Chapter 93: Yuan Baozhen
He Yan accompanied Song Taotao as they strolled until evening before heading back to the inn.
On the way, there was a vendor selling candied hawthorns. Red candied hawthorns were skewered on straw figures, and they looked sweet. He Yan took out the last few copper coins, bought a few skewers from the vendor, and handed the largest one to Song Taotao. “Hungry? Have some of these to fill your stomach first, and when we return to the inn, we can have something better.”
The heavens had pity on her. She had been calculating all along on the road. What if Song Taotao wanted to eat at a restaurant? What would she do if she didn’t have enough money? Fortunately, they had eaten quite a lot in the morning, and the young girl was picky, so she didn’t feel like eating much on the way. She only sat down for a few cups of tea and had two pieces of cake, using a few copper coins.
Song Taotao took the candied hawthorn and looked at He Yan. “You’ve worked hard today,” she paused and added, “Actually, there’s not much to see in Liangzhou City, and the things here are just average. If it weren’t for avoiding Second Young Master Xiao, I wouldn’t have let you accompany me until this late.”
“Huh?” He Yan also took a skewer of candied hawthorn and took a bite. It was sour from the hawthorn and sweet from the honey, a delightful combination that made her mouth water. He Yan commented, “Don’t you like Commander Xiao? “
“It’s not that I don’t like him, it’s just… I’m a little afraid,” the young girl pouted. “It’s like, when you’re around him, everyone becomes inferior.”
He Yan chuckled at that. Inferior? Song Taotao was probably like that because she was still young. He Yan said, “But he’s good-looking and capable. Don’t most young girls like that?”
Back when she was young, many girls used to sneakily come to Xiao Jue’s residence just to catch a glimpse of him. He Yan had never seen a girl who didn’t like him. So, Song Taotao’s perspective was quite unique.
“I’m different from them,” Song Taotao sighed with a hint of maturity. “They only care about looks, but with someone as aloof as him who doesn’t speak sweet words, life would be difficult. I don’t like that kind of person. I prefer someone gentle.” She looked regretful and added, “Eldest Young Master Xiao would be perfect, but unfortunately, he’s already married.”
He Yan almost choked on a hawthorn at her words.
What? Xiao Jue wanted to become her uncle-in-law, but little did he know that Song Taotao was thinking of becoming his sister-in-law!
Song Taotao lived up to her reputation as someone who had almost become her “unofficial fiancée.” Her ability to read people was indeed exceptional. He Yan commented, “Actually, Commander Xiao can be quite gentle sometimes… but there aren’t many people like you who don’t like him.” She had a thought and wanted to get some information from Song Taotao, so she asked, “Do you happen to know Flying Phoenix General, who is now as famous as Commander Xiao? Have you ever seen him?”
“Flying Phoenix General?” Song Taotao asked, “Are you talking about the eldest son of the He family? The one who used to wear a mask all the time, pretending to be all mysterious and whatnot?”
He Yan: “…..”
“It’s rare enough that he’s been wearing a mask for ten years, and I saw him before I ran away. Back then, he had already taken off his mask, and he looked decent enough. Do you know why he wears a mask?” Song Taotao asked.
He Yan inquired, “Why?”
“Of course, it’s for some gimmick. Think about it, he didn’t take off the mask earlier or later, but just before His Majesty conferred him a title and granted him an audience. He claimed he found a divine physician who healed the scars on his face completely. But how can any divine physician make scars vanish without a trace? For so many years, everyone knew that Lord He was frighteningly ugly. Suddenly, he removed the mask, and he turned into a handsome young man. This transformation is quite mysterious. Therefore, what was originally a five-point appearance turned into a seven-point one.”
He Yan couldn’t help but applaud Song Taotao in her heart. She had made a compelling argument, and if she weren’t the one who had worn the mask, she might have believed Song Taotao’s explanation herself.
“Well, in your opinion, how does Flying Phoenix General compare to Commander Xiao?”
Song Taotao answered without hesitation, “Of course, Second Young Master Xiao. Young Master He doesn’t look as good as Second Young Master Xiao!”
Well, it seemed that in this world, appearances still played a significant role.
