Chapter 92: Whose Fiancée?
When He Yan was fourteen years old, she entered the Xianchang Academy, and at fifteen, she joined the Fuyue Army. Her hasty decision to join the military was made without anyone’s knowledge, and even the instructors at the Xianchang Academy were taken aback. However, when she returned to her family after gaining military achievements and receiving imperial rewards, the He family didn’t question her about why she had joined the military.
Looking back now, if she hadn’t achieved military merits and had returned to the He family after a few years of wandering as an ordinary soldier, the outcome might not be the same as it is today.
He Yan still remembered Song Taotao.
When He Yan was fifteen years old and had joined the Xianchang Academy under the guise of being He Rufei, she had average aptitude, and as a girl, she naturally lacked the physical strength of boys. She couldn’t compare to the young men in the academy. He Yuansheng gradually realized this but didn’t blame her. He Yan thought that she could continue her life peacefully like this.
Until that day.
The Xianchang Academy allowed students to return home for two days each month. However, due to the arrival of the rainy season at that time, the rain had washed away the plaque at the entrance of the academy. As a result, the instructors had asked the students to return home a day early and come back three days later.
He Yan’s return home was rushed, and no one knew about it. She had changed into different clothes first and then went to find He Yuansheng. Every month when she returned home, He Yuansheng would ask her about her life at the Xianchang Academy. These distant and almost surveillant questions didn’t make He Yan feel warm, and she was actually quite nervous whenever she spoke with He Yuansheng.
But on that day, when she went there, He Yuansheng hadn’t returned yet, and even the servants at the door were absent. She decided to wait in He Yuansheng’s study first. In the study, there was a screen, and since He Yan didn’t have anything else to do, she decided to sit behind the screen and read some books.
She had only been sitting for a moment when someone entered.
It was He Yuanliang’s voice, and he said, “What do you think about He Yan’s situation?”
He Yan, who had been about to leave, froze upon hearing this. She initially intended to leave, but her actions were suddenly halted. Instead, she retreated behind the screen.
He Yuanliang had a completely different personality from He Yuansheng. He Yuansheng seemed gentle but was actually strict. Later, when Madam He had other children, he treated them harshly. He Yuanliang, her biological father, had a completely different temperament and always had a smiling face. He treated the later children with great affection, except for her.
He Yan’s feelings toward He Yuanliang were complicated. She had hoped that He Yuanliang would treat her with the same warmth and affection as he did his younger daughters, but he didn’t. Every time he looked at her, it was like looking at a nephew, polite and at most, he would offer some advice.
With so many disappointments, He Yan had stopped expecting.
But today, she heard her name coming from her biological father’s mouth, and she didn’t know why she chose to hide behind the screen and not go out.
“She’s doing well now, studying at the Xianchang Academy, and no one has found out. She’s fifteen now… at most, we need to arrange her marriage before she turns eighteen.”
Hiding behind the screen, He Yan held her breath.
Marriage? She had never thought about this. She was currently posing as He Rufei, a male identity. How could she arrange her own marriage? Once she got engaged, what would He Rufei do? Who would play the role of “He Rufei”?
She thought it was only natural, as she was a girl, that she would be betrothed to a man, especially since she didn’t have the temperament of a learned lady. However, what He Yuanliang said next surprised her greatly.
“Big brother, have you seen any suitable young ladies in the capital?”
How could it be a young lady?
He Yan raised her head. Both men outside the screen had their backs to her, so she couldn’t see their expressions, but judging from their tone, they seemed completely unperturbed, as if they didn’t find what they were discussing to be remarkable in the least.
“Deputy minister of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, Song Ci, has two daughters. The elder daughter is already married, and the younger one is eleven years old,” He Yuansheng said. “She’s a bit young, but when He Yan turns eighteen, she’ll be of age. We can wait for two more years after she comes of age, and then they can marry.”
