The longer Yun Ge stays in Chang An, the more she’s going to get involved with the current political landscape of the capital. Different than when her parents lived there, when the Emperor wielded absolute power, right now there is a delicate balance between Liu Fu Ling and his three Regents. While Yun Ge came to find her Ling gege and she has no interest or aspirations beyond that, she is nevertheless surrounded by people who desire power or cannot escape from it. Sometimes I wish she were slightly more aware and clued in to everything, but then I remember that she’s a sixteen year old girl who grew up coddled and shielded from reality. While I want her to grow wiser, sometimes the path towards understanding means the loss of innocence. Starting from here, Huo Cheng Jun will continue to cross paths with Yun Ge more and more, as the two girls figure out how to fight for one Meng Jue. This is going to get ugly, cousins or no cousins.
Chapter 9: Two Blooming Flowers
All of Chang An, nay, all of the Han dynasty, is riveted on the “Salt and Steel Conference” organized by the Emperor. When Liu Che was on the throne, to support his military endeavors which required lots of funds, he prohibited private sale of salt and steel and kept it within government control. Since then, the prices continued to rise. When Emperor Wen and Emperor Jing were on the throne, the price of steel and salt was equal to tea and oil. By the time of Emperor Wu, it had doubled and tripled.
A black market formed for the sale of salt and steel, despite the death penalty punishment levied on anyone caught doing so. Since Liu Fu Ling ascended the throne, he lessened punishments, and a group of scholars advocated ending the prohibition against private sale of salt and steel. Two Regents Xang Hong Yang and Shang Guan Jie vehemently opposed it, while Huo Guang maintained his silence on this subject.
Liu Fu Ling summoned from all the territories and cities around sixty scholars to come to Chang An to conference on this subject. Such individuals came from all over including even poorer areas and know better the suffering of the common people, so this was greeted with joy by the people.
The “Salt and Steel Conference” lasted for over a month and became fodder for discussion in every tea house. Enterprising folks gathered gossip about it and created poetic phrases about it to tell at tea houses for money.
With Xang Hong Yang and Prime Minister Tian Qian Qiu at the helm, that group pushed for the government to maintain sole control over the salt and steel trade claiming it benefitted the people. It added to the treasury and prevented Infantes from running their own salt and steel trade and growing too wealthy and powerful.
The reformists advocated returning it to the hands of the private citizens. The salt and steel trade should benefit the people and make them wealthier, which would in turn make the country wealthier. These two groups opposition to each other gradually extended beyond this topic and into every political issue out there.
Towards the Xiong Nu, the reformists wanted to lay down the sword and return to the marriage alliance days of Emperor Wen. The hawks wanted to keep the military pressure on the Xiong Nu, insisting the marriage alliances of the past never deterred the Xiong Nu from expanding into Han territory.
This “Salt and Steel Conference” gradually extended beyond the subject of salt and steel.
Meng Jue and Liu Bing Yi often sat in the tea houses and listened to the discussion and debate about the two political factions arguing their cases. Yun Ge once saw Huo Guang hidden in the corner of a tea house quietly listening as well. She thought she might have even seen the Infante of Yen but he was shielded by a panel and she couldn’t confirm it.
In the hustle and bustle of discussion, Yun Ge felt like a storm was brewing. When Yun Ge brought out the meal, she heard Meng Jue ask Liu Bing Yi “Bing Yi, what do you think the Emperor’s intentions are?”
Liu Bing Yi had a casual smile “Who knows? He might genuinely be worried about the suffering of the people; he might be facing tough political opposition to his reforms and needs the help of the populace; or perhaps the Crown Prince Wei history is back in the forefront and people are discussing how he stole the throne from the rightful successor so now he wants to show the people that he is a good ruler. This Conference has brought everyone to the forefront and gives him a chance to assess where his ministers stand on different subjects. He can use one side to attack the other, or he can just sit back and watch them destroy each other and he can reap easy benefits.”
Meng Jue smiled in admiration “I ought to toast you.” Liu Bing Yi returned the toast with a smile “Which side do you support?” Meng Jue replied “As a merchant of course I support the reformists, it’s better for my bottom line. Same is true of politics, it’s just people looking out for their own interests and taking a position that supports it.”
