “Aye. I heard the Prince of Nan’yang, Qilang of the Wang house, and the Duke of Jiangzuo will all be in attendance.”
Seeing Chen Rong’s quivering lips, the nurse worriedly called, “Miss, miss, are you all right? Are you feeling ill?”
Yes, yes, I can pretend to be ill!
Chen Rong’s ashen face slightly relaxed. She turned to her nurse and hastily said, “Nurse, announce to the master at once that I have been looking ill since we arrived in Nan’yang; that I’ve had no appetite and am now bedridden. Ask him to find a doctor for me.”
“For what reason, miss? I heard all the young ladies and gentlemen will come to tomorrow night’s banquet. If you make a good impression, you might even find a favorable match.”
Chen Rong didn’t want to explain. She snapped impatiently: “Just do as I say!”
“… Aye.” As she watched Chen Rong, the nurse couldn’t stop herself from thinking: My mistress is acting more and more peculiarly these days.
By the time Nurse Ping left, Chen Rong’s face was still drained of color.
She knew because she was only a concubine-born daughter of a subsidiary branch, at the banquet in her previous life, her uncle Chen Yuan had agreed to give her to an advisor who was already in his fifties. It was the beginning of everything. She had had to exhaust all means and almost made her reputation into an entangled mess before she could barely escape from that nightmare. At the time, she had heard her uncle say that not only Advisor Xu took a fancy to her, but so did the Prince of Nan’yang.
Her uncle had been filled with regret then. In his opinion, if Chen Rong hadn’t acted with impropriety, the Prince of Nan’yang might have asked Advisor Xu to transfer her to him.
In other words, even if she didn’t go tomorrow night, even if she painstakingly tried her entire life to elevate her status, even if she wasn’t going to be promised to Advisor Xu this time, she still may not be able to escape the claws of the Nan’yang Prince. That lecherous monster had almost a hundred concubines in his inner quarters, assembling every temperament and face that existed on Earth. It was her stunning looks and fiery temper that had caught his attention.
Chen Rong’s heart became weary at this thought. She rubbed her hands together while pacing back and forth in the courtyard. What could she do, what could she do?
And yet the laughter from the other side of the wall kept drifting over.
It was becoming more and more audible.
Sensing that the laughing voices had come into her courtyard, Chen Rong gave a glance to Old Shang before turning away and darting into her bedchamber.
Soon, she heard Chen Wei pleasantly asking outside: “Oh, your lady isn’t home? There is a banquet tomorrow night and we are all taking a look at our new clothes. Tell your lady to go with us.”
“Our lady is sleeping,” Old Shang’s respectful voice was heard.
“Is that so?” Chen Wei sounded a little disappointed. “The dress for Ah Rong is very beautiful. I had wanted to see how it would look on her.”
Standing in her bedchamber, Chen Rong’s brain started to buzz when she heard these words. I remember it now, I remember it now! It was exactly like this previously. The clan had prepared the most beautiful gown for her and given her gorgeous accessories. When Advisor Xu asked Chen Yuan to let him have her, Chen Yuan’s face had seemed a little disappointed. Yes, that’s right, at the time, the Nan’yang Prince’s attention had been lured away by an equally glamorous courtesan. Seeing as the prince did not appear to be interested in Chen Rong, Chen Yuan had agreed to give her to Advisor Xu.
The house of Chen had long meant to give her to the Prince of Nan’yang! And yet considering his status, even though she was now a direct descendant, she could only be his concubine.
Chapter 28: Uncovered
It had not been long since Chen Wei left when Nurse Ping returned. But she did not bring back a doctor. Seeing Chen Rong pacing to and fro in the room, the nurse relayed: “Master sent you a ginseng, miss. He asked me to take good care of you. He also said…” Her voice was quiet: “He said that your body is in good health and you should not be too gravely ill. Even if you are, you’ve weathered it for a few days already. He also said there will be many young folks tomorrow evening and that you should go and meet them.”
At this juncture, Nurse Ping looked eagerly to Chen Rong, hoping her mistress would agree.
Seeing her nurse’s expression, Chen Rong thought with a headache: No wonder my uncle doesn’t believe us. How can I be gravely ill with the way my nurse is looking?
Chen Rong mulled for a moment, lowered her gaze and said, “Say no more. Henceforth you must put on a look of anxiety. If the master sends people over tomorrow, you must tell them my illness is severe and I cannot step down from bed.”
She looked to Nurse Ping and decided to explain to her: “Think about it, nurse. There will be many young men tomorrow night, but with my status, I can only be a concubine, right?” She paused, her obsidian eyes showing a flash of cunning. “Nurse, you didn’t know this, but when we were still in the City of Ping, I faintly heard Uncle Wu say that my father has done something that gained him a respectable reputation and the approval of an important man. He even got a promotion of some sort.”
“Is that true, miss? Is it really?” Nurse Ping hastily exclaimed in joy.
Chen Rong nodded and replied, “That’s what Uncle Wu said. I wonder if it’s true.”
“Why, that’s great news!”
Nurse Ping lit up. Due to her excitement, her tiny eyes were drawn into lines. She covered her mouth and sounded a little tearful: “How good. Nothing would be better if it’s really so.” She hastily turned and walked toward the door while beginning to fuss: “You’re right. The matches the master lined up for you can’t be favorable at all. I will now tell the servants that you are sick and bound to bed.”
