CHAPTER 24 Knowing when to retreat
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In desperation, Lan Dan jumped up and grabbed Su Yi Ming. “Wait a minute!”
Su Yi Ming had already begun to lift his leg to depart, but Lan Dan’s sudden action caused him to hesitate. He glanced at her and then at Shentu Rui, unsure of what to do. It was Sun Shi Xiang who signaled him to stay.
Lan Dan let go of Su Yi Ming’s hand and absentmindedly clenched her fist by her leg. She took a deep breath and looked directly at Shentu Rui. “Is it because I made you angry?”
Shentu Rui’s expression flickered with irritation, but he maintained his cold smile. “What do you think?”
Stumped by Shentu Rui’s response, Lan Dan lowered her head for a moment. “If that’s the case,” she said, “then I apologize to you.”
“No,” Shentu Rui said decisively, catching Lan Dan off guard. He responded quickly and with conviction.
Lan Dan’s face lost color. She struggled to speak, but eventually bit her lips and paused before turning to Shentu Rui again. “Do you have to treat Fifth… Xiao Bing Wen like this?”
“Absolutely!” Shentu Rui’s voice grew even louder, emphasizing his hostility.
Snowflakes slowly drifted down from the gloomy sky. Even though it was already spring, the snow was still soft and gentle, falling on shoulders and heads before quickly melting into droplets.
Lan Dan watched Shentu Rui through the snowflakes for a moment before looking away and silently taking a seat by the fire, lost in thought.
Shentu Rui was surprised but quickly composed himself, brushing off his coat and taking a seat by the fire, ignoring Lan Dan.
Meanwhile, Su Yi Ming stood frozen, feeling small and insignificant amidst the falling snowflakes.
He suddenly let out a cry and fell to the ground, clutching his left rib and writhing in pain, “Oh no! I ate too fast and got choked! It hurts so much!” He even fell to the ground, kicking up a cloud of dust.
With a cold snort, Shentu Rui contemptuously brushed away the dust in front of him.
Lan Dan was aware that Su Yi Ming was being sly to avoid getting involved in her conflict with Shentu Rui.
“Let’s hit the road,” Shentu Rui said, turning to Sun Shi Xiang. “No need to hurry. We can reach Zhaoling by evening.”
Lan Dan didn’t respond. She had no idea where they were passing through or what their specific itinerary was. Su Yi Ming and Sun Shi Xiang, on the other hand, looked surprised and asked in unison, “Zhaoling?”
Su Yi Ming slapped his thigh and asked, “Aren’t you going directly to Tongye?”
“Xiao Bing Wen has been caught by you, hasn’t he?” Shentu Rui squinted his eyes at him, making Su Yi Ming feel as if he was being looked down upon. “Why should I be in a hurry? What’s worth rushing to in your shabby county town? Naturally, we have to go to Zhaoling to evacuate for two days.”
Su Yi Ming was stunned for a moment and then sighed in admiration, nodding his head, “That makes sense!”
One by one, the guards mounted their horses, ready to continue their journey. Lan Dan too made her way towards her own horse, preparing to ride alongside them. However, Shentu Rui remained seated by the fire, unmoving as a statue. Su Yi Ming, who had been sitting on the ground, crawled forward a couple of steps and hugged Shentu Rui’s leg like a child throwing a tantrum. He rested his chin on Shentu Rui’s knee and looked up at him with puppy eyes.
“What are you doing?” Shentu Rui was so disgusted that his skin got goosebumps. He shook his legs vigorously, in an attempt to dislodge him.
“Brother,” he smiled obsequiously, “Did I do good job?”
“Let go,” said Shentu Rui coldly.
“You know, if it weren’t for me, you would have been embarrassed by that young lady who ignored you.” Su Yi Ming laughed happily.
“What do you want?” The veins on Shentu Rui’s temples bulged.
“I’m so smart, so clever, and so capable. Shouldn’t I be appointed as a General by the Emperor?” Su Yi Ming raised his eyebrows.
“He’ll appoint you as General as long as you let go,” said Shentu Rui expressionlessly.
“Really?” Su Yi Ming exclaimed in excitement, sitting upright and releasing his grip. “Brother, you are so good to me!”
Shentu Rui smiled maliciously at him and nodded, “Hmm.”
Su Yi Ming was creeped out by his smile, and his ingratiating expression became stiff.
“Why do I feel…?” He didn’t know what to expect.
“Don’t worry about it.” Shentu Rui raised his eyebrows. “You’ll find out soon enough.”
Su Yi Ming sat on the ground for a while, watching Shentu Rui mount his horse with a sly grin. He complained, “The people of Beimo are so cunning!”
Sun Shi Xiang rode a few steps away, then turned back to call him, “Young General, let’s go!”
Su Yi Ming immediately laughed and got up, jumped onto his horse, and chased after the team, “I’m coming, I’m coming!”
The horse team moved slowly, navigating through the winding forest road. The path was obstructed by numerous overlapping branches that limited visibility, despite the branches being bare. Lan Dan walked in the middle of the team, feeling as gloomy as the sky above. She silently followed the others, numbly moving forward, lost in thought.
