As soon as the door was closed behind them, only he and Shen Ran remained in the torture room. Looking deeply into one another’s eyes, they could not but feel embarrassed and out of place. Lu Yan had to admit it, this Eldest Miss Shen truly had a way to present him with the most difficult and unexpected problems. They had only just met yesterday, parted on less than cordial terms and here they were, facing one another yet again …
Lu Yan walked towards the table on which the evidence had been arranged. Dozens of bags with their contents laid out to the naked eye. Lu Yan, being a diligent official, had become acquainted with some of the most common herbs employed by the charming people he was granted to meet in his line of work. With one glance, he was able to distinguish at least a few of the more incriminating ones.
In his not-so-humble opinion, there were at least two types of medical compounds that could be formulated based on what he saw. Both were poisons. Both were aimed at shortened one’s lifespan. The question was just how quickly one wanted the target to die. It was not difficult for Lu Yan to guess who this setup was for.
Shen Zhen might have looked like her Eldest Sister the most, with only an expert eye being able to differentiate the two at first glance. However, when it came to disposition and temperament, they were almost at two extremes. Shen Ran was characterized by an almost masculine resolve. If pushed to such entrenchments, she would never feel the smallest compunction to use all the means at her reach to defend herself … or avenge herself.
Lu Yan reached for the most poisonous compound on the table, making the little bag jump into the air before he caught it back. His deep voice reverberated against the rock walls all around them.
“What is Lord Li threatening the Eldest Miss Shen with?”
Shen Ran lifted an arrogant eyebrow at him. She was not stupid enough to believe she could hide anything from a man as sly as Lu Yan. He was very much like a weasel, unearthing all sorts of filthy things as soon as he sniffed them out. She would not stoop so low as to satisfy his curiosity. And truth be said, she did not wish to reveal that her father was being accused of having colluded with the Chief Examiner of the Imperial Examination to have Li Di become an official in her name. Her Shen family might already be in dire straits, but there was no reason for their uncle Lu Si, said Chief Examiner who had resigned and left the capital, to be dragged down.
Lu Yan noticed the hesitance in her eyes. She obviously distrusted him. And truth be said, the way he had handled her younger sister’s situation would in no way predispose her to be more honest with him. This was a battle he could not win and therefore, let the subject drop. Picking out two specific bags, he spoke with leisure.
“Excepting these two bags, the Eldest Miss Shen may take her purchases and leave.”
Shen Ran felt as if she had been clipped behind the head with a wooden board. He had enough evidence to incarcerate her, if not have her condemned to death. Letting her go was an obvious show of preferential treatment. What a hypocrite! He obviously knew whom she was targeting, he obviously saw the means she was proposing to use to achieve her goal and yet, the next day, passing by, he would nod his head calmly at Li Di and receive Li Di’s obsequious attentions.
Taking in a shaking breath, something between relief and contempt washed over here. Standing up at once, she lightly thanked Lu Yan in a tone that did not contain much gratitude. Lu Yan did not go to the trouble of acknowledging her with more than a guttural sound. But before she could reach for the door and leave, he spoke one last time.
“If you truly wish her good, you should give up on your intentions. It is truly idiotic to sacrifice one thousand soldiers to defeat one enemy.”
Shen Ran paused for an instant before turning her head and gracing Lu Yan with a sardonic smile that contained more self-mockery than anger at his interference.
“Were Lord Lu facing a similar situation, he would not think so.”
Li Di would pay. Or she would be damned. One thousand soldiers would be sacrificed for the peace of what was left of her family. She was willing. Most willing.
Lu Yan got rid of the two bags he had set aside, following on Shen Ran’s leaving steps. Seeing their conscientious Official Lu coming back so quickly, Sun Xu could not be wonder:
“Has Lord Lu finished the trial so soon?!”
“Not enough evidence”, Lu Yan bit through his teeth.
Taking a cup of tea, he downed it in one gulp.
“Simple medicinal herbs of all sorts. The peach kernel powder might carry some toxicity, but it does wonders for people who suffer from insomnia. Who would blame the Eldest Miss Shen of doing so taking into account her native family’s situation?”
Ah, yes. Insomnia, indeed! Sun Xu nodded sympathetically.
Li Di’s father-in-law had fallen and he himself had been promoted. Only a fool would not understand how difficult Née Shen’s life must be under the Li family’s roof. Sun Xu sighed in regret, recalling the year Li Di had married the incendiary Eldest Miss Shen, the beauty that haunted all their dreams, sulfurous and beguiling. The son of a poor, unknown countryside family marrying a noble miss. And not any miss! Li Di had made more than one young man curse and some even cried. And yet …
Sun Xu could understand. But the little secretary on the side could not. Speaking up, he had to enquire further.
