Year 15 of the Yuanqing Era
Even before the Winter Solstice, a heavy snowfall covered the entire City of Chang’an in what appeared to be a silvery fog. The busy, noisy streets became desolate and silent at once.
During the third quarter of the lunar year, before the thick clouds cleared from the skies to let the first rays of morning sun filter through, a carriage was seen driving through the principal street.
After half an hour of travelling, it parked by a mansion.
Alighting, Shen Zhen approached Suning Mansion’s red lacquered doors and stood in front of them in a daze. Finally, after hesitating for some time, she decided to knock.
No response. After three consecutive knocks, there still was no response.
After a month of misery, Shen Zhen, a delicate boudoir flower who had never been touched by the filth of the world, finally understood what the people meant by saying that walls only fell after being pushed and that monkeys scattered whenever a tree was to be cut down.
One month ago, Shen Wenqi, Marquis Yunyang, had just completed a three-year term as Minister of Industry and Engineering. He had been about to be raised to a provincial position when the newly-built Chengxi Canal had collapsed.
There had been a breach in the canal’s walls, which had created an obstacle in the water flow, leading to flooding, severe injuries and significant casualties. The commoners had complained so bitterly the Emperor had had no other choice but to clean the entire Ministry of Industry and Engineering up at once.
Shen Wenqi had unfortunately been in high standing and, to boot, the drawings for the canal had been of his doing. But even if they had not, he would still have been found guilty of dereliction of duty.
According to Jin Dynasty law, not only was he to be dismissed from office and deposed of his rank but also sentenced to two years in prison.
As soon as the news of his downfall had spread, the very relatives who used to consider Shen Wenqi’s house as their own distanced themselves from that branch of the family.
The saying goes “for better and for worse”. The “worse” part did obviously not apply to the aforementioned relatives.
As time passed by, more and more people gathered in front of Suning Mansion’s gates, observing the exotic incongruence that was Shen Zhen. As the doors did not give any indication of opening anytime soon, several women started commenting the young girl.
“Isn’t this the Shen family’s third miss?”
Mentioning the Shen family, the speaker suddenly dropped her voice.
“Indeed it is! Two days ago, I went to buy silk at the West Market. Walking past Bai Hua Pavilion, I saw her making perfume for Madam Zhuang.”
“Poor little miss. Her mother died and her father was sent to prison. And now, she has such a heavy debt on her shoulders. She goes to prove that when there is a crack in one’s roof, rain is bound to come.”
Yet another person sighed.
“The monthly interest Jin’s moneylending business charges is truly rapacious. I fear that she will not be able to pay the debt off in this lifetime.”
“Pay off?! She should consider herself blessed if she isn’t forced to sell herself!”
Just as the crowd was pitying the little Miss Shen, a veiled woman hiding in an alley opened her mouth to chip in.
“Buddhism teaches that all happenings in one’s existence are the results of karma accumulated during present and previous lives. In my opinion, the Shen family must have done much evil to face such hardships now. It is all but fated retribution.”
As soon as those words reached the people’s ears, the discussion immediately took another turn.
The more the crowd spoke, the more ridiculous its surmises became. Someone even mentioned the Wrath of the Heavens and the Gods’ Punishing Hands.
Qingxi could listen no more. She shot a glance at her mistress’s stiff back and felt as if her whole heart were torn to pieces.
How could she bear to see the Shen family’s third miss, who was as pure as jade, as precious as gold, suffer such injustice?!
Qingxi turned her head in and glared at the crowd in ire. She had a good idea to open her mouth and give them a piece of her mind but was stopped by the pressure of fine fingers on her arm. Shen Zhen softly brought her back to reason.
“Qingxi, do not. Remember, we are here to beg for help.”
After her mistress’s words reached her, Qingxi could but close her mouth and turn her head. She swallowed her grievances and spoke as gently as she could.
“There are too many people here, talking nonsense. What is more, it is so very cold outside. Miss’s body does not do well in a cold climate. How about we come back on another day?”
Come back on another day?!
Shen Zhen lowered her eyes and could not help but wonder whether the demons and snakes who haunted her days and nights, demanding to be reimbursed, would allow her to walk free another day.
She tightened the cloak around her and whispered in the smallest of voices: “Just wait.”
Wait. Wait until the sun sets, if need be.
A red light gradually started dying the clouds. Those who had gathered to watch a free play eventually got bored and dispersed in disappointment.
At this time, the tightly shut gates finally creaked open. Retainer Liu peeked out and called to Shen Zhen.
“Third miss, come in quickly!”
After shutting the doors closed, Retainer Liu quickly explained the situation to the miss.
“The Eldest Lady has been greatly suffering from the cold recently. She keeps to the bed all day long. No matter who visits, she has no energy to entertain company. In fact, she just woke up.”
