Things may change with the passage of time, but what is unavoidable will come to pass no matter what. The higher Huo Qu Bing flies, the more the Emperor will want to clip his wings. The more Yu Er digs into her past and her present, the more she’ll only discover that a heart can grow bigger and love more, but it’s hard to move on if the past doesn’t want to let go. I’m glad Da Mo Yao is back to the angsting, because things won’t get resolved just by avoiding the pink elephant in the room. I firmly believe that knowing the whole truth will allow Yu Er to only be more sure about the guy she wants to be with.
Chapter 25: Emotional Turmoil
I had been kneeling for a hour already and Li Yan still hasn’t said a word. I thought to myself that this impasse can’t continue, so I bow my head to the floor “Your highness seeks to see me for what matter?”
Li Yan’s coldness dissipates and I see a tinge of sadness “Jin Yu, how could this happen? When I was told about it, I couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t the person you liked Meng Jiu of Shi Enterprises? You promised me. Yet now you are with Huo Qu Bing. Are you planning on marrying him?”
“I’m sorry, I….I…..” I could only bow my head “No matter what, I will never reveal your background. It will be like I have never heard of it.” Li Yan coldly laughed “What if Huo Qu Bing wants to oppose Buo Er?” I raised my head to look at her “I don’t want to call you “Your Highness.” Li Yan, I am saying this as your friend. Please give up the plan to put your son on the throne. Your life is already so difficult, how can you endure knowing you are putting your child through the same thing?”
Li Yan stared at me “I ask you this, if one day Huo Qu Bing wanted to hurt us, will you help him?” I replied “If you don’t intend to harm the Crown Prince, then Huo Qu Bing will have no reason to harm you. And me….I will not let you hurt Huo Qu Bing.”
Li Yan started laughing “Jin Yu, you can leave now. From this day forward, we walk our own paths. But you have to remember your oath. The Heavens have a good memory.” She has someone she wants to protect, I have someone I want to protect, and we have finally reached this point. I silently give her a bow and leave.
Hong Gu had the kitchen prepare my favorite dishes but I have no appetite. I ask Hong Gu if she’s shuttered the other businesses like I asked, and she says it’s in process but can’t be hurried. I tell her to inform the girls in the dancing houses to be more low key, and I also plan to quietly find a buyer for the dancing houses as well.
Hong Gu asked “Xiao Yu, what happened? I can’t imagined anyone you might be afraid of in Chang An now? General Huo will not let anyone mistreat you, and even Consort Li’s presence means others will not dare to harass us.” I reply “I’ve overturned the boat with Consort Li. You know Li Yan’s calculating nature. Even with Qu Bing protecting me, if Li Yan gets the tiniest bit of opportunity and she fans the flames, things could get out of control. The way the Emperor dotes on Li Yan, if he chooses to punish us, I might be able to get away, but you all will…..Li Yan is not the same person she was before she entered the Palace. Now she would not blink an eye to see the loss of a few lives.”
I remembered hearing the soldiers criticizing Luo Yu House in the army base that day “Hong Gu, Luo Yu House seems to be doing well on the surface, but in truth we have offended quite a lot of people. With the Princess behind us, people have tempered their grievances. But if Li Yan decides to attack us, she will bring forth all those feelings, and it will only impact the girls here. I would love to immediately close down the dancing house, but that would leave all the girls out on the street. If I don’t handle this properly, I won’t be able to make sure they will be alright.”
Hong Gu looked stunned “How could this have happened?” I shook my head and smiled ruefully “A person’s calculations can never beat the Heaven’s machinations. I could have never predicted we’d be in this position today.”
Yi Zhi Xie gets wind that two of his tribal leaders have decided to switch their allegiance to the Han dynasty. He immediately sends someone to talk them out of it, and one tribal leader is swayed and gives up his intention. That causes a dispute with the other tribal leader and a battle breaks out. The tribal leader who wants to go to the Han kills the other leader who decided to stay with the Xiong Nu, and this causes soldiers to switch sides and a bitter civil war to break out.
