Chapter 35 Rising Wind:
Days passed, and autumn slowly crept into the air. Maple leaves have fallen outside Chang’an, blanketing the earth in a swathe of red. This day, an army of three thousand cavalries and five thousand footmen marched towards Chang’an, their steps in unison. There was no sound, save for the snorting of the horses and the clinking of their armour. The soldiers puffed their chests out and held their heads high, their movements sharp and quick. At the front of the army was Situ Muye, clad in his personal armour. On orders of the Emperor, they were to patrol and quell the small pockets of unrest in the Great North. He had left Chang’an in the first breaths of summer, and now autumn traced his returning footsteps.
Giving orders for his troops to set up camp five miles away from the capitol, Situ Muye set off for the palace with his two lieutenants beside him. The rest of his troops would set off later to join the main army in the heart of the kingdom – a protocol to protect against any sudden usurping of the throne. There were already five thousand palatial guards in the city and twenty thousand troops stationed around the capital; any sudden influx of troops in the area will cause unrest and perceived as a threat to the Emperor. To avoid attracting attention, Situ and his two lieutenants avoided the Northern Gate, where civilians normally awaited the return of troops. Instead, they skirted over to the Southern Gate, and headed straight for the palace via one of the main streets. At a crossroads where several important avenues met, they saw a crowd gathering around a shop. People were jostling to be first in line, their faces eager and excited.
“Did a new shop open over there?” Situ turned to his one of his lieutenants.
The man’s face fell. “General, I’ve been spending my days with you out there in the wilderness! How will I know what is happening in Chang’an?”
Situ Muye shot him a sideward glance, and quickened his walk towards the palace.
The other lieutenant quickly gave the man a hard shove. “How could you speak to the General like that! Don’t be so careless!”
The tanned lieutenant rubbed his tired looking face, and laughed nonchalantly. “I was only speaking the truth! The General doesn’t mind how we speak to him anyway.”
The other lieutenant rolled his eyes at his witless companion, and quickly caught up to Situ Muye.
When the trio left the palace again, it was already 3 in the afternoon. Instructing the two lieutenants to take control of the troops outside the city, Situ walked alone on the streets, still clad in his armour. Coupled with his usual cold demeanour and expressionless face, he emanated a threatening aura. Save for the few young girls that had recognised him and giggled to themselves as they watched him from far away, pedestrians hurried away when they passed him.
He passed by the same junction as he did that morning, and was surprised to see the area still crowded with people. Curious as to what was causing the commotion, he glanced in the direction of the crowd and saw the words “Autumnal Ombre” written in a flowing script on a signboard. With a start, he realised that the words were that of Jiang Moyin, a script that he was familiar with. Although Jiang Moyin was a scholar, his calligraphy showed a hint of his unyielding determination underneath his neat and clean script. His strokes were decisive, but not over-confident.
Situ was puzzled by what he saw. Moyin’s calligraphy is pretty rare to see in Chang’an, what with him always saying that his words are only gifted to those fated to receive them. I’m sure they aren’t bought with silver. Situ walked towards the shop for a closer look. With his height advantage, he saw over the heads of the crowd and into the furnishings of the shop.
Autumnal Ombre was a liquor store, it turned out. However, the furnishings were vastly different from the dingy stores that most liquor establishments were. It was decorated with classy furniture, aesthetically pleasing to anyone who happens to walk near. Only when one was close did could the aroma of the wines be smelled – the thick fragrance wafted through the air, so strong and pure that one could almost taste it. Most liquor stores have taken to describe their wine as being able to “be detected from ten miles away” to market their brews, but that was not how the fragrance of good wines work. To Situ, the fragrance of a good wine would be one that is almost undetectable at the start, but will hit with a surprising delight when noticed, oozing deep into all the pores of the body. It would be of a scent that is creamy yet refreshing, and would be best if it was a little stronger. How I wish the wines of Chang’an can be a little stronger! They can be delightful enough to taste, but lacks the kick of the Northern Shaodaozi.
