Chapter 73: In the Eye of the Storm
As a result, Chen Rong led four carriages of grains and quietly returned to her home under the curious eyes of Chen Wei and her friends.
Once they got inside, she called for Old Shang, pointed to the carriages and said, “When we do not know what tomorrow holds, how can I leave you all, who have been with me for so many years, without any assets? Take the grains to Nurse Ping and let her decide what she wants to do with them.”
And then she gave him a wink.
Catching on, Old Shang clasped his hands and loudly answered: “Aye.”
He turned to the servants who had just returned from seeing Nurse Ping off, and said, “Come, now. Load the grains onto our carriages. It’s getting late. We must be quick in sending them out.”
Once the grains were moved down from Lady Li’s four carriages, the vehicles turned around and went back to their owner.
As soon as they left, Chen Wei and Chen Qian circled behind Chen Rong and curiously asked, “Ah Rong, what mischief are you up to again?”
“Nothing,” Chen Rong simply smiled.
“How can it be nothing?” Chen Qian was greatly dissatisfied. She glared at Chen Rong and raised her voice: “Ah Rong, you’re becoming more and more unruly.”
Chen Rong smiled. She turned around to give them a curtsy and said, “Cousins, there’s really nothing going on.”
Chen Qian stuttered for words. Faced with her displeased expression, Chen Rong kept her faint smile with absolutely no intention to explain.
The night had come by the time everybody left. Nan’yang was again awash in light.
Chen Rong was playing her zither in the courtyard. Old Shang stood behind her as he listened to the melodious music.
After a while, the music came to a stop. Old Shang approached her, remarking: “I can hear solace from your music.” He had been listening to Chen Rong’s music every day for the past few months and could naturally understand some of it. With concern showing on his face, he paused and asked, “Miss, how did you get the madam to return the grains to you?”
“Only Lady Li was there. I threatened her so she gave them back to me.”
Astonished, Old Shang repeatedly reminded her: “Lady Li is your elder in any case. How could you think of threatening her? If she bears grudges, she’ll find ways to harm you… then what will we do?” Chen Rong plucked the strings with her right index finger. After issuing a series of crisp notes, she said, “If I hadn’t gone and asked for the grains, would they have left me alone? Would they have treated me better or would they not harm me?”
Old Shang shook his head and sighed, “Nay.”
“That being the case, why should I have to think about all those things?” she bristled.
Old Shang kept quiet before murmuring at length: “I still don’t feel very good about this.”
Chen Rong did not answer him.
As darkness deepened, waves of laughter filled Chen Wei’s courtyard.
After staring at the lights in her home and listening to the merry voices, Old Shang turned to Chen Rong and sighed. “It’d be great if you were with your father and brother.”
The music took a quick turn in reply.
That night, the main compound was filled with music and light, but none of it had anything to do with Chen Rong.
The next day was very sunny.
Winter had arrived and stayed for some time, but the sweltering weather was quite worrying. If it were to be another warm winter, next year’s harvest might even be worse.
Since early morning, Chen Rong had put on the green dress lined with yellow patterns sent to her the day before. It was her favorite, the reason being it subdued her glamor and gave her a quiet elegance.
With the new dress and a veiled hat, Chen Rong got into her carriage and prepared to visit Nurse Ping.
As her carriage drove on the street, she found that the city dwellers were clustered into small groups while they murmured in worriment.
Old Shang tilted his head and whispered to her: “Miss, something big likely has happened.”
Almost immediately, they heard a young lad’s lament from the carriage in front of them: “Luo’yang has fallen yet we cannot return to Jiankang. What will we do?”
And then a cry.
Sympathy lurked in their eyes as the crowd listened to the suppressed sobbing.
Old Shang stopped the carriage to ask a portly man dressed in servant clothes: “What’s happening, man?”
It was apparent the man was a steward. He glanced toward Chen Rong’s carriage with some disdain but still answered Old Shang: “We’ve just received news that the families who left Nan’yang to return to Jiankang had run into the barbarians and gotten killed along the way!”
Shocked, Old Shang hastily asked, “All of them? Does that mean the barbarians had waited to ambush them on the road?”
