Chapter 38 Orginal and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
Someone was forcing their way in?!
In my rush to stand up, I rammed against the table edge. This pain…was indescribable.
“Hurry up, what are you all spacing out for? Quick, give me a face mask.”
Fourth Prince Mole held onto the table as he slowly stood up. “What’s the rush? That Seven Steps Bamboo Array is enough to keep him wandering aimlessly for a while.” Right as he finished, a noise shattered the silence of the forest, and the shrill notes of a flute tore through the skies.
“This person has a formidable foundation, what’s going on? He broke through my formation so quickly.” Little Fourth’s face was all astonishment as he dug through his sleeves, finally pulling out an ash-colored pill. “The face masks are inside my rooms, but there might not be enough time to grab one. Eat this face-changing pill first.”
I did as instructed.
Next, I shot a meaningful glance at the others while I opened my arms with a pout. Someone brought over a set of white robes and dressed me up. Without a mirror, I had to lean over the table and peer into the soup to check my appearance…of course, it couldn’t reflect my looks at all.
I clutched my head. No matter how I looked at it, I still had the air of a woman. Little Fourth was holding a hairband as he undid my hair and tied it up again, hands and feet flying as he fiddled with the black strands. Grinning, I reached out to embrace him, receiving a wordless smile in return. My hands continued to rove up and down until he opened his sleeves and in that moment, I touched his cheek then jerked off his own face mask.
“Y…y-you, what are you doing?!” Looks like the delicate and pretty Prince Mole had his fits of temper, too.
“You’ve already concealed yourself in the jianghu for all these years. Others can’t recognize you since you change your face daily, so lend me this mask for a bit. I’ll return it to you afterwards.” I quickly bent over and pressed it against my face, afraid that he’d steal it from me. He was angry, but had no choice but to smile helplessly.
Actually, everyone in the jianghu knew that the Elder of Mt. Tian had an outstanding disciple with impressive face-changing skills. The disciple also understood mystical techniques related to the Five Elements and Eight Trigrams. Very few people had seen him, but those who did had different descriptions of his looks. The common point between them all was that he was delicate and pretty, like a young lord. Few had seen his true face, or his pair of very seductive eyes…
His hair brushed against me and made me itch. Without that semi-transparent face mask, the mole by his eye was even more obvious. My chest tightened and I quickly looked away, heart pounding. It took me a while to calm down before I spoke. “You, oh you…you definitely have to hide a face like yours, it’s even more attractive than mine.”
Just when I was about to tease him more, First held me back, signaling outside with his eyes. Sunlight spilled over the bamboo groves as a man in a simple ash blue robe appeared before our room. He looked like a servant as he stood with an air of propriety.
“My Master wishes to invite the Carefree Idler for a meeting.”
I pushed everyone aside, arranging my robes before languidly settling into a chair. A finger rested against my temples as I smiled. “As luck would have it, our Master left to wander the lands again.”
He looked at me and steadily asked, “May I presume that your excellency is the rumored Seventh Prince?”
I rolled my eyes in thought before leaning over. “What, you need me? Is it possible that you want to invite me over if you can’t invite my Master?”
Scattered laughter rang out about us.
They were used to seeing me stir up trouble, so none of them said a word. Two or three had actually left for the table, watching the drama unfold while eating lunch. I remember meeting each of them for the first time and being impressed by their noble bearing. As their years with me grew, their manners had turned far more crass. Yet despite being undisciplined, slack, and lax, each of them had learned how to truly live their lives.
The servant was neither haughty nor humble when he bowed. “My Master said if I couldn’t meet the Carefree Idler, then the Seventh Prince would do just as well, since there’s no difference between the two.”
One of the Princes in the back choked on tea and burst into a fit of coughing. I was very surprised…
Typically speaking, very few people in the jianghu knew of my disguise as the Seventh Prince. It was true that I’d only taken in six young men to help me in my daily life. Strangely enough, the reputation of the Carefree Idler had grown greatly. I liked sightseeing and amusements too much, so I’d disguise myself as one of the Princes to take care of collecting debts at home, or drinking in wine and rumors at teahouses.
It looked like this person was very familiar with my methods.
I carefully inspected the servant and discovered that although his head was bowed, his gaze kept wandering to Fourth Prince Mole at my side. Not only that…as a mere servant, he shouldn’t have that sort of expression in his eyes.
Fourth smiled as he brushed past me to walk forward, resting a hand on the other’s shoulder as he caught him in an embrace. “Martial brother, when did you show up? And why are you fooling my Master again?”
Dark lines appeared on my face…
Sure enough, he tried to dodge, but Little Fourth caught him by the collar and wiped his face…to reveal an intimately familiar one.
Nongyu, you stubborn…
First set his teacup heavily on the table and spoke in a leisurely, unhurried tone. “What are you here for this time?”
