This chapter KILLS me, the first of many such chapters where I just start twisting in a knot. For the first time in nine years, Liu Fu Ling and Yun Ge are so close, yet so far away. She’s cooking for him, the entire meal she’s been preparing to cook for Ling gege this entire time. But she does so because she’s given up on the man she thinks is her Ling gege, so she might as well cook it for who she thinks is a random person, since the guy she intended to eat it can’t eat it. Except……. he IS eating it. Grawrrrrrr. When he eats it, he knows each dish, knows what it means, knows what the chef intended. And the even bigger irony is that Meng Jue is eating too, but he can’t taste Yun Ge’s cooking. He has never been able to. So what does say about their messed up and criss-crossed fates? I dunno, only that every time Ling gege hurts, I die a little inside.
Chapter 8: A Pair of Persons
“Who is Zhu Gong Zhi?”
“I am” Yun Ge replied.
The Princess nodded “Ding Wai Ren told me you are a woman, then why are you dressed like a man, and call yourself Gong Zhi (gentleman)?” Before Yun Ge could answer, Ding Wai Ren replied “It has to be this way, the officials are always dismissive of women. The Elegant Chef likely has no choice but to conceal her true gender so people can’t nitpick at her.”
His words hit a sore spot for the Princess, who looked at Yun Ge with new appreciation “You all get up! Boy or a girl are all born from parents, but men make the rules. They can have many wives but women…..ay! You are so young and already you’ve made a name for yourself in Chang An. The first time I sampled your cuisine, it was as good as the Palace chefs. Plus it was a lot of fun. Today’s meal please put a lot of thought into it. If it’s good I will reward you greatly.”
Yun Ge and Xu Ping Jun backed out of the room. She whispered to Yun Ge “So the Princess is just like us!” Yun Ge teased back “Did you think she had an extra nose or eye?” Xu Ping Jun huffed “Not that! It’s what she said, it was like what I think but can’t figure out. Because men make the rules, we women are forced to be restricted.”
Yun Ge said “Stop mulling over what she said and help me plan the meal. Today is a bit odd. It’s not the first time the Princess or Ding Wai Ren ate my food, but it was the first time she summoned me and specifically reminded me to make the meal good.”
Xu Ping Jun worried “The Princess said she’ll reward you if you do well, that means she’ll likely punish you if you don’t. We can’t make a single mistake today.”
Yun Ge sighed “If I cook a few more times for these nobles, I’ll likely stop enjoying cooking. I don’t like this feeling. Cooking should be about feeling happy and carefree. Eating should be the same way. Whether it’s for friends or family, after a hard day’s work, eating together is the happiest time of the day. It shouldn’t be like this right now.”
Xu Ping Jun hugged Yun Ge’s shoulder “Tonight you cook for Bing Yi and me, whatever you feel like and we’ll happily eat it. Then we can forget everything about today.” Yun Ge nodded.
Xu Ping Jun suggested “Why don’t you forget that the person eating today is a noble and just think of the person as a good friend. Cook for someone you are thinking about but cannot see. Imagine him eating your food and it will make him happy. He will feel how much you care about him and it will warm him up inside.”
Yun Ge laughed “Xu jiejie, you complimented the Princess, but I think you have an even more clever tongue than the Princess.”
“Yun Ge, you are also good at cheering people up. Okay, stop jabbering and let’s get to work!”
Liu Fu Ling’s personality was cold and hard to get close to. But he was close to this elder Princess since they were kids and she was able to understand his likes and dislikes the way others might not.
When Liu Fu Ling was young, he loved reading stories about adventure and heroic yarns. He liked to talk with the various ambassadors and travelers to the Han court. Even though these interests have long ago been sealed in his memory, but at the Princess’s Estate, he can temporarily forget everything and quietly enjoy the things he can no longer touch in the Palace.
A Xi Yu girl is playing a tune while the Princess explained “Your majesty, this is a new tune that the Chang An dancing houses are playing. The musician is playing an instrument called the pipa, which supposedly the Gui Su Empress enjoys very much. It’s so popular in Gui Su that the commoners all know how to play it.”