News reaches the Han army which is still on the road, and Zhao Puo Nu suggests waiting until the Xiong Nu have killed each other before swooping in. Huo Qu Bing rejects this safer course of action. The Han dynasty has always treated those who surrender well. If the tribal leader does want to surrender and the Han dynasty refuses to help him, then it will strike hesitation and worry into the hearts of future opponents considering switching allegiances to the Han. He ignores the objections of the court officials and takes ten thousand men to cross the Yellow River and charge into a Xiong Nu army base with over forty thousand Xiong Nu soldiers.
Huo Qu Bing shows the courage and valor of one against many, once again using fewer soldiers to defeat a larger force. With yet another seemingly impossible victory, Huo Qu Bing cements his reputation within the Xiong Nu as a warrior god who cannot be defeated. So many Xiong Nu fear him that if they even hear his name, they turn and run away. Huo Qu Bing successfully saves the tribal leader, and then orders him to execute his soldiers who defected and turned against him. The flying blood and the rolling heads finally caused all the Xiong Nu to put down their weapons and end this civil war.
Huo Qu Bing sends soldiers to escort the tribal leader and his family members to Chang An while he waits for Liu Che’s orders. He settles the forty thousand surrendered Xiong Nu soldiers first before returning to Chang An. Liu Che rewards the tribal leader and his generals, giving them official titles and wealth in Chang An. The surrendered Xiong Nu forces are placed around the Long Xi region and he builds forts in the Qi Lian Mountains. With that, the Xiong Nu’s presence in the Yellow River and the Desert South regions are completely wiped out, and another path to Xi Yu has been opened up.
Liu Che greatly rewards Huo Qu Bing for his success in this foray. When Huo Qu Bing returns to Chang An, Liu Che personally leaves Chang An to welcome him back right outside the gates of the city. He gives Huo Qu Bing so much wealth that he has now way surpassed the Great General Wei, and becomes the most honored man in court.
It’s already Fall but the weather hasn’t cooled down. I lay on the pallet, with my eyes closed, fanning myself with a fan decorated with a beautiful woman on it’s face. Someone sat down next to me, but I kept my eyes closed and continued to ignore him. He leaned down to kiss me and I blocked him with my fan, so he ended up kissing the beauty on the fan. He stared at me with annoyance and resignation, so I turned over and asked the fan “Is she prettier than me?”
Huo Qu Bing laughed “I don’t know if she’s prettier, but she sure is more affectionate than you. I haven’t seen you in so long and you don’t even know how to welcome me back with hugs and kisses.” I huffed and used the fan to cover my face, continuing to ignore him.
He leaned in to whisper in my ear “What’s wrong with you? How come you’re so dispirited?” I dramatically sigh “I’m pretending to be a disgruntled housewife, a pining housewife. Can’t you tell?”
“Stop lolling around on the pallet, you’re becoming lazier. Go out with me.” He smiled and took the fan away, tossing it to the side and pulling me up. “You’re getting better at making stuff up. I arrive in Chang An and immediately hear from Housekeeper Chen that Luo Yu House apparently is quickly divesting all its businesses. Not sure what you’re up to, but you seemed to have pinned it on me.”
Since returning to Chang An, because of my worries, other than going to the Palace to see Li Yan, I stay home and rarely venture out on the streets. But since Huo Qu Bing is so eager and I don’t want to dampen his mood, I force myself up and leave the house with him.
We sit at a window table in Yi Ping Ju, with a pot of tea and some snacks, casually conversing. He laughs to discuss the origin of the “wine spring” and how it got that name. When the Emperor rewarded wine, there was too many people there and not enough to go around. So Huo Qu Bing poured the wine into the spring so everyone can partake of the Emperor’s wine, so the spring got the name “wine spring.” The entire area also got coined that name, and the original Xiong Nu name got tossed aside.
I laugh “So the spring actually tasted like wine?” He sipped his tea and said “The Emperor’s wine can’t possibly be ordinary. If everyone said they tasted wine, then the spring must’ve been scented with wine.”
He reached over to wipe some crumbs from my mouth, but since there were other customers in the restaurant, I was embarrassed and ducked my head and wiped it myself. He didn’t touch my face, but instead reached for my hand. I tried pulling it out of his grasp but he wouldn’t let go, so I just pouted and let him be. Huo Qu Bing smiled, his eyes as gentle as water, when suddenly his entire demeanor seemed to shift.
