One of things I love the most about Jin Yu (formerly known as Yu Jin, but henceforth I’ll be using her new name) is how adaptable she is. There is a sense of the fantastical in how she can be reared by wolves and learn to be a human relatively quickly once adopted by her Papa. But she was just 6 years ago and a child learns quickly. Her open personality is attractive because she doesn’t let anything bring her down, always facing each challenge looking for the way to solve it. Chapter 3 of Da Mo Yao takes our intrepid heroine onward to Chang An, capital city of the Han Dynasty. Will she run into Xiao Huo? Or Jiu Ye? Or both? And how the heck is she planning to survive there? Read on and you shall see.
Chapter 3: Reunion
I paid money in Dun Huang city to travel with a caravan of merchants going to Chang An. With everything I own in hand, I got on a carriage. Though the only thing worth anything is my Luo Lan outfit. Papa told me a lot about Chang An, and I imagined it often, but I was still stunned by its majesty and grandeur. With tree-lined wide-streets and grand homes, the city was beautiful. I held my bag and wandered the streets, so thrilled that every corner and bridge would get me excited. I finally started to understand Papa’s feelings. Seeing such rich surroundings from childhood makes it hard to fall in love with the simplicity of the tents, where everywhere you look there is only sheep or cows.
It was dusk before I realized I needed to find a place to rest. Counting my coins, I had enough for at most ten days at the cheapest inn where I was staying. I missed the days of not needing money in Xi Yu. Laying in the bed in the darkness, I was worried for a bit before laughing. Chang An is such a vast city, with so much to do that can sustain a livelihood. Am I any worse than anyone else? I have hands and feet, would I starve? I decided to stop lamenting the Heavens!
After walking through the city a total of three times, I started to doubt if I could earn a living. Maid or dancing girl, these require selling myself and I refuse to live a life controlled by others. I don’t know embroidering or sewing, or any of the female skills. The worst is that I don’t have a guarantor. A store almost hired me to do their books but once I couldn’t produce a guarantor they didn’t want to take the chance on me. I tried looking for Xiao Huo and his people, to be my guarantor. But everyone I asked, no one had heard of such spice merchants. I muttered a curse to Xiao Huo, who clearly lied to me.
A holiday is approaching and the stores are fragrantly decorated. I’ve used up all my coin and haven’t eaten anything since yesterday, with nowhere to go tonight. I grab my things and head out of the city, to a nearby forest to bed down for the night. If I can start a fire, as least I’ll be warm. If I’m lucky I can snare a rabbit and get some dinner. Being hungry feels terrible.
When I’m feeling down, I wonder if it was the right decision to come here. Should I sell my Luo Lan outfit and get enough money to return to the Xi Yu? But then I feel like I gave up. Papa wouldn’t believe that the daughter he raised like a Han couldn’t survive in Chang An. When I reached the forest, I discovered lots of people were thinking the same thing as me, with the ground crowded with beggars. I saw a tree and was about to settle in when a beggar yelled “You damn girl! Do you know any manners? That’s your grandpa, my spot.”
I glared at him. He didn’t pee on the spot like a wolf, so how should I know. It was a mistake only, but I didn’t want to make a scene. As I turned to leave, another beggar gave me a dark look, asking me to sing for him and he’ll offer me a place to sleep next to him. I turn and am ready to pull out my dagger when suddenly another young beggar arrives bearing a jug of good fragrant wine. All the attention of the beggars turn to him and start drinking, forgetting about me.
An old beggar walks up “Little girl, in this lifetime, there are no pits you can’t cross, and nothing you can’t endure. They don’t mean anything, so just let it go. If you don’t mind, want to go warm yourself by the fire with an old beggar like me?” He takes out two buns and starts to warm it by the fire, and hands me a pot of wine to drink. I hesitate, explaining that we are strangers, so why he is so nice to me. That young beggar helping me back there, I was already so grateful.
His eyes twinkle and he explains that even the Emperor needs a Prime Minister to assist, and people endure situations and need help. I thank him and accept the wine and bun. Later than night, the young beggar tells me that if I go knock on doors asking to wash clothing, perhaps I can find work. I have the strength so I decide to try my luck tomorrow. I rush into the city at dawn, in such a hurry that it was late when I realized I left my bag at the beggar camp. But I figured it was safe with the old beggar and his grandson, and I had promised them I would go back tonight. The most important thing is finding a job.
