Chapter 94: The Banquet Is No Good
Sun Residence was located in the center of the western part of Liangzhou City. It’s not too far from the market, but it’s not overly noisy. The houses around it were all large and beautiful. Since neither of them liked riding in a carriage, Xiao Jue decided to ride horses over. Fei Nu didn’t accompany them, and his whereabouts were unknown. He didn’t follow Song Taotao like Chiwu did, nor did he accompany Xiao Jue to the banquet. He probably went to help Xiao Jue with something.
Without Fei Nu, there were only Xiao Jue and He Yan left to travel together. Although Fei Nu was usually quiet, He Yan could at least exchange a few words with him. Being alone with Xiao Jue made He Yan inexplicably nervous. Fortunately, they were riding horses and didn’t need to talk much. In the time it took for three sticks of incense to burn, they had already arrived at the entrance of the Sun Residence.
The servant at the entrance of the Sun Residence seemed to have received prior instructions from Sun Xiangfu. He greeted them warmly, “Is this Commander Xiao? And this is Young Master Cheng, right? The master is waiting in the main hall.” He took the horses from Xiao Jue and He Yan and said to another maid, “Yingyue, take Commander Xiao and Young Master Cheng inside.”
The maid named Yingyue was also very beautiful. It was already September, and the autumn night brought a chill. However, she was wearing a thin gauzy dress. If you say she’s not wearing anything, it’s like she’s wearing one more layer. If you say she’s wearing something, what can it really cover? He Yan almost couldn’t resist offering her a robe to wear. The soldiers in their camp used to say that when they were young, they often went shirtless, but as they got older, they often had aches and pains in their legs and back. What was the point?
Yingyue spoke with a melodious voice, like a warbler coming out of its nest, “Commander, please follow me.” As she spoke, her eyes were fixed on Xiao Jue’s eyes with a look filled with tenderness, as if she could drip water.
Even if He Yan were a fool, she could see that this maid had taken a liking to Xiao Jue. Well, in this world, there were not many girls like Song Taotao, who was not like the average person. Xiao Jue had a face that could intimidate people, and countless girls were infatuated with him. He Yan should have expected it.
Ignoring the maid’s infatuation, Xiao Jue didn’t even spare her a glance and instead turned his head to look at He Yan. He spoke coldly, “What are you waiting for?”
“Ah?” He Yan snapped back to reality. Seeing that Xiao Jue had already walked ahead, she hurried to catch up. She couldn’t help but think that this person was really sick. Instead of looking at the beautiful girl, he found fault with her.
The two of them followed the maid and entered the Sun Residence.
The Sun Residence was extravagantly decorated.
He Yan had seen the residences of officials in the capital before, and this one was on par with those. Although the He family couldn’t compare to the Xiao family, they were still officials with a reputation in the capital. The Sun residence seems to be just as well-maintained as the He residence. However, this is not Shuo Jing but Liangzhou, and Sun Xiangfu is not a high-ranking official but merely a county magistrate.
Three years as a diligent county magistrate, and you’ll have a hundred thousand silver taels. These words are not wrong, and when He Yan looked at those mountain stone bonsais, glazed jade tiles, she couldn’t help but be amazed. How could a county magistrate’s salary afford these? Sun Xiangfu didn’t know how much he had squeezed out of the people. Well, considering Sun Ling’s character, the father and son in the Sun family have done a lot of evil deeds in Liangzhou; they are almost like a local tyrant.
As she contemplated this, little did she know that her appearance was being observed by those around her.
Xiao Jue’s eyes flickered slightly.
He Yan was dressed in Cheng Lisu’s clothes but lacked Cheng Lisu’s innocence. While one’s clothes could make the man, a new recruit from the lower ranks pretending to be a young master from a big family was bound to show his true colors. The things he had done and the people he had met were etched into his body, leaving clear traces.
Everyone’s traces were different.
He Yan had a sense of nostalgia and contemplation in his eyes, but there was no trembling or nervousness. If this were his first time doing something like this and going to a place like this, his reaction would not have been so composed.
At this moment, Yingyue had already stopped and announced, “Master, Commander Xiao and Young Master Cheng have arrived.”
Immediately, Sun Xiangfu’s exaggerated voice could be heard from inside, “Commander Xiao is here! I was afraid that Commander Xiao and Young Master Cheng wouldn’t come. It’s good that you’re here, it’s good that you’re here!”
