CHAPTER 5 As fair as a rose, as serene as the moon
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That night, Lan Dan slept soundly. She felt so comfortable and at ease that it made her feel disappointed in herself.
To be a sinner also required a resolute mindset. Despite her intense self-hatred and regret for the past, she was unable to reject the comforts offered to her. After all, she was merely a feeble and mediocre person, who lacked the ability to be harsh on herself. How would she face those people who were killed because of her?
She was disappointed in herself for a while before slowly opening her eyes, adjusting to the gentle light in the room, and not moving. The past eighteen years rushed in her mind.
If she didn’t have such a character, how could she have smoothly passed the years in the imperial palace?
She had suffered a lot of grievances and bitterness, but there was nothing she could do. She could only fall asleep full of resentment and bitterness, telling herself that it would be better tomorrow, that things would pass, and she would forget as long as she endured.
Her mother passed away early. Since then, she was fostered under the care of the unfavored Concubine Lin, who also passed away within a few years. What other options did she have besides learning to forget and endure? She was too weak and too ordinary, and had no strength at all.
She had never ridden a sedan chair in the palace. She always had to look up to greet Lan Huang who sat high on the chair. Not only to Lan Huang but also to Lan Cheng, Lan Zi, and those favored sisters-in-law. The palace was said to be governed by the most distinct hierarchy and strict laws, but the truth was, imperial favors far outstripped ranks and moral standards. She was a Royal Princess, yet her treatment varied greatly just because she was unfavored.
As she grew up, the only gift she received that exceeded beyond regulation was the red crystal necklace that her Father Emperor gave her on her fifteenth birthday. Other than that, she had nothing, not even the privilege of being closer to her Father Emperor or Mother Empress during audience or banquets. But even if she did get closer, what difference would it make? Among her sisters, who were all beautiful, talented, and eloquent, she remained unknown and insignificant.
This was how she grew up, hence she found it difficult to grow a sharp and forceful personality.
At one point, she didn’t think that there was anything wrong with being meek and insipid. The palace was a den full of intrigues. Wasn’t it better to settle down with mediocrity rather than be dead in case the schemes employed turned out to be counterproductive?
Lan Zi was a living example.
Back when Lan Zi’s mother was favored and granted the title of Noble Consort, Lan Zi became haughty, her actions seemed to compete with Lan Huang for favor. When Father Emperor rewarded Lan Huang with Chiyue buckskin, Lan Zi pestered Father Emperor for a Taxue horse. Eventually, the Empress and Lan Huang reached the end of their patience. Lan Zi was decreed to go to Beimo to get married. The Noble Consort and Lan Zi panicked. Even after crying and begging for a long time, not only was Father Emperor completely unmoved but even his usual indulgence vanished. Lan Zi had no choice but to marry far away with tears in her eyes. She died in a remote and barbaric country within two years.
When Beimo sent people over to seek marriage alliance, everyone said that the Emperor would choose Princess Danyang. After all, Danyang was the least favored, so the Emperor would feel the least distressed when his daughter married in such a place. Unexpectedly, it became Lan Zi’s tragedy.
While Lan Dan was secretly grateful, she was even more convinced that she was right to exercise patience and submissiveness, instead of intentionally harming her enemy.
But as an imperial princess, fate was her biggest enemy. Although she escaped the marriage proposal from Beimo, she could not escape from being married off as a gesture of kindness. Father Emperor wanted to marry her off to Marquis Wen Yue’s second son, an unbearable person who only knew how to lead a life of luxury and debauchery. The reason for this was because the eldest son of Marquis Wen Yue had made great contributions in guarding Nanyue Pass. Apart from promotion, the Marquis’ family, who held military power, was naturally given preferential treatment. The eldest son was already married with the Eldest Princess Lan Qing, so it wasn’t possible for him to marry another imperial princess. Therefore, the grace was bestowed upon the second son, even though they knew he was of poor character.
If there was no Shentu Cheng, she might have gritted her teeth and bawled her eyes out for a few days, and then would calmly accept her Father Emperor’s edict like she always did for the past eighteen years. However, she had hopes and expectations for a future, so she wanted to resist. Palace struggles bred ambition and conspiracy. The person who shone in her life vowed that as long as the Crown Prince ascended the throne ahead of time, her marriage to the second son of Marquis Wen Yue would be cancelled. He would become an important minister, then they would get married and lived happily together.