Just as the nurse opened the door, a burst of noises entered their ears. Very clearly, Chen Rong heard a middle-aged woman’s gentle voice: “Where is your mistress?”
“She’s in her bedchamber, ma’am.”
“Is she unwell?”
“This I do not know, ma’am.”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
As their dialogues progressed, Chen Rong dashed to her bed, took off her shoes, and dove under the quilt.
As her curtains dropped, a man loudly announced from beyond the door: “Is Ah Rong inside? Your aunt has brought a doctor here to see you.”
Because these people came out of the blue, Nurse Ping did not have enough time to react. She blankly turned to look at Chen Rong. When she saw the fluttering curtains, she quickly turned around and replied, “My mistress is asleep. Elder, please enter.”
Then she hesitatingly opened the door.
A sumptuously dressed woman in her late twenties led an older doctor in.
Chen Rong’s heart pounded louder with each of their nearing footsteps.
She couldn’t believe her aunt had actually found a doctor for her. One should know that those who came south this time were mostly of the wealthy and delicate breed. It couldn’t be counted how many got sick in the wilderness. With patient demand exceeding doctor supply and considering her standing, it couldn’t be her turn so quickly, could it?
It seemed she was of high value to her clan.
A whiff of fragrance followed the footsteps in. The ornately-dressed woman stepped to her bedside and, not stopping there, reached out to lift Chen Rong’s bed curtains while smilingly saying: “I heard that Ah Rong likes to use the whip and so should have the courage of men. I wouldn’t think she is shy like ordinary females.”
Her voice had barely landed by the time she had the curtains drawn. Following the ray of light, Chen Rong appeared to view. She was lying in bed, her hair had not been let down, and her clothes had not been changed.
The woman gave her a glance and retreated, then turned to the doctor and politely said, “Elder He, please take a look.”
The doctor nodded his head and then took a seat by his patient’s bedside. Chen Rong dithered awhile before slowly extending her hand.
Suddenly remembering that she had not taken off her outer robe, she rolled up her sleeves and thereby revealed her smooth porcelain wrist so that the doctor can check her pulse.
The doctor rested three of his cold fingers on her wrist. After a few seconds, he let go of her hand, nodded and stood up.
“Elder He, how is she doing?” asked the woman, her eyes acutely bright.
Elder He shook his head replying: “She has adequate energy and blood flow. Some dizziness isn’t worrying, there’s no need for a prescription.”
“See Elder He out.”
After the doctor’s footsteps had died away, the ornately-dressed woman turned to look at Chen Rong and her servants. She glanced at Chen Rong, who was still buried underneath her quilt, her back turned to her, her eyes closed and body motionless. Smiling, the woman said, “Ah Rong, stop playing around. Your uncle said few men in our clan have better health than yours. How can you fall ill so suddenly like this?”
She didn’t wait for Chen Rong’s answer when she turned around and reprimanded the nurse and maids: “Your lady is young. If you indulge her frivolousness the next time, all of you will be expelled from the estate! Hmph, there are presently too many people for the amount of food we have anyway. We actually need to get rid of a few idle ones.”
When she finished, she flapped her sleeves and swung her hips to walk out.
By the time the door squeaked close and only until she no longer heard those footsteps, an ashen Nurse Ping recovered to ask: “Miss, what are we going to do?”
Chen Rong slowly pulled her quilt away.
She sat up and brushed aside her tangled hair, clenching the bedsheet before quickly letting it go: “Leave me.”
In the evening, a gown for the next day’s banquet was sent to Chen Rong’s courtyard.
Time slowly trickled by.
Chen Rong sat in her courtyard late into the night, listening to the laughter ringing in from other courtyards.
Chapter 29: Meeting the Elders
Nurse Ping busied herself in the yard for a while and then anxiously watched Chen Rong, who was resting her hands on the zither strings motionlessly.
Seeing as it had gotten to high noon, she went to Chen Rong’s side and concernedly prompted, “Miss, you haven’t even eaten.” She paused. “Marriage is determined by the heavens. I’m sure my lady is blessed. Wang Wulang might even ask for your hand tonight.”
Nurse Ping glowed at this thought.
Chen Rong shook her head, held her zither and slowly stood up. “Nurse.”
“Tell Old Shang to ask around whether my uncle Chen Gongrang has returned. If he isn’t in, then which elders are at the estate?”
Nurse Ping had scarcely lifted her soles when she heard a series of zither notes rising behind her. The intermittent music made it hard for people to breathe.
Old Shang was hasty in nature. Within an hour he had come back to report: “Your uncles Chen Yuan, Chen Lie, and Chen Shu are all home.”
Uncle Chen Shu is also here?
“Bring the chestnuts and grains in the warehouse out and fill up ten carriages for me.”
Nurse Ping and Old Shang looked at each other for a while before Old Shang replied: “Aye.”
Loading food was not a simple matter. A dozen servants took four full hours before they could finish. In the meanwhile, Chen Rong had given herself a careful bath and put on the clothes the clan sent last night: a set of soft yellow and purple outfit.
