1.30 Echoing Whispers
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The common area of the inn became lively as their group's merriment started to attract more attention from other guests.

"This area is off-limits. Please do not proceed further!" A low voice belonging to one of the Princes' imperial guards was heard from a small distance.

Looking at the source of the voice, YuLan and the others saw one of their guards blocking a path of an elegantly dressed couple. The couple had glimmering expectation in their eyes.

Initially, they thought the couple had somehow recognized the Royal Princes. However, the man soon spoke, looking towards Ji LanBai and YuLan's direction,

"Forgive this humble one for intruding," he said with clear enthuse, "But, are these young ladies perhaps the famed guqin players of the Lian house?"

This attracted a commotion from the other guests, now completely focusing their attentions to their group. The guards - both Imperial and the two Ji clan's guards, had now started to grip onto their swords, in case the commotion would shift towards the unfavorable.

"It is them! I had the luck to obtain some seats at Lian house a couple of weeks ago," another guest exclaimed excitedly. This particular guest was not wealthy and thus he could only obtain a standard seat at Lian house, which was located quite further away from the central stage. But he would not forget the profiles of the graceful guqin players. In fact, he had become die-hard fan of both young ladies. When he attended the performance, he could only worship them from afar and imprint their existence into his mind.

The spouse of the first man smiled widely, "Both Young Misses, we are merely commoners and we only had little luck to be able to see one of your performances at Lian house."

In fact, the man and wife were just normal merchants. Although they were not poor, they could only afford to splurge to attend one performance at the famous tea-house previously.

"If it is not too much to ask," she added and bowed towards them humbly, despite being years older than Ji LanBai and Bai YuLan. The guards were still blocking her and her husband's path, "Would you be so kind to grace us with just a small performance tonight?"

The man scolded his wife lightly, "Aiya~, my dear. How could you be so bold? Clearly these Young Misses and their guardians were already exhausted."

Yet he could not conceal the hope in his eyes, also glancing at Ji LanBai and Yulan wistfully.

"Both Young Misses," another guest chimed in, "We are just normal people. I have been saving for the past few months, hoping to one day be able to listen to your heavenly tune that have now also been infamous in the capital."

He certainly did not hold back on his boot-licking and added, "I am actually on my way to Ming town to possibly obtain a last minute seat at Lian house. Yet, to meet you both here tonight, surely this is fate? This humble one sincerely hopes both Young Misses will grant this one's wish to just have the fortune of a lifetime to listen to your performance once."

A few of other guests also expressed similar sentiments, causing unspeakable sense of gratitude and elation to both Ji LanBai and Bai YuLan. What kind of humans would not be proud when other people appreciate so much what they do?

Ji LanBai walked towards the guard, still standing an arm's length distance behind him. She lowered her head politely towards the couple, who now had a line of other people behind them, all waiting anxiously,

"I am extremely humbled." Ji LanBai bowed her body lightly towards the pair and other guests, much to YuLan's pleasant astonishment. This Young Miss Ji was getting more graceful each passing day, and YuLan could only be happy about this improvement. 

"It's just, my jie-jie and I have not brought our guqin with us." LanBai comfortably referred to YuLan as her older sister, much to YuLan and the others' amusement. It was pretty clear to them how much Ji LanBai favored YuLan.

Ji LanBai only half-lied. Of course they always brought their zithers with them, but currently the zithers were in their room. Just because some people requested for it, it did not mean she was going to ignore their current predicament and ran up to obtain those zithers, nor was she to send her maids to do it. Especially when the common area was now filled with quite a lot of people. She was not going to exploit their limited number of bodyguards for this either.

The owner of the inn suddenly raised his hand, "If Young Misses do not mind, this one has possession of an old erhu. It will be my absolute honor for both Young Misses to make use of this one's humble instrument."

Ji LanBai turned to look at YuLan. She was only well-versed and skilled in qin. The one who could play an erhu was YuLan, so she could only look at the latter for her acquiescence.

Much to the guests' relief, YuLan smiled, "If this one can entertain esteemed guests with this one's humble performance, then may I please trouble owner to lend me his erhu?"

The inn-owner was so ecstatic that he immediately ran to the storage room to fetch the musical instrument. The erhu was actually left by a travelling musician years ago. The inn owner was not educated in music; but to dispose of the old but beautiful erhu was a waste, so he could only set it aside in storage. Who knew, it would not continue to gather dust and had the luck of being used by a beautiful young maiden.

Handing over the erhu to the guard with trembling hands, he could not believe his luck. What are the chances of having a private performance - free of charge - from a famous personage in his inn.

Ji LanBai took the erhu from the guard and walked back to YuLan's side, handing it over to her.

YuLan gently caressed the curve of the erhu. Previously she had only borrowed He Shan's erhu, and she loved the ranges of melody that could be produced by the only two strings on the instrument. For such a simple instrument, it could evoke the deepest of tenderness, sorrow, and warmth one could ever wish to portray.

But she had only previously performed with Ji LanBai and He Shan using a guqin. Thinking deeply, she was not quite sure what to play with this erhu. From various pieces she knew from her past life, most were suitable for zithers, and she hardly remembered full verses of erhu musical scores.

Her slight frown gradually relaxed as she was suddenly reminded of a piece she knew very well.

It was a piece that her mother loved very much. Although YuLan could only remember the melody and not the lyrics, she actually knew the full length of the score. She had even used the instrumental version - a mixture of guzheng1guzheng is a chinese zither as well, but has more strings than guqin. the modern ones usually have 21 strings, while a guqin has 7 strings and erhu composition - for her phone's ringtone for her mother's incoming calls.

