Under the splendour of the moonlight, an impassive smile hung on the girl’s face, indicating that she had lost all hope. The instant Chen Lan kissed her forehead, that expression faded away. She could no longer hold back and started to sob like a new born child in his arms.
Chen Lan did not say a word, simply holding her tightly. Then just like an older brother, he patted her on the back.
Jin Xiu cried till her voice became hoarse and her breathing ragged. He comforted her with his hand. Then he laughed gently saying, look, don’t you still have me?
Jin Xiu cried till her head throbbed. As she sobbed, she thought blankly – Right, at least I still have Chen Lan. At this time, Chen Lan was like the last straw to her. If even he chose to abandon her, then she really would really be consigned to eternal damnation. She would no longer be able to pull herself up. As her heart pondered over these matters, that man’s hug seemed to draw her even closer. He whispered in her ears, I won’t leave you, Jin Xiu. He said he won’t let her go. He said he would take her away.
Jin Xiu mumbled an acknowledgement, though her voice could barely be heard. Then, she slowly closed her eyes and rested in his embrace. At the very least, she had a dependable shoulder to cry on – Her greatest blessing.
She cried till she was on the verge of fainting. Chen Lan asked her tenderly, was she willing to become his wife? But expectedly, Jin Xiu laughed and explained that she wasn’t shameless to this degree. When she said that, Chen Lan laughed as well. In the end, she fell asleep after tiring herself out with all the crying. This was her only source of intoxicating sweetness in the past one year.
After this, Chen Lan brought her to travel leisurely around Wuzhou.
It was only the two of them. They did not bring any belongings along as they galloped along the desolate dirt paths of Wuzhou. Never once did he let go of her hand. No matter how crowded or deserted it was, no matter where they were, he always held her hand, never letting go. That dependable warmth and that perfect grip was an affable support to her world which was on the verge of collapse. Was this how it felt to be loved and cherished?
On the day of the Lantern Festival , Chen Lan brought her to release lanterns at the river. Chen Lan held her fingers and nimbly guided her as they released the lotus lanterns into the river. Her fingertips dipped into the cool water, yet, they remained warm.
During Mid-Autumn Festival , both of them were cooped up in the kitchen together. Under the watchful guidance of a renowned chef, they made mooncakes. Chen Lan took a creative approach to his and made his mooncake out of flower petals. It was so bitter that even he himself was unwilling to eat it. However, although Jin Xiu grimaced as bitterness exploded in every bite, she still finished eating it.
Then, the following year on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New year, Chen Lan specially crafted a large rabbit lantern for Jin Xiu. Although the rabbit’s ear’s drooped to one side, and even though it didn’t appear very aesthetic, it was still the biggest lantern in the Prince’s Manor. Jin Xiu dragged it around as she frolicked around, before tripping over into a bed of snow. Jin Xiu goofily reached out her hands towards him, and after patting her to check if she was injured, he carried her up with a smile. Instead of setting her down, he carried her straight towards a blooming plum tree. He clumsily plucked out a plum flower and presented it to her.
She suddenly recalled. In the rear court of Chen Country, someone had once listened to her grievances silently, before passing her a flower stalk.
Chen Lan watched her receive the plum flower, before slowly reciting a poem. “Plum petals fall, yet there are still some on the tree. Suitor, let me wait not…” This was a line from the Book of Songs , depicting a maiden who mourned marriage. It was a poem where the maiden was aggrieved at the fact why her man had yet to propose marriage. When Jin Xiu heard this, she giggled. Then, she reached out a hand and caressed his face. Completely the same as Chen Ruo, yet, nothing about them was similar. This man loved her, sincerely and wholeheartedly.
Hence, she said in a soft voice. Let me consider, okay?
This one consideration dragged on till spring. At the arrival of spring, violations of their territory occurred more frequently at the borders. Chen Lan led the troops to drive the enemies out, but received heavy injuries in the process. On the day he was carried back to the Prince’s Manor, Jin Xiu was in the midst of plucking the petals off the plum flowers which had bloomed late. She planned to use them to brew wine. Then, she suddenly felt her heart race and an intense pain shot through her chest where her heart was. She did not know what was happening and anxiously stood up. Then, she heard a loud shout. “The Prince of Wu is severely injured”. These seven words engulfed all the warmth in her extremities. She dashed over, stumbling along the way. Then, she reached his bedside. But before she could speak, he held her hand. It was a cool touch and his grip was also weak, but it was still the same hold she was familiar with. Then, she heard that man’s feeble voice drift to her ears. He told her, “Don’t worry, you still have me here with you…” Jin Xiu almost laughed at his joke. He was the one who was injured and yet he had said to her, don’t worry, you still have me. When she thought of this, she really laughed out loud. Then, a warm substance slid down her face.
She buried her head with her all and said resentfully in a soft voice. She said it was all his fault. In her entire lifetime, she only cried this miserably in front of him. Chen Lan laughed and didn’t speak any further, only holding her hand. Jin Xiu leaned over at his bedside and spoke to him childishly about a whole lot of things. As she rambled on, she gradually tired herself out. Then, the faint sound of a maidservant singing was heard outside.
The young girl was singing the song ‘Longevity Girl’ in a soft and dainty voice. “Spring feast, a glass of wine with every song. Then bow and make your three wishes known: The first wish for a husband’s longevity. The second wish for a wife’s good health. The third wish is to be like swallows on their beams, to stay by each other’s side forever.”
