CHAPTER 12 The world shows no mercy
This was Da Yan’s first Lantern Festival celebration. It was glaringly obvious that Shentu Cheng put a lot of effort and money into it. The lanterns were much grander and more intricate than those from the previous dynasty. Two huge dragon lanterns, operated by hundreds of bearers, soared and spun in the night sky, stunning everyone with their radiance and majesty. Everyone followed the undulating dragons in awe and excitement, their cheerful laughters ringing out into the sky.
In all fairness, it was truly beautiful. The lanterns formed a vast ocean, and the festive crowds were like waves. Even the dark sky was illuminated, and the vast surface of the outer Taiye Pool was like a mirror, reflecting this dazzling world. Looking down from Puqing Terrace, the two inverted neighboring worlds seem like a dream. Lan Dan was mesmerized. Beauty was beauty, regardless of one’s state of mind while admiring it. Yet, she was also confused, unsure whether the desolate and rancid world from just a few days ago was an illusion, or if this lavish and magnificient world in front of her was the reality. She had experienced this kind of confusion before, doubting whether her life as a princess was reality or a dream amidst the sorrow and misery. She smiled, realizing that life was surreal, with reality and fantasy difficult to distinguish. Fate often seemed like a game played by the heavens, with some buried under jade palaces and flowers one day, and under the loess the next. Who knew what tomorrow might bring… whether it would be such a magnificent scene or pitch-black darkness of the underworld.
Shentu Rui walked over to her side and silently watched with her.
The pre-celebration came to a brief halt, as the dragon lanterns descended. Suddenly, fireworks were set off at the four corners of the outer Taiye Pool, painting the sky in a myriad of colors.
Under the organization of the officials, the people knelt down and kowtowed three times towards the Puqing Terrace, shouting out “long live”.
Amidst the dazzling fireworks, the world became so magnificent that the resounding cheers made people feel an indescribable sense of expansion, as if the towering Puqing Terrace was their own height, looking down upon the tiny ants filling their line of sight.
Just as Lan Dan was about to sigh, she heard Shentu Rui let out a long sigh before being drowned out by the cheers. If they weren’t standing so close, she wouldn’t have heard him.
With the kowtow ceremony over, the celebration officially began, with singing, dancing, and various performances on display, showcasing the prosperity and stability of Da Yan to the unsettled common people.
Shentu Rui looked at the jubilant crowd and commented, “How heartless…”
Lan Dan couldn’t help turning her head to look at him. How did he know what she was thinking?
Shentu Rui smiled. The warm red light of the colored lanterns illuminated his handsome face, but it made his smile seem so cold. “Indeed, the world is heartless. In fact, your father and your Xiao family have governed competently. However, nobody will remember that. This beautiful land is particularly forgetful.”
Lan Dan’s eyebrows rose ironically. “Since the world is so heartless, why do you still want it?”
Shentu Rui’s smile deepened, revealing his perfectly white teeth. He appeared very cheerful and honest. “Even so, I still want it!”
A group of people walked over, with Lan Cheng leading the way. She gazed solely at Shentu Rui, and when she reached him, she hugged his arm and leaned against him. “Brother Rui, remember what you promised me.”
Shentu Cheng was flanked by Concubine Gong and Concubine Jing slowly following behind. Everyone was dressed in plain clothing, presumably to go out incognito.
Lan Dan found it difficult to conceal her disdain. The former Third and Nine Princess Consorts had already achieved their goal of becoming the Emperor’s imperial concubines, and they were now content and flattering. To her, even disgust was too good for them.
Shentu Cheng’s attitude towards them was also strange. If he liked them, he would treat them well, but he looked down on them like two jumping clowns. Since he despised them so much, he should either drive them out or kill them, but he insisted on conferring titles on them, which even made the Empress Dowager reprimand him. Lan Dan didn’t want to think too much about Shentu Cheng, but she increasingly realized that she had never truly understood him, even his most superficial behavior.
“Let’s go.” He beckoned to Shentu Rui.
Before Shentu Rui could respond, Lan Cheng rushed to say, “Brother Emperor, you can go play by yourself today. You have people to accompany you! Brother Rui and I have plans to hang out together.”
“Really?” Shentu Cheng smiled with hidden meaning as he looked at Shentu Rui.
“Yes—” Shentu Rui reluctantly responded with a drawn-out sigh.
“Alright.” Shentu Cheng nodded. “Don’t stay out too late, the Empress Dowager will worry.”
Once Shentu Cheng and his entourage descended downstairs, Lan Cheng pouted and looked at Lan Dan out of the corner of her eyes, but directed her question at Shentu Rui, “What about her? What is she going to do?”
Shentu Rui shrugged off Lan Cheng’s hand, but she quickly latched onto him again. With a frown, he said, “If she doesn’t go, then I won’t go. Besides…” he glanced at Lan Dan, “…it would be more convenient for you to have her accompany you.”
