"This 'loyalty,' how much of it is reserved for His Highness? How much of it is given to the Great Yu? How much of it is for the common people? And lastly, how much of it is for yourself?"
Hall of Brimming Spring:
Qiu'niang ordered people to set up a table full of appetizers, stewed dishes, smoked meat, stir-fried eats, and four-platter cold dishes, complete with a jar of Western Plains' rice wine —— all of which were things Zhang Mu loved when he was still a kid.
Sun Yán wasn't in a hurry to summon the male prostitute and was personally pouring wine for Zhang Mu. Before long, Sun Cheng, who had been keeping watch outside the door, made a round along the corridor, knocking on each of the neighboring private room's doors on their left and right. After making sure that there was no one inside, he returned and gave Sun Yán a nod to indicate that the place was safe before closing the door.
"Mu-ge," Sun Yán called in an amiable manner. "It has been some years since the last time I had a wine from my hometown."
Fixing his eyes on the amber-like wine that emitted a faint fragrance, Zhang Mu replied, "If you have something to say, just say it. We're brothers, don't cause me any harm."
Sun Yán smiled. "How could I harm you, this is me saving you."
Zhang Mu brushed him aside and put the dishes into his own bowl. "Save me from what?"
Sighing, Sun Yán poured more wine as he said, "From what I see, His Highness does appear to be quite attached to you."
Zhang Mu's heart thumped, and instantly, the ebony chopsticks in his hand trembled slightly. After failing to pinch a quail egg and causing it to slip down, he simply picked it up and threw it into his mouth before faintly replying, "No such thing."
Sun Yán said, "At the crown prince's side, only you are trustworthy. He is wholeheartedly attached to you. How are you going to treat him then?"
Zhang Mu didn't give out any reply.
Sun Yán smiled. "Mu-ge, you and Yān'er are like brother and sister. That day you went to the capital, she also thought about you because she didn't know where you had gone. You told her that you would send her off when she married in the future. This matter has been in her mind ever since she was seven."
Zhang Mu stopped chewing and both men fell silent. After a long time, Zhang Mu asked, "Is she all right?"
Sun Yán didn't answer and instead said, "For now, let's not mention you or Yān'er. Let's just talk about His Highness. If this matter is settled, in the future, you will then become an official that has rendered a meritorious service for the Great Yu. You, who has always accompanied the monarch by his side, all the way, have supported the crown prince until he has grown up, and furthermore, you've personally helped him sit on the imperial throne..."
Zhang Mu interrupted him, "That's because of his ability. The role that this humble brother is playing only has a minor effect."
Ignoring what Zhang Mu said, Sun Yán pressed on, "Suppose that there will be a day when His Highness has to get married and crown an empress, how are you going to cope with the situation then? You must keep in mind that words are able to melt even bones. When that moment comes, what will the court officials say about you? Even if you don't mind them, what will they say about His Majesty? Even if His Highness doesn't care either, that time when 'His Highness' becomes 'His Majesty,' will he be able to remain the same and treat you just like in all those years? This 'paying no heed,' will it remain the same all the time?
"To whom are you loyal, Mu-ge?"
"Are you loyal to the Great Yu handed down by the former emperor, or loyal merely to that man sitting on the dragon throne? This 'loyalty,' how much of it is reserved for His Highness? How much of it is given to the Great Yu? How much of it is for the common people? And lastly, how much of it is for yourself? Mu-ge, this humble brother cannot bear to see you swimming in a sea of confusion and not knowing what to do. I'm giving you an advice: go rein the horse while it's still at the edge of the cliff..."
Zhang Mu: "There's no need to say it again."
After sinking into a particularly long silence for quite a moment, Zhang Mu's hand, which was holding the chopsticks, trembled a little bit as he opened his mouth to say, "In the past, when my Mt. Yingyu Manor was all burned down, I was indebted to the former emperor for not abandoning me and sheltering me. I have never had any presumptuous thoughts toward His Highness."
Sun Yán sighed. "Your mouth doesn't match your heart; anyone with a discerning eye should be able to see the truth. You have never been able to tell lies, who are you trying to fool?"
No longer paying any attention to Sun Yán, Zhang Mu picked up the wine jar and poured the contents into his mouth in one ferocious bout, causing his Adam's apple to slightly move in the process. Then, after raising his head to finish up the wine, he let out a long, bewildered sigh, swaying as he started to collapse.