Liu Bing Yi lightly clapped “It’s a shame I have no power, otherwise I’d nominate you for an official government position. The court is lacking in a businessman like you who knows how to navigate the winds.”
Meng Jue laughed “Was that a compliment or an insult? With all your maybes, your future is likely a maybe as well” Liu Bing Yi nodded “A little fox may be smart but is too weak. Facing an experienced wolf or tiger, his actions may not end up well and may anger the wolf and tiger. And that old lion, poor him. He could have enjoyed his dotage, but he still can’t let go of power. The tiger is likely sick of him and looking for an opportunity to strike.”
[The wolf alludes to Shan Guan Jie, the tiger is Huo Guang, and the old lion is Xang Hong Yang.]
Xu Ping Jun brought the bowls and laughed “Who’s going hunting? With all the tigers, wolves, and lions around, it looks dangerous.” Meng Jue and Liu Bing Yi both laughed, one gentle and the other carefree “It is indeed somewhat dangerous.”
Yun Ge had her chin resting on her hands as she looked between Meng Jue and Liu Bing Yi. She said, each word carefully “Be. Care. Ful.”
Meng Jue and Liu Bing Yi both startled, but Xu Ping Jun just laughed “Stop talking, let’s eat first!”
The much discussed “Salt and Steel Conference” finally came to a close. The policies discussed haven’t been implemented, but the scholars who attended have been placed either in court or sent elsewhere to serve there.
Biao Qi General Huo Guang held a banquet as his estate for the scholars who are departing to send them off. Everyone who is anyone in Chang An attended. Huo Guang dined a few times at Qi Li Xiang and knew Yun Ge’s rule not to show her face so he has never summoned Yun Ge to cook at the Huo estate before. Though this banquet is best left for the estate chefs, but Huo Guang decided to summon Yun Ge for the first time to cook for this banquet.
Yun Ge didn’t think she could do it and wanted to decline, but the Huo servant was firm that she was being called to bring something new to the event. Yun Ge reluctantly agreed after seeing Uncle Chang’s pleading look. Yun Ge brought two chefs from Qi Li Xiang with her, and Xu Ping Jun tagged along to go check out the scene.
Madam Huo set the menu already and Yun Ge didn’t want to bother with her usual thoughtful creativity and just made the dishes as she normally would, even handing some off to the other two chefs. They finished in less than an hour. The maids would serve so Yun Ge didn’t need to worry either. She did grumble about why she was called since the Huo estate chefs could easily make these dishes.
Xu Ping Jun pursed her lips and explained it was to show off, since people need to reserve to eat the meal of the Elegant Chef. So if Madam Huo can show off that she can easily summon the Elegant Chef, everyone would be complimenting her.
Yun Ge wondered “Lord Huo is very thoughtful and deliberate, doing things in a low key and calm way. He barely has any visible emotion. But Madam Huo……she’s quite flashy. This makes the Huo estate like a crab walking sideways and doing things that conflict in style.”
Xu Ping Jun laughed “Yun Ge, why does everything relate back to food for you? The current Madam Huo was not the first wife, but a maid of the first wife. She was his concubine, and when the first wife died, he made her his first wife. She’s very fierce and determined, but…..apparently she’s quite attractive and good at keeping a man in line. Otherwise Lord Huo wouldn’t have made her a first wife.”
Yun Ge smiled “I’ve met Ms. Huo, very pretty and seductive. If she looks like her mom, then her mom must be quite attractive.” Xu Ping Jun suggested they sneak out to watch the performances at the banquet and also see the guests.
Xu Ping Jun mentioned how she’s never seen a dance performance before. Yun Ge asked “Xu jiejie, where did all your money go? I see you don’t even make yourself a new outfit?”
Xu Ping Jun has earned quite a lot with the sale of the wine. “I give my mom a portion, the rest I save to buy a home, some land, and furniture. You know Bing Yi’s friends, and he’s generous with them. Every time they come asking for help, Bing Yi’s money always flows out. If I don’t save, where would we go when we need money?”
