[Summary and partial translation of Ch 146 – 160 of the Chinese text]
The remaining few secondary characters will all be introduced in this chapter. Here’s the character page in case you are confused.
FYI, they’ve all used pseudonyms when introducing themselves. But it’s quite clear who each of them are.
The Courtesan, Xuanji.
From the dawn of the dynasty, all of Xi Liang’s imperial consorts and concubines were conferred their titles within Qingping Hall.
In a clear voice, Xu Xi ordered, ‘Announce the arrival of the two Highnesses.’
At once, a ceremonial attendant said, ‘Concubine Nian and Concubine Jin have arrived.’
At the entrance to the hall stood Yaoguang and An Jin, dressed exquisitely in light green and pale-yellow robes respectively. Slowly, the two of them stepped into the hall, before they stopped in front of the Emperor, kneeling gracefully.
With a smile, the Empress Dowager said, ‘Today is a joyous occasion. The Emperor, Empress and I have gifts to bestow the both of you, in hopes that you will serve the Emperor to the best of your abilities, and extend the bloodline of Xi Liang’s imperial family.’
‘Thank you for your kindness, Your Majesties,’ Yaoguang and An Jin replied respectfully.
The Empress Dowager continued with a laugh, ‘According to our customs, as new concubines, if either of you have any unfulfilled wishes, do raise them now.’
An Jin smiled. ‘It is my greatest wish to serve His Majesty – I only hope for him to remain in good health.’
‘You are a thoughtful child,’ praised the Empress Dowager, exchanging a smile with the Empress.
Long Fei-li spoke, his voice mild. ‘Does Concubine Nian have anything you wish for?’
Softly, Yaoguang said, ‘Your Majesty, I say this with great apprehension: though Xuanji has committed a huge mistake, she is, after all, still my blood sister. Today is a happy occasion for me, and I am beyond grateful. However, if my sister could be here, to share my joy –’
The Empress Dowager sighed. ‘You are truly a kind-hearted child. It’s good to see that you still have the heart to defend Nian Xuanji after she fought with you, then trespassed Jinluan Hall.’
Yaoguang only smiled, her demeanour bashful.
Ever since her younger sister, Nian Xuanji, had entered the imperial palace, her personality had seen a drastic change. That day, within Jinluan Hall, Xuanji’s actions had shocked her; for a fleeting moment, she was beyond convinced that Long Fei-li would surely execute her for her impudence, yet she had not expected him to change his mind at the very last moment, and then issue a decree forbidding anyone to speak a word of what had happened.
That day, after she thought things through, she surmised that the Emperor had likely spared Xuanji’s life out of consideration to their father. But even so, it was unlikely for Xuanji to ever regain his favour.
Although her own mother, Madam Ru, was doted upon by her father, she was ultimately only a concubine. As the daughter of a concubine, in the eyes of the world, her status would always be beneath Xuanji’s – something which she resented and hated Xuanji for.
That day, Xuanji had seized her hand before dragging her to Jinluan Hall… What right did Nian Xuanji have to treat her in such a manner!
When she had successfully entered the palace, her father had once hinted to her: when the time was right, she ought to borrow the Emperor’s hand in eliminating Xuanji. Though she had been stunned by her father’s callousness, and did not understand his motives, she could not deny her elation.
And now that Nian Xuanji had fallen from grace, she dearly wished for Xuanji to witness her own ascension to favour. She wanted Xuanji to suffer and hate the way she had!
At this moment, the Empress’s brows furrowed, as though put in a difficult position. ‘Your Majesty, in view of Concubine Nian’s sincerity –’
Within the hall, everyone was trying to fathom the Emperor’s thoughts. Days ago, Nian Xuanji had angered the Emperor, and was abandoned to the cold palace; today, Nian Yaoguang wished for her to attend this ceremony.
At long last, Long Fei-li said tonelessly, ‘As you wish.’
Calmly, his gaze surveyed the hall, not a flicker of sentiment betrayed within his eyes. ‘Xia Sang, send a servant to Fengjiu Palace, and have Nian Xuanji be brought over.’
Moments later, an eunuch hurried in, making straight for Xia Sang, before lowering himself to whisper something into Xia Sang’s ears.
At the sides, the Empress Dowager and Empress were still speaking with the two new concubines.
Hearing the words of the young eunuch, Xia Sang was momentarily taken-aback, not knowing what to say in response.
Long Fei-li’s brows drew together. ‘Xia Sang, where is Nian Xuanji?’
Xia Sang gritted his teeth, and whispered into Long Fei-li’s ears.
The conferment ceremony dwindled to an end.
Within Qingping Hall, all eyes were widened in shock as they stared at the Emperor.
With a long sweep of his sleeves, the Emperor strode out of the hall, his expression thunderous.
According to tradition, the Emperor ought to have selected one of the two newly conferred women to serve him for the night.
Earlier, the Emperor had agreed to Nian Yaoguang’s request by giving Nian Xuanji the permission to attend the ceremony. But as the ceremony progressed and Nian Xuanji continued to remain absent, everyone began to guess that she must have gotten into trouble once again.
Seeing the Emperor’s actions, a heavy expression settled on the Empress Dowager’s face.
Coldly, Long Fei-li ordered, ‘Xia Sang, have Fengjiu Palace sealed. No one is to enter. Anyone who disobeys is to be punished.’
Xia Sang shivered, and hurriedly knelt. ‘Yes, Your Majesty.’
A pair of glacial eyes surveyed the numerous servants and eunuchs who were kneeling prostrate on the courtyard of Fengjiu Palace.
In a low voice, Long Fei-li said, ‘Where has your mistress gone?’
