CHAPTER 36 Leave no desire unfulfilled
Lan Dan left Taici Palace through the backdoor. The back garden of Taici Palace was densely packed with leaves. It was noon, and the intense spring sunshine shone down. The thick greenery around made it difficult to breathe.
Lan Dan went out of Taici Palace along the courtyard wall, knowing that Shentu Rui would come to find her with the guidance of the Empress Dowager. She deliberately turned into a secluded alley and walked aimlessly along the way. She did not want to see him now or hear him speak. He would have ten thousand reasons, and he would explain them to her sincerely. Even if what he said was true, it did not matter. She had been evading for too long, and it was time to face everything herself.
It was difficult, and also hopeless. Fortunately, she had an example to follow.
With these thoughts, Lan Dan let out a helpless and indifferent laugh. Yes, everyone around her was a good role model— Shentu Cheng, who had hidden his identity as a hostage for many years and made careful plans; Shentu Rui, who had prepared to strike while the iron was hot and ruthlessly killed his enemies; Xiao Lan Huang, who was always one step ahead in her calculations and battles. If she were to give up now and let others control her fate, wouldn’t it be as if she had died for nothing?
“Miss Fu Zhu.” A eunuch suddenly appeared out of nowhere and startled Lan Dan. “Her Excellence has invited you to the palace for a meeting.”
Lan Dan gathered her wits and looked around the deserted palace alley. The only way someone could have found her here was if they had followed her all the way from Taici Palace. “Lead the way,” she commanded haughtily, curious about what Lan Huang wanted to say to her.
Lan Huang no longer lived in her previous palace, possibly due to guilt or shame. She had a taste for luxury, and her current residence in the Kunyi Palace was decorated with gold and jade, even more magnificent and expensive than her mother’s bedroom back then. Led by a eunuch, Lan Dan entered and was dazzled by the luxurious decorations and excess. Altough it was well arranged, it still appeared somewhat vulgar. The palace maids and eunuchs who served her were plentiful. She was brought to a pearl curtain, where she could vaguely see Lan Huang reclining on the phoenix bed, with two gorgeously dressed palace women standing in front of her, presumably her close confidants, Zi Yuan and Zi Dai.
Lan Dan had no intention to salute Lan Huang. She knew she had to maintain a proper attitude and at least appear calm, but her hatred towards Lan Huang was so intense that she couldn’t even pretend to be composed and just let her emotions run wild.
“All of you, leave,” ordered Zi Dai coldly, and the palace maids and eunuchs standing on both sides of them withdrew one after another and closed the palace door.
The sleeping chamber suddenly became quiet, with the sound of the self-rotating fan being so clear that it was audible even when there was no wind blowing, and only the green smoke from the incense burner on the table was being fanned around.
“I heard…” Lan Huang lazily spoke, “the Prince of Yan refused to bestow the title of a Side Consort on you.”
Lan Dan was taken aback. When Shentu Rui said those words, there were only three people present in the side hall of Taici Palace: Lan Dan, the Empress Dowager, and Shentu Rui. How did the news spread so quickly to Lan Huang? Lan Huang’s power and influence were far beyond her imagination.
“But he promised to confer a title on Zi Fu.” Lan Huang sat up straight, her head ornament swaying with the movement. “It’s not because he likes Zi Fu so much, but it’s because of me.” She smiled, with a complex meaning that was not purely self-satisfied, but also tinged with sarcasm. “You heard our conversation on the lilac forest that day, didn’t you?”
Lan Dan’s eyebrows shot up, suddenly realizing. “It was you! You were the one who told Zi Fu to bring me there!”
Lan Huang burst into laughter, feeling truly satisfied this time. “Naturally, if it was so easy for someone to overhear my conversation with Shentu Rui, he and I would have been dead hundreds of times over. He trusts me in this regard and believes that I would keep things secret, and would never have guessed that I would bring you there.”
“What do you want?” Lan Dan asked coldly.
Lan Huang raised her hand, and Zi Yuan and Zi Dai parted the pearl curtain. Lan Huang smiled at Lan Dan, a very beautiful smile, but it made Lan Dan shiver. “Your voice…sounds a lot like my sister’s.”
Lan Dan tightly clenched his hands into fists, unable to tell if it was fear or anger.
“Then I shall consider you my sister as well,” she said insincerely.