Lan Cheng’s jealousy melted away after hearing Shentu Rui’s explanation. She smiled as she pulled him forward. “I knew you were thinking about me. Now, I won’t have to worry about the spies keeping tabs on me.”
While they walked down the stairs of Puqing Terrace, Lan Cheng’s hand felt longer due Shentu Rui’s grip.
Even though Lan Cheng was walking in front, Lan Dan still felt her gaze piercing through her via the scorching-hot gaze of Shentu Rui. Lan Dan couldn’t help observing Lan Cheng’s flat and straight back, which seemed like that of a petulant and ignorant young girl. She was the luckiest person in Da Min and Da Yan dynasties, being the beloved daughter of the Late Emperor and the cherished sister of the new Emperor. Her identity as a princess was predetermined by fate, so she didn’t have to spend any effort or resort to any means.
The only thing that bothered her was Shentu Rui’s lack of interest in her.
Lan Dan turned to look at Shentu Rui, who was only marginally taller than her due to his pace. She wondered why he wasn’t fond of Lan Cheng.
Mystified by her stare, Shentu Rui responded by throwing her a flirtatious look. Lan Dan furrowed her brows and turned her head away. How could Lan Cheng be so attracted to this rascal?
Accompanied by two guards and two maids, Lan Dan and her group slipped out of the back door of Puqing Terrace and walked through the small alley guarded by soldiers, blending into the sea of people in no time.
There were too many people, so Shentu Rui held Lan Dan’s hand tightly and signaled her to stay close to him amidst the crowded place.
Lan Cheng also leaned over, clinging to Shentu Rui, trying her best to ignore Lan Dan while pretending to admire the lanterns along the way.
The crowd was so dense that they had to hold hands to avoid getting separated.
Lan Dan watched as Lan Cheng was knocked back a few steps by a group of youths running wildly with lanterns, and was instantly engulfed by the crowd.
“Run!” Shentu Rui not only didn’t turn back to find her, but also held Lan Dan’s hand and ran happily like those youths, turning into a side path with fewer people and laughing uncontrollably.
Lan Dan was panting so badly she had to bend over, clutching her chest and breathing rapidly.
After telling her not to move and wait for him here, Shentu Rui ran away without a trace.
Lan Dan took her time to calm down and observe her surroundings. Everyone was so happy, especially the young couples who looked at each other with affectionate glances in the light.
In previous Lantern Festivals, she had always followed a brother-in-law, sister-in-law, or older sister or brother to play and view the lanterns. Sometimes, she had also been deliberately left behind like Lan Cheng just now, which made her feel lonely and sad, but because everyone around her was so happy, she also became happy. She had been especially looking forward to this year’s Lantern Festival because she had someone to accompany her to view the lanterns. She could also have someone to solve riddles with and exchange smiles with, like these couples.
She was was excited for the Lantern Festival more than ever, but she did not expect this year’s celebration to be so different…
Her attention was drawn to a bright light, and she had to squint before recognizing a rabbit lantern right in front of her.
Shentu Rui held a lantern and shone it directly on her face. He silently gazed at her and she was captivated by his deep gaze, foolishly staring back at him.
He curved his lips into what appeared to be a smile but was more like a sigh. He then lowered his hand and placed the rabbit lantern into her hand.
“I really miss that silly girl carrying a rabbit lantern,” he said with a tinge of sadness as he turned around. It was as if she was gone forever, that frail and delicate girl who used to come carrying her lantern, trembling and shaking.
Lan Dan stood there, holding the lantern in a daze. She didn’t catch up to him, and her eyes suddenly became blurred with tears. Besides her Second Sister, who came to pay respects in the snow, she never thought anyone else would remember Xiao Lan Dan.
“What are you doing?” Shentu Rui called back to her. “Hurry up and come with me to meet her, otherwise today’s festivities won’t end.”
Lan Dan sniffed lightly. Afraid that he would notice her tears, she quickly wiped her face before walking over to join him.
Lan Cheng anxiously stood at the arch bridge, looking around, while the guards and palace maids looked nervous and worried.
It was Lan Cheng who spotted Shentu Rui first. She was initially delighted, then she burst into tears, running over to pound on his chest and complaining, “Where have you been? How could you do this?”
Wincing, Shentu Rui quickly grabbed her wrists and awkwardly explained, “There are too many people, and I lost sight of you in a blink of an eye. I knew this bridge is a necessary passage, so I rushed over here.”
Lan Cheng rolled her eyes at him, then noticed he wasn’t holding Lan Dan’s hand anymore, which made her happy again. She smiled and took Shentu Rui’s hand, skipping forward with joy.
Lan Dan didn’t try to interrupt. She silently walked a few steps behind them, holding her rabbit lantern.
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