Yu Huang Rong smiled. The way Zhang Shi Lan was looking at him right now … he liked it very much. If he could, he would like to see this type of gaze every day. Unfortunately … He pushed the thought aside. Whatever would happen in the future, right now, he was able to spend time with him. That was already very good.
He didn’t urge Zhang Shi Lan to tell him what he had thought about and kept quiet, silently enjoying the opportunity to be so close to him. He didn’t want to seem too eager. Certainly, a scholar like Zhang Shi Lan would dislike that and it wasn’t like there wouldn’t be many opportunities in the future. Yes, if he managed to make this dream come true, then there was no need to rush.
He glanced at the other side of the pond where the first candidate had handed the erhu to Madam Yan’s aide and went back to her seat. Up until now, they still hadn’t been able to see her face even once.
Luan Chang Fu leaned to the side and tried to get a glimpse at her face when she sat down at her original seat. Unfortunately … it was too far to get a clear look. He sighed. “Ah, this Madam Yan sure is devious. Inviting the beauties and most talented women … and then not letting us see them! How will I know whether they’re a beauty or a talent now?”
Feng Gui Ying chuckled. “I guess this is what Madam Yan wanted. How would the talents have any chance if we could see the beauties? In the end, she also wants to set up these talents with somebody.”
“Aiya!” Luan Chang Fu waved his fan. “What is talent worth? You can’t look at it continuously and only appreciate it on some occasions. If I want somebody to play for me, I can hire musicians! But my wife … I’ll have to look at her every day.” He furrowed his brows and looked at the other men. Some of them were nodding but General Yu and Scholar Zhang looked like they hadn’t even heard. That merchant Qian looked ill at ease too. Well, the latter figured since he was such a great person. Of course, a small merchant would tremble in front of his might, haha! But as for the other two …
Luan Chang Fu leaned forward and snapped his fan shut, pointing at Zhang Shi Lan. “Scholar Zhang, what is your opinion?”
“Mn?” Zhang Shi Lan blinked and looked over, finally coming out of his thoughts. “I … I’m sorry. What was the question?”
“Eh …” Luan Chang Fu leaned back and examined his face. “Were you listening that closely? To the music, I mean.” How come this guy hadn’t listened to him? Normally, people would hang on his lips … He was such a great storyteller!
Zhang Shi Lan tensed and searched for some excuse he could bring up. Unfortunately … he had never been good at lying. He could only look blankly at Luan Chang Fu, his mouth opening and then closing again.
Yu Huang Rong cleared his throat. “I’m afraid this might be my fault. You see, I’m an uncouth man. I don’t understand much about music, that kind of thing, so I asked Scholar Zhang some questions. I guess he must have been shocked silly at my lack of education.”
Zhang Shi Lan looked up in a daze. “Ah, no, that —”
Yu Huang Rong turned toward him, his arm brushing that of the scholar, making him fall silent again. “There’s no need to cover up for me, Scholar Zhang. I don’t think anyone expects me to know about music.”
“Eh …” Luan Chang Fu opened his fan with a swish. “The song should have been ‘Leaves on Fen Hua River’, shouldn’t it?”
Yu Huang Rong’s lips twitched. Hadn’t they already talked about that? This Luan Chang Fu! He was even more shameless than his cousin! Well, he couldn’t very well say so or this guy would run straight to the emperor and tell on him. He forced himself to smile and motioned at Luan Chang Fu. “Look at you, Your Highness! You got it right with just one guess. I am sure the women will admire you for your talents.”
Luan Chang Fu tsked in response. “Naturally, they will! And not just that. They’ll also admire me for my good looks. You have to know that I’m admirable from all directions.” He turned his face to both sides, showing off his good looks in front of the other seven men.
Yu Huang Rong shook his head and turned back to admire Zhang Shi Lan instead. Ah, Luan Chang Fu, that kind of vain peacock couldn’t move him at all. As for Zhang Shi Lan’s gentle looks … He would be able to enjoy looking at them the whole day. Especially … his gaze slid to that pair of full lips and he gulped. Zhang Shi Lan had the weird habit of lowering his eyelids halfway whenever he talked to him so even though he knew that Zhang Shi Lan had beautiful eyes, he could only admire those lips. Not that anything was wrong with them. They were also very beautiful, very appealing. Maybe a little too appealing. He actually … couldn’t look away.
Opposite them, Qian Mu Qing tensed and his gaze flickered. Ah, he knew he shouldn’t get involved but … he really admired Zhang Shi Lan! How could he let somebody take advantage of him? Even if it was General Yu. Just because he was a hero that didn’t mean he could do whatever he wanted!
He cleared his throat. “Uh … I guess it doesn’t stand to question whether His Highness is handsome or not. That is known in the whole capital. I’d be interested in the answer to the previous question though. Scholar Zhang, His Highness was asking which weight talent should bear in choosing a wife.”
“Right, right!” Luan Chang Fu slapped his fan against his other hand. “What’s your opinion, Scholar Zhang?”
Zhang Shi Lan glanced over at the second woman that had already gone up. She was fashionably dressed and fell into a graceful dancing position as soon as she reached the spot in front of the other women. A few musicians started to play in a hidden corner and Zhang Shi Lan looked around, finally spotting them below a pine tree at the side. Ah, it seemed Madam Yan had thought of everything.
Playing the erhu, dancing … What weight should this kind of talent bear when deciding on marriage? He had never thought about this before but all his thoughts regarding marriage so far had circled around the idea of getting married to General Yu someday. It was a grand dream, something he knew could never come true but he had still imagined it again and again.
