Chapter 36 Rising Wind: Forbidden
His robe and undershirt were scarlet, with golden embroidery of mythical beasts spanning the length of the robe. A jade pendant of dark red hung from his waist, dangling above his scarlet waistcloth that depicted a roaring tiger. The edges of the waistcloth were gilded in gold, reflecting the setting sun along with his gleaming silver pauldrons. His hair was held up tightly by an ornamental crown, intricate carvings snaking along the edges of the headpiece. A few strands of hair fell out from his tight bun, swaying above his forehead as the wind blew. He was majestic and wild at the same time.
Feng Luodi walked towards the man, the sun setting in the distant horizon behind her. She smiled. “The ‘Painting of Ten Miles’ is indeed as beautiful as they say.”
Situ turned. Seeing her, he pointed at the stone bench on the opposite side of the table. “Have a seat. I was waiting for you to arrive so that we can start drinking.”
Feng Luodi glanced at the two unopened jugs of wine on the table, and raised an eyebrow in jest. “Oh? You were able to resist the temptation of this wine? Seems like it was a failed product.”
Situ deftly opened the seal on the jars, and poured out two bowls1 of wine, passing one to Feng Luodi. “The best for the last.” He raised his bowl to Feng Luodi, and quickly downed it in one gulp, letting out a sigh of satisfaction. “It’s as strong as I imagined it to be – even stronger than the Shaodaozi of the northern plains.”
Feng Luodi smiled confidently. “Were you that eager to try my wine? That must mean that Autumnal Ombre is quite the success.”
Situ poured himself a few more bowls of wine, and downed each of them repeatedly. For a brief moment, Feng Luodi could picture how he had passed his days when he was in the North: his back against a fallen tree, a bonfire by his side, and a flask of wine swirling in his hand. With the starlit sky above his head and the empty plains behind his back, he must have felt so infinitesimal in those lands.
Feng Luodi did not touch the bowl of wine handed to her, and instead stared at Situ. He brings the desolation of the plains in the North with him wherever he goes. Her gaze moved to his eyes. He has the eyes of a…lone wolf from the steppes: quiet and composed, yet fierce and confident. It’s as if the plains of the North have already become a part of his being, the melancholy of the barren lands already infused into his identity.
“Aren’t you going to drink that?” Situ’s voice snapped Feng Luodi out of her daze.
Feng Luodi smiled, and quickly shook her hand. “I can’t drink that. The alcohol percentage is too high for me.”
“Alcohol percentage?” Situ repeated, obviously confused.
“Oh…” Feng Luodi realised her slip of the tongue. “I meant to say that the wine is too strong for me. I’ll probably be gone after one bowl of wine.”
Now Situ was even more puzzled. “Didn’t you drink a few flasks of osmanthus wine by yourself, that day in Manchun Tang?”
“Come on now, that wine is about as strong as flavoured water.” Feng Luodi pursed her lips. How can that osmanthus wine compare to my wine? I’ve used modern distilling techniques for spirits in the brewing of this wine!
“You’re right, that cannot compare to the wine you have at Autumnal Ombre.” Situ raised his bowl again, not feeling awkward at all that he was the only one drinking.
“Of course.” Feng Luodi’s smile reached her eyes, proud of her product.
“Why did you suddenly think of opening a liquor store? Thankfully, you weren’t silly enough to show yourself often in the shop.”
“Is that your concern?” Feng Luodi wiped her forehead exaggeratedly, her face amused. “I shall tell you the truth, seeing as how you’re my friend.” She shrugged. “I need the money. And the shop brings in revenue.”
Situ downed another bowl of wine, and hesitated a little. “Do you really need money that badly? Is your monthly allowance not enough?”
The playfulness on Feng Luodi’s face dissipated somewhat. “I do. The few Guqin that I need are very, very, very expensive.” She emphasised the ‘very’s loudly. “Not only that, it costs a quite a bit to even search for information on the whereabouts of those Guqin as well.”