Every door rejects me, until a nice lady explains that the houses all give their wash to familiar people. A burly man waves me away, explaining someone is already washing clothes for this house. I ask if they need other work done, and a seductively made up woman walks out of that residence and overhears me. She looks me up and down and confirms that I am not a local. She compliments me on speaking the Chang An dialect with no accent. I truthfully reveal that I’ve been here almost half a month now, and I’m a fast learner.
She asks if I have relatives here and I shake my head. She invites me in to sweep the courtyard in exchange for some steamed buns. I happily accept, thanking the mistress. She tells me to call her Hong Gu, promising that if I did a good job, we might see each other more in the future. After I finish my chores, she compliments me on my quick hands. She brings out hot tea and steamed buns, which I shovel down since I’ve not eaten all morning. Hong Gu smiles and watches me. When I’m half full, I remember the old and young beggar. I ask Hong Gu if I can take the rest of the buns with me.
Hong Gu looked shocked and asked why? I explain that I wanted to save it to eat later. She smiled and offered me more tea as she has the buns packed up. I take a few sips of tea and suddenly don’t feel right. My head starts spinning and my legs grow weak. I knew what had happened but acted like nothing was wrong. I got up “My grandpa is waiting for me to return. If the buns are ready, I’ll be going now.”
As I rushed out, two burly men stood at the front door. I pulled out my dagger but my body is already falling forward. Hong Gu stands by the door and smiles “If you’re tired you can rest here. I’m sure there is no grandpa waiting for you, so why rush?”
The two men walk over and I try to stab them but they take away my dagger. I collapse on the ground, with the last thing I hear being Hong Gu “What a sharp little gal! After drinking the drug, it took her that long to collapse. Feed her more of it and make sure she’s secured or else I’ll have your hide!”
I don’t know how long I’ve been unconscious, waking up to find myself not alone. Another girl is locked in the same room as me. She has a pretty face and an elegant demeanor. She hurries to bring me water now that I am awake. I observe her but don’t accept the water. Her eyes grow red rimmed “This water doesn’t have any drug in it. It’s not necessary anyways. It’s well secured here, you can’t escape.”
I reply “I’m not thirsty”, so she puts the water down and huddle against the other wall again. I move my limbs, which are all intact, but has no strength in them. Clearly they gave me yet another drug. After I clear my mind, I tell the girl “My name is Jin Yu, I was drugged by a woman named Hong Gu. What about you?” She replies “I am Fang Ru, my stepmother sold me here” and then starts crying. I have no patience to comfort her, only asking “Do you know where this place is? Why do they want me?” Fang Ru explains that this place is called Luo Yu Fang (Luo Yu House), one of more famous dancing parlors in Chang An city. I was captured probably because I am pretty.,
I don’t know whether to be happy or sad. From a hairy wolf girl into a lovely young woman under Papa’s tutelage, I’ve finally been acknowledged by outsiders, especially someone as seductive as Hong Gu. So it turns out that my beauty is enough to become a problem. But I never used my looks to harm anyone before, and it turns around and harms me first. I ask “Do they want me to prostitute myself?” Fang Ru shakes her head “This place is a house of dancing and performance, not a brothel. The girls here sell their talents, not their body. But even then, if there is someone very rich or powerful, you might not be able to refuse. You can only hope someone buys your freedom, or if you are so talented at dancing and performing, you’ll have special status and can even enter the Palace.”
I want to ask more when the door suddenly opens and the two burly men walk in. Fang Yu cries that she won’t go. Hong Gu enters, muttering that Fang Ru has already tried many times to kill herself and been punished, she ought to just behave and get dressed to go learn song and dance with the other girls. She’s dragged out, despite her frantically reaching for anything to grab onto. I watch this scene without blinking an eye. Hong Gu watches me and appears impressed “You ought to know where this place is by now. And yet you don’t seem scared or shocked, you don’t cry or make a scene. Have you given up, or planning something else?”
I remain silent for a moment before responding “Is being scared of any use? Is crying of any use? Will fear and tears cause you to release me? It’ll just earn me whipping or other punishments. The end result is the same. I’ll pick the less painful route and do as you want.”