Shen Zhen heard the hidden meaning in Retainer Liu’s words but chose to ignore it. She only decided to follow up with the customary questions.
“When did my aunt get sick? Is her illness very serious?”
While leading Shen Zhen in, Retainer Liu sighed in anguish.
“When the Lady heard the Eldest Master had undergone planking, sixty strokes no less, she cried herself to the point of fainting, getting sick in the process.”
As soon as she heard such words, Shen Zhen’s hand shook under her sleeve, the blood leaving her face, making her completely flustered.
As soon as their little group passed by the terrace to her aunt’s abode, they were met by Count Suning, personal name Xie Cheng, who walked out of the courtyard.
His clothes were disorderly and there were two conspicuous red marks on his neck.
Shen Zhen immediately bowed her head in a movement of respect.
Count Suning’s steps faltered, permitting him to take a good look at Shen Zhen. The corners of his mouth instantly lifted into a smile.
“The third lass has come to see her aunt?”
Shen Zhen nodded, properly speaking words of assent.
Count Suning discreetly examined the sixteen-year old girl’s sultry figure and pale, jade-like skin, unable to tear his gaze away. Until their eyes met, that is, making him realize how reprehensible his insistent gaze must have appeared. He was left no choice but to awkwardly usher her into the courtyard.
“Go in quickly.”
Shen Zhen immediately remembered her father with concern and followed her uncle’s advice, marching into the main courtyard.
Walking at a fast pace, the fine skirt on her body espoused her curves, giving one a faithful idea of the delicate and charming figure underneath.
Count Suning turned his head to take one last look at the outline of a charming backside. He laughed to himself, thinking how she indeed was the most valuable flower of Chang’an, exuding an intoxicating perfume all around herself. Not one common whore of Chang’an’s celebrated red-light district, Pingkang Lane, could compare.
The candle light flickered in the main room, a stench of medicine pervading the air. Shen Zhen lifted the curtain to her closest aunt’s bed, looking for Shen Lan.
Although Shen Lan had risen to the rank of wife of a count with great prospects in front of him, she still could not escape the mockeries of the nobles, who relished remembering her lowly origins. In fact, her biological mother, Née Meng, had been nothing but a maidservant in the late Marquis Yunyang’s estate.
No one could help but sigh at the idea that the daughter of a mere bed-warmer had succeeded to climb to her present station. What a fierce beast that Shen Lan must have been!
And thus, the aforementioned lioness was lying on her bed, appearing a little pale. Seeing Shen Zhen walk in, she had sat up quickly.
“Zhen’er, come in quickly.”
Shen Zhen stepped forward and softly called out to her aunt.
She Lan patted a corner of her bed, indicating for her niece to sit down. Their eyes meeting, she could not help covering her mouth with a veil. In the lowest of voices, she said:
“I did not expect to ever see you so wretched.”
The word “wretched” cruelly stabbed the poor noble girl’s heart. She might have heard too much of such words. To the point they had started making her numb.
After exchanging the customary greetings, Shen Lan suddenly chocked on her words.
“Half a month ago, I visited the Central Judicial Office.”
Shen Zhen’s eyes widened at her words.
“I heard my elder brother had been planked. I wanted to help him by bringing some money. But Zhou Shu’an, the current President of the Central Judicial Office, being such a valued official of the Emperor’s, is not one to be bribed. He refused my offerings at once.”
Shen Zhen discreetly pressed her hand into her knee and could not refrain from asking:
“What about father’s injuries?”
Shen Lan shot Shen Zhen a dismayed look and slowly said:
“The prison is so very cold. And we are in the middle of winter.”
She sighed soulfully.
“It must be so tough on him.”
When those words fell into Shen Zhen’s ears, she could not suppress her crystal-clear tears any longer.
But a beauty’s tears had a charm in and of themselves.
Speaking of Shen Zhen’s beauty, the Chang’an people had but one expression to qualify it. Shen Zhen had a beauty that could make cities fall and states surrender. Her appearance was neither gaudy nor extravagant. Rather, she was like the fogs that covered the towns south of the Yangtze River. Her hazy softness made anyone wish to penetrate deeply into her.
Any man would fall to his knees for one smile of hers. The tears of such a delicate and fragile beauty could break the resolve of the most resolute heroes and make their hardened hearts dissolve into tender feelings.
Shen Lan admired her niece’s face as one would a lotus in clear water. She could not help but sigh. She wished to see the man who could escape the chains that would shackle him to such a lass.
Pulling her niece into her arms, Shen Lan patted the girl’s back.
“Now, now, do not cry. Since you came to see your aunt today, let her give you some advice.”
Shen Lan started recalling the past days as she wiped Shen Zhen’s tears with her thumb. He eyes reddening, she said:
“Zhen’er, the Shen family is in quite dire staits. Your aunt is walking on thin ice in your uncle’s house. Of course, I want to lend a hand. However, I am afraid I have no means to do so. But there is still one person in this world who could help you.”
