Chapter 75: Waltzing in Under the Enemies’ Noses
When people of the Wang house made their appearance in the city, nobles would, from time to time, come to see them off. They watched the burly servants while they pointed and murmured. Young ladies hung their heads in tears as they silently followed the carriages and sent them all the way to the city gate.
Luckily, Chen Rong was sitting inside a Wang carriage and no one knew a girl had joined the team.
By the time they arrived at the gate, when fewer ladies and nobles remained, Chen Rong peeked through the curtain slit and saw Old Shang’s carriage parked in the distance away from others’ attention. She quietly heaved.
When they were two hundred meters out of the city, the crowd stopped following to only watch them leave, with the girls still sobbing by the time scattered dust had disappeared from view.
Old Shang quickly drove over when he saw the troop approaching. “Miss?”
Chen Rong gave a reply and got off.
“Miss,” Old Shang whispered. “I’ve told them to say, if anyone were to ask, that Nurse Ping wants to look for her relatives in Ximing. You’ve gone to send her off because you are concerned for her and you won’t be back for several months. I’ve also told the nurse to lock her door and not see anyone during this time.”
Chen Rong knew he was thinking of her reputation. Even now, Old Shang was still holding onto a ray of hope, however slight it was, so shouldn’t she, too? She momentarily lowered her head and answered, “I know.”
At this time, a large man shouted: “Let’s go. Let’s not waste any more time.” Whips cracked as soon as he finished his words.
With his departure, the crowd also gave repeated shouts. They feared that Mo’yang would be completely surrounded, and even their aid would arrive too late.
Old Shang quickly drove along to keep up with them.
They went on without any breaks.
To everyone’s surprise, Chen Rong was actually very fit. When she was tired from sitting, she would ride; when she was tired of riding, she would sit. She didn’t have one word of complaint or did she give them any extra trouble. This alone made her far better than the vast majority of the noble children. The servants were secretly appreciative of it.
After having gone all day and through most of the night, the scholar looked at the moon in the sky and shouted: “Let’s take a break.”
The cavalcade stopped, and the servants rounded the carriages up with the riders on horseback and Chen Rong’s carriage encircled inside. To save time, everyone either slept in the vehicles or sat leaning against their horses to get some rest. They did not set camp.
After the scholar took care of things, he turned around to look at Chen Rong’s carriage. Seeing the fluttering curtain and an extremely quiet Chen Rong, he clasped his hands and politely informed her: “Miss, we’ll arrive in Mo’yang by noon tomorrow.”
Chen Rong nodded. “May I ask which gate you’re planning to enter from?” she asked.
“From the south, of course.”
Nan’yang was located to the southeast of Mo’yang. It was a matter of course to enter from the south gate.
“We can’t!” Chen Rong’s crisp and decisive voice sounded. “The tribesmen are well-versed in warfare strategies. They’ll certainly position their men at the south gate to discourage reinforcements from Nan’yang. Even the north gate is no good. I think we should go in from the west gate.”
The scholar paused. He exchanged glances with the others and then asked her, “You think we can enter from the west entrance?”
“Aye,” Chen Rong was convinced.
The scholar frowned. “Let us have a discussion,” he said and then retreated.
Moments later, he came back and said to Chen Rong, “You may be right, miss. We’ll enter through the west gate tomorrow.”
Chen Rong hummed an answer, seemingly indifferent to their acceptance of her opinion.
The scholar stared at the fluttering curtain and quietly thought to himself: She’s very courageous and intelligent for a girl so young. She’s also maintaining her calm very well. The master is indeed perceptive!
They started out again early next morning.
After deciding they would be going in from the west gate, they began to circle to the other side.
As noon neared, the travel became increasingly difficult for the Hu would appear from time to time. Everyone would hold his breath whenever this happened. They wrapped cloth over the wheels to hide their tracks and quietly went forward.
By noon, the tall fortress and its rugged walls appeared ahead. Even from afar, they could see shadows atop the walls.