“Lord Lu, do you not think this Madam Li might have hidden poison in her sleeve?! Or maybe in her shoes? Have we checked?”
Lu Yan nodded good-naturedly, lightly putting his cup of tea back on the desk.
“Indeed. If there is another noble lady, the wife of any high-ranking official of your choosing, crossing the threshold of our Supreme Courtn, I shall make sure to leave her to your examination.”
The secretary immediately choked on his saliva in horror. Scratching his head and plastering a sycophantic smile on his face, he purred, almost begging:
“This humble one would not dare.”
In the evening, Lu Yan finally left the government. Walking out, he raised two wrathful eyes towards the grey sky, cursing at the drizzle that transformed into a downpour right in front of him. As the wind flew into his sleeves, it made a shiver travel down his spine.
Yang Zong rushed towards his master, an umbrella in his hand.
“Find someone to report back to the Estate, saying I am busy and cannot return back this evening.”
At those words, Lu Yan shoved Yang Zong aside and bent into the carriage. After a stop to the east, fetching medication at a drugstore, he drove back to Chengyuan.
As he strode into Shen Zhen’s bedroom, he was welcomed by the sight of Shen Zhen, seated at the edge of their bed, absentmindedly eating porridge. Walking over, he reached out, passing his fingers through her silky, black hair.
“Do you feel better?”
Shen Zhen let the spoon slip from her fingers, raising her head to look at the man hovering above her.
“I am much better now, Your Lordship.”
Lu Yan sneered in disapproval. He couldn’t imagine just how strict an elder sister Shen Ran was if her very appearance could send Shen Zhen into a fever. Pouring the decocted medicine in his hand into an empty bowl by Shen Zhen’s bed, he handed it over.
“It’s just been boiled, drink it while its hot.”
The bitter smell of the medicinal solution made Shen Zhen blanch. She would do everything in her power so the offending substance did not pass her lips. Stretching out her pale fingers, she hooked the cuff of Lu Yan’s sleeve, pulling at it.
“Your Lordship, I am really well”, she purred in her sweetest voice.
Lu Yan narrowed his eyes. This woman was a true plague. He was not blind to her stratagem, and yet, for a split of a second, she had made him sway. Raising a daring eyebrow at her, Lu Yan silently hardened his stance, wishing to convey a clear message: ‘Shen Zhen, do not make me repeat myself.’
With the saddest look, the little lady raised her hand heroically, downing the dark decoction in one breath. Deeply wronged, she could only hope the bitter taste would not linger in her mouth. Before she could even think about passing her tongue over her teeth, a candied fruit was shoved between her lips, filling her with its particular aroma. So sweet. Her heart warming at once, Shen Zhen’s misty eyes narrowed into pretty crescents.
“Where did Your Lordship get the candied fruit?”
“I obviously did not buy it. Has it fallen from the sky?”
Lu Yan put the bag of candied fruit he had produced from his sleeve on the small nightstand at Shen Zhen’s reach.
“There is a confectionery right by the pharmacy. I happened to pass buy and bought some sweets on the way.”
Just listen to his words! ‘Passing by’ and ‘on the way’. There was a reason he was so unlovable as a person!
At night, the two went to wash before lying down on the bed side by side. Lu Yan, his back against the wall, leisurely read a book while Shen Zhen, seated on the side, desperately tried to wring her hair dry. Half an hour passed and Shen Zhen was still fiddling around with little success. Glancing at her from the corner of his eye, Lu Yan was losing patience with that fine, white wrist twisting about. With so little strength, she would spend the night drying her hair and would get no rest. Throwing the book aside, he slid the towel from Shen Zhen’s fingers and made a move towards her thick mane of black jade strands. She could not bear the pain of his drying her hair, therefore she subconsciously shrank, silently begging the gods to have him spare her. Oblivious to Shen Zhen’s terror, Lu Yan clumsily grabbed onto her hair and squeezed as hard as he could, in the belief he would easily get rid of the problem with sheer strength. A violent, tearing pain shot through her scalp, eliciting a painful scream from her. That sound made Lu Yan release her at once. Silky strands of Shen Zhen’s hair slid between his fingers, falling on the pale sheets of their bed. Regret washed over him. Could he only ever bring her pain? Even when he wished to extend a helping hand … Swallowing, he whispered intimately into her ear:
“I’ll be gentle from now on.”