Situ nodded, and was silent for a while. He turned his attention to the wine, swirling the bowl idly in his hand. “Is ‘Autumnal Ombre’ the only kind of wine in your shop?”
Feng Luodi corrected him. “The shop isn’t mine alone; Qi Jianqiu has a stake in it too. She was the one who got the place and the furnishings, while I provided the manpower and the product.”
She continued excitedly about the wines. “The titular ‘Autumnal Ombre’ is our signature drink, and the strongest of them all. Other than that, we offer osmanthus wine, our homebrew perry, chrysanthemum wine and all sorts of fruit wines. All of our wines are stronger than our competitors, and I can send you a few flasks of each when we get back if you’d like.”
“I’ll be glad to taste each of those wines, then.” Situ smiled, and unsealed the other jug of wine. “There has been no trouble so far, I hope.”
Feng Luodi took a small sip as well, unable to resist the urge after seeing Situ’s enjoyment of the wine. Argh, this is too strong! If I were to finish this bowl myself, I’d immediately get drunk. “What kind of trouble are you talking about?”
Situ looked at her puzzled expression, and shook his head. “It’s nothing. I’m just overthinking things.”
By the time Situ had single-handedly finished both jugs of wine, night had descended upon them. The lotus lanterns2 along the corridors and bridges were lit, casting the entire garden in a warm, amber glow. The last fireflies of autumn flitted around the pavilion where Feng Luodi sat with Situ, adding a fairy-like tone to the setting. A firefly flew lazily into the pavilion, and Feng Luodi’s eyes followed the warm glow.
Her eyes met with that of the man sitting opposite her.
Perhaps it was the night, but the man who was usually cold and powerful seemed exceptionally gentle in the warm, amber glow.
Feng Luodi hurriedly stood up. “It’s really late. I should get going. Father and Mother would be worrying about me.”
Situ stood up as well, calmly packing up the jugs of wine and bowls.
“Let’s go; I’ll send you back on horseback. If we’re fast enough, we’ll get there in half an hour.”
“Oh? Then what about the carriage?” Feng Luodi followed him as they retraced their steps through the corridors and bridges.
“The driver left as soon as he dropped you off here.”
Feng Luodi’s eyes widened. “Doesn’t that mean that you would have been sending me home, regardless of what time we left this place?”
The ghost of a smirk appeared on his face. “That’s exactly how it is.”
“Hmph.” Feng Luodi glared at him, then turned away. Her eyes were quickly drawn to the lotus lanterns that lit their way.
“Is this made with paper? Wouldn’t they burn?” Feng Luodi could not contain her curiosity.
“There’s a glass dome inside the lantern to separate the paper from the flame.”
“Oh.” Feng Luodi nodded along, but then another question popped up in her head. “How would you know that? Had you disassembled one before?”
Situ laughed. “You have quite the vivid imagination, lady.”
Feng Luodi asked carefully. “You…hung them up today?”
Situ kept his eyes on the road. “Nobody normally comes here at night, and I thought it might be too dark.”
Feng Luodi pursed her lips. That’s as good as admitting you did! I never expected that such a gruff warrior could also be so thoughtful!
They quickly arrived outside the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, and only a lone horse was tied to the post.
“Would you want to sit in the front, or behind me?” Situ looked expectantly at Feng Luodi.
Feng Luodi rubbed her chin, conflicted. I could probably sit sidewards if I sat in the front, but it would be really awkward in front of him. If I sat in the back, I wouldn’t possibly be able to sit facing the side, and it would be awkward as well if I had to sit facing him.
Situ saw Feng Luodi’s internal struggle on her face, and swiftly decided for her.
“You should sit in front, seeing as how you’ve probably never ridden a horse before.” With his height advantage and strong arms, he easily picked her up and placed her on the horse, before he mounted nimbly behind her.