Nurse Ping was rendered spellbound while she helped Chen Rong comb her hair. She stared at her mistress, murmuring: “I never realized how pretty you are, miss.”
Looking at the beautiful face in the bronze mirror, Chen Rong also rounded her eyes. She touched her face and whispered: “How did I change so much?” At this age, it would have been impossible to possess such looks in her previous life.
In the mirror, her gorgeous features were softened by her beautiful clothes and her youthfulness added a purity to her looks. She resembled a blossoming rose in the early morning dew at this moment, tenderly dazzling, stunningly pure.
“Nurse, we don’t need to do my hair,” said Chen Rong as she watched herself in the mirror.
“Bring me my wooden clogs.”
After she was properly dressed, Chen Rong took a deep breath, reached for the dagger hanging on the wall and hid it in her sleeve. Having done all this, she finally stepped out.
Color drained from the nurse’s face when she saw her put the dagger into her sleeve. “Miss?!”
Chen Rong did not look back, casually saying: “Don’t worry. I won’t do anything stupid.”
This translation belongs to hamster428.
Meanwhile, Old Shang’s voice called from outside: “Miss, the chestnuts and grains have been loaded.”
“Good work.” Chen Rong opened the door where she, predictably, was faced with the widened eyes of her servants. “Let’s go see the clan elders.”
It was near evening, and Uncle Chen Shu’s quarters were located on the east side of the estate.
Chen Shu was an astute and sociable man, his speech eloquent. Within the Chen house of Nan’yang, he was second only to Chen Gongrang.
Because he was sociable, carriages were always seen coming and going in his courtyard with youngsters in fancy garments fleeting to and fro. Under the current circumstances, it was a popular gathering place even among the young Chen ladies.
It was a rare sunny day and, in the garden where delighted laughter ceaselessly rang, sparse leaves rattled with the flow of a late autumn wind. A group of courtesans surrounded the guests while a stream of servants served them meat and wine.
Chen Wei and the girls were standing by the swings, looking to several young men in the pavilion while covering their mouths in giggles.
“Ah Wei, I heard uncle has decided to betroth you to General Ran, is that true? He’s remarkably handsome, and the most strapping of them all. You’re quite a lucky girl.”
Another lady belonging to the Chen house of Nan’yang disdainfully scoffed and interjected: “He’s merely a commoner who has changed his surname. So what if he is good looking?” Seeing Chen Wei glaring at her, she raised her chin and haughtily added, “But then again, if he doesn’t come from such a background, it wouldn’t be your turn as a concubine-born woman to marry him.”
“Chen Qian, you!”
“What about me?”
“Can you two soften your voices? Look, they’re all staring at us.”
The two girls simultaneously stopped.
At this very moment, they heard a stream of noises out in front and couldn’t help looking in that direction. They were surprised to see Chen Rong’s coach leading a mighty train of carriages into the courtyard.
People were enjoying music and autumn leaves swirling in the air. For so spectacular a queue to emerge in this place at this time, not only the youngsters stopped joking but even the courtesans stopped dancing, all turning around to look.
Chen Rong’s coach came to a stop.
Nurse Ping hopped down and helped her lady out.
The curtain lifted.
A milky hand contrasting against soft yellow fabric appeared in front of everyone like beautiful jade.
The youngsters were stunned by what they saw. They straightened their postures and raised their heads, waiting for the person in the carriage with interest piqued.
With the help of the nurse, a beautiful girl appeared before their eyes.
She was Chen Rong.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
At Chen Rong’s appearance, Chen Wei and the other girls widened their eyes in astonishment.
Chen Rong looked up to the crowd and then let go of her nurse’s hand, brushed her hair to the side, clicked her wooden clogs and gracefully walked toward the youngsters, which was also toward Chen Shu.
These youngsters had seen many women as beautiful as Chen Rong. What made them stare unblinkingly was that her charm was completely different from the others. There was something pure and fresh In her sophisticated ways.
Under their watchful eyes, Chen Rong went to wait in front of Chen Shu’s table, curtsied and said with her head bowed: “Good greetings, uncle.” She briefly stalled and then, with her head still bowed and her face a little flushed, abashedly said to Chen Shu: “Ah Rong didn’t know you’re treating guests. I apologize for intruding.”
She then gestured her jade-colored hand toward the carriages behind her and stammered: “When I passed by the City of Pu on my way to the south, I suddenly thought that with everyone migrating to Nan’yang, there was surely to be a food shortage in the city. I’ve traded all of my silk and money for grains and corn. I’ve just heard from my second aunt that the estate is low on food. I have no talents and can only offer ten carriages of chestnuts and grains to help you fund your travels.”
She was saying she would give all ten carriages of grains to Chen Shu alone, just so he could fund his traveling!
Chen Shu was in his forties, plump and fair-skinned, with honest features. When Chen Rong said ‘ten carriages of grains,’ a shade of surprise emerged on his affably smiling face.
This young lady was in possession of such great wealth!
Ten carriages. It must be said that each time their clan donated to the Prince of Nan’yang and Ran Min to fight the barbarians, it was also just ten carriages!
He had heard of Chen Rong’s generosity and talents but two days ago. Now meeting her, it seemed she was truly as extraordinary as they said!