He Yan raised her eyes to look at him, and this person appeared genuinely anxious and fearful. Where was the air of authority he had when they first met at the inn a few days ago? Rising to such a position in government and behaving like this, he shouldn’t be surprised if people mock him.
Without waiting for Xiao Jue to speak, Sun Xiangfu turned to the side and revealed the person behind him, saying with a smile, “Lord Yuan has also arrived.”
This was Yuan Baozhen? He Yan looked at him. She saw a middle-aged man with a white beard approaching them with a friendly smile. For a moment, his appearance overlapped with He Yan’s memory.
The first time He Yan saw Yuan Baozhen was outside the study of the He family. At that time, He Rufei had already earned merits, removed his mask, and truly became the “Flying Phoenix General.” As the second young lady of the He family, she was waiting to marry into the Xu family. When she saw this person, she was surprised. She hadn’t expected He Rufei to make friends in the court so quickly.
Later, she asked He Rufei who the person was, and he said it was Yuan Baozhen, the current Inspector Censorate.
“What business do you have with him?” He Yan had casually asked at the time.
He Rufei looked at her and smiled strangely. He said, “What you need to do now is embroider your wedding dress, not worry about these things. He Yan,” he leaned in closer, his tone filled with an unfathomable meaning that He Yan couldn’t understand, “you need to remember that you are now the second young lady of the He family and a woman.”
He Yan didn’t take it seriously. She couldn’t embroider, and she wasn’t the one embroidering the wedding dress. However, she understood the meaning behind He Rufei’s words. He was warning her not to have any more contact with Flying Phoenix General.
Was he afraid of someone discovering the truth? He Yan thought with a cold smile. It was ridiculous that she hadn’t realized the hidden danger in He Rufei’s words at that time.
Now that she suddenly met this friend of her cousin, how could she get the information she wanted?
Before He Yan could figure it out, Yuan Baozhen had already approached them. He first greeted Xiao Jue with a bow, saying, “Commander.”
Then, he looked at He Yan and said with a surprised smile, “Young Master Cheng?”
He Yan stared at him and showed a surprised smile, “Lord Yuan.”
“I’ve heard that Young Master Cheng is a talented and extraordinary young man. Now that I see you in person, it’s true.” Yuan Baozhen smiled and said, “Indeed, heroes emerge at a young age!”
He Yan: “…”
Wasn’t Cheng Lisu known as the “useless young master” in the capital? It was impressive how this person could say such things. She understood that in order to succeed in Da Wei, the first thing she needed to learn was the ability to say different things to different people.
He Yan had to reply, “You’re too kind, too kind. I’m embarrassed.”
As the two of them engaged in polite conversation, Sun Xiangfu rubbed his hands and hesitantly said, “Commander, I have an unpleasant request.”
Xiao Jue asked, “What is it?”
“My son offended Commander and Young Master Cheng a while ago,” Sun Xiangfu appeared very anxious, “Although I scolded him, he feels very guilty in his heart. He wants to personally apologize to Commander and Young Master Cheng. I thought that since he knows he was wrong, I could come to Commander with this old face and ask for a chance for this unfilial son to apologize.”
“People are not saints, who can be without faults,” Yuan Baozhen chimed in with a smile, “Moreover, it was just a misunderstanding. Commander won’t mind. Hurry and call Young Master Sun over to clarify things with Commander and Young Master Cheng.”
“Really?” Sun Xiangfu excitedly instructed a servant, “Go and call Young Master over!”
He Yan saw that the two of them were singing in harmony without even asking Xiao Jue, and realized that these two had surely discussed it in advance. This Yuan Baozhen seemed to be of the same type as Sun Xiangfu. Well, anyone who got close to He Rufei must be no good.
Sun Ling seemed to be waiting outside the hall. Before his words were finished, he came in with a maid. As soon as he entered, he knelt down in front of Xiao Jue with a “plop,” and He Yan almost bit her tongue.
This person had been arrogant and unruly before, acting like he was invincible. But in just a few days, he looked emaciated, as if he had been seriously ill. He was dressed extremely plainly. He bowed deeply to Xiao Jue and weakly said, “I was immature before and had a dispute with Young Master Cheng. Now I know I was wrong, and I hope Commander and Young Master Cheng can forgive my youthful recklessness. I promise to start over and never make the same mistake again.”