The scholar gazed that way for a while from horseback, and then frowned and said to Chen Rong: “There are Hu soldiers at the west gate.”
Chen Rong’s voice was as tranquil as before, without joy or sorrow: “It’s all right. The notorious Murong Ke of the Xianbei tribe is the one laying siege to the city. He’s using the tactic of trapping three while letting one go, which means he intends to force the people of Mo’yang to escape from the west gate. The soldiers he placed here is only for show. They won’t stop us if we go in.”
People looked at one another once Chen Rong had voiced her opinion. Her simple articulation had contained a wealth of military knowledge, but she had explained these strategies as if they were as obvious as the weather.
“How do you know, miss?”
“Why don’t you send someone knowledgeable about military tactics to take a look at the west gate’s setup?”
The scholar nodded to a lanky man, who bent over and disappeared into the bushes in a whirl.
He again turned to Chen Rong and asked, “We haven’t been met by their ambush along the way. If they really wanted to force the civilians to escape from the west gate, why don’t they employ better arrangements?”
After a long beat of silence, Chen Rong replied, “If Murong Ke’s schemes can be seen through by people like us, then he wouldn’t be a famous general.” Her tone was unexpectedly certain and aloof, giving him an answer that wasn’t really one.
Taken by surprise, he gave it some thought and in the end decided to wait for the lanky man to come back.
That man returned less than half an hour later. He clasped his hands and reported to the scholar: “Not a wisp of smoke outside of the west gate. There are few thousand of them lying around and looking relaxed. I think we can give it a go!”
The scholar nodded, gritted and said, “Excellent! Let’s head to the west gate, then!”
They began packing up and taking out their weapons.
While glancing at Chen Rong, the scholar pointed out several strapping men so that they would protect her carriage.
Outside the west gate was a wide open field. When their hundred-person team surged forth, the clopping hooves made the Hu turn around in alarm.
“Sir,” Chen Rong suddenly called.
At this time, the scholar could not see Chen Rong. He rode over and raised his voice to say: “What is it, miss?”
“We only have a hundred people. We’d be beating our heads against the wall if we were to go up against them. If we can’t best them in any case, why must we be so anxious? I’d rather act normal. We’ll get through more easily that way!”
Her words had the semblance of sageness! “Very true, very true!” the scholar cried. He waved his right hand and told the crowd at large: “Put away your weapons and stop yelling. Go at leisure as though we are on an excursion.”
Perplexed at first, they then snapped awake to stow their weapons away and slow the horses down.
As they reached the west gate, their conversations grew more and more lively. The Hu who had jumped onto their horses in haste had calmed down by now. They slowly turned around to look unto the distance. Similarly, the people on the fortress walls had also quieted down and were now looking below in bewilderment.
In the distance and outside the tall city gate, more than a hundred strong men were riding or driving carriages at a leisure pace. They all seemed to be so relaxed that even the unhurriedly turning wheels did not cause dust to fly. It was as if they hadn’t come to break headlong into the city, but to walk into an empty yard instead.
While the Hu were in bafflement, the Hans had begun to crowd the fortress walls.
The middle-aged scholar rode to Chen Rong’s carriage. Without diverting his eyes from the Hu, he wiped the sweat on his forehead and said, “Miss, they don’t have any weapons.”
Another burly man kept close to her carriage; he scanned the area and asked, “Miss Chen, these barbarians are not riding horses or wielding any weapons. Will they really not attack us?”
Chen Rong’s noncommittal voice sounded to them from inside.
The men only wanted to talk to her because they felt restless, however. It mattered little whether she answered them or not.
Closer and closer they went, until both sides could gradually see the others’ faces. The Wang servants finally started to breathe again. They simply withdrew their gazes and went on with their easy conversations, idly going forward.
They were now only two hundred paces apart. Typically at this distance, both sides would have had to prepare themselves for a surprise attack. And yet neither the Hu nor the people of the Wang house did anything. The Hu innocently watched the Wangs converse, while the Wangs didn’t even bat an eye at the Hu.
