Two days later, early in the morning, a drum resounded and joyful music was played at the entrance of Luyuan. An impressive sedan, covered in big, red flowers stopped in front of the residence.
According to the customs of the Jin Dynasty, even a concubine could be directly welcomed into the family by the husband. However, Fu Man and the retainer accompanying her did not enjoy such attentions. Lu Yan had not deigned to stand by their side.
Stepping into Luyuan, Fu Man was left stunned. Rich men, she had seen. But this rich a man, never! The residence was so big, Fu Man doubted she would be able to carry out her mission with ease.
A small servant, well-behaved and elegant, led her across a bluestone path. As the little group passed by Chunxi Hall, they happened to hear laughter, as tender as the chiming of bells. That had to be the main courtyard.
In the end, Fu Man was taken to the northernmost part of Luyuan — Dongliyuan.
She carefully calculated the time it took to walk from Chunxi Hall to her own new dwelling and a cold shiver ran down her spine. The message could not be clearer. Luyuan spanned over such a great area. Walking through, they had seen more than one respectable courtyard, obviously desolate and only awaiting a master. The fact Husband had arranged such an isolated residence for her sent a strong message. He would not let her disturb the order of things in Luyuan. In fact, he would not even go to the trouble of accepting her into the household.
After entering the inner room, Fu Man sighed in anguish. Taking a seat in front of the vanity, she called Retainer Liu to her.
“Nanny, could you help me? I wish to go greet the one who lives in the main courtyard.”
Fu Man spoke very slowly, with a particular lilt to her words. She did not speak the Yangzhou dialect, as much was certain.
Retainer Liu answered in surprise.
“What is the miss saying? The one who live in the main courtyard is not the mistress of the house. She is as much a concubine as yourself. Why would the miss—”
Madam Liu did not have the time to finish her thought. Fu Man interrupted her with her slow speech.
“Nanny, please settle my belongings for me. Better meet that one sooner rather than later. I do not wish Husband to misunderstand me and think me some wild species that has come to disturb the peace of Luyuan.”
Retainer Liu sighed. This little lady was pure perfection. However, when it came to temper, she was as soft as cotton. She would not go far with such a personality. Luckily for her, she was the type for whom clothes and ornaments were not the main weapons of seduction. She did not need them. She would indeed have been better walking around naked. Such a woman would not need to play many a trick to attract that Master Wei’s attention.
Fu Man was truly beautiful. Her skin was as iridescent as silk, her silhouette was graceful and well-proportioned and when she smiled her slow seductive smile, a man’s heart could not but skip a beat. And her face. Such a face was not to be found among other women. She was truly unique. If one wanted to find fault with such a fairy, one could have reproached her her skin tone. She was not as white as snow. In fact, she was darker than the average woman of Yangzhou. This, however, coupled with that slow, seductive accent of hers made her exotic and all the more desirable.
The procuress who had trained Fu Man had long ago told her never to cake her face with powder and rouge. A face like hers had to be enjoyed in its purest form. To boot, the lack of make-up would make her seem less hostile and devious.
That ‘Qin Rao’ might not have been the mistress of the Wei household. Yet, she was worth pleasing.
Retainer Liu organized Fu Man’s hair in the simplest of buns, cooing at her.
“Our little miss is so beautiful. She truly does not need powder and rouge. Even without them, she is incomparable. She needs not fear that other woman.”
Fu Man observed herself in the bronze mirror.
“I am not afraid of anything but Husband refusing to see me. If he were to do that, how could I find anything?”, she muttered.
Retainer Liu sighed.
“Since you have been gifted by Lord Zhao, the Young Master, though he might be guarded against you, will not dare discard you. He will come and accompany you during the night.”
Retainer Liu was a simple woman. As long as they could force the Young Master to cross the threshold of Dongliyuan, it would only be a matter of time before he crossed the threshold leading to Fu Man’s bed. After all, what man could resist a woman’s charms, especially when the woman offered herself on a platter?! And once, the Young Master was hooked, Fu Man would easily be able to extract all the information she wanted from him.
Retainer Liu put the finishing touch into Fu Man’s hairdo before consoling her little mistress:
“Little lady does not need to worry too much. Worry about it once you have gained your husband’s favor. And Lord Zhao also promised you that as soon as you got pregnant, you would be liberated from any other duties towards him. Naturally, your brother will be—”
That was the gist of it all. Her brother. The only reason Fu Man had accepted to be sold into Lu Yan’s residence was because of her brother whom Zhao Chong held hostage, having promised her that as long as she did his bidding, he would be released. Fu Man closed her eyes in anguish.
She slowly got to her feet, walked out and towards Chunxi Hall.
Tangyue was standing on the front porch, cleaning diligently. When she saw that newcomer standing in front of her, she could not but be stunned. She quickly bowed in respect.
“This humble slave greets the concubine.”
“This humble concubine is here to visit Concubine Qin”, Fu Man tentatively offered.
Tangyue’s spine stiffened. She did not make a move to report the visitor. The Young Master had given clear instructions. No one, especially not this one, was to disturb Miss Shen. However, Tangyue was nothing but a servant, after all. She could not offend a concubine. The only thing she could do is lie while awkwardly smiling.