He still smiled, but his smile turned rather brittle. I curiously follow the direction of his gaze, and it was like getting smacked by a large object on my heart. I felt a current of pain pass through and my mind blanks as I’m rooted to the spot.
Jiu Ye, with his face ashen, is staring at my entwined hands with Huo Qu Bing’s. His expression reveals his disbelief. I’m so shocked that my first instinct is to retract my hand, but Huo Qu Bing tightly grips it and refuses to let go. It’s like a steel vise pressing into my flesh, and the pain makes my heart jerk but clears my head. I quietly let Huo Qu Bing hold my hand, sitting there without moving.
Shi Feng looked at Jiu Ye and then looked at me “Big sister Yu, you…..when did you return to Chang An? Did you know Jiu Ye…… Hearing the rumors that you had returned to Chang An, none of us could believe that you are with…..”
Jiu Ye, with a soft voice, decisively cut off Xiao Feng’s sentence “It’s good knowing you are fine.” His face had a fleeting smile, but it’s clear that his heart is filled with untold anguish. I casually replied “I’m sorry to cause you worry.” Huo Qu Bing smiled “Brother Meng, why don’t you join us and have some tea?” Jiu Ye wanted to decline but Tian Cao quickly agreed.
Shi Feng looked upset and gave me multiple angry glares, and a few huffy looks at Huo Qu Bing. Jiu Ye, his face still white, appeared to have regained his composure. With a smile he toasted Huo Qu Bing and casually chatted about random things. But the moment his gaze brushed over me, he would immediately avoid me, not looking me once in the eyes.
I kept my head lowered staring at the bamboo floor underneath the table. Huo Qu Bing continued to hold my hand, and all I felt was waves of icy yet burning sensation in my heart. I said to Huo Qu Bing “Let’s go home!” He looked at me, his eyes full of pain and pity, let go of my hand and lightly nodded his head.
“Jin Yu, what a coincidence! I was planning to visit you in the next few days.” Li Guang Li and a few of his rich playboy friends sauntered into the restaurant. He greeted me before noticing Huo Qu Bing. The other guys immediately stopped their goofy grins and quickly greeted Huo Qu Bing. Only Li Guang Li looked like he didn’t care, and even looked somewhat boastful and arrogant. He made a fist greeting to Huo Qu Bing “General Huo, what a surprise.” Huo Qu Bing ignored him without even a look, and appeared not to have heard him at all.
I laughed “I was just heading home. Come by the House if you need to see me about anything!” Li Guang Li kept giving me these laughing looks, getting me all confused. “What’s going on?” He bit his lip and looked a little bit embarrassed “Nothing, you’ll know in a few days.”
Huo Qu Bing shot Li Guang Li a freezing look, causing Li Guang Li to immediately turn away. But Li Guang Li suddenly got his courage up and turned back to looked at Huo Qu Bing, who had already moved on. Huo Qu Bing pined his eyes on me, indicting that we should leave now. Li Guang Li couldn’t get an upper hand, so he turned to look at me, displaying a pleased look.
Li Guang Li is someone who can’t keep a secret, and right now he’s actually exceedingly odd. Because of Li Yan, I can’t ignore this, so I try to goad him “Second brother Li is usually so forthright in how you handle yourself. Why are you suddenly all missish today? You’re acting more shy than a virgin bride about to get married.”
The other playboys started to laugh and quickly stopped themselves, but Li Guang Li’s face turned bright red and he hollered “It’s not that I don’t want to say it, just that my sister asked me earlier not to.” My heart was flip-flopping so I laugh “If her highness asked you not to, you obviously are afraid to, then I won’t press you further” and I made a move to leave.
“Who says I don’t dare?” Li Guang Li walked up to me, hesitated for a moment and looked elsewhere, afraid to meet my eyes “Sister said that she asked the Emperor to bestow marriage for me….to you.”
Jiu Ye, who had seemingly been casually drinking tea and not paying attention to the earlier conversation, suddenly dropped his cup and it shattered on the ground. He turned to stare at Li Guang Li. Huo Qu Bing appeared to have heard the funniest joke in the entire world, startling for a moment before bursting into laughter.