The elder servant, Diefeng, hastily kowtowed, before stammering, ‘Your Majesty, please be appeased. Earlier, when Eunuch Xia sent someone to fetch Her Highness, I went into her room to check on her… Only then did I realise that she has disappeared, and Xiao Shuangzi had been knocked unconscious in her room… his clothes stolen.’
Expression darkening, Long Fei-li lifted a leg, kicking her to a side.
Qingfeng asked puzzledly, ‘Senior, why have you sealed Fengjiu Palace?’
Long Fei-li lifted a hand, and a parchment which had been crumpled into a ball fell to the ground. Qingfeng reached out and took it, spreading it open to see a line of words.
Diefeng, I’m going out for a day. Don’t be worried; I’ll be back by nightfall.
This slip of paper had been discovered by Diefeng and the young eunuch when they had entered Xuanji’s room to search for her. It had been placed next to the unconscious Xiao Shuangzi.
Surprised, Qingfeng said, ‘What does she mean by going out?’
Xu Xi’s brows creased. ‘Since she has changed into an eunuch’s attire, it is certain she has done so to facilitate her movements around the palace. And ‘going out’ likely refers to sneaking out of the palace. If His Majesty did not order for Fengjiu Palace to be sealed and others were to learn of her disappearance, this matter would become complicated.’
While Xu Xi spoke, Long Fei-li had already taken large strides towards Xuanji’s room. Exchanging a glance, Xu Xi and Qingfeng followed quickly behind him.
Yet Long Fei-li abruptly halted in front of the door.
Extending a hand, he removed a paper which had been plastered onto the door. A few words had been scrawled on it:
Xiao’qiang and Long Fei-li are both barred from entry.
Long Fei-li could immediately imagine the way Xuanji fumed as she wrote these words. Lips lifting in a faint smile, he said, ‘Who is Xiao’qiang?’
Wiping away the blood smeared across her mouth, Diefeng slowly crawled forward. From the corner of her eyes, she abruptly spied Xiao Luzi picking something up from the grounds.
Momentarily speechless, Diefeng was about to stop this brainless eunuch, yet Xiao Luzi had already replied unthinkingly, ‘Answering Your Majesty, Her Highness says that this cockroach is called Xiao’qiang.’
Diefeng gave a huge lament in her heart.
With these words, no one within Fengjiu Palace dared to continue looking at the Emperor.
Xuanji looked at Yuzhi, who was happily buying everything in her path, then laughed. It seemed that shopping was the basic instinct of every women, regardless of era.
Yet Xuanji was also in a buoyant mood herself. After all, this was her first time exploring the marketplace of Xi Liang’s imperial capital. As she strolled, she thought that though the television did not do the historical times injustice, the bustling prosperity of the market and the breath-taking arches of the pavilions lining the streets were something the television could not capture.
After a while, Yuzhi grew tired and wanted to search for a wine-house to dine in, before promising Xuanji to bring her to someplace fun.
Curious, Xuanji asked, ‘Where’s that?’
Yuzhi batted her eyelashes and whispered, ‘Yanyu Tower.’
The corners of Xuanji’s lips twitched. ‘That isn’t a brothel or something similar, is it?’
‘Oh, Sister-in-law Nian, how did you know?’ Yuzhi exclaimed, her eyes shining brightly.
Xuanji was momentarily speechless: she had truly guessed it. Then she laughed, for visiting a brothel was a classic scene within time-travelling novels – too many of them time-travellers had wreaked havoc there.
The more she thought, the more she wanted to laugh. Though she knew the two of them should not visit such a place, she could not deny her curiosity, so she did not disagree with Yuzhi.
Instead, she thought of a question. ‘Isn’t the brothel only open for business at night? But we have to leave by night.’
Yuzhi stamped her feet. ‘Why didn’t I think of this earlier? But tonight, Yanyu Tower will be holding a contest to elect their top courtesan.’
Laughing, Xuanji chided, ‘No wonder you chose to sneak out of the palace today.’
Yuzhi snorted, even as her brows creased. ‘No! I must definitely see it. At the worst, we will return tomorrow.’
‘Fengjiu Palace is now a cold palace, so I don’t think it will be an issue if I were to return tomorrow,’ Xuanji said, before continuing worriedly, ‘But if your disappearance were to be discovered by others –’
Yuzhi bit her lips.
Suddenly, several voices travelled from the distance ahead.
‘That young girl over there – look at her.’
Xuanji followed Yuzhi’s gaze and glanced over to see that a few people had huddled around something by the side of a vendor’s stall.
Puzzled, Yuzhi and Xuanji made their way towards the crowd. With difficulty, they managed to squeeze their way in. At once, their eyes fell upon a shabby-looking young girl who was kneeling on the grounds. With one glance, they understood what was going on.
Next to the girl was a small wooden tablet which wrote: ‘My father is at home awaiting burial. I am willing to sell myself to pay for his funeral.’
The girl’s head was hung extremely low, and her features could not be seen. Yet the traces of pale skin revealed at her collar, as well as the slender curve of her jaw, hinted at her beauty.
The second classic scene of time-travel novels. In the past, when Xuanji saw these scenes enacted on television or written in novels, she often thought them dramatic, but now that a real-life example was displayed before her eyes, her heart immediately grew heavy.
Quietly, she whispered to Yuzhi, ‘Yuzhi, I didn’t bring any money with me. Give her some.’
Yuzhi, whose eyes were also shining with tears, immediately reached into her robes to search for her pouch. Only then did she falter, exclaiming, ‘My pouch is gone.’
Her voice was clear and resounded along the streets. With this, several people turned to look at them.
Someone said in ridicule, ‘Little one, you wish to buy her home to be your wife? Only, don’t pretend to be an aristocrat if you are without money!’