“Song Ci’s daughter?” He Yuanliang hesitated. “Is it the one called Song Taotao? I remember that two years ago, Song Ci searched the entire merchant community in Shuo Jing for her daughter’s coming-of-age gifts.”
“That’s right,” He Yuansheng stroked his beard and smiled. “There are no young sons in the Song family, only two daughters. The elder daughter is already married, so they dote even more on the younger one. If we can form a marriage alliance with the Song family, we would gain their support. How can we not thrive in our household with their assistance?”
He Yuanliang relaxed his expression after hearing this and said, “Big brother, you make a good point. How about I host a banquet in a few days and invite Song Ci to our mansion to discuss this matter further? At the very least, we should let him know about our intentions.”
Their conversation sounded harmonious, as if this marriage was merely a transaction, which was fine. In the upper echelons of society, women were often used as bargaining chips for political marriages. However, they should still consider her identity.
She was a woman! How could a woman marry another woman? If this marriage were to happen, wouldn’t it ruin the other young lady’s life?
As He Yan thought about this, she unexpectedly bumped into the screen, making a sound. He Yuansheng turned and asked, “Who’s there?”
He Yan realized she had been discovered and decided to step out, saying, “It’s me.”
“He Yan?” He Yuansheng breathed a sigh of relief and then furrowed his brow, asking, “Why are you here? Aren’t you supposed to be at the Xianchang Academy today?”
“The instructors asked us to leave a day early, so I came here to find Father,” He Yan replied. When she got to this point, she paused and took a sneak peek at He Yuanliang. He Yuanliang still had his usual smile, and his expression hadn’t changed a bit even though He Yan had just called He Yuansheng “Father.”
It was just one more disappointment, so why wouldn’t she give up? He Yan lowered her head, hiding her disappointment.
“I’m currently discussing something with your second uncle,” He Yuansheng said, “Come back later to find me. For now, go and see your mother.”
He Yan didn’t move.
“He Yan?” He Yuansheng’s brow furrowed again.
“I’ve already heard what Father and Second Uncle were talking about,” He Yan raised her head, her voice calm. “Father, I am a woman. How can I marry the second daughter of the Song family?”
He Yan’s unexpected response left the He brothers momentarily stunned.
“These matters are not for you to worry about,” after a while, He Yuansheng replied, “I will arrange everything for you.”
“I won’t marry the second daughter of the Song family. As a woman, I’ve already sacrificed enough; there’s no need to involve unrelated people,” He Yan said.
She was now fifteen years old, a bit taller than before, dressed as a young man, with clear and straightforward eyes. Standing there, she looked like a stranger.
He Yuansheng angrily exclaimed, “What do you mean by that? Are you resentful of us? Are you blaming us for sacrificing your rights as a woman?”
He Yuanliang looked at her with a sly smile and said, “He Yan, how can you speak to big brother like this? Big brother is doing this for your own good.”
He Yan thought to herself, is this really for her own good? She had learned at Xianchang Academy that “the heart that feels compassion is the beginning of benevolence; the heart that feels shame is the beginning of righteousness; the heart that yields is the beginning of propriety; the heart that distinguishes right from wrong is the beginning of wisdom.” But now, the He family was asking her to do something that went against benevolence, righteousness, propriety, and wisdom. How absurd!
He Yan, without fear, replied loudly, “I will never agree to be betrothed to Miss Song from the Song family! Furthermore, in this lifetime, I will never marry any woman and cause misery to others!”
Both He Yuansheng and He Yuanliang were left stunned.
He Yan had a well-known temperament in the He family. She was gentle, easy to get along with, and even a bit timid and weak. In the He family, she did whatever she was told and never caused trouble. If she hadn’t accidentally switched identities, she would have lived her life like all the other mediocre noble daughters in Shuo Jing, quiet, obedient, and like a puppet.
But now, what had she become?
“He Yan, how dare you speak to me like this?” He Yuansheng was truly angry, and when he was angry, his features became fierce. Several of the children in the He family were quite afraid of him.