Li Guang Li looked shaken and quickly avoided Jiu Ye’s stare. When he saw Huo Qu Bing’s reaction, he appeared torn. Shi Feng yelled out “You’re a toad wanting to eat swan’s meat!” (i.e. he’s coveting something he doesn’t deserve).
Everything happened so fast I was rooted to the spot thinking of what to do. With Shi Feng’s yelling, it shook me out of my thoughts and I chided him “Xiao Feng, apologize immediately.” I have never spoken so harshly to Xiao Feng before, and he gave me a hurt look.
Jiu Ye smiled and calmly said “Apologies are only necessary when one did something wrong. Xiao Feng did nothing wrong, why apologize?” Huo Qu Bing nodded and coldly added “My sentiments exactly.”
I can’t believe the two of them are actually agreeing right now. I don’t want to escalate things so I turn and bow apologetically to Li Guang Li, who was red with embarrassment and glaring at Jiu Ye and Huo Qu Bing. He stormed off and I turned back to stomp my foot at Huo Qu Bing “Li Guang Li is a softie inside, if we ask nicely he won’t agree to this. Now you’ve made him want to do it because of his pride.”
Huo Qu Bing looked dismissive and coldly huffed “Ask him nicely? If you weren’t here, I would have ripped his head off on the spot.” I give a resigned sigh but Huo Qu Bing was already dragging me out of there “Let’s go see the Emperor right now to clear this up. Consort Li….good one…..humph!”
In the rush, I was afraid to look back, but I know that a pair of eyes are trained on my back. I was distracted so I trip on a small door ledge and Huo Qu Bing immediately supports me. He turned back and met Jiu Ye’s eyes, one cold and one warm, neither of them moving to avoid each other’s pointed stares. It felt like sparks were going off around me, so I quickly squeezed out a smile and grabbed Huo Qu Bing’s elbow and we left Yi Ping Ju.
We had barely stepped foot in the Palace and didn’t even see the Emperor when a middle-aged Palace lady stopped us and bowed to Huo Qu Bing. He was anxious to see the Emperor, but calmed down when he saw her “This is the Palace maid who serves the Empress. When I was small I called her Auntie Yun, but she refuses to let me call her that anymore. You can call her that for me from now on!” I quickly bow “Auntie Yun.”
Auntie Yun smiled “Yu Er? Last time General Huo spoke with the Empress at length about you. I’ve been looking forward to meeting you.”
Huo Qu Bing’s expression got colder again while Auntie Yun grabbed my hand “Come greet the Empress first, she’s also been wanting to meet you.”
In a bamboo pavilion, with the crysanthemums blooming white and yellow scenting the entire garden, a gentle breeze blows through the garden. We slow down our steps and Auntie Yun calls out “Your highness.” Empress Wei waits until we bow to her and then points to some seats, telling us to sit down.
Empress Wei sat across from me and studied me carefully. She sighed “Being with Qu Bing, it must be hard on you.” Huo Qu Bing spoke up “I won’t let it be hard on her.” Empress Wei had a small smile “The Emperor did not agree to marry her to Li Guang Li.”
Huo Qu Bing smiled “I’ll go thank the Emperor in a bit then. I didn’t get a chance to ask the Emperor for this marriage, but he knows how I feel about Jin Yu. Years ago he even teased me, saying that if I couldn’t win her by myself, he’ll go steal her for me.”
Empress Wei had a pitying look in her eyes “The Emperor is going to decide your marriage, but…..but it’s not with Jin Yu.” Huo Qu Bing jumped up “Other than Jin Yu, I do not want anyone else.” Empress Wei continued “The Emperor will agree to let you make Jin Yu your concubine, but she cannot be your wife.”
It’s almost dusk and a pair of swallows are circling above, their shadows sprayed on the table. I lower my head and count the bamboo strips on the table top, one, two, five….how many did I count to? I start over again, one, three, two…..
Huo Qu Bing was about to drag me out of there, but Empress Wei softly said “Qu Bing, this is more complicated than the battlefield. You can’t just swing your sword and kill your way out of here. Aren’t you afraid that you’ll do something that ends up harming Jin Yu.”
Huo Qu Bing stopped and sat back down “What does the Emperor intend?” Empress Wei explained “Why does the Emperor place you in such high favor? These recent deployments, he’s given you the military power, and every time you emerge victorious he rewards you greatly. Within two years, your position is almost pressing up against your uncle.”