Feng Luodi sat awkwardly in the saddle, trying to lean as far front as she could to avoid contact with Situ. However, a huge cape was thrown over her shoulders, and a strong arm quickly pulled her back, holding her tightly against Situ’s burning chest.
“The winds can be chilly and strong in the night. You don’t want to catch a cold.” Situ’s voice sounded beside her ear.
“Stop…” Her words were quickly lost in the wind as the horse sped off into the night, and Feng Luodi was thrown tighter into Situ’s embrace by the momentum.
Feng Luodi covered her face with her hands, feeling her flushed skin as she could not avoid contact with Situ’s arms and chest. Her entire body was rigid, frozen in place with embarrassment. How could he do this!
The ride was much shorter than it took for her to get to the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, but it felt like an eternity to Feng Luodi. When they finally approached the Feng household, Feng Luodi felt that something was amiss she saw Fu Bo standing by the gate. The old head steward had an anxious look on his face, and it never bode well when Feng Luodi saw that expression. Situ got off his horse, and carried Feng Luodi off the horse in the same fashion, under the watchful gaze of Fu Bo.
“Thank you.” Feng Luodi felt lightheaded, as if her soul had left her body.
“No problem.” Situ smiled. “Quickly go on in. Thanks for the wine.” He reached out both hands, and gently rearranged the cape around her shoulders before leaving on his horse.
When Situ disappeared from sight, Fu Bo quickly approached Feng Luodi.
“Young miss, you’re finally back!”
“What’s wrong? Is Mother fine?” Feng Luodi’s heart leapt to her throat.
“It’s not the First Lady, but the Master.” Fu Bo’s words left Feng Luodi in a daze. Father has always been in the pink of health!
Fu Bo took a deep breath before continuing. “Master is furious at you. He’s waiting in the antechamber.”
“He’s upset at me? What’s wrong!” Feng Luodi was confused.
“Have you forgotten about your curfew?” Fu Bo reminded her. “Although you’ve been going out a lot ever since your recovery from your illness the other time, you’ve always abided by your curfew. You’ve really stayed out too late tonight, young miss. It’s often frowned upon for ladies to stay out so late at night.”
Feng Luodi felt a shiver down her spine. What mattered was not how others looked at her, but how she hadn’t known about the curfew. It was obviously something that had been put in place before she had transmigrated into this body, but she had no memory of it at all! How many more things do I not know about Feng Luodi? What am I supposed to say if I’m asked about these details? If I meet someone that knew the Feng Luodi of the past very well, how can I hide my identity? How can I even explain myself if I’m exposed!
Feng Luodi clenched her fists tightly, her palms slick with sweat. Fu Bo walked her to the antechamber, and quickly took his leave. Feng Luodi took a deep breath and tried to calm herself down. Seeing the Chamberlain standing with his back to her, she quickly decided to speak first.
“Father, I am sorry. I was too caught up today having fun, and forgot about my curfew.”
The Chamberlain kept silent, and the tension in the room grew. With every passing second, Feng Luodi got even more anxious. It was a long while before he spoke up.
“You have been spending a lot of time with the Duke of Anping lately?”
Feng Luodi looked up, slightly surprised. The Chamberlain’s gaze bore into her. “No, Father. We have only met a couple of times. He’s a very righteous person and has helped me a few times.”
“Is that all?”
Feng Luodi hesitated. “Do you wish for me to stop seeing Situ?” Memories flashed through her head: of how their eyes met in the pavilion with the fireflies around them, of the mesmerising scenery of the ‘Painting of Ten Miles’, and of the lotus lanterns that lit up the night.
“Situ?!” The Chamberlain’s face darkened when he heard the word. Feng Luodi was surprised. What’s with Father’s reaction?
The Chamberlain stared hard at her, but didn’t say anything for a while.
“If you ever meet him again, you’ll be forbidden from leaving the house.” With that, the Chamberlain turned and left the antechamber.
Feng Luodi stood alone in the room, confused and a little frightened.