Chapter 51 :: Guilt

The surroundings were as dark as they were silent. Only the light of the moon filtered through the window lattices. It looked very much like a silvery lake disturbed by its own waves.

Lu Yan lowered his head, softly kissing Shen Zhen’s forehead.

“Speak and I shall answer you.”

Shen Zhen’s body froze at his words, her heart jumping a beat. His tone was of a rare gentleness. But she knew him to be a short-tempered, high-handed sort of man. Therefore, she could not but hesitate. Observing the games shadows played across his sharp features, she could not help thinking that to lie to a man such as himself, one had to be a hardened criminal, lost to all ethics and morals. Too perspicacious by half, our official of the Supreme Court.

Lu Yan’s hand never stopped caressing Shen Zhen’s waist, his index finger fiddling with her ribs, sensing the changes in her breathing through their movement. She kept silent, softly pushing his hand aside and sitting up on her knees. She was asking for help. It would be unsightly in her to not show due diffidence. Humiliating oneself seemed to be the only true, acceptable demonstration of sincerity in the eyes of society. Kneeling on the bed, her thin back bent under the heaviness of all her family’s desperate needs.

Lu Yan observed her, lifting her chin condescendingly and staring right into her eyes. Matters between men and women were said to be difficult. At least, so the poets of times past had always suggested. The two of them had clearly enjoyed each other’s company in the most intimate way in the world. Yet, a high wall, made of the sturdiest stone, that of distrust, doubt and resentment, rose between the two of them, separating them persistently.

Originally, it had all been very mercantile to Lu Yan. There had been mutual benefit, benefitting one party more than the other, granted. Not that he would ever have considered that in taking care of her family members, or rather, only one family member, and at very little cost to himself, he was in any way profiting off her misery. And in no way would he ever have considered that in giving him access to her body, Shen Zhen was a losing party. But day by day, his mercantilism had given way to greed. Owning her body had become grossly insufficient.

Had Lu Yan been asked to describe his understanding of the perfect woman, he would have given full reign to his arrogance. He would have demanded that she be a virtuoso at the guqin, with an elegant and light hand when writing and an ability to efficiently manage a compound of a good hundred souls, of which three families differing in habits, needs and tastes. She would not have been deemed truly superior without a quick mind that would have made her a worthy opponent at qi, an outstanding knowledge of literature and an eye for painting. And to all this, she would have had to add an air of distinction, a light step when she walked and flawless beauty. Only such a woman would have been worthy of his notice.

But as such a woman could not exist, Lu Yan had been more than willing to accept one that was submissive, submission being the mother of all virtues, and efficient at managing his estate and pleasing his grandmother and mother. Her deficiencies would be palliated by the concubines he would have chosen himself. And their deficiencies would be palliated by his not spending too much time in their presence. Just enough to ensure the continuance of his hereditary line.

So he had thought until he had actually met this paragon of all qualities, this highly finished piece of nature that was Shen Zhen. Behind her beautiful front, there was a mind that had been formed by the most pedantic of dogmatics, her charming father. Yet, the hammering of womanly virtues into her young brain had not made her rigid, dull and deliberate. It had made her a superior artist, a wise manager, a dangerous opponent at the qi board and a pleasant entertainer.

Had Lu Yan married such perfection, he would never have had to blush for stupidities women uttered because of their inferior understanding. He would never have had to fear her narrow-mindedness would lead to skirmishes with the womenfolk of his household. He would have lived a life of perfect peace and comfort, without even the necessity of taking concubines, for they would have been useless. A concubine’s only appeal was that she was more beautiful than the legitimate wife. And as there was no one more beautiful than Shen Zhen …  

And here he was, lying beside this paragon of all qualities, this highly finished piece of nature, as far away from her as if he had never met her. She had built a wall of misgivings, tears, pain, distrust and resentment to separate herself from him as much as she could.  

And he was left on the other side, yearning for her joy, her gratitude, her admiration. He wanted it all. He wanted it desperately. Lu Yan wanted Shen Zhen to regard him as the source of all her comfort, emotional and physical, to view him as the moon of her nights and the sun of her days. Lu Yan wanted Shen Zhen to love him. He needed her to love him. And this newfound knowledge of his own abject dependence on her made him want to break something. But it did not make him want to break free. Not in the slightest.

Lu Yan’s eyes cooled significantly. However, his voice remained light and inviting.

“Speak.”

Shen Zhen’s hands curled into two fists, the knuckles turning white under her anxiety. She swallowed with difficulty.

“I would be grateful if Your Lordship could send some medication to the Central Judicial Office.”