Huo Qu Bing was quiet and didn’t respond. Liu Che has been wary of Wei Qing’s almost unfettered military power, and has been looking for the chance to divert Wei Qing’s armed forces. But not anyone can match up to Wei Qing, and the appearance of Huo Qu Bing has given him the perfectly opportunity to finally do so. Even better, Huo Qu Bing and Wei Qing’s personalities are diametrically opposite from each other, and Liu Che actually gets along better with Huo Qu Bing. So Liu Che is purposely diverting Wei Qing’s power to Huo Qu Bing and splitting the military into two factions, which will also further drive a wedge between Wei Qing and Huo Qu Bing.
Empress Wei waved her hand and swept from petals from the table “The Emperor wants to marry a princess to you.”
Years ago, Liu Che needed Wei Qing to help him battle the forces of the Bao family and the Wang family. But after those families were defeated, Wei Qing’s power and esteem continued to grow in court, things naturally shifted to account for that. Why did Wei Qing marry a princess many years older than him? The real reason no one can be certain. So many years have passed, and now it is Huo Qu Bing who is being asked once again to marry a princess.
The sun was setting, a giant red circle in the sky, shining over the three of us silently sitting there.
Huo Qu Bing raised his head and looked at the wild geese in the sky “Because of Uncle’s precedent, I’ve been as cautious as possible. Yet…..” He turned and gave me a warm smile “Other than you, I’m not marrying anyone else, princess or no princess.” Empress Wei raised an eyebrow but said nothing.
Huo Qu Bing bowed to the Empress and then took my hand and led me out. Empress Wei sighed softly, saying nothing and lowering her head down to her zither, strumming it. The sound of the zither rose and fell like the wind, a sorrow permeating the entire yard. Looking out, a waning sun illuminates a few falling petals floating in the wind.
The solitary moonlight in this dark night, a few fireflies glowing, the leaves slowly falling without a sound. My heart is as somber as this night, how can a few fireflies illuminate my future? I stand still for quite some time before suddenly getting up to chase the fireflies. My sleeves fluttering in the wind, the moment I capture a light, I immediately release it.
“Yu Er…..” the voice is soft and gentle, as if he’s afraid of startling this night scene. My heart shook and I immediately stopping moving, but I can’t turn my head around.
What is he doing here? I used to hope day and night for this moment, to one day hear his voice in this courtyard. But too much time has passed, my pain has lessened and I’ve since given up on this hope. Yet this voice spoke up now right behind me. “What are you doing here?” I asked.
“Yu Er, I…..I’m sorry.” Jiu Ye, using his crutch, walked up to me. “I…..I want to ask you to forgive me. Can you give me another chance?” My entire heart was thrown for a loop and I stare incredulously at him. “What did you say? I don’t understand what you just said.”
He entire face is filled with sorrow but his eyes are burning with intensity that scalds me until my heart hurts “My mistake was thinking I knew what was best, and never telling you what was really inside my heart. I made the decision on what was best for both of us, but I never asked you whether my decision was correct? And was it what you wanted? Yu Er, I do like you, you have always been in my heart.”
This is just so ludicrous. These words that I once would have exchanged my life to hear, but today, it only fills me with anger and sadness. I can’t help it and start laughing out loud “Jiu Ye, stop teasing me. I’ve already agreed to marry Huo Qu Bing.”
He gripped his crutch tightly and his face was white, but his words are unwavering “You haven’t married him yet. And right now he’s holding so much military power, and with his complicated family situation, his marriage isn’t just any ordinary marriage anymore. It will be decided based on political gain and risk, and it’s not something he can singlehandedly decide. Yu Er, it was all my fault before, but this time I don’t want to miss another chance.”
I stand there is a daze. How could this be happening? In the past I prayed and prayed and it never came true, so how did it all change now?
Jiu Ye’s hand reached over to brush a leaf off my forehead and his face lightly brushed my cheek. I bluntly turn my face to avoid his hand so he quickly withdrew it.
My initial shock has worn off a bit and I’ve regained some clarity, so I take a step back and harden my heart to say “Jiu Ye, I’ve……Qu Bing and I……I’m already his.”
