Fuzhu’s Ballad Chapter 20

CHAPTER 20 Why be afraid?

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The ferry ride across the river was brief, affording Shentu Rui just enough time to freshen up and change into a set of clean garments. Meanwhile, Lan Dan struggled to board the canopy, eventually settling for a quick splash of the remaining hot water to cleanse her face at the bow.

The river’s gusts battered against her delicate features, causing her skin to sting and her worry to mount over the possibility of developing small cracks. In a pout, she drew her hands up to shield her cheeks, her ire directed towards Shentu Rui. She understood his frustration as she herself was furious at that despicable magistrate, but why did he get angry and smear mud on her face? Was she an easy target to bully?

As they disembarked from the ferry, the attentive staff had already readied a carriage for their journey. Exhausted from the day’s events, Shentu Rui wearily clambered into the conveyance and promptly surrendered to slumber.

Lan Dan’s horse was yet to be ferried across the river. Sun Shi Xiang, Shentu Rui’s personal attendant, suggested that she ride in the carriage with Shentu Rui to prevent any further delays on their journey and to take care of the master as needed. Lan Dan, who had been experiencing bone aches from riding for two days, gratefully accepted the offer and settled into the comfortable carriage. As she gazed at the sleeping Shentu Rui, she felt her muscles relax, and she drifted off into a light doze. However, when she awakened, she noticed that Shentu Rui was breathing heavily, and his forehead was hot to the touch. Despite calling out to him twice, he did not stir. Lan Dan grew concerned and sought help from Sun Shi Xiang, who immediately urged the team to hasten their travel to the nearest town in search of a physician.

Upon reaching the small town, which only consisted of a handful of households, they were fortunate to come across a country physician who examined Shentu Rui by the carriage and determined it was just a common cold. The physician administered an herbal remedy, which alleviated some of Shentu Rui’s symptoms. However, with no available lodging in the town, Sun Shi Xiang was unable to secure a place for them to stay. In light of their pressing schedule and the need to reach Jixian before nightfall, they had no choice but to pick up the pace, causing the carriage to shake violently along the way. Lan Dan, who was still reeling from the bone-rattling journey on horseback, was suffering from a throbbing headache and a sense of internal disarray. She couldn’t help but feel empathy for the county magistrate, who had previously complained about the jarring ride. Despite Shentu Rui’s cushioned seat and blankets, he remained restless and complained of a headache. To ease his discomfort, Lan Dan shifted closer to him and placed her arm under his head to cushion it from the bumps in the road.

Shentu Rui’s body began to drench in sweat as the herbal medicine kicked in, making him appear as if he had just emerged from a river. Unfortunately, the borrowed carriage they rode in was poorly constructed and allowed air to seep in from every crevice. Lan Dan grew anxious at the thought of Shentu Rui catching another cold from the frigid wind, so she tended to him, wiping away the beads of sweat that formed on his forehead with a cloth. Though Shentu Rui’s fever appeared to have decreased, he started to mutter incoherently, causing Lan Dan to grow increasingly concerned.

His repeated, soft calls for “mama” tugged at her heartstrings as she watched his sweat dampen his eyebrows and lashes. It wasn’t customary to address one’s mother as “mama” in Da Yan, but Lan Dan recalled Shentu Rui mentioning that the Empress Dowager hailed from Beimo, and he likely used that term to refer to her since he was a child. Despite the nonsensical nature of his ramblings, Lan Dan could sense the emotion and pain behind Shentu Rui’s words, and she felt a deep sympathy for him.

Shentu Rui began to babble in a strange tone and accent. Lan Dan sighed, wondering if he was speaking in a Beimo dialect he had learned from the Empress Dowager. It was no wonder that he, although half a native of Da Yan, still supported Shentu Cheng’s usurpation of the throne.

As he rambled, he suddenly became angry, his brows furrowing tightly and his body trembling as he leaned towards her. Lan Dan felt a sense of pity, wondering what painful experiences he might be going through in his unconscious state. This version of Shentu Rui was incredibly fragile, like a child who couldn’t find his mother. She held him and comforted him by patting his shoulder gently and whispering, “It’s fine, it’s fine…” Gradually, Shentu Rui relaxed, his body becoming limp and peaceful once again.

Lan Dan felt her arms getting increasingly numb and sore, but she stubbornly held onto Shentu Rui, feeling that letting go of him and allowing him to suffer the jarring effects of the carriage again would be too cruel.

She arbitrarily judged that her actions were consistent with her usual behavior of being a soft-hearted person, and even towards Shentu Rui, she couldn’t bring herself to be harsh.

As the carriage came to a halt, Lan Dan’s limbs felt stiff from holding onto Shentu Rui for so long. Sun Shi Xiang informed her that they could only rest for fifteen minutes before continuing on their journey.

Lan Dan wanted to put Shentu Rui down so she could take a walk outside, but she lost her appetite early on. She remained in the same position, her hands and feet sore and numb.

As soon as Shentu Rui’s head touched the pillow, he hummed unhappily, like a child throwing a tantrum. He grabbed Lan Dan’s wrist, and she struggled but he held on tight. She sighed and asked Sun Shi Xiang to bring some hot tea and water.

Lan Dan savored the aroma of the tea leaves she had brought with her. The brew was just right, and as she drank from the large bowl, she felt a comforting warmth spreading throughout her body.

After blowing on the hot water to cool it down, she filled the water bag with great care and helped Shentu Rui to drink. However, to her surprise, he took only two sips before closing his mouth firmly, signaling that he was already awake. His eyes were now wide open, exuding a keen sense of alertness.