Situ was impressed by the scent of the wine, but was surprised when he realised that the young man behind the counter was someone he recognised.
“Fei?” Situ mumbled to himself, remembering the young man. What is he doing here, as the manager of this liquor store? Isn’t he Feng Luodi’s servant now? He looked at the other employees of the shop. Isn’t the girl who’s giving out the wine Feng Luodi’s handmaiden as well? I remember seeing her behind Feng Luodi that day at Moonglade!
“Did Feng Luodi open this store?” Situ wondered. “Could it be that helpless girl, who seemed only to know how to play the zither, have a talent for commerce as well?”
He shrugged, took one look at the crowd, and turned to head back to his household. There’s no way I’m going to squeeze with these people to satisfy my curiosity. I’ll get one of my attendants to head over to purchase some wine later on.
When he finally returned to his household, he found his head steward waiting for him by the door. As the attendants helped to remove his armour, the head steward spoke up.
“Your Excellency, Miss Feng had came by a couple of weeks before you’d returned. She’d brought a few jugs of wine as well, saying that it’s for you.”
“Wine?” Situ’s hands stopped in the process of unbuttoning his tunic. An image of the shop at the junction flashed through his mind. “Wine from the shop, Autumnal Ombre?”
The head steward was surprised. “Oh?” He smiled. “Seems like you’ve already found about that, then. I’ll get them to bring the wine over in a bit, with the handkerchief she’d left you.”
Situ nodded his approval, and continued to disrobe. “Did she open Autumnal Ombre by herself?”
The head steward shook his head. “I’m not sure about that, your Excellency. It is really impressive, to rent a shop right in the middle of Chang’an’s most prosperous area.” He smiled. “Why don’t you ask her yourself, your Excellency.”
Situ paused, and looked at the head steward. “Xiang Bo, you seem uncharacteristically happy today. Is anything up?” The head steward, Xiang Bo, was a serious man, always keeping a stern eye on the day to day happenings of the household. He always kept a straight face, even when speaking to Situ Muye.
Xiang Bo smiled again. “Nothing at all, your Excellency.”
When the wine and handkerchief from Feng Luodi were brought to Situ, he skipped the jugs of wine despite their fragrance, and went straight for the handkerchief. He looked it over carefully, and the corners of his lips curled upwards into a smile. The message on the handkerchief was short and simple, something along the lines of her wanting to repay her debt of the meal at Manchun Tang, and implored for him to accept the jugs of wine as payment instead.
What Situ found amusing were the words on the handkerchief. The characters were squiggly and mushy, despite being neat and tidy. It was apparent that they were carefully written stroke by stroke, and not in a fluid and practised hand, looking just as if it was written by a toddler. It was such a stark contrast to how well Feng Luodi could play the zither that Situ couldn’t help but smile.
Seeing Situ smile, Xiang Bo smiled as well.
Feng Luodi was dressed in a robe of light pink with filigreed maroon stitchings of waves along the edges, and matching maroon maple leaves adorning her robe. A jade pendant carved with images of fishes hung from her waist, and a golden elaborate hairpin held up her hair. Her look was complete with earrings of white jade.
“Young miss, are you heading to Autumnal Ombre again today?” Jet knelt down and helped Feng Luodi sort out the ornamental threads that hung from her waist.
Feng Luodi picked up an embroidered purse from the table and nodded. “The store has just opened, and these days are exceptionally important. The future of Autumnal Ombre depends on these few days, Jet.”
Jet nodded in agreement. “Fei and Scarlet are always so tired whenever they return from the store; the business must be really good! I wish I had Fei’s wits or Scarlet’s nimble hands. That way, I could help out at the store as well.”
Feng Luodi patted her head in amusement. “You’re just a little young, Jet. You could learn how to manage the store from Scarlet next time.”
