My spoon fell onto the ground with a tremor of my hand. Individually, there wasn’t anything wrong with Young Master Jin’s expression or tone of voice, but when combined together, it made my blood abruptly run cold.
As I hurriedly bent down to pick it up, I was greeted by a pair of big curious eyes under the table.
The Jin family’s younger son, Jin Yuanbao, had unexpectedly slipped under the table at some point. At that moment, he was next to my feet, and he had even picked up the silver spoon for me.
“Thank you.” Startled, I expressed my gratitude as I took the spoon from him.
“I saw you last night, right there on the stage.” Jin Yuanbao looked to be around seven or eight years old, and he had an extremely round head. He had quite the clever appearance when he wasn’t speaking, but there was a foolish air about him the moment he opened his mouth, and he didn’t seem to be too bright.
“Mn… I play the cello,” I said.
“Cello?” He glanced at the row of instruments lined up against the wall. All of a sudden, his eyes squinted in a smile. “I like the cello.”
His smile was youthful and innocent, not egocentric in the slightest. If his appearance earlier was still somewhat similar to that of his father and brother, the resemblance disappeared completely with his smile.
“Yuanbao, how come you can’t even eat a meal properly? Quick, come back here.” By now, Jin Chenyu had also realized that his little brother was nowhere to be found, and a bit of exasperation tinged his voice.
Jin Yuanbao pulled a face and didn’t listen to his brother at all. Instead, he stooped over and scurried out from my side of the table before he quickly ran off and vanished elsewhere in the castle.
Brows furrowed, Jin Chenyu shot a glance at the maid standing to the side. She understood his intentions without him having to say a single word, and she quickly chased after the little young master.
Jin Chenyu retracted his gaze only after the maid had disappeared entirely. He said apologetically to the people sitting around the table, “Sorry about that, if you’ll excuse his lack of manners.”
Fang Luosu hastily waved her hands. “No need, no need. He’s just a child, it’s normal for him not to be able to sit still.”
Everyone else chorused their agreement as they all told Jin Chenyu not to take it to heart.
I lifted my glass of water and took a perfunctory sip from it. My mind had long since wandered far off into the distance.
Lion King Island was comparable to a dragon’s pool or a tiger’s den, and Jin Chenyu was like the ghost or demon dwelling within it. Although the dining hall was bright and spacious, the food delicious and flavorful, I felt as if I was sitting on pins and chewing on wax.
How was Ran Qingzhuang faring now? Was his life in any danger?
What could I do to help him?
I was at least partially responsible for who he had become today, so I couldn’t just sit and observe impassively from the side.
“Since everyone seems to be done eating, I’ll call someone over to escort you all to the dock.” Jin Chenyu raised his hand slightly, and the baldie, who had been acting as a wall ornament this entire time, automatically approached and waited for further instruction.
It wasn’t clear what Young Master Jin said to him, but the baldie nodded and swiftly left the room. Only then did I notice that there was also a tattoo of a mottled snake on the back of the baldie’s head; just a single glimpse of it was nauseating.
Everyone stood up and fetched their respective instruments before going forward to thank Young Master Jin for his warm hospitality one at a time.
“I hope we’ll be able to meet again.” When it was my turn, Jin Chenyu extended his hand amicably.
As the saying went: you shouldn’t strike a person smiling at you. Even though my mind was filled to the brim with loathing, I still gripped his hand. It was very cold and somewhat unpleasant to touch, and I only held onto it for a few seconds before I let go.
At this time, the dining hall doors were pushed open from the outside. A tall, broad figure strode in and came to a stop next to Jin Chenyu.
“The cars are ready to leave whenever.” Ran Qingzhuang’s gaze swept indifferently across my face without the slightest pause.
His complexion was extremely pale, and his eyebrows were knitted together subconsciously like he was enduring some type of pain.
There was nothing abnormal about the parts of his body that were visible outside of his clothes, but I had no idea what kind of cruelty had been inflicted on the areas hidden underneath the fabric.
Jin Chenyu wasn’t joking around—Ran Qingzhuang really had been punished.
A giant hand seemed to seize hold of my heart, and for a split second, I couldn’t catch my breath.