Hong Gu is stunned for a moment, before sharing the anecdote about how people who drown really are close to shore and can even float if they stopped struggling, but they are so scared that their struggles end up dooming them. I look at Hong Gu and we reach a mutual understanding. She asks for my name. I tell her that I am Jin Yu. Hong Gu will prepare my own room, but before leaving, she states that it was my luck to run into her. If I became a beggar, with my looks, I would never escape the dangers on the street.
I learn to dance, sing, play the flute, embroider. The dancing is the easiest for me, since the Xiong Mu are passionate and love to dance. I’ve danced around the fire since I was a child thousands of times, and been taught by the Xiong Nu’s most esteemed court dance instructor. It’s the flute playing and embroidering that gives me a headache.
Not sure what other girls are thinking, but I’m really getting into this. I often practice when I’m alone, especially under the moonlight. Too bad I can’t even play a single tune completely, sounding more like a ghost wailing. But I’m pretty stoked, always thinking about how Brother Wolf might like this, and how I plan to play for him when there is a full moon.
The girls in the house complain often to Hong Gu, but she always takes my side. She even berates those who tattle on me, telling them to work even half as hard as me, they’d be famous all over Chang An. To be honest, I ought to despise Hong Gu, but I can’t seem to. She’s seductive and smart without being petty, and when she talks it’s clear she thinks deeply about things.
The days slip by until I can somewhat play the tune Bai To Ying. A new year is arriving, which means gathering with relatives. Even the most flirty man has to go home, so the usually busy dancing house becomes empty. In a house where no one has relatives, the girls decide to celebrate the holidays with as much energy as possible. Even Hong Gu is the same, willing to spend hard earned money to decorate the house inside out with red. Even if it’s garish, at least it’s colorful and cheerful.
New Year’s Eve, Hong Gu orders the house securely locked and summons all twenty some of us girls to the hall. She prepared food and wine and wants us all the eat, drink, and be merry. Whether out of sadness or joy, it doesn’t matter, as everyone celebrates with gusto, drinking shot after shot proffered. I never had any tolerance, so after a few cups of gao liang wine, I was already dizzy and crawled over to the side to plop down. When I regained some sense, I felt like I couldn’t breath. Turned out Fang Ru was so drunk she mistook my chest for a pillow and was sleeping on it.
Looking around, everyone was collapsed all over the place, draped and propped on others. The room was warm and felt peaceful. I gently moved Fang Ru’s head aside and gave her a pillow. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.
As I was fixing my skirt, I looked out the window and saw Hong Gu bowing before two men, one older and one younger. They were asking her rapid fire questions, and I can hear bits and pieces “…..girl……looks……three months ago……Boss……” I can’t see Hong Gu’s face but I can sense her shock. The two men walk in my direction and Hong Gu runs after then, yelling at us to all get up. The girls all start to get up, and I nudge the really drunk ones awake. The men enter and start surveying us.
The best singer in the house, Shuang Shuang, clearly recognizes them and gives a smiling bow “The first day of the new year and we have honored visitors. This means the house will surely have a smooth year. Shaung Er wishes Wu Ye a happy new year and good health.”
Wu Ye’s tight expression relaxes a bit, then tightens again as he nods at Shuang Shuang. I was hiding behind a beam, so when he finally spotts me, his face changes and he quickly asks Hong Gu who I was and how long I had been here. Hong Gu turns white and doesn’t answer, so Wu Ye demands the truth now. Hong Gu lowers her head and explains that I am from out of town and came to this house three months ago. Wu Ye asked me if this is true and I confirm it is.
Wu Ye mutters that this ought to be correct – looks, timing, background, it all fits. He explains to Hong Gu that the Big Boss has been looking for me for the past two weeks. Because Wu Ye doesn’t work directly for the Big Boss, he doesn’t know why he’s looking for me. He tells Hong Gu that whatever trouble she created, she’ll have to deal with the consequences herself.
Hong Gu tells all the girls to leave except for me, and then she gets on her knees. I hurry to help her up “Hong Gu, please don’t be afraid. I don’t know that Wu Ye person, or the Big Boss he speaks of. But you just relax. There is no animosity between us. All I know is that you’ve fed, clothed, and housed me for the past few months, and taught me lots of fun new things.” I thought to myself, being new to Chang An, it’s better to have one less enemy. Plus Hong Gu didn’t actually cause me any hard. It’s better to let it go in this case.
