CHAPTER 21 Natural beauty
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After a night of peaceful slumber at the Jixian Inn, Shentu Rui emerged from his room looking fresh and invigorated. However, for safety reasons, Sun Shi Xiang insisted that he ride in the carriage for one more day. Shentu Rui complied without hesitation, much to the satisfaction of Lan Dan, who was secretly relieved at the prospect of avoiding the chilly horseback ride.
The guards ate quickly, finishing the steamed buns, porridge, and pickled vegetables in just a few bites. Even Shentu Rui, who usually ate slowly and gracefully, ate with gusto. Lan Dan didn’t want to delay their departure, so she hastily drank some porridge and wrapped the steamed buns and pickled vegetables to eat on the carriage. She planned to eat while admiring the scenery outside the window, but all she saw after leaving Jixian was the bleak winter landscape. Since it was too cold to keep the window open, she ate her food in silence.
Shentu Rui had initially been lying in bed with his eyes closed, but upon seeing Lan Dan enjoying her breakfast so much, he sat up and requested half a steamed bun for himself. After just a couple of bites, he began to feel parched and called out to Sun Shi Xiang to boil some water for tea.
As the aroma of the freshly brewed tea wafted through the air, Lan Dan maintained a poker face and declined the offer. However, Shentu Rui couldn’t help but sneer as he reached for the teapot and poured some for her. His eyes were fixed on her as he checked the temperature, watching as she struggled to take a bite of her steamed bun.
“I’m feeling much better now, I don’t need to take any more medicine,” he declared proudly, but Lan Dan remained indifferent and continued to eat in silence. Suddenly, a wave of anger swept over Shentu Rui. When had he begun to care about her feelings?
Taking several sips of tea, Shentu Rui relished a sense of revenge as he smacked his lips and praised the flavor. With a malicious glint in his eye, he asked Lan Dan, “Would you like some tea?”
“I don’t want any,” Lan Dan responded defiantly, but as she struggled to swallow the bun stuck in her throat, she put it down and refrained from eating any further.
Shentu Rui seemed to take pleasure in her agitation, taunting her by saying, “Did you oversleep again today? You haven’t even washed your face.”
Panicked, Lan Dan reached up to touch her face, realizing she had refrained from washing it due to the harsh winds on the deck. “It’s your fault!” she exclaimed, accusing him of the previous day’s debacle.
But Shentu Rui simply sneered and rolled his eyes. “I washed my face too, why am I not having any problems? It’s just you causing trouble!”
That particular remark struck a nerve with Lan Dan, who was always wary of being deemed troublesome by Shentu Rui. She turned over, her expression dark and brooding, feigning sleep with her back to him. Eventually, she drifted off into a deep slumber, but still retained some level of consciousness as she overheard snippets of conversation between Shentu Rui and Sun Shi Xiang.
Sun Shi Xiang was explaining to Shentu Rui that their detour would delay their journey by nearly two days. Shentu Rui replied in a low voice that Lan Dan couldn’t quite make out. However, her curiosity was piqued, and she sat up groggily, rubbing her bleary eyes. She inquired of Shentu Rui what had happened, but his response was anything but gentle.
“Sleep all you want! Don’t bother asking anything,” Shentu Rui responded with a harsh and aggressive tone. “We’re going to Fengyang.”
“Fengyang?” Lan Dan’s eyes sparkled with delight, her mood changing abruptly. “We’re passing through Fengyang?”
Shentu Rui snorted derisively, but the corners of his lips twitched ever so slightly. He adopted a tone of feigned indifference, his eyes trained on Lan Dan. “What’s so great about Fengyang? Why are you so happy?”
Excited, Lan Dan didn’t even mind his ridicule, and happily said, “Fengyang is a major trading city where the goods of Beimo, Talu, and Jingu are exchanged.” That year, her Fourth Brother brought her back a beautiful Jingu silk scarf, which was purchased in Fengyang. Several sisters gathered around him, listening to their Fourth Brother praised the prosperity of Fengyang. Since then, Lan Dan had been particularly longing for Fengyang. “I heard that dancers from Talu and Jingu perform their ethnic dances…” She became lost in her thoughts.
“You know quite a bit,” said Shentu Rui, who was about to tease her again, but she suddenly turned her eyes to him and smiled. She also placed her hand on his arm, appearing to be intensely focused on something despite being lost in her thoughts. Her gaze was fixed on his eyes, unwavering and unashamed.
She sighed with contentment. “I can’t believe we’re actually going to Fengyang!”
Shentu Rui laughed quietly and responded with a soft hum.
Seeing the city walls of Fengyang in the distance, Lan Dan repeatedly urged the carriage to stop. Shentu Rui, who saw that she was about to jump out of the carriage, quickly held her back and asked in confusion, “What are you doing?”
“I want to ride a horse into the city,” Lan Dan replied, her eyes sparkling with enthusiasm.