She saw a bright future in Shentu Cheng’s eyes, but she lacked courage and viciousness for what he wanted her to do. She couldn’t help but keep waffling and delaying.
Just then, the Empress deliberately sent the Noble Consort to comfort and persuade her to accept the edict and marry the Marquis’ second son. The Noble Consort knew that this task was a mockery from the Empress, but she couldn’t disobey. Naturally, her resentment was directed at Lan Dan, who was even more helpless than her.
The Noble Consort lashed at her, “What can you do if you refuse? Who let you be born in the royal family without matrilineal support? Who made your Father Emperor not love you enough?”
Wasn’t Lan Zi in the same despairing situation back then?
The expression of the Noble Consort left a long-lasting impression on Lan Dan. It was the expression of endless humiliation and helplessness. The Empress wanted to give the Noble Consort a slap in the face. So what if she was a Noble Consort, who made her not the Empress? So what if Lan Zi was favored, who made her inferior to Lan Huang? Even though the matter was over and Lan Zi was dead, the Empress continued to humiliate the Noble Consort and ruthlessly tear open the hidden pain in her heart.
Looking at the departing figure of the Noble Consort, Lan Dan couldn’t help wondering if the Noble Consort consoled herself before going to sleep each night, telling herself to endure and forget?
She sympathized with the Noble Consort, and she also pitied herself. If she couldn’t be the most noble person in this palace of golden bricks and green tiles, she should find a way to leave.
She made up her mind. She endured for too long, forgot too much, was driven to a dead end, so she wanted to gamble for herself. After all, she still had Shentu Cheng’s love. Without Shentu Cheng, what would she have left?
Lan Dan remembered her Second Elder Sister’s admonishment, “Do you think Young Master Shentu really likes you? Look in the mirror!”
She had looked in the mirror, but love blinded her eyes to the fact that she didn’t have the capital to gamble.
The door was politely knocked, but it was pushed open before she could respond. Two servant girls brought in a bronze mirror about half the height of a man, and placed it firmly in front of the well-lit west window.
Stunned, Lan Dan got up, and smiled weakly. Was Heaven’s mockery of her still not over?
Shentu Rui, wrapped in brocade fur, followed leisurely, and beckoned at her with a smile, “Come here.”
After living in the thatched hut in the mass grave, getting along day and night with the unknown old man who despised her, Lan Dan didn’t feel disconcerted when Shentu Rui barged into the room so brazenly in the early morning.
She sat up and casually gathered her loose long hair. When she got down on the bed, she found Shentu Rui watching her with strange eyes.
“What’s wrong?” Lan Dan touched her face. Was there anything on it?
Shentu Rui regained his composure. He smiled wryly. “Come here,” he ordered insolently, but there was still a faint smile on the corners of his lips. He looked so charming like this that Lan Dan’s heart trembled a little. She also wanted to laugh. How could someone who had once suffered a lot from a handsome man be so easily swayed?
She walked slowly, her limp looking unsightly. Shentu Rui just watched her with a smile, neither urging nor helping her.
Lan Dan ignored him, walked intently to the mirror, sat down slowly, and took a look.
For a long, long time… she couldn’t move.
“Ge Chun’s craftsmanship is really superb,” Shentu Rui noted with a smile, sitting cross-legged beside Lan Dan. The dragon heater was very warm. He untied the brocade cloak gracefully, and threw it aside. The servant girl picked it up silently.
He leaned closer to look at the face in the mirror with Lan Dan. Lan Dan didn’t speak, nor did he.
Lan Dan’s eyes did not move away from the mirror. “Is this also your idea?”
“Hmm.” Shentu Rui said in false seriousness, “Since you suffered too much pain, it’s naturally worthwhile to get the best out of it.”
Lan Dan recalled the pain during the procedure, and felt that what he said made sense.
“But…” She frowned, and the woman in the mirror also had a slight frown, displaying a charming melancholy. “This is too beautiful.”
“You’re still grumbling,” Shentu Rui roared with laughter. “Neither you nor I expected,” he sighed with feelings. “That you have quite a pretty good facial structure. You can actually reach to this level. But then again, how can you stand out among Shentu Cheng’s three thousand beauties without a face that can overthrow cities and ruin states?”
