Not long after Zhang Shi Lan and Yu Huang Rong left the Academy with their fathers that day, they countered a nice surprise: somehow, the older General Yu seemed to have taken a liking to Minister Zhang and met up with him on his own accord several times.
The two of them never would’ve thought that this was due to General Yu’s suspicions regarding the relationship between them. Thus they were happy that their plan seemed to succeed so well. In fact, Yu Huang Rong couldn’t help but invite Zhang Shi Lan to go out to celebrate two weeks later. They sat in one of the private rooms of a prominent teahouse, looking out at the Fen Hua river.
Yu Huang Rong smiled happily, raising his cup to his lips while his gaze moved away from the Fen Hua river to Zhang Shi Lan’s face. “With our fathers being acquainted like that, us meeting up should be even less conspicuous now. If somebody asks, we can just say our families are friends.”
Zhang Shi Lan still kept his gaze trained on the Fen Hua river but gave a low chuckle. “The idea is not bad, ah. Just make sure you don’t exaggerate too much or people with think it is our fathers who are having an affair.”
Yu Huang Rong put the cup down, his eyes squinting. “Oh? So you admit that we’re having an affair?”
Zhang Shi Lan finally stopped looking at the river and turned back to his lover. “I would prefer to call it a relationship but since it’s not out in the open, what else can I call it?”
Yu Huang Rong nodded and gave a sigh. “Ah, I guess I shouldn’t be ungrateful but things are really moving slow. It’s not that long anymore until the autumn hunt but even though everything is going according to plan so far, I just can’t help but worry.”
Zhang Shi Lan nodded, his fingers brushing over the rim of the teacup. He felt the same worry but what would it change if they fretted together? Anyway, things were progressing well. “My mother doesn’t seem to be impressed by the women she met at Madam Yan’s matchmaking pavilion so far. How is it on your side?”
Yu Huang Rong gave a hum and his eyes sparkled with mischief. “Well, to be honest, I’m not worried about that at all. That Madam Yan … I think think she’s really good at convincing people of what she wants them to believe. Making these women lose favor after she already has the information …” He stopped himself and picked up the teacup, taking a sip. Ah, it seemed he couldn’t say that?
Zhang Shi Lan raised his brows. “The information …?”
Yu Huang Rong shifted on his seat but finally gave in with a sigh. “Anyway, I asked … that person for help. If I had investigated them myself, I might not find out everything and it could also be that it would draw attention. So I thought that since I’m friends with him, I might as well ask him to help me out a bit. So I guess one of his secret guards will have taken care of this.” Alright, he had actually asked She Ning himself so that was a given but explaining that would be too complicated and he didn’t feel that it was a good idea to talk about Luan Xin’s private matters in public. That was much more dangerous than talking about their own matters.
Zhang Shi Lan’s gaze turned subtle. He still didn’t think that it was a good idea to be so close to the emperor but he could also see that Yu Huang Rong really trusted him. He stood up and went to the window, looking out at the Fen Hua river again. “I … I’ve always had a few friends I would be able to talk to about the things bothering me. But there has never been that one close person that I could reveal just everything to. My feelings for you … That was something I never would have dared to tell anyone.”
Yu Huang Rong quietly poured himself another cup of tea and nodded. He could somewhat understand. Revealing that kind of secret, it wasn’t something that could be done casually. If you trusted the wrong person, then your faith in them might come back and bite you. Some people just weren’t worth your trust even if you’d like to believe something different.
“If the other person was the son of the emperor and maybe become the emperor himself one day, I don’t think I would’ve had the courage to befriend him like that. Still, you had. And you regard him as your friend.” He turned back and gave Yu Huang Rong a small smile. “These last two weeks, I’ve thought a lot. And I think I might’ve been too rash in what I said the last time.
“I mean it’s not that I think I was wrong about it. You should be careful about the things you say in public. Maybe not because he would turn against you but because there might be other people that would try to use it against either of you. But I’ve come to understand that this is something you know more about. You’ve grown up with this person. You know him better than I do and you are the one who should judge whether how you behave is alright or not.”