There was no need to mention who it was for. She continued after a silent struggle.

“Father suffers from a chronic illness. He experiences severe bone pain whenever it rains …”

Lu Yan’s eyes never left her face. Extending a hand, he squeezed her knee reassuringly.

“It shall be done.”

Her eyes widened in surprise. That was all? It would be this easy ..?

The corner’s of Lu Yan’s twitched ever so slightly.

“Being straightforward isn’t so bad after all, right? No need to wake me up in the middle of the night and threaten to take advantage of me.”

“I did not!”, Shen Zhen exclaimed.

“On the surface, the Third Miss Shen appears to be a demure, restrained little lady. All that is proper and virtuous. Who would ever have thought she would be hiding such a … passionate temperament?!”

Shen Zhen coughed lightly, thanking him from the tip of her lips for his kindness towards her father.

“Go to sleep.”

Lu Yan pinched her buttocks mercilessly, closing his own eyes.

“If you were to make another noise, this Official assures you he will show you just how long a night can be.”

The sound of rain outside faded, the clouds, so dark and menacing, dissipated, and a ray of moonlight squeezed into the bedroom. Lu Yan turned his head so he could look at the beauty between his arms to his heart’s content. He could not help sighing. What a silly girl. But as silly as she may be, the popular notion that there was no greater temptation than that found outside one’s home, as opposed to inside of it, might have had some foundations.

Truth be said, a court official with a mistress would always be viewed as a liability. These types of liaisons could ruin anyone’s reputation in society. And thus constituted a perfect means of extortion. When desire was whipped by the charm of novelty associated with the affair, the whole business was exciting, thrilling, pleasurable to the utmost. However, how long could such a disinterested state last? Or was that state ever truly disinterested on either side? Mistresses were women not easy to contend with. Especially for an official, crushed by his own political and social obligations. Were it not for those struggles he would never have needed a mistress in the first place!

At first, these wonderful women, so willing to ruin their innocence, to sacrifice their own position in society, for the advantage of their dashing lover, asked nothing in return but to be remembered from time to time, visited from time to time, between a court obligation and a dinner with his lovely wife. But soon enough, an accident would occur. And this accident would be carried all the way to the door of the lover, demanding to be welcomed in as a future heir. No woman wanted to spend a life in the shadows, fearing for her existence to be uncovered and for her to be ignominously chased, like some stray dog.    

Lu Yan remembered this one clerk who had been brought before the court because of this failing of having maintained some young woman of lower birth as a mistress. He had had a flawless career. Conscientious, detail-oriented, sacrificing his own felicity for the glory of the court. He must have assumed that a small indiscretion, inoffensive so to speak, would have been forgiven in such a deserving man. Well, he had been demoted, to the great joy of all his political opponents.

Lu Yan might not have married yet, and even if he had, he would have given little importance to his wife’s feelings in the matter, however this rendered his position all the more delicate. He could very well have a beautiful courtesan under his keeping, and this publicly, without causing too much of a disturbance at court. It was in good style. But keeping a young woman silently, behind the walls of a house he had himself bought and shielding her from the notice of other men would cause an uproar, especially if she were to come knocking at the gates of the Grand Duchy of Zhen. The female folks of the household would all die of an apoplexy, one after the other.

Of course, Lu Yan’s uncle being the august Emperor himself, he would have no choice but to cut up stiff. He would certainly demote Lu Yan, and as this would not be his imperial wish, someone would have to pay for having forced that revered hand. Shen Zhen would not live to see the next day. This was assuming Shen Zhen who had lived free from all worries, the daughter of that soporific pedant, would know to get pregnant by design and march right to the high gates of his estate. At the way she clutched that sachet of contraceptive powder whenever Lu Yan as much as made a move towards her, it was highly doubtful the idea had ever crossed her mind. And even if a fox were to teach her a few tricks, she would refuse to use them.

It did not please Lu Yan to admit that Shen Zhen did everything in her power to be the least attached to him as possible. The way she solemnly thanked him for the smallest of his exertions on her part was more proof than needed.

The rain outside poured down in buckets, then weakened, then poured some more. There seemed to be no end to it.   

As Lu Yan closed his eyes in exhaustion, his last shred of consciousness realized that he was in for yet another one of his dreams. Memories of a past life flooded him anew.


The events in his memory had taken place at about the same time, in March, during the rainy season.

Estate of the Grand Duchy of Zhen.

As soon as the curfew drums were heard, Yang Zong had made his way into Lu Yan’s office, a package in his arms.