Zhen’s eyes cleared for an instant and she softly beseeched her aunt to speak quickly.
Shen Lan looked into those pleading eyes and could not stomach what she was about to do. However, Xie Cheng’s warning resounded in her mind and she had no other choice but to move forward.
“In three days, Prince Wang will be holding a Cuju match. Let your aunt take you along. As long as you ask him, aunt guarantees he will be most willing to take you under his protection in the future and will not bear to see you suffer any longer.”
(T/N: Cuju would be something along the lines of Ancient-Chinese football/soccer)
Ask Prince Teng …
Shen Zhen clearly understood the dark meaning behind her aunt’s words. The blood of her whole body rushed into her heart.
The aforementioned Prince Teng was a man of more than forty years. His wives and concubines were innumerable. Renowned for his cruelty and callousness, he had always been at odds with Shen Zhen’s father. There was no difference between killing her cold-bloodedly and coercing her into entering Prince Teng’s estate.
She Lan noticed her niece’s trembling fingers, almost hearing what she was thinking.
“Zhen’er, as long as you are willing to lower your head, someone is bound to help you clear your father and the Shen family’s debt. Thing about it! How could you fend off the tigers, leopards and wolves that lurk in Chang’an without the protection of a powerful personage?”
The sky turned dark and the cold wind hit the doors and windows of the main room mercilessly, rattling the windowpanes. Shen Zhen’s heartbeat was eerily following the rhythm of the wind’s assaults.
Thinking about her aunt’s mention of Prince Teng, she easily understood that now that the big tree of the Shen family had been cut down, the uncle’s Suning house found itself in a disagreeable situation. They were eager to find another powerful ally to consolidate Count Suning’s reputation. From such a perspective, a man like Prince Teng, not lacking in wealth or imperial favor, was naturally the best alternative.
Shen Zhen recalled the strange glances the Count Suning had just shot her. Was that the look elders gave those of the younger generation? It had obviously been the gaze of a man gauging a woman.
In the end, it turned out that she was but an object to be gifted to Prince Teng as to curry favor for the Suning household.
Until that day, she had thought that as long as she had her aunt’s love, she would have a place to take shelter in. However, her eldest sister had been right.
One should never trust others.
Seeing her niece unwilling to answer, Shen Lan knew better than to force the matter. Rather, she carefully comforted the girl.
“You don’t have to answer right away. Just think about it. Carefully and slowly.”
Before she had finished speaking, Shen Zhen had already stood up. She avoided her aunt’s caring glance and clearly spoke her refusal.
“Zhen’er has not heard what her aunt has just said.”
“Today, this niece came uninvited. She hopes Eldest Aunt will forgive her.”
On those words, Shen Zhen turned her heels and left her aunt’s residence. Retainer Liu was ready to stop the girl but Shen Lan gave her a most speaking look. Just let her go.
As the door was closed in a creak, Retainer Liu allowed herself to say:
“This old slave believes that the Third Miss is used to respect and preferential treatment. With a temper such as hers, it is doubtful she would be of any use to the Eldest Lady in the future.”
Shen Lan lifted a hand to rub at her temple and disdainfully replied:
“Do you believe the women who play pipa and sing songs in Pingkang Lane willingly chose to be nothing but playthings to men? Once she has thought this through, she will come to the conclusion that both struggling and dying are ludicrous and that she better resign herself to her lot.”
Once she was done speaking, Shen Lan simply turned her head to shoot a glance through the window and sighed to herself. If it hadn’t been for her husband leaving her no other choice, when would Shen Lan ever have plotted against her own niece? Shen Zhen might not have been the count’s blooded niece, but she still was a member of the Shen household! How could he have devised such a scheme?!
Shen Lan unconsciously clenched her fist in rage.
Xie Cheng, that villainous man, was as insidious as he was hypocritical. When he willed so, he could be astoundingly merciless. In the past month, not only had he stripped Shen Lan of her wifely rights as house manager but he had gone as far as to bestow all power upon his favored Concubine Sheng. Moreover, he had torn Shen Lan’s only son, Xie Peng, from her side and given him to her mother-in-law to raise.
Shen Zhen might have been raised to believe becoming a concubine to man was an inferior station. Well, she was welcome to take a look at Shen Lan’s struggles with Concubine Sheng and the count’s mother. Who had ever come up with the nonsense that being a main wife was more enjoyable than being a mere concubine?!
If Shen Zhen were not to win Prince Teng’s favor and help her uncle climb up in the Ministry of Rites, Shen Lan and Peng’er’s lives would truly become unbearable.
She wished her niece would not be so obstinate and headstrong. If she did not relent, she should not blame her aunt for forcing her hand. Shen Lan nodded to herself, preparing her next step. Half a month had already passed. It was time for Jin’s moneylending business to demand its due.