Seeing a shy-looking Chen Rong, mature though young, Chen Shu could not help letting a pleased smile appear. He stood up, offered his hands and kindly smiled to her. “Why so ceremonious, child? Sit down, take a seat.”
She did not take advantage of this opportunity to stand up, shaking her head instead while stammering: “Ah Rong… Ah Rong still has something to say.”
Chapter 30: Uncle Chen Shu
“Oh?” Chen Shu chuckled kindly. “If you have something to say, then let’s hear it.”
Now Chen Rong waffled.
She looked left and right, bowed her head and stammered, “I have nothing to say.”
That clearly meant she had something to say.
“Come with me,” said Chen Shu as he rose.
Watching Chen Rong’s beautiful figure following behind Chen Shu, a young lad asked the Chen servant with interest: “Who is this young lady?”
“Ah Rong of the Chen house, daughter of a concubine-born descendant from a subsidiary branch.”
The young man suddenly deflated, shook his head and sat down again.
Chen Shu led Chen Rong into the guest hall. He walked to the host seat and regarded Chen Rong smilingly. “What is it? Can you tell me now?”
Ah Rong took one step forward, knelt down before him and said, “I’ve come to see you because I want to ask that I not be given to any man as a concubine.”
Chen Shu knitted his brow, staring at Chen Rong for a long while as he thought: She is only a lass who just arrived in Nan’yang. How can she know the clan has decided on this recent arrangement?
Since she didn’t nose around, then did she take a guess? But she was only fifteen years old. Not only did she know in advance Nan’yang would have a food shortage, but she also knew of the clan’s arrangements. This young lass was, as told by everyone, an intelligent girl.
Chen Shu studied Chen Rong as he took slow sips of wine. After placing the lid down, he lightly asked, “Did you gift me ten carriages of grains for this?”
His words were very straightforward, brutally direct even.
Chen Rong kept her head down and after some time, she replied in a low voice: “Aye.”
She said ‘aye.’ She actually told him ‘aye’!
This time, Chen Shu was at a loss for words. He placed the cup down and regarded Chen Rong carefully, though there appeared to be no anger on his face.
At this time, Chen Rong seemed to have plucked up all her courage for she raised her head, pressed her lips together, and stubbornly said to Chen Shu, “Uncle, in your opinion, how is my intelligence compared to the other Chen ladies?”
Chen Shu furrowed his brow without answering.
Chen Rong paid no attention and continued: “In Ah Rong’s humble opinion, if the clan sent me to be a man’s concubine, I would only become his plaything. It’d even be normal were I to meet my death after several years because I had married a terrible man.”
Chen Shu couldn’t help looking dour upon hearing her words.
Chen Rong looked at him hopefully and added: “Such arrangement would not benefit the clan. With my ability, I would still be able to help my husband even if I were to marry to a second-tiered noble. If luck is on our side, who’s to say he can’t be a hidden dragon among men and become of great assistance to the Chen house?”
Chen Rong knocked her head on the ground in a kowtow and quiveringly said, “Uncle, both my beauty and wits are uncommon. If these strengths are properly placed, I can be of great advantage to the family. If they are not properly placed, on the other hand…”
At this juncture, Chen Rong suddenly stopped.
She slowly looked up.
Her small face at this time was deathly blanched and her eyes were misty, but her lips were tightly pressed together, on her stubborn face was also a ruthlessness. “If the clan must send me to be someone’s concubine, then I’m afraid I can no longer say anything should matters arise in the future!”
Could no longer say anything should matters arose in the future!
She was threatening them!
Outrage instantaneously rose in Chen Shu’s heart. He glared at her and was about to snap when he saw tears pitifully rolling down her elegant face. He then recalled that she had just given him ten carriages of grains and helped him in his urgent time of need, and so was unable to lash out.
He sighed at length. “Ah Rong, you’re only a little girl. How can you think to threaten the clan?”
Though his words were grave, there was no malice in his voice.
Chen Rong quickly knocked her head in kowtows and cried: “Uncle, I’m afraid. I’m very afraid…” She choked and then burst into tears.
Chen Shu was a merchant and, therefore, conducted business as the tradesmen do. Other elders would be furious to hear Chen Rong’s threat. He was different, however. From the moment he received ten carriages of chestnuts and grains from Chen Rong, he had wanted to return the favor.
He watched Chen Rong’s beautiful appearance, thinking awhile: this young girl not only has an elegant deportment, she moreover has wits. As she said, if her strengths can be placed properly, she’ll surely be of help to the clan.
While he was in rumination, Chen Rong’s suppressed sobbing could be heard, making her seem more pitiful in his eyes.
He at last sighed and rose to say: “Don’t cry. Stand up.”
When he saw Chen Rong obediently stop crying and get on her feet, he nodded and said, “I will consider your request.”
“I thank you, uncle.”
Chen Rong kept her head bowed and slowly receded outside, her shoulders trembling.
After having gone five steps, she paused. Chen Shu saw her take a handkerchief from her sleeve to carefully wipe away her tears. After she finished, she even produced a mirror and a powder box, and then looked into the mirror to carefully redo her makeup.
This girl did not want to let others know she had just cried. She wanted to leave face for the both of them.
Chen Shu nodded to himself unknowingly.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
At the moment he withdrew his gaze and Chen Rong stowed the powder box into her sleeve, a coldness flashed.
