Chapter 176: She is worth i
It was dark by the time Wang Hong came back to Nan’yang.
He entered his room to the padding of footsteps.
“Did something happen?” he asked in alarm.
There was no answer. The only sounds he heard were of people dropping to their knees.
Wang Hong stopped his movements after he received his towel. He softly let go of it and stepped outside.
Men were kneeling in the courtyard, seemingly ashamed to see Wang Hong and thus unable to rise.
Wang Hong stopped.
At length, he went up the steps and quietly asked, “What happened?”
A guard kowtowed, taking pains to say: “We apologize for our incompetence. Ah Rong of the Chen House is nowhere to be found after she went inside the Chen estate.”
“Nowhere to be found?”
Wang Hong’s smile hung unsure and ghastly. “How long has she been missing? Was anything out of the ordinary?”
The guards had never heard him speak this way. Their bowed heads dropped even lower. The other replied in embarrassment, “N-n-nothing was out of the ordinary since the monkey hour (3 pm) yesterday, m’lord.” After a pause, he added, “I also interrogated the Chen servants and found nothing peculiar.”
Nothing out of the ordinary, yet a well and alive person was suddenly gone?
Wang Hong coldly stared at them. Eventually, he closed his eyes and said, “These people are obviously well prepared to be able to infiltrate and carry someone off from within the Chen estate. That they could leave right under your noses, unknown to neither gods nor ghosts, meant these people do not lack the wherewithal.”
His eyes turned to the distance as he murmured, “Long term preparations, formidable capability – such a person won’t treat a woman this way for personal retaliation; they must be after something bigger… It won’t be long before they let me know.”
The men who followed him were some of the most elite guards of the Wang House. As soon as his words were uttered, they promptly caught on to his meaning.
Wang Hong looked down at them again.
“You have really let me down,” he lightly said.
Faint and soft.
And yet the ten people kneeling on the ground couldn’t raise their heads. Sweat beaded on their colorless faces. Only after Wang Hong turned to leave did one of them shakily say: “M’lord, it is unthinkable to have failed you. If we can’t save the Grand Chamberlain, we will pay with our lives for this mistake.”
He wasn’t loud. His words were not intended for Wang Hong who had already left, but for himself and his comrades.
Upon his words, the other guards adopted the same resolve on their faces.
Wang Hong learned of Chen Rong’s whereabouts on an afternoon.
On his desk was a missive written in beautiful cursive handwriting: “In admiration of the talented Qilang, Ke has invited your lady so that I may get an appointment with you. I’ll only wait for you until the Xinchou day. Should you miss the date, after I am done playing with her, I’ll have her put in the red tent as provision to my army. Murong Ke.” Red tent… the dwelling place of the army whores.
Five men were standing behind Wang Hong. Almost as soon as he put the letter down, they stepped forward and passed it around.
Their expressions altered after they finished reading it.
A middle-age adviser took a step forward to stand behind Wang Hong, somberly saying: “You mustn’t heed his words, my lord. Murong Ke is a wily one and he has come prepared. You cannot put yourself at risk for a woman.”
As soon as he finished, another adviser came forward. He raised his clasped hands to say, “That’s very correct. My lord, the Grand Chamberlain is just a woman. It has no effect on your reputation whether you save her or not.”
The third adviser likewise asserted, “That’s exactly correct, you must never fall for his trick.”
“No matter what, the Grand Chamberlain is only a woman.”
“I beg you to reconsider. Murong Ke is not easy to deal with. He is trying to corner you. It’s not worth it to risk everything for a woman… People have high expectations of you, if they find out that you ignore your own safety for a woman, I am afraid that they will lose faith in you.”
The last person had gone straight to crux of the problem.
In recent time, their master’s liaison with Ah Rong of the Chen House had become a subject of mockery among the nobility. He was committing all sorts of absurdity for a woman, and the most laughable of all was that she didn’t appreciate any of it.
There was no shortage of beautiful women in the kingdom. What kind of man was Qilang of the Wang House that he would need to cling onto a woman like this? If he couldn’t have her, then he could kill her. It was what someone of his standing should do.