From some time ago, Xu Ping Jun stopped trying to hide her feelings for Liu Bing Yi in front of Yun Ge. She would talk about it like it was perfectly normal. It was hard for Yun Ge to figure out her feelings. The things that she long considered she needed to do for that man, is also what another woman thinks she ought to do for the same man. Since Yun Ge appeared, she was always just an extra wheel. All she can do is wish them well.
Seeing Xu Ping Jun’s smile, Yun Ge grabbed her hand and called her older sister a few times. Xu Ping Jun pinched Yun Ge’s cheeks “Silly girl.”
“Xu jiejie, I grew up traveling everywhere with my parents. Even though I’ve been to a lot of places and seen lots of interesting things, but we never stay in one place and I’ve never made any friends. I have two brothers, and Ling…..” Yun Ge stopped herself “Second brother is very nice to me, but he is much older than me and I don’t see him often. Third brother always fights with me, but I know he’s always protecting me. So his form of protection is that only he’s allowed to be mean to me, and no one else can. I always dreamed about having a sister around my age and we could play together and talk together. Then I wouldn’t have been so lonely growing up.”
Xu Ping Jun was silent and then spoke “Yun Ge, you know all about my family situation. I’ve also always wanted a sister. I will always be your big sister.” Yun Ge smiled and nodded her head “We’ll always be sisters.”
Yun Ge’s heart was genuinely happy. With loss comes gain. She lost a dream but she gained a good older sister. The Heavens are fair. In this dark night, a flower of friendship was blooming, leaving Yun Ge bathed in a happy scent in the air.
This is the first time Xu Ping Jun has seen a lavish banquet. She’s heard stories but seeing the real thing, it was beyond the imagination of a commoner like herself. Forget the food, the drink, the utensils, just the lighting alone was more than a thousand households could afford to use in a lifetime.
In her house, they don’t even use lighting on new years eve. Sewing is done by moonlight to save oil. Her mother’s eyes are already bad despite not being old. Looking at the ladies wearing silks and jewels, with their fingers white and soft, Xu Ping Jun looked down at her own hands and felt an ache.
Yun Ge saw her dazed “Jiejie, what are you thinking?” “Nothing, just wondering how people’s lives could be so different. See anything interesting?”
“No…..thing.” Yun Ge saw Meng Jue as she was answering Xu Ping Jun, and sitting next to him was Huo Cheng Jun. “Isn’t that Meng dage? Who’s the girl next to him?”
Yun Ge explained “The lady of this estate, the current Madam Huo’s priceless treasure.” Xu Ping Jun fanned her nose teasingly “How come I smell something sour out there?”
Yun Ge glared at Huo Cheng Jun and then stared at Meng Jue. Her mind suddenly thought “an old love cannot be retained, a new love cannot be pursued”, what God did she offend to have this happen to her?
Then she suddenly startled. Whether her old love was even an old love still needed to be considered. But the new…..when did she start to think of Meng Jue as her new love?
Xu Ping Jun pulled Yun Ge and they went to an area closer to Meng Jue and Huo Cheng Jun. Xu Ping Jun wanted to get closer but a maid chastised them so they stepped back.
Huo Cheng Jun is from a powerful and wealthy family, and she also has the looks. Every similarly aged young man in Chang An has considered her as a prospect before. Many of the eligible men at this banquet was staring at her and hoping she would deign to notice them.
Too bad the beauty’s smile was reserved for one person only. And that person happened to be dashing and every gesture was perfect. So the other men could only hang their heads in shame that they can’t measure up. Quickly Meng Jue became the most envied and hated person at the banquet.
Yun Ge smirked “Xu jiejie, Meng Jue’s food must be tasting like candle wax tonight.” And then she realized what a pointless thing she said. Of course Meng Jue’s food tasted like candle wax to him.
“Did he turn from the King of the Jades into a rock?” “Even the best jade is merely a piece of rock.” Xu Ping Jun decided to stay mum, otherwise she might knock over a proverbial hornet’s nest. Yun Ge was normally very gentle and adorable, but once she was angered, she turned from a lady into a witch. There was nothing she wouldn’t do.
Xu Ping Jun thought it was weird. Yun Ge didn’t appear to be mad AT Meng Jue, she was mad at herself. So was Yun Ge mad at herself for being affected by Meng Jue?