She saw the cup of wine before Liu Fu Ling “That wine is called “Zhu Ye Qing” and is the most beloved wine in Chang An. Only one barrel is sold a day, so the price is even higher than Palace wine! The drinkers of the wine love to say “Zhu Ye Qing, the gentlemen…..”
Liu Fu Ling’s eyes lightly passed over Meng Jue and then landed back on the girl playing the pipa. The normally talkative Ding Wai Ren just sat behind the Princess and said not a word. He’s clearly very fearful of Liu Fu Ling and is too scared to even pander to him.
Liu Fu Ling also doesn’t like to talk, so in the entire room only the voice of the Princess could be heard along the music from the pipa.
Meng Jue gave a slight smile. Interesting! Liu Fu ling is genuinely listening to the song. In Chang An, this is the first time he’s seen anyone at a banquet actually listen to the music.
“Princess, the food is ready. Shall the meal commence?” a maid asked. The Princess looked at Liu Fu Ling, who nodded.
The dishes were brought out but no one approached the Emperor, only handing each dish to Yu An who checked it out before placing it in front of Li Fu Ling. When the wishes were all arranged, the maid took out the handkerchief Yun Ge gave her and proceeded to follow the instructions on it.
“Traveling to traveling, a parting with a gentleman. Please choose the first dish.”
Liu Fu Ling startled and turned to the Princess “Royal sister, does this meal require guessing riddles?”
“That……today’s chef is not from the estate. I summoned the Elegant Chef by the name of Zhu Gong Zhi to come cook. To not make the chef nervous, I did not tell the chef the meal would be for the Emperor. Who knew the chef was so particular about the food. If my royal brother doesn’t like it, then I can send it all away.”
Yu An spoke up from behind Liu Fu Ling “Your majesty, your servant I have also heard the same, that this Elegant Chef uses painting, calligraphy, song and poetry in the dishes name and presentation. There is also a bamboo plaque where the notable literary talents can leave their writing and earn a free meal. Some of the scholars your majesty has met with have left their writing there.”
Ding Wai Ren saw Meng Jue staring at him and he made a gesture indicating that it wasn’t him, it was solely the Princess’s idea to summon Yun Ge here and there was nothing he could do.
Liu Fu Ling shook his head at the Princess “Food is but sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy. The order in which it is consumed will of course taste different. This chef really put a lot of thought into it. I don’t want to waste his efforts. I will accept his challenge and guess his riddle.”
“Traveling to traveling, a parting with a gentleman.” Liu Fu Ling thought about it and looked at all the dishes before him. One plate was shaped like a willow leaf and on it there were many crystal meal balls each the size of pearls. It looked like a person’s tears. Liu Fu Ling took one pearl meat ball.
When he ate it, it slid down his throat, first sweet and then with a bitter aftertaste. Liu Fu Ling read a poem “Loathe to cut a branch, hate to part each year.” This dish used the idiom about breaking a branch to send someone off. The crystal meat balls represent the tears of someone parting.
The maid look at her list and smiled “Your majesty is correct. Zhu Gong Zhi’s first dish is that one. The name is called “Farewell”.
Even if the Emperor had guessed wrong the maid was ready to say he was right anyways, but he was indeed right which made it even better.
“The parting is thousands of miles, each at a corner of this world. Please use the second dish.” He saw a noodle soup dish with little pumpkin like things floating on top shaped like stars. But when he ate it, it didn’t taste sweet like pumpkin, but was a dryness that mixed with the bitter of earlier and left a bitter dryness.
Liu Fu Ling’s mouth was bitter and dry and he recited the poem “Life like Can Shang, East and West cannot meet.” Because he was feeling genuine emotion, when he recited these two lines it was especially touching.
The Can star is on the West, the Shang star is on the East, but it never shines on each other. They are like two people separated from each other across the world who can never meet. “Congratulations to Your majesty. This dish is indeed called “Can Shang.”
“The days parted is growing longer, the clothing grows shorter. Please use the 5th dish.”
