Synopsis: A fast-paced story about a youngster who loses everything and everyone he holds dear. Through the only family that still remains with him, his uncle, he gets to choose to dedicate his focus and attention to blacksmithing rather than to fall into depression and street life...
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A diffuse mist rose all around Shen Zhen, making her clothes heavy with dew. It was already evening. The surrounding mountains were gradually submerged by the luxurious colors of twilight. Shen Zhen did not blink, staring at the flames raising on the horizon. A horrible feeling clutched at her heart, scratching at it, squeezing it. Breaking it. Seeing the panic in their Little Madam’s eyes, Yang Zong did his awkward best to comfort her.
“Miss Shen must not worry. His Lordship has not taken the waterway.”
The boat that had been prepared had been used as a fluke to deflect the Governor’s attention. This being said, Yang Zong had not expected such a vicious attack. Any loyal servant would have felt fear for his master in such a situation and Yang Zong was no exception. He was scared, he an experienced guard. Had it not been for the Young Master’s foresight, even if it had come out of it alive, all their precious evidence, collected through so much effort and sweat, would have been eaten alive by the flames. Either way, time was running out. Yang Zong did not have the patience to calmly explain the ins and outs of the situation to Shen Zhen. Rather, he rushed her on.
“Miss Shen, we must get back on the road as soon as possible.”
Shen Zhen simply nodded, peeling her eyes away from the horizon. She was so shaken she did not even cry out as she twisted her ankle, walking on like a living corpse, stripped from all her emotions.
The mountains and valleys were at last merged into the darkest of nights, wild and unyielding. But it was in such a deep mountain and cold forest that Shen Zhen actually saw a jowful sedan chair awaiting nothing but a bride to climb into it. She could not but rub at her moist eyes in disbelieve. Why … Why would there be a sedan chair in the middle of an obscure, desolate forest?! And not only that! The sedan chair was surrounded by a dozen of wooden boxes, decorated with auspicious, bright characters. Stepping forth, Yang Zong respectfully presented Shen Zhen with a wide-sleeved wedding dress, accompanied by golden hairpins and earrings. He had no need to explain further. The current situation was crystal clear.
Though reinforcements were stationed by Jiancheng, the city was nonetheless under Zhao Chong’s jurisdiction. To reach the reinforcements, they had to travel through Jiancheng, hoping not to attract unwanted attention and fall into the Governor’s hands. If there were to enter the city as they were, they were sure to get noticed and arrested. They had no other choice but to put on a show. And a good one, at that. Lu Yan had shown once more a great foresight, at least in his loyal Yang Zong’s eyes. He had made a bridal cortege, suona trumpets and drums in hand and sedan chair prepared, leave Yangzhong and hide in the forest, awaiting for the arrival of a false bride. Thanks to Tangyue’s deft fingers, Shen Zhen was soon covered from head to toe in luxurious red and gold.
But it was only on the next day that she and her colorful cortege entered. Yang Zong rode a high horse, shooting generous glances from one side to the other, smiling complacently, albeit the corners of his mouth shook from time to time. The young men of the bridal procession blew their trumpets and beat their drums, firecrackers exploding at their feet. They made their way to a house, closing the gates dramatically behind themselves, hiding from the eyes of the curious. As soon as they were isolated from the public, the whole group lost its bonhomie, the eyes of the colorful men becoming as trenchant as steel. Even the tender Shen Zhen became gloomy. They might have been out of danger temporarily, but no news of Lu Yan had reached them. Yang Zong had at first ordered the group to continue playing their instruments and singing in the courtyard, sending two men to the city gate to meet Lu Yan when he would enter.
Shen Zhen’s composure, curated and perfect as always, crumbled as her body touched the bed covered in peanut and pear-inspired patterns. With a shaking hand, she gathered her wedding gown to her chest, panic suffocating her. She was too restless. She could not sit anymore. She was being driven insane. Jumping to her feet, she staggered forth, weak and frightened. Fortunately, Tangyue’s reflexes were still as good as ever. She grabbed onto her mistress’s elbow, stopping her from falling to her knees.
“Miss, be careful.”
Haggard and lost in a haze, Shen Zhen could but not obediently, staring at Tangyue but not seeing her.
A day passed.
Shen Zhen spent both nights staring at candles that swayed in front of her eyes, observing the sky darkening. Her back was drenched in sweat. Something must have happened to him. He had sent no news. If he were to die, so would all of Shen Zhen’s chances of survival. He was the air she breathed, the water she drank. The pain that reminded her every day that she was alive. Shen Zhen somehow succeeded in dragging her feet into a study by her room.