He Yan blushed and said, “I haven’t met Flying Phoenix General myself. We share the same surname, and I’ve always wanted to see him in person. I wonder if I’ll have the chance in this lifetime?”
“You’ll definitely have a chance. But Young Master He is highly regarded by the Emperor now. Before I left the capital, His Majesty frequently summoned him to the palace. When his cousin passed away, Young Master He didn’t attend court for several days, and His Majesty even gave him many gifts.”
He Yan’s smile seemed forced as she asked, “Are you talking about Madam Xu?”
“Did she marry someone with the last name Xu? I’m not sure about that. I don’t even know her name. This lady was not in Shuo Jing before, and there are very few people who know her in the capital, and she didn’t have any close sisters. All I know is that she’s Flying Phoenix General’s sister. She got married only a year ago and then got a strange illness that made her blind. After she went blind, she was walking in the garden at her residence, and the servants didn’t notice. She fell into a pond and drowned,” Song Taotao lamented, “It’s really sad. Despite having Flying Phoenix General as her brother, she still couldn’t live well. It’s just fate. What was her name again, He something? Oh, I really can’t remember.”
He Yan thought to herself, her name is He Yan, but unfortunately, that name was destined to be overshadowed by Flying Phoenix General’s name, He Rufei. The world only knew her as the weak girl from the He family, who was sent to a rural estate to be raised, Flying Phoenix General’s sister. Her name was forgotten by everyone.
“And what about Lord Xu?” He Yan asked, “How did he fare after Madam Xu passed away?”
“I don’t pay much attention to such matters in the estate on regular days. I vaguely remember my sisters mentioning that after Miss He’s death, her husband became quite depressed for a while, seemingly deeply in love. But in matters like these, who knows?” Song Taotao displayed a wisdom beyond her years when it came to such matters. She said, “When it comes to men, when can you really take their words seriously? Today, they might be mourning, and tomorrow they could be welcoming a new woman into the house.”
He Yan chuckled, “You’re absolutely right.”
“Why are you suddenly asking me about all this?” Song Taotao asked, “I don’t know much about it. If you really want to know, you should ask Second Young Master Xiao. They’re both military generals, colleagues, so he should know more than I do.”
He Yan thought to herself that it was because she didn’t want Xiao Jue to suspect anything. Right now, he already didn’t consider her one of his people, and if she started inquiring about the He family’s affairs, Xiao Jue might uncover her true identity. It would be a waste of effort if she got exposed before finding out anything substantial.
As they talked, they reached the door of the inn. He Yan and Song Taotao went upstairs. Song Taotao said, “Thank you so much for today. I’ll go in and change and rest for a while. Later, you can accompany me to eat.”
He Yan smiled and agreed, “Sure.”
Although this girl had the habits of a young lady and liked to give orders, she wasn’t unlikable. After Song Taotao went inside, He Yan didn’t return to her room but knocked on the door of the adjacent room.
“Come in,” someone inside replied.
When He Yan entered, she saw Xiao Jue sitting at the table. He was wiping an ancient zither with a white silk cloth. He Yan recognized it immediately as the ancient zither she had accidentally damaged.
“Commander, is the ancient zither repaired? It wasn’t damaged, was it?” He Yan approached, speaking softly.
Xiao Jue lazily replied, “What is it?” He appeared entirely disinterested in engaging further with her.
He Yan took her hands from behind her back and revealed a gift. “Look! I went out today and brought you a present! Although I was shopping with Miss Song, I couldn’t help but think of you. So, I got you these candied hawthorns!”
Xiao Jue glanced at the candied hawthorns in her hand and said, “Take it away.”
He Yan found his response rather ungrateful. “Come on, I’ve already tried them, and they’re delicious!”
“I don’t eat sweets,” he said indifferently.
He Yan stared at him, thinking, what is he pretending for? Back when they were at the Xianchang Academy, he always carried a small sachet with him. When the young man he used to hang out with tried to take it, he guarded it closely. He Yan thought it was something precious, but it turned out to be a bag of osmanthus candy.