Is “youthful recklessness” the right way to put it? He doesn’t look very youthful anymore. He Yan didn’t believe that this man could truly refrain from repeating his mistakes in just a few days. She looked at Xiao Jue, who remained impassive. He neither approved nor disapproved, and the atmosphere became awkward.
He Yan had to smooth things over. After all, they were all acting here, and if this act wasn’t carried through, it would be embarrassing at the banquet. She smiled and stared at Sun Ling’s forehead, saying, “Where are you saying this from? It was just a misunderstanding back then, Young Master Sun doesn’t need to take it to heart. Just remember not to mistake people again in the future. This time, you met me and my uncle, and it ended well. But if you encounter someone more arbitrary in the future, even if you apologize a hundred times, it won’t yield any results.”
With her words, Sun Xiangfu breathed a sigh of relief and quickly scolded Sun Ling, “Hurry up and thank Young Master Cheng. Young Master Cheng is even younger than you and more accomplished!” Apparently, he didn’t have much else to praise. He added, “Learn from Young Master Cheng in the future!”
Sun Ling quickly said a bunch of flattering words to He Yan, making her feel like she was going to vomit her dinner from last night. She didn’t like hearing these words; this fake, it can really scare people?
After acting out the scene of “the young master of the magistrate apologizing,” Sun Ling went back to his room. According to his father, Sun Ling had received corporal punishment when he returned home last time and had fallen seriously ill, unable to get out of bed. Today, he had come to apologize to Xiao Jue while enduring his illness. Now that he had completed his penance, he needed to return to bed.
He Yan smiled and said, “Young Master Sun, please go back quickly. Don’t risk injuring yourself.”
Was this because he was afraid of causing trouble again at the banquet? It seemed that his son was a troublemaker.
After Sun Ling left, Sun Xiangfu said, “Commander Xiao, please take a seat. Young Master Cheng, please as well. Let’s wait a bit longer for the evening to arrive, and then we can enjoy the singing and dancing performances in the hall together.”
He Yan sat down next to Xiao Jue. Sun Xiangfu continued to talk, but his words were nothing special—just some meaningless small talk about whether He Yan and Xiao Jue were comfortable in Liangzhou, the recent weather in Liangzhou, and other inconsequential topics.
He Yan’s thoughts, however, were focused on Yuan Baozhen.
Yuan Baozhen and He Rufei, could they be considered friends? At least she had seen Yuan Baozhen coming and going from the He family on more than one occasion. Their attitudes towards He Yuansheng and his son didn’t seem like mere acquaintances. So, when Yuan Baozhen came to Liangzhou this time, did He Rufei know? He must know. If they were friends, perhaps he would share his plans for the He family in the near future before leaving. Yuan Baozhen should be aware of the situation at the He family and He Rufei’s plans for the next period.
But how could Yuan Baozhen talk to her, “Cheng Lisu,” so openly?
Lost in thought, He Yan didn’t realize that she was openly staring at Yuan Baozhen. However, Yuan Baozhen, being a seasoned politician, noticed her gaze with a quick glance and perceived her scrutiny. He didn’t say anything and maintained his usual smile, listening to Sun Xiangfu’s conversation while occasionally adding a few words. He appeared entirely ordinary.
After a while, when it was completely dark outside, Sun Xiangfu stood up and said, “I think it’s time. Let’s go to the main hall for the banquet.”
Naturally, there were no objections. Sun Xiangfu led the way, He Yan and Xiao Jue followed, and Yuan Baozhen walked on He Yan’s right. He Yan was lost in thought about He Rufei’s situation, and her eyes occasionally strayed toward Yuan Baozhen.
She was lost in thought, and all of a sudden, Yuan Baozhen turned his head. He was a seasoned politician with a deep understanding of people. At this moment, he stopped smiling, and his eyes flashed with an intimidating light that sent shivers down the spine. It seemed as if he had seen through He Yan.
Startled, He Yan thought she had been discovered. Before she could say anything, she felt her arm being lightly tugged, and the next moment, someone was standing in front of her.
Xiao Jue’s cold voice reached her ears, “Pay attention to the road.”
