‘I had gone to the drill fields empty-handed but came back with a horse in hand.’
He Yun Sheng couldn’t shake off this thought from his mind. But, for some unknown reason, he felt rather empty at heart, as if he had tied a white wolf with his bare hands.1 As soon as he realized this, he reprimanded himself. How dare he think that! This was a gift from his most adored hero!
But… it was just that General Feng Yun’s appearance was even more striking and sophisticated than it was rumoured to be. Could he grow up to become such a man even in a thousand years?
He Sui cast a sidelong glance at He Yun Sheng. His son had a dazed look on his face. He didn’t know where his mind was flying off to yet it was rare to see him in such high spirits. He Sui turned his attention to He Yan again. Although her face was covered with a veil, He Sui could tell that she was lost in thought.
What in the world was wrong with his children?! He Yun Sheng hadn’t uttered a word throughout their walk back home. The reason was obvious—He Yun Sheng was not able to keep his mind off the horse and the person who gifted it to him. But why was He Yan silent? Of course, that young man, Xiao Huai Jin, was young and promising and his daughter was one of the most captivating women in the entire kingdom. Wait… Did his daughter happen to have taken a liking to him? He Sui sincerely prayed that wasn’t the case. He was already in trouble with a certain Fan gongzi but now a young commander has made his appearance! There were countless Young Masters of noble families but there was only one Xiao Huai Jin in the entire dynasty!
He Sui had a headache thinking about this.
The three of them seemed to be lost in their own worlds. The person who sold tofu next door, Aunt Li, was rather curious about what had caused the entire family to behave so peculiarly. She pulled He Sui aside and asked with a voice filled with concern: “Brother He, has something happened at home? Yan Yan and Yun Sheng seem to be very distracted.”
He Sui was at a loss for words.
Qing Mei had already prepared dinner by the time the three of them arrived. As everyone was drinking their own portion of porridge, He Sui suddenly raised a question: “Yan Yan, why did you come to the drill fields today?”
It was understandable in He Yun Sheng’s case but He Yan had never visited the drill fields in her life.
He Yan’s thoughts were interrupted because of the question. She turned to look at He Sui and spoke: “Well, I only wanted to tell father that it was high time Yun Sheng entered the academy. You know very well, simply learning some fist moves and footwork won’t help Yun Sheng’s future. He needs to be trained by an experienced tutor. It’s not too late as spring is the right time to be admitted into the academy. What is father’s opinion on this matter?”
He Sui opened his mouth to answer but had a moment’s hesitation. The truth was, he didn’t know if he was supposed to be glad because his daughter had finally started caring for her brother, or worried, because He Yan’s innocent question had actually rendered him speechless.
“Yan Yan, I have thought about this before… but right now, we are in short of silver,” he said, scratching the back of his head in embarrassment. “Hang in there. Daddy will get a little more silver with this month’s salary.”
Otherwise, he would never have tolerated Zhao gongzi’s insults.
He Yun Sheng had supper with his head lowered but his ears were sharp enough. He was aware that his father suffered a lot to feed the family. He had felt that it would be unfilial of him to put forward such a request. But the words he could not say were finally spoken by He Yan, making He Yun Sheng sigh in relief.
“Daddy need not worry about the silver.” Saying this, He Yan got up from her seat and went to her room. A moment later, she came back with a chest. She opened it, its sparkling contents almost blinded He Sui’s and Qing Mei’s eyes.
The chopsticks in He Sui’s hand fell down with a clatter. Yet, he regained his composure while asking: “Yan Yan. Where did you get this silver? ”
“Yun Sheng won it when he went to Le Tong Gambling House.” He Yan answered fluently.
He Yun Sheng spurted out a mouthful of porridge.
He Yan winked at him and her expression didn’t change at all while lying: “Yun Sheng got really lucky. He won a lot of money with his first visit to Le Tong. I have counted them, and the money will be enough for us to last for several years, besides being used for repairs.”
He Yun Shung moved his lips but in the end, was unable to speak up.