Yuzhi was angered, but was even more flustered, and hurriedly jabbed Xuanji with her elbow, saying urgently, ‘Sister-in-law Nian, how did this happen?’
Xuanji sighed. They had likely run into a thief. Not only were they both dressed in expensive robes, earlier, Yuzhi had been shopping without restraint. From head to toe, the words ‘Cash Cow: Don’t Be Polite’ had been written on the two of them.
At this moment, a mild voice interrupted, ‘Wuqi, give her five hundred taels of silver.’
A flurry of whisper began to rise from the crowd of onlookers.
Xuanji smiled. A samaritan had arrived.
Together with Yuzhi, the two of them glanced in the direction of the voice to see a newcomer dressed in white standing opposite them. Beside the white-robed newcomer was another young man who looked like his servant.
With this casual glance, Xuanji’s heart nearly stopped.
He – how could he be here?
A pair of clear eyes; defined brows. The man’s nose was tall and straight; the corners of his lips lifted in a benign smile.
It was him?!
‘Lin Sheng.’ Suppressing her shock, Xuanji could not help the whisper which escaped her.
That man’s brows drew together. With a smile, he said, ‘Are you referring to me? I guess you must have recognised the wrong person. My name is Feng Zhanbai.’
Xuanji stared at him, her mind in a daze. Yes, how could he be Lin Sheng? This was Xi Liang. Except, his countenance was a mirror to Lin Sheng’s.
‘Hey, I say, why do you keep staring at my Young Master?’ The servant named Wuqi interrupted loudly.
Annoyed, Yuzhi was about to return him a word when Xuanji waved a hand, smiling warmly as she replied Wuqi, ‘Your Young Master looks very fine.’
Lin Sheng was her faraway dream, a man she could only look at from the distance but never approach. Now, she was a thousand years back in history in Xi Liang, so what harm could there be for her to tease this man who looked identical to him? They were strangers who had crossed paths by chance; with the blink of an eye, they would depart for their respective paths in life, never to meet again.
Face reddening slightly, the white-robed man slanted a mild look towards Xuanji. Around them, the crowd had already burst into laughter.
Wuqi was immediately indignant, ‘You –’
Yet Feng Zhanbai interrupted, ‘Wuqi, these two gentlemen were merely playing a joke with us. Hurry and hand the young girl some silver. We still have an errand to run.’
Nodding, Wuqi reached a hand towards the belt on his waist, before his shocked exclamation pierced the air a split-second later. ‘Where’s my coin pouch?’
Xuanji’s brows furrowed as she looked at Feng Zhanbai. ‘Is this your first time entering the capital?’
Feng Zhanbai froze, then nodded.
Yuzhi and Xuanji exchanged a look, before bursting into laughter.
Angrily, Wuqi demanded, ‘I don’t know either of you. What’s so funny?’
‘We’re both victims of thieves,’ Xuanji said.
Laughter began to rise within the crowd once more. Wuqi glared at Xuanji.
Yet it was Feng Zhanbai who said with a light smile, ‘Interesting.’
Feng Zhanbai was a stranger to the capital, but even after his money had been stolen, he did not appear concerned, his features remaining composed. Unconsciously, Xuanji’s gaze wandered towards him once more, only to see that he was also staring at her.
Eyes meeting, the two of them quickly turned away.
Enough joking around. Xuanji turned back to look at the young girl, whose head had remained bowed the whole time. Several people had gathered around her, yet none of them were willing to give in charity.
At this moment, a few other people squeezed in from the back of the crowd.
The man at the forefront of the group was plump and dressed in richly embroidered robes. With one glance, it was evident that he was the child of a wealthy official.
Without pausing, the man made straight for the young girl, reaching a hand out to lift her chin.
The young girl’s features were immediately revealed. An oval face; a pair of liquid eyes. Yet the childishness of her youth had not been shaken off, and from her features, one could estimate that she was around fifteen to nineteen years old.
‘Not bad. Come with me.’ The man seized the young girl’s wrist and pulled her towards him.
Indignant, Yuzhi was about to teach that man a lesson when Feng Zhanbai slanted a look at Wuqi. Yuzhi did not see how Wuqi interfered, but in the next moment, that man had already fallen to the ground with a loud thump.
Cursing, he scrambled back to his feet, and waved away the few servants who had rushed forward to support him. Incensed, he shouted, ‘Don’t you know who I am? My father is General Wen Rukai, and I am his third son.’
The crowd was immediately taken-aback, surprise etched into their eyes.
Xuanji froze, before whispering to Yuzhi, ‘Such a failure really exists within your family?’
Yuzhi muttered with grievance, ‘Wen Rukai has many sons and daughters, but not all of them has permission to enter the palace, so I haven’t met them all. But seeing how he lords over everyone else, I guess he might be.’
An idea formed within Xuanji’s mind. Turning towards the self-proclaimed son of General Wen, she said, ‘I think you’re a fraud. Doesn’t anyone else think it strange that the great son of General Wen is illiterate?’
Temper rising, that man jabbed a finger towards Xuanji. ‘You dare to accuse me of being illiterate?’
Xuanji smiled. Facing the crowd, she said, ‘This young girl is selling herself to pay for her father’s burial. Since she is selling, there must also be a buyer. Dare I ask, Young Master Wen, where are your coins? Do you still claim to be literate now? How could General Wen have an illiterate son like you?’
Laughter. Several fingers pointed towards the man, furious whispers rippling across the crowd of onlookers.
Flushing heavily, the man grabbed a coin bag hanging around the waist of his servant, before tossing it to the ground. Sneering, he said, ‘Hand her over.’
The young girl stared at the money pouch. Biting her lips, she slowly reached for it.