Sun Yán: "Mu-ge is also close to thirty now."
Zhang Mu: "Inside the country, there is a traitor, while outside, there are the Xiongnus. I’ve never thought of settling down and starting a family."
Sun Yán smiled. "Living for 28 years and that thought has never even crossed your mind in the slightest bit?"
Zhang Mu's face indicated that he got drunk; he lifted his hand to wipe his face again and again as he leaned against the wall, his eyes reddening.
Sun Yán smiled. "Although this little brother isn't well-versed regarding how men are affectionate with each other, I often hear people say that the male courtesans in this building are all beautiful and charming, not inferior to even those beauties that are said to be able to cause the downfall of a country."
Zhang Mu raised his drunken eyes and looked at Sun Yán. He got up and was about to leave, but Sun Yán stopped him.
"Sober up, this humble brother still has something to say to Mu-ge." Sun Yán then called out, just minding his own business, "Sun Cheng!"
Outside, Sun Cheng answered and went downstairs to give instructions. A moment later, two male prostitutes pushed the door open and entered the room, one was holding a seven-stringed qin while the other had his eyes blindfolded with black cloth.
Sun Yán smilingly said, "What are you both called?"
The courtesan holding the qin timidly replied, "Shuhua."
As the other prostitute slowly knelt down, Shuhua said in a low voice, "He's called Xisheng; he usually doesn't like to speak and is also blind. Sisters in this building all call him 'Blockhead.'"
Sun Yán made a "pfft" and burst out laughing before speaking to the one outside, "Who sent this person? Switch him, switch him..."
Zhang Mu said, "He's not blind."
Xisheng nodded his head. Shuhua's eyes turned bright, and with a cheerful smile, he stroked the qin with one hand and asked, "Why did this esteemed customer say so?"
Zhang Mu: "From the way he walked in until he sat down, he moved differently than how a blind person would."
Sun Yán felt something coming and asked with a smile, "For what reason are you pretending to be blind?"
Shuhua plucked the strings with his hand and said in a leisurely manner, "Humans' hearts are hard to fathom, and only those who pretend to be deaf and mute are able to live at ease. Since Xisheng needs to keep his ears in order to listen to the qin, and also needs to keep his throat in order to sing for customers, he can't pretend to be deaf and mute, and thus, he can only feign to be a blind person. There are many affairs in this world... and being out of sight is the most peaceful..." Shuhua's voice gradually dissipated as his finger softly strummed the strings, playing a sweet-sounding qin tune.
At this moment, only Xisheng's singing voice was heard. "My destined one, my destined one. A pond of autumn water turns to snow as the winter comes. With the snow you blend, and with the pond he blends..."
Zhang Mu tilted his head and quietly listened. Xisheng's thin lips trembled slightly as he sang. On his fair face, his eyes and eyebrows were covered by a piece of black cloth, carrying confused traces of loneliness and helplessness.
Vaguely, it coincided with Li Qingcheng who was, many years ago, raising his head toward the courtyard in the middle of receiving a beating punishment at the Longyang Hall.
It also resembled that lonely crown prince who, on that day they left Jia City spurring on a lone mount to escape to the main road of the Western Plains' crossroads, was shaking under the rain that drenched him. When they rested mid-way through their journey, his lips trembled and both of his eyes looked empty as he gazed at the grey-colored sky.
During the song, those leisure periods all flashed across in the blink of an eye.
Another blink of an eye and time would slip away once more. Zhang Mu couldn't tell what was waiting in front of him. Every now and then, he even wanted to extend his hand and pull Li Qingcheng's hand who was walking in front of him. He'd make him turn around; no more walking toward his dragon throne, no more walking toward his capital.
He'd rather live a peaceful and calm life. Holding the person in his embrace, they would sit down by the side of the road, weaving straw grasshoppers and picking up flowers as they conversed in whispers and sat together for the rest of their lives.
After Xisheng had finished singing, Shuhua guided him to Zhang Mu's side. Xisheng's complexion turned pale as he gently leaned in Zhang Mu's embrace.
"Come here," Sun Yán couldn't help but feel moved, and beckoned Shuhua to come over.
Shuhua snuggled up to Sun Yán's side. Sun Yán raised his sleeve and gently wiped his forehead before saying in a small voice, "How could this place get a bruise?"
