Fifth day of the Month. Noon. Supreme Court.
Lu Yan was engaged in writing a petition when the beating of drums sounded to his ears.
His bodyguard, Yang Zong, walked in with big strides, not waiting an instant to speak:
“Master, there is someone demanding to see you.”
The aforementioned master did not even go to the trouble of lifting his head, continuing to write with application.
“A maid of the Shen Household. She says their boutique in the West Market is under attacked and their goods are about to be smashed”, Yang Zong replied in a low voice.
Such an account made Lu Yan lower his eyes, his lips lifting in a sneer. He finally put his brush down and leisurely leaned back.
The Shen Household …
Synonymous with trouble.
Yang Zong observed his Young Master’s apathetic silence, at loss about what to do.
“Should she be led in?”
“What do you think?”
This was the Supreme Court, not the Zhen Ducal Estate. Whether Lu Yan wished to see people was of no importance. He would do so without a complaint. Out of duty.
Yang Zong, not daring to speak any more superfluous words, ran out, giving himself a busy air.
Lu Yan, for his part, was left pensive, his forefinger tapping against the table.
Since Judge Zheng was absent for the day, it was his responsibility to see to the functioning of the Supreme Court. Thus, these types of small disturbances could not to be avoided. He placed his brush against an inkstone, picked his black hat up and walked out into the Main Hall.
In no time, the pitter-patter of small steps resounded throughout the hallway.
Qingxi quickly stepped into the Main Hall, walked forward and let herself fall to her knees.
“This humble slave begs Your Lordship to come to her Young Mistress’s rescue. The shopkeeper of Jin’s moneylending business has been harassing her. He went as far as to charge sixty percent in interest for the month.”
Pitiful tears started rolling down her cheeks.
Lu Yan could not stand crying. Especially public crying.
It had been a little more than a year he had been transferred to the capital’s Supreme Court. And in the past year, people had incessantly been bringing their loan disputes before him. However, many seemed to forget an important point. Namely, the Supreme Court was not a Buddhist temple. It only applied the law. It had no ability, or desire, to save people’s lives.
Facing the Court Official’s stern stare, Qingxi felt fearful enough to explain the rapacious behavior of Jin’s moneylending business in one breath, unwilling to make the gentleman lose his time.
Intimidation. Threats. Attempts to coerce her Young Mistress to sell herself.
Anyone who would have heard Qingxi’s pathetic account would have felt immeasurable sympathy towards the tender woman who had to undergo such hardships.
Lu Yan, however, was the exception that confirmed the rule. He felt nothing at all. At all.
All emotions of joy and anger were hidden deep into his flesh. He could have been likened to a walking mask. On the surface, he was a handsome, elegant man of great self-restraint. The people of the capital believed Grand Duke Zheng’s son to be a most sophisticated gentleman. Only a select few knew just how disregarding of social conventions he could be under this perfect mask of his.
In fact, his celebrated self-restraint was nothing but crass indifference to most things in this world.
Lu Yan appraised the maidservant, examining her from head to toe, and clearly enunciated, word for word:
“This Official wishes to know whether, when contracting the loan, an agreement had been signed with the loaner.”
Seeing the maidservant nod, Lu Yan continued methodically:
“The Law of our Dynasty demands that, when dealing with loan disputes, the court upholds the terms of any legal documents. Once an agreement is signed, as long as the loaners do not kill people or set fire to any goods, the government shall not interfere.”
Hearing these words, Qingxi remembered her Young Mistress’s instructions and rushed in to say:
“What if there were vandalism before the deadline to the loan came into effect? This humble slave has seen the agreement. It clearly stipulates the debt is to be repaid by the tenth of this month. However, today is only the fifth.”
The Third Miss had said that as long as they mentioned this date and underlined the illegality behind the loaners’ actions, the government would have no choice but to intervene in the matter.
And indeed, after having heard this, Lu Yan’s expression changed.
“Do you know what the punishment for deceiving an Imperial Official is?”, he bit out.
“This humble slave would never dare!” Qingxi was indeed more than aware.
After taking an instant to think the situation through, Lu Yan abruptly stood up and called a few guards to follow him out.
When he arrived to the West Market, one of the streets was already besieged by a crowd. Pulling at his horse’s reigns, he dismounted at once.
Lu Yan was wearing official ornaments as well as the dark purple robe speaking of his station in society, the intricate jade pendant at his waist swaying gently. His entire appearance was completely out of place in this market crowd.
Seeing his master ready to take action, Yang Zong immediately cleared a way for him.