Hong Gu’s eyes fill with tears and her voice becomes hard “Xiao Yu, thank you for having such a big heart. I won’t say any useless crap now. I owe you one, and I will always remember it.” She takes out a pill and gave it to me. I swallow it and she explains that my strength will slowly return. But because I’ve been drugged for so long, it’ll take a few days. I smile, willing to wait. She gratefully nods and takes out a cloth to wipe my face and fix my hair and skirt. She takes my hand and leads me outside. Wu Ye sees our joined hands and looks less stern, taking me away.
I ride in the same carriage as Hong Gu, still not sure what is happening, only knowing we are headed to meet someone who is looking for a person like me. This person appeared to be a very revered person in Chang An, because even one of his subordinates who is not close to him could get Shuang Shuang bowing in earnest and Hong Gu shaking in fear. “Hong Gu, who is this Big Boss that Wu Ye speaks of?” Hong Gu is shocked “You don’t know the Big Boss of the Shi Enterprises?”
I shake my head and Hong Gu is even more confused. “It’s been years since the Big Boss asked about the little business dealings going on in Chang An. The dancing house I run is owned by Shi Enterprises. Every year I have to remit my earnings to Shi Enterprises. In the past they used to micro-manage, but these last few years they’ve been hands off as long as we follow the rules.” I ask what rules, and she sheepishly replies “Quite a few rules, such as, not to abduct or swindle an honest girl into this profession.”
I laugh, knowing now why she’s so scared, because she broke one of the rules. I assure her that I’m not going to say anything. Hong Gu quickly tries to explain “Once is enough, I’ll never do it again. I was just impatient, wanting to become the most famous dancing house in Chang An, and needing talent to do it. Normally the girls have the looks but the not the smarts, or vice versa, so when I saw you, I got greedy and did something wrong, Afterwards I’ve been afraid of the Big Boss hearing about it, but it was already too late.”
I can see that she is sincere and quickly change the topic, asking her to tell me more about this Shi Enterprises. Hong Gu explains “I don’t know much because they are low key. I’ve lived in Chang An since I was a child, and have met plenty of people, but I’ve never met the Big Boss. Heard from elders that the enterprise started generations ago selling rock and stone, growing bigger and bigger until they owned almost half the businesses in this city. One day they suddenly stopped expanding the enterprise, letting go of some businesses and becoming more withdrawn. The past few years one rarely hears about them. If I didn’t have to pay money to them every year, I would almost forget that the dance house belonged to the Shi Enterprises. Even if they are not as big as they once were, still no one in Chang An would dare cross them.”
I thought – a mysterious merchant in Chang An who knows what I look like? My mind flashed to riding the horse with Xiao Huo. Could it be him? The carriage stopped outside a residence and we got out. An old man opened the door and welcomed us in, with Wu Ye and Hong Gu bowing respectfully to him. He checks me out and Wu Ye confirms that he believes I’m the one, and this entire time I’ve been right under their nose. The man doesn’t know if I’m the one, but the two earlier were sent away moments after entering.
We sit in a small waiting room, and Wu Ye is even politely bowing to the little boy who brings us tea. The old man returns beaming, confirming that this time it’s the right girl. He sends the other two away to await either reward or punishment from the Big Boss and gestures for me to follow him. Hong Gu indicates that I should go, plus I’m curious if this Big Boss is Xiao Huo or not, so I quickly follow.
After walking for awhile, suddenly the hallway fills with light and beyond the distance is a lake and a copse of trees, giving off a sense of energy and life. This house looks ordinary from the front, but surprisingly has such grandeur inside. Past the lake the scenery is so lively, even in this dead of Winter the trees still feel vibrant, causing my mood to lift.
The old man turns and notices me “If you like, come back and play next time. I also love this bamboo forest, cool in the Summer and lively in the Winter. This here is the Bamboo Residence, beyond the lake there is the Plum Blossom Garden, the Orchid Pavilion, and the Crysanthemum Suite.” I nodded and ran to catch up to him.
