(Translator’s Note: The actual title is “Thin Horse”. The Yangzhou thin horses were poor girls, bought by merchants, trained in the womanly arts and resold on a concubine market. They were called “thin” because they came from the countryside, were underfed and skeletal when they arrived in Yangzhou and “horses” because they would be chosen based more or less on the same characteristics as horses: beauty, elegance, etc. Since this is an obscure concept for most of us (as opposed to Flower Girl or Singsong Girl), I chose to replace “Thin Horse” with “Flower Girl” just to make the text flow better.)
The sun’s rays filtered through the curtains, teasing Shen Zhen’s closed eyes mercilessly. After having lived the monotonous life of a maiden for sixteen years, she was experiencing the joys of her first hangover. Nausea and pounding headache included.
Truth be said, she had woken up quite a while ago. However, images she would have preferred never to remember had been flashing in front of her blurry eyes, changing at the rhythm of the buzzing in her ears and making it impossible for her to cheerfully stand up and tackle a new day.
Shen Zhen shriveled up on herself, biting her thumbs and wishing she could erase her memory. Or even better, go back in time! Just when she was about to grab onto her head and roll around the bed in anguish and humiliation, Tangyue knocked at the door.
“Will the miss not get up?”, the ever-so discreet servant tentatively whispered through a crack.
After she had washed hands and face, she let Tangyue drag her out of her chambers, her eyes closed. Oh, she remembered everything. In detail.
The masters of the domain, a pair of which Shen Zhen was considered to be part, used to take their meals in the Eastern Room. Therefore, when Shen Zhen pushed the door open, no one was surprised to see Lu Yan seated in front of a table, waiting in front of a generously furnished table.
That day’s breakfast was different from usual. For one, the two sides of the dining table seemed to be separated by an invisible branch of the Chu River. Lu Yan’s side was covered in all sorts of delicacies. Shen Zhen’s side, for its part, presented nothing but an impressive bowl of rice porridge, a few dumplings and a smaller bowl of bean soup. The perfect meal for your average drunkard.
Walking up to Lu Yan, Shen Zhen bent her knees in a tentative greeting.
Lu Yan condescended to raise his eyes to take a look at her. He was surprisingly quite calm, as if nothing had happened the day before.
After taking a seat, Shen Zhen cautiously peaked at him through her thick eyelashes, relieved to see that he was truly no different from his everyday self.
After a short instant, Tangyue brought to wet towels for the masters to clean their hands before the meal.
Lu Yan took one of them and wiped his fingers meticulously, making sure not to forget the space between them. Seeing this slow, deliberate mathematical movement, Shen Zhen felt her stomach lurch. She could clearly imagine him cleaning himself after yesterday’s mishap. Every part of himself. Raising a hand, she waved it in front of her eyes, as if to dissipate thoughts she should not have had. The blush on her cheeks was the only indication of her inner turmoil.
Once Lu Yan had picked up his wooden chopsticks and taken the first bite, Shen Zhen was given the signal she could start eating herself. Thus, she picked up a spoon and fully concentrated all her attention on the food in front of her.
Lu Yan finished eating much before her, letting her chew her dumplings slowly. Putting down his chopsticks, he placed an elbow on the table and rested his chin in his palm, leisurely observing the flustered Shen Zhen.
Where had the charming, coy maiden who had so severely abused him just the day before gone?
His eyes must have been too scorching, because they made Shen Zhen lower her head in fear. He was slandering her in his heart, rehashing the events of the day before, she knew it. Raising her hand, she pretended to rub her eyes, but secretly peeked at him through her fingers. Her nervous eyes did not miss the raw wound and the tooth marks she had left on his ear in a rare fit of anger. She lowered her head immediately. Shen Zhen would not come out of this unscathed, she could feel it in her bones.
Putting down her chopsticks as soon as she judged she could get away with it, Shen Zhen took a shaking breath, pretending to have remembered something shocking at that very instant. She clasped her hands in false horror and swiftly stood to her feet.
“Your Lordship! I just remembered I had made a mistake in one of the accounts yesterday. I must go and change it quickly before I forget.”