Li Fu Ling seemed out of it and before even looking at the dishes he recited “What is a lifetime’s longing? Only seeking a green woven skirt.” When Liu Fu Ling recited the poem he didn’t select a dish but only sitting there in his own world. No one said anything until finally Yu An dared to say “Your majesty.”
Liu Fu Ling’s eyes were shaded as he scanned the dishes. He picked up a dish made with lotus and lotus root. The lotus stem was so bitter it was like the sadness of someone departing, The lotus root had so many threads that means when people are separated their longing for each other cannot be severed.
“This dish is called “Longing” Liu Fu Ling said. The maid quickly answered “Yes.”
“The floating clouds cover the sky, a traveler does not return. Please use the 6th dish.”
“Missing you spurs on aging, time waits for no one. Please use the 7th dish.”
A previous dish’s taste is used to draw out the taste of a subsequent dish. From bitter to dry, from sour to clear, from clear to refreshing, from refreshing to sweet. In the end it, was the simple taste of oil and salt. After tasting so many flavors, when it got to the basic taste of oil and salt, it tasted like the most ordinary warmth.
“Tossing shall not be repeated, endeavoring to add more food. Please use the final dish.”
Liu Fu Ling picked up the final dish which was a simple rice porridge. He silently ate it and said nothing.
The Princess started to fret. Why didn’t the Emperor say the name of the dish? Was he angry? He could be. Why did the Elegant Chef send such a common rice porridge dish out. She wanted to step in but saw the look of joy on the maid’s face.
The maid bowed to the Emperor and handed the menu to the Princess before backing away. The other maids surrounded the maid who served the Emperor and wanted to know all about him and whether he noticed her. She laughed “You guys have heard too much as the former Emperor’s passionate ways. Don’t you know what this Emperor is like? Stop daydreaming and get back to work.”
The other maids could see she was in a cold sweat. She explained “Riddling a meal is fine, but it should at least be happy riddles. But every one of them was sad! And the final dish was a rice porridge no less, and it’s name was called “Speechless.” So what could I say?” At the very end, she was so worried the Emperor would guess wrong. But if the Elegant Chef was odd in her cooking, who knew the Emperor was just as odd in understanding it during his tasting. Thank god he guessed correctly since he was rumored to be matchless in intelligence.
The Princess opened the menu and read that the final dish was called “Speechless.” No wonder the Emperor didn’t say a single word. She stopped fretting and turned to the Emperor with a smile. Slowly, Liu Fu Ling smiled.
If one is a soulmate, then no words are necessary. This meal having progressed to this point, those who understand need not say anything, and those who don’t can talk all they want and it means nothing.
In a million different hopes and wishes, all one wants for a loved one is to be warm, to be full, and to take care of oneself. The meal started off with dishes of very strong flavors, but the most delicious and nourishing dish was the last one with its simple oil and salt flavor. Just like life has its bitter, sweet, sour, and spicy, with many ups and downs, but the final wish is to have a life time of happiness in the most calm and ordinary of ways.
Yu An’s eyes widened…..the Emperor smiled! Liu Fu Ling smiled at the Princess “The chef is good, the meal was good, thank you royal sister.”
Meng Jue inexplicably started to feel uneasy. The Princess looked at the Emperor with an ache and she suddenly said “As long as my royal brother likes it. Do you want to meet Zhu Gong Zhi? Actually Zhu Gong Zhi is…….”
Meng Jue accidentally spilled his wine with a loud bang and it prevented the Princess from finishing her sentence. Meng Jue quickly kneeled to beg forgiveness. Liu Fu Ling told him to get up and Meng Jue bowed three more times before getting up. During which Ding Wai Ren kept tugging at the Princess’s sleeve.
The Princess finally reacted. The Emperor has not yet consummated his marriage to Empress Shang Guan. If she offered a woman to the Emperor, she would upset Shang Guan Jie and Huo Guang. Forget Huo Guang, she was very close to Shang Guan Jie. She needn’t drop a rock on her foot for this. The Princess smiled and told the musicians to strike up another tune and summoned a dancer to keep avoiding the earlier topic.