The plump steward nodded. “That’s what they all say.” He sighed: “My master had sold his land and properties, thinking of returning to Jiankang. But with these news, tsk, tsk…” He shook his head and limply left the scene.
Old Shang also sighed for a while. He then suddenly thought of something and turned to Chen Rong, whispering: “Miss, did you by chance have some premonitions?” Why else would she ask him to buy all the farmland within a month?
“I’m not a divine being,” Chen Rong’s voice was heard. “How would I know anything? It was only a coincidence.”
Old Shang considered her answer and gave a nod.
The carriage made its way to South Street.
As they drove along, Old Shang pointed to the storefronts and said, “Miss, this one is also yours. They used to sell food here, but by the time we bought it, the warehouse had been empty and the shop had already closed. This one over here was a restaurant; it’s now also closed. That’s right, miss, when I gave the grains to Nurse Ping yesterday, she said she’ll save three carriages for you and use the last to open up three shops. It should be no problem to provide for five people with three shops.”
Chen Rong had no interest in any of the details. She carelessly nodded.
Just then, a burst of noises sounded out in front.
Chen Rong curiously peeked through the curtain.
Into her sight was a team composed of six carriages, with the large and extravagant one leading them painted in gold.
A dozen other carriages surrounded this team. The encircling people kept flattering smiles on their faces as they spoke in a solicitous manner to the golden carriage.
Chen Rong gave the scene a glance and hastily ordered, “Pull over, pull over to the side.”
“Aye.” Old Shang quickly steered the vehicle to the roadside.
Chen Rong looked to her left, saying: “There’s an alley, go there.”
Old Shang’s driving was fortunately excellent. He repeatedly lashed his whip and entered the vehicle into the dark alley.
Chen Rong sighed in relief once they were there.
She quietly lifted the curtain to peer outside.
From her vantage point, she could see that the curtain of the golden carriage had also lifted. The pudgy Prince of Nan’yang was nodding haughtily while saying something. Submissive nobles stood at his side; Chen Rong recognized Chen Shu among them.
Suddenly, Chen Rong’s expression altered as she inwardly thought: Drat, the major clans cannot leave Nan’yang and now have to make every effort to curry favor with him.
Old Shang craned his neck looking at the scene and wondered: “That’s odd, why don’t these people go the the prince’s estate to seek an audience with him instead of making a ruckus out in the streets?”
Chen Rong pursed her lips. “That’s because everyone knows the Prince of Nan’yang likes to tell everyone that he is the mightiest in this city!”
“It seems they won’t leave for the time being, let’s go home,” she lowered her voice.
When the carriage turned around, Chen Rong pulled her curtain down as she sat inside, wringing her hands in contemplation.
When the vehicle drove out of South Street, Chen Rong heard weeping coming from the carriage next to hers: “Why? I’m already betrothed to Mister Liu. Why must I attend the prince’s banquet.”
An older woman whispered, “What else can we do? Your father even sent him Sima Qian’s handwritten records that he had treasured for years, but Advisor Xu said the prince does not like such complicated amusements. There’s nothing else your father can do.”
“Even if we cannot go back to Jiankang for the time being, why must we be so hasty? Isn’t General Ran here to protect us? Why must we go curry favor with the old lecher?”
The older woman’s voice turned pained: “Miss, you must not have heard. With the pretext that we need to bolster Nanyang’s security because the barbarians will soon move south, the prince intends to send some families to station outside the city.”
The young girl stopped crying to exclaim: “Station outside the city?”
“Aye, why else would your father go to this length? Not only your father, but all of the major clans are sending their beautiful daughters to him in order to make him change his mind.”
The conversation was left behind as the wheels rolled on.
At this time, Old Shang spoke to her: “Miss?” He sounded quite unnerved.
Inside, Chen Rong kept wringing her hands. “Stop, Old Shang. Ask to see which estate General Ran is guesting at right now.”
Moments later, he jumped back onto the carriage. “Miss, he’s at the Huan estate.”
“To the Huan estate, then.”
The Huan estate was situated on South Street. To avoid the prince’s fleet, Old Shang had circled the long way and spent nearly an hour to arrive at its side door.