At the end of the Bamboo Forest is a small courtyard and the old man indicates for me to enter alone. Inside are more bamboos with some pigeons resting on it. A blue-robed man is sitting there facing the sun, with a pigeon on his knee, a warming pot next to him. Seeing the steam from the pot surrounding him, it feels slightly like a dream. Whether in the desert or here in Chang An, wherever he is at, even the most ordinary of surroundings becomes something unforgettable.
Watching this scene, I don’t dare make a sound, only turning my eyes to follow his gaze towards the sun. The Winter sun blinds me slightly so I squint, and when I look back at him, he’s looking directly at me. He points to the chair next to him and smilingly asks “Is Chang An fun?”
One simple yet familiar question causes my heart to warm immediately, and all my bellyful of questions fall by the wayside. Those questions aren’t important, what’s important is that I’ve reunited with him here.
I easily sit down next to him “First thing I did was fill my stomach, and then later I just lolled about in Hong Gu’s house. I haven’t played anywhere yet!”
He gives a small crooked smile “I see you’re doing fine. Hong Gu has taught you well. If you walk out now, you actually have a few shades resembling a quality gently bred young lady.”
I remember how haggard I looked when I met him at the Yue Ya Spring, leaving me slightly angry and embarrassed “I’ve always been quality, it’s just that people need clothes like a horse needs a bridle.”
A little boy brought out a table and tea, and I notice it’s the young beggar from the forest, Go Wa Zi (Little Puppy). I’m happy to see him but he’s serious towards me “Call me Shi Feng, not Little Puppy. That was a name used when I was in dire straits.” I agreed and he explained that he was here because Jiu Ye brought him back. He left and Jiu Ye explained “Because Shi Feng’s grandpa fell ill, he had no choice but to sell the outfit you left with them. Luckily the owner of the pawn store was with me on that trip to Xi Yu and recognized it, conveying this to me. I saw how filial Xiao Feng was, and also bright, so kept him by my side.”
I nod, realizing this was how my situation in Chang An was discovered. I asked about his grandpa and was told age and weather laid him low, but with rest and medicine he will recover. When Jiu Ye asked if Hong Gu harmed me, I quickly said no. He laughed at my nervousness, and I explained that who knows what the punishment is like in Chang An. If people get arms cut off as punishment, it will be a waste of pretty Hong Gu.
Jiu Ye thought “This isn’t just between you and Hong Gu. If it’s not handled, who knows if other girls will suffer in the future.” I counter “Hong Gu has already promised me never to do it again. Is there a mutually beneficial solution?” Jiu Ye decides to let Wu Ye handle it since it’s under his purview, rather than waste time thinking about it now.
The Winter sun sets early and it’s starting to get cold. I look at his legs and say “I’m feeling cold.” He lets the pigeon fly off before turning his wheelchair around, gesturing for me to go first. I want to assist but remember what happened in the desert so I quickly withdraw my hand. As we approach the door, it opens by itself, startling me. Jiu Ye explains there is a mechanism triggered by his wheelchair reaching the door which allows it to open.
Inside the residence, it’s exquisitely appointed, with everything at the perfect height for someone in a wheelchair to access. He invites me to sit at the table with a snack on it, which reminds me that I haven’t eaten all day, and my grumbling stomach gives my hunger away. He’s making tea and turns to look at me, and I say in embarrassment “You never heard someone’s stomach growl before? I’m hungry, can I eat the snack?” He instead orders dinner prepared, asking what I want.
I don’t know how to order, but I want meat. Lots and lots of meat, and not diced into tiny little cubes or slivers like at Hong Gu’s. He pulls a knob and Xiao Feng comes running in, getting the order for dinner. He put the tea pot on his thighs and wheels it over, not spilling anything. He pours me a cup and I take a sip while nibbling on a snack. He seemed happy, explaining he rarely has visitors, and this is the first time he’s made tea for someone.
I nod “You must have a lot of siblings, right? Is there a Shi (10) Ye behind you?” [Jiu is the number 9] He softly answered “It’s just me, even though father wanted a large family. Since I was small everyone called me Jiu Ye for luck, so it’s stuck.”
I swallow my bite “My family is me and a pack of wolves. The one you saw that day is just my younger brother (wolf).”
He smiled “I heard your name is Jin Yu?” I nod “And you?”