One hundred more steps! By this time, the Hu were still haphazardly standing there, never once getting on their horses or taking out their spears.
Eighty more steps! The Hu were still staring at them in a daze.
Fifty more steps!
Thirty more steps! They could now see the expressions on the others’ faces at this distance. The tribesmen had seemed curious and surprised, but not murderous. They didn’t take their weapons out either. The people of the Wang house all heaved in relief.
Twenty more steps! Both sides’ conversations were now audible.
Ten more steps. Those leading in the front were facing the enemies.
At this moment, a man stepped forth from the Hu troop. He was donning a long robe and a tree-strand beard. Be it his attire or appearance, he looked very much like the Han scholars.
He bowed deeply to the people of the Wang house before asking in curiosity: “May I ask which clan you belong to?”
The elderly scholar returned his bow. “The Wang house of Lang’ya.”
“The Wang house of Lang’ya? You are indeed worthy of your reputation.” He raised his clasped hands and receded.
At this point, they had narrowly gone past the Hu, and they all knew that, just as Miss Chen had said, the nomadic tribesmen would not be stopping them.
By the time they were about one hundred paces away from the city entrance, the gates slowly opened to the creaking of heavy iron.
A group of Jin citizens appeared behind the gates. When they saw the Wang entourage, they simultaneously broke out in appreciative smiles.
Not waiting for them to speak, a roar of laughter sounded to the appearance of a middle-aged scholar. He was walking as he was laughing to the person beside him. “My admiration is yours today, Wang Qi!”
Who could the handsome and ethereal youth standing beside him be, if not Wang Hong?
At this time, Wang Hong slightly curved his mouth in a seeming smile, but there was a trace of uncommon brightness in those clear and lofty eyes. He strode out.
Seeing him walking to them, everyone from the Wang house quickly dismounted their horses or carriage and at once bowed to him, crying: “My lord.”
Wang Hong nodded before turning to look at Old Shang and Chen Rong’s carriage.
For the sake of her reputation, Chen Rong did not step down or lift her curtain in an effort to prevent others from seeing she was a young lady.
Wang Hong intently watched Chen Rong’s carriage for some time before nodding to his attendants, saying: “Come in.”
Surrounded by several hundred nobles, the attendants played to the crowd and went inside.
At the gates’ closing creak, the Wang entourage sighed in relief with some even beginning to buckle.
Wang Hong gave them a glance, then gave Chen Rong’s carriage a glance before withdrawing his gaze.
Excitement soon took over. They, as humble servants, were presently surrounded by a few hundred nobles and respectfully welcomed into the city! It was unprecedented! They tried their best to suppress their joy and excitement, kept their heads high, and slowly entered the mayor’s estate amid the cheers of Mo’yang residents who lined the street.
When they arrived at the west wing where Wang Hong resided, the older scholar stopped to give everyone, including Wang Hong, a deep bow as he laughed out loud. “Qilang, death may be frightening, but I won’t be afraid with you and these martyrs as my companions.”
He straightened up and gave the surrounding attendants a bow, sighing: “Gentlemen, if death evades you this time, the world will certainly know of your honor.”
“Wang Hong, Wang Hong, if such is your retainers’ dignity, then what of their master, I wonder!”
He waved his long sleeves, said goodbye to everyone and then took his leave.
As soon as they left, Wang Hong turned around and glanced at his attendants. After taking note of their expressions, he turned and looked toward Chen Rong who was sitting inside her carriage.
Chapter 76: Chen Rong’s Good Name
“Come down,” Wang Hong faintly smiled, looking at Chen Rong’s carriage.
She drew her curtain and revealed her beautiful face to him. She was slightly wan at the moment, apparently affrighted by the earlier events.
Wang Hong looked at her but did not ask. He then turned around, waved his sleeve and said, “Let’s go in.”