The carriage came to a stop and, as Old Shang went to the gatekeeper, Chen Rong lifted a corner of the curtain. Although she was looking at them, her eyes seemed to be well away.
A while later, Old Shang came back and drove the carriage into the estate from the side door.
A round of distant music streamed to them as soon as they entered.
It was different from the usual reed pipes, however. There was an unusual ringing of zither in this music.
While Chen Rong was listening to it, a sudden burst of applause sounded. Pounding drum beats soon began when the cheers quieted down.
“Miss, the gatekeeper said General Ran is currently drumming at the square. He added that all the major clans who came to look for him had been refused at the door. Young ladies, however, are always exceptions.”
Chen Rong hummed a reply.
Soon, the carriage drove to the square.
They hadn’t approached but the scents of cosmetics and perfume were already assailing Chen Rong’s nostrils. “Why are there so many young ladies?!” Old Shang asked.
Chen Rong quickly lifted her curtain.
She was surprised to find a colorful array of outfits covering the square, all of them being young ladies’. There must have been at least fifty to sixty of them.
They were presently watching the square’s center.
Chen Rong followed their gazes.
After a brief glance, she quickly withdrew her gaze.
Sure enough, it was Ran Min who stood at the center. His arms were bare, his long black hair was tied back with a red ribbon, and his thin lips were tightly drawn into a line.
It must be said that Ran Min had acquired a perfect body through years on the battleground. His sun-kissed skin, broad shoulders, and long legs made him stand out and outshine all other aristocrats. Even Huan Jiulang’s remarkable aura paled in comparison.
He was presently beating the drum. Huan Jiulang sat beside him with a zither (1) placed in front. His left hand lightly pressed on the strings as the right one did the plucking. Do not steal this chapter from hamster428 because karma is a spiteful bitch.
this zither is called the zheng which is different from the qin that Chen Rong plays. The zheng has picks and movable bridges whereas the qin has neither of those characteristics.
The pair harmonized excellently. Whenever the melodious zither drifted on, the drum was faint; whenever the sonorous zither swelled, the drum pounded heavily. Listeners were made to feel as though they’d returned to centuries past, to the time when Zhuge Liang had sat in the wide open and played the zither on a deserted fortress while below him stood Sima Yi’s massive army.
The sounds of zither were melodious and ethereal. They carried neither joy nor sorrow, like outsiders who stood on the clouds looking down at the ashes of time. The anguished drum pattern, on the other hand, was sonorous, like a general who had gone through a hundred battles and who now stood before the corpses as he cried for the civilians.
The aloof and the mournful brought together a most magnificent feeling.
This was a music Chen Rong had never heard before – sounds beyond her recognition.
She was so immersed in the music that it could be said it was speaking to her soul. But all of a sudden she was overcome with a shocking realization! She now felt her complicated zither playing had been too trivial and shallow compared to these melancholic and unspoken sounds.
Chen Rong wasn’t the only shallow one. Along with his drum rhythm, Ran Min’s strong muscles flexed in the sunlight – his masculine beauty comparable to the beauty of Ji Kang when he had played “The Guangling Song” before his execution (1). Do not steal this chapter from hamster428 because karma is a spiteful bitch.
read about Ji Kang here: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ji_Kang
Hence each time the drumming came to an end, girls would squeal all at once as they watched him in rapture. As if he didn’t perceive their admiring eyes, however, Ran Min never once looked up.
No one noticed Chen Rong’s arrival.
She lifted her curtain to listen to the extraordinary music. It must be the work of serendipity and good fortune for this wonderful duet to take place. For a very long time, she closed her eyes and tightly clutched her hands.
Uncertain for how long, the zither’s abrupt end was followed by Ran Min’s laughter as he threw his head back, flinging the drumsticks to the far distance and shouting: “Now, that was exhilarating!”
His soaring laughter hadn’t ceased by the time the female congregation squealed and rushed toward him and Huan Jiulang.
Before they knew what was happening, the pair had been submerged under the scents of perfume and powder.
At this time, Chen Rong withdrew her gaze and quietly said, “Let’s go home.” Old Shang nodded and turned the carriage around: It appears General Ran won’t have time to spare my insignificant mistress.