He Yan looked at him without fear and said, “Father sent me to the Xianchang Academy to study for the sake of morality and virtue, not to become a deceitful person for the sake of profit.”
The young girl raised her head, proud, clear, and pure. Perhaps it was her disdainful and stinging gaze that embarrassed He Yuansheng, who was left humiliated and furious. He slapped He Yan hard across the face.
That was the first time He Yan had been slapped by He Yuansheng.
And her biological father just stood by, saying nothing. The only thing he said from beginning to end was, “Big brother is doing this for your own good.”
He Yan’s argument with He Yuansheng shocked the entire He family. However, as the ultimate authority in the He family, no one questioned He Yuansheng’s decisions. He Yan was confined to the ancestral hall for a day and a night, only being released the following evening.
During that day and night, no one came to visit her, not her foster parents, nor her biological parents. In that time, He Yan looked at the various memorial tablets in the ancestral hall and pondered a single question.
What kind of family was the He family? Did she really want to stay here? In this family, her existence seemed to be nothing more than a pawn to secure their interests, without a shred of genuine care. She had nothing to hold onto in this place.
Like a puppet, she wanted to break free from the strings that controlled her life.
The second night, she returned to her room, which felt cold and empty. He Yan remembered that the Fuyue Army was recruiting soldiers these days. Sitting on the bed, she thought that if someone were to visit her tonight, ask her how she was, she wouldn’t leave.
But no one came.
In the distance, she heard the sounds of night watchmen. He Yan packed her belongings and slipped out of the door under the cover of night. After so many years, starting from when she began to train in martial arts herself, she had become quite skilled. It was precisely because the He family didn’t value her that even when she left, she did so with ease.
Enough, she thought. Although she couldn’t stay in the He family, she had still managed to save a young girl in the capital. Without her presence, the He family’s plans for betrothal would be disrupted. That girl named Song Taotao might have a chance to grow up, and when she reached the age of marriage, she could potentially find true love with a suitable young man, rather than being entangled in this secret scheme and becoming a sacrificed pawn.
The night was dark, with no end in sight. Disguised as a young boy, the young girl didn’t know where her path would lead. She looked back at the imposing gate of the He family’s estate, which was hidden in the darkness and seemed to blend into the night. She made a determined decision, turned away, and kept walking forward, never looking back again.
The memories of her past unfolded before her eyes, as if someone had blown away the dust that had covered them for so long, making them appear as vivid as if they had happened just yesterday. Only He Yan herself knew that it was a past she could never return to.
Back then, in her youthful anger and frustration, she hadn’t seriously considered the absurdity of the decision made by the He brothers. Being a woman, if she had indeed married Miss Song, sooner or later, this secret would have been revealed, and how could the He family allow such a thing to happen?
Unless, they had already assumed that such a situation would never arise.
He Yan stared at the sachets hanging from the bed curtains.
He Yuansheng and He Yuanliang had known for a long time that He Rufei would eventually return. He Yan had no way of knowing He Rufei’s current situation, but she assumed that He Yuansheng already knew that He Rufei’s health was gradually improving, and he was far from being on the brink of death as they had claimed.
It was precisely because they knew He Rufei would eventually return, and that both He Yan and He Rufei would return to their original roles, that they discussed the matter of engagement so openly. They must have made up their minds that He Yan would resume her identity as a young lady of the He family before He Rufei’s marriage.
At that time, He Yan didn’t realize this. She thought she would be He Rufei for a long time, perhaps sacrificing her whole life, never expecting that one day she would return to being herself. But it wasn’t a blessing. After playing the role of someone’s stand-in for so long, she had almost forgotten who she really was.
Moreover, when she left the He family with her bag that day, joining the Fuyue Army, she had already disrupted the He family’s plans. The chessboard was no longer under their control.
Who could have anticipated it?