With Huo Cheng Jun on one side, and Shang Guan Lan (the daughter of Shang Guan Jie) on the other, both girls were admired to the sky. The two ladies acted like sisters and were very solicitous to each other, but underneath every sentence was hidden meaning aimed to show off who was smarter and prettier.
Tonight those who played an instrument performed, those who wrote poetry shared it. During it all, Meng Jue turned into the focus of people’s attention, all hoping he would fail at something. But whatever they lobbed at him, he handled with aplomb.
Someone tapped Yun Ge’s shoulder and she turned around but saw no one. A voice came from the other side of her “What are you guys doing here?” It was Da Gong Zhi, still with the same red-robed girl beside him.
Both Xu Ping Jun and Yun Ge both asked “What are YOU doing here?” “It’s so fun in Chang An these days, how could I miss out?” Da Gong Zhi glanced over at all the ladies sitting in the banquet with a gleam in his eye.
Xu Ping Jun and Yun Ge asked the red-robed girl “How does big sister put up with him?” The girl looked at Da Gong Zhi and then back over with a smile. She had a lovely simple smile that gave people a warm feeling. “What is big sister’s name?” The girl pointed at her red-robe. Yun Ge startled and she felt bad “Your name is Hong Yi (red robe)?”
The girl was happy and made a correct gesture at Yun Ge. Xu Ping Jun also noticed something was off and asked Da Gong Zhi “She can’t talk?” Da Gong Zhi didn’t turned around and said matter-of-factly “Yes. She could talk before, but my mom poisoned her and made her a mute. If you don’t understand her hand gestures, give her a palm and she can write on it.”
He said it so casually like he was describing the weather. Yun Ge was furious and wanted to smack Da Gong Zhi and ask him what type of horrible parents he had. And then she remembered him saying his parents were dead.
Hong Yi saw Yun Ge getting upset and pulled her hand, smiling and shaking her head. Hong Yi gestured that she was happy, she was fine, and that Yun Ge’s smile was very pretty. Hong Yi wasn’t forcing a smile, she genuinely was happy. Some flowers of this world are even more beautiful after the snow, a girl like Hong Yi didn’t need anyone’s pity.
Yun Ge’s pity for Hong Yi went away and what was left was admiration. She smiled at Hong Yi. There was suddenly a holler from the banquet and everyone turned around to see what was happening. Turns out the guests were cheering for Meng Jue to respond to Shang Guan Lan’s poetry verse. Huo Cheng Jun was trying to decline but couldn’t.
Huo Cheng Jun looked towards her parents to help, but her mom clearly wanted it to happen so her father said nothing. Her mom saw Meng Jue as just a rough common merchant and was hoping he could be shamed and back off willingly from Huo Cheng Jun.
Huo Cheng Jun turned to glare at Shang Guan Lan, who had a could care less look and smile at Meng Jue.
“Since Ms. Shang Guan has this interest, how could I decline?” Meng Jue walked to the center of the banquet, his figure straight and his attitude relaxed. Da Gong Zhi laughed “Thank god I can to see this fun, hurry, let’s get a better spot.” Xu Ping Jun looked disbelieving that he could get a better spot.
Turns out Da Gong Zhi had his hands full of gold bullions and was calling everyone sister, brother, aunt, and uncle and passing it out. But what he was saying to people sounded somehow plausible so he quickly weasled them a seat close to end of the banquet. Hong Yi waited until they were seated before extinguishing the lights around them, so no one could see them but they could see everyone.
Xu Ping Jun was shocked but Da Gong Zhi breezily explained that money could buy anything. Yun Ge glared at him and said softly “Not everything in this world could be bought with money.” Da Gong Zhi smiled derisively and said nothing.
In the darkness, they turned to look at Meng Jue standing there facing Shang Guan Lan’s poetry verse challenge.
[Shang Guan Lan plays a word game with Meng Jue that I can’t translate because it involves taking apart Chinese characters and then doing play-on verses.]
Da Gong Zhi explained to the girls what the purpose of the game was, and then offered up his own answer. Yun Ge was impressed, Da Gong Zhi wasn’t just a playboy like he seemed. Da Gong Zhi realized his answer was pretty good, so he waited to see how Meng Jue would respond. Meng Jue responded with a different but equally correct answer, but his verse intimately teased Shang Guan Lan.