I gave Nongyu an embarrassed glance. He didn’t seem to mind at all, his eyes seemingly stuck on Little Fourth as he rested on the other’s shoulders to pinch his face. He looked left and right before heaving a sigh. “You rascal, you wear masks so often that I’ve forgotten what you used to look like…the Elder of Mt. Tian gave you such good things to smear on your face.”
“He’s our Master, it’s rude of you to address him that way,” Fourth replied.
“I only studied under him for three years and never formally took him as my Master. I can’t be counted as a disciple, and you don’t need to call me martial brother.” His smile gradually faded as he looked at me. “Shao’er, I have something to discuss with you.”
It was a name I rarely heard nowadays.
I dismissed the rest, leaving Nongyu standing by himself before the building. Our secluded surroundings were only interrupted by the occasional breeze, carrying over sweet breaths of air to mix with the scent of bamboo. It was a good place to linger over reminiscences of the past.
But things like this…how long would I still be able to remember them?
A small container of tea was slowly boiling on the simple stone table as the two of us sat silently. He rubbed the fabric on his legs, head lowered before he finally deigned to speak: “These past years, you’ve taken good care of my martial brother.”
He might not have realized that I was familiar with his unconscious movements…there was something that had him ill-at-ease, something he wasn’t sure how to tell me. I didn’t call him out, but gave him a slow look. “Don’t say such things, it’s Fourth that’s been taking care of me. Without him, I wouldn’t have been able to maintain the identity of the Carefree Idler for so long in the jianghu without being discovered.” I smiled lightly, then added, “I never knew his face-changing skills were even better than yours.”
Thinking back, the crown prince had set an imperial decree to seal the capital after I left the palace. Guards were deployed to search all the inns, and even personal residences weren’t spared…
At the time, I thought I had no place to hide. It was Nongyu who found me first, and introduced me to the little Prince Mole from his sect. He was young and innocent, having just descended from the mountains. Despite his youth, he only used the time it took half an incense stick to burn to thoroughly remake me…into a shriveled, sickly, shrunken old woman over eighty years old. Even when the guards pulled at my face, sprinkled it with water, and rubbed it with oil, the mask held firm.
After our successful escape, I went with him to wander about the jianghu. The little Prince Mole had decided to stay with me. According to him, his master told him to gain experience off the mountain by learning about the jianghu world. He thought I was someone plagued with misfortune, so understanding me would help him understand this world as well. Recalling this, my face broke into a smile.
“Shao’er,” Nongyu looked at me but remained silent, hands fiddling with the teacup as if he couldn’t figure out how to speak. My line of vision slowly drifted down to rest on his elegant, slender fingers. They held the red sandalwood cup in a very attractive manner, each digit as smooth as jade. I imagined that they’d look just as graceful holding silver acupuncture needles.
Who knew how that person was doing nowadays?
The thought gave rise to bitter agony in my heart, and I looked away with a soft sigh. I was thinking too much of things I shouldn’t today…
Much to my surprise, he came over to comfort me.
“You…do you still resent me?” that alluring, gentle voice seemed to be asking for a concession, the tone extremely soft.
“The tea’s ready now, I’ll pour you a cup.”
“Shao’er…don’t change the topic, all right? Let me finish speaking this time.”
I raised my eyelids to look at him. Finish speaking? What else was there to say?
Say that he could have cured the late emperor’s illness, but “carefully” gave him the wrong medicine?! Say that Broiled Spirit Incense was something he made, but put the blame wholly on Fang Hua? His whole ‘of course, we can’t leave out the eunuchs or court ladies, either‘, that implicated me as well?
All this I understood very well. I neither dared nor desired to think about it in detail, so why was he bringing it up again? Though…if he wanted to speak, I’d just listen. I smiled indifferently, hiding my thoughts as I turned to him. His mouth actually stiffened, as if he was still reluctant.
Whether he really meant me harm or had other designs, why did he risk saving me back then?
“Everything is as you’ve said. The late emperor’s illness was treatable, but I held back on the ingredients for the pills to leave him in a state between life and death. To fulfill his filial duty to his father, the crown prince went to search for a cure outside the palace and slipped into your lives.
Taking Fang Hua to the palace was another pretense. No matter how muddleheaded the emperor became, he knew that someone in the palace wanted to ruin him. But he couldn’t do anything if he couldn’t move or speak. Thus, the crown prince acted filial by personally waiting on him. Being able to bring back a highly-skilled, mythical doctor was enough to support his loyal image.”
At the perfect place and time, the late emperor passed away. The crown prince ascended the throne and I loyally finished my duties.”
He looked straight at me, moving past the objects on the table to tightly grasp my hand. “Shao’er, I never meant to harm you. I don’t know what methods the crown prince used to bring Fang Hua into the palace, but everything was all for the good of the country.”