In a daze, Shuhua looked at Zhang Mu and Xisheng in his bosom before softly replying, "This lowly one got hit by a customer."
Sun Yán sighed.
Zhang Mu was as though inside a dream; he grasped that male courtesan's chin with his long fingers.
Xisheng raised his face and waited. His sharp and thin lips pursed, looking precisely the same as Li Qingcheng.
Zhang Mu gently held the other's neck and bent down his head, wanting to give him a kiss. However, he once again stopped his actions and instead used his fingers to untie Xisheng's blindfold. Xisheng's eyes were as lustrous as water, while his eyebrows were similar to crystalline sand particles amidst a never-ending flow.
They were not that pair of clear-cut and remarkable eyes, nor were they the eyebrows that would bend like willow leaves at one's smile.
After gently steadying him up, Zhang Mu let the courtesan sit on the side. He then shook his head and murmured "I'm drunk," before taking yet another long breath. After that, he used one hand to press on his knee and propped himself up.
Sun Yán said, "Mu-ge?"
Zhang Mu waved his hand and went out of the private room, closing the door behind him and proceeding to slowly walk down the stairs. When Qiu'niang and the rest, who were casually conversing with one another, saw Zhang Mu come down in neat clothes, they all bowed down one after another.
Under the attentive gaze of those women, Zhang Mu left the Hall of Brimming Spring. The tall and lonely figure soon disappeared amidst the world filled with fluttering snow.
Third Night Period, Governor's Residence.
Sun Keng returned to his residence in a wild daze. Governor Sun had already gone to rest, but he was woken up by Sun Keng's knocks on his door.
"Father, I heard an unbelievable thing tonight." Sun Keng still had yet to change his clothes, and the snow under his boots melted all over the hall.
Governor Sun angrily reprimanded, "You vile creature, you went to sleep with those flowers and willows again! Sooner or later you're going to drag me down..."
Sun Keng mocked, "Since you said so, I won't mention anything anymore. Looks like some people are still not aware of the disaster knocking at their door; they are just extremely stupid!" Saying so, he shook his sleeve and shifted his gaze, turning toward the bedroom and started to walk away.
Governor Sun shouted, "You animal, what did you want to say?! Speak clearly!"
Sun Keng halted his steps, maintaining his sideways posture. With eyes looking down to the floor tiles of the hall, he muttered in detail what he had heard that evening. The more his father listened, the more frightened he became, and his complexion couldn't refrain from changing.
"You still haven't woken up!" the governor severely rebuked.
Sun Keng said, "Fine, fine, fine. Father can either believe it or not, this son will pack his belongings and leave. Father, take care of yourself."
Governor Sun rolled his eyes. Stroking his beard, he then said, "Wait."
Governor Sun then continued, "You go change your clothes and then come to the hall." After that, he relayed some words to the housekeeper; the other party bowed before proceeding to go out of the house.
After Sun Keng finished exchanging his clothes and came to the hall, he saw a person who had been picked up by the Sun's carriage: Shuhua.
Shuhua had just finished seeing the customers off and was about to take a break when he was brought over by the governor's subordinates. There really were many twists and turns happening tonight. He didn't know how to respond, and in the end, he just opened his mouth and called out, "Young Master."
Sun Keng had his worries written all over his face and didn't answer. However, Governor Sun said, "You're called Shuhua, correct?"
Shuhua bowed down restlessly. Governor Sun ordered someone to fetch some silver to reward him before slowly saying, "Today, I'm not here to investigate your and Keng'er's affairs. Those customers you had accompanied tonight and everything they said, tell me about it all, from the start."
After pondering about it for a good while, Shuhua told him about the matters that had happened earlier that night. Reaching up to Li Qingcheng's part, Governor Sun then inquired, "Which verse did you sing at that time that made him angry?"
Shuhua thought for a moment before replying, "The ballad of the Western Plains. The 'nine times does the bell echo throughout the mountains' verse..."
Governor Sun narrowed his eyes at this. Sun Keng understood and chimed in, "Father, that man felt moved when he heard that ballad, he's undoubtedly the crown prince..."
Governor Sun's complexion changed. "Who allows you to speak nonsense! One more word and you're going to kneel in the courtyard!"
Shuhua was startled until he was unable to speak. Governor Sun instructed, "Continue."