But good for him, he disappointed everyone by putting himself in a dilemma for a mere woman. He could neither have her nor let her go. Not only could he not bring himself to kill her, he went as far as behaving like quarreling children alongside His Majesty. It was utterly ridiculous and wholly unimaginable.
One could even hear the minstrel Yueji sing on stage that ‘Wang Qilang is a lovesick puppy,’ and the noble children took every chance to make fun of him for it. The biggest topic in Jiankang this year had to be that Qilang of the Wang House was despairing over an amorous nun he could not have.
If their master stopped here, then proper propaganda was all they needed to prevent people from criticizing him for running without a fight.
Wang Hong did not make a single movement throughout his advisers’ eloquent persuasion.
Not until everyone had talked his mouth dry did he gracefully get up. Although he had been pale ever since knowing of Chen Rong’s disappearance, he had remained collected and calm. Even now as he got up, his action was neither rattled nor panicked.
This fact did little to put his advisers at ease. They knew that their master was the classic exemplar of the phrase ‘face unchanged even as Mount Tai collapses.’ His own mother had not seen him discomposed in his childhood. If not for these reasons, he wouldn’t have earned so many people’s high regard and expectation.
To the advisers, his impassive face was the most unnerving of all.
After unhurriedly standing up, Wang Hong turned and smiled at his five nervous advisers: “It’s time for bed.”
He then flapped his sleeve and walked away.
Staring after him until he had vanished from sight, an adviser squeaked, “Did his lordship listen to anything we said?”
“I don’t know,” another shook his head.
“His lordship has the bearings of a savant. He is thus capricious and does not consider his family’s reputation. It worries me so.”
“His disposition won’t let him sit this one out. We can only wait to see his next move… If anything, what we can do is prevent him from personally risking his life in the rescue. If necessary, we will resort to extraordinary means.”
Several people nodded to this last statement.
They remained looking concerned. Murong Ke’s provocation had struck target this time and trapped their master into a predicament.
If he didn’t go, he would have to forever live with the fact that he had run away without a fight, perhaps spiraling into depression for it. After all, he was the one to take Chen Rong away from Jiankang, while Murong Ke was his old enemy.
Furthermore, even if they did their part in covering up, a stain would nevertheless be left on their master’s life, and he would be criticized by a certain number of scholars.
And yet, going was even worse.
It was, firstly, a deadly game. Murong Ke’s talents ensured that there would be a trap waiting. He had a plan in place and an army to execute it, and the young master was no opponent for him.
Secondly, for a son of the Wang House in Lang’ya to neglect his own safety for the sake of a woman, for him to ignore the clan’s high hopes and put himself at risk, meant that even if he succeeded in saving her, he’d be abandoned by his clan and the politicians who expected him to showcase his political prowess in cases like this.
To those people, men who are meant for greatness must be able to forbear and be cruel. They should discard the lives of their parents and family when necessary, let alone a trivial woman. A man who could not let go of a woman was not one to achieve greatness.
It could be said that if he were to go, he’d end his own political career even if he did not die in the hands of Murong Ke.
This translation belongs to hamster428.
By this time Chen Rong had bathed and changed, and was now trying to sleep.
Except sleep did not come. Not only could she not sleep, she was also wide awake staring coldly ahead.
There was a fire pit roasting beef and lamb in front of her. Beside it were fine wine, stew, and broth. There were also a number of Han women, either weeping or smiling seductively around the men.
The many campfires illuminated the earth as if it was daytime.
Amid laughter and racket, people would glance from time to time at the pyre in the center. Even the captains were at this moment ignoring their women’s coquetry to direct their attention to the center.
A fire was blazing in the center-most place. Next to it sat a girl dressed in red. Her beautiful face glowed as glorious as the flames, her naturally enchanting lips and eyes were made more ravishing by the light.
Though she was glaring, her crystal clear eyes sparkled with an unmistakable vitality. Her jadeite skin seemed almost translucent against the red flames and skirt fabric.
She still looked so noble, graceful, and cold all the while.
As time went by, watchful eyes turned more and more scalding.
And yet, the barbarians who could easily throw a woman they slept with into the fire did not dare to say a teasing word.
After some time, this red-robed beauty coldly asked, “Murong Ke, what do you mean by this?” It was Chen Rong’s soft voice.
