The carriage drove along. Shen Zhen, pressed against Lu Yan’s chest, did not move back immediately, letting the scent of sandalwood enter her nostrils. Seeing as he furrowed his eyebrows, she sat up, her fingers pulling at her skirt in mortification. Lu Yan was most unhappy and his whole body exuded an air of supreme coldness. Since Shen Zhen was oblivious to his mood, Lu Yan could only rub at his temple with his forefinger.
A gentle breeze blew the curtain of the carriage’s window aside, letting Shen Zhen take a look out. Chang’an was truly unchanging. It was still as prosperous as when she had been a noblewoman. The crowds were still bustling with play and songs, having a good time. The only difference was that no one was interested in Marquis Yunyang’s mansion anymore. Beside herself, that is.
When they drove by yet another residence, Shen Zhen suddenly grabbed onto the curtain, her fingers blanching. Her eyes did not leave the residence, turning her head to catch a last glance of it. It had been the Li Residence, the dwelling of the new Minister of Industry and Engineering, Shen Ran’s husband. Li Di.
At the thought of her big sister, Shen Zhen felt her heart tighten. Before a tear slid down her cheek, she remembered that she was not allowed to cry. So, in a decisive movement, she let go of the curtain and tore her eyes away. If one were not to look, one would not think. And if one did not think, one would not miss. Thus everything would be for the best. Shen Zhen took a deep breath to steady herself.
Before she could exhale, she felt Lu Yan’s fingers against her chin as he turned her face towards him. His hand was neither light nor heavy as it maintained her head in place.
“What is wrong?”, he asked in his low, deep voice.
When Shen Zhen found his cold gaze, she understood that this was not the moment to make requests, thus she simply shook her heading, whispering:
“Nothing is the matter. Your Lordship need not worry.”
In her mind, if ever he was to reject her request to see her eldest sister, he would most probably never give it another thought. It would be a final decision. Thus, as much as she might have wished to see Shen Ran’s loved features, it would have to wait.
For the rest of the way, Lu Yan did not open his mouth again and ignored her presence fully. When they arrived at Chengyuan, he simply alighted and stalked to the study, leaving Shen Zhen to fend for herself.
Shen Zhen shot his leaving back a confused glance. He truly had a talent for puzzling people. She had spent the day playing the role of a perfect Supreme Court official, doing her best to help Lu Yan …
As the day faded to night, a lamp was lit in a corner of Lanyue’s main room, illuminating the bare willow branches and pines outside the window. It was already quite late when Lu Yan pushed the door to the bathing room open, planning to refresh himself. However, the scene that welcomed him took him out of his depth. Shen Zhen was leaning against the wall of the bath tub, fast asleep, her hair swimming around the water, her skin fully exposed to his eyes and marbled in red marks, proofs of his depravity.
Lu Yan silently approached her, taking in the sight of her, discovering a thumbprint against her jaw. He had barely squeezed her when he had grabbed onto her face earlier that day. She Zhen was truly too fragile.
He dipped a finger into the water, testing its temperature. Unsurprisingly, it was cold. Sighing to himself, he pressed his lips into an annoyed line. Bending over, Lu Yan fished Shen Zhen’s whole body out. She awoke at once, startled and thrashing in fright. However, as their eyes met, she stopped twisting around, relaxing and hanging against Lu Yan’s chest.
As he laid her down, he took his cloak and covered her body. Shen Zhen shivered, slithering under the freezing covers. She was wearing none of her clothing. In the deepest midst of herself, she had expected Lu Yan to initiate intimacy. However, as soon as he had seen her fast in bed, he had turned on his heels and left her behind.
That was when Shen Zhen finally realized something was truly wrong. As soon as Lu Yan decided to look unto the world with that ill-concealed coldness of his, the whole residence became oppressive. No one could breathe around an irritated Lu Yan. Shen Zhen closed her eyes, thinking back to the morning. She reviewed all of her actions. She had acted as per usual. Where had it gone wrong? She believed she had not said a wrong thing the whole day …
She was left fretting over how to gain his favor and use it to her advantage that evening. As she pondered, Shen Zhen heard Lu Yan’s footsteps as he made his way back to the bedroom. She quickly closed her eyes, her eyelashes betraying her unrest by their soft quivering. As Lu Yan entered the room, he swiftly blew the lights out and came to lie by Shen Zhen’s side.