After hearing Shuhua talk about Fang Qingyu's reward to him and the fact that after Sun Keng had left, Qiu'niang personally went to accompany another customer, Governor Sun asked, "That tall man, what did he look like?"
Shuhua replied, "He's lean... and gloomy. I dared not look too much, but there's a red, burn scar on the left side of his face."
"Sure enough, it's Zhang Mu... and the other man must be Fang Qingyu..." Governor Sun murmured. "Sun Yán really has a lot of guts..."
Since both sides had given verification, Governor Sun no longer doubted it. As he was about to make a decision, Sun Keng said, "You go back ba. Remember not to mention what you had said today to anybody else."
Shuhua repeatedly nodded while Governor Sun let out a cold sneer. Sun Keng asked someone to take the courtesan back to the carriage, sending him back to the Hall of Brimming Spring.
Governor Sun just sat in the hall for a while before instructing his son, "Go take a rest, we'll talk about it in detail tomorrow." Then, without waiting for any reply, he went back to his room.
After the father and son had separated, a quiet sound came through from the west window, followed by some light steps on the roof tiles moving all the way toward the backdoor. Dressed in blue garments that fluttered in a free manner, Fang Qingyu climbed over the wall and elegantly dropped down to the ground, landing outside of the governor’s residence.
The carriage exited out from the small alley that connected with the backdoor of the governor’s residence. On this winter night, food stalls were spread out by the road in twos or threes. Shuhua's line of sight was fixed on a handsome man standing in front of a stall as he ate tangyuan on a bamboo pipe. The man took some copper coins from his bosom and handed them over; he then turned back and whistled before continuing to say with a smile plastered on his face, "Give me a ride?"
"Stop the carriage." Shuhua recognized the person as that man he had seen earlier tonight and hurriedly said, "Did you know I am inside the carriage?"
The carriage stopped behind Fang Qingyu, who then said, "Would you like to have a bowl as well?"
Shuhua smiled. "No need. How come Young Master is in this place?"
Fang Qingyu went inside the carriage in a flash. Carrying a bamboo tube, he put his hand around Shuhua's shoulders and lazily said, "I went out to buy some tangyuan for my wife; we had a fight in the middle of the night because my wife wanted to eat tangyuan. My wife is truly difficult to serve."
Shuhua felt overjoyed and smiled. "Young Master is a husband."
After giving a refined and polite nod, Fang Qingyu sat in the carriage that went to the western area without elaborating any further.
Speaking of Zhang Mu, he didn't take a carriage and had been dragging his weary legs across the main street, staggering every few steps. Leaning in front of the bridge pillar, he raised his head and looked at the fluttering snow in the night sky in a trance.
The arctic gyr spread its wings and flew in, perching itself on the top of the pillar; the falcon's eyes gleamed in the night.
Zhang Mu supported himself up and stared at the falcon in a daze. Afterward, he saw a soldier sent by Tang Hong come looking for it with a lantern in his hand.
"What were you up to?" Tang Hong said from a distance. "Go back at once!"
Zhang Mu's head was still spinning as he forced himself to nod.
At the fourth night period, Li Qingcheng was sitting inside the hall as he fiddled with a small toy he got from the market. When Zhang Mu returned, his body was covered in snow that had started to melt, making some pattering sounds as it dripped down his body.
The table in front of Li Qingcheng was filled with a dazzling array of things, all of those which Fang Qingyu had bought for him.
"What did you go out for?" Li Qingcheng asked without even raising his head.
"Went to drink," Zhang Mu said in a low voice.
Li Qingcheng: "How come Sun Yán didn't give you a carriage in order to send you back and just made you walk like this? Aren't you two good friends?"
Zhang Mu laggily said, "Was sobering up."
Since Li Qingcheng had been waiting until the fourth night period, he originally also had some fire in his heart. However, seeing Zhang Mu's sorry figure, he softened up and casually opened his mouth. "What kind of wine did you drink? Where did you drink it?"
"Forgot," Zhang Mu replied; he earnestly looked at Li Qingcheng and made an "Aih" sound.
When Li Qingcheng looked up, he could smell a burst of sweet fragrance.
This sweet smell immediately touched Li Qingcheng's inverse scale. He suddenly roared, "'Forgot'? What's this smell?! You drank that spring wine until you turned stupid?! Go kneel down and sober yourself up in the courtyard!"