He returned home two days a month, and when he came back to the Xianchang Academy, the sachet was always full. A person who carried osmanthus candy with him all the time when he was young and now claimed not to eat sweets… He was probably thinking these were only worth two copper coins.
“If you don’t want them, you can give them to Big Brother Fei Nu to enjoy,” He Yan said, inserting the candied hawthorns into the pen holder on the table. Then, she shifted her tone to a more pleasing one and smiled, “Commander, there’s something I’d like to discuss with you.”
Xiao Jue looked at her with a calm and indifferent expression.
He Yan, with a thick-skinned persistence, continued, “Today, I accompanied Miss Song on a shopping trip. She wanted to buy clothes and jewelry, and all the silver I won at the competition is gone. I thought since Miss Song is your niece-in-law, essentially your relative, I’m buying things for a relative, so even though this silver shouldn’t come from me, I am sincerely devoted to you, Commander. How could I let you spend money? But… I don’t have any money left now. If Miss Song wants to buy something else, could you please reward me with some silver? It’s not good if I go out to shop and don’t have money. It would damage your reputation, right? Uncle? Uncle?”
The young He Yan smiled obsequiously, her eyes sparkling with a cunning light, reminiscent of a young fox caught. Clearly capable of biting, but when asking for food from someone’s hand, it pretended to be exceptionally docile and gentle.
Xiao Jue coldly watched her without any reaction.
He Yan asked, “Is it okay or not?”
He responded ruthlessly, “No.”
“Really no?” She was still unwilling.
He Yan stood up straight, glaring at him with frustration. In her previous life, she had heard that the moment a person truly grows up is when they start borrowing money. He Yan now wholeheartedly agreed with that saying. She had lowered herself so much, and yet, Xiao Jue, who was so wealthy, wouldn’t give her a single coin. Was he doing this intentionally to spite her?
Xiao Jue raised his head, his expression calm, and taunted, “I remember I’m not your uncle. Have you forgotten? Song Taotao is engaged to Cheng Lisu, not to you.”
It took He Yan a moment to understand his words. She said, “Do you think I have interest in Miss Song…?”
Xiao Jue lowered his gaze, continuing to wipe the ancient zither, and replied, “I hope you remember who you are.”
He Yan was about to explode in anger in her mind. She thought, look at how he talks! Was he afraid she would snatch Cheng Lisu, his nephew’s fiancée? What a joke! If she hadn’t voluntarily left her family back then, where would Cheng Lisu have gotten this fiancée? Also, Xiao Jue was so eager to be someone’s uncle, did he know that the young lady wanted to be his big sister-in-law? Her goals were not aligned with his; he didn’t understand at all!
He Yan was angry but forced a smile. “Of course, I remember who I am. I am He Yan, who won ‘first place’ in the Liangzhou Garrison for flag capture.” She emphasized the words “first place” and continued, “If the Commander doesn’t want to give me any silver, then so be it.” She turned to leave but suddenly turned back, grabbed the candied hawthorns from the table, and took a big bite, chewing loudly while saying, “Since the Commander doesn’t like sweet things, this candied hawthorn, I’ll take it to eat myself.”
She took a big bite and chewed loudly as she walked away, muttering, “What kind of Right Army Commander is he? Just a stingy old miser…”
Xiao Jue: “…”
Fei Nu had just entered and heard her last sentence. He watched He Yan’s receding figure, a little puzzled. He then closed the door.
Xiao Jue looked at him.
“Young Master, he…”
“It’s nothing,” Xiao Jue interrupted him, “Did you make any progress today?”
Fei Nu shook his head. “He Yan has been with Miss Song all day, and he hasn’t done anything unusual. They just strolled on the street, shopped, had tea, and didn’t meet with anyone.”
Xiao Jue nodded. “I understand.”
“Do you think the person he’s meeting with isn’t from Liangzhou City?” Fei Nu asked. “I just find He Yan a bit strange.”
Unusual physical skills aside, the fact that he was a new recruit yet knew about formations and had not been caught doing anything suspicious was perplexing. It seemed like he had no fear at all. Ordinary people wouldn’t behave like this, right?
“He’s with me, so he shouldn’t make any mistakes. Tell Chiwu to come here and pick up someone.”