Chen Shu stared wide-eyed in shock. He clearly saw the sheath of a dagger inside Chen Rong’s right sleeve.
This little girl had actually brought a personal weapon with her. Perhaps…?
Chen Shu frowned, staring after Chen Rong, who was making a brisk exit, as he carefully considered the situation.
At this time, a guard by the door respectfully asked, “My lord, what should we do about the ten carriages of grains the young lady had brought?”
Ten carriages of grains? Despite being so young, this girl was really the decisive type that could pick up and let go.
“First move them into the west warehouse.”
“Go tell the young lady, by which I mean Ah Rong, that per my permission, she does not need to appear at the banquet tonight.”
“Tell her it’s already known that there is a beautiful lady in the Chen clan. There won’t be much that I can do, sigh…”
In addition, Chen Shu thought to himself: She’s a young orphan girl who is seeking shelter from the clan. No matter what, I cannot take her food unrecompensed.
For this reason, he instructed: “Send her eight carriages of silk and two of fabric, give her twenty gold leaves as well.” These goods came out to precisely worth slightly more than the current price of ten carriages of grains.
Chapter 31: Courtship?
Chen Rong’s courtyard.
Nurse Ping busily greeted the crowd as she beamed happily. She had been worried about the shortage of food just moments ago, but everything had been replenished moments later. There were so much silk and fabric that not only could they be used to pay for new furnishings and clothes, they were enough to buy an ordinary house.
Looking at the money and goods, then looking back at Chen Rong, who was still in contemplation, Nurse Ping felt that her mistress was undoubtedly profound and unpredictable. It had been nerve-wracking starting from the moment Chen Rong headed out with her dagger. She never imagined that not only did she come back safe and sound, she even got her uncle to hold her in high regard.
Time flew by in a flash.
Soon, the sun sank to the west and lanterns were lit.
Having been instructed by Chen Rong, not only did the maids stay inside, but the servants were also ordered to make no sound and light no lanterns. The entire courtyard fell into a hushed silence.
With the faint crescent moon hung in the sky, sounds of reeds, flutes, and pipes mingled with one other as they diffused across the land and into the air, sprinkling a ray or two of melancholic autumn.
Standing in the courtyard, one could hear laughter from the direction of the main compound.
Tonight’s gathering was in fact very important to every clansman of Chen. Though this banquet, the nobles from the north would be telling the nobles in Nan’yang that they had returned.
The youngsters, in particular, depended on this banquet to let others know that there are still this young lad and that young lady in the house of Chen waiting to be married.
Chen Rong would never reject this banquet had she not remembered the past. She not only wouldn’t refuse, but she would also even try her best to showcase herself. As best as she could, she’d make all of Nan’yang elites remember her.
Chen Rong lowered her eyes. She stepped onto the dry leaves on the path and walked to the woods behind her courtyard.
On the sky was the moon, on the ground was a lone figure. ‘Twas the eternal scene of loneliness.
She knew not how much time had passed by the time she heard footfalls approaching behind her.
Following bright lantern light, several servants stepped into her courtyard. Without waiting for Old Shang to ask, a clear voice arrived: “Is Ah Rong of the Chen house in?”
Looking for me?
Ah Rong shivered.
While Old Shang hesitated to answer, Nurse Ping quickly replied, “My lady is ill and bedridden.”
The servants briefly looked at one other, one saying: “Qilang of the Wang house did not see Miss Chen at the dinner and thus asked after her. Lord Chen sent me to invite Miss Chen over.”
Pausing, the man standing in front shouted: “Even the Prince of Nan’yang dares not to offend the godly Wang Qilang. Nurse, please ask your lady. If she can make it, then she should get dressed and see Qilang. This is a very rare opportunity.”
His words were very sincere.
Nurse Ping knew if this man dared to say so, then it must be the truth. As he said, this opportunity was a very rare one.
Unconsciously, she looked to where Chen Rong stood in the dark.
She continued to watch for some time, but she did not hear any sound coming from that dark place.
Sighing to herself, Nurse Ping pretended to walk to the bedchamber’s door. After raising her voice to call a few times, she turned to the servants and said, “My apology, it seems my lady is asleep.”
“What a pity.” The two servants in the front bowed and turned to go. Only until they turned did Nurse Ping discover that they were wearing uniforms belonging to the Wang house of Lang’ya! They were really people who served Wang Qilang, no wonder their speech was gentle, their manners courteous. No wonder!
All of a sudden, Nurse Ping felt rather upset. She looked to where Chen Rong was standing in the dark with a flash of complaint in her eyes.
As soon as the lights retreated, Chen Rong came out from the shadows. She ignored Nurse Ping’s complaining eyes as she stared straight to the hustle and bustle in the main hall and said, “It’s indeed a rare opportunity.”
In the dark, Chen Rong’s eyes shone stunningly bright.
“Nurse, what if a young lady courts Wang Qilang in front of everybody in this case?” she suddenly asked at length.
Nurse Ping blinked her small eyes in confusion.