At the same moment, several of the man’s servants obeyed his order and rushed forward to seize the young girl. Wuqi was about to intervene yet his wrist was abruptly caught in a tight hold. Surprised, he turned, only to meet the eyes of the young man who was dressed in violet.
Xuanji took a step forward and blocked the young girl from view. Yuzhi quickly hastened to her side.
Bending down, Xuanji whispered into the young girl’s ear. ‘I apologise in advance.’
Nonplussed, the young girl had not yet reacted when Xuanji abruptly reached out, pulling down her robes to reveal part of her shoulder. In the modern world, this could not be considered a provocative way of dressing, and was not even comparable to wearing a tank top while shopping on the streets.
Yet this was Xi Liang, and several sharp intakes of breath immediately reverberated.
In unison, numerous voices exclaimed, ‘How could you do that?’
Fuming, Wuqi demanded, ‘What are you trying to do?’
Yuzhi stared, at a loss for words. Feng Zhanbai’s eyes were slightly narrowed.
Xuanji’s gaze swept across the crowd, landing upon each of them, before she finally spoke. ‘Does anyone else also have family the same age as this young girl? All of you were shocked by my simple action, but what do you think awaits her, if she were to leave with this pretender Young Master Wen? Only worse humiliation! All of us can help her, but why haven’t we? There are so many of us here – if each of us contribute a few coins, we can help her bury her father.’
A ringing echo pierced the air. One coin landed on the ground, rolling to a stop.
In an instant, a shower of copper coins joined it, the whistling of falling coins reminiscent to pouring rain.
‘Earlier, this young man said to give this girl five hundred taels of silver… give her five hundred.’ A few other men had joined the crowd.
The man who spoke was dressed differently from them. He was attired in a set of traditional robes patterned with horizontal stripes. A hat carved with a brilliant red gem was perched on his head. With high cheekbones, deep-set eyes and a straight nose, the man’s handsomeness was extraordinary. Yet his features, coupled with the strange gemstone, made Xuanji guess that he was not native to Xi Liang. Curious, she looked at him for a couple more seconds.
That man was also observing her, a smile stretching across his lips.
That man had watched them for a long time, but only now did he step forward to donate. Ignoring him, Xuanji continued to pick up the coins on the ground. Beside her, Feng Zhanbai had crouched down to help her, and upon seeing his Young Master’s actions, Wuqi also hurried forward to join them.
The young girl was still staring at Xuanji. Xuanji smiled at her, and she hurriedly lowered her head.
Remembering something, Xuanji reached for her outer robe.
Yet Feng Zhanbai extended a hand and stopped her. In a low voice, he said, ‘I’ll do it.’
He removed his outer robe, placing it over the young girl.
He understood her intentions. Immediately grateful, Xuanji smiled at him in thanks.
At this moment, a hand came into Xuanji’s line of sight. She looked up to see that it belonged to the foreigner who had spoken seconds ago.
‘Banknote,’ the man said with a slight smile.
Xuanji said tonelessly, ‘You’ve given it to the wrong person.’
At this moment, someone’s fingers landed on the banknote, taking them. The foreign man’s brows creased. Xuanji and Yuzhi glanced over to see another newcomer.
With a faint smile, the newcomer dressed in green said, ‘Na-ming, so you are here.’
The foreign man laughed. ‘It’s you? The world is indeed small.’
Xuanji also wanted to laugh. What was this? Out of nowhere came a foreign man, and now, even his friend had appeared?
The green-robed man glanced at Xuanji. She was still puzzled when she saw the man remove another banknote from within his robes, before passing it, along with the banknote he had taken from Na-ming, to the young girl.
The green-robed man was generous, and had given a thousand taels.
Smiling brightly, Yuzhi said, ‘He’s more decisive than that barbarian.’
The foreign man, Na-ming, sneered coldly, ‘Who are you calling a barbarian?’
Yuzhi pursed her lips. In a low voice, Xuanji said, ‘Yuzhi, that’s enough.’
She patted Yuzhi’s shoulder, and continued to pick up the coins, her head bowed. The crowd began to disperse, and Yuzhi, who had cottoned on, said, ‘Thank you for your help.’
The green-robed man smiled. ‘You understand when to back-off. I suppose you must hail from a noble family.’
Xuanji observed the two of them for a moment, then said, ‘My brother and I own a small business. In my view, the two of you are the true aristocrats.’
After the group of them had picked up the coins from the ground, Na-ming ordered one of his servants to retrieve a pouch, before Yuzhi passed the pouch filled with coins to the young girl.
Feng Zhanbai said, ‘I wanted to help, but did not realise my coins had also been stolen. I am ashamed to say I did not do much.’
The green-robed man smiled. ‘You are too polite. We are all citizens of Xi Liang, and can’t possibly let this foreigner steal our glory.’
Yet Na-ming was not annoyed, and laughed loudly. Yuzhi was also smiling happily.
Xuanji glanced at the young girl who was still sitting by the corner, her head hung low. Downcast, she could not smile like the others, and instead asked, ‘Now that this matter has been settled, I wonder where all of you are heading towards?’
In a quiet voice, Feng Zhanbai said to Wuqi, ‘Wuqi, head over to Uncle Dong’s and inform him I am to be delayed.’ He paused, then added to the rest of them, ‘I wasn’t of much help earlier, but I’m willing to accompany the young girl and see if there’s anything else I can do for her father’s burial.’
Feng Zhanbai had spoken her thoughts once again.
Xuanji smiled, ‘Thank you, Big Brother Feng. My younger brother and I are also willing to help.’