Seeing as Shen Zhen was about to make a run for it, Lu Yan extended his long arm, grabbed onto her waist and made her fall onto his knees.
“Did I give you the permission to leave?”
This was not the voice of an angry man. Rather, the slow way he spoke, the intonation, everything spoke of seduction. Shen Zhen stared at him in a haze. She finally bit the bullet and stuttered:
“B-But, if I do not go and change it immediately, I might forget about it wholly.”
Lu Yan raised a hand to Shen Zhen’s cheek, caressing the jaw before lifting her chin to have a better look at her. He used the tone of the Supreme Court’s official to question her thoroughly.
“Yes, that would be unfortunate indeed. Well then, tell me, which account is it that you have so carelessly recorded?”
He would not let her even keep some dignity, exposing her small lie mercilessly. At once, her cheeks, ears, neck, all flushed at once. Shen Zhen was so nervous she fisted her little hands. Seeing as much, Lu Yan let go of her chin and seized one of fist, slowly straightening her fingers. One by one. The action was easy to interpret. He was breaking her last, useless, ludicrous citadel of defense, clearly telling her he would bring her to heel and teach her to obey.
He softly caressed her palm, his eyes never leaving hers. That look, coupled with the slightly uptilted corners of his mouth, made him look all-conquering and quite cynical.
Seeing as Shen Zhen would not, or could not, answer, Lu Yan charged forward once more.
“Did you know that according to our Jin’s law, lying to an imperial official would expose you to twenty blows with a board?”
After having said as much, he grasped Shen Zhen’s forefinger and made her touch the three scratch marks Shen Zhen had left on his neck. Then he softly led her finger to his bitten ear. Every time her forefinger moved, Shen Zhen’s heart missed a beat.
“Now, if you were to attack an official, at best, you would have to eat prison food for an extended period of time.”
Lu Yan softly pressed the center of her palm.
She might have still been drunk. That was the only reason that could explain where Shen Zhen found the courage when to speak. Having listened to his words with attention, she blushed deeply, looking straight at him with eyes as scorching as his own and asked:
“Does Lord Lu always try his cases in this fashion?”
Her tone and expression were so serious, seated at she was on his knees, her nose barely an inch from his. Lu Yan could not help himself but laugh aloud. Once the tremor in his body had subsided, he leaned in without a warning, his lips pressing against hers. Manipulating them expertly, he stood up with her in his arms.
As she felt herself losing equilibrium, Shen Zhen threw her arms around his neck, scratching him inadvertently in the process.
Lu Yan’s lips curled up sarcastically.
‘Shen Zhen, that you did on purpose.’
When the time came, Lu Yan prepared to leave for the Governor’s Mansion as scheduled. He did not take the sedan chair, preferring to go by foot. There was no other reason behind it but them being almost neighbors in Wulipu. Between his Luyan and the Zhao Residence, there was but one street to cross.
Hearing someone knocking at the door, Xiao Si slowly opened the gate, peeking out suspiciously. The servant couldn’t recognize that personable young man.
“Permit this unworthy slave to ask. Who is the younger master?”
“Wei Xian. Please announce me”, Lu Yan calmly retorted.
There was no family greater than Zhao in Yangzhou. Most of those who came to visit were of high standing. Small servants could not afford to offend such personages. And even less to let wild species in to march through their residence as they pleased.
Seeing as the man was not only handsome, but also very polite, the little servant placed his bamboo broom aside, bowed respectfully and begged that elegant young master to wait for an instant.
That day, Zhao Chong had decided to take some time off and spend it teaching his eldest son, Zhao Nian, to read. Zhao Nian was not renowned for his smarts. Learning to read even one character correctly was a feat for him. Zhao Chong was about to get angry and give his useless son the beating he deserved when a servant came to disturb this warm scene of family love.
“Your Lordship, a young master of the Wei family demands to be received.”
Hearing this, Zhao Chong hurriedly opened the door of the study.
“Have him come in quickly.”
But as he said that, he felt that he had acted wrongly. He had to be more cautious with that Wei lad.
“Rather, tell Steward Wei to lead him to the front hall. Make sure he is under watch at all time. Do not let him walk around. I will change clothes and let him in myself.”