Chen Rong did not look at her. She frowned, continuing to stare at the main hall. After a long while, she murmured: “As long as he does not reject me too badly, as long as he leaves me a little face…”
At this time, Nurse Ping finally understood what she meant. “Miss, you must not. How can you match Qilang of the Wang house? You’ll only become a laughing stock to the people of Nan’yang!”
Chen Rong dropped her gaze. After pondering for a while, she suddenly turned and walked toward her bedchamber.
Nurse Ping was most familiar with her character. One look and she knew her mistress had already made up her mind. She anxiously picked up her pace to catch up to her, caught her sleeves and hastily pleaded, “Miss, miss, don’t! You must not! Don’t you still have your uncle Chen Shu? He holds you in high regard. If you need anything, he’d be willing to help.”
Chen Rong did not look back, merely saying: “He will not. He gave me ten carriages of silk and fabric in addition to gold leaves; he no longer owes me anything. With his personality, he certainly will not.” His meaning was clear. He meant just to help her this once. If the Prince of Nan’yang were to demand her tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, or if other elders insisted, she would be forced to a dead end.
Here and now, Qilang of the Wang house actually mentioned her in front of the others. The importance he placed on her was enough to attract the Prince of Nanyang’s attention. At the prince’s single word, she could very well be carried into his estate tonight, and hereupon, there’d no longer be an Ah Rong of the Chen house in this world!
No, she must control all developments in the palm of her hand! Even if she only had half the certainty!
‘Creak,’ Chen Rong gave the bedroom door a hard push, then flapped her sleeves and subtly threw Nurse Ping’s hand off.
She went inside for two hours.
Two hours later, Chen Rong walked out. She was still herself, but she had put on the set of yellow and purple gown she had worn during the day.
Her hair was still loose, her feet fitted with wooden clogs.
The only difference was that there now hung a jeweled dagger at her waist. When she walked, the studded scabbard collided with the jade ornament on her sash and made a nice jingle sound.
Nurse Ping couldn’t believe her lady went inside for two full hours only to do nothing. She couldn’t help widening her eyes at Chen Rong.
Chen Rong smiled at Nurse Ping’s expression and then bent down to pick up her zither.
She walked past her nurse, her wooden clogs clopping on the ground, as she unhurriedly headed out front. Her inky hair draped her shoulders and swung with each of her steps. Watching her back, Nurse Ping secretly admired: My lady has such a lovely figure. Not only among the Chen ladies, but there are also few gentlewomen in the whole of Nan’yang who have her grace and charm.
She stood frozen for a moment and then quickly chased after Chen Rong at the time she realized that she had disappeared. The nurse then thought that Chen Rong, being so stubborn, would not listen to her words. She’d better call Old Shang over. And so she hastily turned and ran toward the inner courtyard.
In the meanwhile, Chen Rong had walked out of her home to the clopping of her clogs.
Chapter 32: A Phoenix’s Love Song (1)
Though Chen Rong’s gait was seemingly relaxed, in reality, she was walking very fast. By the time Nurse Ping and Old Shang chased out, she had arrived at the main hall.
There was heavy traffic here, with both vehicles and people flittering to and fro. Not ones to dare raise their voices in such location, Nurse Ping and Old Shang could only pick up the pace and secretly try to dissuade Chen Rong.
The banquet had gone on for four hours by now. The night sky was illuminated by a bright moon, chilled by a passing wind. The feast would probably end within another hour.
Chen Rong kept her head low. At the time she left, she had deliberately powdered her face to make it pale. Her diminished liveliness, in turn, gave her a touch of demureness.
Chen Rong arrived outside of the main hall. Seeing Nurse Ping and Old Shang nearing, she ordered: “Prepare a table for me.”
“But miss –”
Listening to the pair of them steadfastly dissuading her, Chen Rong sighed as she was forced to explain: “Nurse, Old Shang, I heard today from my uncle that the clan means to give me as a concubine to the Prince of Nan’yang.”
Her servants covered their mouths, uttering a low gasp.
Fortunately, the three of them stood in a shaded area and did not call attention to themselves.
Chen Rong smiled wryly. “You must’ve heard about the hundreds of different women in his inner quarters. As if that’s not enough, he adds more to his collection each day! My life is as good as gone if I join his harem.” She sighed and barked, “Go, I have my plans.”
“Say no more. Think about it, have I made a wrong decision in the past few months?”
These words were actually justified. They looked at each other and then retreated.
In only moments, Nurse Ping had moved a table and placed it under a large tree.
Chen Rong raised her head and stared at the lighted hall. There, ringing laughter and merry music filled the air. The people inside all seemed to her an unearthly type, as though they never had any worries or troubles like her.
Chen Rong lowered her eyes and slowly knelt down by her table.
And then she slightly lifted her hands.
Forthwith, a series of flowing notes wound their way around strands of autumn wind and gradually rose.
Like the melancholic season, the music lightly came and lightly went. Besides softly tickling its listeners, it did not leave behind any other message.
Gradually, the zither notes deepened and soared to the sky. They passed through layers of clouds and across marshes and fields, and then abruptly, a shadow came into view. Thereupon, the song’s spirit was no longer the same, as if the heart was finally old…
Chen Rong was playing “The Phoenix’s Love Song” (1) that Sima Xiangru had played to court Zhuo Wenjun long ago. But because their circumstances were different, her song had an overwhelming melancholy of one who yearns for the unattainable and the despair of one who admires from afar and never to join wings.