Lan Dan almost snorted in derision. What was so great about being her sister? She had only ever used her and frame her up!
“Sister, let me ask you something first. Now that you know so much about what’s going on, what do you think?” Lan Huang said leisurely. “If I could help you achieve something, what would you ask for?”
Lan Dan actually took a moment to seriously consider the question. “What would I have to pay in return for your help?”
Lan Huang pursed her lips and smiled, her hair ornaments swaying and sparkling again. “Let me be frank then. Don’t worry, I won’t ask you to commit any crimes. Just stay close to Shentu Rui and help me out when the time is right.”
Lan Dan remembered that Shentu Rui had said something similar when he wanted to send her to Shentu Cheng. The words also made her feel cold. Lan Huang and Shentu Rui had made such sincere promises to each other. Lan Dan thought they had some real feelings for each other, but in a blink of an eye, Lan Huang was going to sabotage Shentu Rui. It seemed that Lan Huang had used Zi Fu as a decoy and had gone through all this trouble for her own benefit.
Lan Dan suddenly understood Shentu Cheng’s words about Lan Huang’s unpredictable behavior. Lan Huang seemed to distrust everyone and did not have any genuine allies. She believed only in herself from the beginning to the end, and it was this kind of personality that had enabled her to reach this point today.
Lan Dan took a deep breath, knowing she shouldn’t ask, but she really wanted to know! “Since we are to become allies, I also want to ask Her Excellence a question.”
Lan Huang nodded and gestured for her to speak.
“In the past, you were already the esteemed Princess Kunyang, enjoying all kinds of honor and glory. Did you really conspire with outsiders to overthrow the entire Da Min Dynasty just because the Late Emperor killed Chong Wen?
“Presumptuous!” Zi Yuan yelled.
With a wave of her hand, Lan Huang motioned for Zi Yuan to step back. She looked at Lan Dan for a moment with intense eyes and then gave a self-deprecating smile. “I didn’t expect you to ask that. It’s a good question. Perhaps it’s also my reason why I’m convincing you to help me. If one doesn’t look out for oneself, no one else will.” She lay down again, looking a little tired. “All that honor and glory? It was just a fleeting moment. You, an ordinary commoner, couldn’t have possibly understood the danger of that time. My father was sick, and although he kept it from the outside world, he was deteriorating day by day. The Crown Prince was ignorant and arrogant, and the Fifth Prince was ambitious. No matter who became Emperor, what would have happened to me? I would have just been given a title and married off to a useless man, spending my entire life at the mercy of others. But look at me now. If heaven helps me fulfill my wish, I won’t just be an Empress, but the Empress Dowager in charge. It will be up to me to decide the fate of others based on my mood.”
Lan Dan remained silent. It turned out that Lan Huang had this particular perspective.
“So, do you want to stand by my side and help me?” Lan Huang coquettishly smiled, propping up her cheek and staring straight at Lan Dan. “Also, what do you want in return?”
Lan Dan remained calm and said, “Freedom. I want freedom.”
After hearing this, Lan Huang smiled and nodded in approval, “Very good. If you had said you wanted to have Shentu Rui, then I would be disappointed. How can a fool possibly help me?” A hint of malice appeared in her smile. “Also, he belongs to me, and whoever becomes greedy over him will die.”
When she left, the same eunuch who had led her there escorted her out through a secluded small door. Outside the door was a winding path flanked by green bamboo on either side. The pebble path gradually widened and joined a large brick-paved road, which led to the peony bushes in the back garden. Lan Dan felt a wave of emotion as she realized that she had visited the peony bushes many times but never noticed this unremarkable little path. She turned around to tell the eunuch that he didn’t have to accompany her any further, but he had vanished without a trace.
The scorching sunlight was dizzying. Slowly walking along the main road, Lan Dan arrived at the side of Taiye Pond. The vast lake had no boats on it, and the glaring ripples looked like flashes of knives and swords, shimmering with a hint of grimness. Lan Dan felt irritated by the sun and walked into the pavilion, finding a shady corner to sit down. Only then did she realize that her legs were sore, as she had been standing and walking for a long time.
She looked at the water of Taiye Pond. So what if it was so vast? It was still confined by high walls and did not offer any freedom or escape. Lan Dan felt trapped and hopeless.
Freedom? Lan Dan recalled the terms of exchange she had proposed to Lan Huang just now. She had no idea what freedom really meant and wasn’t even sure if she wanted it.
