CHAPTER 18 As far as the eye reaches
As the morning sun began to paint the sky with hues of gold and orange, Shentu Rui and his team arrived at Yingshan post station. Despite their early arrival, Shentu Rui was in no rush to depart and instead ordered his team to take a well-deserved break.
The postmaster, evidently eager to please such a distinguished guest, personally oversaw the arrangements for their lodgings. As Shentu Rui settled into his quarters, a steaming cup of tribute tea was ceremoniously presented to him. Meanwhile, from the confines of her room, Lan Dan observed the proceedings with keen interest. Her attention was soon captured by the arrival of the governor of Yingshan Prefecture, who had come to pay his respects. With a wry smile, Lan Dan watched as the governor lavished praise upon the esteemed Shentu Rui before whisking him away with a retinue of trusted guards. She sneered, knowing all too well that such gestures of respect were often nothing more than a thinly veiled excuse to indulge in the pleasures of flower wine.
Yingshan Inn was a magnificent structure that stood proudly between the bustling capital and the picturesque Summer Resort. It was a place of great importance, for it was the only post station where the imperial carriage was obliged to make a stop. As such, the inn’s construction standards were on par with those of the revered Imperial Palace, and the rank of its postmaster was two levels higher than that of other post stations.
For Lan Dan, Yingshan Inn was the only post station she had ever visited, and each time she had been there, it was a grand occasion. She would ride in a lavish carriage as part of a massive procession, and by the time they arrived at Yingshan, the sun would have already set and the darkness would have descended. While she was busy tidying up her room, the governor and his retinue had just finished paying their respects and were leaving, with a special request to take the Fifth Prince and his companions out. The palace maids informed her that they were going to drink flower wine, which was a customary gift from local officials.
Da Yan did not carry out a mass slaughter of officials from the previous dynasty, thanks in part to the contributions of Lan Huang. As a result, the atmosphere in the officialdom remained the same.
The main building of the post station was reserved for the Emperor’s use only, and the postmaster securely locked and sealed it. Even if Shentu Rui were to come, he could only stay in the main room of the east wing of the second courtyard. After dinner, Lan Dan took a walk along the corridor, slowly walking and looking at the rooftops of the pavilions and buildings in the inner courtyard through the wall. The last time she came here was two years ago. She had never been able to live in the inner courtyard. In her memory, she always loved to watch the brilliant lights and candles of the inner courtyard shining through the wall, as if most of the lights in the post station were gathered in the buildings and pavilions there. Sometimes, the sound of the zither and flute would drift out, making the several courtyards outside seem even colder, darker, and duller.
“What are you doing?”
Lan Dan shuddered, suddenly awakened from her thoughts, realizing that the person standing in front of her was Shentu Rui.
He had no attendants with him, just a lantern in hand. The wind was high at night, and there were no lights around, making the small flicker of the candlelight he brought even more brilliant.
Lan Dan sighed. Ignoring the cold, she sat on the long bench of the corridor. The dark night, the dim light, the silence, and the sound of the wind… all made people want to speak their minds in this desolate and gloomy place.
“I’m thinking about the past.”
“Oh.” Shentu Rui didn’t seem interested, but he didn’t dislike it either. He came over and sat next to her, hanging the lantern on the railing casually.
Lan Dan caught a whiff of the alcohol on him, surprisingly not unpleasant, and even gave her a slight sense of warmth.
“I haven’t had the opportunity to travel much,” she said, her voice wistful. “Whenever I leave the capital, it’s usually to go to the Summer Resort or this very inn. Even when I passed by the Shili Pavilion, I couldn’t simply wander off on my own. Only my Eldest Sister and her husband took me there once.” She smiled wryly.
Shentu Rui pursed his lips and let out a long breath.
“I don’t know if my Elder Sister and her husband…” Lan Dan furrowed her brow, knowing full well that they were unlikely to have survived.
“Dead.” Shentu Rui didn’t give her any false hope. “Pang Lin wielded control over soldiers, so even if Shentu Cheng wanted to spare them, Xiao Lan Huang wouldn’t let him.”
Lan Dan fell silent, resenting this ending but also grateful that he was willing to speak about it.
“I shouldn’t have always made fun of you. You really have seen too little,” he said seriously, without a hint of sarcasm.
“Yes.” Even if he was being sarcastic, she could only admit, “The Summer Resort is the farthest place I’ve ever been to.”
Shentu Rui didn’t say a word.
“So, don’t drive me back, and don’t complain about me being a burden,” she pleaded earnestly, her eyes lowered, hiding the momentary glint of tears. “Let me also see these mountains and waters, and see a broader world.”
