Chapter 18: First Encounter
Everyone said that the Flying Phoenix General and General Fengyun were like water and fire, constantly clashing and competing with each other. But He Yan always felt that it wasn’t that exaggerated.
At most, they were just two youths who joined the army and achieved great military merits. Both of them were also bestowed with noble titles at a young age, making people naturally compare them. The rest of the rumors were just hearsay, embellished and spread around, becoming distant from the truth and causing people to laugh and mock.
At least in the heart of fourteen-year-old He Yan, she had no hostility towards the young master of the Xiao family.
By that time, she had been disguising herself as a boy for many years, going by the name “He Rufei” effortlessly. The only problem was that at her age, boys should have been attending academies to study with their teachers.
Boys and girls were different. Girls could invite teachers to teach at their homes, but boys didn’t have that option. The He family had always invited teachers to teach at home, but as they grew older, it didn’t sound right when word got out. After all, the He family cared about their reputation.
So, they procrastinated and hesitated until finally, when He Yan was fourteen years old, they sent her to Xianchang Academy.
Xianchang Academy was the most famous academy in the capital, founded by the current emperor’s former Grand Tutor when he was still a crown prince. The academy covered the six arts, and its teachers were all prominent figures in the court. Those who came here to study were the most prestigious of the prestigious.
Although the He family had a noble title, they were still a step behind those families in Xianchang Academy. However, He Yuanliang unexpectedly had a stroke of luck when he encountered an altercation at a restaurant. He intervened and said a few words, and the person he helped turned out to be a teacher’s assistant from Xianchang Academy. He mentioned that the academy was currently recruiting new students for the spring, and he remembered that the He family seemed to have a legitimate son. Why not send him to Xianchang Academy to study?
He Yuanliang hesitated for a long time and discussed the matter with He Yuansheng. He Yuansheng had always pursued fame and fortune and thought it was a feasible plan. Sending He Yan to Xianchang Academy might allow her to make connections with many other distinguished children. Being on good terms with them would only benefit the He family and cause no harm. And if one day the real He Rufei returned, having the title of “Xianchang Academy Student” would be an additional advantage.
When He Yan heard about this, she was very happy.
She dressed like a man, but in the He family, she had to follow the rules of a woman. She cannot play cuju, cannot show her face openly, and even in practicing martial arts, she has to secretly learn without her family knowing. However, if she acts like a woman, she still feels inadequate as the other girls in the He family study music, chess, calligraphy, and painting, but she, “He Rufei,” cannot join them.
It’s as if she cannot do anything.
But going to Xianchang Academy was different. She has heard that many talented and learned individuals gather there, and they are all very capable people. There are also many peers of her age. If she goes there, she can not only learn various skills but also make many friends.
This was a benefit that girls couldn’t enjoy. She suddenly felt fortunate that she had taken He Rufei’s identity.
He Yuanliang’s wife, her nominal mother but actual eldest aunt, handed her the carefully crafted mask, with a worried expression, “Be careful and make sure no one discovers your true identity.”
He Yan nodded.
She didn’t actually like wearing the mask. Although it was thin and lightweight, it was air-tight, revealing only her chin and eyes. She had worn it for so many years that it never left her side, even when she slept. The craftsman had been very skilled; one side was tucked into her hair bun with a mechanism, and even in combat, it wouldn’t fall off, only she could open it.
Madame He also seriously warned her, “Remember, if you make a mistake, the entire He family will face catastrophe!”
She knew that this had been said a million times already. Betraying the emperor was a crime that could lead to the annihilation of nine generations.
“I remember,” He Yan answered respectfully.
Madame He sent her off with great unease.
To outsiders, it looked like a scene of deep affection between mother and child. In He Yan’s heart, however, she felt a huge relief, and her chest was filled with the joy of finally gaining freedom. She had finally escaped from the days of being constantly controlled in every move and gesture; freedom was now within reach.
The carriage stopped at the entrance of Xianchang Academy, and the servant could only wait for her to finish her studies at the gate.
She arrived too early, and the teachers had not yet arrived at the academy. Faintly, she could hear the voices of students reading and laughing. He Yan stepped into the gate with anticipation.
The spring sun had already risen early in the morning. As she entered the academy, she first saw a spacious courtyard, followed by a garden, and finally the academy building. There was a stable in the courtyard, somewhat resembling a smaller training ground. The garden was meticulously designed, featuring a pond with willow trees.
There was also a swing set.
