CHAPTER 34 Dark corner
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The most essential part of a night banquet wasn’t the food, but rather the festive ambiance and beautiful surroundings that made it a memorable experience.
In the enchanting world of glass where the lake reflected the lights and flowers, numerous indistinct emotions were kindled and intertwined. Promises made in hushed tones at midnight could alter each other’s destiny.
The lakeside forest was filled with the slender figures of young noblewomen and gentlemen, as if this small corner of the vast imperial city was overflowing with people. The elders tactfully gather together to chat with the Empress Dowager and ease their boredom, leaving the younger generation to enjoy their night viewing without disturbance.
After sitting with the Empress Dowager for a while, Lan Dan couldn’t stand being stared at by the palace maids any longer. It was no wonder why they were staring, as she was the only one left while everyone else had disappeared. Lan Dan stood up and walked away, pretending to admire a peach tree in full bloom nearby, gradually distancing herself from the middle-aged noblewomen with their piercing stares. It wasn’t until she reached the depths of the peach grove that she breathed a sigh of relief. In the past night banquets, she was a nobody that nobody paid attention to, feeling insignificant and desolate. It was even more uncomfortable to be stared at so intently.
“…Someone is coming. This servant will take her leave first.” A sweet and gentle farewell came from deeper within the peach grove.
Startled, Lan Dan knew she had unintentionally disturbed the mandarin ducks. Before she could move to avoid them, a pretty girl with her maidservant emerged from the shadows and bowed respectfully as she passed. Lan Dan felt embarrassed, feeling sorry and unsure of what to say or do. She was just about to return a bow when she was interrupted by the sudden appearance of Shentu Cheng.
This was the first time Lan Dan had been alone with him since the Lantern Festival. The girl and her maidservant quickly departed, leaving only her and Shentu Cheng. Lan Dan felt instantly flustered and nervous.
“Fu Zhu?” Shentu Cheng’s tone was more serious and calm than ever before, without any hint of suggestive meaning. “What are you doing here?”
Perhaps because she was in the dark and felt a natural protection, Lan Dan soon calmed down. Why should she be afraid of Shentu Cheng? If they must calculate right and wrong, debts and grudges, then Shentu Cheng owed her a lot. As a creditor, she should not always shrink away.
“Just walking around,” she replied indifferently.
Shentu Cheng smiled and looked straight at her without any avoidance. “You’ve changed.”
Lan Dan’s heart beat faster. Did he know?
“The last time I saw you, you hadn’t fallen for Shentu Rui yet.” Shentu Cheng sighed with a smile. “Now… your heart is all for him, isn’t it?” he asked, but his certainty was absolute.
Lan Dan secretly breathed a sigh of relief. Her heart was still beating violently, and she didn’t have the energy to respond to his words that had little practical significance.
“Don’t worry.” Shentu Cheng pursed his lips. “Since you have someone in your heart, I naturally won’t make things difficult for you anymore. I know you understand what I mean.” He raised his hand and plucked a peach blossom that was just above his head, spinning it lightly on his fingertips.
Lan Dan looked at him solemnly. She didn’t know how she managed to do it, but she didn’t flinch or feel guilty, just stared back at him. “Do you really like Her Excellence?” she asked directly, imitating Shentu Rui’s tone. In her mind, she remembered the smile that passed between him and Lan Huang as they supported each other in the Taici Palace. If there were no feelings between them, how could they have gazed at each other that way?
Shentu Cheng’s hand holding the flower suddenly paused, his eyes scrutinizing her, and she forced herself not to look away. Perhaps, having seen the eyes of Shentu Rui so often, she no longer found the eyes of Shentu Cheng attractive. Especially with the haze of darkness behind his black pupils, which made his eyes not at all clear. These were the eyes that she had once been so infatuated with, but now, looking at them again, they were full of alienation and darkness.
“I am not really sure,” Shentu Cheng replied honestly and with confusion. His gaze fell to the flower in his hand, and he seemed lost in thought. “Sometimes I feel very fond of her, but at other times, I feel cold towards her.” He paused, realizing what he had just said and sighed, “Why am I talking to you about this? Ah…” He shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts, “It’s because you’ve become a woman I can never have, so I can speak freely.”
Lan Dan was speechless.
“Alas…” He sighed in distress, and then smiled in a strange way that sent shivers down Lan Dan’s spine. “I don’t know if I have this problem before, or if I developed it after becoming the Emperor. Once I get something, I don’t like it anymore.”
Lan Dan unconsciously took a step back in horror.
“Don’t worry,” he nodded to her reassuringly, “even though I’m very attracted to you, I won’t compete with Xiao Rui. He’s the Empress Dowager’s precious son, and if I wanted to repay her kindness, I should treat Xiao Rui well.”
If it weren’t for Shentu Rui telling her about the Empress Dowager and the two brothers, Lan Dan might not have understood the depth of meaning behind Shentu Cheng’s words. The Empress Dowager had protected and raised him, a Beimo exile, so he was deeply grateful to her.