Who could have imagined that after living one lifetime, dying once, and waking up again, she would encounter the young lady she had almost been “engaged” to in her previous life? The little girl who was eleven years old back then had now grown into a graceful young woman, and the young boy who left home with a bag had experienced the various flavors of life. Fate was mysterious; without that Song Taotao from back then, she wouldn’t have left home, joined the army, or become the present-day He Yan.
In the darkness, He Yan silently chuckled.
Perhaps fate had brought them together to teach her one thing.
She hadn’t done anything wrong; she had saved a girl.
The next morning, when He Yan woke up, Fei Nu was already not in her room.
She had thought deeply into the night and slept soundly, not even knowing when Fei Nu had left. After she got up and freshened up, she went to the neighboring room to knock on Xiao Jue’s door to see if he was there.
As soon as she knocked, the door next to her opened, and Song Taotao’s head appeared from behind the door. She said, “Are you looking for Second Young Master Xiao? They are having breakfast downstairs.”
They didn’t even call her for breakfast? He Yan thought, they really don’t consider her one of their own. He Yan asked, “Have you had breakfast? Let’s go down and eat together.”
Song Taotao nodded.
The young girl followed her downstairs, and as expected, she saw Xiao Jue and Fei Nu sitting by the window downstairs. The table was set with some small dishes, and perhaps because Xiao Jue’s identity had shocked the owner the previous night, the breakfast was exceptionally exquisite. He Yan thought it was overly extravagant.
“Uncle, you didn’t call me for breakfast,” He Yan muttered, “Not calling me is one thing, but not calling Miss Song?”
“It was because I wanted to sleep a little longer. It’s not Second Young Master Xiao’s fault,” Song Taotao quickly explained. For some reason, she seemed a little afraid of Xiao Jue. Perhaps it was because Xiao Jue always spoke harshly, and a delicate girl like her couldn’t stand it?
He Yan picked up a single-cage jinru pastry, stuffed it into her mouth, and found it fragrant and sweet. It had just come out of the steaming basket, still piping hot and appetizing. She smiled and said, “Uncle, what should we do today?”
Xiao Jue looked at her with a half-smile and asked, “What do you want to do?”
“I…,” He Yan hadn’t finished speaking when Song Taotao spoke up.
“Young… Young Master Cheng.” She had already figured out that He Yan was not Cheng Lisu, but she had also noticed that He Yan was now playing the role of “Cheng Lisu.” So she went along with it and continued to address her as Cheng Lisu. She said, “Could you accompany me to go out for a while?”
After saying this, the three other people at the table all looked at Song Taotao.
“My….. my clothes are all gone, and I can’t get used to wearing these men’s clothes. I want to go out and buy a few ready-made outfits to wear, but I don’t really know the way. Young Master Cheng, could you accompany me to buy some things?” With courage, she said everything in one breath.
Among the three people at the table, Fei Nu had been able to remain silent all night, and Xiao Jue, judging by his appearance, was not the kind of person who could accompany a young lady to go shopping. So, He Yan, who was both warm and gentle, was the only suitable choice. He Yan said, “Of course, I can! But…,” she looked at Xiao Jue, “Uncle, do we have any plans for today?”
“We have no plans,” Xiao Jue replied indifferently. “You can go with Second Young Lady Miss Song.”
“Thank you so much, Second Young Master Xiao!” Song Taotao was overjoyed.
After breakfast, He Yan went out with Song Taotao. As they left, Fei Nu said, “Young Master, I’ll follow them now.”
“Don’t get too close,” Xiao Jue instructed. “He’s still with Song Taotao.”
Fei Nu agreed and was about to leave but hesitated for a moment. Finally, he spoke up, “Young Master, about Sun Ling’s matter, are we just letting it go like this?”
“Who said we’re letting it go?” Xiao Jue smirked. “We’ll wait a little longer. It’s not the right time yet.”
He Yan followed Song Taotao out of the inn.
