THE FIRST ENCOUNTER
General Fei Hong and General Feng Yun were famous for being conflicting and were always locked in constant strife. However, He Yan always felt it was dramatizing.
They were both young men that joined the army with exceptional military achievements, so they were often pitted against each other. The various rumors that circulated around were just exaggerations to add spice to the story. So the rumors spread until it all became a rather strange tale to tell.
Little He Yan being only fourteen years old, was exceptionally kindhearted and bore no hostility towards Young Master Xiao.
As time passed, she got used to being disguised as a man, so being He Ru Fei was pretty easy. There was only one difficulty, that was, once the young boys reached a certain age, they were to be sent to an academy to learn.
Back then, the lives of men and women were contrasting. Young girls could invite teachers to their homes, whereas boys could not. The He family summoned a teacher to teach their young boy, but as he grew older, they realized that they would be laughed at if anyone else came to know.
Knowing this, they stopped summoning the teacher and sent He Yan to the Xiang Chang Institute to learn when he turned fourteen.
The Xiang Chang Institute was the most prestigious academy in all of the capital city. The founder of the academy was the former crown prince. Students learned the six arts, from teachers who were the leaders of the Imperial Court.
Although the He family had a title of nobility, they were still inferior to the other families in the institute.
Who would have thought He Yuan Liang would have such good luck? One day, when he was at a restaurant, he encountered a dispute and intervened in it, speaking out for one side. Surprisingly, he had helped a teacher who worked at Xiang Chang Institute who had just selected new students. He had even remembered that the He family had an illegitimate son. So to return the favor, he asked him to enroll in the institute.
He Yuan Liang had hesitated a long time concerning this matter. He even discussed it with He Yuan Sheng.
He Yuan Sheng was the type of person who set his heart on pursuing wealth and fame, so he thought the idea was feasible. If He Yan got enrolled in the Xiang Chang Institute, he would be in the company of children who came from reputed noble families. That would give him an edge, and the title alone ‘Xiang Chang Institute’s Student’ would be of great help for his future.
When He Yan heard about this, she was ecstatic.
Even though she cross-dressed, she still followed all the rules women had to. Well, one thing she understood was never to kick a man’s private parts. Well, if you did, better be prepared with your shoes to run. Second was to never appear in public and to practice martial arts hidden from society as it was a patriarchal society. However, she would be deemed an incompetent woman. The daughters of the other noble families learned the piano, chess, calligraphy and painting. It was difficult for He Yan, as she was disguised as He Ru Fei.
Earlier, it seemed like it was impractical, but going to Xiang Chang Institute was different. There were myriad talents there, all of them being the same age as her. If she attended the institute, she could learn from the best while making friends and gaining experience. That was something other women could never be able to do, and she suddenly felt lucky for being able to accept He Ru Fei’s identity.
He Yuan Sheng’s wife, her nominal mother and her great aunt were present when she got the finely crafted mask. They were apprehensive and told her, “You must be careful and never let anybody find out your true identity”.
He Yan nodded.
She did not want to wear the mask. Although being light, it was uncomfortable and stuffy, only revealing her eyes and chin. She had worn this mask for many years; never taking it off, even while sleeping.
The craftsman was very capable. One side of the mask was tucked into the hair and the other was equipped with a mechanism only she could open. If she was sure of one thing, it was that the mask would never fall off even when she was fighting. That showed his mastery.
He furen solemnly warned: “If you let others know, our entire family will be doomed. You must remember this!”
He Yan thought: I knew this already. I had been told this a thousand times. The crime of deceiving the Emperor will result in an unimaginable punishment, implicating nine generations of a family.
“I remember.” He Yan replied respectfully but in a somber voice.
He furen had an uneasy expression on her face as she followed He Yan to the carriage. She was reluctant to let her go.
In the eyes of outsiders, it was a display of affection and love between a mother and son. He Yan was relieved and filled with joy at the thought of being free. She was finally free from the days where her every move was controlled and watched by others. Her freedom was just around the corner.
The carriage stopped at the gate of Xiang Chang institute. Her servant escorted her off the carriage and waited by the entrance.
She had reached too early; her teacher had not arrived yet. She could hear the faint voices of students reading, laughing and talking amongst each other. He Yan stepped through the door, full of longing.