After nearly half an hour, they emerged from the forest to a vast and boundless grassland. The scene was so impressive that Lan Dan could only experience the tremendous height of the sky in such a vast space.
Someone in the group started shouting and urged their horse to gallop freely, without any constraints. The others followed suit, and soon, they were all running wildly across the grassland. The sky and earth were too vast, and no matter how crazy they ran, they felt tiny and insignificant.
Lan Dan also became excited and ran crazily, her hat blown away by the wind. She accelerated to her limit, carefree and unrestrained, and all her worries, even her thoughts, were swept away with the wind.
As a large flock of sheep approached, everyone slowed their horses and stopped to rest. After the wild run, Shentu Rui ordered a break. The attendants started a fire and boiled water.
Lan Dan dismounted from her horse, her chest heaving from the exertion of the ride. She paused for a moment to catch her breath, listening to the distant sound of bells ringing in the crisp, clear air. She chuckled as she watched the flock of sheep, resembling fluffy clouds. Bells were attached to the shepherd’s whip. The shepherd’s horse was moving slowly, so the sound of the bells was gentle and unhurried.
The guards invited the shepherd to come and warm himself by the fire, and the shepherd didn’t refuse. He dismounted and joined them, offering everyone the strong liquor he had brought.
The snow was still falling, and the dim and low sky contrasted with the vast and desolate early spring grassland, the leisurely scattered flock of sheep, and several nimble horses grazing with their heads down… Lan Dan finally felt that she had arrived at the borderland.
The old shepherd drank happily and took out his reed flute to play. The snow-falling wasteland was rendered extremely sad and magnificent by the high-pitched and lonely tune.
Everyone listened quietly. Mesmerized by the unique melody and sound, tears streamed down Lan Dan’s face. It was the first time she had ever heard someone play the reed flute. The sound seemed to perfectly match the light snow on the barren plain. It was as if a person who had experienced many hardships still refused to yield, and instead let out a mournful song that reached the sky from deep in their chest. Lan Dan had never thought that such a sound, such a melody, and such a suitable state of mind existed for her. Her soul seemed to attach itself to the sharp and high-pitched melody, passing through the past prosperity, passing through the day of the execution in the wind and snow, passing by her Second Sister’s worship, and fleeting past Shentu Rui. The sky was so high, and the earth was so wide. Where was she going? When would the song stop?
The old man finally finished playing and everyone slowly came back to reality from the music. The guards deliberately made noise to invite the old man to eat the dried meat and cakes he brought.
“Like it?” She didn’t know when Shentu Rui came to her side. Lan Dan realized that it was too late to wipe away the tears all over his face.
Shentu Rui sat down and leaned against her, looking at the cloudy sky. He smiled gently and said with a sigh, “Those with a cold heart always love the sound of the reed flute.”
He said it so accurately again, and she couldn’t respond. The reed flute’s music made her too sad and her heart was too tired to defend herself. She felt it was good to sit with him like this at least she wasn’t alone, floating away on an unknown path.
Shentu Rui suddenly grabbed her and stood up. Lan Dan was pulled up passively by him, walking towards the old shepherd.
“Old man, teach her how to play the flute.” said Shentu Rui to the old man in a casual manner, pulling Lan Dan to sit beside the old man.
Lan Dan frowned. When did she have to learn how to play the reed flute?
The old man laughed and looked at Shentu Rui, then at Lan Dan. He took out a new flute from his pocket and said, “My wife made this for me a few days ago. Take it as a gift.”
Lan Dan blushed and didn’t know what to do. Shentu Rui nudged her with his elbow, and she nervously accepted the flute.
The old man taught Lan Dan how to play the flute, but she was always out of tune.
“You’re really clumsy!” Shentu Rui scolded her, took the flute from her, and spoke to the old man with a smile, “Old man, don’t laugh. I only know this one song.”
He began playing, and although his melody was not as passionate and vigorous as the one the old man had played earlier, it was mellow and moving, like a lingering song played by a woman to her sweetheart.
He played well, with a melodious and melancholic tone that resembled a woman’s gentle confession— filled with resentment, but more so with longing. As he played, his eyes reflected sadness and he seemed lost in the music, filled with sorrow and regret.
He played the last note slightly off-key and then slowly lowered the flute, saying, “My mother taught me how to play.”
The old man was also moved by the music, and patted Shentu Rui’s shoulder. “Young man, you play well.”
Shentu Rui seemed to snap out of his reverie. Smiling faintly, he stood up and said to those around him, “Let’s go, it’s getting late.”
He didn’t take her hand again, and as she watched him leave, she felt a sense of melancholy, perhaps because of the dark sky and falling snow.
Sun Shi Xiang came to her side while no one was paying attention, and whispered to Lan Dan anxiously and earnestly, “Miss, please don’t make His Highness angry again, especially today.”
Although Lan Dan didn’t know what happened to Shentu Rui, the sad back was enough to stir up her mind and soften her heart.
She nodded, recalling the way Shentu Rui looked when he was sick and calling out for his mother. Perhaps she wasn’t the only one who wanted someone to be by her side at certain moments.
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