The cold way he spoke of Shentu Cheng’s name was completely at odds with his playful tone just now. Lan Dan turned her head to look at him, but he still had a sincere smile on his face, without any emotions showing.
She looked back at the mirror, and couldn’t help touching her reflection. Overthrow cities and ruin states? It was more than that, it was simply breathtaking. Even she, a woman, couldn’t bear to take her eyes away.
“Aren’t you afraid that I’ll stabbed Shentu Cheng to death without waiting for your so-called signal?”
Laughing, Shentu Rui slapped his knee. The humor in his face didn’t seem fake. “Danyang, did you know how I noticed you?”
Lan Dan didn’t need to answer this useless question. Many people noticed her for the same reason.
The most famous Young Master in the imperial capital fell in love with the ordinary princess. The princess who had been ignored for many years shared his spotlight and became the center of attention, or rather, the subject of sidelong glances.
“That was three years ago on Mid-Autumn Festival…” A faraway look entered Shentu Rui’s eyes as he recollected that particular day.
At the night banquet in the palace, high-ranking ministers and members of nobility with titles above duke were ordered to enter the palace with their families. For a time, the venue was crowded with crowns and belts and beautiful brocades fluttering in the wind. As the unremarkable second son of the Duke of Anguo, only a few people greeted him. He found a remote elevated place and enjoyed a cup of wine all by himself.
Looking down at the crowd with cool detachment, he noticed the womanizing Fifth Prince pulled a beautiful young lady of unknown family, and sneaked her behind the flowering shrubs along the mountain wall. Whispering sweet nothings, he was about to engage in an amorous play when a slender girl carrying a rabbit lamp wobbled in. The luminous thin figure who seemed to be floating on the winding cobblestone path looked like a fairy. She held up the lamp to illuminate the flowering shrubs, spoiling the mood. The Fifth Prince and the young lady were embarrassed, but she seemed to be unaware of the situation as she sweetly called out, “Fifth Elder Brother.”
Infuriated at the unwelcome interruption, the Fifth Prince could only sneer. He straightened his clothes, and left after uttering a perfunctory remark.
Shentu Rui originally thought that she was really just a clueless girl, but the slender girl reached out a hand to hold the young lady, and said worriedly, “Yuan Yuan, don’t be fooled by Fifth Elder Brother. He will not take responsibility after he’s done satisfying the temptation of the flesh. You will only suffer in vain!”
He nearly burst out laughing. Satisfying the temptation of the flesh…
She presumed that she had done a good deed, but the young lady didn’t necessarily appreciate it. Her smile was dry as she said indifferently, “Thank you, Danyang.”
Lan Dan smiled bitterly and said, “I was so stupid back then…”
Later on, Yuan Yuan became Fifth Brother’s Side Consort. Their marriage was rushed because Yuan Yuan was already carrying Fifth Brother’s child in her belly. If it wasn’t for Lan Dan’s meddling, maybe Yuan Yuan might have been able to marry into the Prince’s household a few months earlier. She thought she was protecting her friend, but she actually just got in the way. After Yuan Yuan became a Side Consort, she became more indifferent to her, even a little bit disgusted. Only then did Lan Dan realize that she didn’t have any friend.
“You’re not smart now either,” Shentu Rui teased.
Lan Dan’s face sagged. On second thought, he was right. Since she had no fitting reply to make, she just looked at herself in the mirror again.
“Master Ge…” She remembered the old man whose surname turned out to be Ge. Lan Dan said hesitantly, “Don’t kill him.”
She knew that Shentu Rui would not take her request seriously, but she couldn’t help but feel uneasy if she didn’t speak up.
“Why should I kill him!” Shentu Rui felt ridiculous. “He is still very useful.”
“Then… the elderly gravekeepers…”
“Not a chance. They’re no longer useful, so they have to die.” Shentu Rui was still smiling. He was talking as if there was no difference between the old couple’s death and Ge Chun’s life.
“Tell the truth, will I die if I’m no longer useful?” She sent him a mocking look.
“Of course.” His smile didn’t falter. “Anyone who is useless shall die.”
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