The blissful spring sun had come out early. There was a large courtyard and a garden before the entrance to the main hall. Inside the courtyard, there were stables; inside the garden, there were ponds and willow trees.
There was also a swing.
The swing swayed ever so slightly, the wind blowing around it. He Yan reached out at it wanting to sit on it but she didn’t dare. If she sat on it, she was sure to be laughed at. He Yan had to move on.
The willow trees were lush and emerald green colors seemed to be pouring into the pond. The mountains and waters shone and the sun cast a warm glow that made her drowsy. Her vision started to become hazy, so she rubbed her eyes. There was a loquat tree in front of her.
The He family wasn’t short of money and was able to afford loquats. He Yan had eaten loquats before but this was the first time He Yan had seen a loquat tree full of ripened fruits. The glistening, golden fruit seemed to be packed with honey and fragrance. It was a very attractive sight underneath the sun.
Albeit everything, she was still a fourteen-year-old girl who had a lot of fun. Seeing this scene, she remembered the pictures of the young ladies in the yard who used bamboo poles to beat down plums in the summer. Back then, it would’ve been downgrading if the young master of the He family had to pick fruits personally. However, she wasn’t home. She was at the academy. Surely… it would be fine if she picked a loquat, right? It shouldn’t be disgraceful for a boy to pick a fruit to begin with.
Thinking of this, He Yan rolled up her sleeves and prepared to battle.
She was in a hurry but she only had a pen and a few books that were given by her teacher. There were no poles around her and nothing she could stand on. Fortunately, the loquat tree wasn’t that high. If she jumped, she may be able to reach it.
He Yan stared at the nearest loquat in front of her. The fruit was hanging on the tip of a branch, golden and dazzling as if trying to tempt her into picking it.
He Yan was not discouraged, and so she continued.
She missed it again..
She has always been somebody that didn’t admit defeat, so she tried again.
She missed, and missed, and missed. She lost count of the times she was defeated. When He Yan was about to give up due exhaustion, she heard a chuckle from up above her head.
He Yan looked up.
The loquat tree’s branches were bursting with leaves and fruits. She was so focused on the loquats that she didn’t notice the person sitting on the tree.
She didn’t know how long he had been sitting there, watching her. She looked up at him, and the sunlight shone down, basking his face in a golden glow.
There was a beautiful young man in a white robe and golden boots. His expression was lazy and his arrogance was evident. His head was propped up by his hands, and his beautiful eyes made her heart pound.
He Yan was dumbfounded.
She had never seen such a good-looking young man before. It seemed like spring was being reflected onto him. For a while, she felt ashamed. Fortunately, the mask covered her blushing face, but it couldn’t cover the shine in her eyes.
After the handsome boy glanced at her as he pulled a fruit down.
He suddenly turned over and fell to the ground, his white robe swaying in the wind. She watched as the young man approached her with the fruit, not knowing what to say.
Should she say thank you? Or that he looked handsome?
She was so nervous, and so she reached out and started playing with her robe.
The young man stopped before her and smiled.
When he smiled, it seemed like spring had come once again, and the flowers were blooming. He Yan said with excitement, “Th-…”
Before the ‘Thanks’ was finished, the other party passed by her and walked away.
He Yan was dumbstruck.
She looked back and saw that the white-robed young man was throwing the golden-yellow loquat up and down as he walked forward with a leisurely posture, as if mocking her self-indulgence.
He Yan stood there trying to calm her pounding heart, and then proceeded to follow the young man inside the academy.
However, as she passed by the entrance, she heard someone with a lively and cheerful voice ask, “I heard that the new young master of the He family came here to study today. Brother Huai Jin, did you see him?”
She took a step forward and heard a lazy voice answer, “I didn’t see the young master of the He family. I only saw somebody who was stupid and short.”
St-stupid and short?
He Yan hasn’t been so disappointed in her entire life. Stupid was one thing, but short?
How was she short? Her stature was excellent among girls the same age as her!
He Yan wanted to see the person that had reached such a conclusion. When she looked up, she saw the young man who was surrounded by a crowd of young people. His eyes were shining as if he hadn’t said anything.
It seemed like he knew she was staring at him.
Bursts of laughter rang throughout the main hall.
The world was full of greenery, beautiful scenery, signs of spring and alluring flowers.
This was her first encounter with Xiao Jue.