鳳求凰 (lit. The Male Phoenix Seeks The Female Phoenix) – known in history as the song that famous poet Sima Xiangru of Western Han played to court his wife, the widowed Zhuo Wenjun.
Such melancholy and despair gave this courtship song a faint desolation as well as a sadness of separation. It contained part acceptance and part wistfulness.
The guest hall was still noisy at the time Chen Rong’s zither sounded. Gradually, however, the music slowly trickled into the merry scene and became its main melody.
Slowly, one or two individuals came out, looking in the direction of the music.
And slowly, more people came out of the hall, their jesting sounds dissolving into the floating music.
Chen Rong did not notice any of this.
She merely kept her head down, her porcelain hands sweeping across the strings, her facial features shadowed by the season’s sorrow. In the silver light, her small, exquisite face was slightly pale, but the pallor contrasted her yellow and purple gown to reflect a certain ruefulness.
Under the moonlight, sparse leaves obscured her beautiful face in half darkness.
Chen Wei widened her eyes, staring in disbelief at the zither player under the tree. After staring for a while, she laughed out loud along with the nearby girls.
“Heavens, isn’t this Ah Rong of Ping? Why is she playing ‘The Phoenix’s Love Song’?”
“Heehee, this is definitely very interesting.”
“I wonder whom she is playing it for?”
“Yes, I wonder which gentleman she has fallen for?”
“No matter which gentleman he is, with her status, she’d only be able to confess her feelings in heartbreak this way.”
Ripples of laughter, murmurs, and judgment replaced all the pipes, songs, and dances.
Increasingly more people followed out in the courtyard. Among them were youngsters who poured out to appraise the solitary figure playing under the tree canopy.
Before anyone could realize, the laughter diminished with each passing second.
Perhaps it was due to the fact the zither player had seemed a little too lonely. Her loneliness was one of eternal solitude, of never receiving love, and of admiring one’s love from far away.
In this world, what can be more painful than the thirst for the unattainable and the inability to near those we love?
Listening to the clamor outside growing louder, the plump Prince of Nan’yang turned his head and asked in surprise: “What is happening?”
An aide in his fifties went to his side, smiled and answered, “I’m not sure which lad she has fallen for, but a beautiful maiden from the House of Chen is playing ‘The Phoenix’s Love Song’.”
The Prince of Nan’yang chuckled and said, “Is that so? What a romantic thing to do! Go, go, let us also take a look.” He turned around and called, “Qilang, let’s go together.” No sooner had he called than he began to laugh awkwardly: “It seems Qilang has long gone.”
“Aye, Qilang is young lad after all. How can he not be curious when something so amorous occurs?”
“Enough talking. Let’s go and see.”
Supported by his aide, the Prince of Nan’yang slowly stepped out. As others made way for him, he came behind Wang Hong and saw that he was staring into the courtyard. The prince laughed heartily while asking: “Which beauty has caused Qilang to stare in beguilement like this?”
When he finished, he also turned his head looking in the direction of the music.
At this glance, the Prince of Nan’yang froze as his eyes affixed on Chen Rong unblinkingly, asking his aide: “This young lady is exceedingly beautiful. Is she a daughter from Chen house?”
The scrawny advisor was in his fifties. Also a lecherous man, he knew exactly what was in the prince’s mind. He leaned over and whispered: “Not only is she a Chen lady, but she is also the lady that Wang Qilang was asking about at the banquet just now!”
“Is that so?”
“I dare not deceive you.”
“Good, good.” The Prince of Nan’yang cheerfully turned his head to take a serious appraisal of Chen Rong. The more he looked, the more brightly his eyes lit up.
Upon seeing this, the advisor stroked his sparse beard and smilingly said, “This damsel is even prettier than the courtesans at the banquet. Your Highness, you’re quite lucky when it comes to women.” He again leaned into the prince and whispered, “Chen Yuan had mentioned her to me just now at the banquet. He also said that if you like her, she can be sent over at any time.”
The Prince of Nan’yang was pleased to hear this. He slapped his thigh and said in good humor: “Good, good. Good for Chen Yuan!”
Chapter 33: A Phoenix’s Love Song (2)
While the two of them were standing there whispering, nearby, Wang Hong was as still as water. He strode to the front, and in a flash, had come ten paces in front of Chen Rong.
As if their hearts were linked, Chen Rong looked up upon his arrival.
Her face flushed at first, head bowed in fluster. But before long, she quickly looked up again.
She opened her eyes wide to look bravely at Wang Hong – her eyes becoming increasingly bright. For perhaps she was too discomposed, her hand trembled and plucked a few wrong notes in a row.
The crowd erupted in laughter.
These voices seemed to have no impact on Chen Rong. She merely kept her gaze on Wang Hong and then, slowly, she looked down again. The moment she lowered her head, a flush of red dyed her jade-like neck.
“Oh, could this young lady be playing the ‘Phoenix’s Love Song’ for Qilang?”
This line broke the calm, sparking a wave among the crowd. Wang Wulang, who stood next to Wang Hong, was also watching Chen Rong with a sharp gaze. He was moving toward her at the time he heard these word. He knitted his brow and involuntarily stopped.
