Chapter 26

On the 8th of July, the Fourth Prince Li, Liu Fei, married his wife and used a ten mile long guard of honour to welcome Gu Tian Lin, daughter of the Ning Empire’s Left Minister, Gu Cheng Qian. This was another event that caused a major sensation in Feng City after the Crown Prince’s marriage at the beginning of the year. The young girls of Feng City had heard that the romantic imperial scholar would marry the Right Minister’s second daughter next month. Thinking about how three of the five noble sons were taken, who knew how many hearts had been broken.

Yu Li palace was decorated splendidly with lanterns and hangings. Located at the farthest part of the palace, it seemed like a gorgeous blooming red flower in the corner of the valley when viewed from afar. Zi Li wore a gold and red silk brocade robe, standing quietly by the small lake. In the past, there had only been a few water hyacinths and water lilies by the lakeside. The Ministry of Internal Affairs knew that the princess liked orchids and had filled the place with orchids both indoors and outdoors. Yu Li palace was surrounded by a faint orchid fragrance.

Zi Li thought about when he went to the Minister’s residence and of the faint zither melody that floated by his ear. Oscillating faintly, it was quiet and gloomy. Overcome by his emotions, he couldn’t help thinking of the Gu Tian Lin portrait sent by Liu Jue. He had simply given it a glance, yet was stunned. Zi Li thought that maybe he would be able to get along well with Gu Tian Lin because the pair of eyes on the portrait were really similar to Ah Luo’s. Zi Li’s heart tightened. Liu Jue had already set his engagement and after another year, Ah Luo would no longer be his Ah Luo. Zi Li closed his eyes, slowly venting out his strength through his hands, leaving several deep crescent marks on his palm.

The drum music drew nearer, closer. The servant knelt down in front of Zi Li, not daring to urge him anymore yet panicking in his heart. He couldn’t help but let out an almost inaudible voice, “Your Highness.”

Zi Li walked to the edge of the lake and plucked a water hyacinth. That purple colour, no matter how one looked at it, it was a sorrow that could not be erased. Rubbing his fingers, the flower flew and scattered apart, falling onto the water’s surface little by little, rippling slightly and disappearing after a moment. Zi Li said indifferently, “Remove all of these water hyacinths and water lilies. Replace them all with lotuses, not white ones, make them a little more cheerful.” After he said this, he headed to the front hall.

The servant responded affirmative repeatedly. He wiped his sweat and followed. A huge rock had been lifted from his heart. It really was a case of the emperor not worrying yet the eunuch being worried to death!

Minister Gu had been an official for thirty years with many pupils. Those who were above fifth rank were eligible for entry into the palace. Moreover, Emperor Ning had decreed that his family members were to enter the palace so today, Yu Li Palace was really lively. Zi Li faced everyone’s congratulations with a smile. When he caught sight of Minister Li and his Eldest Mistress, his pupils shrank. Gradually, his eyes softened.

Minister Li congratulated Minister Gu, “Congratulations Minister Gu on your joyous occasion and gaining a good son-in-law. Prince Li has military expertise and is both talented and charming, they are a match made in heaven!”

Minister Gu chuckled and said, “It is Minister Li who is blessed to have all three daughters married as you had wished!”

Minister Li smiled and said, “We’re just the same.”

Liu Jue was radiant with joy and wearing a crimson robe. He greeted everyone he saw and he walked up to Zi Li, “Zi Li, people are in great spirits during happy events. I have always wanted to know who is ranked first in the five noble sons of Feng City. Looking at the situation here today, it’s definitely you!”

Zi Li smiled and said, “What are you talking about, Yun Zhi?”

Liu Jue took a step back and looked him up and down, then laughed, “Everyone says that of the five noble princes, the Crown Prince is handsome, the Fourth Prince is charming, Gu Tian Xiang is cold, Cheng Si Yue is romantic, and I have good points from all of you. I’m still happy, it’s great to have good points from all of you. I can satisfy the heart of any girl who wants to see any one of the five noble sons. Yet seeing you today, charming as ever with bright features, graceful and romantic, you are the one who has everyone’s good points!”

Zi Li’s eyes glanced left and right to check that no one was around, then his face turned cold, “Yun Zhi, are you this happy because you have snatched away Ah Luo?”

Liu Jue also retracted his smile and said, “Zi Li, I have already said that a forcibly plucked melon won’t be sweet. If Ah Luo was willing to be with you, I would never pester unreasonably. Have you talked about it with Ah Luo?”

Pain pierced Zi Li’s chest, “It was as you said, how could I let her suffer as a concubine. Ah Luo, she wants her freedom! Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Ah Luo may not marry you.”

Liu Jue said lightly, “Zi Li, if Ah Luo marries me, will we still be friends?”

The corner of Zi Li’s mouth curled up in a smile, “Of course. If she marries you, I can still rest assured. Just don’t mistake her eyes for another.”

Liu Jue was startled, what did this mean? Zi Li had already walked away smiling.