And thus, Lu Yan marched straight to a storefront. A broken plaque miserably hung above his head with two words written on it —— Baixiang Pavilion. He shot it a cold glance, seeing no woman anywhere close by.
The commotion having calmed, the shopkeeper of Jin’s moneylending business walked out from the crowd and towards the entrance to the cosmetics shop. He called out in a shrill voice:
“The Third Miss should be sensible. Quickly sign a contract to sell yourself. If you do not have the money to repay your debt today, what difference will another five days make?! Look at all the people your actions have roused! In the end, you are the only one embarrassing yourself here!”
There was no rustle of movement coming from the cosmetics shop. The shopkeeper of Jin’s moneylending business, hearing no rebuttal, adopted a convincing tone and continued:
“Then again, no one is forcing you. There is an alternative to everything. The Shen Household still has a son named Shen Hong, does it not? He might be young, but there is a use for the young ones too. There seem to be many circuses in Chang’an at the moment. They cut the limbs of children off and send them to beg for money. What does the Third Miss think of this solution? Is it more palatable to her?”
Hearing this, Yang Zong could not refrain from whispering in horror:
“Master, is there truly no way to save these people?”
The corners of Lu Yan’s lips pulled up sardonically.
He was quite curious to see how Chang’an’s First Beauty, praised by the world at large, would react to such a threat.
Indeed, the trembling voice of a woman filtered through the shop.
“You are nothing but a scoundrel. I do not know how you succeeded in getting your hands on the seal of my Shen family, but my father would never have borrowed money from you.”
It was obvious from her voice that she was desperately trying to conceal her supreme terror.
Lu Yan mockingly raised his eyebrows at her words. Such were the spoiled, expensive daughters of the capital’s great noble families. Scolding people petulantly, calling them “scoundrels”. That was as far as these artificial little boudoir flowers could go.
In fact, it was refreshing, to a certain point. Having worked at the Supreme Court for such a long time, Lu Yan had seen his fair share of uncouth, vulgar females. In comparison to what he heard on a daily basis, “scoundrel” was a most civilized term.
However, unlike with Lu Yan, Shen Zhen’s soft and tender voice aroused many a feeling of compassion in the men around. For one, a poor scholar in plain clothes clenched his fists and stamped his foot in desperate rage. He opened his mouth more than once. Closed it every time. And ultimately ended up leaving, tears filling his red eyes.
Every man wished to rescue a damsel-in-distress, especially if said damsel was none other than Chang’an’s First Beauty. Yet, not every man had the means to satisfy his most noble impulses of the soul.
After all, Shen Zhen’s debt could not be repaid without driving oneself to bankruptcy.
Knowing full well where this would be going, the shopkeeper coldly smirked and carried on with conviction.
“We at Jin’s moneylending business say things as they are. If the Third Miss believes that she is being wronged, she is very welcome to bring the case to court.”
At those words, he raised his hands and made a gesture. Seeing said gesture, several lads immediately shot each other a glance, picked up sticks and rushed into the cosmetics shop, trashing the whole place up. The clatter of porcelain containers filled the air. The fragrant powder they contained blew up in the air and scattered all over the floor.
Seeing this ruckus, Lu Yan could not refrain from laughing out loud. This was a group of grown men facing a girl barely out of childhood. Yet, they had been forced into a corner with no other choice but to resort to violence to make their point.
A glance from him was enough to make Yang Zong understand what his master willed. The guard stepped forward in one quick movement.
“Shopkeeper Jin, our Lord has something to ask you.”
The voice which had spoken had in no way been low, making all the heads turn in its direction. Shopkeeper Jin was no exception. He immediately turned around to take a good look at the small official who had dared interrupt his business. But he was left shocked.
The man in front of him was in no way some small official butting in. It was Grand Duke Zheng’s heir! Why had he, of all people, come?! The shopkeeper’s crook eyes narrowed in discomfort, the expression on his face changing in an instant and making him appear most humble.
“This lowly one dares ask Lord Lu what it is that he wishes to know.”
Lu Yan raised his dark eyes, motioning to the shopkeeper. In his deep, measured voice he simply demanded to know what was going on.
Shopkeeper Jin had no choice but to quickly step forward, shaking the loan agreement between his fingers and handing it to Lu Yan.
“Lord Lu should not misunderstand! Each and every one of us is following the rules as per this agreement. This lowly one begs His Lordship to take a look.”
Lu Yan simply nodded his head, took the contract and shot it a swift glance at the date of the signature. In a cold voice, he simply stated:
“It seems the deadline to repay the debt is in five days.”