“Is Young Master planning to have Chiwu accompany Miss Song?” Fei Nu asked.
Xiao Jue nodded. “Yuan Baozhen is almost at Liangzhou, and it’s not suitable for Song Taotao to travel with us. It may be good or bad, but we need to be fully prepared.”
Fei Nu acknowledged, “This subordinate understands.”
The next few days passed quite comfortably.
Perhaps due to the long stroll on the first day, Song Taotao’s hand injury hadn’t completely healed, so she was too lazy to go out in the following days. Xiao Jue and Fei Nu were often absent during the day, leaving He Yan with no choice but to keep her company.
The young girl was easy to entertain, and she listened attentively to He Yan’s tales of peculiar people and events she encountered during her military service. When they got tired of talking, they would eat something casually in the inn downstairs, and the days passed like this. He Yan had wanted to go out with Xiao Jue and the others to gather information, but they didn’t want her along. After several attempts, He Yan was a self-aware person and didn’t want to push it any further.
This trip to Liangzhou wasn’t very profitable. The only thing to look forward to was the arrival of the supervisory censor, Yuan Baozhen. He Yan had never eagerly awaited someone’s arrival like this before. Fortunately, three days later, Lord Yuan finally arrived in Liangzhou City.
On this morning, Fei Nu brought someone over.
It was a young man dressed like a guard, named Chiwu, and he was likely one of Xiao Jue’s trusted subordinates. He had come to escort Song Taotao away.
“For now, you can’t stay here. Chiwu will take you to a safe place. Once the matters in Liangzhou are settled, I’ll come to pick you up,” Xiao Jue said.
Song Taotao looked at He Yan and asked, “Then… is Young Master Cheng coming with me?”
The others immediately looked at He Yan, especially Xiao Jue, with icy glares. In that moment, He Yan understood the meaning of “you deal with your own trouble.”
She had no choice but to step forward and smile at Song Taotao. “I have something to do with Commander Xiao, so I can’t accompany you for now. Don’t worry; this… Big Brother Chiwu will take good care of you.”
“What’s going on? Is it dangerous?” Song Taotao asked.
Feeling a bit embarrassed yet touched, He Yan replied, “With Second Young Master Xiao, it’s not dangerous at all. You can rest assured.”
“In that case, please be careful,” Song Taotao said before taking slow steps away.
Turning around, He Yan was met with Xiao Jue’s mocking gaze. She said, “I really didn’t do anything…”
Xiao Jue turned and walked away, ignoring her. He Yan hurriedly caught up with him. “Uncle, don’t be angry. Although Miss Song only asked if I was safe and didn’t ask about you, it’s not because she thinks you’re too cold and hard to approach, and that I’m warm and charming and likable. Please don’t take it to heart!”
“Shut up,” Xiao Jue stopped and looked her up and down with a scrutinizing gaze. He sneered, “You’re wasting your time on idle chatter. Instead, think about how not to make a fool of yourself at the banquet tonight. No matter how you look at it, Cheng Lisu is the Right Division Director’s son. And you…” He glanced at her meaningfully. “Do you look like one?”
With that, he walked away without looking back. He Yan stood still for a moment before realizing he was mocking her again. She shouted after his departing figure, “So what if it’s a Right Division Director’s son?”
After all, she was also a young master from the He family. Who wasn’t an official here? She had been pretending to be the son of a wealthy family for so many years, so what couldn’t she pretend to be? Tonight, she had to make Xiao Jue take notice.
At the gate of Liangzhou City, a carriage stood out amidst the crowd.
The carriage was elaborately decorated, with exquisite embroidery on the exterior displaying a vast landscape. Even the grass had been embroidered, with a white crane featuring black crystal eyes perched in the meadow, adding to its exquisite charm.
Someone pulled back the carriage curtain and peered outside but quickly let the curtain fall.
Yuan Baozhen covered his nose with a handkerchief and remarked, “Liangzhou City is indeed plagued by sandstorms, far worse than the capital.”