Steward Wei received his instructions without batting a lash, making his way to the door and bowing warmly to the newcomer.
“Master Wei, please do come in!”
Lu Yan simply nodded and thanked him.
As he walked in, a gust of cold wind hit him at once, making the lapels of his clothes flutter all around him. Once he was seated in a pavilion, Steward Wei poured him a cup of tea.
“This is this year’s new Xinyang Maojian tea. Please have a taste.”
Lu Yan observed the Zhao Residence with a steady, uninterested gaze. It was much simpler and elegant than what he had expected, knowing the Governor. Few slaves, few buildings. Looking at it, one would never guess it to be a corrupted official’s residence. How unfortunate that there were people around him. He would not have minded taking a walk. But since that was not in the plans, obviously, Lu Yan picked the tea up, removed the lid on the cup and took two sips.
Zhao Chong eventually appeared, welcoming his guest with false amenability. Lu Yan got up and saluted with ceremony.
Zhao Chong smiled, gratified.
“Sit down, sit down, Brother Wei. Why are you so polite with me? Are we not friends?”
He quickly took note of the scratches on Lu Yan’s neck and the sad state of one of his ears. Zhao Chong could not help but lewdly smile.
“Don’t tell me Brother Wei’s ear was a result of yesterday’s little meeting. The one in your home is surprisingly forthcoming, is she not?”
Lu Yan’s gaze darkened, but he nodded nonetheless. After the fuss Shen Zhen had made the day before, it was no wonder Zhao Chong believed they had lived up to the sentence ‘indulging in wine and carnal pleasure’.
The governor took a seat with Steward Wei pouring him a cup of tea.
As he took a sip himself, he good-naturedly made a few remarks to test the water.
“Brother Wei has not been in Yangzhou for a long time. He has probably not had time to enjoy our natural beauties. The Western Lake presents a few good scenes. How about going to enjoy them? What does Brother Wei say?”
Lu Yan replied:
“This humble representative of the Wei household respectfully submits.”
Though Zhao Chong had given the impression he was making an offer, it was obvious there was no place for disobedience on Lu Yan’s part.
They arrived to the Western Lake before noon.
Zhao Chong led Lu Yan to a magnificent restaurant — Baiyuelou. As soon as the owner saw them arriving, the corners of his mouth almost touched his ears in pleasure.
“Master Zhou, the best wing of the restaurant, on the second floor, has been prepared for you.”
Zhao Chong obviously enjoyed flattery. This idea that he was a great personage people would pander to was his drug of choice. He looked like a baby drunk on milk. The traces of admiration on Lu Yan’s face only made the situation all the more agreeable for him. Zhao Chong believed he would be able to use Lu Yan. Lu Yan for his part knew he would be able to use Zhao Chong.
One could not help but wonder how Zhao Chong would react if he were to discover that this servile Master Wei was in fact His Majesty, the Emperor’s nephew.
Once they had reached the second floor, they entered a windowless room, as dark as the night. They were led to a seat, the owner of Baiyuelou slyly placed a white screen in front of them before lighting a multitude of candles on both sides of the screen.
Pastries, rice wine as well as small dishes were also ushered in.
Zhao Chong took a leisurely sip of wine, as a whisper of silk was heard from behind the screen. The titter tatter of sandals on wood produced a seductive rhythm that announced pleasures to come. And at once, the string of a zither was pulled and five silhouettes appeared behind the screen. The sensual silhouettes of five women.
A game of shadows.
The zither’s melody became faster and faster, the five figures contorted, slid one against the other in a snake-like dance. Their long sleeves, their dangling bends, all came together to form a winding ring. It was a dance of heavenly fairies and gods.
Zhao Chong took another sip of wine, barely touched by the scene in front of him. He was much more intent on discovering how Lu Yan felt about the display himself. And whether this charming exhibit was dizzying enough for him to extract some information from Lu Yan.
“Brother Wei has rented five stores from me. What does he propose to do with them?”
Lu Yan never left the stage with his eyes, as if enthralled, when in fact he could not be more bored.
