When Zhang Shi Lan turned away, Qian Mu Qing couldn’t help but feel anxious. This kind of gentle scholar … He wouldn’t have scared him with his words, would he? He also got up and took the few steps that separated them with the thought of calming him. In the end, he stopped though. Zhang Shi Lan was probably confused enough as it was. He shouldn’t get too close and instead, give him time to come to terms with the situation first.
Zhang Shi Lan tried to do just that but it was hard to fight down the emotions welling up in his heart. General Yu … The person he had secretly loved for so many years might be in love with him? That really would be a dream come true. But unfortunately, it was impossible. He couldn’t believe that General Yu really thought of him like that and even if he did there was no way for them to be together, was there?
In the end, he took a few deep breaths and turned around, giving Qian Mu Qing a smile. “Thank you for taking the time to tell me about your assumption. I’ll pay more attention to it in the future.” Even though he didn’t believe that what Qian Mu Qing had said was true, he certainly wouldn’t tell him so outright. This person had tried to look out for him. Saying something like that would be like a slap to his face. He wasn’t a person like that.
Qian Mu Qing could see that Zhang Shi Lan didn’t believe him in the least. Well, if he hadn’t seen the way General Yu looked at the scholar, he certainly wouldn’t have believed so either if anybody told him. That was the man that had led thousands of soldiers in the war against the state of Xiang! Who would think that he preferred men over women? The whole capital would laugh at him if he dared to make such an assumption in public.
Unfortunately, he had seen that gaze and he was sure about what he thought. If Zhang Shi Lan didn’t take it seriously, things might turn out badly. “Scholar Zhang, I know that this sounds strange. If I wasn’t very sure, I wouldn’t have brought it up. Please be careful in the future when you have to do with General Yu. If anything happened and somebody found out about it, then your reputation would certainly be ruined. General Yu might be able to get away with it but as for you …” He shook his head. Just a rumor might be damaging to him not to speak of if something really were to transpire.
Zhang Shi Lan nodded but kept quiet. If something were to happen … How could that be? Just the thought of it … Unknowingly, his cheeks flushed bright red.
Qian Mu Qing’s brows rose. This … Scholar Zhang didn’t look like he was afraid at all. No, rather than that, he looked as if … Qian Mu Qing sucked in a surprised breath and opened his mouth only to close it again.
What was it with this day? He really didn’t want to know this much about other people’s thoughts and hidden feelings! His gaze flitted about but finally, he couldn’t hold back. Even though he normally wouldn’t care, this situation was too peculiar! He wouldn’t dare to ask that General Yu but Zhang Shi Lan was different. He regarded him as a friend and since they had already started to talk about it, why shouldn’t he use the opportunity? “That … Scholar Zhang, I’m sorry if I’m being intrusive but … could it be that you … toward General Yu …?” Even though he wanted to ask, he couldn’t get the words out. This really was too unexpected!
Zhang Shi Lan looked at him, obviously startled. The flush across his cheeks deepened further though, completely giving away his inner thoughts. This was obviously the face of a person that was caught in the act.
Qian Mu Qing turned away and raised his brows, rubbing his face and taking a deep breath to calm down. “I … I really can’t understand this! Why would you …?”
Zhang Shi Lan wanted to find an excuse. He wanted to say something to explain the situation, to pretend that no, he definitely wasn’t in love with General Yu. But Qian Mu Qing’s gaze said that he already knew. He had seen completely through him. Well, it figured. As a merchant, he naturally needed to be able to see through people’s thoughts. Otherwise, how would he be able to successfully conduct his business?
Zhang Shi Lan sighed and sat down at the table again. “What can I say to that? I have long admired him. And what isn’t there to be admired about him? He’s a hero of our Chen country. A mighty general. Who wouldn’t look up to him?”
Qian Mu Qing paced up and down beside the table, his hands clasped behind his back. Admiring him was one thing but … He turned to look at Zhang Shi Lan whose cheeks were still slightly flushed. Obviously, this man was far past admiring someone. “I’m just trying to understand. This General Yu …” He shook his head. The whole day today he had felt an unforgiving aura coming from that man. Just being on friendly terms with him struck him as unbelievable. Being able to fall in love with someone like that … Even if you preferred men, did you need to fall for somebody like that?!
He once again shook his head but also sat down again. “I really can’t understand! A scholar like you … How could this have happened?”