Jin Chenyu looked at me before directing his gaze back to Ran Qingzhuang. All of a sudden, he burst out laughing. “Oh my, so you two really are old lovers.”
As he spoke, he patted Ran Qingzhuang’s back a few times. Though it wasn’t particularly forceful, Ran Qingzhuang still stumbled forward a bit, as if his footing was unstable. Afterwards, his complexion grew even worse.
“Are you okay?” I hurriedly tried to support Ran Qingzhuang, but he avoided me and brushed my hand away.
“What’s the matter? Got in a fight? Don’t take this personally, but it’s quite difficult for the average person to tolerate a temperament like yours.” For some reason, Jin Chenyu’s mood seemed to have improved significantly. He slung his arm around Ran Qingzhuang’s shoulders and headed towards the door without paying any mind to the others.
The remaining people shared looks with each other. Nobody knew what was going on, so we had no choice but to follow after them.
Fang Luosu and I were at the end of the group. With my cello on my back, I stared through the crowd at Ran Qingzhuang, who was at the very front, whereas Fang Luosu’s gaze was focused on me.
“Do you know that person? Ji Ning,” she asked.
“I do. He’s my… friend from high school.” I averted my eyes and trained them on the ground instead.
“He’s been highly favored by Young Master Jin in recent years, and he’s an upstart in Helian Group.” Fang Luosu lowered her voice and said, “You… Work is one thing, and who you choose to interact with is another thing, but it’s best if you don’t get too close to him. People like them are different from people like us.”
That was advice given by a friend with good intentions, and I should’ve appreciated her kindness. But for whatever reason, I felt like her words were grating and not particularly pleasant to hear.
It wasn’t like Ran Qingzhuang had an extra arm or a missing leg compared to me. How was he any different?
“I know what I’m doing,” I blurted out rapidly before I sped up and passed everyone else to catch up with Ran Qingzhuang and Jin Chenyu.
“Take some time to recover well these next few days. No need to worry about the company’s affairs,” Jin Chenyu was saying warmly.
Ran Qingzhuang nodded and didn’t respond.
“I did it partially to set an example for the subordinates, you really can’t hold a grudge against me for that.” As Jin Chenyu spoke, he inclined his head and shot a glance back at me.
Our gazes collided, and my heart heavily skipped a beat. The upward tilt of the outer corner of his eye reminded me quite a bit of a fox that had eaten and drunk its fill and was now pondering what kind of mischief it could stir up. Subconsciously, I raised my guard and faltered slightly in my footsteps, causing the person behind me to bump into me by accident.
“Sorry, sorry,” the other person apologized profusely.
I shook my head and allowed them to pass me first.
Several seven-seat vans were parked outside the main entrance. I followed Ran Qingzhuang and got into the vehicle at the very front. After taking my seat, I peered outside the window and saw that Jin Chenyu was still standing there with a good-natured smile on his face, waving goodbye at us.
A suspicious little fox…
At this point, something had also started to dawn on me: he wasn’t trying to be thoughtful at all when he invited us to stay for lunch. He just wanted to test me, to test if Ran Qingzhuang and I really did know each other. If the room Ran Qingzhuang entered last night wasn’t mine, the truth probably would’ve been exposed earlier.
Merely walking around after nightfall was enough to merit such harsh punishment. If someone found out that he was precisely the “rat” they were looking for… I shuddered and didn’t dare to continue that line of thought.
Ran Qingzhuang sat in the passenger seat, eyes closed as he rested with his hands folded over each other. He didn’t say a single word during the entire ride over. Once we reached the dock, he was the first to get out of the van, and he went to unload each person’s instrument so that it was easier for us to get out.
Since my instrument was slightly larger, it had been placed in the trunk. When I saw that Ran Qingzhuang had opened the door to the trunk and was about to take my cello out for me, I rushed up to him and slung the case onto my back before he could do anything.
“No need, I can do it myself.” I had a hunch that he was injured somewhere, and I was afraid of worsening it, so I didn’t want to trouble him.
Ran Qingzhuang shot a glance at his hand, which was holding nothing but air, and let out a sneer. “What? Scared that I’ll break your cello?”
I was momentarily at a loss for words. I had no idea how he had managed to arrive at such a misunderstanding.