Jin Xiu suddenly squeezed his hand with some strength. The man asked her what the matter was in a low and tender voice. She remained silent for a while, before saying, “Ah Lan…”
“I want to grow old with you. Together, never leaving, never forsaking.”
That man was stunned for a moment. Then, he smiled. He reached out his hand to stroke her. Okay. He said this with so much tenderness.
According to Jin Xiu, it was fine as long as she remained by his side. But Chen Lan did not agree. He said to her, he had no plans to take a concubine whatsoever. He was not interested in whatever old saying there was about taking ten wives. The women he loved, he would take grandly and officially as his wife.
Jin Xiu was stumped. Then, she smiled warmly. Her smile was even more beautiful and splendid then all those smiles he saw when he was a young man.
Jin Xiu falsified her identity as a daughter from an ordinary official’s family. Chen Lan sent a marriage petition to the court and unexpectedly, Chen Ruo took a long time to bestow this marriage. The writing on the imperial edict was coarse, and there were even a few splotches of ink on its surface. But Chen Lan did not care, and that year on the seventh day of the seventh month, the wedding ceremony of the younger brother of the emperor was held within Wuzhou City without any pomp and pompous.
When he lifted up her veil, Chen Lan said to her regretfully. Sorry, I could not give you a grand wedding.
She shook her head wordlessly, before leaning into his arms.
Chen Lan held on her hands and slipped something onto her wrist. It was a bracelet made out of wooden beads, it had a faint fragrance and auspicious intricacies were carved on its surface.
She had once felt this so many times in her palms. It was the bracelet she had received when she was in the rear court of Chen Country, and it was the same bracelet that she had unfortunately lost. No, it wasn’t the same. There were some differences in their carvings.
Jin Xiu lifted her head abruptly. The man who had already become her husband smiled bashfully at her. He said in a soft voice, my mother gave me this bracelet… She brought this into the palace, saying that she wanted to give this to her future daughter in law… He scratched his head and admitted, alright, it wasn’t some valuable item.
It turned out to be him. The person who had quietly listened to her grievances and presented her with flowers. It was him.
Which was why Chen Lan had told her, I know how much sorrow you are in. Because he had seen everything. When she had taken the wrong path and loved the wrong person, when she had taken a U turn, that person was always with her at those dead ends where the light was wane. Twists and turns, a hundred revolutions and a thousand cycles, in the end, it wasn’t too late. She had reached the side of the person she should have been with. She extended her arms and held Chen Lan. The moment she took the man in her embrace, she only felt an overflowing sense of bliss and warmth. So it turned out, being loved by the person you love felt like this. From now on, she was only willing to hold his hand and grow old together.
Then, time trickled on like flowing water.
In the third year that Chen Lan moved to Wuzhou, he was called back to the capital in the early summer. Half a month later, under the concerted effort of both brothers, the courts were purged for the second time. This unfolded in the sixth year that Chen Ruo was on the throne. This was different from the events six years back. This time, the purge was carried out solely with the power of the Emperor and apart from the Emperor, there were no other beneficiaries. The Empress was accused of witchcraft and thrown into the cold palace. She took her life that very night and her entire family was executed. Other political parties were also met with various punishments. The common people all said that the phoenix who sat quietly on the throne for six years had finally stretched out its magnificent wings. After half a month, the eradication led to a power balance once again. Chen Lan stepped into Chen Ruo’s sleeping chambers and noticed a fresh blood stain that had yet to be cleaned up on floor. This was a puddle of blood belonging to a concubine who thought she was favoured. She had begged Chen Ruo to pardon her father and brothers, only to be coldly rejected and thrown against a pillar, causing her demise.
It seemed as though Chen Ruo had not asked his servants to clean up for the room was in a disarray. Chen Lan frowned at that puddle of fresh blood before walking in. The bead curtains parted and his brother walked out soundlessly with his long hair still damp. He had just taken a bath and was wearing a plain robe, a stark contrast to the red mark between his picturesque eyebrows that accentuated his frail sense of gracefulness.
Chen Lan had come to bid farewell, but Chen Ruo’s mind was preoccupied. He held a handkerchief in his hand to dry his hair and as he listened, he casually tossed the silk handkerchief aside before interrupting Chen Lan.
“I want you to help me find someone.”
Without cause, Chen Lan’s heart jumped. He bowed slightly and asked Chen Ruo who he wanted to find. That Emperor who was frail and handsome suddenly let slip an expression of dejection.
“Jin Xiu.” He said softly, “I want to find Jin Xiu.”
Chen Lan felt his heart take a heavy blow. He stood there and then, not knowing what to say. Then, Chen Ruo slowly sat down and his shoulders drooped over. He no longer had the same aura of a high and mighty ruler. Chen Lan felt as though he could no longer watch on and haphazardly muttered an excuse to leave. But Chen Ruo grabbed him by the sleeves. And then, to his surprise, he realized that Chen Ruo’s fingertips were trembling slightly. He had put in so much strength that even his nail beds had turned white.
 Lantern festival: Celebrated on the fifteenth day of the Lunar New Year.
 Mid-Autumn Festival: Traditionally, it celebrates the autumn harvest, when the moon is the fullest.
 Book of Songs: Early collection of Chinese poems and one of the five Classics of Confucianism.
 Reference to part 2, where this phrase was first mentioned when Jin Xiu arrived in Chen Country on the Chinese equivalent of Valentine’s Day. So much has changed since then!