Once away from Second Young Master Xiao, Song Taotao seemed much more cheerful. She leaned closer to He Yan and whispered, “Why did you call him Second Young Master Xiao, uncle? And why are you pretending to be Cheng Lisu?”
“It’s a long story,” He Yan replied. “Young Master Cheng has some business and can’t come to Liangzhou for the time being, so I’m standing in for him. Please don’t mention this to anyone.”
Song Taotao said, “Of course, I won’t tell anyone! That useless young master probably couldn’t handle it himself, which is why he sent you to take his place, right? A person like him wants to be my husband? He’s dreaming!”
It seemed that Second Young Miss Song had a strong dislike for Cheng Lisu.
“What’s your name then?” Song Taotao asked.
“I can’t tell you now, just in case I slip up. I’ll tell you when we’ve finished dealing with the matters in the city,” He Yan replied with a smile.
Song Taotao pouted, not too pleased, but He Yan pointed to a clothing store and said, “Look, there are clothes there. Shall we go in and choose something?”
Song Taotao’s mood shifted, and He Yan breathed a sigh of relief. However, it wasn’t long before she realized her mistake.
When He Yan left the Liangzhou Garrison, Cheng Lisu had given her clothes and hairpins as well as other accessories, but he had forgotten to give her any money. He Yan couldn’t ask Xiao Jue for money, so she had been carrying only one ingot of the colorful silver she had won during the flag-capture competition. She was reluctant to spend it, even for tea, and preferred to use Cheng Lisu’s clothes buttons as currency. Song Taotao had just left Myriad Blossom Pavilion, and her pockets had already been emptied. Now, if they bought anything today, He Yan would have to pay.
This was her entire fortune now!
Fortunately, Liangzhou City wasn’t like Shuo Jing, where a single piece of clothing could cost tens or hundreds of taels of silver at some tailoring shops. Here, the ready-made clothes were more affordable, and He Yan could still afford them. Song Taotao picked out a dress, a pair of shoes, a hairpin, and earrings. He Yan had no choice but to pay for them. After this purchase, she was left with just one guan of copper coins.
Once Song Taotao had chosen her outfit and tried it on inside the store, she came out looking like a completely different person. The previously refined young master had transformed into an adorable young lady. She had picked a cherry-red celestial maiden dress, tied her long hair into twin buns, and even her headband was cherry-red. Her bright eyes and white teeth made her look exceptionally lovely.
He Yan’s eyes lit up. In an instant, the sting of spending money vanished in the face of the charming young lady.
“It looks really good,” she sincerely complimented.
Song Taotao blushed and turned her head aside, muttering, “The clothes here are really plain. There’s nothing good to choose from. The clothes made by our Song Mansion’s tailors are much prettier!”
He Yan thought, plain? This has already used up all her savings from the past six months!
She carefully packed her original clothes into her bag, and Song Taotao walked out of the clothing store. “Shall we go somewhere else for a stroll?” she asked.
He Yan: “…Sure.”
The young lady’s beauty and charm also required money, especially for a pampered girl from a wealthy family like Song Taotao. He Yan only hoped that Liangzhou wouldn’t have anything else to attract Miss Song Taotao’s attention; she had already run out of money.
It seemed like Heaven had heard her thoughts because, during their walk, Song Taotao didn’t express interest in buying anything else. Still, she was enthusiastic about exploring Liangzhou City. He Yan wholeheartedly accompanied her, never showing any signs of boredom. By the end of their trip, Song Taotao felt a bit embarrassed and asked, “Have you been bored accompanying me for so long?”
He Yan smiled and replied, “Not at all. I wanted to explore as well.”
Song Taotao gazed at her for a while and said, “You’re truly a good person.”
He Yan was somewhat surprised by her comment, but Song Taotao continued walking ahead. After some thought, He Yan shook her head and smiled.
Toward Song Taotao, He Yan’s feelings went beyond just taking care of the young lady. After all, this girl had almost become her “fiancée.” She was someone He Yan had willingly helped when she had decided to leave home. In a way, Song Taotao had changed her fate. In the years that followed, Song Taotao hadn’t been involved in any mysterious affairs and had grown up well.