Liu Fu Ling finished his porridge and said to the Princess “Greatly reward the Elegant Chef.” Yu An softly said “If Your majesty likes the cooking, why not summon the chef into the Palace so the chef can cook for Your majesty every day?”
Liu Fu Ling said nothing. Meng Jue, the Princess, Ding Wai Ren were all tense, with Ding Wai Ren eager to kill that Yu An for ruining his glorious future. After a few moments, Liu Fu Ling lowered his eyes and said “What this person wants, I cannot give. Let the chef be free to do what he wants to do the most is the best way to appreciate his cooking.”
Meng Jue’s heart thundered and he couldn’t identify what he was feeling. This Emperor has given him so many unexpected surprises.
Liu Fu Ling ascended the throne at a young age, having the title but no real power. Emperor Wu of Han also left him a mess to clean up. Faced with the ambitious and calculating Huo Guang, the vicious and greedy Shang Guan Jie, the power-hungry and toady Xang Hong Yang, plus the other royals like the Infante of Yen who are eyeing the throne, Liu Fu Ling managed to creatively maintain a balance and very carefully push forward his reforms.
Meng Jue long suspected Liu Fu Ling was not ordinary, but meeting him in person it was nevertheless a surprise. How many Sons of the Heavens don’t believe that he owns everything on this earth?
Yun Ge was still shocked long after she received a great reward. Someone understood her dishes? She thought about it and then lost her surprise. The nobles in Chang An are long used to eating delicacies and the maid likely said yes to every guess even if it was incorrect.
She cooked those dishes today because of what Xu Ping Jun said. She was tired of cooking dishes she didn’t like, so she decided to be impudent and cook what she wanted today. After cooking it, she let off some of her frustration. Since the person she wanted to eat it would never be able to, then it didn’t matter who ate it.
If it was that easy to find another kindred spirit, then there wouldn’t just be one song “Mountains and Streams” passed on for a thousand years. Buo Ya wouldn’t have been so inconsolable with the death of Zi Qi that he tore the strings on his zither, never to play again.
When Yun Ge left the Princess’s Estate, she saw a row of people kneeled in the front. Xu Ping Jun craned her neck wanting to see who was that important. The curtains on the carriage was just being lowered and all Yun Ge could see was the sleeve of a black and gold robe.
Xu Ping Jun wondered who it was, and Yun Ge said “Should be the Emperor. I heard the books say that black and gold are the royal colors of the Han dynasty. The black robe with the gold embroidering must be the dragon robe.”
Xu Ping Jun yelped “Oh my old mother!” and then kneeled to bow her head. Yun Ge giggled “You are clearly raised right under the Emperor’s thumb. He’s long gone and you still are a loyal citizen bowing.” She picked Xu Ping Jun up and they left.
When Yun Ge saw Meng Jue standing to the side of the road, her laughter got stuck in her throat. Under the Winter sun, he was wearing a long robe and standing casually, but he exuded a powerful and dashing aura.
Xu Ping Jun glanced between Meng Jue and Yun Ge before muttering “I need to go do something.” Yun Ge wanted to follow Xu Ping Jun but Meng Jue called out “Yun Ge, I have something to discuss with you.”
Yun Ge stopped “Say it then.” Meng Jue continued “If the Princess asks you to cook again, do your best to decline. I’ve already discussed with Ding Wai Ren and he will shield you.” He was standing right in front of her, but why did she feel like he was separated from her through a dense fog, seeming close but really far away.
Yun Ge nodded “Thanks. You were there today? Did you eat my food? Was it good?”
It was just past noon on this Winter day and the light golden sunlight shone directly on Yun Ge. Her face was turned up and she was staring intently at Meng Jue. In her eyes there was a flame burning and she was akin to a small sun.
Meng Jue’s heart shook and then he controlled himself and smiled “Delicious. Very delicious.”
“Describe delicious.” “The poetry seeped into each dish, the colors were beautiful, every bite was tasty.” “Tasty? Explain tasty?” “Yun Ge, your food is delicious, explaining any more is begging for praise.”
“But I want to hear you say it.” “The flavor was just right, the taste was unique, everything was in perfect balance.”