After all the tedious protocols were over, Zi Li felt that he really was a little drunk. So drunk that he could see those crystal clear eyes even through the bride’s red veil. He laughed secretly, Liu Jue, are you pretending that Ah Luo is Gu Tian Lin? He seemed to have some expectation in his heart, expecting Gu Tian Lin’s eyes to be as vivid as they were in the portrait.

He parted the screens, wanting to admire this strange woman who was one of the two talented beauties in Feng City and had referred to herself as an orchid. Gu Tian Lin saw a pair of feet walking towards her. After Emperor Ning had appointed the marriage, Minister Gu had been extremely happy. The fact that the Crown Prince hadn’t chosen her to be his concubine was said to be the Minister Gu and Emperor Ning’s idea. She sighed quietly, these were not facts that she should worry about. She had only heard rumours that the Fourth Prince had played his jade xiao as though it was wailing and lamenting, like a banished immortal floating in the air. There was also a bit of yearning. Seeing the footsteps near, her heartbeats quickened. She blushed, lowered her head, and closed her eyes.

Zi Li reached out, yet retracted his hands again. He looked at Gu Tian Lin who was sitting, his heart also beating fast. He practically held his breath as he gently lifted a corner of the veil, and with little effort, the red satin slid down like water. The phoenix coronet and tassels covered most of her face, with only her delicate jaw and snow white neck visible. Zi Li said in a low voice, “Raise your head!”

Gu Tian Lin kept her eyes shut tightly, head still lowered and face flushed red.

Zi Li was a little impatient and he reached out to lift up her face. Tian Lin’s eyelashes trembled and Zi Li’s heart trembled along with them. Finally, she opened her eyes. Zi Li’s hand shook and he couldn’t help taking a step back.

On Gu Tian Lin’s clear and beautiful face were a pair of eyes like autumn water that looked at him softly, a little flustered, a little shy, a little evasive, and extremely attractive. Zi Li’s whole body was immersed in these autumn water-like eyes as though he was immersed in the snow capped peak of the broken jade-like stream. Every time the autumn water-like eyes glanced at him, the coldness hit him. Disappointment, anger, sorrow.

A voice inside Zi Li’s heart said it wasn’t her, the one that Liu Jue actually liked wasn’t her! Zi Li had always thought that Liu Jue liked Gu Tian Lin. Seeing that the eyes on the portrait were exactly like Ah Luo’s, he thought that Liu Jue wanted to marry Ah Luo because she had Gu Tian Lin’s eyes. He was secretly happy. From his understanding of Ah Luo, he knew that Ah Luo would never marry someone who didn’t love her. Yet, he was wrong. Zi Li laughed loudly, he was really wrong. Liu Jue was just like himself, loving Ah Luo.

Gu Tian Lin watched Zi Li’s expression turn from smiling to being uncertain, from nervousness to surprise, then actually laughing out loud. She couldn’t help but ask, “Master, what’s the matter with you?”

Gu Tian Lin’s words jarred Zi Li awake. He tilted his head and glanced at Tian Lin. She really deserved to be a talented beauty of Feng City, elegant and gentle. This was his princess, his wife. The wife he could not ignore and throw away. He could only give her gentleness and could not make her suffer. Zi Li walked over slowly and gently took off Tian Lin’s phoenix coronet. Then he pulled out the golden hairpin and with a brush of his hand, her shining ebony hair fell down. He lifted up a strand of hair. A touch of silk brushed his fingertips. Zi Li stroked her face, slowly closing her eyes, and saw Tian Lin’s eyes shaking under her eyelids. He sighed, lowering his head to gently kiss Tian Lin’s cheek, slowly unbuttoning her collar.

After Tian Lin asked that question, she saw that Zi Li treated her gently and her heart beat with incomparable joy and surprise. All of her initial doubts had been cast aside. With her eyes closed, she could only feel Zi Li’s breath. The moment her clothes were untied, she heard Zi Li sigh lightly, “You really are a person carved from ice and jade.” Only tenderness remained. Attached tightly to Zi Li, she experienced newness, bitterness, and lingering elation with him.

Zi Li sensed that Tian Lin was asleep. He lightly tapped her sleeping acupressure point. Then he got up and dressed. Using Qinggong, he quietly left the palace. He wanted to see Ah Luo again.

When the sound of Zi Li’s xiao floated through, Ah Luo couldn’t believe it. Wasn’t it his wedding night? She thought for a while, then sneaked out into the bamboo forest. Zi Li was dressed in red, eerily enchanting under the moonlight. Ah Luo’s heart trembled, “Elder Brother, why are you here?”

Zi Li did not approach her and softly lured her over, “Come closer, Ah Luo, come over a little bit more.”

Ah Luo still felt that something was wrong, though she walked over obediently, “Elder Brother, are you really unhappy?”

Zi Li smiled gently, “I’m very happy, Gu Tian Lin is beautiful, really beautiful.”