“Meng Xi Mo.” I was shocked “Your last name is not Shi? But you are the Big Boss of the Shi Enterprises?” He asked “Who told you the owner of the Shi Enterprises has the last name Shi?”
I stuck my tongue out “I saw the residence here is called Shi Estate, that’s why. Xi Mo. Xi (West) Mo (Desert), the Western part of the desert. You name doesn’t sound like a Central Plains name.”
He counters “Your name is Jin (Gold) Yu (Jade). I don’t see you draped in jewels and riches.”
I smile “Not now, but someday I will be.”
Xiao Feng brings in a platter of food and seeing how excited I am, he tells me to dig in first since he’s not hungry. I devour just the meat and ignore the vegetables, so he comes over and pushes it back towards me. “Eat some vegetables.” I ignore the veggies still. He said again “Girls need to eat more vegetables to be pretty.” I looked alarmed, was he joking or telling the truth? He looked serious, so wavering between delicious food and beauty, I finally picked up the vegetables. He smiled and looked out the window.
Eating is always a happy thing, and I hold my full stomach and feel like life is but as happy as now.
I decide to be ballsy and tell Jiu Ye to take responsibility for me since he’s caused so much commotion Hong Gu will surely not take me back anymore. He just smiles at me but doesn’t respond. I explain I can write, count, is strong and not stupid. Surely he can use me at one of the businesses to help in a shop. He asks if I want to stay in Chang An? For now I do, not sure when I’ll leave one day.
He lets me stay here while deciding what suits me to do. He tells me to think about what I like to do. I won’t stay here without earning it, promising to do whatever Xiao Feng does to earn my keep. He shakes his head, calling me his guest….a reunited old friend.
In a few days I’ve learned my way around the Shi Residence, seeing the black-robed and purple-robed man from the Yue Ya Spring. One is called Shi Jing Yen (Careful Words) and one is called Shi Sheng Xing (Cautious Actions). I smile at how apropos one name is, and how not suitable the other name is.
Hearing I’m staying in the Bamboo Residence, Jing Yen is shocked since Jiu Ye loves his solitude and even Xiao Feng and those folks don’t spend the night there. Those two, plus the Shi Enterprises Manager Shi Tian Cao, together oversee all the Shi businesses. They come every morning to report to Jiu Ye, and the little porter boys all eavesdrop. It’s cute their names are Feng (Wind), Yu (Rain), Lei (Thunder), and Dian (Lightning), which is easy to remember. I always leave to avoid hearing anything. Today I decide to visit Hong Gu because I miss her.
Shi Buo (the old man butler) worries I’m wearing too little on a snowy day, and I tell him I’m afraid of only being hungry, this cold doesn’t faze me. The snow has stopped but the wind and the carriage wheels whips the fallen snow all around, with most people walking huddling to stay warm. I order the carriage to slow and not throw more snow on people.
I return to the Luo Yu House and find the red lanterns are gone, hearing people exclaim that the House hasn’t opened for business in days. Hong Gu welcomes me, explaining that her mistake is leaving Wu Ye deciding what to do. She’s so worried and has decided not to open for business in the meantime. I explain that Wu Ye wants to help her, which is why he’s racking his brains for a good solution. Hong Gu thanks me for protecting her.
She’s curious about the Big Boss but I tell her to worry about her situation and stop asking about non pertinent matters. She smiles, knowing I don’t want to answer, so she doesn’t push. But she wants to know why the Big Boss was looking for me. I explain we’ve met before, thought I didn’t know that he was in Chang An. Hong Gu says “People can’t avoid fate.”
A maid comes and informs us that Shuang Shuang, the number one singer, has decided to jump ship and go work for Tian Xian House since this place isn’t doing business. Hong Gu explains that Tian Xian House used to also be owned by Shi Enterprises, but not anymore. And recently it keeps growing bigger and more well known. Perhaps soon Chang An’s dancing houses will all be consolidated into one.
She doesn’t want to talk about these business worries now. Since the business is shuttered, she takes all the girls out to go flower watching. Everyone bundles up in layers except for me, leaving Hong Gu admiring not my fortitude, but how it allows me to still look feminine when they are all wrapped into bundles.