She looked at him in surprise, and Xiao Jue was taller than her, so in this position, Yuan Baozhen’s terrifying gaze was completely blocked from her view. Xiao Jue also glanced at the other man and said with a smile, “Why is Lord Yuan staring at my nephew?”
Yuan Baozhen hesitated for a moment, then smiled and replied, “No, Commander probably just got it wrong.” He turned away and stopped looking at He Yan, as if what had just happened was just a minor joke.
Xiao Jue continued to walk ahead, and He Yan was lost in thought. Xiao Jue had protected her by using the words “my nephew,” even though he was referring to Cheng Lisu. This feeling of someone above looking out for her was something she hadn’t experienced in a long time.
Or maybe, she had never experienced it before.
When they arrived at the main hall, the banquet was already set. Low tables were arranged around the room, and He Yan sat down next to Xiao Jue. The center of the main hall was left empty, presumably for the upcoming musical and dance performances. He Yan didn’t quite understand why such banquets always included beautiful women singing and dancing in the middle. Real elites didn’t bother with such things.
But Sun Xiangfu was far from being a true elite.
She looked at the dishes on the table and couldn’t help but be amazed. There were delicacies like “Auspicious Dragons in Flight,” “Buddha’s Hand Gold Rolls,” “Phoenix Tail Shark Fin,” and “Dried Abalone and Sea Cucumber.” This was how a third-rank official’s mansion in the capital hosted a banquet. It seemed that the Sun family was living quite well.
She turned her head to look at Xiao Jue. She had to admit that although Xiao Jue usually wore a cold expression and was difficult to please, when he attended a banquet, he seemed more relaxed. Some of his inherent indifference and leisure were brought out. He Yan suddenly remembered that this man was, after all, a true young master from the capital. When he was young, he had attended events like this, enjoying a carefree life. Today, at the banquet, he exuded the air of a young master from the Xiao family, bringing back memories of his youth.
“What are you looking at me for?” Young Master Xiao smirked, his voice low and suggestive as it reached He Yan’s ears. “Be careful not to reveal your secrets.”
He Yan cleared her throat. “I was just momentarily captivated by my uncle’s grace and lost my focus.”
She was skilled at flattery and could blurt out senseless compliments at any moment. Xiao Jue couldn’t be bothered to pay attention to her. Just then, Yuan Baozhen spoke up, saying, “Commander Xiao and Young Master Cheng seem to have an excellent relationship.”
“Our own people, so, of course, it’s good,” Xiao Jue replied casually.
Yuan Baozhen had been looking for a conversation topic, so he didn’t mind Xiao Jue’s attitude. He picked up a wine cup from the table and said, “I’ve always wondered why Commander Xiao chose to station himself in Liangzhou when it’s so harsh and cold compared to Shuo Jing. What was the reason for that?”
He Yan was also curious about this question. Xiao Jue was now the commander of the Right Army, and the entire Nanfu Army was under his command. He didn’t need to bring any new troops to Liangzhou. He Yan had initially thought he had been demoted, but seeing his arrogant demeanor in front of Sun Xiangfu, it didn’t seem like he had been demoted.
Xiao Jue glanced at Yuan Baozhen and didn’t answer his question. Instead, he smiled and asked, “What do you think, Imperial Censor Yuan?”
Why did this man keep bouncing the ball back to others?
Yuan Baozhen was a shrewd individual. He maintained his smile and immediately used a politician’s essential skill – telling lies. He said, “I believe Commander is worried that it might be difficult to lead new troops, and other commanders may not handle it well. Commander has always been unafraid of hardships and volunteered to be stationed in Liangzhou.”
After a moment of silence, Xiao Jue said, “Is that so?” He asked casually, “Imperial Censor Yuan, do you mean to say that it’s a good thing that I came to Liangzhou?”
Xiao Jue glanced at him and smiled indifferently. “I thought Imperial Censor Yuan had something else in mind.”
“Oh?” Yuan Baozhen asked with a smile, “What does Commander Xiao mean?”
“In the end, if the treetop is too big, it will break off, and if the tail is too big, it will not be easy to shake.” Xiao Jue said meaningfully, “Lord Yuan, are you implying that you came all the way to Liangzhou because of this?”
