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When it finally came time to leave, all the arrangements for the disaster relief and the follow-up plans were about done.
After Yuan Qingyun left yesterday, he didn’t come back, not even for his own things. I’m… a bit glum about that.
In the morning, we all assembled in the dining hall for breakfast. Jinfeng was here, silent and unspeaking ever since yesterday. The kid probably hasn’t adapted to the improvement of our relationship, inevitably being a bit embarrassed. Hong Feng went to pack our luggage, so she isn’t here. Guo Zhengtong and I just talked on and on about some miscellaneous matters.
Xiao Lu suddenly came in. I didn’t look up, only asking him, “Did you get all packed?”
He didn’t respond, astonishing me a bit. I look at him.
With one glance, he seems quite strange, as if he’s finding something hard to talk about. His little face is restraining its redness as he bites his lip, not making a sound and clenching his fists, a very serious and worried look in his eyes.
“Xiao Lu, what’s the matter?” I soften my voice as I ask him.
No one expected that he would plop onto both his knees, kneeling before me.
Everyone present, including me, jumped in shock.
The child raised his head, not cowering back at all as he met my faze, looking like he’d made up his mind about something. “Sir,” he spoke with some determination, “Xiao Lu… wishes to stay here…”
“You wish to stay here?” I’m a bit surprised, but I felt that I understood something.
Xiao Lu’s gaze settled on Guo Zhengtong. “Xiao Lu wishes to stay here and learn river management from Sir Guo.”
He wants to learn that, hm?
I understand Xiao Lu’s consistent goal, of course, and know of his resolution.
The boy’s grown up.
Jinfeng was startled by this in the interim, unable to say anything. Xiao Lu did not look at him.
I’m deeply considering the pros and cons as I look at Guo Zhengtong. The latter’s mouth was open, face full of wonder.
Xiao Lu is still small, but he’s already quite clever. This child will need to make himself a name in the future, and the imperial examination is difficult to stick out in, so having him gain this kind of experience as early as possible really isn’t a bad thing.
Furthermore, he’s already set his heart on this.
If he stays here with Guo Zhengtong, then it’s equal to me leaving a pair of eyes on him. I might not need to monitor Old Guo, but preparedness averts peril, and as far as I’m concerned there’s no downside.
For that reason, I say to Guo Zhengtong, “Sir Guo, I’ve always spoiled this boy. Though his status is in the category of a servant boy, there’s usually no difference between him and my own child. He’s a mischievous but motivated kid, and if you are willing to have him stay and be a student or errand boy, there’s no need to be overly polite.”
Guo Zhengtong quickly said he ‘wouldn’t dare’, then that he’s ‘just afraid it’s too rough here and a small child wouldn’t be able to take it’ and so on.
Xiao Lu quickly turned to him while kneeling. “Xiao Lu is a child from a poor family. He doesn’t fear hardship.”
Guo Zhengtong had no ammo. All he could do was promise, “Xiao Lu is smart and kind, and I’m also quite fond of him. If he wants to stay here, he can, but there’s one matter: food and clothing expenses in this place will be the same as the citizen’s and military’s. If this can’t be suffered through, say it clearly now.”
Xiao Lu is beyond himself with joy. “Xiao Lu doesn’t care about food and clothes.”
I smile. “You still haven’t kowtowed to Sir Guo and thanked him for being willing to teach you.”
Xiao Lu kowtowed thrice, and Guo Zhengtong quickly helped him up.
Xiao Lu then turned to me, walking silently over to me, then knelt and kowtowed fervently thrice to me, too, firmly knocking his head against the ground. The moment he looked up at me, he was soaked with tears. “…Sir, Xiao Lu… can’t wait on you anymore… you’ll have to take care of yourself…”
I’m also a little sad, but this isn’t a bad thing, after all. “Silly boy,” I smile. “If you want to see me, just come over, and if I have the chance, I’ll come see you. Even if you leave, are you not still someone of my Residence?”
Xiao Lu chokes up with tears. “Xiao Lu was brought back by you, Sir, and he will be your servant for a lifetime…”
I patted his head. “As that’s so, you don’t need to keep crying. If you want to handle things carefully in the future, you can’t make trouble for Sir Guo.”
Xiao Lu cried as he nodded hard.
Hong Feng has already finished packing everything, our preparations to leave all done. Xiao Lu only then came before Jinfeng.
Jinfeng looked at him icily in a striking resemblance to Jinzi.