Zhang Shi Lan lowered his gaze, his hands folded in his lap tensed. “I also know that. This kind of feeling … I know it is wrong. But I’ve held onto it for so long, not getting married, still hoping to be able to see him return to the capital, just … just to take a look. I want nothing else than that. Just being able to take a look. As long as he isn’t married, as long as I’m not married, is it really that wrong?”
Qian Mu Qing gulped. He wasn’t interested in men in the least. And even though he could see what General Yu might like about Zhang Shi Lan, this was merely understanding. He wouldn’t be able to fall in love with him even if he was asked to. This deep affection Zhang Shi Lan felt for the General … he could hardly imagine. Furthermore … “Well, you are about to get married now.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. “I also know that. It’s why I went to the matchmaker in the first place. I thought that now that he is getting married, I also shouldn’t be foolish any longer. Finding a wife for myself … I know it’s not fair for whoever it will be but this is the best for everyone, isn’t it?”
Qian Mu Qing nodded. “It’s good that you’re thinking this way. What I’m worried about is what General Yu will do. I’ve already said what I thought and I still think the same. He does have some feelings for you. But you certainly also understand that this can’t happen.”
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head. “This has always been my unrequited love. He wouldn’t fall in love with me. Why should he? It’s been years since we talked for the first time. Since then we haven’t spoken a single word. So he would have needed to fall in love with me at first sight today. I doubt something like that could happen.”
Qian Mu Qing sighed. He had no idea when or how General Yu had fallen in love with Zhang Shi Lan but he was still sure that he had. “Scholar Zhang, it’s not my place to say anything but you really have to make sure that you don’t spend too much time with. Even if you don’t believe in his feelings for you, it wouldn’t do for you to be in his presence for a longer time. Wouldn’t that make things even more difficult for you?”
Zhang Shi Lan sighed. “How much more difficult can it get? I’m in love with a man but I will never be able to belong to him. Whether I spend time with him or not … What will it change?”
Qian Mu Qing rubbed his forehead. “What it changes? At least, it’ll change how much you’ll have to suffer. Seeing him, having to talk to him, all while hiding your feelings in your heart. You really want to do that?”
Zhang Shi Lan gave a sad smile. “I can’t do anything against the feelings in my heart. And rather than not seeing him at all, I’d much rather quietly suffer while being able to look at him for a little while longer.
“I don’t expect you to understand this, Mister Qian. These are just the thoughts of a lovesick man. So please don’t speak of this anymore. I also won’t speak about this again. In a few days, Madam Yan’s event will be over and soon enough, both he and I will be married men. These forbidden feelings can’t be known by anyone. Otherwise, it would bring him trouble. I can’t let that happen so I will take the secret to the grave one day. I hope you can do the same for me.”
Qian Mu Qing nodded with a heavy heart. By now, he regretted bringing this matter up. Maybe it really would have been better not to speak about it. Alas, it was too late to regret now. It couldn’t be changed anymore.
Zhang Shi Lan got up, cupped his fists and bowed. “I thank you for taking the time to tell me about your worries regarding General Yu and also for giving this promise. You truly are a friend even though we haven’t known each other for long. Now … I should take my leave.”
Qian Mu Qing nodded and got up. “I’ll have one of the servants take you home. And don’t worry. Not one word of this will get out.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded and followed Qian Mu Qing back to the entrance. Soon enough, he boarded the carriage and was taken home.
Qian Mu Qing continued to stand in the doorway, blankly staring at the road and the carriage that had been there just a moment before. He couldn’t help but wonder. These two men … How come they had fallen in love with each other?
General Yu certainly had been lured by Zhang Shi Lan’s good looks and gentle temperament. This was probably what all men looked for in a wife and he had just looked for the same in another man. As for Zhang Shi Lan … He couldn’t help but remember how the scholar had said that he had admired the General for a long time.
Qian Mu Qing’s cheeks involuntarily flushed red. He hastily turned away from the road and rushed back inside, his heart beating crazily. What was he thinking? He slapped his forehead and went to tend to his business. He couldn’t help but think of what Zhang Shi Lan had explained at Madam Yan’s event today though: A woman would unwittingly look for an accomplished man.
Who knew if that kind of insight came from a book or studying the relationships in the capital or maybe … if it hadn’t been an answer coming from the heart of a person that could only explain their own infatuation this way.