Li Qingcheng went mad and threw the table, making the trivial things on it hit all over Zhang Mu's body at once. At this time, one could only hear the crown prince in a towering rage as he slammed the wooden table at Zhang Mu, throwing curse upon curse in the process. Zhang Mu, however, remained silent all along; he just stood inside the hall and let Li Qingcheng become furious at him.
This scolding alarmed the soldiers. Tang Hong had just fallen asleep when he heard Li Qingcheng get angry, making him busily go out again with his hair still down. Standing outside the hall, he wanted to say something, but his mouth had yet to open when Li Qingcheng roared, "Tang Hong! Shut up!"
Tang Hong shivered and dared not utter a word, but as he turned around to walk away, Li Qingcheng said again, "Stop! I have an order for you later!"
Li Qingcheng panted, and silence befell the hall. Not giving any explanation, Zhang Mu turned around and left, going through the corridor and to the courtyard. In the snowy ground, he bent down and knelt on one knee outside the bedroom.
"Get on your knees! Kneel here and sober up from your spring wine!" Li Qingcheng, whose anger had still yet to subside, roared, "Kneel down properly!"
Saying that, he went over and kicked Zhang Mu's other knee joint, kicking him until he was kneeling on both knees on the ground; only then was his heart satisfied. After that, he turned around in a rage and instructed Tang Hong before returning to the bedroom like a gust of wind, slamming the door while he was at it.
Zhang Mu looked at the snow and didn't say anything.
A moment afterward, the door was kicked open, and a bunch of things was thrown out in a disorderly manner, all of which smashed onto either Zhang Mu's head or body. A wooden box was thrown until the lid was smashed open, and the contents scattered all over the ground.
A silver ingot, a tree branch, peach pit, cups and plates that Li Qingcheng used when he was rearing the falcon, and a piece of paper as light as a feather fell in the snow.
Zhang Mu picked up the paper as well as the box, putting the things back one by one.
Li Qingcheng, with great strength, slammed the door close and no longer talked to him.
After a long time, the winter night was filled with silence, and the rooms on all sides of the garden were plunged into endless darkness.
Fang Qingyu's figure flashed over the wall and landed in the courtyard. Giving a side glance at Zhang Mu, he then moved to knock on Li Qingcheng's door.
"Don't want to eat," Li Qingcheng in the room said.
Fang Qingyu splitted a plum branch into two to be used as chopsticks before turning around and sitting outside the room. Minding his own business, he twisted off the bamboo tube's lid and started to eat; the tangyuan were still at a steaming-warm temperature.
"On the way, Qing-ge stopped by to listen to the movement inside the governor’s residence." Fang Qingyu met Zhang Mu's line of sight and smiled.
From inside the room, Li Qingcheng asked, "How was it?"
Fang Qingyu said, "It's all been linked. I had also added something to the plan for you, and now, it's akin to seamless heavenly clothes. Governor Sun has truly fallen for it, he has been misled and now believes everything to be true. Tomorrow, have people keep an eye on the activity at the governor’s residence. Beware of him sending a messenger out of the city."
Zhang Mu suddenly opened his mouth. "What did you two do tonight?"
Fang Qingyu said, "Went out to buy tangyuan." Then, he politely offered, "Does Brother want some? It's still warm."
Zhang Mu didn't give him any reply. A moment later, Li Qingcheng pushed the door open. Fang Qingyu raised the bamboo tube, and Li Qingcheng took it, then kicked him, indicating for him to move aside. After that, he sat on the door threshold and ate those tangyuan while thinking to himself.
Fang Qingyu stretched himself and said with a smile, "I'm going to sleep."
Li Qingcheng said, "Go ba."
After Fang Qingyu had gone back to his room, there was only the sound of rustling snow, and the whole place was quiet. Li Qingcheng then said, "Forget it, come in to sleep. It's me who went overboard. I waited for you all night long, it made me so sleepy and short-tempered."
Zhang Mu replied, "I'll kneel until I've sobered up, you go to sleep first."
Li Qingcheng: "I can't sleep with you kneeling outside."
Zhang Mu said no more; he got up and went into the room. He bent down and properly put the box under the bed before laying on the couch, still drenched as he went to sleep.
Next month is the #FeitianWeek2021!
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.