CHAPTER 16 To seek help in a time of trouble
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Spring had arrived, but the chill in the air persisted. Lan Dan’s maid, unyielding in her determination to keep her moving, had dragged her through the gardens for what seemed like an eternity. As she trailed behind the maid, she shuddered, feeling the cold penetrate to her very bones. She suggested they turn back, but the maid was insistent that they continue, claiming it would help improve her circulation.
Lan Dan was gradually becoming less afraid of Shentu Rui, but his servants still intimidated her with their stern, unyielding demeanor. Their austere nature made them seem more like palace instructors than mere attendants. Even when Lan Dan asked for their names, they remained tight-lipped and unsmiling.
Shentu Rui’s mansion was not expansive, and there were only a handful of guards and servants. After a while, she declared her desire to return to her quarters, half-expecting her maid to order her to press on. To her surprise, the maid nodded in agreement, her cold demeanor unchanged.
As they made their way back, they walked down the main path that led to the inner courtyard and encountered Shentu Rui, who was returning from the morning court and had yet to change out of his official clothing.
Shentu Rui spotted Lan Dan and walked over with a charming smile. He looked very handsome with his various gold and jade crowns adorning his black hair and snow-white skin. The formal attire of the Da Yan dynasty emphasized grandeur, especially the court attire, which was elaborately decorated with silk robes, high crowns, and jade belts. The outfit exuded a commanding presence that surpassed his usual charm and gracefulness.
“The Emperor has ordered me to go out to hunt down Xiao Bing Wen, and leave in about three days.”
Shentu Rui’s words shook Lan Dan to the core, sending her heart into a flurry of chaos. She longed to find the courage to ask him to take her along, but the fear of rejection held her tongue in check.
“Oh,” she responded vaguely, “then…how long will it take for you to come back?”
Shentu Rui looked at her indifferently and replied, “At least three months, at most half a year.”
He usually talked a lot, but today he was uncharacteristically reserved and gave only brief and succinct answers.
Three months? Half a year?
Lan Dan became anxious. With him out of the capital, this small mansion may not be able to provide her with the security she needed. She thought of the way Shentu Cheng looked at her, and she felt both sick and worried.
“Let me freshen up first, and then we’ll eat together.” Shentu Rui smiled, walked past her with his head held high, and interrupted the words she had gathered the courage to say.
Fortunately, they could still eat together tonight. Lan Dan breathed a long sigh of relief, but her mood didn’t ease up much.
The food in the Prince of Yan’s Mansion was also quite unique. It was never a feast of exotic delicacies. Shentu Rui and Lan Dan had six home-cooked dishes placed on a small low table. They sat cross-legged on soft cushions.
Shentu Rui ate with relish, not speaking, not even looking at her. Lan Dan picked at her rice with her chopsticks, not knowing where to start the conversation.
“Um…” She put down her chopsticks and started hesitantly.
While carefully picking out the fish bones with his chopsticks, Shentu Rui absentmindedly grunted in response, indicating for her to continue.
Lan Dan’s heart sank with a familiar feeling of despondency. She had never ventured far from the imperial palace, save for a brief trip to the Summer Resort. Meanwhile, Lan Huang and her father had visited the picturesque region of Jiangnan, and she had even accompanied the Crown Prince to Shanyin. Lan Huang had been to the most beautiful places in Da Min. Envious to the point of despair, Lan Dan found herself frustrated by the towering walls of the imperial city that kept her confined.
Summoning her courage, she approached the Empress and boldly requested permission to journey to Luozhou with Lan Huang. Luozhou was not far away from the capital, and the journey would only take half a month, so it shouldn’t cause too much trouble. The Empress smiled indulgently and deferred the decision to Third Prince, who was leading the expedition.
Filled with excitement, Lan Dan hurried to ask her Third Brother for his approval. However, upon seeing his expression, she realized that she had been too optimistic. Third Brother’s lips curled into a disdainful sneer as he remarked, “How troublesome is it to travel with a woman? Lan Huang is accustomed to such things, but what about you? How can I attend to my duties if I have to babysit you? Go back and stop making a fuss.”
Perhaps a single callous remark had the power to cast a dark shadow that lasts a person’s whole life.
“You…” Lan Dan’s words swirled around in her mouth, but she couldn’t overcome her fear. She was afraid that Shentu Rui would also show Third Brother’s expression and reject her straight away, thinking she was troublesome. “If you leave, what about… my medicine?”
