What a difference a few months make? Or perhaps the better statement would be, what a difference a missed opportunity makes? Yu Er and Huo Qu Bing finally return to Chang An in this chapter of Da Mo Yao, and the former tries to seamlessly and quietly return to her former life, while the latter is now the most sought after man in the city after his resounding battle victories. In some ways, as long as they are sure about their feelings for each other and where they want to go in the future, it ought to all work out. But the sticky truth about politics and the past is that neither is that easy to just shake off. Huo Qu Bing can’t be a general yet expect a free pass when it comes time to assess his value to the Emperor, and Yu Er can’t hope that returning to Chang An in love with a different man magically means she’s completely over the other one.
Chapter 24: Brilliant Smile
“I won’t enter the city with you. I’ll go in first.” Huo Qu Bing thought and agreed “Fine. There is bound to be a lot of confusion upon entering the city, and I need to enter the Palace to see the Emperor first. Are you going back to Luo Yu House?” I sighed “Where else can I go? Hong Gu is sure to berate me to death.”
Huo Qu Bing looked amused “You are the one at fault, if you get yelled at you deserve it. But if you want some peace and quiet, you can always go to my estate directly. Housekeeper Chen will take good care of you. From now on, my home is your home. Luo Yu House won’t be the only place you can go in Chang An.”
I shook my head “It’s time to face the music, isn’t that what you said? I can’t avoid it forever, and if Hong Gu knew I was back in Chang An and I didn’t go see her, I would commit an additional grievous infraction.” Huo Qu Bing smiled and nodded “Finally. Here’s the brave Jin Yu I know.”
After half a year away, Chang An appears not to have changed at all. Crowds of people are coming from the city gates towards the road leading to the Palace. They all want to see the man responsible for instilling fear in the Xiong Nu, Huo Qu Bing, as well as the captured Xiong Nu princes and dukes. I am moving against the flow of traffic and I break a sweat. It takes me three times as long to arrive at Luo Yu House.
The door is open a crack and the two doormen are sitting under the shade staying cool. They are drinking tea and chatting. I walk in and they scramble up “Young master, if you want to watch dancing you have to go through the front door. This is for the servants to use.” I laughed and cocked my head “You can’t recognize me?” They stared at me and quickly bowed “We heard Madam was out on a business trip and we apologize for not recognizing you right away.”
The yard is filled with shady trees and I can see the sparkling lake, giving off a cool breeze. Xing Yen is sweeping the courtyard and I go stand next to her. She startled and looked at me, stunned for a moment before starting to scream. I had to plug my ears and I tease her “Stop sweeping and prepare some water for me. I need a bath, it’s so hot today.” She nodded and went off.
Before the water arrived, Hong Gu is storming into my room. One hand is on her waist and another had a finger pointing at me “You ungrateful, heartless, cruel……” Xing Yen passed me a bowl of cold green bean soup and neither of us dare to speak, only glancing at each other. I listen to Hong Gu berate me and drink my soup “…..how can you be so heartless, leaving us weak ladies all without a by-your-leave, not caring about whether we live or die, not caring about our friendship……All this time, I’ve been praying daily and hoping nightly…..”
I finish my soup while Hong Gu keeps yelling at me. After listen some more, I finally can’t resist and laugh. Her eyes are red “How can you laugh?” I reply “It’s just that you’re making me sound like a faithless boyfriend who deserted you.” She thought about it and couldn’t help but smile, but then she started crying and I had to comfort her “Hong Gu, this time it’s all my fault.”
Hong Gu wiped her tears “Xiao Yu, I’m not angry because you left. There isn’t a party in this world that doesn’t end. The girls come and go here many cycles already, and there will be a day when you’ll leave. I was hoping you can marry someone and live a peaceful life. But you really shouldn’t have left without saying anything, just leaving a letter. Not even a face to face farewell. You might be a carefree person but I’m not.”
I walked up and held her hand “I do things based on my own whim, and I didn’t consider your feelings. I won’t do that again. Please chalk this up to my youthful folly and forgive me this once.”
Hong Gu glared at me and then finally smiled after a few moments. “I heard General Huo returned to the city today. How coincidental you also returned to the city today?” I was like a girl who just had her personal life splashed open like a book. I demurely lower my head and didn’t answer her. Hong Gu looked at my countenance and suddenly understood. She tightly grasped my hand and happily asked “You and General Huo….you and him…..is it for real?”