Murong Ke’s thin lips curved upward under his bronze mask. “Don’t be upset, Ah Rong. Look into the mirror in front of you. I bet you still don’ know that you can be this beautiful? Tsk tsk, what a stunner. There are many beautiful women in the great Yan Empire, but none are as bewitching as you.”
A table was placed in front of her, on it sat meat, liquor, and a mirror. Two Han women knelt on either side of the table. When Murong Ke finished speaking, they raised the mirror to let Chen Rong look.
Murong Ke unhurriedly turned his head. Behind the bronze mask, his deep eyes fixedly stared at Chen Rong. “I bet your hypocritical clansmen do not know how to appreciate this side of your beauty,” he clucked, having looked her up and down. “Tsk tsk, they even gave you that boring blue dress to wear. What a crime, what a crime!”
At Murong Ke’s brazen eyes, Chen Rong clenched her teeth and straightened her posture.
No one had to know that her palms were damp.
She wasn’t nearly as calm as she appeared. She couldn’t help it. Any woman trapped in an army and stared at by countless burning eyes that wanted to swallow her alive would not be able to keep calm.
Most importantly, she was crippled with fear. She had no doubt that as long as Murong Ke commanded it, she would be torn to shreds by these increasingly possessed soldiers.
Never before did Chen Rong feel as she did now, that death was possibly the better punishment. As long as he wanted to, the Hu general before her eyes could easily make her life worse than death, so that she could neither live nor die…
In the fire light , Murong Ke stared at the beads of sweat forming on Chen Rong’s upper lip and couldn’t stop himself from smirking.
It was a devil’s smile.
Slowly, he leaned towards Chen Rong.
He was getting closer and closer, breathing down her face. Chen Rong did not move; she did not dare to. So many lewd eyes were staring at her that she was afraid to provoke him, lest the soldiers think that their commander wasn’t interested in her.
The cold bronze mask lightly pressed onto her face.
An ice cold chill sent shudders through her at that moment of contact.
He stuck to her and whispered, “Fragrant sweat, silky smooth skin, no wonder the well-read Qilang of the Wang House and the cold-blooded Ran Min both devoted themselves to you.”
He slid his tongue on her lips and laughed when she stiffened. “Ah Rong.”
“If your Qilang fails to come, and Ran Min as well, will you follow me back to Ji City and be my concubine?” he negotiated with her in his magnetic voice.
He quietly laughed at this juncture. “If they do come with the intention to save you, then I will make love to you. Tsk, I’ll taste you and let the two stubborn Jin men of yours dwell on it for the rest of their lives. It’ll be very interesting, what do you think Ah Rong?”
Chen Rong did not reply.
Murong Ke slowly pulled away from her lips. After throwing his head back for another swig of alcohol, his eyes remained staring at Chen Rong with interest.
At last, Chen Rong, who had calmed herself down, turned to him.
She leveled a look at him and quietly said, “Everyone says that Murong Ke of Yan, despite being a Hu, is prudent and generous. That he has the aspirations of Zhou Gong and the loyalty of Zhuge.”
She frowned with a sigh. “But, even as a woman, I’m disappointed by your treatment of me.”
She stood up and took a step forward. In the fire light, her red outfit was the sanguine of blood, her dark eyes simultaneously still and storm. “I, a woman, was not afraid to join the fray in Nan’yang. Don’t you think I am worthy of your respect?”
She stopped, then quietly looked at Murong Ke and unhurriedly said, “Give me honor or give me death. Is it not in your breadth of mind to respect the enemy?” She shook her head and faintly added, “I feel that I deserve to have your respect. But of course, if you insist on humiliating me, then I have nothing more to say.”
Her soft voice carried grace and peace like water from the springs.
In this situation and under these threats, her poise was still as nimble as the wind, persuasively beautiful.
Most importantly, she knew Murong Ke so well that her tone and expression had been kept open and honest.
Murong Ke carefully studied her.
His lips upturned in a wry smile as he turned and took another swig of liquor.
Chen Rong disengaged her wrung hands and sat down when she saw him ignore her.
She lowered her gaze to stare at the dancing flames and sighed in relief: Well done Ah Rong. You made a good first move. Even if he did have the idea to humiliate you, it should be banished by now?