Like anyone who was extremely guarded, even if he only revealed a small part of his thoughts, even the least important part, Shentu Cheng felt hurt and left in a state of disorder, no longer calm and thoughtful.
Standing under the shade of the flowers, Lan Dan thought about Shentu Cheng’s words. No wonder he quickly discarded Third and Ninth Sisters-in-Law. He had already conquered their hearts.
After what seemed like a long time, someone accidentally stepped on a tree branch on the ground. Startled, Lan Dan looked up and saw that Zi Fu was walking quickly through the flowers and disappearing into the distance.
Frowning, Lan Dan wondered where Zi Fu was going. Was she going to meet Shentu Rui?
Having not seen Shentu Rui all night, Lan Dan already felt something was wrong. No matter where Zi Fu was going, it had to be a place of hidden secrets.
Walking through the dark, backlit flowers and trees, Lan Dan was not afraid. After all, this was her former home, and Zi Fu was walking hastily. Lan Dan had to keep up with her but was afraid of being discovered, leaving her no time to consider anything else.
The scent of lilacs gradually grew stronger, and Lan Dan slowed down to look around. She had been here before. Back then, Princess Lan Zi was favored and insisted on having her father plant wisteria in a corner of the flower forest by the lake. Wisteria didn’t have a fragrance, so they also planted dwarf lilacs on the ground, with the contrasting shades of purple complementing each other and the fragrance spreading throughout. After Princess Lan Zi passed away, Mother Empress sealed off this area of the wisteria trellis, citing inauspicious reasons and prohibiting anyone from entering.
Lan Dan hesitated for a moment and lost sight of Zi Fu’s figure. She carefully tiptoed around and searched for her, only to hear Shentu Rui’s voice.
There were no lights around, and the faint light shining from the Chunhui Terrace was dim and soft, like moonlight. The purple wisteria was unkempt and tangled, creating a dense wall of flowers. Lan Dan couldn’t see him, but she could hear him clearly.
“…I’ll ask you one last time, do you have to do this?” His words were filled with disapproval.
“Rui, I have no other alternative.”
Lan Dan held her breath, but in reality, she was not surprised. It was indeed a perfect opportunity for Shentu Rui and Lan Huang to meet in secret today, but hearing them speak privately had a completely different impact on her compared to when she eavesdropped on them talking in the Prince of Yan’s mansion.
Last time he intentionally let her hear it, but this time he avoided her and didn’t want her to know.
“Huang’er,” said Shentu Rui after a moment of silence, speaking solemnly as if making a promise. “If it’s really a girl, let’s just go with the flow. I can’t make too many promises, but as long as I, Shentu Rui, am still alive, I will ensure your safety.”
It was indeed a promise, and a heavy one at that.
Lan Huang remained silent for a long time, and the night was quiet in the midst of the flower trellis.
Lan Dan understood Lan Huang’s silence. She must be struggling and feeling shocked and touched. After experiencing the ups and downs of two dynasties, with twists and turns of kindness and enmity, every day was precarious and dangerous, especially for Lan Huang, who walked on the edge of a knife every step of the way. If a man could speak with such sincerity and say such words, the power of the impact could not be imagined.
“Shentu Rui…” Lan Huang called his name softly, but the affection in these words came from the depths of her heart and lungs. “The thing I regret most in my life is being with Chong Wen to spite you.”
“Huang’er.” Shentu Rui called her name distressedly, obviously not wanting her to continue.
“I know that Chong Wen didn’t have any good intentions. He knew that Father Emperor intended to attack Nanyue. If he married me, he could use Da Min’s army to defeat his father and elder brother and seize the throne of Nanyue. Father stopped me from marrying him, but he really cared about me…” Lan Huang choked with sobs. “But he knew that Chong Wen was the father of my child, yet still killed him on his way home. In Father Emperor’s heart, I, and everyone else, are less important than his ambition. Isn’t Shentu Cheng the same? He says he loves me and has admired me for years, but if I didn’t hold the loyalty of the ministers in my hand, would he have allowed me to live until today? These men…” Lan Huang sneered and bitterly smiled, “Only you are sincere to me, only you can say these words to me!”
“I am also doing this to repay you for what you did back then…”
“But, Shentu Rui!” Lan Huang was agitated and interrupted his words, “I have no choice! I have walked all the way here, stepping on the blood of all my relatives! Father, mother, brothers and sisters! I walked on their blood to get here. Do you think I still have a way back?”
Shentu Rui sighed, but did not refute her.
“Shentu Rui, today, I, Xiao Lan Huang, also make a vow to the stars in the sky. If I have the power, I will make you the Emperor, and our child will be the heir. You will be above all others, with ten thousand carriages under your command. If I break this vow, let me be cursed by heaven and earth.”
“But I don’t want all of these…” said Shentu Rui, his indifference contrasting with Lan Huan’s passion.
Lan Dan drifted away like a wandering spirit. Such a person, such a world… She simply couldn’t face it, and couldn’t listen to it anymore.
Everyone who appeared sincere had their own concealed and self-serving intentions.
This included Shentu Rui, who made such a moving pledge.
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