As Feng Zhanbai heard Xuanji address him as her Big Brother without the hint of unfamiliarity, for a fleeting moment, it seemed as though the two of them had known each other for years. His heart skipped a beat, but as he was a reserved man, his face remained unchanged.
Na-ming turned to look at Xuanji, and said with great spirit, ‘One should always finish what one has started. I’ll go with you too. What about you, Yunyang?’
The green-robed man, Yunyang, smiled. ‘It’s rare for a barbarian like you to be so helpful, so how can I fall behind?’
Xuanji and Yuzhi laughed. She hadn’t expected that, in the end, the entire group of them would be going together to help the young girl settle her father’s burial.
Suddenly, Yuzhi recalled something, and faltered. ‘Sister-in-, no, brother, if we keep getting delayed, can we still make it in time to the brothel?’
At once, Xuanji wanted to strangle her. Dumbfounded by Yuzhi’s outburst, her gaze could only land upon the few men standing opposite her. As expected, they were all staring at Yuzhi and her in surprise, before they laughed.
Mischievously, Na-ming said to Xuanji, ‘You’re heading for the brothel?’
Xuanji reddened, just as a thought emerged in her mind: if Long Fei-li were to discover that she and Yuzhi had visited the brothel, what would his expression be like?
Peeved, Yuzhi demanded, ‘What – what’s wrong?’
As Xuanji and Yuzhi were still young and inexperienced, they had not realised that these three men all hailed from influential backgrounds, and had been exposed to a great variety of people, to have seen through both of their disguises to realise that they were women.
Na-ming seemed to have come from a wealthy family, and his servants easily arranged for two carriages. Not far from where they stood was a funeral parlour, and after they helped the young girl buy a coffin, burial robes, and other necessities for the funeral rites, they then asked the girl for her address, before departing for her home.
As they sat within the carriage, the group of them exchanged names and briefly introduced themselves.
Na-ming was indeed foreign to Xi Liang. He was a merchant from the country of Yue Luo, and was here on a holiday.
Yunyang hailed from the prefecture of Leyang, where his family were landowners. Today, he had arrived at the capital to visit his extended family and other friends. Earlier in the day, he had already crossed paths with Na-ming.
Na-ming was only the man’s family name; his full name was Na-ming Tianlang.
Whereas Yunyang’s family name was Leng.
Yuzhi, who suddenly remembered that one of the two people who had arrived at the capital to ask for her hand in marriage was a prince of Yue Luo, decided to extend her unhappiness to the people of Yue Luo as well, rolling her eyes at Na-ming Tianlang.
In return, Na-ming Tianlang gave a snort, before ignoring her, his eyes unconsciously drawn to Xuanji.
When it was Feng Zhanbai’s turn to introduce himself, he only smiled faintly, before saying that he had arrived in the capital for reasons similar to Yunyang’s. His family hailed from the prefecture of Yanxia, and upon the entreaties of his parents, he had come to pay a visit to a long-time family friend.
Xuanji nodded as she listened, but in her heart, she wondered how much of each of their introductions were real.
Instead, she only said that she and Yuzhi both lived at the outskirts of the capital, and was here specially to visit the courtesan contest held today in Yanyu Tower. Since Yuzhi had already blurted that they were heading for the brothel, Xuanji simply followed her narrative.
Seeing her lack of bashfulness, the few men laughed.
As their laughter ebbed away, the young girl finally spoke, her voice soft. ‘My name is Cui-ya. I am very grateful for all your help. In the future, I will do everything I can to repay your kindness.’
Yunyang smiled, ‘Don’t say that.’
Xuanji added, ‘You must live well after you’ve buried your father, and this will be the best way you can repay us.’ She thought for a moment, then raised her brows and said, ‘None of you have the intention to take her in?’
The three men smiled, and Na-ming chided with a laugh, ‘I’m not as vile as that despicable man.’
Instead, it was Cui-ya who was anxious. She was not eloquent, and did not know how to express her thoughts, so she hurriedly knelt and said, ‘My father taught me to always repay my debts. I can do all the chores in your households…’
Sympathising with Cui-ya, Xuanji lifted her up from the floor. ‘Cui-ya, who do you think should take you in, since you have so many creditors? We can’t possibly split you into three, or have you rotated around each of their houses, since they’ve all come from such faraway places. What do you think we should do?’
‘Brother Xuan, why haven’t you included yourself?’ Feng Zhanbai said with a faint smile.
Yunyang agreed, and Na’ming Tianlang vehemently chimed in his approval.
Earlier, when they were introducing themselves, Xuanji had said her name was Nian Xuan, while Yuzhi followed her family name to call herself Nian Yu.
Xuanji had addressed Feng Zhanbai as her big brother, and in turn, he addressed her as his younger brother.
Feng Zhanbai… Though Xuanji did not know the man’s true identity, she could not deny the sense of familiarity she felt with him. Perhaps it was because of his likenesses to Lin Sheng.
With a half-smile, she was about to reply, when Cui-ya whispered to her, ‘Young Master Nian, please accept me as your servant and allow me to serve you.’
Laughing, Wuqi said, ‘Hey, Nian Yu. This young girl has taken a fancy to your elder brother.’
Yuzhi smiled widely, ‘Of course. Otherwise, do you think it possible for her to have taken a liking to you?’
At once, Wuqi’s temper heated, but he quickly restrained his urge to bestow a punch to Nian Yu upon seeing the creased brows of his Young Master.
Hearing Cui-ya’s earnest pleas, Xuanji was also put in a difficult position. Her status was unusual, so how could she possibly bring Cui-ya back with her? But Cui-ya was stubborn, and seemed to have her heart set on her. Her eyes were red and swollen, yet she continued to stare at Xuanji.
At this moment, their carriage rolled to a stop outside the destitute village which housed Cui-ya’s family.