How could Shen Zhen know anything about Lu Yan misgivings? She was only aware of the throbbing of her scalp.
“Whenever Your Lordship says he will be gentler, he never is!”
Her words were murmured in a sensual moan, slithering their way into Lu Yan’s heart. Shen Zhen was obviously referring to the last time he wrung her hair. Lu Yan’s mind however strayed in a different direction. Chuckling, quite satisfied with himself, he decided to be gracious and the strength in his hands truly did lighten as promised. Lu Yan never dreamed that one day he would Master Xu Can’s biography aside to serve a little lady to bed.
Once Shen Zhen’s ordeal came to an end, the lights were turned off and the two laid side by side, with Lu Yan doing his best to suppressed certain thoughts. He was not planning on tossing a sick woman around, as tempted as he might have been. Forcing himself to close his eyes, he mentally prepared to go to sleep.
The moon shone through the curtains fluttering in the spring breeze. The calming pitter-patter of rain almost successfully lulled Lu Yan to sleep until its charm was broken by the softest caress of tentative fingers that travelled across his waist. Seeing as the man by her side made no move, Shen Zhen leaned forward, pressing against him. The bewitching fragrance of her skin invaded his nostrils, making him open his eyes in the darkness. She rarely, if ever, took the initiative to get close to him.
They were in the middle of March and he had witnessed the fabric on her body get thinner and thinner as the days passed. And when she pressed herself against him as she did at that instant, he had the impression her naked body was rubbing against his arm.
“Behave, Shen Zhen”, Lu Yan growled solemnly.
He had all the trouble in the world to swallow his saliva.
Although his presence terrified Shen Zhen, the forced cohabitation with him has made her expert in deciphering his moods. She could differentiate the sternness of the moment from true anger. Therefore, she mustered her courage and deepened her touch. A tentative, warm and soft foot travelled up Lu Yan’s calf, sending shivers up his leg and titillating a region he had all the trouble to contain.
He was not stupid. Standing the wind in that quarter, was she?
Truly, there was nothing more provocative than this behavior of hers. Had she wanted to take him to bed, she could not have chosen a better method. However, there was a saying that implied that behind every bizarre manifestation, there was a demon hiding. When it came to matters between men and women, there was no one who knew Shen Zhen better than Lu Yan. She might never have refused him in bed, but she would only ever take the initiative in very rare situations, mostly when intoxicated. Bluntly, Lu Yan, as much as it pained and humiliated him to admit, knew that the only reason Shen Zhen never refused his advances was because she feared offending him and losing the advantages attached to him. Even in the throes of passion, she remained reserved, shy and reluctant. Trying to coax her into boldness was like killing her. As for desire, one could spend a lifetime waiting for her to express willingness.
What was it that had spurned her to act in this way? Where did all this courage come from, all of a sudden?
As far as courage went, he had seen just how frightened she had been at Shen Ran’s appearance. After such a shock, he had expected resistance, not this outburst of sensual enthusiasm.
Lifting her head, Shen Zhen let her lips wander across the edge of Lu Yan’s jaw as a roaming finger slipped beneath the edge of the hem of his shirt, caressing his lower stomach demandingly. Her breath spilled over his neck, making it itch so good. He couldn’t control himself any longer, turning the both of them over. He had no patience left. Pressing Shen Zhen underneath himself, he fumbled to grab one of her thighs, throwing her leg over his hip. Tearing her wandering hands from his body, he shackled them above her head while he found a hardened nipple peeking through her almost sheer nightgown with his lips.
“Your Lordship”, Shen Zhen whimpered, a fine blush settling on her pale cheeks.
At once, Lu Yan’s eyes cooled and he regained control over himself.
“Shen Zhen, what is wrong with you tonight?”
His deep voice reverberated through her chest, startling her out of her carnal reverie. Pretending to be stupid, she barely stuttered out:
“What does your Lordship mean?”
She was a most unfortunate actress and gave as unconvincing an interpretation of a little fool as could be.
It could not be more obvious that she had someone on her mind.
“I am giving you a second chance. Come now, speak the truth.”
Shen Zhen met his deep eyes, arrogant and as dark as the most forsaken corners of a prison. Prison … She recalled the way the Yunyang Marquisate had been ransacked by the public authorities and how she had desperately ran, stumbling so many times, towards her Second and Third Aunts’ dwellings …
Her Second Aunt had no pity when she rejected Shen Zhen’s pleas.