The atmosphere suddenly became tense, and Sun Xiangfu didn’t dare to say a word, keeping his head down. Yuan Baozhen’s smile faltered, and He Yan looked at Xiao Jue, silently giving him a thumbs-up in her mind.
These empty compliments and insincere words were truly meaningless. Both sides were just exchanging falsehoods, and by the end of the banquet, nothing useful would be achieved. Xiao Jue, on the other hand, was quite formidable. He effortlessly shut down others with a single sentence.
The hidden meaning behind the banquet was clear and had to be openly addressed!
Yuan Baozhen paused for a moment before smiling and saying, “Commander Xiao, you’re quite humorous. I came to Liangzhou simply to carry out an inspection as ordered.”
Xiao Jue remained noncommittal.
“I wonder how the new troops in the Commander’s garrison are doing with their training,” Yuan Baozhen continued, “Do you already have a strong and well-organized army?”
Xiao Jue, with a sly smile, looked at him. “Is this also one of Imperial Censor Yuan’s concerns during your inspection?”
Although Yuan Baozhen had heard about Xiao Jue’s reputation and had met him briefly in the past, this was the first time they had sat down for a real conversation. Consequently, he was experiencing firsthand the unyielding and unruly nature of this young killer general. It was no wonder that when Xiao Jue had killed Zhao Nuo, no one’s words had any effect on him. Just sitting down and talking to this young master was mentally and physically exhausting.
The smile Yuan Baozhen had maintained for so long was beginning to falter. He said, “Of course, I am concerned.”
“Imperial Censor Yuan’s concerns might extend beyond the new troops in Liangzhou, don’t they?” Xiao Jue said in a leisurely tone. “The Nanfu Army, the Nine Banner Battalion, perhaps you should also pay attention to them?”
Yuan Baozhen had no response to this.
Sun Xiangfu looked left and right; both of these individuals were too formidable for him to provoke. He couldn’t allow this banquet to devolve into a battleground for swords and knives. So, he nervously intervened to defuse the tension. “I think both of you must be tired now. Why don’t we pause for a moment and enjoy some singing and dancing? Have something to eat; this wine is freshly brewed, called ‘Grape Spring.’ Try it, everyone.” He also instructed the maidservant beside him, “Quickly call Yingyue over.”
Soon, several beautiful young women entered the hall, led by the maidservant who had welcomed He Yan and the others earlier. She had changed her attire, wearing a red dress embroidered with plum blossoms. With long, flowing sleeves, she had transformed from a flirtatious beauty into a stunning, radiant vision. Yet, the same as before, she gazed affectionately at Xiao Jue alone.
With so many people here, including Yuan Baozhen and herself, why was this young lady so fixated on Xiao Jue? Was her target really that specific? It seemed quite unusual. While contemplating this, He Yan observed Xiao Jue, but he remained as cold as ice, completely unmoved.
He Yan couldn’t help but wonder if there was something wrong with Xiao Jue, perhaps he disliked women or something of that sort.
As she thought this, Yueying had already led several maids, curtsying gracefully and saying, “We humbly present ourselves.”
The girl playing the zither was performing “Longing for You,” a lingering and melodious tune that, accompanied by the stunning maiden, created a beautiful picture. In this situation, He Yan was a lady, Xiao Jue had no interest in music and dance, and Yuan Baozhen’s mind had drifted elsewhere after Xiao Jue’s earlier comments. The only one who seemed truly pleased was Sun Xiangfu himself.
Sun Xiangfu appeared to have a particular affection for this dancer, but Yingyue, in return, seemed to have a preference for judging people by their looks. She swayed her long, flowing sleeves in Xiao Jue’s direction. Her flirtatious glances could melt a person’s bones, and they were all directed at Xiao Jue.
Feeling bored, He Yan kept a count. Yingyue had thrown five flirtatious glances at Sun Xiangfu, three at Yuan Baozhen, and a whopping seventeen at Xiao Jue. She hadn’t thrown a single one at He Yan.
She was at the bottom of the list? Why was she being looked down upon?
Attending the banquet was one thing, but why bring down someone’s self-confidence like this? He Yan thought to herself. It probably wasn’t entirely the young lady’s fault; it might have been the choice of her attire today. The color didn’t suit her; it made her look darker.