Shentu Rui finally uttered a sound of agreement, “It’s my fault.”
Lan Dan sniffed. It was rare that he was willing to admit his mistake. She looked at him with forgiving eyes, and he also looked at her. The flickering candlelight shone on his face, which was surprisingly gentle.
He suddenly sighed. “If I just ignore you and let you be exiled or flee, then you will be able to see more mountains and rivers, and gain more experience.”
Lan Dan choked, her throat sore, and got up with a cold face to leave. Shentu Rui didn’t stop her and laughed softly behind her.
Anger, sadness, the little bit of disappointment that didn’t dissipate during the day… a lot of emotions mixed together, Lan Dan thought she would have trouble sleeping, but she had a new experience— exhaustion.
She forgot who said it, but she understood it now: even great pain could not defeat fatigue.
From being Princess Danyang to Fu Zhu, she had experienced various pains, both emotional and physical, but she had never felt tired. In the past, no matter how little she was valued, she was still an imperial princess, free from burdens and responsibilities. She had plenty of time to think about everything. But today, with a belly full of national hatred, family enmity, and a world of treachery… she fell asleep soundly on her bed until a guard had to knock loudly on her door to wake her up.
The guard handed her a small package and left. Lan Dan curiously opened it and found a set of men’s clothing, a simple and practical thick cotton robe, and even matching cotton boots and socks, all perfectly fitting her size. As she put on each item, she couldn’t help but smile. It turned out that Shentu Rui had already planned to take her out a long time ago. That horse and these clothes were just indications that he wanted her to speak frankly to him.
Lan Dan put on the somewhat amusing hat, which was only worn by boys. She had never seen a woman wear it, and even Shentu Rui didn’t wear it himself. But the one he made for her could effectively protect her forehead and cheeks from the cold wind.
Although she couldn’t figure out what Shentu Rui was up to and knew he had a deep scheming nature, and was probably the most treacherous of them all, Lan Dan always felt that his heart was not as cold and heartless as those of Lan Huang and Shentu Cheng.
When she stepped out into the courtyard, everyone was ready to go. Shentu Rui still looked annoyed and said to her, “Why are you so slow? We’re all waiting for you!” Then he laughed, lifted Lan Dan’s hat with his height advantage, and clumsily put it back on her head. “You look like a foolish village boy who can’t find a wife.”
With a sullen expression, Lan Dan adjusted her hat and ignored him.
Shentu Rui called for everyone to mount their horses and shouted, “Let’s head straight to Gaolin County to eat fish!”
The guards cheered and cracked their whips. Lan Dan quickly mounted her horse and nervously followed at the tail of the team, just like she did yesterday.
After about half an hour, the horse team gradually came to a stop. Lan Dan looked around but saw nothing in the desolate wilderness. She didn’t understand why they had stopped here.
Shentu Rui walked over and reached out his hand to her. “Get off the horse.”
Lan Dan took his hand and jumped off her horse, asking him, “Where are we?”
Without answering, Shentu Rui pulled her to the roadside and kicked away the dry weeds, letting Lan Dan see the inconspicuous boundary marker, whose vermilion paint had faded and was faintly inscribed with “Boundary of the Yingshan Prefecture.”
“You’ve never been out of Yingshan Prefecture, have you?” Shentu Rui smiled, lifted a hand and pointed ahead at the wasteland just waking up in the dawn. “That is the unreachable place for Xiao Lan Dan, but Fu Zhu can come here.”
Stunned, Lan Dan stared blankly at the wasteland and the vast line where the sky and the earth met, her heart beating heavily.
“It’s a pity that we are heading north. Next time, I will take you to the south to see the most beautiful scenery in the world.” He smiled very heroically.
He turned his face and looked at her, dissatisfied, “Why are you still not happy? You don’t even smile!”
Lan Dan frowned, complaining a little bit at him, “Don’t I have facial paralysis!”
He paused and laughed loudly. “Oh, I actually forgot.”
Looking at him with envy, Lan Dan thought to herself that this cunning person could still laugh so openly and bravely. Wasn’t that a kind of spirit?
She shook his hand. “Let’s go eat fish, I’m hungry!”
He was delighted to hear this. He pulled her towards the horses, shouting, “Let’s go eat fish!”
As they run, Lan Dan also wanted to laugh as freely as he did, but Ge Chun was all to blame, she could only smile slightly. No matter how insidious Shentu Rui was, he was only a twenty three years old young man. At this very moment, he also looked like a foolish village boy who couldn’t get a wife.
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