The wind gently swayed the swing, and He Yan extended her hand, wanting to sit on it, but she hesitated. It would be laughed at if word got out that a boy was swinging on a swing. So, with reluctance, she touched it briefly and continued walking forward.
The willow trees had all sprouted new leaves, and clusters of green filled the lake, making the scenery of mountains and water even more beautiful. The sunlight was making her drowsy. She rubbed her eyes and saw a loquat tree in front of her.
The He family was not lacking in silver to buy loquats, and He Yan had eaten them in previous years. However, she had never seen a loquat tree so full of fruit before. The yellow-golden fruits looked like they contained honey, exuding a rich aroma, and were extremely enticing when illuminated by the sunlight.
Being a fourteen-year-old girl with a playful heart, she recalled the scene of the maidservants in the courtyard using bamboo poles to hit the loquats in the summer. But, of course, the young master of the He family couldn’t personally pick fruits. However, in the academy, it shouldn’t be a big deal to pluck a loquat, right? Boys plucking loquats wouldn’t be embarrassing.
Thinking of this, He Yan rolled up her sleeves, preparing for a little adventure.
However, she had left in haste and only had her belt and the study materials given to her by her teacher; she had no other tools with her, and there were no long poles around. Fortunately, the loquat tree wasn’t too high, and with a little jump, she should be able to reach it.
He Yan focused on the closest fruit in front of her. The fruit was pressed against the tip of a branch, heavy and golden, seemingly inviting her to pick it.
With all her might, she leaped, but ended up missing it.
He Yan didn’t feel discouraged and persevered, leaping again with all her strength.
But once again, she missed the fruit.
She was a person who refused to admit defeat, so she tried again.
And once again, she missed.
He Yan continued to try, repeatedly facing failure. She couldn’t even count how many times she had failed. When she was exhausted and panting heavily, she suddenly heard a sneer from above her.
He Yan looked up in confusion.
The loquat tree was dense with leaves, and she had been focusing solely on the one fruit, so she hadn’t noticed that there was someone sitting on the tree.
This person must have been sitting there for a while and had observed all her actions. She raised her eyes, and the sunlight illuminated the person’s face inch by inch.
It was a young man in a white robe and brocade boots. His expression was lazy, with a hint of arrogance. His hands were resting behind his head, presenting a bright and elegant appearance, like a breeze against a jade tree. When he glanced impatiently at her, his eyes were captivating.
He Yan was stunned.
She had never seen such a handsome young man before. He seemed to embody the essence of spring. For a moment, she felt inferior. Fortunately, her mask concealed her blushing face, but her youthful eyes couldn’t hide their amazement.
After a glance at her, the beautiful young man casually plucked a fruit.
Was he offering it to her?
He Yan felt a surge of shyness.
The young man suddenly flipped down and landed gracefully, his white robe dazzling her eyes. She watched him approach with the fruit in hand, feeling uncertain about what to say.
Should she say thank you? Or should she say how handsome he was?
Nervously, she even wanted to tug at her clothes’ hem.
The young man had already arrived in front of her and suddenly gave her a smile.
The smile was like thousands of flowers blooming, radiant as a spring morning. He Yan excitedly said, “Thank…”
Before she could finish saying “you,” the young man brushed past her.
He Yan: “?”
She turned her head to look back, only to see the young man casually throwing the golden loquat up and down as he walked away. He seemed leisurely, as if mocking her for her self-inflicted embarrassment.
He Yan stood in place for quite some time, calming herself before following the direction the young man had taken toward the academy.
However, as she approached the entrance of the academy, she heard people talking inside, a lively and cheerful conversation. A joyous voice asked, “I heard that the new young master of the He family is also coming to our academy. Huaijin, have you seen him?”
She took a step forward and secretly peered inside through a window crack. She then heard a lazy voice reply, “I didn’t see the young master of the He family, only someone who was clumsy and short.”
Clumsy…. and short?
He Yan had never been described like that before in her life. Clumsy might be excusable, but short… short?
Where was she short? Among girls her age, she was already considered quite tall!
He Yan wanted to see who was so ignorant as to come up with such a conclusion. When she looked up, she saw the beautiful young man, surrounded by other youths, gazing directly at the window crack as if he knew she was peering inside.
It seemed like he knew she was spying on them.
Laughter emanated from inside the academy.
In this world of vibrant scenery and spring colors, the trees and flowers were filled with boundless beauty.
This was the first time she met Xiao Jue.