CHAPTER 14 The Light of the Firefly
Shentu Rui waited for Lan Dan to tidy up before entering her room. She had just finished bathing and her hair was still wet. When she saw him coming in, she jumped up from the ground, not displaying any signs of her injury.
She grabbed his arm with a look of fear in her eyes and stared up at him. Shentu Rui initially assumed that she was still traumatized by Deng Chong’s actions, but then she burst into tears and said, “I can’t do what you asked me to do!”
She became agitated and took a step back, shouting so loudly that she bent over. “I can’t face him! Whenever he looks at me, I feel disgusted and scared! He’s too scary, even though he has a gentle gaze, he’s a monster that wants to devour people! It’s like he’s a demon living in a beautiful shell. He’s so fake!”
Until today, Lan Dan didn’t hold as much contempt for Shentu Cheng. He was an ambitious man who would use anyone he could to achieve his goals. But he also used that seductive look, which he pretended to be indifferent about, on her. He used it on Princess Danyang, seduced her heart, and caused her death. Then he used that same look on Fu Zhu, as if it were a routine. He didn’t put any effort into it at all, from beginning to end, just like eating breakfast and sleeping at night. As long as he followed the same pattern, he could achieve what he wanted.
She thought she was the only woman he had deceived, used and killed, but she was not even worthy of that title. The way he treated Danyang was the same as how he treated Fu Zhu and the former Third and Ninth Sisters-in-Law, who have been able to abandon their husbands without hesitation, even asking Shentu Cheng to kill them.
Lan Huang and Shentu Cheng may be considered equal and mutually beneficial, but what about the rest of the women?
All of them were regarded with cold eyes, whether they had been abandoned or not, they were just his playthings.
She could not cope with him, let alone have any kind of intimacy with him! She couldn’t even speak to him as if nothing had happened!
Shentu Rui looked at her coldly.
Laughing and crying, Lan Dan gave up on trying and lost control. She raised her head, waved her hand, and said, “Yes! Useless people should just die. If you want me to die, that’s fine! I’ve died before! I’d rather die than get close to Shentu Cheng again!”
Upon hearing this, Shentu Rui frowned with anger and disgust, turned around, and slammed the door heavily as he walked out.
After a day of exhaustion and a night of ups and downs, Lan Dan felt extremely relieved. She collapsed on the ground, too tired to move. She closed her eyes, not caring whether she would live to see tomorrow or not.
She just lay in a mess like this, dozing off and on, in a daze.
The sky outside gradually brightened. She opened her eyes for a moment and then closed them again. She didn’t care if the guards rushed in and dragged her out to be hanged or killed with a knife!
The door opened and the sound of light footsteps could be heard— it was the maidservants.
Lan Dan remained still and they didn’t call her, but they forcefully washed her face and rinsed her mouth. The two thin maids had quite a bit of strength, and when they changed her clothes, they pinched her shoulders until they hurt.
Yesterday she made their master unhappy, so although the maids still wore expressionless faces, their actions indicated that they were displeased as well.
When combing her hair, Lan Dan suspected that they were going to pull out a strand of it.
Unlike their usual extreme extravagance, they dressed her in a plain cotton robe that was not too thin but certainly very ordinary.
After the maids left, Shentu Rui walked in. He was still dressed in his luxurious attire, but it was more subdued than usual. His face was very unpleasant, and he was still angry. Lan Dan sat in front of the mirror and ignored him, so he nudged her leg with his toe and ordered her coldly, “Get up and follow me.”
Lan Dan stiffened her neck, “If you want to kill me, go ahead. I’m not going anywhere with you!”
Shentu Rui was so angry that he couldn’t speak. He moved his foot and Lan Dan thought he was going to kick her hard, like Deng Chong had kicked Second Sister. Instinctively, she flinched a bit, feeling scared.
Fortunately, he managed to control himself. He picked her up like a little chicken and asked angrily, “When did I spoil you like this?” Lan Dan felt weightless, as if she were being dragged out instead of walking out.
“I’m not going anywhere! I’m not going anywhere!” She screamed all the way, still reveling in the thrill of yesterday’s rebellion. She had already resigned herself to dying.
Shentu Rui’s face turned blue, and when he threw her inside the carriage, he used eight percent of his strength. Lan Dan felt like she was flying into the cramped compartment, hitting the back wall and rebounding. This showed how intense Shentu Rui’s anger was.