“Zhen’er, it is not that your Second Aunt does not wish to help you, but the truth is that your family has become a bottomless pit. Anyone who would lend you money could only be called stupid! When could the likes of you ever pay it back?!”
“If I were to help you today, you would come back tomorrow with new demands! Your Second Uncle is nothing but a seventh-rank official. If he were to even mention your family, his head would fly! Is that what you want?! Do you want us to sell our home for you?! Be a little bit more considerate towards us, now, won’t you? Our family cannot end up on the streets because of you!”
Her Third Aunt for her part replied to her supplication for help with false regret etched on her features:
“My poor Lass ZhenZhen, you look took high upon your Third Uncle. He is but a little official at the Ministry of Justice. How could he ever intervene in the affairs concerning the Central Judicial Office?! Your poor father is out of our reach, unfortunately!”
“Zhenzhen, if you and your younger brother have nothing to eat, you eat the Third Aunt’s table today. That is as much as I can do for you!”
Shen Zhen smiled that meek, melancholy smile of hers. Rising from her seat, she bowed elegantly, wishing her aunt and cousin goodbye and walking out without turning around. However, as if to trample her underfoot, her Third Aunt spoke to her cousin just high enough for her to overhear.
“Do not interact with the likes of her in the future. Don’t let me hear you calling her sister anymore! That couple of sister and brother will just hang at your sleeve, robbing you of all your money. Don’t you dare give them any! If we were to start lending them anything, how do you plan on marrying in the future?! How are we to eat?! Can she help your father gain a foothold at court?!”
“Since your Second Aunt decided not to help, why should our family do so?! Besides, if I were to help her today, she would just bring Shen Hong back next time! Today, she is asking for money to pay back a wretched debt of her damned father’s, tomorrow she will ask for money to pay that wretched brat’s medication! Her damned father, even if he drags his old bones out of prison, will be nothing but a beggar. Is that whom our family is to be associated with?! It is better to be merciless from the beginning lest we get dragged into their trouble.”
“Are we to lose our standing in society by helping her?! No, thank you!”
Each and every word of theirs had been like the stab of a blade through Shen Zhen’s innocent heart.
This Second and Third Aunt who had always called her lovingly ‘Zhen’er’ transformed into strangers. No, into tormentors.
At the very beginning, Shen Zhen could not understand why the whole world had changed its behavior towards them overnight! Had all these people not been their relatives, their friends, their allies?! Had they not clamored that they would always stand by the Shen Household?! Was it not in the most dire straits that friends had the opportunity to show their true sentiments?!
Suffocating in rage, Shen Ran, always hesitant to influence Shen Zhen with that bit pessimism ingrained in her personally of eldest sister, could not refrain from vomiting her venom.
“Zhen’er, there is no need for you to visit the Second and Third Uncles’ residences in the future. We have seen enough for a lifetime of the lot of them. In the past, how many times have Second and Third Aunt come crying to beg for money or for assistance when Second or Third Uncle would get into trouble at court?! And whenever Father dared hesitate, they would slap their thighs, sigh theatrically and moan how nice it is, being a firstborn like Father and inheriting a title. They would always drag Grandmother’s memory into it, reminding us how easier it was to live under her protection!”
“If ever you need anything, the only door you should knock on is Big Sister’s.”
“Zhen’er, listen to Big Sister. In this world, there is no soul, excluding Father and Big Sister, who will offer a helping hand if there is no personal benefit involved. Do you understand?”
Shen Zhen gradually snapped out of it. She was no longer the naïve, little girl who believed the people closest to her to be right and just, if the world itself was not. She could no longer accept handouts with peace of mind. Staring into Lu Yan’s unwavering gaze, Shen Zhen felt guilt creep over her. Every word she wanted to utter got stuck in her throat, building up and choking her to death.
He had sheltered and hidden her. He had settled Hong’er for her. Barely two days ago, he had given her incense money to honor her mother … Were she to mention her father … She was afraid he would reject her, the way he was known to do. Humiliating her, mocking her. Crushing her dignity under the heavy weight of his contempt. With one glance, he would make her understand just how shameless she was.
Lu Yan followed the furious race of rain droplets against the window pane. Slowly, his eyes slid to Shen Zhen, observing her biting her lower lip with indecision. He might not have known what would happen on that night had it not been for those dreams that haunted him … At this very moment, in his previous life, she had asked him to come to her father’s help, smuggling medicine into the Central Judicial Office prison. Bowing his head, Lu Yan’s lips caressed Shen Zhen’s forehead, as soft as the stroke of firefly’s wings
“Speak. I will grant your wish.”