CHAPTER 22 Keeping a low profile
<Previous Chapter<Table of Contents>Next Chapter>
Lan Dan basked in the blissful aftermath of a refreshing shower and a satisfying nap. She was so relaxed that she felt as though she had turned into a puddle of mush. The sun was already slanting to the west, so she had slept for almost two hours. As she ran her fingers through her hair, a wry smile played on her lips. This was quite possibly the longest nap she had ever allowed herself. She used to be afraid of sleeping too long in the palace, as it would affect her ability to sleep at night, and even the palace instructor didn’t allow it, saying that as a Princess, sleeping too much would be improper and disrespectful.
The courtyard outside the door was quiet. Lan Dan opened the door and looked around, but she didn’t know if the guards and Shentu Rui had left or were still sleeping. The layout of Fengyang Inn was a far cry from the grandeur of Yingshan Inn. Unlike the latter, which was fashioned after a palace with an array of buildings stacked in a square formation, Fengyang Inn was comprised of several secluded courtyards that were relatively self-contained. Shentu Rui’s room was positioned to face the courtyard entrance, and his door was firmly shut. The same could be said for the guards’ rooms, with no hint of any activity emanating from within. Lan Dan made her way over to Shentu Rui’s door and knocked, but there was no answer. It seemed like everyone had gone out.
Lan Dan sighed with disappointment. Why did they leave her here without a word? At least let her know where they went!
She left the courtyard and walked out onto a wide blue-stoned street that led straight to the gate of Fengyang Inn. People who lived in the courtyards on either side of the street had to use it to come and go, so there were always groups of three or four people walking by. Seeing people again made Lan Dan feel more at ease. As she walked, Lan Dan overheard people talking about a market on the street in front of the inn. Her curiosity piqued, she decided to follow the crowd and investigate. True enough, a few steps down the street, vendors had set up shop, selling goods from various countries. Lan Dan happily squeezed into the weaving crowd. In her purse, she had the broken silver given by Shentu Rui. She was worried that she would not be able to buy anything, but the items on display were much cheaper than she expected, allowing her to purchase goods from street to street.
As Lan Dan struggled to carry the bulging shopping bags in both hands, she suddenly realized that the sun had set without her noticing. The once-bustling street was now bathed in a mist of twinkling lights as shopkeepers illuminated their wares. She stared at the things she had bought… Compared to the crowds and lights of the Lantern Festival, she had a completely different state of mind. The feeling of freedom, being unrestricted and unbounded, permeated her bones and made her feel light as a feather. This was the first time she had ever experienced freedom. Even though it was just a short walk from the station to the market, she finally tasted this feeling. It was like someone who had been eating plain food all their life and suddenly tasted something exquisite.
“You little rascal! Finally found you!” Sun Shi Xiang appeared out of nowhere, both urgent and angry. Seeing her, he finally breathed a sigh of relief and whistled sharply. The other guards gathered from various places in the crowd.
Sun Shi Xiang snatched the things from her hands and threw them to the others, then pulled her along quickly. “Hurry up! You made him angry!”
They returned to the courtyard after a few steps. The door to Shentu Rui’s room stood open, revealing a bright interior that flooded the entire area with its radiance. Shentu Rui sat regally in a high-backed chair by the entrance. As Sun Shi Xiang shoved Lan Dan forward, the his steely gaze locked onto her immediately. His hand slammed onto the table with a resounding thud, and a frigid snort escaped his lips, carrying all the way to the entrance where Sun Shi Xiang remained, choosing to stay outside rather than enter.
“Where did you go?” Shentu Rui asked coldly in a long, drawn-out tone.
“Went out for a walk…” Shentu Rui slammed the table again.
“You went out to have fun and didn’t even tell me?” His voice rose, almost like an accusation.
Lan Dan bristled in anger, her back straightening unconsciously. “What do you mean I didn’t tell you? I woke up and saw that there was no one around!”
Shentu Rui stared at her coldly, but his arrogance noticeably weakened.
“I wish I could have told you! But who can I tell? Besides, I haven’t gone far, and you have the pill. Are you afraid that I would run away?”
Shentu Rui snorted heavily and reached out to touch the corner of the table, but refrained from getting angry and didn’t bang it. After a moment, he asked, “What did you buy?”
Sun Shi Xiang couldn’t help but suppress a laugh at the exchange taking place behind the door. He cleared his throat, careful to sound serious, and motioned for the guards to bring in the items Lan Dan had purchased. “Would Your Highness care to take a look?” he asked in a fawning tone.
Shentu Rui scowled at the mere suggestion, waving his hand dismissively. “What’s there to look at?” he scoffed. “What good things could she have possibly bought? It’s all just odds and ends!”
Lan Dan seethed with fury, but Shentu Rui waved his hand at her again and said, “Alright, alright, hurry up and change clothes, or we’ll be too late.”