Meng Jue saw Yun Ge staring at him without blinking, looking somewhat disappointed. He thought his words were accurate so he asked “Yun Ge, what’s wrong?’ Yun Ge was initially disappointed, then she thought something was wrong. Her sadness dissipated leaving only shock. She took a deep breath and composed herself before saying “Nothing. Meng Jue, are you doing anything? If not, can you walk me home? You haven’t gathered with us and you’ve been back in Chang An for quite some time. Let’s have dinner tonight, okay? That…..” Yun Ge looked around “…..that horrible Infante has left Chang An, right?”
Meng Jue didn’t answer but Yun Ge already grabbed his elbow and steered him along. Meng Jue wanted to break free but his body betrayed his mind and he allowed Yun Ge to direct him.
The entire way, Yun Ge chattered non stop. Everything she saw she would talk about and turn it into a joyful moment in life.
“Mr. Meng.” An luxurious carriage with a regal horse, a pretty face appeared once the curtains were lifted and Huo Cheng Jun stepped down from the carriage. Meng Jue stood by the roadside and spoke with her happily.
Yun Ge stared at Huo Cheng Jun, but it was clear the other girl didn’t even deign to look at Yun Ge. And it appeared that Meng Jue has forgotten she was there as well. Yun Ge started stepping backwards like she was just a random pedestrian, counting in her mind, one, two, three……..
Huo Cheng Jun and Meng Jue, one a beautiful young lady, one an elegant young gentleman. Their conversing became a beautiful sight to see.
……..ninety-eight, ninety-nine, one hundred. Oh, times up! Third Brother may be an unreasonable person at times, but he was right about some things. Only by not caring can it become easy to let go.
Yun Ge took a few steps backwards before turning around and running off. The two people conversing appeared not to notice the people around them, but in truth one person’s smile became even deeper, while the other person paused for a moment before continuing the conversation.
Yun Ge cooked, Xu Ping Jun helped, while Liu Bing Yi tended to the kitchen fire. The three of them worked while laughing and joking. Three people squeezed into a small kitchen, but in the dusk hours of Winter it felt warm.
Xu Ping Jun talked about missing the Emperor in the Princess’s Estate “It’s all Yun Ge’s fault, walking so slow. Stopping to pick a few leaves, a few flowers, otherwise we would have seen him.” Yun Ge teased “The fortune teller said you had a noble life in store. There is no one more noble than the Emperor, so do you want to be the Empress?”
Xu Ping Jun stared at Liu Bing Yi and wanted to shut Yun Ge up “You bad girl, stop talking nonsense!” and chased after Yun Ge, who begged for mercy and asked Liu Bing Yi for help. He just sat down “I’m afraid of the fire, so I’ll watch from over here.”
Right when Xu Ping Jun’s oily hand was about to paw Yun Ge’s face, Yun Ge ran head on into a person walking in the door. She wobbled and the person grabbed her tightly.
Meng Jue turned and blocked Xu Ping Jun while openly shielding Yun Ge. He smiled “What a riot! I thought I could find dinner here, who knew the two chefs were in the middle of a fight.” Xu Ping Jun’s face turned pale when she saw Meng Yue. She lowered her hands and immediately stepped back.
Yun Ge’s face was red and she escaped from Meng Jue’s arms “Just family cooking, doesn’t require a lot of fancy knife work. It’ll be done shortly.” Yun Ge turned back to cooking, but she unknowingly started to smile. Her face was still pink with embarrassment and now tinted with a slight smile.
Liu Bing Yi’s eye brushed past Yun Ge and landed on Meng Jue, who surprisingly was smiling directly at him. It was supposedly a warm gentle smile, but Liu Bing Yi somehow felt it was full of mockery. The two men’s eyes met for a moment before each turned away and resumed their normal conversation.
After dinner, Liu Bing Yi offered to the do the dishes, while Yun Ge just made more of a mess with her offer to help. Rather than changing water, she ended up playing with it.