Although with such a sudden performance, she had no doubt she could still portray the right emotion using this erhu. After all, it was a piece well loved by her mother, the one person most frequently on her mind.

As she adjusted the strings of the erhu with a somewhat desolate smile in remembrance of her mother, the guests knew that their wish was to be fulfilled. Everyone took their places as close as possible, still outside the guards' protective barrier.

Closing her eyes, YuLan positioned the erhu closer to her chest and started to move the bow on the two strings.

 

 SONG LINK (YOUTUBE) ||  TITLE:  女兒情 (NU ER QING) INSTRUMENTAL VERSION

 

She might be too sentimental, considering her combined age from her past life and this one, and how she had already resigned that her past was far gone. Yet, she could not help to have moist gathering in her eyes as she played the familiar tune with unsung verses that she could not remember. She lamented that she should have listened more to her mother singing this song, regardless how tacky and ancient-sounding she had previously felt the song sounded.

"If Mia's life was not just a dream; Mother, I just hope you would not be too sad without me."

"I just wish for you to live, as happy as can be, as healthy as can be. Forgive this unfilial daughter that I cannot be by your side anymore. That I cannot hold your hands as you grow old, supporting you when you need me. That I can no longer caress your wrinkled hands, just like you have caressed my younger self in the past."

"That I cannot sing this song for you, just like you used to sing it for me."

"Forgive me for never listening."

"Forgive me for not remembering a lot of things you used to say, the songs you used to sing."

"Forgive me for everything."

As she drew the bow for the last note of the score, she opened her eyes slowly, still feeling somewhat dejected. But she soon blinked her eyes as she saw people around and in front of her with tears streaming down their faces.

Even the Crown Prince kept dabbing the corner of his eyes with his handkerchief.

Zhen BuFeng and the two younger Princes let out some short grunting noises that sounded obviously of held-back sobs.

Ji LanBai, and YuLan's friends from the orphanage's shoulders shook up and down, obviously crying in silence. Their youthful pale cheeks had reddened.

"This... ," the inn-owner finally said, after managing to gather his soul back, "Miss... . That sounded so sad... ."

"But absolutely beautiful!!" Another guest chimed in.

"That's right. Sad, but moving. Absolutely a masterpiece," another female guest smiled wryly, dabbing her wet eyes.

The guards were also evidently touched with her erhu rendition of the song, their standing postures now somewhat laxed. None of the guests intruded though.

YuLan did not know whether to laugh or cry. Why were all these people sadder than her?

"This one can only thank you for willing to listen to a mediocre performance." She bowed her head, touched by the people's reaction.

"Please, Young Miss. If that's what you call mediocre, isn't that just insulting our ears?" Was what all the guests collectively thought.

As the guests were now satisfied; some were actually afraid to listen to another heart-gutting performance from her that they finally gradually left the common area. The night was late, and they went on their ways to rest in their rooms.

The group also decided to retire for the night, the Royal Princes and Zhen BuFeng had also gone up to their respective rooms.

YuLan was going to hand the erhu back to the inn-owner, but the latter insisted for her to keep it. He said that the erhu would otherwise just be gathering dust in the storage room. She could only smile and bow in gratitude, accepting his goodwill.

She was going to follow Ji LanBai and the other girls to their rooms, also noticing the common area was now almost empty. Then she saw Ji SongLi still sitting at his initial seat.

He had his head down, causing YuLan unable to see his expression clearly. But she noticed the small beads of sweat on the young man's forehead. She walked towards him and asked in concern, "SongLi, are you feeling unwell?"

Ji SongLi lifted his head abruptly, suddenly awakened from his earlier stupor. His gaze was unfocused for awhile, then he gradually fixated his eyes on her own. There was something in his stare that YuLan could not quite pinpoint --

There was confusion there; there was indescribable agony as well for some reason, as though he was feeling something utterly heart-breaking.

Then the myriad of expressions were gone, the young man forced himself to smile at her,

"No, I am alright, YuLan," he said, "I think I am just too tired. I will stay here just a while longer. Please have a good night rest. I will retire soon."

With an unconvinced final look at him, and him nodding back at her in encouragement, finally YuLan followed Ji LanBai to retreat to their room.

Ji SongLi silently watched that walking figure. As soon as she disappeared around the corner of the second floor of the inn, he opened both of his palms and looked at them in silence. He was not sure what he was looking at, he was not sure what he was feeling.

There was this sudden burst of heat when he listened to that song earlier, the sensation still lingered even now. He rested his right palm across his chest, where his heart was.

It was beating fast, too fast, that Ji SongLi felt somewhat dizzy. The tremor even spread to his palm. He was sure he could not walk at the moment, having lost all sense of his limbs. He could only feel his heart battering loudly against his rib-cage.

There was a resounding echo at the back of his mind, pumped by his tumultuous heart to reverberate over and over again in his brain. It was a string of intense muffled screams, threatening to burst forth, wanting to be vocalized.

"... Forever..."

"...I'll accompany you... forever..."

 

*** *** ***

notes:

The song youtube link I put in this chapter is probably the closest that can do the melody justice for the purpose of this chapter as YuLan is only playing the erhu. Just listen to the erhu part. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

The nicer instrumental versions of this song are usually a mixture between zither/pipa/erhu, which I have put in previous chapter during the modern life's chapters.

And by the end of this chapter, you'd surely known who the male lead is?

 

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