I laugh and pull my hand free, turning around to look for a change of clothes. I still don’t answer but Hong Gu claps her hands “Oh yes! Oh yes! I can finally stop worrying. Hurray for running away! Three cheers for leaving! This runaway trip was totally worth it.”
I was behind the panel bathing when Hong Gu stood on the other side to talk to me “……Xiao Yu, thanks to you running away, I actually got to meet the Big Boss of the Shi Enterprises. I couldn’t have imagined it was such a handsome young man. His every word was gentle and refined, and he was so polite to everyone…..”
Bam! The water ladle in my land fell on the floor and Hong Gu quickly asked what happened? I pick up the ladle and continue bathing “Nothing, just accidentally dropped the ladle. What did the Big Boss want with you?”
Hong Gu huffed “Of course it was because of you. He wanted to know all the details of you leaving. Because of what you asked, I burned the letter and didn’t mention it. But I was so angry at you then, and I could care less who could find you and bring you back so I could yell at you. So I told the Big Boss that you left a letter for General Huo, which I had already sent to his estate.”
Did he need to ask how I left Chang An? Since he already didn’t care, why did he have to constantly do these little things that make him appear to care? I splashed more water over my head, as if I could wash things away. “Hong Gu, tell everyone who saw me to keep quiet about the fact that I’ve returned.”
Hong Gu happily agreed “Fine! Rest for a few days, but don’t forget to enter the Palace to personally thank Consort Li. When you were gone, she didn’t visit personally but would send Master Li to play songs here. This helped deflect a lot of potential problems. She is very loyal. Others would try to shake off their inglorious past, but she is a caring person and knew you were gone and helped take care of us.”
I stood there in a daze. In the future…..what to do? Li Yan, I know your pain and your sorrow, which is why I don’t want to hurt you. But in the end must I pick a side? I chatted with Hong Gu some more and the time flies. It’s nighttime already and she tells me to rest after we finish dinner.
Perhaps it’s spending all my time with Huo Qu Bing these past few months, but suddenly I feel a sense of loneliness being by myself. My brain keeps thinking all these random thoughts. Since I couldn’t sleep, I snuck out of the house and went to the Huo Estate. The moment I leaped over the wall and landed, a few black dogs have surrounded me. They sniff and confirm that I am welcome so they depart.
Compared to the hustle and bustle on the streets of Chang An during the daytime, the Huo Estate is unusually quiet. Huo Qu Bing’s room is completely dark, looks like he’s still in the Palace. I lightly open the door and go in. The room has clearly been just cleaned, with fresh incense and grapes on a plate still glistening water drops. I open the window to let in the night breeze, making it much cooler. I arrange a cushion and lean on the window sill, eating grapes and looking at the full moon outside.
The moon has already reached the center and Huo Qu Bing still hasn’t returned. I grumbled, he shouldn’t be in the Palace until so late, so did he get dragged elsewhere to drink? But with his personality, who can possibly drag him anywhere?
I’m can’t hold off my sleepiness and drowsily nod off. Right when I’m blissfully in dream heaven, I hear people talking. I quickly jump up and hide myself. Huo Qu Bing walks in with a maid trailing him. She doesn’t even light the lamp before noticing the state of the room and getting down her knees to beg forgiveness, bowing her head on the floor. Huo Qu Bing takes a look at the half eaten grapes and the messy cushions strewn around and he smiles. But his voice is still cold when he tells her that she can leave.
After he’s alone, he lays down on the pallet and teases “We’re alone, you can come out now.” I walk out from behind the panel and he smiles and waves me over to sit next to him. I ask “Why so late?” He just stared at me and didn’t answer, his eyes twinkling with mirth. In the beginning I was fine looking him in the eyes, but gradually I feel self conscious and my heart beats faster. I quickly look outside.