She monitored his breathing, waiting for it to slow down. Shifting to her side, she tentatively searched for his hand, her fingers gripping it smoothly. Lu Yan neither pushed her away nor shook her hand off. He appeared to be truly asleep. Shen Zhen pulled his hand all the way up, shifting his palm so she could gently rub at it with her ear. As he made no move to get closer to her, she reached out, tugging at his shirt intimately and calling out in her most beguilingly pitiful voice:
This appearance of hers, both seductive and doleful, was very similar to when she would make a reprehensible mistake as a child and beg Shen Ran to intercede in her favor. Shen Zhen could be very persevering, in a particularly soft and manipulative way, until she got what she wanted. The trenchant harshness of Lu Yan’s heart was dulled by such a Shen Zhen.
He turned his head her way, sweeping an annoyed glance over her. What was irritating him, she or himself, he did not know. Lu Yan had taken in all her little actions and reactions as they had passed through Yanfu Lane. He was very well aware why she was trying to please him. He could even guess in detail the words she wished to speak.
There was absolutely no way Lu Yan would ever permit for Shen Zhen to visit the Li Residence. The amount of people in Chang’an that had their eyes on Shen Ran, following her every step, awaiting to see what her moves would be, was enough to make Lu Yan quite adverse to the risk.
And then, there was Li Di. That man.
His own father-in-law had been dismissed from the position of Minister of Industry and Engineering by the Emperor himself. It was a miracle Li Di had not been implicated. The fact he had instead been elevated to new heights was a shocking, frightening and somewhat preposterous achievement.
He had passed the Imperial Examinations only three years ago. From eighth-grade official at the Ministry of Supervision and Administration, he had become a fourth-grade Minister of Industry and Engineering overnight. Such swift promotion was out of reach to the greatest of talents.
The son of a humble family, Li Di must have had quite the impressive and influential backer to achieve such a feat. Not a backer Lu Yan wanted to see prying into his own business.
Thinking it through and then shooting the Shen girl that shared his bed a glance, he withdrew his hand and slowly told Shen Zhen to go to sleep. As soon as such words had passed his lips, Shen Zhen swallowed all her plies and requests. She knew he had given her a tacit order not to open her mouth anymore. She was condemned to silence. Shen Zhen slowly turned her body to the side, lowering her head and closing her eyes.
Lu Yan’s gaze trailed to her fair back. That slender body, her protruding shoulder-blades that moved at each breath she took, everything was seducing him mercilessly. He stretched his hand out, if only to caress her back in two quick strokes.
The next morning, after having had Yang Zong murmur something into his ear, Lu Yan left in a hurry. He went back to the Zhen Ducal Estate. As soon as he stepped into the mansion, a housekeeper took place by his side, walking along while whispering to him:
“Young Master, the Old Madam is waiting for you inside.”
Lu Yan nodded in acknowledgment, walking towards Old Madam Lu’s residence in a quick stride. Inside, he was welcomed by the sight of the Meng girl sitting by the Old Madam, reading to the elderly lady with care. Meng Suxi’s voice was very sweet. It brought a smile to Old Madam Lu’s lips, making her very comfortable.
“This humble grandson greets his grandmother.”
The coldness of Lu Yan’s voice stabbed Meng Suxi right in the heart. But when she thought about the fact the man had not come back to his dwelling for a few days now, preferring to spend his time in a brothel of all places, she could not but bite her lip in uncertainty.
The Old Madam on the other side only smiled wider, beckoning Lu Yan to come over. But as he stalked in, her smile froze, the corners of her mouth quivering in displeasure. He dared! He dared present himself in front of her with such marks on his neck! She was a woman. And she knew the marks of women’s nails when she saw them. Those scratches on his neck, added to the rumors she had heard the servants spread in passing, could not but make her feel mortified.
The Third Madam’s younger sister, Meng Suxi’s mother, had come to visit. How could he ever meet a future mother-in-law with such an appearance?! The relatives of Grand Duke Zhen were nobles, no doubt. However, what mother would send her daughter into a household where the husband spent his days and nights cavorting with prostitutes?! What would the Madam of the Meng family think of their family, let alone of such a prospective son-in-law?!
The Old Madam’s expression darkened. As for Meng Suxi, she could not help but stare, her body frozen in surprise. The three glaring marks on his neck were a unquestionable proof that Lu Yan had intimate relations with women in the Red Light District. He did not simply attend ordinary social gatherings to enjoy wine, dance and music.