She extended her chopsticks and picked up a piece of dim sum. This was Sun Xiangfu’s family banquet, and it was unlikely that Sun Xiangfu would dare to poison the food here. He Yan tasted it and found it quite delicious.
After the music ended, beads of sweat glistened on Yueying’s forehead, the beauty’s perspiration carrying a special fragrance made her even more captivating. Her cheeks were rosy, and she bowed to the audience.
“Excellent, excellent, excellent!” Only Sun Xiangfu was attentively watching the dance. He applauded and said, “Splendid! What do you all think?”
Xiao Jue naturally wouldn’t respond to him, and Yuan Baozhen just smiled. He Yan chimed in, “Indeed, it’s hard to choose among these beauties. The country’s beauty and fragrance!”
“Do you also find it good, young master?” Sun Xiangfu’s expression seemed excited as if he had found a kindred spirit. He said, “Then, how about I give Yueying to Young Master Cheng?”
Could this even be considered? He Yan stiffened for a moment and waved her hand, saying, “No, no, I already have a fiancée; it might not be appropriate.”
“Oh.” Sun Xiangfu immediately expressed regret. He said, “That’s a pity.”
Nowadays, when officials attend banquets, is it a trend to offer courtesans at any given moment? Is there something wrong with these people? He Yan found it incredulous. Just when she thought it couldn’t get stranger, she heard Sun Xiangfu say with a laugh, “Yueying, why don’t you serve Commander Xiao instead?”
He Yan: “…”
She suspected that the Myriad Blossom Pavilion was probably owned by this county magistrate. Otherwise, why would he speak and behave in such a manner, resembling a brothel madam? Even if it was a madam, she should have had some discretion. Could it be that ordinary people couldn’t see that every inch of Xiao Jue was marked with rejection?
Some people may be blind in their eyes, but they are clear-sighted in their hearts. Others may still have their eyesight but are actually blind.
Fortunately, this Yueying girl seemed to understand boundaries. She didn’t attempt any foolish moves like trying to touch Xiao Jue. Instead, she stood by his side and served him dishes.
He Yan also had a maidservant by her side who was arranging her dishes. She raised her head and saw Yuan Baozhen sitting across from her. Behind him, a guard-like person was arranging the dishes, not a maidservant.
Strange, could he be the one who dislikes women?
He Yan glanced at the guard behind Yuan Baozhen, originally out of sheer boredom. At first glance, her blood seemed to freeze, and her whole body froze in place.
The guard was not particularly tall or imposing; in fact, among the guards, he could be considered slim and short. His features were rather plain, and he almost faded into the background behind Yuan Baozhen, making it difficult for anyone to notice him. He had been silent all along, and He Yan hadn’t paid him any attention since she first saw Yuan Baozhen. But now, in this moment, she felt as though she had been struck by lightning.
In an instant, the banquet table and the dishes disappeared from her sight, and the scene before her shifted rapidly, taking her back to that day. She was sitting in the Xu family’s residence, and a maidservant had just brought her a bowl of herbal soup, specially prepared by the kitchen to nourish her body, with the hope that she would soon conceive a child and bless the Xu family with an heir.
The scene was just right, with bright sunlight streaming in. She sat at the table, gazing out of the window, and saw a young servant-like boy passing by. The maidservant had explained with a smile that the medicinal herbs used in today’s soup had been brought by this young boy.
This was He Rufei’s servant, a member of the He family.
At that time, He Yan had just gotten married, and although she occasionally felt a sense of loss due to Xu Zhiheng’s behavior, she hadn’t taken it to heart. She still had some warm feelings left for the He family. Never in her wildest dreams did she expect that the herbs brought for her to nourish her body would want her own eyes.
That was the last time she had seen sunlight in her previous life. The next day, she developed a high fever, and shortly after, she lost her sight.
With just a brief glimpse, she had etched the person’s face into her memory, and now, even though he was disguised as a guard, standing behind Yuan Baozhen, she could recognize him in an instant.
“Let’s have a drink together,” Sun Xiangfu raised his cup with a smile.
The clear wine poured into the white jade cup. She saw the man beside her raising his cup to his lips, and in an instant, all the memories from the past came flooding back. He Yan was overwhelmed by fear, feeling as if the same scene was about to replay. In a state of shock and anger, she swiftly knocked the wine cup from Xiao Jue’s hand.