Chapter 74: Tagging Along
“Go to the south gate,” Chen Rong said to Old Shang the moment her carriage left the Huan estate.
Knowing she wanted to look for General Sun, he at once nodded with an “Aye” and then directed the vehicle in that direction.
They went past the panicking and murmuring crowd and soon came to the south gate.
“I’ll ask around, miss,” Old Shang said as he looked at the guards.
Chen Rong hummed an agreement.
Moments later, he ran back to her and nervously relayed, “Miss, they said General Sun’s troop had already departed. They aren’t camping outside the city anymore.”
“I see, let’s go home then,” Chen Rong said at length.
Old Shang jumped onto the carriage, gave a shout and said, “Don’t worry, miss. Don’t you have Wang Qilang’s affection? No one will give you trouble anymore.”
“I just want to be a little more assured, that’s all,” Chen Rong softly replied.
Old Shang sighed. It hadn’t crossed his mind when they had been in Ping, but when they arrived in Nan’yang, he discovered that without the elder and younger masters, his mistress was only a feeble girl and life hadn’t been easy for her.
The carriage drove back to the Chen estate.
Despite also in clamoring state, the estate was much quieter than the world outside. Nobody paid her passing carriage any notice.
When they drove by Chen Wei’s silent courtyard, they could not hear the girls’ usual laughter.
Chen Rong knitted her brow and let her carriage proceed to her home.
There, everything was as it had always been. It was as if the storm and controversy beyond its walls hadn’t anything to do with it.
A day flew by.
The next day, Old Shang asked around on Chen Rong’s bidding and found that all major clans who had moved from the north were required to attend the prince’s banquet. The Chen estate also participated, but nothing else was out of the ordinary.
In the blink of an eye, the third day passed by.
Just past noon, Old Shang ran over with an apprehensive face. Without finding his footing, he hastily relayed when he saw Chen Rong, “Miss, I’ve got news. The Xianbei army has surrounded Mo’yang. The day before yesterday, General Sun and Wang Qilang’s groups had already headed to Mo’yang.”
Mo’yang lay northwest of Nan’yang and along the direct route to Luo’yang. It was coveted territory despite being only a medium-sized city.
“They say Mo’yang got surrounded by forty thousand Xianbei soldiers moments after General Sun and Wang Qilang arrived there.” His voice began to tremble. “Forty thousand Xianbei soldiers! Unless General Ran personally came with his army, no one will be able to defeat them. But they keep saying the north is under threat and General Ran had already gone there last night.”
Old Shang received the tea Chen Rong handed over, took a drink, sighed and continued: “They say that General Sun and Wang Qilang will die in Mo’yang once it’s taken, that their fates are sealed. They also say as soon as Mo’yang is taken, Nan’yang will be next. Everyone in the city is crippled with fear.”
At this juncture, he saw Chen Rong staring off absently with knitted brow and couldn’t help exclaiming: “Miss, miss?”
After five or six calls, Chen Rong recovered. “Wang Qilang and General Sun had gone to Mo’yang, you say?”
Just then, footsteps sounded outside.
She hadn’t entered but her voice was already heard: “Ah Rong, Ah Rong.”
“You already knew?” she asked when she saw no surprise on her cousin’s face.
Chen Rong nodded.
Chen Wei came to stand before her, held her hands and sighed. “Don’t worry. My father said Wang Qilang is so extraordinary that he won’t be met with any danger.”
Chen Rong bowed her head and said, “Thank you,” before withdrawing her hands.
Chen Wei waved to a servant and ordered, “Bring a seat to the yard. Goodness, when Nurse Ping isn’t here, the rest of you don’t have any manners.”
While she was ordering the servants around, Chen Rong curtsied to her and said, “Forgive me, I must excuse myself for now.” She didn’t wait for Chen Wei to speak before turning and running into her backyard.
Surprised, Chen Wei watched her, and then heaved and turned around to leave.
After taking a turn in the garden for a couple of hours or so, Chen Rong mounted her carriage and said to Old Shang: “Let’s go out.”
The carriage moved and headed for town.
