C24 – Line of Separation
In the afternoon, Zuo Shaoqing was lazily lying on the soft couch in front of the window with a book in his hands.
“Master, are you listening?” Luo Xiaoliu saw that there was no movement from him after talking for a long time and felt powerless.
Zuo Shaoqing’s posture did not change. He only said two words softly, “Continue.”
Luo Xiaoliu pulled up his long hair and continued, “This servant has already bought a few wives with small mouths from their families as per your orders. I learned that Zi Zhu’s mother does not have any intentions of making a big fuss, after all, her daughter died in disgrace, making the whole family look bad.”
“Before Zi Zhu died, her body was broken. Without a doubt, her mother definitely wanted to help her earn some reputation. This servant encouraged them to go and tell her about it, so I believe there will be an outcome soon.”
“Yes.” Zuo Shaoqing pulled up the thick blanket in front of his chest and said with a tired expression, “Remember to take off all of your clothes.”
“This servant knows.”
After an uncertain duration, a gentle rain began to drizzle outside the window. A chill wind swept in, rapidly dispelling the warmth within the room.
Nanny Liu entered and added charcoal to the stove twice, then retrieved a thick fur coat from last New Year’s Eve for Zuo Shaoqing and draped it over the blanket.
“It’s fortunate that you had this warm blanket privately made for me last year. Otherwise, this winter would have been much harsher.”
Her thoughts gradually wandered. Lady Ruan had only been absent for two months, yet he hadn’t seen her in seven or eight years. She faintly recalled her as a gentle girl who would surreptitiously spoil him with delicious treats and clothing.
As he ruminated, Zuo Shaoqing’s resentment surged once more. He closed his eyes and whispered, “Little Six!”
“Yes…” Luo Xiaoliu hung his head. Right now, the thing he dreaded most was a summons from Third Master; it rarely heralded good news.
“Go to Lady’s quarters and inform her that the provincial examination is approaching. I intend to visit the academy and seek guidance from the teacher.”
“Master…” She’s in a bad mood, so this servant doesn’t dare to provoke her misfortune.”
“What are you afraid of? It’s not like she’ll devour you whole!” Zuo Shaoqing turned around, tossed the book he held into his arms, and urged, “Hurry!”
Luo Xiaoliu grumbled but realized there was no use resisting. He walked apprehensively to Wu Hengyuan.
In her chamber, Mrs. Xue admonished her eldest son and daughter-in-law. She scolded them for failing to manage even their own small courtyard, yet they managed to drive someone away in the dead of night.
“Suppress the anger within you! Do you think this is your He family? He wouldn’t be bothered with trifles! What man doesn’t have his quirks? Be grateful that your husband has brought home those who haven’t ventured beyond their own homes. Over the years, which part of him has treated you unjustly?”
Mrs. Hoe’s eyes were swollen from crying, and her head hung low. She dared not respond to her mother-in-law’s berating. Nevertheless, the bitterness within her heart continued to mount.
When she had first entered the Zuo Family, she had been filled with joy. Her husband was handsome, a renowned scholar, and even had a Tutor in his ancestry. Many envied her for marrying into such a prestigious household.
Yet, the good times were short-lived, and her once-beautiful dreams were gradually shattered. Granny harbored disdain for her family’s humble origins and never showed her kindness. Her husband’s temperament was unpredictable, and he…
To the outside world, she had ascended to the Zuo Mansion, but who could fathom the turmoil in her heart?
“Madam, Little Six has arrived.” Mrs. Zhu pushed aside the curtain and entered, paying her respects to the two present while surreptitiously casting a pitying glance at Mrs. Hoe.
“What is he doing here? Isn’t it too late?”
“He said that Lord Third sent him here.”
“Hmph, what do you intend to achieve if you neglect his injuries? Go fetch them, I want to see what that wicked individual is planning now.”
Trembling, Luo Xiaoliu entered the room. He lowered his head and swiftly conveyed San Ye’s message, then stood silently.
“He wishes to attend the academy?” Mrs. Xue suddenly raised her voice, adopting an odd tone. “Do you genuinely believe that a mere few days of study can elevate him to heavenly heights? To aspire to take the hometown examination at such a tender age – the audacity!”
Everyone in the room understood that Mrs. Xue was merely using this as an excuse. It was common knowledge that despite years of studying, she had yet to advance to the capital to take the examination.
“Tell him he’s free to go wherever he pleases, but he must remember this,” Mrs. Xue proclaimed. “If he meets his end outside, don’t expect us to bear the responsibility, mother and son!”
Luo Xiaoliu furrowed his brow, perplexed by Mrs. Xue’s hostility toward San Ye. Nevertheless, it wasn’t a matter he could address, so he bowed and exited.