The servants followed him inside, and so did Chen Rong.
Sitting in a corner of the study and with her head bowed, Chen Rong was now dazedly watching a ray of sunlight that had beamed through the door and into the space in front of her. The dust floating in the light column was rather effervescent.
She sat there for some time until a figure came to stand in front of her and blocked the light.
She looked up and was met with Wang Hong’s gentle eyes.
He held her gaze, then slowly leaned forward as he reached out to cup her delicate face – his fingers yet to touch her, but his warmth already palpable.
Chen Rong lowered her eyes and forced herself to remain still despite instinctively wanting to pull away. Because she had held her breath for too long, however, a faint and dull pain pricked her chest.
Like a spring breeze, his hand brushed across her face as he laughed and softly said, “You’re so careless. Look, your hair is plastered all over your face.” His voice flowed like the wind at night, gently sweeping by.
He pulled away.
Chen Rong quietly exhaled. She couldn’t tell whether her heart had sighed in disappointment or relief.
Wang Hong sat down across from her. Without looking up, he bade, “Prepare meat and wine! I want to drink these last hours away with the young lady!”
The last hours? Chen Rong whipped her head up and quietly studied him, her lips quivering.
Wang Hong didn’t look at her. He lifted the wine jug and gracefully filled their cups. At this time, a beam of sunlight was shining on his fair, handsome face, bringing to light his fine hair and gentle smile.
Chen Rong dropped her gaze.
The last hours. That would have been true. Previously, he had been killed when the city fell on the morrow! At the time, the Xianbei army had feasted in celebration of his death. And such had been her last impression of the man called Wang Qilang.
In unprecedented fashion, the Hu had given him a gold coffin and a jade burial gown, and ceremoniously escorted his corpse back to Jiankang. The whole world had been stunned. One ought to know that to the Hans, the cannibal Hu weren’t human. It was unimaginable that such beasts would treat a Central Plains scholar with so much respect, that they would send his corpse home though he was only a boy yet to have his capping ceremony (1). In the ten years that had followed, the people of Jin had all been befuddled whenever they spoke of Wang Hong, and everything about him had likewise become a complete mystery.
及冠 – ancient coming-of-age ritual for a boy when he turns 20
It was now another lifetime and she was sitting across from him. Whether for herself or for him, because of the promise she had made the day he saved her from the prince’s estate, she would not let him die. No, she wouldn’t allow it!
While Chen Rong was preoccupied, her hand grew warm by a wine cup Wang Hong had placed into her palm.
His hand did not move away; its slender fingers wound around her middle finger and gently stroking it. He lowered his gaze, shadowing his eyes with fluttering long lashes. He continued caressing her finger as he whispered to her: “Why have you come?” His voice was very soft and airy, like a night breeze passing by.
Chen Rong pressed her lips together, not knowing how to answer him.
He looked up and beheld her face, waiting for an answer.
After a long time, Chen Rong swallowed and hoarsely replied, “Without you there, I was afraid the Prince of Nan’yang would harass me.” There was a dozen answers rushing from her mind, but she herself hadn’t thought through them, and in the end, she gave him the most indifferent and unpleasant reason of them all.
Wang Hong lightly chuckled and, ever so softly, stroked her finger. “You’d rather come here to rid yourself of the Nan’yang Prince, even though you’ll end up dead?”
His caressing gave her fingertips a tremble that coursed all the way to her heart.
Chen Rong bit her lip and suppressed the strange feeling gushing from deep inside. “We don’t have to end up dead!” She quietly lifted her eyes to look at him.
Wang Hong’s handsome and lofty face remained as it was. He did not seem to hear the certainty in Chen Rong’s voice. He just smiled. Slowly, he let go of her hand and stood up.
As he rose, Chen Rong found that the man in front of her had suddenly become distant and foggy. It was only moments ago that he had made her feel as though they were very close. But in just a blink of an eye, Chen Rong discovered with fright that he was still the cloud in the sky and she was still that piece of drifting leaf!