“This humble representative of the Wei household wishes to produce wine”, he distractedly replied.
Zhao Chong’s interest was titillated at once. Merchants knew that, apart from salt and iron, the most profitable business was wine. The governor raised his eyebrows in non-feigned surprise.
“Is the Wei family not engaged in the silk business? Why do you wish to enter the wine business?”
Lu Yan simply replied:
“The Wei family believes that upholding its name in one branch of business is not important. Rather, adapting to local conditions and seizing every opportunity to do business is what is most important. When this humble representative of the Wei household walked through the streets of Yangzhou, he noticed that there were already many well-established fabric shops, promoting excellent products. If we were to try and join the silk market, we would be crushed by the concurrence.”
After listening to such a rational exposition, Zhao Chong could not control himself.
“What, are you saying the wine business is the next profitable venture?”, he exclaimed.
“It is a known fact that one bottle of wine can be sold for ten thousands of times its production price. Even if there is competition, it is a worthy battle to consider in terms of profit. This humble representative of the Wei household is willing to try his hand at it.”
Lu Yan played the role of the hungry merchant with fire. He spoke vividly, like a man who was sure in his own abilities.
Indeed, Lu Yan knew this idea of wine-making would excite Zhao Chong’s greed. To make one cattie of wine, one needed three catties of rice and grain. And where would Lu Yan’s rice and grain come from?! All of Yangzhou’s mills and food shops were under Zhao Chong’s control.
This “Wei Xian” truly spoke to Zhao Chong’s heart. Though, at first, the profit would be small. But this Wei family was renowned for its skill, and in general, was rich. Recruiting their support now would prove to be useful in one way or another in the future. However, Zhao Chong was suspicious by nature. He had been an official for too long to trust even the women who shared his bed and ate his rice. He had always believed that the smoother the sailing, the more careful one had to be.
Once the performance of the dancers came to an end, a procuress slid from behind the screen, a smile plastered on her face. She pushed aside the screen revealing the five charming and graceful women who greeted the eyes of the gentlemen. And that is when Lu Yan realized why he had been brought to the restaurant. As the people say, this time, the drunkard did not mean to drink.
(Translator’s Note: The drunkard does not mean to drink means that the intention expressed, namely enjoying the scenery, is not the main intention behind someone’s actions.)
Zhao Chong had not invited Lu Yan to enjoy a day’s worth of pleasure while also attempting to determine what his intentions were. Rather his goal was to send a spy into Lu Yan’s residence.
Zhao Chong tapped his lips with his forefinger, turning to Lu Yan and good-naturedly mentioning:
“These are this year’s most charming Yangzhou Flower girls.”
Lu Yan did not say a word.
Many Yangzhou women made impressive amounts of money buying, training and reselling girls to the great happiness of the men throughout the Empire. A procuress dressed in purple took an adorable girl’s hand and ordered:
The Flower Girl bowed her head and saluted.
The procuress barked once more:
“How old is the miss?”
The maiden charmingly whispered:
“Fifteen years old.”
“Miss, walk forward.”
The girl took two step in response.
Tiny feet glided over the platform, approaching Lu Yan. The procuress, sure of her success, simply purred:
“Let the Young Master have a look at your hands.”
Generally, by that time, if a man was satisfied with the goods, he would seize the Flower Girl’s hands and it would be considered the transaction was complete. However, Lu Yan was not planning on making this an easy task for the procuress, or for Zhao Chong for that matter. He refused to reach out. His temples pounded. None of the five girls that had been brought over were to be trusted. All had been trained by Zhao Chong to make Lu Yan’s life harder.
As Lu Yan refused to move, Zhao Chong had no other choice but to tell the procuress to present the next product. He was impatient and the corners of his mouth were trembling in rage. The procuress quickly went to present the second girl, cold sweat sliding down her spine. However, Lu Yan did not move any more after having the second and third girls offered to him. When, after the forth one, Lu Yan turned his head to the side in indifference, Zhao Chong picked up a cup and threw it to the ground.
Everyone present knew Lord Zhao was not expressing his rage against the procuress, but rather against this Young Master Wei. Oh, it was not the first time Zhao Chong was trying to stuff one of his spies into someone’s courtyard. And it was not the first time he failed at it.
