Madam Yan continued to lead the group through the garden with a smile and finally stopped in front of another pavilion. The tiles on the roof shimmered as if they had been forged from bronze and the wooden beams holding it up had been painted bright red. It gave one the feeling of being an auspicious place.
This pavilion was much bigger than the one at the bank of the Fen Hua river and the bench leading from beam to beam could seat the eight men without difficulty.
Luan Chang Fu took the first seat and everyone else followed suit. General Yu waited until Zhang Shi Lan had sat down and made sure to claim the spot left beside him just before Qian Mu Qing could make to slide onto the bench.
“Aiya, Mister Qian wouldn’t have wanted to sit here, would he?” He glared at him, daring him to say that he did.
Qian Mu Qing froze and awkwardly stepped back. “Eh … No, of course not. There’s … not enough space on this side anyway. I’ll … go and sit over there.” He pointed to the other side of the pavilion and couldn’t help but heave a sigh of relief when he sat down. Well, he would have liked to stay in the company of Zhang Shi Lan but it was still much better to sit here alone than to have to deal with General Yu. Ah, what a pity though!
Qian Mu Qing shook his head with a sigh and focused on Madam Yan who still stood outside the pavilion and observed the exchange with twinkling eyes. She seemed to be in an especially good mood as if she was eagerly anticipating what would happen at her event. She probably really liked to set up couples that truly loved each other and weren’t just considering marriage for the benefits of their families.
Qian Mu Qing nodded to himself. He liked this kind of attitude. In his situation, those noble women wouldn’t consider him if their family wasn’t in dire straits financially and as for other women … He didn’t lack money. He’d much rather find a wife that truly liked him and who he could spend his years happily with than one that only wanted benefits and would turn on him at the drop of a hat. Mn, this event was not bad at all.
While Qian Mu Qing was occupied with his own thoughts, Madam Yan glanced at all of her guests before she motioned to the grassy expanse on the other side of the pond next to the pavilion. Currently, nobody could be seen there but female voices drifted over from not too far away. This place was the venue she had decided on for today’s event. “Let me thank you again for attending today’s event.”
Luan Chang Fu took out a white fan and waved it with a smile. “Aiya, Madam Yan, no need for so many words. I can already hear the women, just bring them out already. I heard you only invited the greatest beauties of our capital.”
Madam Yan smiled back at him. “That is indeed the case. I invited those hailed as the greatest beauties or most talented women in the capital. So as to not bore His Highness, let me just state shortly how things will proceed: In a minute, my two aides Xiao Xi and Xiao Jia will bring the women over to the plain over there. Each one of them will perform something that they regard as their greatest talent while the other women will be their audience. The women are numbered according to the sequence of their performances. If there is one that you like, you may place their number in the chest below your seat.”
“Oh!” Luan Chang Fu’s fan stilled and he raised his brows. “What a … novel approach. What if I put all the numbers into the chest?”
Madam Yan gave him a noncommittal smile. “Then it could prove difficult to find a suitable wife, Your Highness. Now, I’ll leave you alone so you can observe the performances.” She nodded at the men and left, making her way through the rockery behind the pavilion and up the artificial mountain. On its top stood yet another, albeit smaller pavilion that could only seat two people. Madam Yan sat down on one of the seats and turned to the side.
From this elevated place, she could see the big pavilion where the men were seated. Unfortunately, her guests were shielded from her gaze by the roof. The only thing she could actually see was some black hair and the lilac-colored sleeve with the golden embroidery of Luan Chang Fu’s pretentious robe that hung out of the pavilion. Ah, one would have thought that a prince knew how to behave but this guy just did whatever he wanted based on the fact whose cousin he was. Well, he wasn’t the most important one today.
Since she couldn’t see General Yu and Scholar Zhang, she turned to the other side of the pond and waved at her two aides who promptly led the women onto the plain.
Madam Yan leaned back. With a bit of luck, General Yu would already be able to make some progress with Scholar Zhang over the course of today’s event. And if not … then she’d need to put in some more effort into the next stage. But for now, it was alright for her to watch. Ah, she’d have to be an idiot if she didn’t enjoy the show she herself had organized. Those were the most-talented women of Chen country’s capital, after all! Their skills were nothing to be scoffed at.
On the plain opposite the pavilion, the women took their seats. They couldn’t help but glance over at those eight bachelors on the other side of the pond, their hearts fluttering just like their hair in the breeze. Ah, there was His Highness, the emperor’s cousin! And there was General Yu, the hero of their Chen country! And there! Wasn’t that Mister Qian from that merchant family on the other side? The richest bachelor in the capital?! Ah, they were too lucky to have been chosen for this event!
Most of the women knew each other and they couldn’t help but want to discuss these treasured men. Unfortunately … the men were still watching and they wanted to leave a good impression on them so they’d have to wait until the event was over before they could discuss.
The first one of them got up and nodded at the other women before she took her seat in front of them. Xiao Xi carried over an erhu, carefully handing it to the woman before she returned to the side. Ah, how come they were the ones doing this? She wanted to go up to that pavilion with Madam Yan and watch! That would be so much more fun! They could gossip about the women and guess which man would choose which lady’s number!
In the pavilion on the other side of the pond, Luan Chang Fu stopped waving his fan and glanced at the other men. “Heh, isn’t there something wrong with this? Why is she sitting with her back to us?! How am I supposed to decide whether I like her just based on some piece she plays? I want to see her face! Her body!”
Some of the other men nodded. General Yu glanced at Zhang Shi Lan who had folded his hands in his lap and wasn’t even looking over to the women. He obviously didn’t care for either their faces nor their bodies. Mn, very good.
Yu Huang Rong leaned closer to him. “Scholar Zhang …”
Zhang Shi Lan glanced up and his eyelids fluttered. He didn’t dare to say anything, he didn’t even dare to breathe too loudly. General Yu was so close … Just what was he thinking?
Yu Huang Rong didn’t mind that he didn’t get a response. Now that he finally understood just why this scholar didn’t answer him, he even felt sweet seeing him this speechless in his presence. Ah, they could slowly work toward a better understanding where Zhang Shi Lan wouldn’t need to be like this anymore. For now, he should give him something to talk about to make this less awkward for him. “I don’t understand much about music. Maybe Scholar Zhang could explain a bit?”
“Ah.” Zhang Shi Lan tensed. What should he say?
“Does Scholar Zhang know what song this woman is playing?”
Zhang Shi Lan finally looked over to the other side of the pond. His heart beat so loudly that he almost couldn’t hear the sounds of the erhu though. How embarrassing! He couldn’t leave General Yu with such a bad impression! He sighed lightly, closed his eyes and concentrated on the music.
It started slowly and silently before getting louder, the low, solemn notes turning faster, short insertions breaking the melody up into a high-spirited song. This was like the flowing water of a river, rushing along the plains, coursing through the hills and valleys, the water gurgling when it passed by stones. Leaves were falling from the trees to either side of the current, landing on the water, traveling downward, further to where the river finally opened out into the sea.
Yu Huang Rong didn’t bother to remind Zhang Shi Lan that he had asked something. He watched his expression with rapt intention, not even daring to breathe out of fear he might break his immersion. Heaven knew he wanted nothing more than to lean forward, sweep him up into his arms and kiss him. Unfortunately … he’d need to wait before he was able to do that.
Ah, how much longer? Hadn’t he already waited long enough? All these years on the battlefield, asking himself time and time again if he would even be able to come back to the capital and see him one last time. Now, he had returned but they still weren’t close. Would he only ever be able to think of him and watch him from afar?