Shentu Rui flicked her a glance. Wordlessly, he reached into his pocket with the hand that wasn’t holding chopsticks, and tossed her a small porcelain bottle. “There are six inside, take one per month. Don’t take too much, it’s toxic.” He finished speaking and continued to eat his fish.
Lan Dan picked up the vial and turned it around in her hand.
“I’m done eating, I’m going to the study first. Ah, there are still a lot of things to prepare for the trip, and there are many official duties to complete.” He got up and pretended to sigh. “There are still so many things to do.”
Lan Dan looked up at him as he stood up, having to raise her head high.
Shentu Rui moved a bit but didn’t leave, and frowned as he asked, “Do you have something to tell me?”
Lan Dan felt her heart race and her breathing quicken. She had something to say, and now was the time to say it!
“Can you…” She struggled to spit out the words and suddenly lowered her head, unable to meet his gaze, with her mind filled with her Third Brother’s disdainful sneer. “Never mind. Prepare well,” she said.
“Hmm,” Shentu Rui’s tone became frigid, and he left without even glancing back.
Early the next morning, Lan Dan was awakened by a commotion. She felt like the entire mansion was in a frenzy. After quickly grooming herself, she opened the door and saw the maids and servants bustling about, carrying various items to prepare for Shentu Rui’s departure. The spectacle was so grand that if someone didn’t know better, they might have thought that Shentu Rui was getting married. Lan Dan rolled her eyes.
Lan Cheng entered with a palace maid, feeling delighted at the lively scene. She commented, “It looks like everyone is preparing very carefully. Keep up the good work, and the Prince will reward you later.”
“When did I say there would be a reward?” Shentu Rui stood under the eaves of the east wing, with his hands behind his back, refuting Lan Cheng’s words.
Lan Cheng glanced at Lan Dan from a distance, then at Shentu Rui, her smile becoming more cheerful. “I’m here today to deliver a message from Brother Emperor, so it can be considered an oral decree. Do you want to kneel down to receive it?”
Shentu Rui snorted, raising his eyebrows. “Say it or not, I’m busy and I still have to buy things later. I don’t have time to talk nonsense with you.”
When Lan Cheng heard he was going shopping, she couldn’t care less about being polite and ran over to embrace Shentu Rui’s arm, shaking it and acting coquettishly. “Take me with you.”
With a slight smile, Shentu Rui said, “Well, that depends on whether your imperial edict pleases me or not.”
Lan Cheng’s face darkened. “I’m afraid… it won’t please you…”
Shen Turui’s interest was piqued. “Let’s hear it.”
Lan Cheng cautiously looked at Lan Dan before telling him, “Brother Emperor said that with you being away on a long journey, there will be no one to take care of the women in your family. It may not be safe, so he wants to bring in…” She gestured towards Lan Dan with her chin, “…to the palace, and let the Empress Dowager take care of her.”
Lan Dan shuddered at the thought of entering the palace. Although the Empress Dowager was mentioned, Shentu Cheng’s intentions were too obvious. She looked at Shentu Rui as if asking for help. His brows were furrowed, his expression contorted in concentration as he delved deep into contemplation.
“Alright, I also worry that I might come back to find her three months pregnant,” Shentu Rui nodded in agreement.
Lan Cheng burst out laughing, “That makes sense. So does the imperial edict please you or not?”
“It does. Let’s go.” Shentu Rui smiled and pulled Lang Cheng along as they happily went out the door.
Lan Dan was so angry that she slammed the door heavily. Was it just a lie when Shentu Rui said she didn’t need to get close to Shentu Cheng yet? Lan Dan sat down slowly, hugging her knees. But didn’t he save her in order to make her a loyal spy by Shentu Cheng’s side? He certainly wouldn’t stop something to his advantage. After all, it was Shentu Cheng himself who took the initiative to let her enter the palace.
A maid knocked on the door, carrying a pile of things with her.
“This is your reward from the palace.” The maid put the things in front of her and then left.
Lan Dan’s heart sank as she gazed at the lavish garments and opulent accessories. Having grown up in the palace, she was all too familiar with the attire of imperial consorts, and the similarities were undeniable. Shentu Cheng’s intentions were unmistakable, and a wave of fear washed over her.
She had to explain it to Shentu Rui! But Shentu Cheng was resolute and may have even hinted to Shentu Rui or even gained his tacit approval. Would it be of any use for her to go and plead with him now?
