Seeing Zhang Shi Lan’s flushed cheeks, Yu Huang Rong was sure that he had made the right bet when he proposed this. He smiled and stood up again, grabbing onto the hilt of the sword at his side. “How about giving it a try? Since Madam Yan said that we would have until after midday, we should have enough time to try a few times. If it works, then we’ll do this. Otherwise, we’ll still have enough time to come up with something different.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded and also stood up. “In that case, I will ask Xiao Xi and Xiao Jia for the instrument.”
Yu Huang Rong merely smiled and watched the scholar go to the door. He had been lost at first but now that he had had the idea he felt that it wasn’t too bad. The skills that a young master from a good family normally learned … he wasn’t too well-versed in them.
Sure, he had attained a decent skill back when he was still living in the capital but his father had never paid too much attention to that, considering that they had been a military family for several generations. Now, after ten years on the battlefield where he hadn’t trained even a single one of those skills, things were looking even bleaker. That was nothing he could impress Zhang Shi Lan with. Even trying hard wouldn’t garner him any points. Instead, he might make the scholar look down on him. He couldn’t risk that! No, in this case, it was still best to display something he might do good in.
Yu Huang Rong looked at the sword at his side and couldn’t help but smile. This weapon had accompanied him through many battles. It wasn’t one of these shiny swords normally used in dances that were merely done for entertainment purposes. Instead, this was a real weapon that had been bathed in blood. It might not be too suitable to use this in front of these well-bred young ladies but he didn’t care for that. To him, this whole event was only about Zhang Shi Lan and him. And right now, he felt that he had found exactly the right thing to do.
Wasn’t this what the captain of the secret guards hat said? Talking about war … He hadn’t wanted to do so because he wanted to honor his fallen comrades. But a sword dance was different. He would be able to put his emotions into it and Zhang Shi Lan, this kind of naturally perceptive person, would surely be able to see. He would know his heart. He would understand. If that didn’t move him at all, then he might really be fighting a game that he had already lost.
Zhang Shi Lan came back to the table and sat down once again. “Xiao Jia said she would bring the guqin over in a moment.” He didn’t dare to say anything else and just waited for Yu Huang Rong to take the lead.
The General happily nodded. Compared to the other day, they had already exchanged quite a lot of words today. If things continued like this, then they might really get familiar with each other soon.
He cleared his throat and also sat down at the table again, picking up the cup with the tea that had already grown cold. He didn’t mind. He was used to a life of hardship. One cup of cold tea was nothing to him. “Scholar Zhang, how would you suggest we go about this dance? Even though I think that I’ll be able to pull it off, it is not something that I’ve trained.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. This man was a warrior. He was able to use his weapon in battle and when he trained but he had certainly never done so with the intention to please any audience. To be honest, even though he was looking forward to this, he also wasn’t too sure if it was alright to let the General perform something like this. “I hope General You doesn’t find it off-putting to perform like this in front of other people.”
Yu Huang Rong smiled. “What is Scholar Zhang saying? I was the one who brought it up. If anything, it is my fault for not having enough talents.”
Zhang Shi Lan blushed in embarrassment. “No, nothing like that. I think that General Yu is a very talented man.”
Yu Huang Rong couldn’t help but hum. The person he loved actually thought he was a talented man. Well, he shouldn’t let him down then. “I really don’t mind it. So you don’t have to worry about that. I was rather wondering how we should coordinate. Since I am doing a sword dance to your music, we will have to agree on something.”
Before Zhang Shi Lan could answer, there was a knock on the door and Xiao Jia came in, carrying the guqin. “General Yu, Scholar Zhang, here is the instrument you wanted.” She brought it over to the table and bowed to the two men, before leaving.
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the instrument and reached out, his fingertips lightly touching the strings. Thankfully, he had always made an effort to train all the skills he learned. Even though he couldn’t be compared to a professional guqin player, his skill should still be decent enough to not embarrass him in front of General Yu.
He took his hand back and looked at the General again. “I think that this performance mostly depends on General Yu. So is there anything that General Yu has in mind? A song he would like to perform to? Or maybe a mood?”
Yu Huang Rong got up and clasped his hands behind his back, slowly pacing up and down next to the table. A song or a mood … “I’m not too sure about this. This sword was only ever used in the war. When thinking of it, I only remember these things. I’m just afraid it won’t be too suitable to show that in front of those ladies.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. Indeed, this wasn’t suitable for the women to see. “Then is there nothing positive that General Yu has ever experienced with it? Was there no moment in the war where General Yu felt …” He fell silent and shook his head. What kind of question was this? Naturally, there was nothing good about war. Why would the General feel something like that?
Yu Huang Rong stopped next to him and his gaze softened when he saw that self-blaming look on Zhang Shi Lan’s face. “You said nothing wrong, Scholar Zhang. Thinking about it like this, maybe there was indeed something like that.
“Even though the war was terrible and we lost many good men, winning a battle and seeing that we secured the borders bit by bit, that was still something that can be considered good. There were many nights when I stood there thinking back to the capital and the people still there. I always thought that … if he were to lose, if even the last man would fall, that those people would be lost. That kind of thing, I swore myself that I couldn’t allow that to happen.”
Zhang Shi Lan looked up, his heart beating madly. Yes, he could imagine that well. This was exactly what he had fallen in love with. A man that wouldn’t stand by and watch others suffer. He was the person that would rush over and save a stranger from falling into the river. He was also the mighty General that would press on in battle despite those falling around him so that he could save the people back at home.
Zhang Shi Lan had no words to describe his current mood and he certainly had no words to say to Yu Huang Rong. He sat there in a daze and finally turned to the guqin. What he couldn’t express through his words, maybe he would be able to silently convey it. His fingers moved, slowly plucking the strings.
A haunting melody echoed in the room, stunning Yu Huang Rong in place. The low notes accompanied by high tones sounded like a lament. It was slow and grave, incorporating his mood from those days on the battlefield. The moment when everything was over, when the battle was won and the initial craze had stopped. The moment when he looked around and saw all those fallen soldiers, the ones that had lost their lives for the country, for their families, for those waiting for them, unable to return forever.
The sadness, the grief, he never would have thought the Zhang Shi Lan would be able to understand it this well. He quietly sat down opposite him and continued to listen.
The slow tune slowly picked up speed, making the notes almost sound like a march to their next destination, of the time ticking by until the beginning of the next battle. Yu Huang Rong closed his eyes.
The cold wind from the northern border seemed to blow into his face once again, the coldness biting into his skin, numbing his hands and feet. He gripped the handle of his sword and forced himself to keep looking ahead, waiting for the next report to come, until it would be time to set out again.
Back then, he had started out as a simple soldier who would have to take commands as they came. He could do nothing more than to look out from his post on the wall and wait. And even when he slowly climbed through the ranks and made a name for himself, finally advancing to become a General, even then he’d only be able to look out there, and maybe plan for their next steps. Reacting to the threat from their enemies, acting to make sure they wouldn’t be able to gain the upper hand. Day after day, night after night, always fighting to make sure that the borders of their Chen country were safe and that nobody would be able to reach the capital.
He didn’t know whether Zhang Shi Lan really understood but this song was as if he had experienced these very same things. It truly was intriguing. This person he had fallen in love with, he really was able to surprise him time and time again.