The streets had become chaotic, with many nobles urging their carriages here and there like headless flies. Every time they crossed a street, they could hear songs of grief and mourning.
All of a sudden, the entire city of Nan’yang had fallen into panic.
Chen Rong lifted her curtain and watched the city with furrowed brow.
“Ah Rong?” a familiar voice called to her some time later.
Chen Rong turned around. r e a d t h i s @ h a m s t e r 4 2 8
She was facing a pair of glowing thief eyes, their owner being Chen Sanlang. He looked Chen Rong up and down with a flame in his eyes that was different from their previous meetings.
“Third brother.” Chen Rong bowed to him from the carriage.
As she bowed to him, his eyes were glued to her slender waist and round buttocks.
He waved his hand and signaled his driver to move closer to Chen Rong.
He poked his head out, looked at Chen Rong and sighed: “Ah Rong, I heard that Wang Qilang had died in Mo’yang.” He sounded absolutely certain.
Chen Rong paled but tried to laugh. “That can’t be. Haven’t the Hu only surrounded Mo’yang?”
“Is that so?” Chen Sanlang gave two hollow laughs.
He looked at Chen Rong and affectedly said, “Murong Ke of the Xianbei tribe is an invincible warlord. Since he has laid Mo’yang under siege, the odds are against the city.”
At this juncture, he softly sighed. “It’s fortunate that you hadn’t been promised to Wang Qilang.” He paused, shook his head, and continuously lamented: “But your reputation had regrettably been ruined by him. Otherwise, I would’ve helped you find another man to marry. But now…”
He drew near, his eyes roaming on Chen Rong’s full bosom. “Ah Rong, would you like me to help you?”
Chen Rong retreated to the back, bowed her head and said, “How can I talk of marriage when I don’t even know if he’s dead or alive?”
Chen Sanlang repeatedly sighed. r e a d t h i s @ h a m s t e r 4 2 8
“Goodbye, third brother,” Chen Rong said to him with a curtsy.
Chen Sanlang hastily stopped her. He ordered his carriage to near Chen Rong’s, poked his head out and whispered: “Ah Rong, there’s something… that you may have heard?”
Chen Rong looked back at him, her naturally bewitching eyes robbing Chen Sanlang of his mind.
“Third brother, what is it? Third brother, third brother?”
Chen Rong had to cry a few times before Chen Sanlang reacted. He composed himself, glanced around, leaned again toward Chen Rong and whispered: “I heard that after knowing Wang Qilang is unlikely to escape death, someone had reminded the Prince about you.”
He then stared at her and deliberately said, “I’m sure you know that I’m well-acquainted. My words may carry some weight with the prince.” He smiled cryptically, turned around and said to the driver, “Let’s go.”
By the time his carriage had driven a distance away, Chen Sanlang turned around to look at Chen Rong and grinned with satisfaction when he saw her blanched face bowing low.
Once Chen Sanlang was gone, Old Shang turned around and worriedly called: “Miss?”
Chen Rong looked up.
She shook her head and said to Old Shang, “We’ll take it one step at a time.”
Seemingly sad, the man feebly shook his head.
“Go to the Wang estate.”
Old Shang whirled around to look at her and quizzically repeated, “To the Wang estate?” Something came to his mind and he quickly reminded her: “Miss, you’re still unwed. The rumors will only worsen if you go to there.”
“Go, I have my plans,” Chen Rong remained firm.
Seeing that she had made up her mind, Old Shang had no choice but to drive the carriage forward.
As the vehicle was rolling, he did not give up and continued to warn her. “Miss, you’re an unwed young lady. I know Sanlang says the Prince of Nan’yang hasn’t given up, but that news may not be true. They say “The wife weds while the concubine elopes.” Young ladies who run away will always be looked down upon. If you go to the Wang estate now, how will you live in the future?”
There was grief in his voice.
After a good while, Chen Rong’s answer remained resolute: “Say no more. Let’s just go to the Wang estate.”
Old Shang had given up by now. He sighed and slowly drove the carriage to the Wang estate.
Soon, Chen Rong’s horse-drawn carriage pulled up to the Wangs’ side entrance.