He had never considered his status as a General though. In fact, the man he fell in love with back then hadn’t even been a General yet. The only thing he had considered had been his character. It was the way he saved him from falling into the river, how he carefully and unhurriedly made sure that he was alright and finally brought him home when that didn’t seem to be the case.
Zhang Shi Lan looked back at Luan Chang Fu and smiled lightly. “I guess there are many things to consider when deciding on a marriage. Talent may be one of them.”
Qian Mu Qing gulped and forced himself to speak up despite General Yu’s gaze. “How so?”
“Mn … In my opinion, talent can tell us a lot about a person. Considering the two candidates we have seen so far, we can say that they have to have dedicated a lot of time into mastering their talents to such a degree. The first candidate didn’t make a single mistake while playing the song and as far as I can tell, the second candidate is very proficient in dancing too. Although I do have to say that I myself know less about dancing so I doubt I have the knowledge to judge appropriately.”
“So … they’re very dedicated women?” The one asking was Ming Ru Shui, the nephew of the director of the most famous academy among the budding scholars of Chen country. Unfortunately, even though he was related to this person, his own achievements in the field were said to be meager. Instead, he was rumored to have a liking for music. It figured that he would pay special attention to these women.
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. Among the seven men taking part in the event, General Yu and Ming Ru Shui were the only ones he had personally known before. And despite his secret feelings for General Yu, Ming Ru Shui was the one he knew much better. After all, they had both visited the academy and even though they hadn’t had much contact and their interests had turned out to not align too much, they had seen each other on a regular basis and even talked on several occasions. “Yes, that is what I assume. And maybe there are even other things we can deduce from the talent they chose to display. Just asking ourselves why they did so might prove useful.”
Feng Gui Ying furrowed his brows. “Isn’t it just because that is what they are best at? How would that help?”
“Yes, of course, it could also be that there is no other reason. I might be thinking too much.”
“So their talent isn’t that important, after all.” Feng Gui Ying nodded and turned back to Luan Chang Fu. “Your Highness was completely right. This is only about beauty. I can’t understand why Madam Yan placed us so far away and even behind them. How are we to appraise them like this?”
Yu Huang Rong frowned. That guy! How could he dare to talk like that after Zhang Shi Lan took the pain to advise him? He turned to the scholar and smiled. “Scholar Zhang, actually, I am not yet sure if I understood you correctly. Which other reason did you think of that could have let them display a certain skill?”
Zhang Shi Lan’s lips parted but he didn’t get any words out. General Yu was looking at him directly, his eyes just as sharp as on that afternoon ten years ago.
Yu Huang Rong noticed his blunder. Right, Zhang Shi Lan was shy and wouldn’t like to talk to him in front of others if the answer couldn’t be given straightforwardly. He should have thought of that! He cleared his throat and glanced over at the women to find something he could add to steer the conversation in another direction.
At this moment, the second candidate was coming to an end with her dance, her sleeves flowing in the wind, her hair whipping in the breeze. Thanks to his training in martial arts, he could even see the way her fingers accurately uncurled, a slight tension in her limbs.
Yu Huang Rong raised his brows and turned back. “As I said before, I don’t understand much about music. I don’t know about dancing either but I like this woman’s control over her body. Even some of our soldiers wouldn’t be able to move this accurately.”
Luan Chang Fu laughed. “To gain General Yu’s admiration, she would be thrilled to hear about it!”
Feng Gui Ying also grinned. “Should I send one of my servants to ask whether she would like to join the army? I’m sure she would accept the proposition if it was General Yu personally training her.”
Yu Huang Rong merely smiled. He didn’t mind being mocked as long as they left Zhang Shi Lan alone. Speaking of which … he glanced over and found the scholar gazing at him with probing eyes. What was he thinking about? Before he could speak up again Qian Mu Qing once again interrupted.
“Scholar Zhang, could it be that you meant these women might have chosen specific skills to display because of whom they want to impress?”
All men turned to look at him, making Qian Mu Qing tense.
“Uh … It was just an idea. I mean General Yu’s admiration certainly isn’t gained easily. He is … an uncommon person among us considering that he hasn’t spent much time in the capital over the past few years. Maybe this … was a conscious attempt to impress him?”
This time, seven gazes turned to Zhang Shi Lan. If that was true, they really wanted to know!
Zhang Shi Lan smiled politely. “That was what I meant, yes. Certainly, as Young Master Feng said, it is very likely that they will have chosen the talent they are most proud of. But most of these women are the young ladies from the most distinguished families. They have learned a lot of different things and will have reached proficiency in a lot of them. If there was a man they were interested in, they would be able to display many talents to gain that person’s admiration and goodwill. So I thought that … maybe at least some of them made the conscious effort to consider which talent the man they like would admire the most.”
“Oh!” Luan Chang Fu waved his fan faster. “So you mean to say they knew that I love music and dance, so they decided to display that talent? They have good taste, if I may say so!”
Zhang Shi Lan lowered his head and refrained from commenting. The prince could consider it as him giving a nod if he liked.
With that, the eight men fell silent, quietly watching the performances of the women. They couldn’t help but wonder with each of them: Was this talent displayed for them?
Only Zhang Shi Land and Yu Huang Rong didn’t pay much attention. The former had inclined his body and used the opportunity to gaze at Yu Huang Rong’s profile while the latter … deeply regretted the seat he had taken. This way, he couldn’t take even a peek at Zhang Shi Lan without it being noticed and he could hardly pretend to be stupid every single time!