Zhang Shi Lan got up and stepped past the table, looking at Yu Huang Rong with a serious gaze. He had doubted before that what Qian Mu Qing had said might just be the merchant’s misinterpretation and his own silly dream, but now, none of that seemed important anymore. He had found the truth. He didn’t know what to do with it but he had found the truth. He had been wrong. It was true. Yu Huang Rong, the man that he had loved for ten years, was truly requiting his feelings.
Just for a moment, Zhang Shi Lan wanted to give in to his urges. He wanted to take yet another step, to breach that invisible boundary of politeness and step into these strong arms, maybe looking up at him, daringly touching his lips with his own. He wasn’t a woman. Why should he be shy? Maybe, that was all they would need.
Unfortunately, even if he wouldn’t mind ruining his own reputation, there was still the Zhang family behind him. He gave a smile and then motioned over to the pond. “We should bid farewell.” He didn’t know if he was saying they should bid their farewell to the women or that they should bid farewell to each other. Whatever it was, it made his heart hurt. Ending this moment or ending the future they never had had, neither of them was what he wanted to do.
Yu Huang Rong nodded. “We should. Then after we’ve done that, does the previous promise still count?”
Zhang Shi Lan’s gaze was complicated when he looked up at the General’s face. “Which promise?”
“I wouldn’t know what Scholar Zhang promised me in his heart. But you did say you would accompany me after this was over to take a look at the city together. Does that still count?”
Zhang Shi Lan took a shaky breath and nodded, stepping back and cupping his fists as if he had only wanted to thank General Yu for taking part in the first place. “A gentleman wouldn’t take back his word, would he?”
Yu Huang Rong also cupped his fists and bowed. “Then let us go and bid our farewell now. These women … I do not care for any of them.” He gave Zhang Shi Lan another deep look and the two of them walked over, cupping their fists again and nodding to the other side of the pond.
The women were happy but in their heart, the two men knew that even if they couldn’t find a way to be together, they wouldn’t be able to be with any of these women either. This day, to them, it would forever be a precious memory. Sharing the rest of their life with one of the women that had witnessed it, with a person that might bring it up in the future, neither of them could imagine it. If they had to bury this memory somehow, then they wanted to bury it forever. Being reminded of this short moment of bliss would be too painful to bear.
With another half-smile, the two men turned away and left the pavilion. They didn’t even stay to talk with Madam Yan to find out what would happen next. They just walked back to the main house side-by-side, going through the corridor they had passed before and then walked out of the main entrance, their sleeves brushing against the other’s, their bodies not touching in the slightest. They stopped just three steps away from the entrance and turned to each other.
Zhang Shi Lan inclined his head. “Then … if I am to accompany General Yu, then I should go and tell my servants that they can leave.”
Yu Huang Rong nodded. “It would be much appreciated. Although … rather than taking the carriage, I would prefer to walk. Would Scholar Zhang mind?”
Zhang Shi Lan shook his head and the two of them parted ways, each telling their servant that they could leave. Then they walked back toward each other, meeting in the middle of the square, sharing a glance.
Neither of them knew what to say. They turned to the side in unison and walked away, leaving Madam Yan’s establishment behind and ambling down one of the streets of the capital that both of them had walked more than a hundred or maybe more than a thousand times in their lives. Whenever they did, they had been alone or with some other person that they had coincidentally met or a family member that wanted them to accompany them on an errand. Then they would go down the street, not paying attention to their surroundings, maybe exchanging a few pleasantries with the other person before they reached the end. Their ways might separate there or they might continue to their destination. It wasn’t important, it wasn’t special. It was something that could be done every day.
But today, for the first time, they were with the person their heart belonged to, making this simple walk feel as if it was something precious. Every detail around them was noticed and committed to memory: The way the sun sparkled on the jewelry of the woman in the green dress walking by, painting small circled of light onto her neck, the irregular rattling of a cart that a middle-aged man rolled past them, the sweet smell emanating from the candied fruits a peddler offered on the left side of the street, the breeze brushing through their hair and cooling their cheeks, the two men arguing over the price of a flask of wine to their right, the call of a rider for people to make way somewhere around a corner. All of it seemed as clear as if this scenery had been painted in their mind and could be taken out to be admired over and over again, each detail still as vivid as when they first laid eyes on the work of art.
In this kind of scene, they couldn’t help but feel that they had become whole, that if each and every day of their life could be filled with this kind of simple walking side-by-side from now on, then they would never lack anything regardless of what their positions would be, what reputations they would have, what wealth and honor awaited them. What was all that worth in the face of being with the person they loved?