Xu Xi, Xia Sang and Qingfeng stood by Long Fei-li’s side. Long Zijin, Xiahou Chu and Duan Yuhuan were also present, their faces heavy.
Earlier, Concubine Nian had vanished, and now, even Yuzhi had disappeared.
Long Fei-li’s expression was a picture of serenity, yet Yuzhi’s personal servant, Yan’er, was trembling in fear as she knelt on the ground.
Coldly, Long Fei-li said, ‘I do not care how well the Princess treats you. I will only ask this once. If I am unsatisfied with your answer, you will be hung.’
‘Your Majesty, please be merciful, please be merciful –’ Terrified, Yan’er furiously kowtowed.
Long Fei-li levelled a look at Xia Sang.
Xia Sang’s voice grew stern. ‘In recent days, has the Princess mentioned any place she wanted to visit?’
Yan’er bit her lips, and after a pause, stammered, ‘Yes, the Princess did talk about wanting to visit a place named Yanyu Tower!’
Hearing her words, Long Zijin, Xiahou Chu and Duan Yuhuan were immediately taken-aback. The three of them lived beyond the palace walls and had long heard of Yanyu Tower.
Frowning, Xia Sang asked, ‘What is Yanyu Tower?’
Long Zijin gave a long sigh to himself. If Long Fei-li were to discover Yanyu Tower was, in fact, a brothel… He thought for a moment, and decided the best option now was to change the topic, and only inform Long Fei-li the nature of Yanyu Tower after he had put in a few good words for Yuzhi.
He prevaricated, ‘Ninth Brother, where do you think Concubine Nian is?’
‘If I am not mistaken, Nian Xuanji should be with Yuzhi now. When Yuzhi disappeared, it was around the same time she vanished from Fengjiu Palace. And in recent days, the two of them have been on close terms.’
Long Zijin, Xiahou Chu and Duan Yuhuan shared a look. Putting Yuzhi aside, now, even Concubine Nian might be there?
Scalps tingling, they hastily lowered their heads.
Long Fei-li’s eyes hardened as he observed each of them in turn.
In a low voice, he said, ‘Tenth Brother, what is Yanyu Tower?’
Entering the room, the woman immediately froze at the sight of Xuanji and Yuzhi, before whispering, ‘You’ve really come.’
Xuanji nodded, while Yuzhi remained puzzled.
Sighing softly, Xuanji strode forward and pulled the girl closer to Yuzhi. At once, Yuzhi’s eyes widened as she saw the deep-set red mark around the woman’s neck.
‘If I hadn’t stumbled across her earlier, she would have been dead.’
Faltering, Yuzhi said to the woman, ‘Aren’t you about to compete in the contest? Why have you tried to hang yourself?’
The woman smiled bitterly. ‘My name is Liu Shimin. I was arranged to marry my elder cousin, but was humiliated by a wealthy man in my village because of my looks. Though I escaped, my parents were beaten to their deaths trying to save me. Later, that man was freed after he bribed the magistrates. Instead, both my cousin and my family’s assets were seized. This year, my cousin vowed to sit for the Imperial Examinations to redress my parents’ grievances, but without money, we are finding it increasingly impossible to support ourselves. In the end, I made up my mind to sell myself to Yanyu Tower behind my cousin’s back. I’ve already sent for someone to deliver the money to him…’
‘And now you’re planning to hang yourself?’ Yuzhi stamped her feet and said urgently, ‘You’re too foolish! That barbarian deserves death. Tell me his name, and I’ll –’
Xuanji interrupted, ‘Yuzhi, we can decide later how we’re going to bring justice to her parents. Now, our priority is to help her escape.’
‘Isn’t that easy?’ Yuzhi said puzzledly. ‘We’ll either ask that barbarian Na-ming for some money to buy her back from Yanyu Tower, or we’ll help her to sneak out.’
Xuanji explained heavily, ‘That wouldn’t work! Today, I realised that the world is truly a small place. Did you know? Last night, one of the patrons of Yanyu Tower already had his sights fixed on Liu Shimin. Regardless of whether she wins the contest later or otherwise, he has ordered for her to be delivered to his rooms tonight. The Madame will not sell her.’
Yuzhi’s brows furrowed. ‘Who is that person?’
Xuanji smiled bitterly. ‘Third Young Master Wen.’
‘What? That pig-headed man?’
‘Earlier, I saw that one of the tables had already been reserved for him and his father, Wen Rukai.’
Immediately alarmed, Yuzhi exclaimed, ‘Wen Rukai will also be here tonight?’
Xuanji sighed. ‘Things would be less complicated if it were only his son here tonight. But you’ve met General Wen, and cannot reveal your face in front of him. We’ll have to think of another way to help her escape.’
‘But the fifteen chosen courtesans are about to begin their performances soon.’ Yuzhi chewed on her bottom lip as she paced the room frantically. ‘If we were to help her sneak out, and she doesn’t appear on stage, they’ll catch on soon enough…’
Nodding, Xuanji said, ‘En, that’s where the problem lies.’ She paused, then added, ‘If Liu Shimin were among the last few to perform, this will not be an issue. But she is the sixth performer.’
At this moment, Liu Shimin spoke, her face lined with bitter resignation. ‘I am grateful for the two of you, only, this is destined to be my lot in life.’
Quietly, Xuanji disagreed, ‘If your cousin were to learn of this, wouldn’t he carry this guilt for the rest of his life? Even if he were to achieve success in the future, it will not change the past, so don’t think of it in this way. A thousand problems will always have a thousand solutions…’
Suddenly, a flurry of knocks thumped against the door.