Actually, the fascinating Concubine Zhao who had given the county magistrate a child not long ago had been forcefully shoved into the magistrate’s house by Zhao Chong. At first, Feng Zhixian, the county magistrate, had been terrified. His wife had thrown a mighty tantrum which had made him regret the presence of the unexpected newcomer even more. And yet, in no time at all, that Concubine Zhao had done her magic. In less than three months, she had gotten pregnant with the county magistrate’s child. She had given him a son, stabilizing her position in the household, as well as making the magistrate unable to live without her.
Lu Yan, for his part, remained as cold as ice, expressionless and indifferent in front of Zhao Chong. But deep inside, he was irate and wanted to flip the table in front of them.
He was not Wei Xian. In his eyes, Zhao Chong was nothing but a corrupt official, lower than a stray dog! And he wished to succeed where Lu Yan’s own mother had failed, shoving some witch into his bed?! He impatiently tapped the table with his forefinger. Did his Imperial Uncle also expect him to die for the country?! Well, the Emperor had not chosen his man well if that was the case.
However, one had also to be flexible in all circumstances. These five girls were Lu Yan’s pass into Zhao Chong’s Yangzhou. He had to pick one, unless he wanted to be chased out of Yangzhou. The magistrate and all sorts of assassins were colluding with the governor. How difficult would it be for all of them to chase a little merchant out of Yangzhou? Or simply slit his throat?
Lu Yan titled his head to the said.
“Which one would Lord Zhao suggest?”, he coldly asked.
Zhao Chong could not believe his ears when he heard this. He was overjoyed and immediately motioned for the fifth girl to move forward.
“You, come here.”
The fifth girl was named Fu Man and was as beautiful as a flower in bloom. These girls, when they were presented to guests, barely wore any garments. It was impossible for them to conceal the extent of their charms.
Zhao Chong praised the maiden.
“She might not be as great a beauty as the one you have back home, however she is the best among our Yangzhou Flower Girls. With such a body, she will bring some spice to your life. Née Lu’s girls are also renowned for being well-behaved and docile. She will not cause any problems in your courtyard.”
Lu Yan sneered.
“Indeed?”, he whispered sarcastically.
As long as Lu Yan was willing to accept any of his girls, Zhao Chong could not care about the faint anger he could hear in his little merchant’s voice. Merchants might have slept on mountains of gold and silver, yet they still needed to seek asylum under the wings of government officials. And officials expected a certain level of obedience.
Lu Yan picked up his cup of wine, drank from it and cool replied:
“Let Lord Zhao’s will be done.”
Zhao Chong knew at that instant that he had reached his goal. He got up, generously rewarded the procuress and turned around to observe Lu Yan.
“As a show of my fraternal feelings, permit me to give this girl to you as a meeting gift.”
Lu Yan did not go to the trouble of expressing his gratitude. Or the lack thereof.
The governor waved his hand towards Fu Man, telling her to go with Lu Yan.
“You can leave with your husband today.”
Fu Man was obviously overjoyed and could not help but enthusiastically thank Zhao Chong first.
“Thank you, Your Lordship.”
Then she shyly greeted Lu Yan.
“This humble servant greets Husband.”
Lu Yan did not even shoot her a look, getting up slowly.
“She will not be able to enter the residence today. The yards in Luyuan have to be cleaned first. Therefore this humble representative of the Wei household begs Lord Zhao to keep her for him in the next two days. In two days, someone will be sent to pick her up.”
Zhao Chong patted him on the shoulders.
“She is Brother Wei’s. He can pick her up her whenever he wishes.”
As soon as they had settled that problem, Lu Yan saluted.
“This humble representative of the Wei household must leave first. He will not disturb Lord Zhao any longer.”
Zhao Chong narrowed his eyes, smiling knowingly.
“I wish Brother Wei a good day. Forgive me for not accompanying you to the door.”
As soon as Lu Yan had walked out, Steward Wei approached Zhao Chong and whispered into his master’s ear.