He was stunned for a moment, with all these conflicted emotions, before smiling without a care “Did you forget my grandfather’s story? My grandmother was someone else’s concubine before marrying my grandfather. Do you think I will care about this?”
I’m so shocked that I keep shaking my head and murmuring “Then why? Why did you do what you did in the past…..”
Jiu Ye took two steps towards me and stared at me “Yu Er, initially I was worried about my family situation. Since grandfather established the Shi Enterprises, most of our earnings are spent helping the people of Xi Yu or helping those kingdoms strengthen their military might to guard against Han expansion. When the business fell into my hands, I’ve tried to distance myself from Xi Yu but there are still so many connections there. If this information was ever to leak out, my head rolling on the floor would be the quickest punishment that can happen. I knew I should have kept my distance from you, but I couldn’t help myself and did try to test whether you could accept me like this.”
I bit my lip “And I didn’t pass your test?” He shook his head “You passed. Way beyond my expectations.” I was confused so I looked at him “You are simply too wonderful, causing me to feel like I wasn’t good enough for you, and could never give you the happiness you deserve. So I arrogantly drew an emotional line to keep you outside.”
How in the world can there be an explanation like this? I coldly laugh and he quickly grabs my hand. I shake him off and pain flashed through his eyes. He lowered his head to say “Yu Er, my physical handicap, it’s not just my leg. I also…..I also cannot have kids. I cannot give you a normal family.”
He smiled bitterly “It’s not that I can’t consummate a marriage, it’s just that my offspring will inherit my physical condition which is hard to survive into adulthood. My mother gave birth to five kids, and I’m the only one who survived to adulthood. Four out of the five kids had a physical handicap. My parents died early partly because they couldn’t deal with the emotional pain of losing their children. After I studied medicine, I investigated my mother’s side of the family and discovered that she was the only child of my grandmother’s who survived. My grandmother also died early because she couldn’t deal with the loss. I’ve grown up under this spectre of my parents sorrow. Watching my mother happily get pregnant each time and then watching her painfully losing a child each time. I don’t want this to repeat itself.”
So he kept rejecting me over and over because of this? Why did he think I was like other women out there who need to have children? Does one need children to be happy? Why didn’t he ask me what I wanted?
I was filled with a hundred different emotions, my heart hurting so much. He actually laughed at himself, so I reached out and started hitting him. My hands landed on his shoulder, his chest “Why…..why didn’t you tell me this earlier? Would I care about these things? All I cared about was you!”
He stood there without moving, allowing me to hit him over and over again. My heart was in so much pain that I felt the strength in my arms slowly seep away. My body shakes and I have no more energy to hit him. I loosen my fisted hands while my tears start to fall uncontrollably.
He quickly wiped away my tears. “Yu Er, from now on I will never let you cry again. Since you left, I’ve been trying to make arrangements for all the businesses in the Shi Enterprises. Once I settle everything, let’s buy a few horses and leave Chang An. We’ll travel fast and disappear completely. From the Northern desert to the Southern valleys, we’ll go wherever you want to go. There will be dangers ahead, but I know that together we can weather any obstacle.”
My tears continue to rain down, no amount of wiping is enough to stop it. In minutes, Jiu Ye’s robe is completely soaked through at the shoulder. Since leaving the Palace this evening, my heart has been as heavy as a lead ball. Right now I don’t know why I’m crying, all I know is that my heart hurts, it hurts so much, so much.
A hand brusquely jerked me aside, but it was so powerful that my entire body flew backwards. Before I can even make a sound, I’ve already fallen into a familiar embrace. Huo Qu Bing’s entire body is rigid and his arm is so tight around me that I’m almost unable to breath. He didn’t look at me once, only giving Jiu Ye a smile “Yu Er’s tears, from now on I will wipe it away for her. There is no need to burden you.”
Jiu Ye and Huo Qu Bing stared at each other for some time, and then they both turned to look at me. I closed my eyes, too scared to look at either of them. My tears continued to fall and my body continues to shake.
Huo Qu Bing said “Excuse us” and then picked me up in his arms and turned around to leave. His footsteps are rapid, and behind us Jiu Ye spoke up “Yu Er, this time it’s my turn to win your heart.” Huo Qu Bing stopped for a brief moment before continuing to walk away at an even faster pace.