Wang Hong stood tall and looked down at Chen Rong, his smiling face both tranquil and distant: “You must be tired from the long trip, Ah Rong. Get some rest.” When he finished, he waved his wide sleeves, turned and went away.
Chen Rong sat in place for a long, long time to watch him drift farther away until he gradually disappeared in the sunlight. Facing the empty study, she answered, “Aye.” Even now, her legs were soft and her heart was beating erratically from seeing him again. She needed some quiet and peace to herself.
Half an hour later, Chen Rong left the study.
At this time, the Hu’s shouts and horses’ neighs beyond the city walls were mixed with the clamoring from inside, growing into a riotous din.
In addition to several frenzied maids in the courtyard, only Old Shang was around.
Chen Rong beckoned a maidservant over. “Bring me a set of your master’s clothes.”
The maid wasn’t in the frame of mind to ask her why; she bowed her head and ran to the bedchamber.
Soon, a light blue robe and a white robe were presented to Chen Rong. “These are both Qilang’s old clothes. Which one would you like, miss?”
“The blue one.”
Ever since she was a young girl, Chen Rong had never liked to wear white clothes. Firstly, she couldn’t wear something so pure and clean, and secondly, they were in the commoner’s style that she didn’t like.
After taking the outfit, Chen Rong said to the maid when she saw her turning to leave: “Help me with my hair.” When she finished, she sat down in front of the mirror.
The maid absentmindedly complied and came to stand behind her, asking: “What hairstyle would you like, miss?”
“The men’s, of course, since I’m wearing men’s clothes. By the way, speak to the servants and tell them that only a young man had come here, never a young lady.”
Puzzled, the maid asked, “Why, miss?” But she immediately thought of the reason and quickly complied, “Aye.”
Before long, Chen Rong had been disguised as a young, dashing man. In reality, her male disguise was ineffectual. Her features were too exquisite and her body was too well-endowed. No matter how large the robe, there was inevitably some degree of femineity. The battle was soon to come, nevertheless, and she couldn’t afford to care about these details.
Chen Rong glanced at herself in the mirror once more before striding out.
When she left, she did not see too many people on the streets. She occasionally saw a few servants who were also dashing about, both hurried and tumultuous. It appeared that the calmest place in the entire mayor’s estate was still Wang Qilang’s courtyard.
After walking for a while, Chen Rong saw a servant from the Wang house and quickly asked, “Where’s Qilang?”
The servant was in a hurry and didn’t look to see who was asking him. He waved his hand: “On the watchtower.”
Chen Rong strode to the tower.
Before long, she saw Wang Qilang standing on the tall tower in his snowy robe that was always spotless and pure.
It was the strangest thing. There were obviously people in front of and behind him; there was obviously an uproar outside the city. But when he stood there, the sky seemed cloudless, and Chen Rong thought she only saw him stand alone.
She walked to stand behind him. But instead of looking to the horizon as he was, Chen Rong looked down at the Hu below the city walls.
This was the south gate where the Hu numbered tens of thousands. Tens of thousands of Hu were crouching below the city walls, cooking or laughing in small groups. They appeared to be disorderly at first glance, but at a closer look, Chen Rong immediately found that these tribesmen had organized into disciplined formations. They were armored and their weapons never left their side.
She stared below for a while and then suddenly said, “Qilang, I think we can leave from this gate!”
Wang Hong roused at her words. He turned around and lit up when he saw Chen Rong, a faint smile playing on his lips. He tilted his head and quietly stared at her, then suddenly outstretched a hand: “I’ll gladly hold your hand!” He had said this with a strange tone and an unusual expression, as if he was making her a promise.
Of course Chen Rong didn’t give him her hand. She smiled instead, looking into his eyes and saying in seriousness: “Qilang, let’s break our way out from the south gate.” She turned to look at the gate below. “Look Qilang,” she pointed and said, “isn’t there something different about the left and right sides, as well as the middle and rear of the Hu force?”