Xu Ping Jun wanted to walk closer but she hesitated and then leaned on the door. She silently looked at Liu Bing Yi, who frowned one moment and then was laughing out loud the next. Meng Jue walked up to her and she immediately straightened her body. He didn’t seem to mind, turning around to walk away. Xu Ping Jun hesitated and then called out “Meng dage, I……” but she couldn’t continue.
Under the flickering candlelight, Meng Jue’s smile seemed ephemeral “With the Ouhou family situation, it’s normal for you to be afraid of me.” Xu Ping Jun didn’t try to deny it, but she didn’t want to think about it, wanting to chalk it all up to “fate” like the fortune teller said.
Xu Ping Jun forced a smile and buried everything deeper into her heart. She looked at Liu Bing Yi and Yun Ge “I grew up with Bing Yi, but sometimes I feel like an outsider and can’t walk into his world. What about you towards Yun Ge?”
Meng Jue smiled without answering, only asking “Have you changed your mind?” Xu Ping Jun firmly shook her head, it was the only thing she was sure about in the entire world. “The first time I saw him, I was hiding behind the fire crying because of my home situation. He knelt down and asked “little girl, why are you crying?” He was so gentle, just like a real brother. So I told a stranger all about my life. He’s always been by my side. When my father gets drunk, he piggybacks him home. When my mother yells at me, he will comfort me, like taking me out to steal sweet potatoes. During the new year, my mom won’t let me buy any new things, so he will save money to buy me something. When I can’t finish my chores, he will do it for me. Every time I think about him, I know that no matter how difficult life is, I can endure it. Do you think I could ever change my mind about him?”
Meng Jue smiled “Doesn’t sound likely.” Xu Ping Jun sighed “Mother isn’t forcing me to marry anymore, but I can’t stay here forever.” There was suddenly a peal of laughter from inside the house and both Xu Ping Jun and Meng Jue turned around. Whatever Yun Ge and Liu Bing Yi were talking about, they were guffawing so loudly they could barely straighten themselves.
A sink full of dishes, but after some time washing only three have been washed. Liu Bing Yi appeared to be annoyed that Yun Ge wasn’t helping and was instead hindering so he wanted to shoo her out. But Yun Ge refused to leave and she was just chattering and hopping around. Liu Bing Yi was alternatively angry and laughing. He grabbed some ash on his hands and smeared it on Yun Ge’s face.
Xu Ping Jun sneaked a peek at Meng Jue, who still had his usual slight smile on his face, not showing any displeasure whatsoever. She was feeling down and was about to walk back into the house when Meng Jue spoke up “Do you know Minister Zhang He?”
“I’ve met him a few times, he was father’s former superior. He also knows Bing Yi and was very good to him. But Bing Yi rarely went to see him so they’ve grown distant.” Meng Jue continued “If Bing Yi has an elder in his life, that person would be Zhang He.” Xu Ping Jun found that hard to believe, trying to figure out why Meng Jue told her this.
After everything was cleaned up it was time for bed. Meng Jue said “I need to go leave now. I’ll walk Yun Ge home.” Yun Ge laughed “Just a few steps, you still want to walk me?” Xu Ping Jun had her head lowered and said nothing.
Liu Bing Yi stood up “A few steps is still a few steps and you two are girls. Meng Jue will walk Yun Ge, then I’ll walk Ping Jun home.” The four of them walked out, two turning left, two turning right. Different than their normal bantering, the four of them were uncharacteristically quiet.
At her front door, Meng Jue didn’t appear to be leaving. Since he didn’t leave, Yun Ge didn’t hurry him, and they stood there looking at each other. Yun Ge didn’t know why, but she could laugh and tease Liu Bing Yi, but with Meng Jue she didn’t know what to say.
After a few moments, Meng Jue handed something to Yun Ge. She looked down and saw under the moonlight that it was a hair pin. It was simple, with only gold and silver used to make two intricate gold and silver flowers. It looked like it was dancing and alive on the pin.
Yun Ge saw Meng Jue’s smile and her heart pumped “There are many flower pins but its rare to see a Gold Silver Flower pin. It’s very unique and pretty. For me?” Meng Jue looked around “Is there anyone else here?”
