CHAPTER 13 Tongue-tied
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While waiting in a remote pavilion by the lower reaches of the Yudai River, Lan Cheng anxiously paced along the handrail by the bank. Shentu Rui sat on a wooden bench, his eyes dizzy from watching her movements, but he didn’t say anything about it.
Lan Cheng suddenly stopped walking and turned around to ask anxiously, “Brother Rui, what if she can’t get away?”
Shentu Rui raised his hand to straighten out the stray threads on his sleeve and impatiently replied, “No, I’ve specifically instructed the guards to strengthen their patrols tonight. He won’t be able to stay at home.”
Lan Dan didn’t understand what they were talking about, and just stood aside, lost in thought as she watched her rabbit lantern burn out.
Lan Cheng’s topic quickly turned to her again, “When the person arrives, she can’t stay here. Let her go to where the servants stay.” She pointed her chin at Lan Dan, and rolled her eyes while doing so.
“She is not a servant,” Shentu Rui said indifferently. Although he didn’t get angry, it was obvious that he was very displeased.
Lan Dan felt uncomfortable and decided to leave the pavilion to avoid getting involved in their argument, but then Lan Cheng spoke again.
“Meeting with my Second Sister is a matter of life and death. At the very least, we shouldn’t have an outsider here causing trouble!”
Lan Dan’s legs sank, and she swayed slightly. Second Sister? Lan Lan?
“If you don’t trust my people, that’s fine. We’ll go.” Shentu Rui stood up decisively, and before Lan Dan could even react, he had already walked two steps to the edge of the waterside pavilion.
“Brother Rui!” Lan Cheng was angry and frustrated, but she had no choice but to hold him and beg softly, “Alright, alright, just leave her here. Brother Rui, don’t be angry.”
Although Shentu Rui didn’t speak, Shentu Rui complied with her tugging and sat back in his original seat. Luring him with flattery, Lan Cheng tried to appease him by saying, “I know you’re also thinking about me. If someone sees us, we’ll have more reasons to excuse ourselves.”
Shentu Rui let out a lazy hum.
A feeble small lantern rushed towards them in the darkness. Everyone was gathered at the outer Taiye Pool. Besides that, there was no one around, making it particularly quiet and desolate.
When she got closer, Lan Dan saw that it was indeed her Second Sister, Lan Lan. The darkness suddenly seemed to grow thicker, and the entire world was shrouded in mist. The rippling water of the river suddenly appeared to be much larger. It turned out… that she was crying.
Just like on that snowy day, the frail sister walked alone, her expression full of sadness but also of determination. The lonely lantern in her hand didn’t illuminate much of her path, but she still walked forward resolutely. This figure brought unspeakable comfort to Lan Dan. Her sister was like her light, not particularly bright but still warm and illuminating.
Lan Cheng approached and held her hand, both of them shedding tears. They entered the waterside pavilion and remained silent for a while.
Lan Dan’s feet moved on their own. She couldn’t help but watch her sisters by the river from a distance. She wished to cry with her sister like Lan Cheng, but an unknown fear held her back. She could only watch in silence.
Shentu Rui let out a soft sigh, and Lan Dan felt that his expression was not one of compassion for her hidden pain, but rather disappointment.
All these people confused her more and more. Apparently, her ability to judge people was terrible. Shouldn’t Shentu Rui be afraid of her admitting her identity and recognizing her sisters? Wouldn’t that be dangerous for him, and expose his plans and ambitions?
After her distress faded, Lan Lan looked around the pavilion and saw Shentu Rui with a troubled expression. Lan Dan caught her gaze a few times, but she didn’t feel anything and simply smiled and nodded politely.
Lan Dan was too distressed to even look at her sister, let alone respond.
Lan Cheng comforted Lan Lan, who was hesitant to speak, “Everyone here is trustworthy. Sister, feel free to speak your mind.”
Lan Lan nodded, but still hesitant.
Lan Cheng touched Lan Lan’s thin cotton robe, and said angrily, “That bastard dare to treat you like this! It seems like he hasn’t learned his lesson yet!”
Lan Lan anxiously shook her head. “Sister Cheng, don’t act recklessly!”
Lan Cheng clenched her teeth angrily. “I know he’s acting on Lan Huang’s orders. She probably wants to torture you to death!”
Lan Lan’s eyes showed an unusual wisdom as she coldly mocked, “The less I resist, the more at ease she feels. She doesn’t really want me dead. She’s killed Father Emperor and Mother Empress, so what’s stopping her from killing me?”
Lan Dan listened carefully and understood who her sister was referring to when she said “she”.
Lan Lan sighed, “Perhaps it’s because her name is not well-chosen, Huang (royal/imperial)—— she is too arrogant and always wants to be the one in control. Even though she knew Father Emperor acted in her best interest, just because of one thing with Chong Wen, she caused such a huge uproar that even the Xiao family’s power was destroyed.”
Lan Cheng sneered in disdain after hearing this. “Maybe she wasn’t even doing it for Chong Wen, but because Father Emperor went against her wishes and she wanted to take charge herself! How terrifying!” She glanced meaningfully at Shentu Rui and added, “Perhaps one day, when the time is ripe, she will ascend to that unique and unparalleled height where she won’t even want a puppet.”
Shentu Rui had been leaning against the railing, looking at the distant lights, seemingly unaffected by what Lan Cheng had just said.
Lan Lan held Lan Cheng’s hand with both hands, caressing it worryingly and lovingly. “Sister Cheng, don’t come to see me again, I’m afraid that if Lan Huang finds out, it won’t be good for you.”