“Young Master, Chengyuan has requested that this be sent to you.”

Lu Yan had shot the parcel a sardonic look. Without letting anything pass on his features, he had opened the box, revealing a multitude of bottles and jars. Lowering his head, he had let a particular smell assail him. A most soothing fragrance.

He had sneered in contempt. He had had sent Yang Zong to bring her news of Marquis Yunyang and she had been most rapid in sending her “thank you”, had she not? Pushing the box aside with disgust, Lu Yan had hissed through his teeth:

“Take it back.”

His eyes hardening, he had added a fatal sentence.

“Remind her not to disturb me with such displays in the future.”

Standing up, Lu Yan had left his office without even shooting a glance at a desolate Yang Zong, standing there like a forgotten puppet. 

Lu Yan had often wondered whether his taking her to Yangzhou had not been the greatest mistake. Had he not taken her to Yangzhou, Shen Zhen would have remained nothing but a signal favor he had rendered Sui Yu. Something like a little sister he had taken care of for a good friend.

Lu Yan had sat on his bed, motionless for a long time, his eyes staring at the wall as he had subconsciously twisted the white jade ring on his finger. He couldn’t help but recall the short months he had spent in intimate cohabitation with Shen Zhen.

At first, he had not wanted to take a spoiled brat as he imagined Shen Zhen to travel with him. In Lu Yan’s eyes, a noble girl who had never stepped a foot out of her boudoir could be nothing but a hindrance. However, what he had not expected had occurred. Not only had Shen Zhen been perfectly well-behaved, hardy and helping him at every turn.

She had entered Yangzhou as his concubine. And as she had been a concubine, the two of them had not been able to avoid a promiscuity that had not been to either’s liking. In fact, they had slept in the same bed. Too close, way too close. He had been unable to escape the inadvertent realization that the skin that could be glimpsed at through half open clothes was more alluring, more fragrant, more titillating than anything that could be seen in Pingkang Lane. Her flesh, rather than jade, seemed to be made of alabaster stone, so white it hurt one’s eyes. Her waist was as thin as a wicker, almost begging to be held by hands that could snap it in two.

To make things worse, one day when he had returned from the Governor’s Mansion in the evening, he had walked into the bathing room, only to find her there. Nothing but a screen made of the thinnest paper had been separating the two of them. No woman, and Lu Yan had seen a multitude of them in all sorts of settings, could have boasted such seductive lines, graceful yet sensual. And they had all been displayed in front of his eyes, the screen not doing its office. That vertiginous waist, like a valley among mountains, and those shoulders, as sharp as knives …

He had known at that instant that he was not as immune to the charms of women as he had believed himself to be until he had met the Third Miss Shen. Had he walked around that screen, he would have lost control, there was no doubting it. Therefore, clenching his jaw and fists, he had turned around and rushed out, forbearing and self-restrained as only he could be. Even Liuxia Hui would not have been as virtuous in front of this much temptation.

(Translator’s Note: Liuxia Hui was an Ancient Chinese politician. Governor of the Liuxia District in the State of Lu, 11th century BC, he is considered as the epitome of self-restraint and virtue. History has it a lady had been seated on his lap without swaying his moral resolves.)

Being obsessed with sex was tantamount to planting the seeds of a poisoned fruit. He, Lu Shiyan, would never fall so low as to lose his standing in society, his concentration, the control over his senses. It would be a sliding slope from that moment on.

What’s more … He knew that everything the Third Miss Shen did was just to win the privilege of seeing Shen Hong. There would be no desire for him on her part. Maybe was this the greatest deterrent to his letting free reign to his own yearnings.

Many a thing in this life, however, could not be predicted or controlled by sheer will. He remembered that time Zhao Chong had made Shen Zhen drink that aphrodisiac on the boat and the way she had cut the palm of her hand with the fragments of a broken cup.

The bloodstains, so red on her white skin, and the way she had fallen into his arms, defenseless and reliant, taking refuge between his arms as if he would defend her from all harm, had made him sigh. She had been so small and have felt so strange to him.  

At that moment, beside carnal desire, he had felt pity for her. And pity often went a longer way to erode a man’s self-control.

On New Year’s Eve, he had taken her to finally see Shen Hong. Under the bright, white moonlight, she had thanked him with such sincerity, with such gentleness, that she had made him believe, for much longer than a split of an instant, that there might have been something like affection in those dark eyes that twinkled below picturesque eyebrows.

When they had made their way back from the Chu Residence, he had snaked an arm around her trembling waist. She had not stepped aside, she had not pushed him away.