Yun Ge held the pin and then handed it back “I can’t accept.” Meng Jue’s eye turned chilly but his smile didn’t waver, his voice still as warm and gentle as before “Why?”
“I……I…..just can’t accept it.”
“Even the courts deciding a case needs to have a reason. I don’t want to be a clueless prisoner convicted of a crime I don’t know about. You have to tell me what I did wrong.” Yun Ge’s heart was like a string was tied to it, and with every word Meng Jue said, it would tug a little and hurt a little. Yun Ge couldn’t answer and remained silent.
“Because of Liu Bing Yi?” Yun Ge’s head jerked up “You…..” She met Meng Jue’s eyes and lowered her head again “…….how did you know?”
Meng Jue smiled but it had a sliver of disdain “How much did you do for him behind the scenes? I’m not blind. I just can’t figure out what you’re thinking? If you like him, then why do you keep helping Xu Ping Jun? If you don’t like him, that also doesn’t seem right based on what you do for him.”
Yun Ge bit her lip and said nothing. Meng Jue looked at Yun Ge without taking the hair pin back or leaving. He fixed his robe and sat down “Sit down and tell me slowly, we have hours until sunrise.”
Yun Ge sat down “Want to hear a story?” Meng Jue didn’t look at her but instead looked at the stars “The night is long and I have a lot of patience.”
Yun Ge looked at the sky, it was yet another star-filled night. “I like stars, and I learned them all when I was small. They are like my friends, they know everything about me. I told you before I knew Liu Bing Yi when we were kids. We were childhood friends. But……but I actually only met him once. I gave him my pearl embroidered shoe and we had a marriage promise. But because we were so young, and met only once, he’s forgotten about it.
When Meng Jue heard the part about a pearl embroidered shoe leading to a marriage promise, his eyes turned even darker, almost like the pitch black night shattered in his eyes.
“I don’t know why I haven’t asked him directly. Perhaps it’s a girl’s shyness and disappointment. He’s forgotten me. And I……because of Xu jiejie. Perhaps he’s no longer…….. Bing Yi dage is wonderful, but he’s not what I envisioned.”
“In your heart, what is he supposed to be like?”
“That…..he…….he would remember me…..just like…..” Yun Ge looked for what to say “it’s just a feeling, I can’t explain.” Yun Ge handed the hair pin over “I’m engaged to someone, I can’t take your gift.”
Meng Jue took the hair pin back without saying anything. The moment it left Yun Ge’s hand she felt a sense of loss. Who knew Meng Jue took a look at her before putting the hair pin in her hair.
Yun Ge stared at Meng Jue, who got up and left “I’m not proposing to you, so why are you running away? Don’t you want to know why I am? I’ll take you to see an elder tomorrow. Don’t be nervous, it’s just tea and conversation. I did something wrong and am afraid to see this elder. If I bring a friend, this uncle won’t chastise me with an outsider there. This hair pin is my thanks in advance for coming with me. Remember to wear it tomorrow.”
Yun Ge had a disappointed look on her face watching Meng Jue leave. Long after he left, she weakly leaned against the door. Above her the stars were glittering in the sky, each representing one of the over a thousand days that have gone by. She couldn’t figure out whether she was feeling sad more, or happy more.
Meng Jue took Yun Ge through the streets of Chang An’s most wealthy neighborhood, traveling for some time before arriving at a residence hidden deep in at the end of a street. Due to clever construction, outside was the lavish street but inside was the calm of a wooded glen, like two different worlds. Yun Ge whispered “A tiny hermit goes to the mountain, a hefty hermit hides in the city, your uncle is clearly not an ordinary person.”
Meng Jue assured Yun Ge “Don’t worry, my uncle has no children of his own but loves daughters, so he’ll definitely like you. He might even be nicer to you than to me.” Inside the room it was neither hot nor cold. Other than a table and a bookshelf, it was an open space. On the shelf there was a water lily that was perfuming the entire room. “Yun Ge, you wait here and I’ll go see my uncle. No matter what happens, just smile.”