As soon as such a certainty imposed itself, Meng Suxi’s eyes became moist with unshed tears. Not losing sight of the girl, Old Madam Ly reached out to pat Meng Suxi’s shoulder in support.
“My good child, you go back now. Grandmother has something to tell your cousin.”
Meng Suxi suppressed her mortification, hanging her head and choking out a miserable:
When she walked by Lu Yan, she smelled it once more. That strange, faint, sweet fragrance.
Once the girl had left, the Old Madam attacked at once.
“Lad Yan, do you not know that the Madam of the Meng family has come to visit today?! Look at you, look at your appearance … How could you ever appear in front of her eyes?!”
Had his interlocutor not been the Old Madam, his own beloved grandmother, Lu Yan would have acted as per his character and answered in the most repressive, dismissive and rude way he could:
“And what is it about me that is not fit to be seen?!”
However, as it was in fact his grandmother he was facing, he kept silent. After a while, Lu Yan exhaled in helplessness.
“Grandmother, I truly dislike the Meng girl.”
Old Madam Lu’s face flushed in ill-concealed anger.
“Then pray tell, what is it that the young gentleman likes?! If you cannot answer such a simple question, do not think I will let you walk out of this door!”
Her voice shook in rage. As soon as he heard such words, Lu Yan knew this would be a long conversation. Turning around, he closed the door to his grandmother quarters, got a hold of a stool and approached his grandmother.
“This humble grandson has not read to Grandmother for a long time.”
Saying that, he picked up the scroll Meng Suxi had left behind. The old lady tore the scroll out of his hands, throwing it aside. She looked directly into his eyes, ascerting her domination, and slowly spoke to him, as if he were hard of hearing.
“This child, Suxi, is excellent, however you look at it. Although the Meng household is not titled, they are not the most vulgar form of merchants either. It has the Emperor’s favor and is related to our family through your Third Uncle’s marriage. But leaving aside family, titles all that, this child of the Meng family is considerate, gentle, filial to her elders. There is nothing, but nothing wrong with her. So, what is it that you dislike about her?! What disgusts you in her?!”
Lu Yan rubbed the jade ring on his hand, smiling slightly.
“Grandmother, my Second Cousin just gave you a great-grandson. Why are you losing your time with me?”
His grandmother was growing old. She had started to prefer sweet-mouthed girls. Had he told her Meng Suxi had sent someone to follow him, the old lady would have been heartbroken. It was better to keep his tongue between his teeth. When Old Madam Lu saw him evading her, she knew he had made up his mind. She could not bear him anymore. Pushing against him with both her hands, she barked:
“Get out. Now!”
Once Lu Yan stepped out, he dragged the housekeeper with him.
“You go to Second Cousin’s room. Pick Little Yun up and bring him to the Old Madam. If anyone asks, tell them I gave the order.”
Lu Yun was the center of their universe. Even his crying made everyone ecstatic. Lu Yan could never compare with him.
Lu Yan returned to Suning Hall. After a while, the Princess Royale aggressively strode through the door. As she made her glorious entry, she halted at once, seeing the state of Lu Yan’s neck. The Princess Royale had always had a big personality and quite the temper. Thus, after the first shock had passed, she walked towards his table, pounding it energetically.
“A few instants ago, the Meng lass fell on your Third Aunt’s bosom, in tears! It is all your doing! Look at the state you are in!”
This was the second time in one way he had been reprimanded. Once had been much. The second time was certainly too much. He had no more patience left. Seeing him keep silence, the Princess Royale tried to rationalize the whole situation.
“Yes. It is all the fault of officialdom! The officials of Chang’an are a filthy bunch. Going to Pingkang Lane all the time and for everything. You should stop associating with them and clean up your act—”
Lu Yan interrupted his mother without ceremony.
“Only white lotus flowers are left untouched by mud.”
What he meant to say was that his penchant for immoral entertainment had nothing to do with officialdom. It was part of his own personality. If that would not silence a mother, nothing would. The Princess Royale however was left irate, suffocating in her anger.
“Leaving aside the idea of forming a lasting relationship, in what way is that girl from the Red Light District any better than the legitimate daughter of the Meng household?!”
Lu Yan slowly rubbed the bridge of his nose, pretending to be thoughtful before simply answering:
“She is sincere and passionate.”