What could he say? Could he say that He Yan, a girl, went to gamble? Let alone He Sui, even if he couldn’t comprehend it all. Moreover, He Yan was wearing his clothes that day, and others would only remember her as a teenage boy and not a girl. Besides, whenever he thought of the scene when He Yan stood up for him and raced with Zhao gongzi, he couldn’t help but feel a sense of pride and heroism.
He was ready to take the blame in return for her favour!
He Yun Sheng chimed in: “Yes, I won this money by gambling. Father, let’s take this silver to the academy! ”
He Sui looked at him with his eyebrows raised: “You won this in the gambling house? Good.
You got such a big win with your first visit? Indeed.”
“Indeed! Indeed!” He Sui flew into a rage and slammed his fist on the table. He picked up a plank lying nearby and started spanking He Yun Sheng, “You unfilial son! You actually dared to go to Le Tong Gambling House! As your father, I worked so hard to feed and clothe you, but how dare you give me Le Tong shit?! Do you want us to lose our face? Don’t you have any respect for your dead mother?”
He Yun Sheng tried to save himself: “Dad, It’s only because our family is too poor! My dead mother won’t come to know if you don’t tell her!”
“How dare you quibble?! Where did you learn this habit? Going to the gambling house! He Yun Sheng, today I will make you turn over a new leaf!”
He Yan quietly shrank to a corner of the room. She would have been in danger if not for He Yun Sheng taking the blame. What if He Sui came to know that she did it and started spanking her too? What if she accidentally retaliated and injured He Sui? She really would be branded as an ‘unfilial daughter’ then.
After a while, the ‘teaching a lesson’ process came to an end.
He Yun Sheng was punished in the end and the matter was put off. The next step was to decide which academy was suitable for He Yun Sheng. The best choice was to take into account the martial arts training in each academy. Second, the school should neither be a highly reputed one nor one with low standards. The problem with selecting the good schools was that it was mostly attended by sons of rich, noble families. Hence, it would be inevitable that for Yun Sheng to pick up some bad habits there.
While in He Yan’s room, He Yun Sheng fiddled with lampstand and a small comb on the table: “Really, choosing the right school is such a painful task.”
“It’s not something that can be decided overnight.” He Yan glanced at him and said, “We have plenty of time.”
He Yun Sheng’s lips curled: “Aren’t you well-informed? Don’t you know which academy is the best in the capital?”
“I have never visited a library. What could I possibly know?” He Yan said, “But I do know the gambling house.”
He Yun Sheng said, “You are belittling yourself!”
He Yan smiled at him and said, “Thank you.”
Thinking of the beating he had received in vain tonight, He Yun Sheng was frustrated again. “I’ll feed the horse.” Saying this, he immediately left He Yan’s room.
Once He Yun Sheng took his leave, Qing Mei left with the washing basin and He Yan blew out the candle, took off her shoes, and went to bed.
The window was open, but she didn’t feel cold on a spring night like this. Moonlight poured in through the window, brightening her room. Gazing at the silver moonlight, she was immersed in her thoughts about Xiao Jue, who she had met in the daytime.
She was flustered at that time. She was afraid that Xiao Jue would recognize herself, so she lowered her head in a panic. But later she came back to her senses. She was no longer that ‘He Yan’. Xiao Jue would never recognize her even if he had seen her face. Besides she had always adorned a mask, back then.
The last time she saw Xiao Jue, seemed to be a long time ago. At that time, he was not as cold and indifferent as the current Xiao Jue. He was a proud and green young man2 who always seemed to be thousands of miles away.
The best academy in the capital was called Xian Chang Hall. The two most renowned generals of the Great Wei Dynasty, General Feng Yun and General Fei Hong, both graduated from here.
To sum up, He Yan and Xiao Jue had been classmates for one year.
1 空手套白狼: idiom, ‘to tie a wolf with bare hands’; meaning ‘to gain valuable things in exchange for worthless things or even nothing.’
2 绿少年 (lǜ shào nián): green young man, meaning a young man who is untested in the ways of war, politics, and ruling… It’s a metaphor for a young man or teenager whose youth means that they are inexperienced and unready for the realities of war, like an unripe fruit or a newly sprouted plant.