“I’m just two years younger than you, young miss. And Scarlet is a mere one year older!” Jet pouted as she gently smoothened out the kinks in Feng Luodi’s clothes. “Be more careful when you leave the house later, young miss. Fei isn’t here today.”
Feng Luodi nodded. “Don’t you worry, of course I will.”
Just as Feng Luodi was about to leave her room, a servant’s voice sounded from the outside.
“Young miss, there was word just a moment ago from General Situ. He invites you to meet him at the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, and has left a carriage for you, waiting outside the household right now.”
Feng Luodi was surprised, and excitement quickly showed on her face. “Situ…General Situ is back?” She quickly gathered her skirt in her hands, and strode out of the door. “I’ll head to the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’ now then!”
Jet cocked her head. “Didn’t young miss say that she wanted to go to Autumnal Ombre today? Weren’t these few days exceptionally important?” Feng Luodi was already out of the door before she could finish her sentence, joy and excitement lighting up her face. There were a few reasons for her excitement. Firstly, she had heard much about the beauty of the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, but had never been able to visit for it sits on the outskirts of the city, a distance that her parents would never allow her to cover on her own. It was slightly over an hour just by carriage alone. Secondly, she never had the mood to visit such places, her mind always preoccupied with finding the Guqin. However, the good business of Autumnal Ombre these days has lifted her spirits, taking some of the worry off her mind. Lastly, she felt as if she had yet to thank Situ for his help in summoning the Royal Physician for her mother that day, and wanted to do so in person.
She sat alone in the carriage, feeling the little shudders the carriage made as they traversed the bumpy road. She yawned, bored by the journey. The carriage was lavish and comfortable, but she was alone, and the long ride tired her out. Is he there already? Why didn’t he invite me to go together with him? The journey would have been much more interesting if he was here with me. Then she started worrying about the time. It’s almost 3 in the afternoon! If I stay a while there, it would be very late by the time I return home. Perhaps I had been a little rash in agreeing.
As the blue skies in the distance started to fade into red, illuminated by the sunset, the carriage arrived at the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’.
“Young miss, we are here. The Duke is waiting for you inside.” A servant quickly approached her.
“Thank you. I will head in myself.” Feng Luodi nodded, and stepped onto the stone bridge in front of her.
Evergreens were planted in abundance the river that flowed beneath the bridge. The evening wind gently ruffled the leaves as they danced to the breeze, a sight rarely seen in autumn. She reached the end of the bridge to pass through a corridor, and another stone bridge appeared in front of her. She walked up to the bridge, and the scene that unfolded before her eyes was different. The bridge was almost level with the water, and moss crept up quietly along the sides. Huge leaves dotted the surface of the river, mixed with the occasional red petal floating from somewhere upstream. It was as if one had crossed back into summer, where lilies bloomed in abundance.
Feng Luodi found herself in good spirits as she slowly walked along the bridge took in the surrounding sights, quietly awaiting the next change of scenery. Living up to her expectations, a small pavilion stood in front of her as she rounded a corner, maple trees clustering around the pavilion. The red leaves shone in the rays of dusk, and the distant sunset seemed to light the world on fire. The burning red leaves danced and landed on the walkway, and as her feet lightly struck the stone pavement, she felt as if she was walking into the sunset itself.
Feng Luodi smiled. Now she understood why Situ wanted to meet her at this time.
She rounded another pavilion. This time, the earth was carpeted in Edelweiss, a colour as white as snow, mesmerizing in its beauty. White hosta flowers and peace lilies dotted the surroundings, and the world was now encased in white. Another few steps forward, and her world changed again. And another. And another.
In the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, the sceneries of all four seasons were captured. Every few steps took her into a new world, vastly different from the previous. That was why the place was called a ‘Painting’. Such was its beauty.
And in the corner of the painting, a man sat quietly in a pavilion, waiting for her arrival.
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