CHAPTER 37 Prefer to Misunderstand
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Lan Dan and Shentu Rui silently walked slowly along the Taiye Pond, each with their own thoughts. From the Imperial Garden to where they boarded their carriage, they had to pass through Xijiao Gate and the long alley between Yeting Courtyard and Taici Palace. Lan Dan slowed down and looked up at the wall of Yeting Courtyard. She knew it was the most dignified wall of Yeting because it faced Taici Palace. She had sneaked in once when she was a child, but she was too scared to go again. The living quarters for the maids and servants were passable, but the places where the officials and convicted women lived were terrible. The inside was filled with numb expressions, unkempt appearances, and women who were stiff and forced to work. Would Jiang’er be among them, living a hard life because of her?
“Shentu Rui,” she stopped abruptly. She had to make him promise no matter what, because this was Jiang’er’s only hope.
Shentu Rui turned around and saw her standing charmingly between two palace walls, the wind from the long alley gently blowing her skirt and sleeves, the light veil and spring dress rippling with each layer. Even the coral hairpin on her head was swaying gracefully, as if she were a fairy just descended from the clouds. On her delicate and beautiful face, there were a pair of clear and sad eyes, shining and twinkling, filled with endless loneliness and sorrow. His heart skipped a beat. These were familiar eyes, Danyang’s.
“Shentu Rui, please help me. Even if you can’t let Jiang’er continue to serve me, as long as you can rescue her from here, it would be enough…” She frowned, and the watery light in her eyes became even stronger. He sighed. Facing her like this, what else could he do? Even if she asked for the stars in the sky, he would have to go and get them.
“This matter… is a bit difficult. Let me plan it slowly.” He furrowed his brow as it was indeed difficult. Taking a small palace maid from the Imperial Palace without raising suspicion, especially one who had served Lan Dan, would easily draw suspicion from Shentu Cheng and Lan Huang. If they deliberately investigated and discovered the secret of Fu Zhu, it would be a disaster for him and Lan Dan. He couldn’t afford to take this risk, let alone let Lan Dan take this risk!
Lan Dan lowered her eyes. Although it wasn’t a clear answer, at least it wasn’t a rejection, right?
A small door nearby opened, and the Chief Steward of Yeting Courtyard and two senior maids walked out, talking about something. The steward was surprised to see Shentu Rui and hurried over to greet him with the senior maids.
“Your Highness, my lady, please go ahead,” the steward said politely, then smiled at Shentu Rui. “We lost a little palace maid this morning, and now we’re transporting her out of the palace to get rid of the bad luck so you won’t see it.”
Lan Dan’s heart suddenly skipped a beat. She asked before she could stop herself, “What’s the name of the little palace maid?”
The steward and the two senior maids were a bit surprised. They looked at each other, not expecting the favored concubine of the Prince of Yan to care about such trivial matters that had nothing to do with her.
Shentu Rui’s expression changed. He took two steps back to pull Lan Dan, and made a gesture to her, indicating that she shouldn’t be too obvious.
The steward, who was eager to please the Prince of Yan’s favored concubine, replied, “I think her name was Jiang’er.” He looked at his companions uncertainly.
One of the senior maids nodded, and replied fiercely, “Yes! It was Jiang’er. She was caught stealing and beaten to death with a club.”
Lan Dan let out a dry cough, but she wasn’t crying. She suddenly closed her eyes, not because she was afraid of tears, but because a sour ache was making her eyes sting. She felt a boiling sensation in her chest that she didn’t know was blood or air, as if it was about to rush up to her throat or burst her chest. It turned out… this was what heartache felt like.
Shentu Rui quickly held her and whispered, “Are you alright?” He was afraid that the eunuch and the maids would suspect something and added, “You shouldn’t run around when you’re sick. You should listen to me!”
The steward was very smart and said, “Since you’re not feeling well, let this humble official arrange a suitable palace room for you to rest in?”
Shentu Rui said calmly, “No need, we’ll just go back home.”
The steward nodded without saying anything. The cart carrying the body was pushed out by two young eunuchs with disgust on their faces. The steward hurriedly wanted to drive them away, but heard Shentu Rui say, “Let them go first.”
He put his arms around Lan Dan, as if protecting her, but also shielding her from the gruesome sight. Lan Dan was forced to witness the sad and disturbing scene.
Looking over Shentu Rui’s shoulder, Lan Dan saw that the broken cart only had an old mat covering Jiang’er’s emaciated body. Her once-shiny hair was now disheveled and made her look even more pitiful.
Jiang’er didn’t even have a decent coffin, and was being transported in such a shabby cart to… maybe even the unmarked grave where she once lived. Lan Dan silently watched the cart disappear into the long alleyway. The once gentle girl, who had listened to her countless troubles, had disappeared from this world in such a tragic and pitiful manner. Shentu Rui held her tightly, afraid that she might reveal any flaws and ruin his plans.
When getting on the carriage, Shentu Rui helped her step onto the footrest. She looked at nothingness and asked him calmly, “It was you, wasn’t it? You’re afraid that Jiang’er would recognize me, so you used some means to silence her? I know Jiang’er wouldn’t steal anything.”
Shentu Rui held her hand but didn’t say anything. Her hand became so cold that he struggled to hold it.
She didn’t react to his silence and got on the carriage normally, sitting inside calmly without any signs of grief.
Shentu Rui personally closed the carriage door for her, mounted his horse, and led his attendants out of the imperial city.
“Your Highness,” Sun Shi Xiang rode up on his horse and said softly, “We’ve investigated it. The senior maid in charge of Yeting found that Jiang’er suddenly had an expensive gold hairpin. When questioned, a palace maid named Hai Shan revealed that Jiang’er stole it.” Sun Shi Xiang looked at Shentu Rui’s pale face. “Should we tell Miss Fu Zhu about this and at least explain it to her?”