He had no intention of listening to my explanation. Instead, gaze fixed on some point in the distance, he cut me off and said, “Ji Ning, don’t come here again.” After that, he swept past me as he headed elsewhere.
I stared at his back. For whatever reason, to me, those words didn’t seem to stem from contempt.
Everyone lined up and boarded the yacht one after another.
I was at the very end of the line. When I turned to look back at the shore, I saw Ran Qingzhuang gazing in our direction with dark, heavy eyes and a lit cigarette in his hand.
Before I could step onto the boat, he exhaled a mouthful of white smoke. Then, he turned around and left without a backward glance.
Returning to Chonghai felt like coming back to the world of the living, even though we were clearly only gone for a single night.
After saying goodbye to the ensemble members, I dragged my exhausted body back home. As soon as I walked through the doorway, a call from my mother came in.
Upon answering, I realized that the person on the other end was my little sister.
My mom was quite strict with us. My little sister wasn’t eighteen yet, so she wasn’t even allowed to own a cell phone. Consequently, whenever she needed me for something, she usually had to borrow someone else’s.
She was calling me because she wanted to seek my opinion on her choice of university. Her goal was to attend school in Chonghai, but our mom was worried about her, a girl, being so far away from home.
“So what if it’s a little far, aren’t you also in Chonghai? Ge, help me persuade Mom. Convince her to let me apply for Chonghai Dance Academy, please?”
My little sister had been dancing ever since she was young, and her dream had always been to become an outstanding professional ballerina. Since Chonghai Dance Academy was ranked among the top domestic dance academies, it wasn’t surprising that she wanted to apply for it.
Unable to withstand her cajoling and wheedling, I told her to pass the phone to our mom and promised that I would give it a go.
After a series of rustling noises, my mom took over the phone. The first thing that came out of her mouth was: “You think that Chonghai is good?”
“If Lingge wants to apply, just let her try.”
“Since you’re all going to be in Chonghai, then I might as well just move there too.”
I was somewhat torn between laughing and crying. “We’ve both grown up now, you don’t need to keep following us, Mom…”
At first, I wanted to say something else, but then I thought better of it. My mom never changed her mind once she made a decision. Even if I kept talking, it would just be a waste of my energy, so I stopped trying to persuade her out of it.
With that topic concluded, there was no need to continue discussing it. As a result, Ms. Bai began to inquire about my life.
“How have you been recently?”
The outcome of my illness was already set in stone. Since I didn’t want my family to suffer more than necessary, I made the decision to hide it from them for as long as possible. It wouldn’t be too late even if I only told them once I absolutely had to.
“Pretty good.” I told her a rare lie.
After a bit more casual conversation, my mom started to hang up. But for some reason, my mouth acted faster than my brain, and I stopped her by calling out to her.
She waited quietly on the other end without asking any questions or cutting off the call. She seemed to know that I was on the verge of saying something exceedingly important.
“Suppose… I did something wrong in the past that resulted in extremely grave consequences, and I finally have a chance to make up for it now. I’ll probably have to pay a huge price, but I should do everything in my power to make amends, right?”
“Was it a very serious transgression?”
The other end was silent for a few seconds. Then she said, “It’s my fault for not teaching you well.”
My fingers tightened unconsciously around my phone, and I lowered my eyes as an enormous wave of shame engulfed me internally.
My mother sighed and said, “Since you’ve remembered it for so many years, it must not be something trivial. If the thought of it unsettles your soul, you must pacify it. Everyone has to pay a price for the things they’ve done wrong. The more you try to avoid it, the bigger the final price will be. You have the courage to own up to your mistakes, so no matter what happens, I will always be proud of you.”
For whatever reason, the anxiety and uneasiness in my heart suddenly calmed down after I heard what my mom had to say. It felt as if I had finally found the correct path amidst an expanse of dense fog.
“However.” Her tone shifted into something sharper. “Don’t you ever do the wrong thing again. Understood?”
My life had already entered its final countdown. Presumably, I wouldn’t be making any more mistakes during my last six months in this world.
“Okay, I will never do the wrong thing again,” I promised her.
Prev | Table of Contents | Next