Lan Dan felt a sudden sense of embarrassment. When Shentu Rui was still unconscious, she did not think much of holding him. But now that he was fully aware of his surroundings and she was still supporting him, the situation felt awkward. She scrambled to offer an explanation, “I am just trying to help you drink and sit up so that you won’t choke.”

Shentu Rui remained silent, and Lan Dan quickly poured water into his mouth. As he tilted his head slightly, the water trickled down his chin, spilling into his collar.

Lan Dan furrowed her eyebrows in annoyance as she swiftly wiped the water off Shentu Rui’s collar. The dampness was undoubtedly uncomfortable, and she did not want him catching a cold. “What are you doing?” She scolded him, unable to contain her frustration.

“I want to drink your tea,” Shentu Rui demanded.

“No, the tea is a medicine. You can only drink water.” She was even firmer than he was. “I almost forgot,” she shouted outside the car, “Sun Shi Xiang, is the medicine ready?”

Sun Shi Xiang’s prompt response came from a short distance away, “It’s just about ready. It’s still hot. I’ll bring it over in a moment.”

Shentu Rui grunted unhappily, “Sun Shi Xiang is my personal guard and a sixth-rank official. Since when can you order him around like your own eunuch?”

Lan Dan ignored his rude comment. How could he compare his personal bodyguard to a eunuch, even insinuating that he was at her disposal? Sun Shi Xiang deserved better than to serve under such an arrogant man!

“Hurry up!” He gave her a command like a royalty again.

Lan Dan rolled her eyes, refusing to be cowed by his arrogance. “It’s not ready yet! It’s still hot, didn’t you hear?” She saw right through him. Despite his illness, he still relied on her to hold and support him. Where was his sense of dignity? Mocking him, she added, “With the medicine prescribed by your country physician, you don’t have to worry that others will snatch it away.”

“I’m talking about the tea!” Shentu Rui could no longer restrain his temper and slammed his hand against the carriage board in a fit of rage. As he saw that Lan Dan was unwilling to compromise, he spoke up, “Just forget it with the medicine! What can a common cold do? I’m already feeling better!”

“You’re feeling better, yet you still want me to hold you?” Lan Dan retorted, her own temper flaring. In a sudden burst of anger, she waved her hand, causing Shentu Rui to fall backward and hit his head against the wooden board above the pillow with a resounding thud.

Lan Dan’s eyes widened in shock. She didn’t expect the pillow to tilt and fail to catch him.

At that very moment, Sun Shi Xiang arrived with the medicine in hand, his voice laden with concern as he lifted the carriage curtain and anxiously inquired, “What happened? Is the Prince alright?”

The Prince was thrown so hard that he felt like his lungs had been violently thrust out of his body. He flipped over and turned his back to the whole world.

“He’s alright… he’s alright…” Lan Dan grabbed the medicine, eager to send him away.

Sun Shi Xiang put down the curtain and walked away with a puzzlement on his face, looking particularly worried.

Holding the medicine tightly in her trembling hand, Lan Dan swallowed hard before speaking, her voice shaky with guilt, “I… I didn’t mean to… Please drink the medicine quickly. It’ll only taste worse if it gets cold.”

Shentu Rui lay there as if he hadn’t heard anything.

She didn’t know if it was intentional or not, but Sun Shi Xiang’s voice boomed from outside, “Has His Highness taken his medicine? Make sure to finish it before we set off. We don’t want it spilling all over the place once we’re on the move.”

Seizing the opportunity, Lan Dan tugged at Shentu Rui’s arm. “Come on,” she urged him, her voice betraying her impatience. “We can’t afford to delay our journey any longer.”

Shentu Rui also compromised and said in a muffled voice, “No strength, can’t get up!”

Lan Dan relented, holding the medicine carefully with one hand and propping the other hand under his neck. He cooperated and half-sat in her arms, drinking the medicine with a gulp.

Lan Dan handed over the bowl, and the team continued on their way.

“Why?” Shentu Rui suddenly asked.

“Huh?” Lan Dan was confused.

“Why treat me like this?” He smiled with a faint irony.

This question really astonished Lan Dan. She had been secretly asking herself the same question all the way.

“I’m afraid you’ll die.”

“Why are you afraid of that?”

There was no need to ask. If he died, she would be left in a vulnerable and helpless state. She had witnessed firsthand the schemes and machinations of those who sought to harm her, and even if she had nine lives, she knew she wouldn’t stand a chance against them.

Though she didn’t say it, he could already see the answer in her eyes. Shentu Rui laughed, his tone cold as ice. “What’s there to be afraid of? If I die, you can enter the palace as Shentu Cheng wishes. And while he’s off guard, you can stab him to death and make him pay with his life. Problem solved.”

Lan Dan was left reeling, unable to refute his words.

As he shifted slightly, Lan Dan felt the weight of his body suddenly become too much for her to bear. With a sigh, she released him, watching as he sank back onto the pillow, pulling the covers up to his chin as he drifted off into a deep slumber.

Lan Dan stared blankly at him, her mind racing with conflicting thoughts and emotions. This had been her plan all along, but Shentu Rui had made it infinitely more complicated with his keen insights into the hearts and minds of their enemies. His expertise had made her revenge seem like an insurmountable task, and yet he had just made it sound so simple and straightforward. As she listened to his soft, even breathing, she couldn’t help but feel empty and uncomfortable inside. Something was bothering her, but she couldn’t quite put her finger on what it was.

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