“No need.” Shentu Rui shook his head coldly.
“But…” Sun Shi Xiang was a little anxious.
“I know what happened to that golden hairpin. I noticed that she was missing two hairpins at the banquet that night,” Shentu Rui said calmly.
“Ah?” Sun Shi Xiang was surprised and looked uneasy. “But if you don’t explain, won’t Miss Fu Zhu misunderstand you?”
Shentu Rui gave a faint, bitter smile. “Let her misunderstand. It’s better than making her blame herself.” He shook the reins lightly and pretended to be relaxed. “It’s just a servant girl. She’ll get over it soon enough.”
After returning to his residence, Shentu Rui deliberately lingered in the front yard for a while before returning to his living quarters. The sun was setting, and its rays illuminated the sea of green on the crabapple tree, which had already shed its colorful blooms.
Lan Dan stood on the porch, whether she was admiring the crabapple tree or lost in thought was unclear.
Shentu Rui walked over and glanced at the opposite side before speaking. Zi Fu and the others were still in the palace and hadn’t returned yet. He hated having to be so guarded even in his own home and felt helpless. “If you can’t get over it, I’ll take you out tomorrow and we’ll burn some gold paper money for her,” he said, with a hint of anger. It was his own home, yet he had to sneak out to honor someone who had passed away. After Lan Huang gave birth, he was determined to send Zi Fu away and end this curse.
Lan Dan’s smile was insincere and seemed to be a form of mockery.
He still didn’t care about Jiang’er, and even felt impatient with her. For him, anyone or anything that was insignificant was of no importance to her.
She looked at the crabapple tree that had lost its flowers. Compared to the previous few days when it was in full bloom, this tree was now dull and unremarkable. To Shentu Rui, was she not like this tree? In the palace, she had seen too many women in such situations that it had become commonplace. No matter how beautiful or talented a woman may be, within three to five years, her beauty would fade and their grace would fade away. She had no talent to speak of, except for relying on her counterfeit face to win a little of his affection with her beauty. At some point, he had grown tired of her.
“No need. I have never burned paper money for my parents and brothers, moreso for a mere servant.”
Shentu Rui pursed his lips. Her words choked him, but he didn’t have the heart to tell her anything. After all, today had already been heartbreaking enough for her.
“Then rest well, and don’t think too much,” he said, passing by her and heading towards the main house. Spending the afternoon with her and listening to her unkind words might make him say something he’d regret later, like blaming her hairpin for their misfortunes. It was better for them to stay apart and calm down.
He drank some wine in the study, feeling gloomy. The warm spring day and the alcohol made him drowsy. When he woke up, it was already moonrise. He put on a coat and walked out onto the porch. As expected, Lan Dan’s room was shrouded in darkness. She wasn’t waiting for him.
Zi Fu heard a sound and opened the door. The moonlight was very good, and her light-colored dress fluttered in the wind, giving her a fairy-like charm. The surroundings were quiet like water, and the moonlight and lights interlaced. In such a night, people seemed to have a natural tenderness. When she looked up at him, her eyes were shimmering with water, with more than just a hint of affection.
“Your Highness…” She called him softly, but he didn’t answer. A man like him, as long as he stood there quietly, could suppress the moonlight and stars. In the past, when she saw him cold and stern, even if he had a bit of viciousness, he was still incredibly handsome. But now, under the lights and the moon, he was even more alluring, exuding an irresistible charm. Zi Fu gazed at him with infatuation. Even if she had to resort to all her cunning, she wanted to have him! “Rui…” She let go of her pride and arrogance, leaned in and hugged his waist. “Rui…”
“Have you forgotten who you are?”
A cold voice gently spoke above her head, seemingly light and casual, but capable of tearing apart all the tenderness.
“As long as you complete the mission she gave you, I will ask her to take you.” He stood up straight, not even bothering to push her away.
Zi Fu stubbornly refused to let go, sighing softly, “Then… it’s like sentencing me to death. Returning to the palace will make the Emperor suspicious, and if I go far away, Her Excellence will be worried that I know too much. Her feelings towards me aren’t deep enough to spare my life.”
Shentu Rui remained silent, silently admitting that she was correct.
“Rui…” She wanted to plead with him in a soft voice.
“Don’t call me that.” He was still cold.
“Yes, Your Highness,” she sighed, leaning her face against his chest with a sense of resignation and sadness. “I know that someone like me is as insignificant as an ant. But I still beg of you, help me stay alive. This great favor is enough to make me see you as my true master. At least I can be deaf and blind to everything else, because only if you are alive, can I stay alive…”
After a moment of silence, Shentu Rui let out a soft sigh. Zi Fu closed her eyes, and tears rolled down her face like moonlight. She felt a sense of relief knowing that she had convinced him.
Standing in the darkness by the window, Lan Dan had a clear view of the beautiful couple in the light.
She only watched for a while as Zi Fu embraced Shentu Rui, who did not resist. This kind of night was perfect for whispering softly and expressing each other’s feelings. She and Shentu Rui had also done this before, with her leaning in his embrace, seeing the brightest galaxy and the clearest moon. She looked at tonight’s moon again, not knowing how it looked in Zi Fu’s eyes, but feeling desolate and lonely like Chang’e gazing at the lights of the mortal world from afar.
Lan Dan returned to her bed and nestled beneath the covers.
The phrase, “This is life”, echoed in her mind, as it was often spoken by the other concubines during their moments of despair. Whenever they couldn’t bear the night’s harshness, the Empress would offer them this consolation.
She had always wondered why the night felt so bleak and lonely, but now she understood. It was the color of the moonlight in the latter half of the night, and the feeling of waiting for someone who never came.
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