He should have left it at that. What should never have occurred did happen nonetheless. On the day they had left Yangzhou and entered Hucheng.

The red candles had been flickering into the night.

When he had seen her in a wedding dress, seated in front of him as a shy bride, he had moved forward like a famished beasts and kissed her maddingly. Fascinated, his resolve broken, his desire whipping him like a cruel master, he had finally let himself drown in the fragrance that emanated from the crook of her neck.

He had wanted her.

Pushing the red silk up her legs, his eyes had strayed between her slightly open legs, and the sight had made him suffocate with need. So beautiful, like a tender, pink peach cut in half.

As he had reached her darkest depths, her tears had already soaked through his shirt. He had believed her to have felt pain. It had been her first time after all. However, he had been wrong. Her tears had never stopped, from night to morning. The moonlight dissipating into dawn, he had turned her face and asked the most humiliating question of his short life, he who had never suffered the smallest slight, he who had seen numerous women desperate to catch his eye.

“Was it because of Shen Hong?”

She had not answered him, only thanking him repeatedly. Every mark of gratitude had cruelly stabbed, not Lu Yan’s heart, but his self-esteem. He had known at a glance that she had not been willing.

The romance behind the act had been his wishful thinking.

However, a man as arrogant as himself, could feel guilt for less than a fleeting moment. As soon as he had gotten partially used to the feeling, he had brushed it off with the back of his hand. Who was he? The son of a princess royale, the nephew of an emperor, an official of the Supreme Court. He was the representative of what was moral, ethical and right. He could not, in fact, afford to have such charming little affairs with women, especially not daughters of criminal ministers. Nothing but a moment of folly that he had to shake off sooner rather than later.

“Shen Zhen, I will make it up to you. And I shall never touch you again in this life.”

With their return to Beijing, their relationship, that had been more or less cordial up until then, became nonexistent. A layer of ice had formed between the two of them.

Such had been his thoughts as he had rushed out of Suning Hall, catching Yang Zong on his path.

“Prepare the carriage.”

He had not been able to hold back. He had finally made his way to Chengyuan again. As he had pushed open the door to Lanyue Pavilion, he had been welcomed by a peculiar spectacle.

The moonlight had been mingling with the halo around the candles, making the room as cold as it was warm. She had been seated on her bed, strangely immobile. As if she had lost life the moment he had decided to leave Chengyuan forever. Shen Zhen had slowly turned her head towards Lu Yan, staring at him blankly. And at once, a flash of light had passed through her eyes. She had jumped to her feet, bowed and greeted his lordship in a most complete way. The Emperor himself would have been satisfied with such obsequiousness.

Lu Yan had shoved the bottles and jars onto a nightstand by her side, his sullen face scowling at her menacingly.

“What does the Third Miss Shen by all of this?!”

His voice had been full of the deprecating self-satisfaction one could expect in such a grand personage as himself.

Her heart pounding, her head turning, she had bent her neck to avoid his cold, dismissive glance, worse than any glare could have been. How could she have answered his question satisfactorily? She could not have admitted to his that she had almost been coerced by Yang Zong to send him something. If only to have that faithful servant of his stop screeching into her ear.

Miss Shen cannot imagine how much the Young Master had to pay to send a doctor to the prison of the Central Judicial Office!

Or yet again:

The Young Master has been ill recently. He has great difficult in sleeping.


The rain had suddenly started falling and the wind had been blowing with great violence. The branches and their sprouts had been surprised by the gale. In fact, they had kept desperately knocking at the windows in the house, as if begging to be let in to take shelter.

Had one asked Shen Zhen what she had been thinking at that moment, she would not have known how to explain it. Her musings had been torn between gratitude, a stifling feeling of helplessness, the probability the bottles and jars could end up broken in a fit of rage on his part. There had been so little coherence in them, yet so much content. However, out of nowhere, she had taken a deep breath, mustered all her courage and stepped forward, timorously wrapping her arms around Lu Yan’s waist.

“Your Lordship, everything is my fault. I should never have made you angry.”

What a strange woman, with the strangest of hearts.

Before tracking into her abode, Lu Yan had considered her currying favor with these bottles and flasks as deeply ridiculous. However, hearing her pitiful voice, very much like a beaten lapdog’s whine, he could not help but wonder what was wrong with this woman? Why was she asking for forgiveness for something Lu Yan had done? For something he had coerced her to participate in?

When had she ever been given the choice?


Lu Yan sat up in one movement, pressing his temples firmly and trying to dissipate the fog of his mind. He looked through the window. The sun was far up in the sky, casting his rays through the windowpane and making the room feel much warmer than it truly was. Reaching out, he patted the bed by his side. It was empty.