He suddenly wrenched me into his embrace and I was caught unawares. “What are you doing?” struggling to get up. He held me and wouldn’t let go “Be good and just lay still, let me tell you something. I missed you while I was in the Palace, so I didn’t drink much and quickly left. Afterwards I went to Luo Yu House to find you, but your room was dark and you weren’t there. At that time, I thought……I wasn’t very happy. So later I went somewhere to sit alone, and there I thought about all sorts of things. That is why I’m home so late. But who knew it was all my own doing.” He lightly caressed my hair and murmured in a low voice “I’m too arrogant, believing there is very little I can’t handle. I always refuse to admit my own fears and concerns. I ought not be telling you this, but I feel like I owe you for doubting you. I shouldn’t have been overthinking these things, so I didn’t want to keep this from you.”
I felt these conflicting emotions. He said that Chang An has hurt me, but he was also hurt here. He didn’t tell me exactly what he had been thinking of, so can I accept his apology so candidly? I sniffed his shoulder and then slapped his hand away “What heavy scent of makeup. I wonder who made it? If you like it so much, I should start using this brand as well.”
Huo Qu Bing sat up and quickly explained “It was the dancing girls in the Palace, they got close when they were presenting wine.” I coldly scoffed “Is that right? Didn’t you say you went somewhere by yourself for a long time?” He flicked me lightly on the forehead and laughed “Are you jealous right now?” I glared at him but he just pulled me into his embrace again while I tried to push him off “What if I’m jealous? From now on, if you smell like someone else’s makeup, I don’t want you to appear before me.”
He let me go but his eyes were still twinkling “It doesn’t matter, I just like it.” I huffed “You’re sick!” He crossed his hands behind his head and laid down “If this is an illness, I hope to be sick everyday.”
I cannot possibly be more shameless than him, so I stop bickering with him. He laughed “Too bad it’s already so late, so tomorrow morning I’ll take you somewhere.” I stood up “Then I’m going home, you come get me tomorrow. He quickly grabbed my hand “In a few more hours the sun will rise, why go back and forth? Spend the night here and I’ll give you some space on the pallet.” I thought about it and nodded my head.
I always thought I didn’t need much sleep, but compared to Huo Qu Bing, my energy level is nothing. It’s still dark outside and he’s already shaking me. I’m feeling lazy so I refuse to get up, pleading “Whatever you want me to see, it can wait until the sun rises, I’m so sleepy, let me sleep awhile longer.” He kept trying to wake me up but I kept trying to burrow deeper into the blanket and covered my head with it so I can’t hear him anywhere. He sat for a few moments and then opened the door to shout “Servants, bring the morning wash!”
I quickly sat up and he teased me “You’re not scared of me, but you’re scared of the maids in my house?” He saw me giving him the stink eye and he quickly closed the door. “You can sleep anytime, but a sunrise is only once a day.”
The entire mountain side is covered in Lover’s Vines. Breezy layers with a soft fragrance, the green glistening in the hillside. Gold and silver colors peek out from the fog like it’s dancing. In this quiet morning, it’s so beautiful it appears right out of a dream, and so fragile it might shatter if you touch it.
The moment the sun hits the mountain top, the fog dissipates and the colors burst into life. The gold flows while the silver dances, turning the entire mountain into a glorious treasure of gold and silver. “This is worth getting up for, right?” Huo Qu Bing asked with a smile. I’m staring at everything in a daze. He holds my hand and we slowly stroll underneath the Lover’s Vines. He said in a pleased tone “I knew you’d be stunned into silence. When I saw this last night, I was totally shocked. It was planted only last Fall and who knew it would turn out so beautiful?”
I was coming out of my daze and purposely want to annoy him “What’s so special about this? It’s not like you planted it.” He didn’t get upset and instead very happily said “I knew you would say that, so I saved this for last.” He pointed to an entire patch to the North “I planted that entire area. As a replacement for you, it’s more than enough.”
The Lover’s Vines are twinkling and smiling under the bright sunlight, so eye-catching, but nowhere near as brilliant as his smile at this very moment. It’s warmth and light seems to sweep away every shadow lurking in the heart.
I suddenly cup my hands around my mouth and holler into the canyon “I’m very happy! Very happy!” Huo Qu Bing startled for a moment and then his entire face was all smiles and he also shouted into the canyon “I’m also very happy!” Our two “very happy, very happy” seemed to reverberate and bounce around the mountain, slowly blending together. He laughed and picked me up, twirling me around the flowers. I can’t help myself and start laughing, and our laughter also echoed through the canyons, dancing through an entire mountain of Lover’s Vines.