“Your Lordship, I fear that this Young Master Wei has quite the temper and will not be easy to handle.”
The governor smiled and shook his head.
“This Wei Xian is a man of character. Had he smilingly accepted the girl, it would indeed have been easier. However, I would not have respected him for it. The fact that he showed a bit of spine makes me admire him all the more.”
“But he did not take the girl …”
“The one he has back home is truly an incomparable beauty. Had it not been the case, I would not have selected Fu Man for him. He must want to calm the goddess before welcoming the fairy”, Zhao Chong sighed, somewhat in envy.
There was a bit of mockery in his gaze, as if he found all the infatuated men of this world ridiculous. Thinking back to his youth, he remembered that he too had been ridiculous, so madly in love with his wife as he had been. The hearts of men were fickle. No amount of affection for a woman could make them resist the temptation of another. Where there was one concubine, there would always be a second one.
Lu Yan returned to Luyuan with an irate face. He looked like someone had just poisoned his favorite horse. Not even Yang Zong dared as much as utter a word in his master’s presence.
Lu Yan walked to Chunxi Hall and happened to see Shen Zhen and Tangyue, cleaning some vases by the door. Shen Zhen was pointing to one side, then to another. He did not know what Tangyue told her, but she burst into laughter so happily … So much energy so late in the evening.
Lu Yan stepped in. As he appeared, Shen Zhen immediately turned around, stifled her laughter and quickly greeted him.
Lu Yan’s eyes were as dark as stagnant water and there was a heavy, oppressive aura all about him. He looked like a dog who was about to bite. He stopped in front of Shen Zhen and sinisterly growled at her.
“You come with me.”
Shen Zhen turned around, shot Yang Zong a questioning glance and formed a few silent words with her lips.
Yang Zong shrugged helplessly.
If the Little Madam does not know, how could this humble servant know?!
Therefore, Shen Zhen entered the house with fright in her heart and stood on the side obediently, waiting to bear the brunt of Lu Yan’s rage. Rather than shouting and breaking something, Lu Yan coughed uncomfortably.
“Have Qiuzhuyuan at the south cleaned up by tomorrow. No, rather Dongliyuan at the far north. Have it ready as soon as possible.”
Shen Zhen nodded and tentatively asked:
“And who will be living there?”
Lu Yan sighed in frustration, massaging his painful temples.
“Zhao Chong is sending us a Yangzhou Flower Girl.”
At those words, he subconsciously shot her a look.
Shen Zhen was simply surprised. She had heard the term ‘Yangzhou Flower Girl’ once, but the concept was so far-removed from her own reality that she would have been hard-pressed to explain what it was. Lu Yan noted the surprise in her eyes, guessing she would not know what a Yangzhou Flower Girl really was.
“Those Flower Girls were specially trained to …”
Thinking this through, he decided it was better to keep her in the dark where some things were concerned.
“You just stay away from her. Avoid her, do not talk to her. And when she arrives, do not call me Lord anymore.”
Realizing the full extent of the changes that were going to take place, Shen Zhen nodded.
“I shall remember.”
Lu Yan had expected all sorts of reactions from her. He had been playing the possible scenarios in his mind as he had walked back, bracing himself. Tears, threats of leaving, catty insults thrown at this unknown newcomer. He had imagined it all. What he had not expected was for her to accept everything so easily. How nice.
Lu Yan lowered his head and played with the jadeite ring on his hand, lost in his thoughts. Shen Zhen’s voice broke through the haze of his mind, a little annoyed.
“She is moving in and is to become Your Lordship’s concubine. How am I to avoid speaking to her if she addresses me?”
Lu Yan grabbed onto Shen Zhen’s chin out of the blue, snapping at her in his deep voice.
“You think yourself quite quick-witted, don’t you?!”
Shen Zhen pressed her lips shut when she saw him so angry. She would say no more if he was intent on having his feathers ruffled at every word, though she knew her question had been valable.
Seeing as she was at last acting sensibly, Lu Yan let go of her chin. However, his good mood did not return. That Zhao Chong had truly angered him and it was Lu Yan’s entourage that would bear the effects of said anger.
Synopsis: The online game <