She just wanted to escape this place filled with various corners of conspiracy, both glamorous and obscure, people who looked sincere but were calculating and ruthless. It made her feel hopeless.
She was not their match, and having lofty ambitions alone was not enough. In the beginning, she had a narrow escape and relied solely on her resentment to vow to make the guilty party pay alongside her in the underworld. It was quite ridiculous, and even more ridiculous was that she had told Shentu Rui about it. He probably scoffed at her arrogance and ignorance.
The more she came to know these people, the more she realized that her revenge was impossible. She would never be like those who, after hearing Shentu Rui’s impassioned promises, would then plant spies around him, scheme against him, or even plan to kill him. She couldn’t do it, so she couldn’t win. When she was Princess Danyang, she was useless, and becoming Fu Zhu hadn’t changed much. In this game of power struggle, what could she do?
What kind of national hatred and family enmity was this? Wasn’t her national hatred and family enmity also the same as that of Lan Huang? So what if Lan Huang killed her parents? She still lived well and was approaching the peak of power step by step. Was her self-blame and revenge too ridiculous? The palace maid named Hai Shan was right. Da Min was gone long ago. Except for those who were still suffering, no one cared about the dynasty that had passed away.
Shentu Rui came in a hurry. Right, as long as she left the place under Lan Huang’s control, he would naturally find her.
Everyone told her that the court was terrifying, but she didn’t understand until now. The boundaries between honor and disgrace, and rank and status were too clearly defined. Even in seemingly empty places, there could be countless pairs of ghostly eyes and ears.
Shentu Rui walked into the pavilion and sat down beside her.
“You… should listen to my explanation,” he said after a moment.
Glancing at him, then at the newly opened lotus petals on the pond, Lan Dan couldn’t decide whether to compare him to the lotus or the lotus to him. Either way, both were beautiful. His eyes, deep and filled with emotion, could be resolute and determined, yet still hold a hint of sincerity and purity in the polluted world. Perhaps… she faintly smiled, even the most beautiful flowers had their roots in the muddy and impure soil, and even the sweetest lotus seeds had a bitter heart.
“Lan Huang is determined to have a boy and is set on forcing her way to the throne,” he whispered. She didn’t think his caution was unnecessary. Who knew who was watching and listening around them? She admired his courage for speaking up. “As her delivery date approaches, the situation will become increasingly dangerous. I’m in too deep, and there’s no guarantee of my safety.” He self-deprecatingly chuckled, as admitting this in front of the woman he loved was difficult. “I can’t extricate myself, but you can, as long as you don’t have an official title. I hope… you can stay safe, even if there’s only a small chance of danger, I hope you can avoid it.”
“Hmm.” Lan Dan pursed her lips, wanting to laugh but finding it impossible. It was the same old story— he was afraid for her safety. But then if he wanted her to be safe, why drag her into this dangerous conspiracy? He had ways to protect her, but they didn’t include making her his consort. She wasn’t so foolish anymore, and she realized that he might have fallen into Lan Huang’s trap. Lan Huang wanted him to name Zi Fu as his Side Consort instead of her, so that she would feel jealous and resentful, and become a useful pawn against Shentu Rui. Lan Huang was very successful, as Lan Dan had started to feel a bit cold towards Shentu Rui. It wasn’t his fault, but hers for being so foolish and easily swayed. She had actually believed that Shentu Rui really liked her, so she had sincerely liked him in return.
Her calmness made Shentu Rui feel like he had a lump in his throat, and he couldn’t say anything more, only frowning at her.
“Shentu Rui, I understand. I understand everything,” she said. Of course, in such a dire situation, he absolutely could not go against Lan Huang’s wishes.
“Do you really understand?” Shentu Rui snorted lightly.
This time, Lan Dan didn’t answer. How could she be so sure that she understood him?
“Are you still angry?” He smiled and leaned in to look at her.
“A little sad,” she nodded. How sad she was, she didn’t know, but at least she was able to speak about it so calmly.
“What compensation do you want?” He misunderstood her calmness and asked with a smile in his eyes.
He instantly frowned when he heard her answer. “Why are you so stubborn! She’s just a servant. Why are you so hung up on her?”
Lan Dan looked at the swaying lotus leaves in the wind and said stubbornly, “To me, she’s more than just a servant.”
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