“Then you came out like this for…” Ah Luo had never been in a relationship, yet being 22 years old in the modern era, she understood everything. She felt that for the groom to run out at this time, the bride would definitely be hurt.

“Do you care? Ah Luo? I followed my father, the Emperor’s, order to marry Gu Tian Lin, and I also did so following my own decision! I came here because I wanted to hear you tell me, do you care? Tell me, just tell me truthfully this once!”

“You want to hear the most truthful words, right? I’ll tell you! I like handsome guys, and I like handsome guys who treat me well. Of course this includes you. I am vain, hearing you tell me you like me, seeing you come to see me like this, my vanity is greatly satisfied. I am secretly surprised. If you really won’t have me in your heart from now on, perhaps I would feel a sense of loss and would want you to favor me. That’s pure vanity, all emotions and heartbeats are actually caused by this kind of psychological mindset. This is the nature of humans.” Ah Luo analysed calmly.

“Yet here you are, and I feel both happy and uneasy. I am happy because you value me so much in your heart, but uneasy because I lost you in the end. Elder Brother, I think I do care, but not in the way you’re thinking of.” Ah Luo had thought about it countless times. Zi Li had treated her with so much affection, did she really not love Zi Li? After pondering this for many days, she finally came to an answer.

Zi Li’s face sank like water, “You spoke really well, Ah Luo. If you had lied to me, I would have been very happy, but after the happiness passed, I would be sad. Yet you told the truth and I am happy too. However, I am even more sad because your honesty has made me become even more enraptured. If you had lied to me, perhaps I would have been able to save my depressed heart. Ah Luo, you hadn’t given me even half a chance, and not even half a chance to save myself. I looked at Gu Tian Lin; she was incredibly shy. Just like every bride, waiting anxiously and joyfully to receive her husband’s love. In order for her to give me strength and support, I must also love her. Since I have married her, I will take her under my wings. How can I let my father the Emperor’s intentions go to waste, how can I hurt a woman who has given me both her body and heart?”

Ah Luo watched Zi Li slowly stretch out a hand to caress her face with such a deep pain in his gaze, his eyes trembling like he had been bitten by a poisonous snake. Yet she had to ignore it and pretend nothing was happening. Ah Luo’s heart twisted fiercely, a sharp pain arising as though a needle was piercing it again and again. How could this be? Ah Luo’s eyes blurred with tears. Her heart hurt, it truly hurt.

Zi Li gently kissed Ah Luo’s eyes, “Don’t cry, don’t cry, I know, you’re just soft-hearted. You’re so soft-hearted that you might just blurt out that you would go with me. When you calm down, you would regret it. Ah Luo, I don’t blame you, you just hate to see me miserable.” A helpless desolation was emitted from Zi Li’s body.

Choked with sobs, Ah Luo said, “Elder Brother, I like it when you’re happy and cheerful. Don’t be like this. I really feel guilty.”

A low chuckle sounded from his throat, “Ah Luo, I could have used your soft-heartedness to move you. I could have pleaded to my father the Emperor to give up this appointed marriage. I could have taken you to the ends of the world. In the end, I couldn’t be cruel to you, I couldn’t give up the benefits of marrying Gu Tian Lin. I couldn’t give up my ambitions! I still haven’t found out how my mother the Empress was poisoned to death, I still haven’t held my head high after submitting myself to the Crown Prince for such a long time, I still haven’t conquered the world!

Ah Luo, you knew all along that I wouldn’t give it up, you knew. It’s just that you hadn’t expected me to be unable to, not that I was being forced. In the Ning Empire, there was nothing I couldn’t do. So, don’t let your heart ache for me, I deserve it.” Zi Li slowly pushed Ah Luo away, “Ah Luo, you aren’t mature enough to understand all of me. Perhaps, you will be my eternal regret!”

Ah Luo looked at Zi Li, still feeling her heart ache for him, “How about you forget me? It would be better for you this way!”

“You’re unforgettable, Ah Luo, you haven’t truly fallen in love with someone. When you fall in love, you will understand, you can’t forget.” Zi Li raised his head and gave a long sigh, “Perhaps, because I don’t know who you are in love with, I can’t feel it yet. When I see you fall in love with someone, my pain will truly come. Envy will gnaw at my heart every day. Or maybe, that kind of pain will be my real punishment, punishment for not taking you away while I still could.”

He stared at Ah Luo dazedly for a while, “Ah Luo, you have never really dressed up, yet I still think you are extremely beautiful. If you dress up in the future, you mustn’t let me see. I’m afraid I would destroy you.”

Zi Li slowly stepped backwards, then smiled suddenly, “I spoke so honestly, Ah Luo, I’m honest only to you, only this once. Remember, from now on, you mustn’t trust me anymore.” After he finished speaking, Zi Li’s silhouette flashed, the wind twirling his clothes.

At this moment, Ah Luo felt like she was a flame that had been plunged into a deep, dark sea, put out instantly by the water, all her warmth wiped out and turned into ash. Losing her strength, she slipped and sat down, her heart sinking in the vast night.

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