Now in his forties, Yuan Baozhen looked well-preserved compared to Sun Xiangfu, who was of a similar age. He was neatly dressed, had a fair complexion, and spoke with a hint of a smile, appearing quite friendly.
“Why do you think Xiao Jue came to a place like this, is he inviting trouble?” he asked the person next to him.
Sitting beside him was a guard who appeared rather ordinary, with a lean frame. If it weren’t for the thick calluses on the palm of his hand, others might mistake him for an ordinary servant.
“I don’t know,” the guard replied.
“Well, it doesn’t matter. We’ll see him today, and I can ask him personally,” Yuan Baozhen smiled. “Ah, is that someone from the Sun family up ahead?”
Sun Xiangfu had personally come to receive Yuan Baozhen.
A satisfied smile appeared on Yuan Baozhen’s face. “Good, good. County Magistrate Sun is very courteous.”
Sun Xiangfu, looking at the stopped carriage, wiped his sweat. Originally, when the supervisory censor arrived in Liangzhou, he wouldn’t dare to be so deferential. However, since he had already offended Xiao Jue, offending Yuan Baozhen would leave him with no way out. He was counting on Yuan Baozhen to support him and make Xiao Jue face some difficulties. Naturally, he put in all his efforts to please the man before him.
Yuan Baozhen got off the carriage, and Sun Xiangfu approached, bowing. “Lord Yuan, I apologize for not coming to greet you properly. Please don’t blame me for the oversight.”
“Oh, not at all,” Yuan Baozhen said amiably. “I find Magistrate Sun quite affable. There’s no need to be so polite.”
After some laughter and pleasantries, Sun Xiangfu said, “Since that’s the case, please allow me to invite you to my residence for some rest.”
Yuan Baozhen had come to Liangzhou to temporarily stay at the Sun family’s residence. The two of them boarded the carriage Sun Xiangfu had prepared. While on the carriage, Yuan Baozhen asked, “I heard that the Right Commander of the Army has already arrived in Liangzhou. Is he at your residence now?”
“Commander Xiao is currently staying at an inn in Liangzhou City, as he has important matters to attend to. He will be coming to the residence tonight. Speaking of which, there’s one matter I’d like to ask for Lord Yuan’s help with tonight.”
Yuan Baozhen’s gaze shifted, but his smile remained unchanged as he inquired, “What is troubling Magistrate Sun?”
“It’s precisely related to Commander Xiao. My disobedient son accidentally clashed with Commander Xiao’s nephew earlier. I’m afraid Commander Xiao may hold a grudge against me because of this. Tonight, since we’re hosting a banquet to welcome Lord Yuan, I hope you can help mediate the situation and clear up the misunderstanding,” Sun Xiangfu said, his face reddening with embarrassment.
Though he didn’t explicitly state the nature of the issue, Yuan Baozhen could guess part of it. The clash between Sun’s son and Xiao Jue’s nephew, the son of the Right Division Director, would likely result in Sun’s son getting the short end of the stick.
He thought this while replying with a reassuring tone, “I believe Magistrate Sun is taking this matter too seriously. Commander Xiao is not an unreasonable person. If it was an accidental clash, they can simply clarify it. Why would he hold a grudge?”
“I understand your point,” Sun Xiangfu said with a wiped brow, offering a smile. “However, Commander Xiao… He handled the matter of Zhao Nuo in a similar manner in the past.”
When Sun Xiangfu mentioned Zhao Nuo, the atmosphere suddenly shifted.
The incident where Xiao Jue beheaded Zhao Nuo, the eldest son of the Minister of Revenue, at the Stele Hall was well-known throughout Da Wei. However, as time passed, people gradually forgot about it, thinking of it as the impulsive act of a young man. But now, with Sun Xiangfu mentioning it, Yuan Baozhen was reminded of it again. When Zhao Nuo got into trouble, the first person Zhao Shangshu sought out was actually Xu Xiang. Xu Xiang delivered the message, and Zhao Shangshu wept before the Emperor in the Golden Luang Hall. The Emperor was deeply sympathetic but did not take any action against Xiao Jue.