When so directly called out, Shopkeeper Jin could do nothing but sheepishly stare at Lu Yan. Nonetheless, he was committed to persevere till the end.
“The Shen Household would not be able to find these one hundred thousand copper coins it owes if we were to give them a month, let alone five days. The debt will have to be repaid sooner or later. The end result will be one and the same.”
Lu Yan handed the list back and decided not to give the shopkeeper any face.
“Since, as you said yourself, you are dedicated to following the rules, you will be coming back in five days.”
These cold words made Shopkeeper Jin choke on his saliva. What had this scion of a noble family come to do? Did he propose to protect the Third Miss or was this business as usual for him?! The shopkeeper did not dare ask, obviously.
Not that this was the first time had met a noble and thus was intimidated. However, the man standing in front of him was one no one could afford to offend. Had he only been a fourth-grade local official sent by the Supreme Court to spare its effectives, then the shopkeeper would have known how to deal with him.
As it is, Lord Lu was certainly not some local official but rather the heir to a duchy. And Princess Jing’an’s only son. Such an identity made him the equivalent to a prime minister ruling in the shadows. One could not help but be crushed into politeness by the sheer weight of his titles.
Thus, after much hesitation, Shopkeeper Jin had no other choice but to call his ruffians to foot, angrily barking at them to withdraw.
Who would have expected for them to be stopped before they could leave?! Yang Zong slid right in front of them and enjoyed bringing them to order.
“What is the shopkeeper doing? He has just had someone’s shop smashed without a valid reason and is now planning to leave. Not good, not good at all.”
Shopkeeper Jin could do nothing but look back at Lu Yan and bite his lips.
Jin’s moneylending business had always been the best informed place in all of Chang’an. As far as Shopkeeper Jin knew, there was no pre-existing relationship between Grand Duke Zheng and Marquis Yunyang’s Household. In fact, one could affirm with confidence that there had never been any contact at all between the two estates. Shopkeeper Jin had not expected to draw Lu Yan’s notice by taking care of this business.
It did not take great insight for Lu Yan to guess what the shopkeeper was thinking in the deepest midst of himself. Since Lu Yan did not wish to delude anyone present, he concisely explained where he stood concerning this particular matter.
“All objects are to be returned to their original state right this instant. After the five-day period of grace, this official shall interfere no more.”
Shopkeeper Jin just narrowed his eyes and clenched his fists. Had he not understood what this scion of nobility meant, the glance Lu Yan shot the maid who had appeared alongside him made everything more than clear.
It turns out the miss hiding in the cosmetics shop had sent someone to report to the Supreme Court. Lord Lu’s interest in the case did not transcend the legal aspect of it.
Realizing as much, Shopkeeper Jin decided not to be any more stubborn than needed. He simply had a servant ask about what in the cosmetics shop was to be reimbursed and what repaired. In the end, no one truly cared about money. The person inside the shop was the invaluable, desirable commodity Shopkeeper Jin’s clients wanted to get their hands on.
Thus, there was no need to rush the case. He just had to come back five days later.
Hearing the anger in Shopkeeper Jin’s voice, Shen Zhen knew her strategy to delay the ordeal had worked. She lowered her head. A porcelain shard that had flown her way an instant ago, so she wiped the blood on the back of her hand and slowly stood up.
As the gossip outside resumed once more, a graceful beauty stepped out of the cosmetics shop.
Her long hair dangling behind her, that startling figure humbly walked towards Lu Yan. Her eyes were full of a watery mist that concealed the emotions brewing within. But most importantly, they were downcast, which only added to their charm.
The crowd could not help but exclaim some more.
“If goddesses lived among us mortals, this is what they would look like.”
Hearing such ridiculously exaggerated praise, Lu Yan’s sneered in disdain. He was not willing to give this proclaimed paragon more than a careless glance.
However, as their eyes met … his heart sunk.
Then, he felt as if someone had just passed a sword through his chest, the pain hitting him like a violent wave. A dark veil covered his eyes at once. When the obscurity finally started fading, a shocking scene unfolded in front of his eyes.
A woman laid naked in his arms.
Her eyebrows, exquisitely dainty and ravishingly beautiful. Her eyes, charming and bright.
The only thing that could pierce through Lu Yan’s splitting headache was her voice as she whispered against his scorching skin. He stared at her crimson lips parting and listened with attention to the words escaping them —— Shiyan. Lu Shiyan.
(T/N: The Chinese generally favored two-character personal names for ease of pronounciation. Lu Yan’s personal name has but one character, therefore people close to him would add a Shi sound in front of the Yan, calling him Shiyan out of affection.)