Lan Cheng’s eyes widened as she burst out, “She dares?!” But then she fell silent because she knew that Lan Huang really did dare to do anything. As she had said before, Lan Huang might even kill Shentu Cheng, let alone her. She took out a pack of banknotes from her waist and handed it to Lan Lan. “Sister, hide this well. If that beast Deng Chong treats you badly, you can run away with it.”
Lan Lan blushed in embarassment for a moment, before taking the banknotes and tucking them into her bosom. She held Lan Cheng’s hand tightly and said with deep concern, “I am still alive, so you must be careful! To Lan Huang, every living member of the Xiao family is a witness to her crimes.”
This statement hit Lan Dan like a powerful blow, causing her to tremble and almost fall.
“There must be an important reason why she allows us to live. She doesn’t kill me because she’s afraid the court officials will think she’s too cruel, and because I don’t pose a threat to her. But you’re different. You’re the current Eldest Princess, and she’s constantly watching and scheming against you. You must obey and not oppose her.”
Lan Cheng was moved to tears by her sister’s words, leaving her at a loss for words. She could only squeeze her sister’s hand to reassure her.
“So, please don’t take any risks to see me again or have any contact with me. Don’t worry…” Lan Lan choked up. “I’ll take good care of myself.”
Lan Dan had to turn her face away from the waterside pavilion, struggling to hold back her sobs.
After a short while, Lan Lan left, and Shentu Rui led everyone out through the only exit. Lan Lan’s little lamp floated unsteadily not far away.
Lan Dan unconsciously quickened her pace, wanting to see more of her sister’s back, but Shentu Rui didn’t stop her. Lan Cheng purposely slowed down and playfully tugged Shentu Rui in different direction, while the guards and palace maids followed them.
Lan Dan walked ahead of them and became increasingly distant, her eyes fixed on the path in front of her, and her steps unsteady.
As they approached a bridge, the crowd became denser, and Lan Lan disappeared among them. Lan Dan had to walk closer to avoid losing her, while the guards and palace maids followed closely behind.
A muscular man emerged from a narrow alleyway and strode purposefully towards Lan Lan, with one hand resting oddly on his waist as if he was ready to draw a weapon at any moment.
Lan Dan recalled the previous conversation and wondered if Lan Huang had found out that Lan Cheng had secretly met with their Second Sister, and if that was why he was now intent on killing her.
The man had already reached Lan Lan’s side and even placed his hand on her shoulder. Lan Dan was so terrified that everything around her seemed blurry except for the man gripping her sister’s shoulder with force and twisting her around.
“No!” Lan Dan screamed, completely disregarding her own safety as she rushed towards the man and tackled him.
The man had just struck Lan Lan with a slap when someone unexpectedly collided with him from behind. Lan Dan was so stunned that her forceful impact caused the man to stumble a few steps forward.
Once he had regained his balance and turned to see who had attacked him, he realized that it was just a feeble woman. His confidence surged again and he strode towards Lan Dan, pushing her fiercely.
Lan Dan could not withstand his push, and fell heavily on the stone pavement. The extinguished rabbit lantern was also thrown flying.
The man still held a grudge and raised his hand to slap Lan Dan, but was stopped by Lan Lan’s crying and pleading.
Lan Lan’s face was already red and swollen. “Deng Chong! She’s just a passing little girl, don’t hit her!”
Deng Chong ignored her pleas and kicked her to the side.
Lan Dan screamed in pain, as if the kick had been directed at her. This brute who hit women turned out to be the husband of her Second Sister! Had he been tormenting her sister like this all along? The muffled sound from the impact on Lan Lan’s body was tearing her heart apart.
Deng Chong sneered, “I haven’t hit you yet, why scream?” He threw a punch, which was blocked by a scabbard, and was then kicked away while screaming like a pig being slaughtered.
The guard stepped back after Deng Chong was dismissed. Shentu Cheng slowly walked over, crouching in front of Lan Dan. He looked at her hands covering her cheeks in fear, which had been scraped and bleeding from Deng Chong’s push on the rough stone pavement. The blood on her fair face was particularly striking.
“Scared?” he softly asked as he looked into her eyes.
Lan Dan stared straight into his eyes, and suddenly burst into tears, backing away while crying.
Shentu Cheng frowned, not understanding why she had such a reaction. He slowly stood up, looking down at the woman who regarded him as a scourge.
Only then did Shentu Rui push aside the crowd of spectators and came over, shaking his head and feeling that Lan Dan was embarrassing herself. “Such a small matter and she’s already scared. What a coward!”
He greeted Shentu Cheng respectfully, but Shentu Cheng gestured for him to stop and departed with his guards.
Shentu Rui sighed silently before he came to pull Lan Dan, but her bloody hand rubbed against his own.
Lan Cheng had already rushed over, beating and cursing Deng Chong. Deng Chong naturally recognized her, endured the beating, wondering whether the Emperor would dislike him.
Shentu Rui held Lan Dan’s hand, looked coldly at Deng Chong who had been slapped by Lan Cheng, and walked away.
“Wait…” Lan Dan, who had been crying and screaming, spoke in a hoarse and barely audible voice. “My rabbit lantern.”
Shentu Rui’s expression softened, and he helped her look around. They eventually found the broken remains of her rabbit lantern on the side of the street. He gave her hand a gentle squeeze and said, “It’s broken. I’ll buy you a new one later.”
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