“Sergeant Yang. The hour that was agreed upon has come … How come there are no news yet?”
Yang Zong was worried. He would have preferred to be by his master’s side, even if death ensued. However, Lu Yan had demanded that he took the Little Madam out of the city safely. How could he therefore know why the Young Master had not sent word of his whereabouts?! However, Yang Zong did not dare snap at that soft, shivering silhouette, so fragile and miserable. He comforted her absently, doing his duty to the best of his knowledge, but his thoughts faraway.
“Miss Shen must not worry. His Lordship is a renowned strategist. Never has he failed in carrying out a plan he has devised on his own.”
At once, a ruckus was heard in the courtyard. The stomping of frenetic footsteps was heard. A small manservant rushed into the small office, almost pushing Shen Zhen over.
“The Young Master! The Young Master is injured”, he panted, looking around himself in frenzy.
Injured?! Both Yang Zong and Shen Zhen were left shocked. If something were to happen to Lu Yan, all their heads would roll. And it would be far from enough to compensate the Zhen Grand Ducky! Yang Zong frowned in anger.
“Speak clearly! What has happened?!”, he barked.
“The Young Master has sustained a sword wound!”
A dragging sound was heard from behind the door to the study and the shadows of the night gave way to two men pulling a body in. Lu Yan. At first glance, one would have mistaken him for a handsome libertine who had drunk himself into oblivion. However, when one got a good look from the back … Shen Zhen covered her mouth in horror. The back of his clothes was soaked in red. Skin was hanging out from between the slashed silk, oozing all over the floor. Such a dazzling crimson color. Lu Yan was barely hauled to the big red wedding bed in Shen Zhen’s makeshift room. Shen Zhen followed behind, trying to reach Lu Yan who was being engulfed by the broad backs of a multitude of men.
“His Lordship, he …”.
She could not finish the sentence in her trembling voice. Yang Zong had no energy to take care of female wiles. He rather barked for Fu Man, whose identity he was acquainted with. Grabbing onto Fu Qi, another one of Lu Yan’s servants, he tried to shake answers out of him.
“Where is Miss Bai?! And her brother?! Has he been rescued?!”
“Sergeant Yang”, Fu Qi responded respectfully, knowing whom to revere and whom to scorn.
“Doctor Bai and his sister are following right behind us.”
At those words, a tall man, accompanied by a slender and charming woman, came rushing in, a wooden box in his hands. The woman was known to Shen Zhen. She was no other than the concubine Lu Yan had taken in Yangzhou. But the man? Who was the man? Turning around, said man looked at Fu Man, ordering in an urgent voice:
“Aya, you leave.”
Fu Man could not do so, only holding onto the man’s cuffs and sobbing heartrendingly.
“If it had not been for his saving me, he would never have suffered such an injury.”
All were lost in the drama, but one. How could Fu Man, her eyesight blurred with tears, see the effect her words had had on at least one person. Even the most beautiful woman in the world, white as snow, cold as a mountain spring, pure as the most translucent glass could be turned into a hideous beast by a few words. As Fu Man had spoken, Shen Zhen had turned two wide eyes to stare at the demeanour of the young girl. In her sorrow, this Western Plains woman was most magnificent, animated and tender. For the first time in her life, Shen Zhen hated. But it was more than hate, it was as if snakes had crawled into the pit of her stomach, taking part in an unholy act of fornication, twisting and biting at her loins. For this woman, for this woman … Lu Yan had been injured, jeopardizing at the same time Shen Zhen’s future, all her hopes and her younger brother’s life. Her eyes soon left Fu Man’s frantic body and slid down to the pale silhouette lying on the bed. All his doings. He could afford to play heroes. He only had his own life to sacrifice or protect.
Lu Yan’s original plan had gone as smoothly as could be. On the day of the Lantern Festival, Fu Man had succeeded in sneaking a specific drug into Zhao Chong’s residence, spilling it into the wine that was served to the guests. Since Lu Yan had been able to locate Bai Daonian beforehand, the while business went smoothly. However, that rogue Zhao Chong had not become Governor because of nearsightedness. Lu Yan had the mind, he had the slyness, but he lacked the decades of experiences an old criminal like Zhao Chong enjoyed. The Governor had never truly let his guards down, not in front of Lu Yan, not in front of any other of his poisoned sycophants. As soon as they had been ready to depart from the city, Lu Yan’s soldiers moved in unison showing just how prepared their master was to face any eventuality.