As if to answer the man’s question, Chen Rong lowered her gaze and slowly rose, then she curtsied to Wang Hong from behind her table. Afterward, she bowed her head and let her dark, willowy hair cascade down her white collar. She trembled in the autumn breeze as she fearfully said, “I was very happy when I heard that Qilang is here.”
Pausing, she took a deep breath before shakily raising her voice again: “I hazard to ask the gentleman: does my rendition of the ‘Phoenix’s Love Song’ please you, sir?”
Her words were followed by a stretch of silence.
Wang Hong was dumbfounded.
Wang Wulang was dumbfounded.
The Prince of Nan’yang, too, was dumbfounded.
Chen Yuan, Chen Wei, and everyone else were all dumbfounded.
In this silence, Chen Rong shook so much that she could hardly speak. “The song is vulgar and so am I. But in consideration of my sincerity, I hope you’ll give it a listen.”
When she finished, she sat down again.
Carrying a wandering sorrow, the music floated in the air again.
A terrible silence still enveloped the crowd.
The host of eyes watched Chen Rong for a long while and then relocated to Wang Hong.
At length, a strange voice spoke up: “Qilang, this lass is quite a looker. Since she harbors such feelings, why don’t you just take her in as a concubine? Make tonight the wedding night and fulfill her love.”
Upon the arrival of this voice, as if frightened, Chen Rong’s fingers trembled and issued a series of sharp broken notes.
With everyone’s eyes on her, her face blanched white and she bit her lips to articulate: “No one, since the days of yore, plays the ‘Phoenix’s Love Song’ to become a concubine.”
Silence returned at her words.
This silence lasted but a moment. It was uncertain who took the lead, but a burst of laughter roared from all sides, rising louder and louder.
Facing this laughter, Chen Rong’s face was as white as a sheet. She dropped her gaze and curtsied, then picked up her zither and receded in fright. Her song hadn’t concluded.
Seeing her recede, the jesting noises increasingly blared. Soon, the entire courtyard were filled with laughter from the young nobles.
As the amusement grew, suddenly, the music just moments ago now resumed from the green path outside.
Ah Rong of the Chen house was actually continuing her song.
Chen Wei and the others were amused. A young lad excitedly cried out: “Let’s go, let’s go. Let’s look at the young lady who dares to confess to Lang’ya Wang Qi.”
The others at once took up his suggestion. They followed the music and left the courtyard.
By the time everyone stepped out of the yard, the ‘Phoenix’s Love Song’ finally entered its conclusion. After Chen Rong had finished playing the last few notes, she bowed her head and held the zither to stand up. Faintly smiling under the moonlight and letting her fringe cover her forehead, her hoarse voice breathed an enchanting ring in the night sky: “One ‘Phoenix’s Love Song’ that speaks of infinite loneliness and sorrows – Sima Xiang’ru did not know he’d be able to marry Zhuo Wenjun when he played this rhapsody that year. His song was but a cocoon for his feelings. If the person he wished to hear it did not hear it, then his heart would be shrouded in its silk-spun case. I, too, am like him. I do not ask that my feelings be returned. I do not ask for an outcome. My wish was merely to let you know.”
Upon the deliverance of her profession, Chen Rong held her zither and again bowed toward Wang Qilang, then turned her head and unhesitatingly turned to leave.
At this time, an autumn wind passed by, fluttering her hip-length hair and gown, making it seem as if her figure was gradually fading into the night.
“My, isn’t Chen Rong shameless to actually dare say such things?” the 7th lady of the Wang house snickered on the sideline.
A few girls laughed along with her.
“Silence!” Wang Hong frowningly shouted at this juncture, startling everyone.
In this muteness, Wang Hong raised his head to stare after Chen Rong’s retreating figure, slowly saying: “Nobody is to ridicule her for this matter hereupon.”
He then flapped his sleeves and walked away.
Only until he disappeared behind the arched doorway with his servants did the scholars snap awake. Chen Yuan watched Wang Hong’s retreating figure in the distance, stunned. After a long time, he startlingly turned around to look at the Prince of Nan’yang.
There was a gloomy irritation on the prince’s plump face. Seeing Chen Yuan looking in his direction, he glared and shouted: “Let’s go!”
“Aye, my lord.”
The aide escorted his master to where the carriage was parked, and when he saw Chen Yuan chasing out, gave a wink.
Chen Yuan halted.
He was discovering that in just a short while, the full hall of guests had dwindled to half. Those who remained were small groups of youngsters prattling about what had just transpired.
Chen Shu came to stand behind Chen Yuan, sighingly saying: “What did I say? This lass is very headstrong and prickly, but you wouldn’t listen. Well, it’s great now. The Prince of Nan’yang got thwarted just as he became interested in her. Aren’t you just setting yourself up to irritate him?”
The Prince of Nanyang’s status was such that even if he wanted Chen Rong, he could no longer take her in. He could not make her his concubine knowing she harbored admiration for Qilang, even if all it was, was admiration. If he took in such a woman, how would he be able to face the public’s scrutiny?
At this thought, Chen Yuan gritted his teeth bitterly and growled: “I won’t let her get her way! Hmph, as soon as this matter dies down, I will send her to the Prince of Nan’yang!”