Yu Huang Rong wanted to reach out but stopped himself at the last moment. They were still in the capital city, in front of the eyes of hundreds of people. He didn’t mind but he did remember Madam Yan’s words. And he knew his family good enough to know that even if he was sure, they wouldn’t just accept his decision without making trouble.
No, he would have to rely on her and Luan Xin to make this work. And even though he was sure about his feelings and even sure that Zhang Shi Lan had already accepted him just now, he still hadn’t heard it from him. He hadn’t said his own feelings out loud either. This wasn’t the way to go. He still had things to do. Only when he truly confessed his feelings, then he would have the right to expect more.
He gently steered Zhang Shi Lan in the direction of the Fen Hua River and finally motioned over to a place at the riverbank that didn’t look any different from the others. “This is the place where we first met.”
Zhang Shi Lan’s eyes widened imperceptibly and he looked up at Yu Huang Rong. “General Yu remembers?” It couldn’t be that Yu Huang Rong had fallen in love with him on that day just like how he had fallen in love with him, could it?
Yu Huang Rong smiled and motioned to the teahouse at the side. “How about going in and having a cup of tea? I could imagine that there’s a lot we have to talk about.”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at the teahouse and then back at the General. “If I am right with what I presume you want to talk about, then maybe it wouldn’t be the best place.”
Yu Huang Rong nodded and then motioned to the other site. “Then maybe I know a better place.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded. He didn’t ask what kind of place it was. He trusted this man. The worries that Qian Mu Qing had uttered the last time, he didn’t care. He couldn’t imagine that Yu Huang Rong would do anything to him that he didn’t want and even if … He wouldn’t be able to find it in his heart to hate him for it. This man, he had loved him for too long. Who knew how much was his illusion and how much was the real person? Anyway, there was no way to extract himself anymore.
The two of them finally reached another teahouse. It was a little further away from the river but it stood at the edge of a large garden, overlooking a vast expanse of green grass, classy pavilions and the typical lakes with corridors framed by the red wooden structures.
Yu Huang Rong walked to the entrance of the house and motioned for Zhang Shi Lan to follow him. “They serve tea in the pavilions too. We can choose a small one and nobody will come to disturb us.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded and followed him. He knew this place. A few years ago, they had held a competition here where the young gentlemen of the capital had competed in writing essays and poems.
Back then, he had also been here and he had caught a glimpse of General Yu too. Maybe … there had been more to this than he had thought back then? He wanted to know but this wasn’t the moment to ask. He just silently followed him, waiting for Yu Huang Rong ordering from one of the waiters and tell him to which pavilion he intended to go before they finally went outside.
Once again, they walked side-by-side, wrapped in silence, only their steps and their light breath accompanying then. Even the servants that soon followed behind them with the dishes that Yu Huang Rong had ordered were hardly noticeable. It almost seemed as if they were the only two people in the whole world.
They reached the pavilion and Zhang Shi Lan’s heart thumped loudly. There were stone sculptures in the far back, an artificial hill behind them and a bamboo forest surrounding the pavilion with only a small path leading through it. If they sat here, as soon as the servants left, they really would be alone with each other, nobody seeing them, nobody disturbing them. Just the two of them.
Yu Huang Rong motioned for him to sit down and then also took a seat, waiting for the servants to put down their order and then waving them away with fake patience. He listened for the receding steps before he turned to Zhang Shi Lan, smiling gently.
“Where should I begin? Maybe let me be upfront. I … I’m not very good with words. Maybe it was originally but after the years on the battlefield, there wasn’t much to talk about anymore. When I came back and my family wanted me to get married and I was approaching an age where I was too old to refuse anymore, there was only one thought I still had, a single regret. I regretted not being a little faster, not recognizing right in the first moment when I found the person I wanted to spend my life with, not daring to speak up all those years even after I realized it.
“Unfortunately, I believed that person not to be interested even though I thought they originally were. I thought that I had hesitated too long, understood too late. It was only after I went to Madam Yan’s matchmaking pavilion that I found out that I was wrong about that.
“I … I asked her for advice and I asked my best friend for advice and they told me to take it slow, to not force anything and take it step-by-step. Maybe they’re right with that but … I’m an impatient man. And I have waited way too long.” He reached over and grabbed Zhang Shi Lan’s hand. “Scholar Zhang … Zhang Shi Lan, I love you. I have for a long time. Not long enough and I certainly haven’t shown it enough but I do love you. Tell me that you love me too. I need to hear it from you. If I don’t, then all of this has no use.”