He lifted the curtain and glared at her, threateningly saying in a sinister tone, “If you dare to say a word on the way, I’ll give you ten lashes!” With his other hand, he picked up a small riding whip, and with a swish, he whipped it across Lan Dan’s arm, causing a sharp pain even through her cotton clothes. “Don’t cry out!” he said fiercely. “Want to die? Do you think it’s that easy? Does it hurt?” he asked, staring intently at her. Initially, Lan Dan had wanted to be tough, but under the pressure of his fierce gaze and threatening tone, she unconsciously nodded her head, and even shed tears. The most hateful thing was that she really didn’t dare to cry out loud.
Shentu Rui looked at her, his face stiffening and his gaze even avoiding hers. With a heavy thud, he pulled down the curtain and said in a deep voice, “That was just a little bit of force! If you dare to shout at me again, I’ll whip you in half with one lash!”
After a short while, the carriage stopped. Shentu Rui was still sulking and ordered his attendant to help Lan Dan down from the carriage. He stood with his hands behind his back next to the door of a house.
Lan Dan looked around the shabby courtyard in confusion, unsure who they were there to see. The guard knocked on the door and a familiar voice answered from inside.
Lan Dan’s body instantly stiffened, her eyes staring straight at the wooden door until her Second Sister opened it from inside.
Lan Lan looked outside carefully until she saw Shentu Rui. Her expression became a bit more relaxed, and she motioned for him to come in.
Shentu Rui strode inside with arrogance, ignoring Lan Dan. Without being asked, she followed him inside with a blank stare.
Lan Lan was polite yet guarded towards Shentu Rui, but when she saw Lan Dan, she immediately showed a friendly expression. Closing the door, she took Lan Dan’s hand with concern and gratitude. “Are you alright, Miss?”
Lan Dan’s hand was wrapped in a layer of gauze due to a scrape. Lan Lan felt sorry, holding the hand and saying, “It’s all my fault! Your pretty hand is hurt.”
Lan Dan choked up and couldn’t speak. She felt both sad and happy to finally be so close to her sister, no matter what their identities were. She shook her head vigorously and finally said in a hoarse voice, “It doesn’t hurt, it’s almost healed.”
As she walked into the main room, only Lan Lan was home, as Deng Chong was probably on duty. While Lan Lan was busy making tea, Lan Dan looked around the house carefully. When their Father Emperor was alive, Deng Chong was a fifth-rank general serving in the Imperial Military Department and had earned the favor of Marquis Wen Yue, who was not only a powerful minister but also the father-in-law of the former Eldest Princess Lan Qing. With Marquis Wen Yue’s recommendation, their Father Emperor had arranged for the second princess to marry Deng Chong.
Due to Deng Chong’s relatively low rank among the imperial sons-in-law, Lan Dan was not very familiar with him. It may have been his distance from the rest of the imperial family that allowed him to protect himself during the crisis. However, this only served to ensure his own safety. Living in a small courtyard like this meant that he had been severely demoted, and as a general, he could not have been promoted. Thus, his frustration was likely taken out on his wife.
Lan Dan looked back at her sister’s swollen cheeks and felt a strong pang of sadness.
“Is Deng Chong still giving you trouble?” Shentu Rui asked flatly.
“Did Lan Cheng send you here? Please tell her everything is alright. He… he’s not always like this. Yesterday he was probably angry because I took a risk on my own and he was afraid it would bring trouble.” Lan Lan put down her teacup and gave a bitter smile.
Shentu Rui snorted coldly. “A man like him is not worth mentioning.”
Lan Dan couldn’t help but feel emotional. Lan Cheng had always been a strong-willed child, spoiled and arrogant. She often made it difficult for people to get along with her. Hence, it was unexpected that someone like her would show such concern and care for her sister in need, more sincere than the usual affectionate people.
“I also share the same view as Lan Cheng. If you can’t bear it any longer, you should hide your identities and go south first. Lan Huang has both me and Lan Cheng, and Deng Chong is only a Zhaowu Captain now, so he doesn’t have the ability to hunt you down.”
Lan Lan lowered her head and remained silent for a while, then smiled wryly and said, “Don’t think that I am embarrassed to have gone from being an Imperial Princess to a commoner. In the entire Xiao family, I am not the most miserable. Those Princes and Princesses who died or were exiled, their suffering is much deeper than mine!”
Lan Dan couldn’t hold back her tears and cried out loud, and Lan Lan also shed tears. Lan Lan didn’t find it strange that Lan Dan was crying because she felt that what she said was very tragic. Shentu Rui, however, listened with a plain expression, finding it tasteless.
