While General Yu talked with Madam Yan, Zhang Shi Lan and Qian Mu Qing left the main house and stepped onto the square in front of it together. Zhang Shi Lan smiled at the merchant and motioned over to his carriage. “Mister Qian, please wait a moment. I’ll go and tell my servant that I’ll keep you company first so that he might go home.”
Qian Mu Qing nodded. Honestly, as soon as they had been out of General Yu’s sight, he had already felt much better. Asking Scholar Zhang to come with him felt a little over-the-top now. Then again, even though he himself didn’t feel bad, he still felt that he should warn Zhang Shi Lan. After all, General Yu’s gaze hadn’t been normal. If it really was true and the General felt for him like this, then he needed to be warned.
He couldn’t get too close to this man! Who knew what would happen otherwise? That guy was a cold-blooded general. If he wanted something, then he might try to take it by force. If Zhang Shi Lan wasn’t careful, then something might happen to him. As a friend, he couldn’t just watch and do nothing.
Zhang Shi Lan informed the servant that he could return without him for now since he would accompany Qian Mu Qing before he returned home himself. Afterward, he returned to Qian Mu Qing’s side, even reaching out to lightly touch his arm to help him over to the carriage. “Are you already feeling a bit better out here, Mister Qian? I hope you didn’t have to wait too long.”
Qian Mu Qing smiled and motioned at his carriage, letting Zhang Shi Lan step in before him while the servant held the curtain aside. “Scholar Zhang is too courteous. To be honest, this whole event might just have been a bit too much. There were a lot of performances which took a lot of time and well, with all these people around …” He stopped and awkwardly cleared his throat. Zhang Shi Lan’s status was still higher than his. It wouldn’t really be appropriate to say that he had a problem with these people of high status, would it?
Zhang Shi Lan smiled. Even though Qian Mu Qing hadn’t spoken his mind, it was obvious from the way he had looked at him what he meant. He folded his hands in his lap and looked out of the window when the carriage started to move. “Even though my father is working in one of the ministries, I can understand how Mister Qian must have felt today. Young Master Feng and His Highness are of lofty status. People like us won’t get to see them very often. It sure can make one nervous.”
Qian Mu Qing nodded. “Yes, I wasn’t too sure if Scholar Zhang would feel the same or if maybe you had another perspective on this based on your family’s status. I didn’t mean to be rude.”
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head. “There’s nothing rude about speaking your mind like this. I’m happy that Mister Qian trusts me enough to confide in me like this.”
Qian Mu Qing didn’t hesitate any longer. This Scholar Zhang really had a gentle temperament. Even if he said something that he didn’t agree with, he wouldn’t hold it against him. He cleared his throat and turned to face him, taking a closer look at his face.
To be honest, he could understand where General Yu was coming from. This Scholar Zhang had a special type of beauty to him that had nothing to do with being male or female. He exuded an aura that made people unwittingly feel comfortable around him. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that this was less about his appearance than his bearing. It was not just in the way he looked but also in the way he behaved. It made one relaxed.
“Scholar Zhang, I hope you don’t find me too direct but I had a very good impression of you today. I think you are considering things very carefully and you do try to see other people’s standpoint. That is a quality I do admire very much. If Scholar Zhang doesn’t mind, then I would like to see you more often in the future.”
Zhang Shi Lan smiled. “I’m honored that Mister Qian would have such a good impression of me even though I presumed to talk about you and your family like that. If you truly do not feel offended by what I said before, then it would be my pleasure to see you in the future again.”
Qian Mu Qing nodded. “Then that’s agreed on. What Scholar Zhang said, it really wasn’t anything I could hold against you. In fact, every word you said was true. And even though others may look down on us for being merchants, I’m also proud of what we have established with the work of many generations. I also believe that Scholar Zhang wouldn’t judge based on that alone.”
The carriage came to a stop and the servant pulled the curtains aside. “We’ve arrived, Young Master.”
Qian Mu Qing got off and waited for Zhang Shi Lan to alight too.
The scholar got down from the carriage and stood next to Qian Mu Qing. His lips curved into a gentle smile and he cupped his fists. “Since Mister Qian is back at home now, I shouldn’t disturb you any longer.”
Qian Mu Qing stepped forward and touched Zhang Shi Lan’s elbow, stopping him from taking his leave. “Scholar Zhang doesn’t need to be this reserved. Since we can be considered friends now, I wouldn’t be a good host if I didn’t ask Scholar Zhang inside. Furthermore …” He took a look around and finally lowered his voice. “There’s something I’d like to say and I’m afraid it wouldn’t be too suitable to do so here.”
Zhang Shi Lan’s brows slightly raised but he nodded and lowered his hands. “If Mister Qian invites me this genuinely, then it would be rude of me to reject the offer.”