“Where are we going?” Lan Dan asked curiously, too embarassed to argue with him anymore.
“If I tell you, will you know?” Shentu Rui snapped, still in a bad mood. “Hurry up and change! Don’t waste time!” He glanced at her and said, annoyed, “Don’t you want to see Jingu and Talu’s dance?”
Lan Dan promptly forgot her anger and exclaimed excitedly at the mention of the foreign dance, “Really? I’ll go change now! Wait for me! Wait for me!”
Shentu Rui twisted his head and sneered, which she took as tacit approval. She quickly ran out, but hesitated at the door. What should she change into?
Sun Shi Xiang was sitting in the yard idly shaking his legs. Catching her eye, he gave her a subtle signal and nodded towards her chamber. Lan Dan breathed a sigh of relief and flashed him a grateful smile before disappearing inside to prepare for the outing.
Lan Dan emerged from her room with reluctance, her clothes still in disarray. Shentu Rui waited impatiently for her in the courtyard, tapping his foot impatiently.
“Is this going to work?” Lan Dan asked hesitantly, donning a man’s jacket and cloak. Her feminine curves were still visible, rendering her disguise ineffective.
Shentu Rui dismissed her concern, “How could you possibly pass as a man dressed like that? Is there any man as short as you? We’re only dealing with a clerk. It won’t be a problem if you follow the rules and don’t get stopped at the door.”
Lan Dan’s expression turned to one of surprise and worry. A place where women were forbidden?
She climbed into the carriage, feeling flustered, but then steeled herself. Why should she care about danger? They couldn’t eat her, could they? If she wanted to see that kind of entertainment, she would have to go to the places where women were supposed to be seductive and entertain men. As someone who had already died once, she didn’t care about her reputation anymore. With this decision made, she finally had the energy to take a good look at Shentu Rui. She had to admit, he looked too luxurious today, with every piece of clothing and accessory being an extraordinary item. Even his fur collar was adorned with jewels that would cost her more than half of the entire market.
Lan Dan couldn’t comprehend Shentu Rui’s fixation with lavish clothing. One of his garments cost more than several outfits from the palace where she once resided. Why wouldn’t he invest in a mansion that matched his elevated status? Was he one of those nouveau riche individuals who squandered their wealth on frivolous apparel and accessories? However, his taste was impeccable. She recognized some of the garments he wore, while others were unfamiliar to her, but she knew they were all of superior quality and not the gaudy, flashy kind.
The carriage turned onto a narrow street, and the piercing and high-pitched notes of musical instruments wafted over. Lan Dan couldn’t resist opening the window and gazing out with awe-filled eyes.
The street was flanked by entertainment establishments, brilliantly illuminated by lanterns dangling from the eaves, and the throng of people on the thoroughfare created a resplendent and captivating sight, akin to the flower streets and alleys she had always envisioned.
The opulent carriage of Shentu Rui came to a halt before the grandest establishment in the area, and the waitstaff swarmed forward to offer their services and greetings. Lan Dan was initially hesitant and tried to keep a distance from the attendants, but when they received a generous tip from Sun Shi Xiang, they disregarded her completely and only offered reverential nods and bows to welcome Shentu Rui inside. Lan Dan followed Shentu Rui with newfound confidence.
Upon entering the establishment, they were greeted by a vast and airy hall that spanned the entire building. A colossal circular stage dominated the center of the room, with a smaller one standing adjacent to it. The musicians playing a variety of instruments were in ceaseless motion, providing an endless stream of melodies. The circular stage was encompassed by upscale seating that towered above the ordinary seats situated in the distance. Shentu Rui ascended the stairs to the front row of the high-end seating with effortless grace, drawing the gazes of all around him. Some even pointed and whispered as he passed. Suddenly, Lan Dan became aware of her own remarkable appearance and hastily lowered her head, not wanting to attract any undue attention. She even endeavored to retreat to the darkest corner of the high-end seat, where the lighting was somewhat dim. However, she soon realized that her anxiety was unfounded, as all eyes were fixed solely on Shentu Rui.
Suddenly, the music became lively and cheerful. A red-clad dancer gracefully stepped onto the stage, spinning and twirling to the rhythm. Her red chiffon dress was adorned with countless pieces of gold, which sparkled and shone in the light, emitting a pleasant ringing sound as she kicked and leaped to the music. Lan Dan was awestruck. She had never seen a woman dressed in a revealing costume like this. The dancer was even barefoot. As she spun in place at lightning speed, her black hair swayed like a delicate veil, and her slim and supple waistline exuded an alluring charm. Her arms and legs contorted into incredible curves, so daring and beguiling that even Lan Dan found herself mesmerized.
