The two men kept quiet until Yu Huang Rong couldn’t take it any longer. “She didn’t say much just now. What kind of thing do you think she wants us to do?”
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head. He didn’t know and even if he had any idea, he didn’t know how to express his thoughts in front of General Yu.
Yu Huang Rong didn’t get impatient. He already knew how Zhang Shi Lan was. He had to give him some more time before he could expect results. He reached over to the teapot and poured another cup of tea, pushing it over to Zhang Shi Lan. “Those women displayed talents that are highly regarded in the capital. I guess for us men, there are also talents we could display but will those women really care? They already know I’m a General. There’s no need to show that I can fight or ride a horse. I don’t think they’d care for me reciting some poem either. And Madam Yan said she wanted us to work together. So I guess we should display something that we can do as a … pair?” He picked up his own cup and sipped his tea, waiting for Zhang Shi Lan’s reaction.
The scholar nodded, his cheeks showing a faint hint of pink. He knew that Yu Huang Rong hadn’t meant it that way but being called a pair by him … He just couldn’t help but let his thoughts wander.
Yu Huang Rong put his cup down and pondered. “Something we can do together, something that will entertain those ladies … She couldn’t want us to do the same they did, could she?”
Zhang Shi Lan widened his eyes in surprise. Doing what those ladies had done? Playing an instrument? Dancing? The latter certainly wasn’t an option. As for the former … “I … could play the guqin.”
Yu Huang Rong smiled gently. Could he pretend the Zhang Shi Lan had just spoken up on his own accord? It had only been a few words but that was better than nothing. “That’s already very good. We can probably do something with that. Then … What do you think I could do?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at him in a daze. In his mind, Yu Huang Rong was a strong man that feared nothing and whose strengths lay in what a man of the military should be able to do. Just as he had mentioned, he was certainly a very capable rider and fighter. He should also be good at forming strategies and commanding soldiers. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have become a general at such a young age.
It was just … That was nothing that could be displayed at this kind of event, was it? And it wouldn’t go well together with playing the guqin either. In the end, he could only shake his head. He didn’t know.
Yu Huang Rong nodded. “It seems I’m dragging us down.” He couldn’t help but smile at the thought. This Madam Yan … He wasn’t sure but he almost felt as if she had something against him and wanted to pay him a lesson. Had he somehow offended her in the last few days?
He thought back to how he talked to her in the beginning and then three days ago and couldn’t help but feel that it was entirely possible. And he could imagine that she was able to hold a grudge. But … she wouldn’t have planned the event this way just to teach him a lesson, would she? After all, the marriage of eight men depended on this. And all eight of them were the most sought-after bachelors of their Chen country’s capital.
Even though he and Zhang Shi Lan may be a couple that would make the rumors abound after they married, the others certainly weren’t to be looked down upon either. If she took them lightly, she’d be losing out. Considering the way she had behaved until now, he didn’t believe she would take that loss. No, she would certainly insist on making all these eight men marry. Thus, she would never go so far just to try and pay him back. In that case, there should be some other reason for this.
Zhang Shi Lan watched Yu Huang Rong’s expression. The General seemed to be deep in thought, not paying him any attention at all. He couldn’t help but feel sweet. Even though he had no idea how this afternoon would turn out, he was very content at this moment. He waited until Yu Huang Rong resurfaced from his thoughts before he leaned slightly closer. “Maybe … there’s an instrument General Yu knows how to play?”
Yu Huang Rong turned to him in a daze. This was the second time already that Zhang Shi Lan spoke up on his own accord. This Madam Yan really knew how to set up people. He should send her some flowers or something.
Unfortunately, he had to shake his head at Zhang Shi Lan’s suggestion. “That really is a good idea but I’m afraid I have to disappoint Scholar Zhang.” He gave a wry smile and brushed his hair back. “Originally, I might have been able to do so but after so many years on the battlefield, I’m afraid I’m rather rusty. Even if you showed me again and we practiced the whole morning, I’m afraid it wouldn’t be very enjoyable for these women.”
Zhang Shi Lan lowered his head. “I should’ve known. I’m sorry.”
Yu Huang Rong shook his head. “No, the idea is very good. It’s me who is lacking. But I’m sure if we continue to think in that direction, we’ll find something that we can do.” He pushed his chair slightly closer to the scholar and his smile grew lighter. “Do you want some more tea? That … servant girl also brought some pastries. Maybe you want one?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the person next to him, not knowing what to say. General Yu seemed rather approachable. There probably wasn’t any reason to fear him. He wouldn’t judge others so easily. It made him think back to the day when he had first seen him at the banks of the Fen Hua River. Still, these feelings of many years couldn’t be put to rest just like that.
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head. Even though he had slightly calmed down by now, he was still much too nervous to eat anything. Sipping his tea was already the best he could do.
Yu Huang Rong didn’t mind. He just nodded and leaned back so he wouldn’t give Zhang Shi Lan the impression that he was too pushy. “Something that can be done together with playing an instrument … Instruments … They’re using them at the teahouses to accompany some of their stories I think. Or in the theater. Unfortunately, I’m neither a storyteller nor a singer.”
Zhang Shi Lan didn’t dare to comment on that. He couldn’t imagine the General singing either. And telling a story … Well, he could imagine that. The General should have experienced a lot while on the battlefield. Unfortunately, that wasn’t anything those women would want to hear. If they told a story, then it should be something that was of more interest to them. Some romantic story, maybe.
The two men fell silent once again while trying to think up what they could do to humor those women.
Zhang Shi Lan cleared his throat. “Maybe playing an instrument wouldn’t be that good after all. We could try to think of something else.”
Yu Huang Rong looked at him, his gaze even softer than before. “My talents really aren’t anything that’s enjoyable for women. I guess we can only try to make the best of it.”
Zhang Shi Lan’s brows slightly drew together. He wanted to suggest something but he couldn’t think of anything. Still, seeing the General chastise himself this much, he just couldn’t take it. “I think General Yu is a very talented man.” He just couldn’t keep himself from speaking up. When he realized what he had just said, his whole body trembled.
Yu Huang Rong looked at him, the notion of pulling the man into his arms or at least holding his hand once again going through his head. In the end, he forced himself to just smile. “Thank you. I’m also admiring Scholar Zhang’s talents very much. Being praised by you makes me feel good.”
The two of them looked at each other, once again engulfed in silence. Yu Huang Rong finally got up and walked through the room. They had to think of something. Going quiet like that and then exchanging one sentence or maybe two, they could do that for a while but not forever. They needed an idea or things would get awkward soon.
He stopped in front of the window and looked outside. There was nothing much to see, the room was at the side of the building where the garden was. A scholar tree was standing not far from the window, its leaves dancing in the wind.
Yu Huang Rong’s eyes narrowed. Dancing … He glanced back at Zhang Shi Lan who was sitting at the table, his whole body tense. He slowly went up to him and sat down, leaning closer with a smile. “Do you remember the second woman that went up at the event four days ago?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked up in a daze and tried to think back. The second woman … “General Yu is talking about the woman who displayed the dance?”
Yu Huang Rong nodded. “We talked about it and I guess I did mention that I didn’t understand much about music but that I did have an eye for movements. I can’t dance either — at the very least none of these flashy dances that the women do — but I think I could manage a sword dance. How about doing that?”
Zhang Shi Lan’s cheeks flushed even further. A sword dance? Somehow, he could imagine that especially well. And somehow, he was very afraid to see it.