Basing himself off the dream he had had, Lu Yan did not hide the account books he had confiscated on a ship. He rather led his subordinates, Bai Daonian and Fu Man through the darkest corners of Yangzhou. However, Zhao Chong had not fed, dressed and armed his private soldiers in vain. As soon as they found out someone had plotted against the Governor, they organized to destroy all evidence. First, they set fire to the one ship that had been traced back to Lu Yan. Then, realizing they had been delayed, they retraced the group that had already left the city by that time. However, Fu Man had no horse-riding skills. She ended up almost falling down a cliff on the way, which made it necessary to lose time saving her. This gave Zhao Chong all the time to catch up with them and engage in battle. They did escape, however Lu Yan was wounded in the process. What is more, Fu Ba and two other valiant and loyal guards lost their lives, not disposing the dangerously wounded Lu Yan to tenderly consider Fu Man.
However, how could Shen Zhen know the details?! She only knew that Fu Man had been saved by Lu Yan, who had been willing to go to the length of endangering his life for her. The nails that were biting into the soft flesh of Shen Zhen’s palms suddenly retracted, leaving behind red crescents. The ugly mask of rage that had fallen over Shen Zhen’s pretty features was replaced at once by that softly indifferent, falsely diffident demeanor that was characteristic of her.
As Fu Man left the room, Bai Daonian carefully uncovered all of Lu Yan’s injury. This wound would not be easy to treat, which made this genius doctor of the Western Plains all the more nervous. The best he could do was using a coagulant powder and think his next move through without fearing his benefactor would bleed to death in front of his eyes. The blood might have stopped flowing, however the slashed flesh was stuck to the torn fabric which made the whole process of cleaning and closing the wounds all the more difficult. Raising his eyes, Bai Daonian looked around himself, noticing Shen Zhen close by.
“May this humble one ask Madam to hold a lamp close to the wound so that this humble one may carry his duty out to his best?”
The room had been decorated as if for a wedding. A multitude of big red candles cast their soft light. It was easy to light a lamp without leaving the room. As soon as she approached once more, holding her arm above the doctor’s head, his eyes cleared up and he could assess the extent of the injury with greater ease.
Bai Daonian took a glistening knife out, cutting at Lu Yan’s soiled clothes in wide slashes. It is with a fine needle, however, that he removed the smallest of silk fibers that might been soaked into the wound. Seeing the coagulated blood being picked apart and the flesh being pulled here and there, Shen Zhen’s stomach churned and her legs softened. She took a deep, shuddering breath.
“Is His Lordship’s life in danger?”
Bai Daonian raised his head, staring at the astonishing beauty by his side. A more beautiful woman he had not seen in his life. One wondered what such an ethereal creature did among them filthy commoners. And Bai Daonian hoped such beauty would remain rare. Because a more beautiful and colder woman he had not seen. Not even a tear shed at the agony of the man he supposed to be her lover.
“The slash is deep, however no vital organs have been touched. Had it been an inch deeper, not even the gods could have saved His Lordship. This being said, the next danger would be infection. For the next two nights, His Lordship should not be left at any instant. Someone needs to check for fever every half hour.”
Surprisingly, this maddening beauty’s eyes softened.
“I shall guard him.”
Maybe Bai Daonian misjudged her. Maybe behind that alabaster mask were there actual feelings. How cruel men could be in their judgments of women. They did not see the pains and suffering that loomed below the surface in women, but their reproached them not to sympathize with the pains and suffering of men if they did not shed tears.
Once the wound had been cleaned, it was time to stitch it. The needle and the threat passing through the flesh made Shen Zhen all the more nauseous. She could not but close her close her eyes, unable to look on. After a few more stitches, Bai Daonian finally cut the thread. It had taking him a full two hours to care for Lu Yan. Shen Zhen’s arm holding the lamp was stiff and numb. She could only imagine how exhausted Doctor Bai might have been.
“Thank you for your care, Doctor Bai”, she whispered in her eerily soft voice.
Bai Daonian bowed his head in respect.
“Madam should not mention gratitude. His Lordship has saved this humble one’s life. If he were to ask this humble life, it would not be enough to repay His Lordship’s life-saving grace.”
Shen Zhen was quite stunned at this display of manly loyalty. As well as at the mention of Lu Yan’s having saved Bai Daonian’s life. However, it was not her place to think about the relationships between these men. She did not ask further explanation, simply bowing her own head.