Qian Mu Qing heaved a sigh of relief and motioned to the door. “Please.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded and followed him inside. He was already used to this kind of visit. Back when he had been part of the Academy, it had been customary to go and see the other scholars one got to know. In contrast to them, this Mister Qian seemed to be much more easy-going. He didn’t need to worry that he would do anything wrong and cause his ire.
Qian Mu Qing led his guest to a beautifully decorated room and waved at the servants to bring some refreshments. “Scholar Zhang must feel that our house is too pompous. It can’t be helped. With all the travels, there will be people one knows all over our Chen country. It wouldn’t do not to accept their gifts and display them in our house. If they ever come to visit, they should know that everything is treated with care.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. He himself liked to keep things simple but he could also see all the crafts from the different regions of their Chen country. This should be expected of the house of a merchant. Furthermore, all these things — from the folding screen behind the door to the scrolls hanging on the opposite wall — were all exquisite. He certainly wouldn’t doubt that Qian Mu Qing had good taste.
The two men sat down at a table and Zhang Shi Lan couldn’t help but take another look at the tea set that one of the servant girls put down in front of them. It was obviously from a faraway place too.
The scene painted on the side of his cup depicted a meadow with lush grass and a blooming plum tree. A person was sitting below the branches, with a book in hand and a small table beside them where a cup of tea stood.
Qian Mu Qing gave his guest a while to look around and finally cleared his throat. “To be honest, I’m a little embarrassed to bring this up. Scholar Zhang and I don’t know each other very well and I shouldn’t get involved in your matters.”
Zhang Shi Lan gently shook his head and placed the cup down again. “Whatever it is, I’m happy that Mister Qian is willing to put in so much effort on my behalf.”
Qian Mu Qing rubbed his neck and took a sip of the tea to moisten his throat. “You see, I already asked about General Yu before. And I don’t know how to phrase this well, so I hope scholar Zhang won’t mind if I’m direct, but I feel that General Yu has some sort of special feeling for you, Scholar Zhang.”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the merchant blankly. Some sort of special feeling? What was he talking about? Thinking back to before he could only find one explanation. “Mister Qian things that I’ve offended General Yu?”
Qian Mu Qing’s cheeks flushed red. Haish! He certainly wouldn’t have thought he needed to be even more direct! Well, this was probably his own fault. Why had he asked if General Yu was angry with one of them before? Naturally, Scholar Zhang would have trouble following his thoughts when he heard the opposite now.
Qian Mu Qing cleared his throat and shook his head. “If somebody offended General Yu, then that would be me. On the contrary, toward you …”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the merchant expectantly. He didn’t know what he could have done to upset General Yu but he couldn’t imagine anything else either. Other than that time ten years ago when they had exchanged a few words, it had only ever been him stealing some glances at the General when he came home. So if anything had made him unhappy, then it could only have been his behavior today.
Thinking back to it there wasn’t much he had done. But maybe exactly that was the problem. A man like General Yu might not like such soft-spoken behavior. Getting scared in front of him, not even daring to say a single word … he might have taken that the wrong way. What a pity! Now, the person he liked would regard him with displeasure. He couldn’t even make him feel he slightest bit of goodwill.
Seeing that Zhang Shi Lan had furrowed his brows as if in worry, Qian Mu Qing was sure that the scholar still hadn’t understood his meaning. He poured himself another cup of tea and once again cleared his throat. “Scholar Zhang, this really is hard to say but rather than feeling offended I’d say General Yu thinks of you with fondness.”
Zhang Shi Lan didn’t know what to say. His eyelids fluttered for a moment, making Qian Mu Qing’s brows twitched. Alright, he really could understand why the general had such thoughts about Zhang Shi Lan. He really was beautiful. But did that really mean you could just ruin another man’s future like that? If something really happened between those two …
He shook his head and pulled his teacup closer to himself. Looking into it to evade Zhang Shi Lan’s gaze, he slowly continued. “He is looking at you in a rather … suggestive way. I know this doesn’t concern me and maybe you feel awkward hearing this from me but I had a very good impression of you so I felt that I should warn you. If what I think is true and General Yu really thinks of you like that, then that would be troublesome for you. At the moment, his position in the capital is rather high. If he made a demand in front of His Majesty, that would bode ill for you.”
“That …” Zhang Shi Lan pushed away his cup and got up, his heart thumping loudly. “Mister Qian, I think you must be mistaken. There is no way General Yu would … toward me …” He stopped and turned away, unable to keep a calm expression. He couldn’t let anyone see. The way his expression hovered between hope and happiness on one hand and worry on the other. It really was nothing he could expose in front of anyone else.
Ah, what was there to hope anyway? Qian Mu Qing had to be wrong. There was no way General Yu could really feel like that toward him. That kind of thing … Wasn’t it just his one-sided wishful thinking?