Shentu Rui let out a soft chuckle and shook his head. “You look like a country bumpkin,” he teased.
Lan Dan’s eyes darkened. “I am indeed a country bumpkin who has never seen the world.”
Shentu Rui released his hand and clicked his tongue. “Here we go again! Don’t tell me you’ve been foolishly trapped in the palace walls. There are plenty of noble ladies who have never left the capital, why do you have to be so pitiful? You always compare yourself to Xiao Lan Huang, but not everyone can be like her. If there were more people like her, the country would never recover. How can the common people survive?”
Staring wide-eyed, Lan Dan felt as if she couldn’t breathe. Shentu Rui pushed her forward and demanded, “Aren’t you getting off? Why are you standing there?”
Lan Dan’s eagerness to reach Fengyang overpowered any desire to argue with Shentu Rui. Sighing, she stepped down from the carriage and mounted a horse. She had grown accustomed to his frankness, leaving her at a loss for words to match his sharp tongue.
As they approached the city walls of Fengyang, Lan Dan couldn’t help but marvel at their antiquated appearance. Compared to those of the capital, they were lower and showed signs of age. Yet the throngs of people milling about the entrance to the city seemed denser than she had ever seen before.
Horses, carriages, and pedestrians jostled for space, filling the road to capacity. Lan Dan had to tighten the reins and slow her horse’s pace to avoid colliding with the crowded masses around her. The press of bodies was so thick that progress was slow, and she had to be cautious to avoid causing any mishaps amidst the commotion.
As she rode further into the city, Lan Dan was struck by the magnificent and bustling panorama that unfolded before her eyes. The streets were a labyrinth of shops, their colorful signs blocking out the sky. Men and women wearing exotic clothing mingled with the bustling crowds, creating a vibrant and lively atmosphere that Lan Dan had never imagined before. Despite the presence of foreign envoys and citizens in the capital, they all seemed to carry themselves with a certain dignity and pride. But here in Fengyang, the people were carefree and unrestrained, radiating a sense of freedom and liveliness that was infectious. Lan Dan couldn’t help but fall in love with this bustling city and its unique ambiance, feeling that one’s country of origin was of little importance amidst the vibrant and inclusive atmosphere of Fengyang.
“Dismount.” Shentu Rui got off his horse first and came over to pull her. “It’s easier to walk in a crowd.”
Following him, Lan Dan weaved through the crowd, leaving the guards far behind.
“Where are we going?” He seemed to have a destination in mind and headed in a certain direction without hesitation.
“Let’s deal with your unwashed face first.” He smirked and led her to a rouge shop.
“Are you familiar with this place?”
“Of course, I spent several years here, mostly in Fengyang.” He pulled her inside.
The shopkeeper warmly greeted them, and Shentu Rui pointed at Lan Dan’s face. The shopkeeper took a closer look, making Lan Dan feel a bit self-conscious. In a moment, the shopkeeper knew what to do and fetched a coarse porcelain box from the counter. “It’s just windburn,” she said. “Put this on, and you’ll be fine in no time.”
Lan Dan hesitated, eyeing the rough-looking box warily. She was used to more luxurious skincare products, and the rough texture of the ointment did not appeal to her.
However, the shopkeeper was quick to assuage her doubts. “In Beimo, we have a dry and cold climate with violent winds, yet all the women here have smooth and delicate skin that isn’t rough or cracked. We have our own unique skincare secrets. Give this oil a try, and if it doesn’t work, bring it back to me. I’ll compensate you double the price.”
Lan Dan felt a twinge of embarrassment as she realized that the shopkeeper’s words were aimed at her.
“Give me five boxes,” Shentu Rui ordered, pulling out a pouch of silver from his purse with a deft hand.
“Buying so many?” Lan Dan looked at him. She couldn’t use all of them. “Are you going to use them too?”
Shentu Rui scoffed, “When would I ever need these things?”
The old lady happily packed five boxes. She overheard his comment and turned to him with a grin, “This young master is naturally born with good looks! Despite his handsome appearance, his physique, skin, and temperament are all like our Beimo men.”
Lan Dan couldn’t help but burst out laughing. The old lady was indeed from Beimo, and while she spoke the official language fluently, her words were still too casual.
Shentu Rui was rarely embarrassed. He didn’t expect someone to praise him for being naturally beautiful. He turned his head and went out, forgetting to take his change.
Lan Dan took the cosmetics and the change. She stepped out of the shop and saw Shentu Rui standing calmly and elegantly under a tree on the opposite side of the street. People from different countries passed by him, but he remained unfazed, exuding a natural charm that caught the attention of many. She instantly remembered the old lady’s words: naturally born with good looks. He really lived up to these five words.
“What’s wrong?” The person, who was naturally born with good looks, still managed to look good even when scowling. Lan Dan smiled and waved her hand.
“I’m here, don’t rush me!”
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