The applause resonated incessantly as the attendants brought garlands of flowers and jewelry to the stage as offerings from their masters. The dancer locked eyes with those who presented her with rewards, bewitching them with her gaze, much like a lovesick maiden gazing upon her beloved. When Shentu Rui instructed Sun Shi Xiang to present a reward, the dancer’s gaze lingered upon him for an extended period, prompting cheers from the enraptured audience. Even Lan Dan, seated far behind Shentu Rui, felt somewhat self-conscious. However, Shentu Rui remained serene and poised, raising his wine cup to the dancer with a coquettish grin.
The dancer surprised everyone when she glided off the stage, her lithe waist undulating like a snake as she made her way towards Shentu Rui’s private seat. The music grew more seductive, causing Lan Dan’s face to flush and pale in turns, and Sun Shi Xiang to lean in curiously.
The elegant private seat was not big, and the dancer rotated around Shentu Rui. Lan Dan and Sun Shi Xiang leaned against the railing, trying to make space for them. The dancer stared at Shentu Rui with affectionate eyes, took a red flower from her hair, and handed it to him while spinning.
The dancer wore a red scarf with golden plates on her head, similar to the one that Fifth Brother bought. Lan Dan had bought two similar scarfs earlier, but she now felt she might never have the courage to wear them after this fiery scene. Shentu Rui seemed entirely at ease, his demeanor commanding and self-assured, even as the dancer continued to tease him with her sensuous performance. He shook his head, politely declining the flower that she offered him again and again. Her dance became even more coquettish.
Lan Dan leaned in to ask Sun Shi Xiang what would happen if he accepted the flower. He held up his hand to her ears like a microphone and eagerly answered, “He’d get to spend the night in her room. It’s expensive! A top dancer like her costs 500 per night, while ordinary dancers cost 300.”
Lan Dan sneered. How familiar he was with the market. It seemed that he had paid a lot for his master.
The dance gradually became sad and slow as the audience let out disappointed boos when Shentu Rui refused to accept the dancer’s flower. The music eventually lowered and the dancing girl retreated backstage with a sad expression.
All night, various ethnic dances took turns to perform, but Shentu Rui refrained from tipping or giving flowers to avoid trouble. Until the end of the music, when people dispersed, Lan Dan still felt unsatisfied with the night’s performances.
She noticed that there were many women who came to watch the performances, some even boldly dressed in gorgeous women’s clothing. During the performances, some of the customers in the music hall even sent flowers to express their admiration for them. Lan Dan followed Shentu Rui out and got into the carriage, still empty-handed. In the darkness of the carriage, she sighed softly. Was she not pretty enough?
“Disappointed that you’re still so unpopular?” Shentu Rui asked teasingly as he seemed to understand her thoughts.
She didn’t answer, unsure of what to say and unwilling to sound stubborn. Shentu Rui’s lips curved into a gentle smile as he spoke. “Being eye-catching requires many factors, not just looks,” he said sagely. “If Xi Shi had never met Fan Li, she might have spent her entire life washing silk by the river, aging silently like Dong Shi.”
“Identity, status, words, deeds, demeanor. How can someone like you, who lived in the palace, ask such a silly question? Although there weren’t many palace maids more beautiful than Lan Huang and Lan Cheng in the palace, they definitely existed. They just didn’t have the opportunity to stand in front of everyone.”
Lan Dan seemed to understand something, and she lightly mocked him, “Is that your experience? You’ve been in the capital for twenty years, but nobody noticed you?”
Shentu Rui did not avoid the question and instead, he answered candidly with a smile, “Yes.” Suddenly, he leaned closer to her, raised an eyebrow, and his expression was similar to the dancer who had given him flowers earlier. “So, do you realize now that I’m more handsome than Shentu Cheng?”
Lan Dan’s heart suddenly beat wildly, and her face must have turned red. Fortunately, the carriage was too dark for him to see.
“You’re more sinister and cunning!” She cursed him through gritted teeth and pushed him away forcefully.
Shentu Rui smirked with satisfaction. “What’s so sinister or cunning about it? It’s not that difficult to avoid being noticed by others.”
Lan Dan snorted disdainfully. Of course he didn’t think it was hard. He was full of evil thoughts and had even more sinister schemes up his sleeves!
“Why didn’t you accept the girl’s flowers? Five hundred for a night isn’t that expensive for you, is it? When you lived in Fengyang, didn’t you party every night and spend generously?” She picked a fight with him because she was annoyed.
“How do you know the price?” He clicked his tongue, looking surprised.
“Your loyal subordinate, Sun Shi Xiang, told me,” she said without hesitation, “and he also said that you actually prefer the fresh and affordable ones at three hundred per night.”
“Hahaha.” Shentu Rui laughed dryly and praised Sun Shi Xiang through his teeth, “He really knows me too well.”
If you enjoy this novel, support the Translator ginevre on her ko-fi account :))
<Previous Chapter<Table of Contents>Next Chapter>