What was a dynasty, a country? All I had was the jianghu.
Before that, my entire world revolved around a single house, but even that couldn’t compare to my yifu who lived within it.
“Seems like I’ve really troubled you the past few years…how the late emperor died, whether by a subject that poisoned the ruler, or a son’s affections for his father, were all matters of your imperial court.”
He hesitated a short while before speaking again. “The emperor is planning a grand wedding next year where he’ll be matched with the daughter of a prominent official.”
“Really.” My mouth split into a grin. “Then congratulations to him. I’ve heard the emperor hasn’t accepted imperial concubines for a long time. If he doesn’t get married soon, I’m afraid his line will be broken before his grandsons.”
He seemed to be angry. I smiled until my face was numb. When he mentioned Han Zichuan, I would inadvertently think of someone else as well. Those wild thoughts would only make me bitter, but I still asked in a low voice, “Is that person doing well?”
He paused, as if realizing who I meant. “I haven’t been an imperial physician for years, so I don’t know any more matters regarding the inner court.”
“Oh. Is that so…” I lowered my eye in consideration. “I never heard you mention that.”
“I was promoted after the crown prince ascended the throne,” he gave me a deep look as he pointed out this fact, “Otherwise, how could I have so much time for idle chatter? Do you still remember my proposal back then? ‘I have vast holdings of fertile land and numerous residences. My accumulated properties aren’t flimsy at all…’“
I smiled. The rest of the words should be, ‘I have no parents nor siblings, and I’ve yet to marry. Do you want to give me some consideration,’ right?
Back then, the valiant and heroic Nongyu who rode on his horse was a refined, tender lord that had fascinated countless admirers. All of that seemed very far away from me now. His words reminded me of the time I’d lived with Fang Hua. Though there was sweetness in the memory, it also brought about great agony. I could still recall everything with painful clarity.
He looked at me as the smile on the corners of his lips faded. “If you wanted a peaceful life, you should have found a quieter place and concealed your identity. Why hide in the jianghu and turn yourself into a household name? You should know the emperor’s still looking for you, even now?”
“The two of them are living well together, why look for me…? I don’t want them bothering me.”
“Maybe he’s in the wrong, but what about you? Why pick this kind of life where you do as you please?”
“Do as I please?” I looked at him and grinned. “I just don’t like cold and cheerless rooms. I found people to play the qin, paint, and mix poisons with, and saved some lives here and there. Before I knew it, my house became a lively place.” Though I was used to loneliness, now that things were bustling, I had no desire to go back. I gave a long exhale, speaking languidly, “When they all find wives and have children and grandchildren, this place will be even busier.”
“Shao’er,” his hands touched mine. “You’re still missing a Seventh Prince here. I don’t know if you’ll let me fill in the spot.”
You’ve always liked teasing me, but now you’re suddenly so serious.
There was a distressed look in his eyes. Why was it like this? Everyone admired and envied me as the jianghu’s Carefree Idler, yet he was looking at me with such an expression. How laughable. The wind blew gently, and I suddenly felt moisture gathering around my eyes, as if something was overflowing and trying to spill out. My heart was bitter beyond compare.
Abruptly, coughing sounded from beneath the pavilion. Whoever it was seemed on the verge of heaving up his lungs. Surprised, I grabbed the railings and peered over, seeing the young Poison Prince looking as if he’d caught the pair of us cheating. He casually flipped up and broke a willow branch to stick in his mouth, strolling to Nongyu’s side.
“Lord Nongyu, our oldest said that all the guest rooms are full. Even if we piled up some firewood, that won’t be enough to house a person. But if you insist on staying, you can sleep in the same room as me.”
“There’s no need, I purchased a property around here. I wanted to buy some things when I left the house and decided to drop by along the way.” Nongyu bowed, leaning over to whisper in my ear before he walked past me. “Han Zichuan’s gone crazy trying to find you these past years. You need to be careful.”
Seized with shock, I gave him a complicated look. The young Poison Prince glanced between us and seemed to lose his temper. He snatched the willow branch from his mouth and waved it at Nongyu’s retreating back. “How come he’s moved here and dropping by along his way? He actually disguised himself so thoroughly to pay a call, it’s obvious he came on purpose to take liberties with you, Master…”
His eyes swept past me before skidding to a stop, an uneasy tone creeping into his voice. “Master, what’s wrong with you? Your face doesn’t look so good…” I didn’t know why either, but my mind had blanked out after Nongyu’s parting lines.
“The emperor’s gone on an inspection tour and he’s coming over here.”
With these words, what should have come wasn’t coming, but what shouldn’t have come had arrived…there was nowhere to hide.
-o- Orginal and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.