“I still hold a glimmer of hope that when the situation stabilizes, Shentu Cheng and Lan Huang will no longer fear the Xiao family and may treat our exiled relatives with the same mercy they have shown me. Perhaps someday, they will be able to return to the capital… even if everything has changed, at least they will have a place to settle.”
Lan Dan covered her face with her sleeve, afraid that she was crying too ugly and appearing too emotional, which would make her sister suspect something.
“Just because of this?” Shentu Rui looked at Lan Dan and said, “It’s too illusory. You’re enduring this kind of life for other people? You are barely able to survive yourself, and yet you are holding on for those who may or may not return, for those who may already be dead at the border?” He deliberately spoke in a way that could not be understood.
Lan Lan’s face darkened with a hint of anger as she coolly stated, “Even if the light of a firefly is weak, it can still illuminate a small area. Our family has lost everything, but we only need a small place to survive. Since I am alive, I must work hard to support us and show them this little light.”
Shentu Rui looked at her with respect and agreed with her.
On the way back home, Lan Dan kept thinking about the light of the firefly that the Second Sister mentioned. Compared to her sister, she realized that she was too selfish. She never thought about burying her brothers properly. She just forgot about them because she was afraid and disgusted with Shentu Cheng. As Princess Danyang, she had even contemplated killing her own father but as Fu Zhu, she failed to take responsibility for the orphaned children of the Xiao family, let alone avenging the blood debt owed to Lan Huang.
After returning home, Shentu Rui did not immediately send her to her room. He asked her to walk with him instead. His face had calmed down and he was no longer angry.
Feeling restless, Lan Dan agreed to walk with him as she too wanted to feel the cool breeze.
Shentu Rui led her onto a cobblestone path, with no guards or maids following them. After a while, they came across a grove of plum trees, with red and white blooms intermingling on the tangled branches, creating a beautiful scene.
“I know that your cowardice is your way of protecting yourself in the palace,” Shentu Rui said calmly as he looked at the plum blossoms. “You think your average appearance is the reason why you were never favored, but have you ever thought that it’s your mediocre personality that’s the problem?”
These words were too cruel, and it made Lan Dan’s heart tremble violently. She couldn’t stand still and took a step back.
“You think being unremarkable is enough, so you never made an effort to change that. The only effort you made was to listen to Shentu Cheng’s instruction to poison your father, which was probably the only time you tried to do something for yourself. Unfortunately, your lack of experience and intelligence made you an easy target for manipulation,” he laughed, turning her most painful experience into a joke.
His words were so accurate that she couldn’t even refute them.
“Actually, I really admire Lan Huang. She dares to think and act. She is poisonous and ruthless. You, the scapegoat, blame yourself every day, while the person who personally killed her father shows no remorse and is now enjoying her power and success. Not only does she not feel guilty, she’s not even afraid of her parents’ ghosts seeking revenge. You only see her success, but you haven’t seen what she’s sacrificed to achieve it.”
He plucked out a red plum, and examined it closely. “Your face now surpasses 90% of women in the world, fine, let’s be confident and say 100%. But your character…” He stopped smiling, and coldly scrutinized her as if passing judgement. “It’s still so mediocre.”
Lan Dan could only listen, her fists clenching tighter and tighter, not out of anger but of shame.
“So, you are still just a mediocre woman.”
After a brief pause, Lan Dan took a deep breath. The air was too cold, piercing her chest. “What should I do now?”
Shentu Rui twirled the flower in his hand. “There’s no hurry to get close to Shentu Cheng. With your current level of intelligence and temperament, even if you did approach him, you wouldn’t be able to complete the task I’ve given you. You should work on training your mind first.”
“Train my mind?” she asked, confused.
“Yes! Challenge your own thoughts. The more you try to stop yourself from doing something, the more you should do it. Completely abandon the mediocre and cowardly Danyang of the past.”
She was lost in thought.
Shentu Rui waited for a moment before saying, “Let’s go back, it’s cold.”
She suddenly stepped forward and hugged him tightly, startling Shentu Rui. The flowers in his hand fell to the snowy ground. She hugged him so tightly that he felt suffocated. His mind went blank, and he became like a tall, skinny wooden pole with his arms hanging stupidly at his sides, forgetting to hug her back.
“I don’t want to thank you.” She smiled softly, pressing her face against his chest. “But thank you.”
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