When she didn’t hear a reply, she turned around.
Wang Hong was tilting his head staring at her.
Under the sunset, Chen Rong’s beautiful face was blanketed by a layer of golden light. Her eyes were so bright and her youthful skin was so vibrant that even though her figure was hidden behind the large robe, she maintained a sense of passion and vivacity all the same.
Wang Hong withdrew his gaze to also look below. “It is odd. What do you think, Ah Rong?”
She was about to answer him when a series of footsteps approached them. A bright laughter accompanied these footsteps. “Is Qilang here? Eh? And who might this young master be?” He sounded somewhat suspicious of her.
Chen Rong turned around and came to face with the charismatic and nonchalant mayor of Mo’yang.
Even when war was imminent, when the city was awaiting its fall and people would be dying, his smile was ever present and it seemed as though he wasn’t facing life and death, but a banquet or poetry meet.
Chen Rong stepped forward with the intention of offering an answer.
Before she could speak, Wang Hong walked behind her, held out his hand and so very naturally placed it onto her shoulder, smilingly saying: “This is my love, who has come to die with me.”
Chen Rong’s smile froze on her face. The greeting she wanted to say was lodged in her throat. She didn’t expect Wang Hong to give that kind of an answer!
The mayor’s eyes lit up. He gave Chen Rong an appraising look, stroked his long beard, nodded and lamented: “What a virginal, beautiful face. With a sweetheart like you, it’s no wonder the famous Wang Qilang is willing to love men.”
He looked to the barbarians below and murmured, “You’re doing better than me, Qilang. I haven’t anyone to join me in the afterlife.”
He proceeded to sigh, not noticing that Chen Rong had been stunned speechless, that her legs had gone soft and her entire body was threatening to keel on the spot.
Just as Chen Rong fell backward, Wang Hong came to catch her. He lovingly held her in his arms, pressed his thin lips against her cheek, and softly breathed: “Darling, are you not feeling well?”
Chen Rong hadn’t the strength to answer him. All she could do at this moment was to close her eyes in woe.
The truth was that she had come to Mo’yang to firstly avoid misfortune, but secondly because she also knew how this battle would be played out. She believed that as long as they had a good grasp of the situation, as long as things still followed the same tracks of the past, she could take both Wang Hong and Sun Yan out alive. That was why she had stayed inside the carriage, why she had worn men’s attire, and why she still made an effort to protect her reputation.
But right now, Wang Hong’s arm was around her waist, his chest was pressed against her back, and his lips were attached to her cheek. The poor girl had been a maiden, still, when she burned herself to death in her previous life. She had never been in such proximity to a man before. But damn it, he stole her first kiss in this life, then he hugged her and called her darling left and right. Why was this man so thoroughly insufferable?
Chen Rong quietly gritted her teeth. Once she opened her eyes, she saw the mayor of Mo’yang looking at her and Wang Hong enviously. She stopped gnashing her teeth and immediately broke into a bashful smile.
After cropping out a smile, Chen Rong bowed her head and tried to remove his hand away from her waist. It refused to move. She bit her lower lip and pulled harder, but he held on. She knitted her brow and gave him a hard pinch.
“Ouch!” Wang Hong cried in pain.
The mayor turned to look at him in surprise and asked, “What’s the matter?”
Wang Hong curved his lips and put on a charming smile. “Nothing, I was just bitten by an ant.”
“You aren’t afraid of death, but you’re afraid of ants?” the mayor laughingly asked.
Wang Hong raised a brow and lightly replied, “This ant always chooses the fleshy part when it bites, and it bites very hard. It just won’t let go no matter what, of course I’m scared of it.” He said he was scared, but one certainly couldn’t tell from his expression or tone.
The mayor laughed out loud.
Wang Hong lowered his head. Softly smiling, he gently nipped at Chen Rong’s earlobe. “Are you afraid of death or of an ant bite, darling?”