‘Liu Shimin, there’s still half an hour to the start of the contest. You are the sixth to perform and should finish your preparations soon.’
Yuzhi grabbed onto Xuanji’s arm and whispered, ‘What should we do?’
Brows knitting, Xuanji began slowly, ‘There is a way… Liu Shimin is known for her skill with the zither. Yuzhi, do you know how to play the zither?’
Yuzhi nodded, before exclaiming, ‘Sister-in-law, you’re not intending for me to masquerade as Liu Shimin while she escapes, are you? This is a good idea that can buy us some time… only, Wen Rukai recognises my face.’
Eyelashes fluttering, Xuanji smiled. ‘No one said you couldn’t mask your face.’
‘No! No!’ Yuzhi shook her head hurriedly. ‘I’m scared of General Wen. I don’t know why, but each time he enters the palace, I’m scared to see him.’ Brightening, Yuzhi patted her on her head and said, ‘Sister-in-law, why don’t you go!’
Xuanji did not reply. She did not know how to play the zither. Before she had time-travelled, she had only visited the karaoke with Yuhuan and Zhuizhui, yet she could not possibly go on stage and sing without any musical accompaniment.
According to others, Liu Shimin was not only a beautiful woman, her skill with the zither was also unparalleled; her vocals unmatched. Though Xuanji’s own voice was passable, she paled in comparison to Liu Shimin. Moreover, if she were to sing without any musical accompaniment, it would be too easy for others to catch onto the gap in her ability with Liu Shimin’s rumoured skill.
Yuzhi knew how to play the zither but was afraid to perform. Xuanji was unafraid of embarrassing herself and ruining Yanyu Tower’s reputation in the process but was unfamiliar with the zither…
Biting her lips, she paced the room, just as an idea bloomed in her mind.
Turning, she asked Yuzhi, ‘Yuzhi, how long does it take for you to learn a new song?’
Yuzhi thought for a moment, then said, ‘I’m not boasting when I say this, but if it were a simple song, I’d be able to learn it in minutes.’
‘That’s good!’ Xuanji brightened, before lowering her voice. ‘Yuzhi, listen. I’ll exchange my clothes with Liu Shimin now, and once she’s done packing, you’ll help her sneak out through the back door. You know martial arts, so this shouldn’t be an issue.’
Yuzhi and Liu Shimin both jumped to their feet, quietly listening to her words.
Yuzhi clutched her chest, her hands dotted with cold sweat, only to hear Xuanji continue, ‘Later, hurry back and meet me here. We still have some time, and I’ll teach you a new song which you must master as fast as you can. We can mask ourselves and perform: you’ll play the qin at the back of the stage, while I’ll sing at the front.’ She paused. ‘While you’re gone, I will also prepare some things to divert their attention during our performance.’
Yuzhi clapped her hands and laughed. ‘Sister-in-law, this is a good idea. You’re going to compete as a courtesan!’
A private room on the 2nd level of Yanyu Tower.
Sneering coldly, a young man said, ‘I did not expect to see Wen Rukai or those two men here.’
Yet the violet-robed man who sat next to him remained expressionless.
At this moment, two additional men entered their room.
Brows drawing together, the man dressed in deep violet asked, ‘Yuhuan and Xiahou, how is it?’
The two men who had just entered were Duan Yuhuan and Xiahou Chu, while the violet-robed man was Long Fei-li. The first man who had spoken was Long Zijin.
Duan Yuhuan exchanged a glance with Xiahou Chu, before saying in a deep voice, ‘I’ve already sent for the violet guards to make a sweep across each table while disguised… They did not discover anything.’
Behind Long Fei-li, Xia Sang and Qingfeng’s faces grew increasingly sombre.
Long Fei-li’s gaze was a thousand miles away. ‘Continue searching.’
Qingfeng said, ‘Senior, if she cannot be found –’
Long Zijin interrupted, ‘The contest hasn’t started yet. Maybe the two of them have hidden somewhere for now. Given Yuzhi’s character, she will never miss this. Our hidden guards have been stationed at every corner of Yanyu Tower. We’ll know the moment they reveal themselves.’ Though he had said so, the glimmer of uncertainty still underlined his voice.
Long Fei-li’s eyes darkened. ‘If, by mid-contest, they still cannot be found, the entire Yanyu Tower is to be sealed.’
Alarmed, Xia Sang immediately looked at Qingfeng. Only now did he understand why Long Fei-li had ordered Duan Yuhuan to station five hundred imperial guards at the entrance of the alleyway.
Frowning, Long Zijin said, ‘Ninth Brother, is it appropriate to blow the matter up? Wen Rukai and the rest are also here…’
Coldly, Long Fei-li said, ‘Yanyu Tower is suspected to have harboured the assassins who have trespassed the Nian family manor days ago. What do you think?’
‘Good idea!’ Long Zijin understood at once, even as a thought surfaced in his mind: if Nian Xuanji and Yuzhi could not be found, Long Fei-li would surely take his wrath out on Yanyu Tower – the sacrificial lamb. With this, the lifespan of the capital’s most prosperous brothel would come to an end.
As Long Zijin recalled the way Long Fei-li’s mood had darkened upon discovering the nature of Yanyu Tower, a shiver went up his spine.
If it were only Yuzhi, perhaps things would have been salvageable. But Nian Xuanji…
At another corner of Yanyu Tower, Na-ming Tianlang said puzzledly, ‘Why has Ah Xuan taken such a long time at the washroom?’ He fell silent, before turning to one of his servants. ‘Search for him.’
With a relaxed smile, Yunyang laughed. ‘Perhaps he came across something interesting. He and Nian Yu were eager to watch the contest and will surely return.’