“Doctor Bai should still rest. He may be busy in the morning once more.”
“Indeed. Madam, I leave you with some drugs to hinder a fever from developing. As soon as His Lordship wakes up, he should take it.”
At these words, Bai Daonian turned on his heels, retiring into the shadows of the hallway. As soon as the doctor left, Tangyue rushed in with a basin of hot water and a few clean towels. In exchange, Shen Zhen handed the medicine over to her.
“I’ll stay here, you go and decoct the medicine.”
Once Tangyue had left, only Shen Zhen and an unconscious Lu Yan remained behind. She slowly took place by his side, lowering her face so that she could take in every detail of his appearance. She remembered the first time she had seen him, so arrogant, standing tall and straight, always ready to intimidate whoever dared glance at him with his aggressive posture and the cold back he would mockingly turn at the world. Then, she had come to understand that, rather than actively vindictive, he was rather aloof and indifferent, only moved by his own desires, whether these be related to his personal life or to his duties as official. It was the first time she saw him so weak, with his eyes sunk in and his skin as white as paper. Even his lips had lost color, exhibiting an unhealthy and indistinct hue. She wondered … She wondered whether he would hurt if she were to push her fingers into his wounds and scratch deep into his flesh. The same was she had hurt when she had been defenseless and wounded.
After a long while of observing this broken man and feeling something akin to tenderness at the thought that the frightening demi-god who had ruled over her existence with an iron hand had finally stumbled and fallen to his knees, she stretched out a cold, white hand and stroked his ear in the same manner he used to humiliate her and remind her that he would take her to bed as he pleased and when he pleased. The moment her fingertips grazed his skin, Lu Yan frowned and moaned her name.
Said in the tone he used to scold her and remind her of her place. And yet, for some reasons unknown to herself, large droplets of water spilled from Shen Zhen’s eyes. How strange. Why was she crying, silly her?! She herself could not explain her behavior.
One thing she did not know, however, was that her tears would cause the man lying by her side a pain that could not be soothed by any drug. Feeling his heart being burned anew, Lu Yan snapped his eyes open just to find himself lying on a red bed, surrounded by a multitude of red candles. A magnificent bride was by his side, seductive and tempting in her crimson dress. However, he felt distressed, more distressed than at the thought of his wound, at seeing how the beauty’s face covered in tears.
Seeing as Lu Yan was awake, Shen Zhen whispered ‘Your Lordship’ in a broken, husky voice. As if that had not been enough, she added another dazed sentence that made Lu Yan wonder whether he had not grossly overestimated Shen Zhen’s intellectual abilities.
“Is Your Lordship awake?”
No. He had opened his eyes out of pure pleasure after having spent a day on the road with a sword slash that oozed blood! He was in fact peacefully sleeping, just with his eyes wide open. The corners of Lu Yan’s lips pulled up in something like an almost imperceptible smile.
“Yes, I am awake”, he answered, his throat dry and itchy.
‘If you continue crying like that, I will not only wake up, but also jump up from the pain.”
Shen Zhen was embarrassed by that smile, knowing full well that if he were not weakened, Lu Yan would be making unwelcome comments about her. Seeing him getting restless, she raised her hand, not knowing where to place it on his battered body without causing more harm than good.
“Your Lordship, please do not move. The wound on your back has just been stitched up.”
Lu Yan frowned, his dry throat a true nuisance.
“Get me some water”, he ordered, reverting to his charming directive self.
At the moment of his demand, Tangyue walked with in with the medicine. Shen Zhen took it from her hands, squatting by the couch and looking at Lu Yan with something indistinct in the midst of her eyes.
“Your Lordship should drink medicine first. I promise to bring you water later.”
He was lying on the couch, unable to move a muscle, completely dependent on Shen Zhen’s good will to feed him. Happily, she did not have any thoughts to cut his lifeline short.
Scooping a spoonful of disgusting black medicine, she blew on it and approached the spoon to Lu Yan’s mouth, hitting his teeth and lifting it up carefully. Whether the spoon was deficient or whether Lu Yan was uncooperative, Shen Zhen did not know. What she did know was that the concoction spilled right out, oozing at the corner of the man’s lips. The stared at each other. The man’s thin lips were pursed once more, his eyes as dark and unclear as ever, as if he were saying:
‘Look at you! You cannot do anything right!’
Shen Zhen pensively stared at the spoon in her hand, knowing full well she had to find another way to feed Lu Yan his medicine. And that there weren’t thousands of ways of doing so.