He Yan felt fortunate. If she hadn’t done what she did back then, maybe Song Taotao wouldn’t have married a woman, but instead, it would have been He Ruifei. Was marrying into the He family really a good thing? It was a family without affection, driven solely by interests, not suitable for a girl like Song Taotao.
However, as He Yan watched the back of the spirited young lady skipping ahead, she couldn’t help but feel helpless. She had left home initially, basically ro run away from marriage. Now, Cheng Lisu was also avoiding marriage, and Song Taotao was doing the same. Had she triggered some kind of trend?
She would need to have a serious talk with Cheng Lisu.
In the Sun Mansion in Liangzhou City, the atmosphere was grim.
Last night, Sun Ling had been brought back home, and Sun Xiangfu had urgently summoned renowned doctors to treat his son’s injuries. Although they were only skin-deep wounds, they were still quite severe, and Sun Ling would need several months to fully recover.
Young Master Sun had never suffered such a loss from childhood to adulthood. Sun Xiangfu’s mood was also not good. Early this morning, he had punished several servants who had made mistakes because of the incident.
The servants dared not make a single misstep, and the entire mansion remained quiet. Sun Ling laid in bed while Madam Sun sat by his side, wiping her tears. She angrily muttered, “Your father is too much! He’s just a military general, how could he beat you like this? My child has suffered. I don’t know how long it will take for these injuries to heal…”
Sun Xiangfu had just entered the room and heard these words. He scolded, “A woman’s perspective! What do you mean by ‘just a military general? Do you know that he even dared to kill the eldest son of the Minister of Revenue? The Minister of Revenue went straight to the Emperor with this matter. What do you think happened in the end? He ended up unlucky! If he had killed that unfilial son last night, what do you think you could have done? Nothing!”
Madam Sun was stunned by his words and remained flustered. It took her a while before she nervously asked, “I-Is he really that powerful? What should we do now? Should we apologize to him?”
“Get out,” Sun Xiangfu said in frustration. “I will handle all of this. I came here to ask Ling Er a few things.”
Madam Sun left with teary eyes, and Sun Xiangfu approached Sun Ling. He looked at his son’s pale face, feeling a mixture of pity and anger. He said, “You just had to provoke someone, and it had to be the Grim Reaper.”
“I… didn’t provoke him. It’s his nephew who went too far.” Sun Ling began explaining the events of last night in detail, expressing his frustration. He added, “How was I supposed to know that Cheng Lisu would suddenly make a move?”
“Is that book boy really the girl you’re interested in?” Sun Xiangfu asked.
Sun Ling shook his head. “I don’t know yet. I haven’t seen her face clearly when the guy surnamed Xiao came to their aid.”
“If it’s just a misunderstanding, it’s not a big deal. But if it turns out to be that girl, and Cheng Lisu is protecting her, it might cause trouble between you two,” Sun Xiangfu sighed. “It’s my fault for not informing you in advance about Xiao Jue and the others coming to the city. Otherwise, we wouldn’t have ended up in this situation.”
Sun Ling had never cared about political matters; he only cared about indulging in eating, drinking, gambling, and going to brothels. So he had no knowledge of Sun Xiangfu arranging for Xiao Jue and the others.
“Dad, have we offended them now? Will they cause trouble for us later?” Sun Ling was feeling anxious.
He was used to having his way in Liangzhou City, relying on his father, who was a county magistrate. But seeing Sun Xiangfu shedding tears in front of Xiao Jue last night made Sun Ling understand that Xiao Jue was not someone the Sun family could afford to offend.
“Don’t worry,” Sun Xiangfu reassured him. “In a few days, Inspector Yuan will arrive. Inspector Yuan is a person of Lord Xu, and Lord Xu and Xiao Jue have never gotten along. Maybe we can use this to our advantage.”