Shang Guan Lan looked embarrassed and angry, and so did Huo Cheng Jun. The adults were all talking and acting like they didn’t hear what the youngsters were talking about. Xu Ping Jun didn’t understand and urgently asked “What was it? How did Meng dage do?”
Da Gong Zhi looked at Meng Jue for a few moments, and then he shot him a sarcastic look before wanting to burst into laughter. Hong Yi had to quickly cover his mouth to keep him from laughing out loud.
Xu Ping Jun was impatient and tugged at Yun Ge to ask. Yun Ge coldly huffed “What a sleazeball. All he knows is how to cajole ladies.”
Da Gong Zhi pulled Hong Yi’s hand off, then kissing her palm first before explaining to Xu Ping Jun “Xiao Jue was very gracious. He complimented all the men at the banquet for being as talented as the famed scholar minister Xi Ma Xiang Ru. But even if someone emulated the former Empress Chen and tried to use a thousand gold bullions to seek one painting, no one here could paint anything as beautiful as Shang Guan Lan. His verse was much better than mine, which was insulting to the extreme. His one verse complimented those men looking to embarrass him, and also erased Shang Guan Lan’s dislike of him. He also showed how gracious he was. This shows exactly how much our Xiao Jue is a fake gentleman. This might look like a game but isn’t. Huo Guang, Shang Guan Jie, and Xang Hong Yang are all paying attention.”
“No wonder both girls were angry and embarrassed at the same time.” Xu Ping Jun said “Good one, Meng dage!” Da Gong Zhi said “Xiao Jue might be standing with his back to Huo Cheng Jun, but he clearly must know what her expression will be if he said that verse.” Yun Ge pretended that she didn’t hear what Da Gong Zhi just said.
It was just awkwardness at the banquet right now. Even though Meng Jue matched the poetic verse challenge, but he vastly complimented Shang Guan Lan. Those who supported the Huo family didn’t know whether to clap or not. If they clap it meant Meng Jue won, but it also meant they agreed with his compliment that Shang Guan Lan was a beauty beyond measure. Shang Guan Lan’s friends ought to feel like their lady was complimented, but then it would mean she also lost this challenge. In the end, it was Huo Guang who clapped first and then everyone followed suit.
This battle Shang Guan Lan lost. She raised a cup to Meng Jue, and all her lady friends followed suit, as a gesture of good will. Shang Guan Lan chatted with her girlfriends and then said “Mr. Meng is very talented, so our second test is this.”
A servant placed a table with food about ten steps away from Meng Jue. A rod and a rope was placed next to Meng Jue. “Our test is for you to stand in place and find a way to eat the food. You can only use your hands but your feet cannot move at all.”
Everyone started discussing how he could do it. Some who knew martial arts “Use the rope to bring the plate of food over.” “Or use the rod to move it over.” “First knot the rope and then tie it on the rod and then use it to hook the food over.” But the rod was too thin and could never sustain the weight of the food.
Da Gong Zhi thought about it, and with their martial arts, either Meng Jue or himself could easily get the food with the rope of the rod. But they can’t do so at this gathering. Da Gong Zhi explained that using martial arts could retrieve the food, but it wouldn’t look pretty. So this was a no win proposition for Meng Jue, he was going to be embarrassed no matter what.
Everyone looked at Meng Jue, waiting to see how he resolved this test. Da Gong Zhi looked at Shang Guan Lan, who was a glittery and lavishly decked out flower right at the ripe age of sixteen. He sighed “The flower may be pretty, but the passing streams are heartless and nature is cruel.” He smiled at Yun Ge “Don’t worry, Xiao Jue can like anyone, but he would never like Shang Guan Lan.” Yun Ge’s face turned red and she glared at Da Gong Zhi before turning back to watch Meng Jue.
Meng Jue smiled “Is Ms. Shang Guan’s rules complete? Can I start?” Shan Guan Lan smiled “All done. Mr. Meng may start.” Meng Jue’s eyes never looked at the rod or the rope, remaining fixed on Shang Guan Lan.