As the carriage nears the city gates, suddenly everyone parts and our carriage also pulls over. I stick my head out, curious. Hong Gu says this is nothing compared to when the Emperor passes through. I look and from far away, a few young men in horses are riding down the lane. All are strapping, dressed in fine clothes, dashing on the horse – clearly young men with bright futures and riches, having been given the largesse of the world.
My heart is suddenly in shock. That…..that stone-faced, handsome man….isn’t that Xiao Huo? Even though his attire and demeanor is vastly different from back in the desert, I’m sure that I didn’t make a mistake. The other young men are all happily chatting on their horses, while his lips are tightly closed and his eyes stare into the distance. It’s clear that while he’s physically here, his heart isn’t here.
Hong Gu notices my expression and worriedly asks what’s wrong. I point to Xiao Huo “Who is that?”
She smiles at me “Yu Er, you sure don’t have ordinary taste (in men). All these young men are high born, but he’s the most extraordinary amongst them. Plus he still hasn’t married yet, and hasn’t gotten engaged.”
I glare at her “Hong Gu, you entered the wrong profession, you ought to have been a matchmaker.” She smiles and explains “His aunt is the current Empress, his uncle is the officially titled Great General, with a reputation that thunders through Xiong Nu and Xi Yu, with wealth to equal 8,000 homes. His name is Huo Qu Bing and he is Chang An’s most famous young Lord. To others he’s taciturn and rarely has any emotion, but supposedly he’s got quite a temper and is exceedingly proud. He even dares to talk back to his uncle in public. But somehow the Emperor totally gets along with him, and cuts him quite a lot of slack. This means not a single person in Chang An dares to piss him off.”
I stare at him on the horse and I can’t describe the feeling in my heart. In Chang An, when I was at my most down, I wanted to find him. But I didn’t find him. When I entered the Shi Estate and was walking through the long corridors, I thought the person on the other side would be him, but it wasn’t. Just when I was least expecting it, he appeared. I already suspected he was not someone common, but I never could have imagined that he would be the nephew to both the current Han Emperor and the Great General’.
He seemed to sense something and turned in my direction, so I quickly released the blinds in the carriage. Hong Gu just smiled at me and didn’t press on. But later she quietly said “Don’t underestimate yourself. You are young, and are so pretty, if you have the heart, there is nothing you can’t get in Chang An. Take the current Empress Wei, she wasn’t born much higher in status than we were. Her mom was a maid serving the princess, and had her out of wedlock. She didn’t have a father, and when she grew up became a dancing girl in the household of the princess. Based on her extraordinary looks, she landed the Emperor and become the Mother to the Han people. Take also the Great General Wei. He was also a bastard born, with a hungry childhood. He only earned this position by conquering the Xiong Nu.”
I cuddle next to her, assuring her that I was just thinking through some things, though I understand her point. I give her a proverb that causes her to stop and think, wishing she understood this concept when she was young and didn’t have to end up here. Even though Hong Gu is pretty, she is past her prime. The scenery outside is pretty but we are both not fully appreciating it. The trip ends and I return to the Shi Estate.
I walk into the Bamboo Residence to find Jiu Ye reading alone under the flickering oil light. Seeing this, my eyes suddenly feel teary, remembering how Papa would wait for me late into the night, for me to return after a crazy day of playing outside. He would read a book and sit there to wait for me. One lamp, one person, and that was what warmth was.
I stood at the door in silence, letting the warmth of the room flow into my heart. My heart, which had been uncomfortable all afternoon, gradually became at ease. He sensed me and smiled to welcome me back. I told him I went to visit Hong Gu and then we took a short day trip out.
He gently asks if I’ve eaten and I confirm Hong Gu brought snacks and I ate along the way. I ask him directly why he lets the dancing houses owned by the Shi Enterprises compete with each other rather than letting them collaborate. People will think he has no ability to manage. Jiu Ye responds that he doesn’t have the ability to manage. I think for a moment and ask him “Didn’t you tell me to do what I wanted? I want to keep learning at the dancing house. Whether as a maid or keep the accounts.” He smiles and agrees. I bow and thank him.
He turns his wheelchair and then hands me a package “Returning this to its rightful owner.”
The package contains the Luo Lan outfit. As my hand grazes over it, I don’t know what to say. This is not something a simple thank you can convey.