“Cutting down a tree without uprooting its roots will lead to regrowth; blocking a river without addressing its source will result in it flowing again; extinguishing a disaster without addressing its foundation will lead to chaos.” At that time, Xu Xiang only spoke this one sentence, “If this child is not removed, he will become a great threat to my innermost being in the future.”
They all thought about swiftly eliminating Xiao Jue while he was still young and not yet grown. However, after he led the Nanfu troops to the Southern Barbarians, he never gave anyone else that opportunity. His growth was astonishing, and in just a few years, the person who was once seen as irrational for beheading Zhao Nuo, if he was now doing such things again, others would consider it ordinary.
This was the result of what Xiao Jue had achieved in these few years.
He was much more formidable than Xiao Zhongwu and much younger too.
“Sir, Lord Yuan?” Seeing that Yuan Baozhen had an unusual expression and was silent, Sun Xiangfu didn’t understand and nervously asked.
“It’s nothing. I was just thinking about something else,” Yuan Baozhen smiled and said, “Since Commander Xiao is attending the banquet tonight, I’ll talk to him on your behalf. But Commander Xiao has a temper, and I can’t predict how he will react. Don’t blame me if he doesn’t listen.”
“Not at all,” Sun Xiangfu said gratefully, “Lord Yuan opening his mouth to help is already greatly appreciated.”
Yuan Baozhen shook his head, his thoughts having already drifted elsewhere.
No matter how formidable Xiao Jue might be, his purpose for coming to Liangzhou was simply to eliminate this potential threat to Xu Xiang.
He hoped everything would go smoothly.
By evening, He Yan was ready to go out with Xiao Jue.
Their destination was Sun Xiangfu’s residence, so they had to send Song Taotao away. Otherwise, if Sun Ling saw Song Taotao, or if Song Taotao saw Sun Ling, it might lead to complications.
Since they were attending a banquet, He Yan deliberately changed into an outfit that resembled “Cheng Lisu.” It was a honey and color embroidered robe with the same red carp motif at the hem. Cheng Lisu looked cute and innocent in this outfit, while He Yan felt different in it. It appeared brighter and more spacious, giving him a clear and handsome look. He Yan also picked a hairpin of the same color, inserted it into his head, and didn’t forget to bring along the folding fan. He held it half-open across his chest and was quite satisfied when he saw himself in the bronze mirror.
After finishing dressing up, He Yan kicked the door open. As soon as he stepped out, he saw Xiao Jue standing at the door.
Xiao Jue had also changed his clothes. He was wearing a deep blue, dark-patterned double crane brocade robe today. He didn’t wear a golden crown, just a purple sandalwood hairpin. He looked simple and elegant in this attire, with exquisite fabric and embroidery. He had always been extraordinarily handsome, but with this outfit, he appeared a bit less aloof and a bit more refined—a precious and elegant nobleman.
In He Yan’s heart, she thought that the bright and beautiful young man from the past had finally grown into this graceful handsome man. He looked the same yet somehow completely different.
Xiao Jue turned to the side and met He Yan’s somewhat distracted gaze. He raised the corner of his lips and said, “Wipe away your drool.”
He Yan instinctively wiped his mouth and then snapped out of it. “Where did you see drool?”
“You look like a fool,” Xiao Jue remarked with disdain. “Do you think you can deceive Yuan Baozhen?”
He Yan felt unconvinced as soon as she heard this. With a swift motion, she unfolded her folding fan with great elegance. She walked over to Xiao Jue, smiled gently, and whispered, “If I look like this, in Shuo Jing, I dare not compare myself to the Commander. At the very least, I should be on par with Young Master Cheng. Otherwise, why did Miss Song specifically entrust me before leaving, rather than entrusting you?”
There was a hint of laughter in Xiao Jue’s eyes, which sparkled like stars, but still had a touch of naivety. He mocked, “Because you’re foolish.”
“Fools always need many reminders.”
He Yan furrowed her brows. “Uncle, do you particularly dislike me?” This person couldn’t go a day without teasing her, could he?
“You’re my nephew; how could I dislike you?” Xiao Jue glanced at her with a smirk and instructed Fei Nu, “Let’s go.”
Yan Yan: The breakdown of an adult begins with borrowing money.