At once, panic griped him. It suffocated him. His dreams were so realistic, the feelings in them so tangible, that it became difficult for him to differentiate his present life from his past. Whenever Shen Zhen was out of his reach, he developed an irrational fear that everything he had experienced up until then had been nothing but a memory. And that Shen Zhen, in this life that he lived, was nothing but a memory of the past, that she did not exist or that he had been too late to save her from the cruelty of those who wished her harm.  

He jumped to his feet, not even sliding them into his slippers, and ran across the cold mahogany flooring. Throwing the door open, he was ready to rush out in search of her. What was his surprise to see Shen Zhen waiting on the other side, starting at his appearance but quickly softening.

She smiled the most placid smile. Lu Yan could almost convince himself that she felt affection for him just looking at that smile.

“Is your Lordship already awake? What a shame, you should have slept some more.”

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His heart gradually settled and his face regained its usual, slightly disgruntled, appearance.

“Why did you not wake me up?”     

Shen Zhen never stopped smiling.

“Your Lordship is not on duty today. There is no need to wake up early. Why not take a well-deserved rest?”

The wind that was blowing on this day was much warmer than what Lu Yan remembered from past memories.

After having assisted him with his morning ablutions, Shen Zhen assumed Lu Yan would want to eat. However, he disappointed her.

“I have some urgent business to take care of. I will eat later.”

She had his change of clothes at hand and helped him into his robes with expert hands at such short notice. She wrapped her arms around his waist as usual, his belt between her fingers. Before she had the time to buckle it, Lu Yan bent over, cupping her face with his cold hands, lifting her chin and caressing her lips with his own. It was a fleeting touch, superficial, ephemeral, at first devoid of passion yet so full of affection and yearning.

“Wait for me to come back, eh?”

And what they would do when he came back was self-evident.

Shen Zhen blushed to the roots of her hair, nodding at him obediently nonetheless.


Walking out of Chengyuan with a brisk stride, Lu Yan stopped into his carriage.

“Go to the Zhou Residence”, he ordered Yang Zong.

His faithful footman started.

“The Young Master means the Central Judicial Office’s Lord Zhou?”

“Yes.”

As in his past life, the housekeeper of the Zhou residence led him to a study where the man of interest was seated at a table, obnubilated by work. Zhou Shu’an was seated in front of his worktable, as he had been in Lu Yan’s past life. All dressed in white, wearing as plain a garment as could be, Zhou Shu’an was unspeakably elegant. Elegant as jade, that is how women described such men.

An incense burner in the room was making its green smoke twirl all around them.

Zhou Shu’an’s sharp features were softened into an almost feminine mask by the haziness as he lifted his head to greet his unexpected guest. An indistinct smile, devoid of happiness or anger, playing across his lips, he pointed the seat in front of him.

“Please take a seat, Lord Lu.”

He was young. Much younger than any official who had held his position before. Yet, there was a sort of maturity that bordered professional fatigue about him. He was sophisticated. So attested the way the corner of his eyes barely creased when he smiled.  

Lu Yan spoke first, though it made him feel even more pressed and out of place.

“This humble representative of the Lu household wishes to as Lord Zhou for a favor.”

Zhou Shu’an remained silent for an instant, slowly pouring two cups of tea and handing one to Lu Yan. He was as deliberate as a wolf before it pounced on its prey. He could only imagine the importance of Lu Yan’s request. The stern officials of the Supreme Court rarely condescended in asking anything so humbly. They generally demanded.

“Lord Lu, please speak.”

As in the dream, Lu Yan proceeded to lay his demands in front of Zhou Shu’an. And just like in his dream, Zhou Shu’an stared at him suspiciously. After an instant that seemed to last an eternity, he finally uttered the fatidic question.

“The Third Miss Shen is in Lord Lu’s hands?”

Rather than a question, it sounded very much like a statement. It was rare, even in the practice of his functions, that he asked questions. The corner of Lu Yan’s mouth pulled downward, in a grimace of dissatisfied contempt.

“Lord Zhou should remember that this humble representative of the Lu family is not a prisoner of the Central Judicial Office.”

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Zhou Shu’an played with the empty cup between his fingers, lost in thought, the same pale smile playing across his fine lips.

It was no wonder. No wonder at all.

He raised his beautiful, intelligent eyes, observing Lu Yan absentmindedly.

“And thus, it was Lord Lu who tried Madam Li’s case”, he whispered faintly.

— New chapter is coming soon —
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