“I’m sorry,” Xiao Lu said.
Jinfeng huffed coldly.
Xiao Lu scratched his head. “Because I didn’t want to acknowledge it until last night, I decided on it this morning. I didn’t believe it myself. Jinfeng… don’t be mad at me…” He put on a miserable appearance after that.
Jinfeng softened up, and he turned his head away. “Forget it, I know you’ve always been thinking about it. I might come see you if I don’t have anything to do later.”
Xiao Lu’s grief turns to happiness.
I called Xiao Lu outside, let him know about some things to look out for, then gave him a few banknotes and pieces of silver. His eyes went red around the rims.
“As you won’t be with me anymore, you need to constantly be vigilant about everything,” I said. “Learn from Sir Guo’s experience well, and when you’ve grown up in a few years, you need to plan to find a job. You have to act as if people are watching your every word and action; if you lose face, then I lose face.”
Xiao Lu agreed to all that.
We were a majestic heap of people when we came, and when we left, it was just me, Hong Feng, and Jinfeng; three people and three horses.
Those seeing us off could gradually no longer be seen, just as the walls of Lingyang disappeared into the wilderness.
As we galloped on and reached a certain section of the road, I remembered something. I took out a banknote worth 5,000 liang and said to Hong Feng, “Take this to Old Madam Guo. She definitely won’t agree to take it, so just tell her this is something Sir Guo mustn’t know of, and we have no place to ask it of him. It’s just so that he has a little bit less to worry about. In any case, do what you can to have her take it.”
Hong Feng nods, spurring her horse to kick up dust.
It’s just Jinfeng and I remaining, continuing with our journey very slowly so Hong Feng can catch up with us.
Trtuhfully speaking, it’s very awkward for Jinfeng and I to be alone together, and it’s been even more uncomfortable since yesterday.
He hasn’t said a word, just riding his horse for half a shichen, the silence getting more and more difficult to bear.
I finally couldn’t take it anymore. “Jinfeng, Xiao Lu has his own dreams. You’re his friend, you should be happy for him.”
He gloomily humphs.
I limited Hearth’s strides, waiting for him to catch up. Seeing his tiny figure atop a big horse, he seems obstinately lonely within these wildlands.
I think of how his older brother wasn’t here and his only good friend had left him. He’s likely not feeling great, and I can’t help but want to comfort him.
There’s really nothing good I can say right now, though. I’ll just have to divert his attention.
I feign carelessness as I ask, “Jinfeng, what’s your favorite food?”
He stares blankly, probably not expecting me to ask about that, and huffs again.
When I thought he wasn’t going to answer, the kid suddenly said, “Hibiscus-bean soup.”
I stare. “What is that?”
“The Jinfu House’s hibiscus-bean soup. My brother loves to eat it, too. Later on he said that it was too sweet and men shouldn’t eat it, so he wouldn’t take me there anymore.” He sounded pretty depressed.
I suddenly really wanted to smile, my mood elevating. “We’ll have a big meal when we get back! I’ll hurt my stomach this time! —Who said men can’t eat sweets, I love eating sweets the most!”
Jinfeng subsequently gave me a look like he despised me.
“Jinfeng, what’s your favorite color?”
“Jinfeng, what’s your favorite animal?”
“Jinfeng, what’s your favorite book, or poem?
“Jinfeng, what do you like to do most for fun?”
Jinfeng was finally driven to madness. “Why are you asking all that? — Why are you so weird?!”
The little boy’s roar echoed throughout the surroundings.
Hong Feng didn’t catch up with us until the evening, shaking her head at me. I sighed. She wouldn’t take it, huh? She really is Guo Zhengtong’s mother.
“Old Madam Guo said that her son wouldn’t take it, so she would absolutely never take it.”
She looks a little exhausted, having presumably spent a lot of words to convince her.
I poured her a cup of tea, and she drank it in one gulp. She sighed. “Old Madam Guo is really a… strange woman. Only this sort of character could have brought up Sir Guo.”
This is the first time I’ve heard her assess someone.
“Hong Feng, after we return, look for a young woman of good character who would be able to work, and send her to care for Old Madam Guo. Make something up about her relatives dying in the flood, with some such reason that she’s lonely and having a hard time with no one to rely on. Then instruct her to slowly use that money to make repairs, but not to let the Old Madam see…”
Hong Feng nodded in agreement, gazing at me with her expression as calm as water, her eyes seeming thoughtful.