Shentu Rui did not return home until the lamps were lit. As the sun gradually set and the shadows of the pillars stretched longer, Lan Dan anxiously kept her door open, fixed on the eastern wing where Shentu Rui resided. A servant appeared, methodically lighting the lanterns one by one beneath the eaves. Time seemed to crawl by at an agonizing pace as Lan Dan waited in quiet desperation. Then, suddenly, she caught sight of Shentu Rui’s graceful gait as he returned home, and it felt as though time had leaped forward. Lan Dan had been rehearsing what she would say to him, but now that they stood face to face, she found herself struggling to speak.
“What’s the matter?” He was in high spirits, followed by several attendants carrying things. It seemed like he had a great time shopping with Lan Cheng today and bought so many things.
Not receiving an answer from Lan Dan, Shentu Rui proceeded towards his room. “If there’s nothing pressing, let us retire for the night. I need to retire early in preparation for an early start tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” Lan Dan was shocked. Wasn’t it supposed to be a three-day preparation?
“Xiao Bing Wen has fast legs. They say he has already run all the way to Huangtu Pass, which is not far from Yeliang. If we don’t leave now, we won’t make it in time,” Shentu Rui joked and turned into his room without waiting for Lan Dan to speak again.
Lan Dan was eager to follow him but was halted by the maid, who informed her that His Highness was about to take a bath. Anxious and fidgety, Lan Dan walked aimlessly around the courtyard, her gaze fixated on Shentu Rui’s window. Finally, the light within flickered and went out. When she tried to catch another glimpse, the maid informed her that the Prince had already retired for the night.
Desperate to see Shentu Rui, Lan Dan contemplated sneaking into his chambers. But as she surveyed the darkened window and the stern expressions of the maids, she realized it was a foolhardy notion. She could only return to her own room, where she sat restlessly all night, too afraid to sleep lest she miss Shentu Rui’s departure.
The rewards from Shentu Cheng remained untouched, and every time Lan Dan laid eyes on them, her resolve grew stronger.
When the sky was just starting to brighten, Lan Dan washed and dressed carefully. Among the luxurious clothes given to her by Shentu Rui, she chose to wear the simple cotton robe that she had worn when visiting her Second Sister. Lan Dan packed everything she could use on the road, but since she had no valuables or money, she knew she would have to trouble others during this journey. All of her meager possessions fit neatly into a small bundle, which left her feeling somewhat sad. After all, she was a person without a home, and even her lodgings here was only temporary.
As she caught sight of movement on Shentu Rui’s side, Lan Dan quickly grabbed her bundle and fled outside, just in time to cross paths with Shentu Rui as he emerged from the door.
Shentu Rui was surprised to see Lan Dan running towards him. “Have you recovered from your paralysis?”
Lan Dan felt that he was trying to ridicule her, but she didn’t have the heart to care about it at this moment. She opened her mouth to speak, but Shentu Rui regarded her with suspicion and continued, “What are you up to? Are you planning to work as a coolie?”
Lan Dan stared straight at Shentu Rui, her eyes filled with determination. “Shentu Rui, please take me with you,” she pleaded, hoping that her words could move him.
“If you want to come along, why didn’t you say so earlier?” He regarded her with a calm expression. “It’s too late now, there’s no time to prepare.”
He did refuse after all. Lan Dan couldn’t help but shudder all over. As he passed by, she heard the sound of a horse neighing softly outside the courtyard.
She felt a wave of despair rising up from her feet, making her legs shake and her heart ache. Once again, she had been left behind and was about to fall into an unbearable situation.
Tears burst out, flowing down her cheeks in a torrent, even soaking through her collar.
“What are you still doing standing there?” He turned back angrily and yelled at her. “Didn’t you say you want to come? What are you waiting for?”
Lan Dan was crying so hard that her words were muffled and her nose was blocked. She tried to speak, but her voice came out as a surprised and choked exclamation.
He looked at her and frowned even more deeply, then took a couple of steps back and grabbed her. “Why are you crying?”
“Didn’t you say it’s too late, and there’s no time…”
He snorted at her and said angrily, “If there’s not enough time to prepare, just buy things along the way! You’re such a troublemaker! Do you just ignore what I tell you most of the time?”
Lan Dan was overwhelmed by the surprise that they could go together, so she nodded submissively. “Um…”
Shentu Rui fiercely shook off her hand and asked her, “Still just ‘um’?”
She was afraid that he would change his mind, so she quickly grabbed his hand and said with sobs, “I’m sorry.”
He glanced down at her hand holding onto his, his expression still stern, but his eyes softened into a slight smile. “Come on then, we must hurry. If we delay, your brother’s head will be hanging on the walls of Yeliang City.”
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