“Concubine Qin caught a cold. She is not in a state to receive …”
Fu Man smiled bitterly.
“This humble concubine understands.”
She was not stupid. She understood clearly. She had just been swept out along the dust.
Once Fu Man had left, Tangyue rushed back to the western part of Chunxi Hall.
Seeing Shen Zhen, her back straight, practicing calligraphy, she parted her lips to speak. And yet, could not bring herself to. In Tangyue’s eyes, Miss Shen was nothing but a child. When the Young Master was away, she spent her time writing and painting alone in the study. She was not spiteful or scheming. Having her embroiled in courtyard struggles would harm her. It was better for Tangyue to directly report to the Young Master.
However, Lu Yan did not return to the residence for the day.
As soon as he received the key to Zhao Chong’s five stores, he immediately found and acre of land to begin building a wine cellar and trough. This might have sounded an easy task to do. However, it was far from it. In fact, constructing a wine cellar was a big project. Everything from insulation to lighting had to be taken into account, since it would influence the fermentation, fragrance and quality of the wine. If Lu Yan was to play the role of a wine merchant, he would at the very least give a credible performance.
He had hired dozens of craftsmen to build tall walls around the wine cellar, going as far as to try and teach the artisans how a wall was to be cemented and what type of insulation was to be used. He truly sounded like the finicky son of a rich merchant. And since it was a big project, Lu Yan was expected to be present at every step. Therefore, for the last two days, he had been rushing back and forth between his residence and the construction site.
Yang Zong had known Lu Yan from his youngest age. Seeing his master’s exasperation, he knew the very small reserve of patience Lu Yan possessed was about to be exhausted by the bureaucrats of Yanghzou.
At three minutes past midnight, the night was pitch black. But it was only then that Lu Yan stooped into the carriage, ordering it to roll on. After a while, he raised the curtain to the carriage window and called out to Yang Zong.
“Are there any news about that Flower Girl?”
Yang Zong leaned in to whisper:
“Young Master, everything, from that girl’s name to the sales contract, has been forged. Her name is not Fu Man and she is not from Yangzhou.”
Lu Yan recalled the woman’s face. Indeed. Her facial features, her deliberately slow speech … Nothing about her was Han. He shot a glance outside the carriage. His instincts had never betrayed him. After a long while, he simply retorted:
“Not only is she not from Yangzhou, she is not from the Empire either. She most probably came from the Western Regions.”
As Lu Yan crossed Luyuan’s threshold, he was all scowl. Yang Zong, who had led the horses to the stable, watched as his master unsurprisingly marched straight towards Chungxi Hall.
When Lu Yan walked into the yard, he was welcomed by nothing but silence and darkness. The corners of his lips trembled. Indeed, what man would ever expect the woman who shared his bed to at least give the appearance of waiting for him?!
He reached out and pushed the door to the inner room open.
Shen Zhen was curled up on the bed, as if she were asleep. Lu Yan had been running around for the whole day. He was exhausted. Shooting a dark glance at Shen Zhen’s back, he angrily pulled at the front of his clothes, shrugging out of them by himself. Mean-mindedly thinking that she must have been pretending to be asleep on purpose to spite him, he coughed slightly, though he wished to bark at her and turn the bed over.
The man’s sudden cough resounded through the room, making Shen Zhen’s small hand twitch. She immediately opened her eyes. Lying on the silk of her bed, she rubbed at her eyes. Her shift was loose and slid down her arm, exposing her snow-white flesh. She stared at the man standing in front of her in confusion.
His expression might have been neutral, not letting his ire seep out. However, Shen Zhen could sense the fire in the midst of him. She shot up from the bed. Just as she was about to call him ‘His Lordship’, she changed the title.
Hearing the new title, Lu Yan raised his hand to pour himself a cup of water. He picked the cup up unhurriedly, staring at her all the while. As he drank, his Adam’s apple rolled up and down.
The more he looked at her, the clearer he saw. She had not been pretending to sleep. That drowsy, haggard look of hers proved as much.
Thinking he was being moody as usual, Shen Zhen rushed to find his slippers and bring them to him. After having carefully considered what to say, she picked a subject she considered to be tame enough.
“Why did Lord-Husband come back? Did Concubine Man make you angry?”
Who would have expected her innocent questions would only feed the fire in Lu Yan?! His fingers contracted so hard around the cup in his hand that its rim suddenly broke, cutting his thumb. Seeing blood, Shen Zhen lit a few candles, grabbed onto a veil and came to wipe Lu Yan’s hand gently. Yet, he did not deign address her any more.
The dim light reflected on her face. Her long eyelashes seemed to be trembling as her eyes slid over the wound on his thumb. Shen Zhen looked up.
“Does is hurt?”, she softly breathed into the night.
Her eyes were so clear. Pure. Devoid of any deeper emotions than surprise.
Lu Yan pushed her hands away.
Confusion bled into her eyes. She would have wished to ask him what was wrong. And what he would have wished to ask, he could not.