She stared at a hesitant Old Shang, who jumped off with a glum face and walked to the gatekeeper.
The gatekeeper was a lanky man in his late twenties; he glanced at Chen Rong’s carriage and shouted at Old Shang: “Due to the current circumstances, our master has ordered that those who come with an invitation may enter through the main entrance.” When he finished, he impatiently waved Old Shang away.
At this time, Chen Rong showed her face and raised the jade ornament Wang Hong had given her. “Qilang has given me permission to come.”
The gatekeeper trotted over to look at the jade pendant, giving it several glances before suddenly crying: “Are you Ah Rong of the Chen house?”
He looked her up and down and muttered, “Sure is fetching. No wonder.” He then frowningly said, “Didn’t you know? Qilang isn’t home.”
Chen Rong dropped her gaze. “I want to see the servants who had come here with Qilang.”
He nodded and waved her in. “Come in, come in. Qilang had stayed in the south courtyard.”
The side gate opened to let the carriage pull inside.
Chen Rong ignored the gatekeeper who was still eyeing her with curiosity and disregard. She held her head high and glanced around the Wang estate’s décor.
After the carriage went some ten paces, Chen Rong removed her veiled hat and smoothed out her dress.
Soon, they arrived in the south courtyard. Old Shang parked by the arched doorway where a burly man in his mid twenties came out. He gave the carriage a quick glance and shouted: “Who’s there?”
Old Shang jumped down and respectfully said, “My mistress…”
Not waiting for him to finish, the man impatiently waved his hand and yelled: “Why have you come now of all times? Qilang isn’t here!”
At this point, Chen Rong’s lovely voice sounded from her carriage. “I’m Ah Rong of the Chen house.” She lifted the curtain and hopped down, walking to the large man and showing him the jade ornament. “This is the jade pendant Qilang had given me.”
The large man gave it a look, bowed and said, “Good greetings, miss.”
He stepped back and welcomed Chen Rong inside.
Once she entered the courtyard that was filled with trees and rockeries, Chen Rong found ten parked carriages and a hundred armored servants. They were all large and strong. When they saw Chen Rong approach, they couldn’t help but stare at her.
At this time, the man behind Chen Rong explained, “We’ve just finished preparations and were about to leave.”
“I know,” Chen Rong said with a nod to his surprise.
She stopped and curtsied to the servants, bowing her head humbly while stating with a clear voice: “I’ve come to go with you to Mo’yang.”
“Miss?” Old Shang cried. He sounded both confused and dismayed.
Chen Rong did not answer his call. She kept her curtsying posture, resolute in her dutiful look.
The servants exchanged gazes and then turned to a scholar, who stared at Chen Rong, asking: “Are you Ah Rong of the Chen house?”
He frowned and said in seriousness, “Do you know that Mo’yang is currently under the barbarians’ siege? The odds are against us if we go there at this time.” He pointed behind him. “They are all retainers from the house of Wang. None hope to keep their lives on this trip. What about you?”
“I have two friends in my life,” Chen Rong calmly replied. “Young General Sun is the first, and Qilang is the second. They are now both in Mo’yang.” She paused, then added: “I told Qilang that I owe him my life. If there’s a chance to repay him, then I will.”
“Will you regret your decision?”
The scholar lit up. He bowed deeply to Chen Rong and said, “I didn’t peg you for a lady of heroics! This way, miss!”
Chen Rong nodded and walked to the carriage behind him.
At this time, Old Shang cried out: “Miss, let me go with you.”
Chen Rong turned around and met Old Shang’s eyes. Seeing insistence in them, she gave some thought, nodded and said, “Go back and bring some luggage for me. Then come meet us at the north gate.”
“Aye,” Old Shang replied glumly.
Chen Rong watched him drive away and then turned and walked to an empty carriage.
“Why are you in such a hurry, miss?” a scholar asked, staring at her.
“I made a guess that you gentlemen would be leaving. I was afraid I’d be late so I didn’t think I had time to prepare any luggage.”
The scholar exclaimed in surprise: “My, were you able to even guess this? You’re just as extraordinary as Qilang says you are. Please, this way.”
At his invitation, Chen Rong bowed and mounted the carriage.