Yun Ge walked to the bookshelf and looked at the different water liles. From the distance she could hear voices, but she didn’t want to eavesdrop. From the tone it sounded very harsh, like Meng Jue was being severely reprimanded.
“Doing business does require interacting with officials and nobles, but no matter what you can’t get involved with Han politics. What kind of friends have you made in Chang An? Using thousands and millions of gold bullions, where did you spend it on? Why did you secretly sell iron ore to the Infante of Yen? Don’t bullshit me about doing business. I’ve never seen you bring in any payments. And where did those previous jade and antiques go? Don’t think that I’m sick so I won’t know about it. Xiao Jue, with the way you are behaving, even if I’m sick I can’t leave the businesses to you. Money can be used to buy power and prestige, but it…….”
He saw someone in the room and he stopped “Xiao Jue, you brought a friend? Why didn’t you tell me?”
He was initially displeased but when he saw the girl, she appeared as light as the clouds or the flowers blooming in the wilderness. Standing next to the water lily she did not lose an ounce of luster. Despite looking fierce, he lost some of his displeasure.
Yun Ge heard footsteps and smiled as she bowed “Yun Ge greets Uncle.” Meng Jue introduced her “Uncle Feng, this is Yun Ge.” Yun Ge smiled and bowed again. Not sure what illness Uncle Feng has, he looked slightly jaundiced but still quite alert.
Uncle Feng stared at the hair pin in Yun Ge’s hair for some time and then checked her out. He told her to sit and asked “Yun Ge, where are you from?”
“I don’t know. Since I was small I’ve traveled everywhere with my parents. I’ve lived in many places for short periods of time. My daddy and mom loved experiencing new things, so we’ve been to many countries and lived in many countries. I don’t know where to consider myself from. I have homes in many Xi Yu kingdoms, and even a home in the Northern regions.”
Uncle Feng smiled “You speak Han very well, your parents must speak Han at home?” Yun Ge nodded. Yes! How come she never thought about it. Her parents spoke a lot of different languages but at home they only spoke Han. Come to think of it, all her customs and habits at home are Han. But her parents have never been to the Han dynasty.
Uncle Feng’s severe expression softened “Do you have any older brothers?” “I have two.” “What is your eldest brother’s name?” “His name is a single character Yi.” Uncle Feng’s face turned even more happy and he asked “Is he doing well?”
“Brother is much older than me, when I was born he was already an adult. He’s always traveling and I haven’t seen him in three years. But he’s really capable, so he ought to be fine.”
“Your mom…..she….is she hale?” “Very well.”
Even though Yun Ge was reminded since she was young to never discuss her family, but Uncle Feng’s questions don’t seem too material. Plus he’s Meng Jue’s elder. If she brought Meng Jue home to meet her mom, her mom would likely ask all sorts of questions of him. So she decided to answer Uncle Feng’s questions today.
Uncle Feng said nothing and just stared at Yun Ge, his expression joy mixed with sadness. Even though the mood was odd, and the way Uncle Feng was staring at her made Yun Ge feel a tad uncomfortable, she remembered what Meng Jue said and just kept a smile on her face. After a long time, Uncle Feng sighed and gently asked “Did Xiao Jue give you the hair pin in your hair?”
Yun Ge’s face turned red and she lightly nodded. Meng Jue walked up to Yun Ge and held her hand to help her up. Yun Ge wanted to pull her hand out but Meng Jue held on even tighter. Meng Jue bowed to Uncle Feng “Uncle, Yun Ge and I need to go now. If Uncle has nothing else, we’ll excuse ourselves.”
Uncle Feng looked at Meng Jue and Yun Ge standing side by side and holding hands, saying nothing and appearing to be remembering something. His expression was sadness mixed with some joy “You guys go!” And then he added to Yun Ge “You can treat here like your own home. Come play anytime. And if Xiao Jue is mean to you, remember to come tell Uncle.”
Uncle Feng’s words were spoken like an elder of Meng Jue who has accepted Yun Ge as someone special to Meng Jue. Yun Ge felt shy awkwardness and all she could do was nod her head and smile.