The brisk wind blew outside, and Zuo Shaoqing intended to ascend the mountain. He worried that the thatched cottage might leak during rain, and even without rain, it offered little shelter from the wind.
As soon as Luo Xiaoliu entered the room, Zuo Shaoqing impatiently emerged with his arm draped over his shoulder. When no one was around, he alternated between walking briskly and feigning weakness, sometimes taking three steps to catch his breath.
They soon arrived at the marketplace. Zuo Shaoqing purchased clothing, gloves, charcoal, and a few hot dishes. Afterwards, he led Luo Xiaoliu through the school’s rear entrance.
Zuo Shaoqing guided Luo Xiaoliu to a secluded tree and inquired, “Is it true that many homeless people inhabit the dilapidated temple in the southern part of Zhen?”
Luo Xiaoliu nodded, casting a puzzled gaze upon his master.
Zuo Shaoqing tossed a few silver coins to him. “Take this money and attempt to establish a rapport with them within the next three days.”
“Master, do you intend to make use of them? Those individuals are all opportunists. They’d milk anything they could, given the chance.”
“I’m not asking them to commit any heinous acts. It’s simply a precaution.”
Hearing this, Luo Xiaoliu secretly breathed a sigh of relief as he accepted the silver and exited the academy through an alternate side door.
Zuo Shaoqing hauled his belongings to the rear of the mountain. By the time he reached the middle of the mountain, his robe’s fur was soaked, his coat’s hem was drenched, and water dripped from his hair. Even his undershirt clung to him due to his exertions.
He pushed open the door, sensing that the room’s temperature was no different from the outside. Rushing over to the charcoal brazier, he inspected it and found not a single spark inside.
“Didn’t I instruct you to replenish the charcoal in the basin?” Zuo Shaoqing fumed, addressing the man engaged in his own recovery.
Lu Zheng ceased his exercises, opening his eyes. His black pupils appeared tinged with a layer of gold, lending them an exceptional radiance.
“How could it be alright? What if you catch a cold and have a fever?”
Lu Zheng looked curiously at Zuo Shaoqing, who seemed to have offended his ancestors for eighteen generations. He didn’t understand why this scholar didn’t care about his image anymore.
Zuo Shaoqing rekindled the charcoal brazier and placed his frozen hand over it. After a considerable time, he came to realize that Lu Zheng hailed from the north, not the south, and had experienced New Year’s on the frigid northern border. He surmised that the winter in Youuxi Town felt warmer to Lu Zheng than spring.
A sense of foolishness overcame him, making his earlier concerns seem trivial. He mused with a sardonic smile, “I wonder what you folks up north ate to become so resilient to the cold.”
Memories of the past years in the capital resurfaced. Winter had been the harshest season for him. Wrapped in thick blankets, he had confined himself indoors daily. Even when he cracked open the window, the chill had remained pervasive.
As he watched Lu Zheng ascend the mountain, his face flushed from exertion, Zuo Shaoqing couldn’t help but notice that the boy’s daytime appearance possessed a certain exquisite quality that seemed disconcerting.
Zuo Shaoqing ignited the brazier, feeling warmth slowly enveloping his body. He then handed the purchased food to Lu Zheng, returning to his customary politeness. He explained, “It’s raining tonight, and I was concerned about you getting cold, so I hurried over to check on you.”
Lu Zheng remained silent, maintaining his reserved demeanor. He accepted the food without uttering a word, selecting a meat bun from the paper bag and devouring it.
His eating style lacked refinement and could be described as robust and unreserved, yet it didn’t come across as impolite. Zuo Shaoqing reflected, “Men who’ve seen the battlefield are truly different. Compared to us gentle scholars, they exude a certain rugged masculinity.”
“These are from Xi Shi, renowned for making the best meat buns in our town. It’s said that when she was young, numerous suitors sought her hand, but who would have guessed she’d wed a butcher.”
“That must be the butcher.”
“No! He’s big and tall, not gentle at all, and his temper is especially bad!” When Zuo Shaoqing talked about the butcher in the town, he wrinkled his nose. He finally looked like a thirteen year old teenager.
Lu Zheng stared at Zuo Shaoqing for a while and said, “A man with a bad temper loves women.”
“What kind of logic is this?”
“How many of those self-styled gentle scholars are unkind?” This was one of the reasons why Lu Zheng didn’t like scholars. His mouth was full of righteousness and morals, but in reality, he was doing the work of a male thief or female slave.
Zuo Shaoqing immediately thought of Master Zuo and nodded in agreement, “That’s right. There is often only a thin line between being dissolute and indecent.”
Lu Zheng was stunned by his attitude. He thought that the young man in front of him would at least defend the scholar.
It seemed that not all the descendants of Zuo Family were as pedantic as Tutor Zuo. It could also be that this young man in front of him didn’t inherit Tutor Zuo’s straightforward character.