Yu Huang Rong put his cup down and looked at Zhang Shi Lan inquiringly. He couldn’t say that he wasn’t pleased with what Zhang Shi Lan had said. Actually, having to hide his own thoughts about Luan Xin in front of his sweetheart, that really was asking a lot of him. He’d much rather be open about it so it was welcome that he changed his opinion. That didn’t mean that he understood though. “Why the change of heart?”
Zhang Shi Lan looked at his lover and hesitated. Should he really say it? He was a little afraid that Yu Huang Rong might misunderstand. Then again, he also believed that there shouldn’t be any secrets between partners. “The situation at the Academy made me think. The way you acted there … You did so because you wanted my best. And you thought that what you did would be the best for me. In the end, it was in a place you didn’t know too well and you didn’t have any experience dealing with that person. So it didn’t really help.”
Yu Huang Rong gave an embarrassed smile. “I probably made even more trouble for you. Your chances of getting a position at the Academy … did I actively lower them?”
Zhang Shi Lan sighed and walked back to the table, kneeling down at Yu Huang Rong’s side and grabbing his arm. “Don’t worry about it. Even if I can’t get a position at the Academy, it doesn’t mean that I can’t be a scholar. There are other ways. I just have to keep at it and find a way for myself.”
Yu Huang Rong furrowed his brows. “That doesn’t answer my question.”
Zhang Shi Lan kept quiet for a moment and finally put down the cup. “To be honest, I don’t know. That old teacher isn’t very happy with people chasing after benefits. He might’ve taken offense at you putting it so bluntly. If he thought that this was something I told you to do so that I wouldn’t have to say it myself, then that might lower his opinion of me. If there’s an opportunity in the future, it might lead to me not being chosen.
“But on the other hand, that is only one possibility. Maybe I wouldn’t have had a chance in the first place. Or maybe I wouldn’t have been remembered if you hadn’t gone out of your way to tell him that I wanted to get into the Academy. So maybe it was actually good. Who knows?
“Anyway, thinking about that made me realize that what you did that day and what I said before about your relationship with His Majesty was no different. I was rashly talking about something I knew nothing about. I didn’t even give you the time to explain to me. I just rejected the idea based on what I thought I knew.
“And I think that even if it didn’t have a negative effect immediately, it might have happened in the future if I wasn’t careful. I mean reminding you all the time to be careful, not to be too close to him, not to show off your relationship … What if you had actually listened to me? Maybe not consciously but subconsciously trying to avoid him because of what I said? And the trust that grew between you over the years, it might have been destroyed just because of me. That’s not something I want.” He grabbed Yu Huang Rong’s hand and smiled. “You have a good friend. That is something you should cherish regardless of what anybody else says. You know him best so just trust in your own intuition. As long as you feel that everything is right between you, for that long, everything will be alright between you. So just go ahead and continue like you used to.”
Yu Huang Rong covered Zhang Shi Lan’s hand on his arm with his own and smiled. “I’m glad you see it like that. Luan Xin is very important to me. Even though I love you, I wouldn’t feel comfortable giving up this friendship of many years. I don’t want to have any secrets in front of you though.”
Zhang Shi Lan leaned over and kissed his lips. “Strange. Who was the one saying at the lakeside on the Academy grounds that he needed to work on what he showed on his face because he wanted to give me surprises?”
Yu Huang Rong laughed and pulled his lover into his arms. “That still counts. It’s not secrets, it’s just … It’s just keeping something from you for a while. Not something this big.” He leaned down and kissed Zhang Shi Lan’s hair, feeling content. Even though the progress with their plan seemed small, the situation wasn’t too bad. That was already more than what they could say before, wasn’t it?
He brushed through Zhang Shi Lan’s hair with his fingers, his gaze growing thoughtful. “Our fathers are getting along quite well. Our mothers have met several times at the matchmaking pavilion and don’t seem too convinced that those ladies are good enough for us. Maybe it’s time to visit Madam Yan again and ask what our next step is. I feel that … It will be time to implement the last part of the plan soon.”
Zhang Shi Lan glanced up, worry spreading on his face. Yes, what Yu Huang Rong said wasn’t wrong. The two small tasks that she had given them had already been fulfilled as well as they could. Now, it really would be time to somehow convince their families that they could marry after all.