At this time, Murong Ke’s deep voice sounded: “You’re different from the others, woman.”
Chen Rong smilingly replied, “Your demeanor just now didn’t seem like yours, but rather like my Qilang’s.” Making her wear a red dress, placing her in the center of attention, making her suffer, making sweet threats.
She sighed after a pause. “Speaking of whom, Qilang never fails to put people in helpless situations.” And yet she was clearly missing him from what they could see of her smiling face.
The longing and lovelornness were heartbreaking.
Unconsciously, Murong Ke turned around to look at her.
Chen Rong was gazing skyward. Because of the bright fires, a stretch of sky had turned red and the stars obscured.
She blinked back her tears. She looked at the sky in a daze and said, “He won’t come, and neither will Ran Min.”
Her smile suddenly brightened when she next asked, “General, you must know my temperament by now. When the time comes, I only ask to die an unsullied death.”
She looked at him with neither sorrow nor joy, pleading: “I reckon I’m the only woman in this world who would calmly accept my death. If they don’t come, and I have become useless to you, will you grant me a respectable death?”
Behind the bronze mask, Murong Ke’s eyes unblinkingly held her visage.
Slowly, he sighed and said, “No wonder Wang Qi with all his means can neither have you nor let you go.”
Having said this, he dropped his gaze. A flash of desolation dissipated as quickly as it came.
After a while, he nodded at Chen Rong’s waiting eyes. “You have my promise.”
Chen Rong’s face lit up to hear these words. She rose and carefully bowed to him: “Thank you for fulfilling my request.”
Murong Ke leaned back.
He was still staring at Rong behind his mask.
He laughed and suddenly said, “I had thought the same.” Answering Chen Rong’s questioning eyes, he upturned his lips to say: “I didn’t think that they would come. I only wanted to disconcert Wang Qi and Ran Min by kidnapping you. But now…”
He fixedly watched Chen Rong; his eyes did not try to hide his appreciation and surprise. “I don’t think so anymore. Ah Rong of the Chen House, they will certainly come. Even if they don’t come themselves, they will try their best for you.”
While Chen Rong frowned in skepticism, his voice continued to brush past like a wind: “They will live the rest of their lives in hollowness if they don’t try to save such a good woman now.”
It was a very high assessment.
Chen Rong looked at Murong Ke. She saw his side profile raising up to the sky, one which exuded an eternal loneliness behind the bronze mask.
She beckoned one of Murong Ke’s guards over and whispered to him: “Bring me a zither.”
He turned to look at Murong Ke and, upon seeing him lost in thoughts, he considered the request and gave her a nod.
Before long, a zither was brought to her.
Chen Rong sat in lotus position and placed her hands on the strings. As her fingers strummed, a melodic song rose in the air.
She sang to the swirling, lonely music:
“There is a beauty in the northern lands;
Unparalleled and proud she stands.
Cities fall at her first glance;
At her second, kingdoms of men.
But what of fallen cities and kingdoms?
For when will we see her beauty again…” (1)
(1) 北方有佳人 by Li Yan’nian.
It is a joyous verse that celebrates a beautiful woman; yet it took a melancholic turn when sang by Chen Rong. Especially because she repeated ‘when will we see her beauty again,’ expressing lovelornness and dashed hopes.
It was as if she was telling everyone that once gone is gone forever. There will only ever be one, never another. They can find women more beautiful, but none will be her.
As if she was telling everyone the world has always been this way, that people and things are all unique. Once something slips from our lives, its trace will never be found again. We will one day come to discover that any single moment of beauty will have been frozen for eternity… never to exist again.
Her performance illustrated independence, splendor and exquisiteness. So that its heartache moved people to tears.
Murong Ke’s eyes unknowingly reddened.
Without waiting for the music to stop, he got up and strode ahead.
His guards hurried after him. He composed himself to look at Chen Rong, who was playing the zither peacefully and beautifully, and lowered his voice to say: “Let my order be known: nobody is to touch her.”
The order “nobody is to touch her” had no trouble finding its way to Chen Rong’s ears. Her hands soared across the strings, sending the melodious chords ever more whirling.