Shang Guan Lan was used to people looking at her: with fear, with compliance, with pleasure, with compliments, with desire, with envy, with disgust even. But she couldn’t figure out Meng Jue. In his dark eyes there were many layers that were as distant as mountains and shrouded in thick fog.
Shang Guan Lan’s heart started beating a bit erratically and she worried whether she went overboard this time. Meng Jue turned his head and smiled at Huo Cheng Jun “Ms. Huo, can you bring the food to me?”
Huo Cheng Jun startled for a moment before walking over, picking up the food, and bringing it over to Meng Jue. Meng Jue smiled and picked up a chopstick and said to Shang Guan Lan “Thank you for the treat.”
Everyone was in shock. Was that it? Then everyone realized, that was fine! Huo Cheng Jun stood next to Meng Jue and smiled towards Shang Guan Lan, who looked stunned and couldn’t speak. Meng Jue never once moved his feet.
Xu Ping Jun was laughing silently next to Yun Ge, who also couldn’t help but smile. In a few moments, everyone was trying to contain their laugher. Even Shang Guan Jie smiled and shook his head at his daughter.
Da Gong Zhi was collapsed in laughter in Hong Yi’s arms, and she was rubbing his belly. He realized that Xiao Jue really grasped the situation, once again making it seem like everyone was just a chess piece to him, listening to his orders. Everyone’s reaction was within his grasp. Xiao Jue wasn’t playing to win or lose, he wanted Shang Guan Lan’s next move. He wanted all everyone to think that he was there because of a “beauty”, when it truth his target was three old bastards: Shang Guan Jie, Huo Guang, and Xang Hong Yang.
Meng Jue smiled and asked Shang Guan Lan “Did I pass the second test? Do you want to even give the third test?” Shang Guan Lan looked at the standing Meng Jue and Huo Cheng Jun and felt even more angry. She gulped down her cup of wine and laughed “My tests are not about winning or losing, but a way to make this event more fun. I’ll give a third test, if I lose I’ll play a tune, but if Mr. Meng loses you will have to pour wine for us.”
It wasn’t a heavy punishment but it was intended to embarrass, turning Meng Jue into a servant. Huo Cheng Jun could see from Shang Guan Lan’s attitude that she was not just mad, she was furious. Even Madam Huo was getting upset. No matter what Meng Jue was her daughter’s guest, and therefore Huo Estate’s guest.
Huo Guang continued to drink with Shang Guan Jie and appeared not to notice what was going on with the youngsters. Shang Guan Jie also didn’t change his expression, like he didn’t realize what his daughter was doing.
Shang Guan Lan smiled “During the first test you mentioned “every object can be music”. I do not have talent and thus cannot realize what that means. Since you are so talented, what you say must be true. Can you use something within ten steps of you to play a tune, showing for the untalented me that indeed “every object can be music.”
Shang Guan Lan looked at the dancer who stood up and offered a sing the song “Autumn Wind’s Farewell” to pair with Meng Jue’s playing of said tune. Everyone clapped in appreciation. Xang Hong Yang smiled at the two girls and then looked at Shang Guan Jie “A tiger’s cub is of course a tiger.” Shang Guan Jie looked at Xang Hong Yang with distaste but laughed “Us folks, our daughters can be difficult, but they are still courteous. We can let them play around sometimes.”
Huo Guang smiled “Brother Shang Guan is right.”
During the banquet, around Meng Jue there was only cups of wine, chopsticks, bowls, and dishes. Da Gong Zhi laughed “Women! Twisting around even the simpliest of sayings. Xiao Jue is gracious enough and still smiling. The tune the dancer will be singing “Autumn’s Wind Farewell” was made by the damn old bastard (Liu Che). In this setting, if he played it incorrectly, it’s not just pouring wine that is the punishment. He might as well concede defeat. But for Xiao Jue to pour these people wine……” Da Gong Zhi looked around and shook his head with a smile.
Hong Yi gestured to Da Gong Zhi with her face full of worry, but he shook his head “I can’t do anything. If something happened, at most we can pretend to be bandits and spirit Xiao Jue out of here and return to Chang Yi.” Da Gong Zhi looked intend on watching this riot unfold even if Meng Jue had to suffer first.
Xu Ping Jun huffed “So not fair. Meng dage clearly won, but that Shang Guan girl is making more problems! Is there really no way out?”
Yun Ge frowned and sighed, saying to Da Gong Zhi “Take out your money and find a servant to do something. Hong Yi….does Meng Shi To (Rock) know your sign language?”
Huo Cheng Jun grew up in power and wealth, always knowing how to handle situations with aplomb. She had already exchanged a look with her dad and was ready to concede defeat on behalf of Meng Jue. As she was about to talk, she saw Meng Jue look into the crowd at a girl in red. Huo Cheng Jun was curious and wanted to see but the girl disappeared promptly.
Meng Jue smiled and asked Shang Guan Lan “Can I use the bowl, cup, chopsticks, water, and wine?” Shang Guan Lan thought about it and smiled “Yes, and the table and food, too.” Meng Jue smiled “Then I will need a table, a empty bowl, a jug of water, and a silver chopstick.”
Shang Guan Lan was confused but she agreed because those were items around Meng Jue indeed. Huo Cheng Jun shook her head at Meng Jue, who smiled and indicated for her not to worry. In moments, a servant brought everything out. Shang Guan Lan looked it over and was fine that it was all ordinary utensils.
Meng Jue was actually quite unsure and full of questions, but he followed Hong Yi’s instructions regardless. He saw the dark faced servant pour the water in each bowl seemingly to a very specific amount. When Meng Jue looked carefully at the servant, he shook slightly, while the servant glared at him before lowering her head and backing away.
Hong Yi and Ping Jun were confused and looking at Yun Ge, not sure what she was thinking. Da Gong Zhi laughed “My lady Yun, why help only halfway, why not let Hong Yi explain everything to Meng Jue?’ Yun Ge coldly huffed and said nothing.
Meng Jue thought and finally realized what to do. He tapped each bowl and confirmed do-re-mi-fa-so-la-ti-do, all the notes were there. He ran through the tune for “Autumn Wind’s Farewell” in his mind before smiling at the dancer “If you please.”
A twinkling tune started that was clear and simple, like bells tinkling in a mountain brook. It wasn’t as intense as from a zither, or as lyrical as from a flute, but it had its own style. The dancer was stunned and needed Huo Cheng Jun to remind her before she started singing.
Legend has it that this song was composed by Liu Che in memory of his dead Consort Li, who passed early. It was the only love poem Liu Che ever composed in his lifetime, and it’s quite popular in all the tea houses and dancing houses.
Xu Ping Jun listened to the song and thought about Consort Li’s legendary life. She sighed, Consort Li must’ve been happy! From a dancing girl to an Empress, she experienced an Emperor’s love and devotion, and after she died he never forgot her. For a woman to live like this, she must have no regrets.
Hong Yi listened to the song and kept peeking at Da Gong Zhi, trying to gauge his reaction. Da Gong Zhi continued to smile and didn’t appear affected by it. When the song was done, everyone who was aligned with the Huo family cheered.
Da Gong Zhi also cheered and clapped “Yun Ge, where did you come up with this?” Yun Ge smiled “When I was small and goofing around with my brother, I came up with this. I broke so many bowls to get the notes just right. I refuse to learn the proper musical instruments and instead loved goofing off with these useless things. But my Second Brother never laughed at me.”
Xu Ping Jun laughed “That Shang Guan girl never knew we have an Elegant Chef here who can figure out anything related to the kitchen. But Meng dage is also quite agile, figuring it out so quickly. If it was me, I would have stood there still unsure of what to do.”
Using the water in a bowl to make music, Shang Guan Lan had never heard of this or seen it before. She was turning red and blue with anger. Huo Cheng Jun laughed “Lan jiejie, what song do you want to play for us? Since the dancer is here, you two can also play a song for us together.”
Meng Jue bowed to Shang Guan Lan and returned to his seat without another word, to the end still a gentlemen.
Xang Hong Yang looked at Meng Jue and nodded his head. He asked Huo Guang “Cheng Jun has good taste. What is that young man’s name? What’s his background?” Shang Guan Jie also strained to hear.