On the stage, the fifth courtesan had just concluded her performance. Silk flowers danced through the air, falling across the stage as the enthused crowd celebrated.
Yunyang surveyed the room. Loud chatters, interspersed with a torrent of applause, reverberated against the walls. Beside their table, Third Young Master Wen’s face was red as he stared hungrily at the courtesan. The fifth performer was Yanyu Tower’s most renowned courtesan; blessed with a beautiful face and outstanding talent, of all who had performed so far, she was the clear favourite of the crowd.
Yunyang smiled. ‘The first few courtesans were average. By now, five of them have already performed. In my view, that’s about it.’
Feng Zhanbai said, ‘Their looks are faultless and their skills with the zither remarkable. Yet it is true that they lack something in justifying both of your long journeys here for it.’
By the sides, Wuqi said in a daze, ‘Young Master, what is it that they lack?’
‘Soul.’ Feng Zhanbai’s brows drew together.
Na-ming Tianlang assented. ‘You’re right!’ Carelessly, he scattered a few silk flowers in the direction of the stage. ‘Still, she has put on a good show and deserves reward.’
Two pretty servants assisted the fifth courtesan down the stage, while Madam Huan, the owner of Yanyu Tower, took center stage once more.
After each performance, Madam Huan would return to the stage to say a few words, before introducing the next performer.
With a smile, Madam Huan announced, ‘Thank you all for your generous support! Now, let us invite our sixth performer, Liu Shimin, up on stage!’
As she withdrew, all the lights in the brothel were suddenly extinguished.
‘What’s going on?’ Several surprised exclamations pierced the air as confused murmurs rippled across the audience in quick succession.
At this moment, a faint halo of light sparked to life from the inner stage. Slowly, the intensity of the light increased, yet the entire brothel remained smothered in darkness.
Yunyang, who was originally distracted by his thoughts, was jolted back to present moment when Na-ming Tianlang nudged him. ‘Look at that.’
From the corner of Yunyang’s eyes, he saw that Feng Zhanbai’s attention had already been drawn to the stage.
Under the soft glow of the lone light illuminating the room, slowly, a woman dressed in violet came into view, a palace lantern held within her outstretched hand. Shadows, lit by the flame, danced across the walls, accompanying the white lantern which swayed with her movements.
The woman stood still on the stage, and the lights flared back to life. Yet the room did not regain its original brightness. Instead, numerous small lanterns, lining the ledges of the second floor, had been lit.
Small lanterns, each with a flame curling at the edges of melting candles, cast the room in a hazy glow.
Unlike the previous performers who were greeted with a torrent of applause when they entered the stage, now, not a single clap was heard. The entire room had fallen into still silence; a single intake of breath was all that was needed to pierce this tranquillity.
At this moment, the lilting tunes of a zither began to fill the air, yet the person playing the instrument remained hidden in the shadows. The melody was unfamiliar to everyone seated within Yanyu Tower: serene in its quietness, gentle in its serenity, and sorrowful in its gentleness.
Everyone’s attention was held hostage by the woman standing on the stage. Her head was bowed, and a strange urge to lift her head and reveal her features seized everyone’s hearts, yet no one dared to breathe a word.
As though perceptive of their thoughts, the woman placed the lantern down on the floor.
Slowly, she raised her head.
The roses which had been embroidered on the front of her robes were revealed. Her long violet dress pooled on the floor; translucent silk coiled around her arms. Numerous light purple tassels were hung across the ribbon twining her waist, swaying gently with her movements. Her long black hair was coiled, an emerald phoenix hairpin holding them in place, save for a few wayward strands which had fallen around her face.
Yet a pale violet silk masked her features. All that could be seen of her face were two beautiful brows, curving like crescent moons, and a pair of almond-shaped eyes.
The woman met their gazes. Light reflected off her eyes, which were clear but liquid; though they did not harbour any trace of a courtesan’s coquettishness, those who fell into her gaze were unable to look away.
The melody of the zither, which had trailed off, began to stir once again, its lilting notes as smooth as the running waters of a lake.
A clear voice joined it:
The most beautiful moment in my life
Was when I met you.
In a sea of people, my eyes found you
So distant, yet so familiar.
Though we breathe the same air under one sky,
I cannot touch you; hug you.
If we meet in another world and time with different names,
I wish I can still recognise your eyes.
In a thousand years’ time, where will you be?
What will your surroundings be like?
Our story cannot be considered beautiful,
Yet it is so difficult to forget…
The lyrics were strange. No one understood what the woman was singing, yet they remained intoxicated within the stirring melody woven by the zither and her voice.
A sharp intake of breath sounded from one of the tables. One, two… Nearly everyone jumped to their feet, their eyes in a trance as they stared at the white snow which suddenly fluttered across the room.
From the woman’s outstretched hands, a cloud of snowflakes was scattered, dancing through the air. One snowflake, then another. In an instant, the entire stage was transformed into a stretch of boundless white, as though snowfall had arrived.
Under the gentle glow of the lanterns, a ripple of snowflakes blanketed the room, landing upon each person.
Feng Zhanbai’s brows were tightly creased, yet his gaze was helplessly drawn towards the woman on the stage. In a soft voice, she continued to sing, even as snow flitted through her fingers like magic. Yet a faint sorrow shone within the depths of her eyes.
His fingers curled into fists by his sides. A moment later, they uncurled, and he picked up a snowflake which had fallen onto him, placing it within his robes.
Yanyu Tower, Level Two.
Duan Yuhuan and Xiahou Chu returned once more to report their findings, their faces written with twin looks of apprehension.
Yet they were greeted with Prince Lingrui, Xia Sang and Qingfeng’s strange stillness.
Even the Emperor remained unmoving. His eyes were intent upon the stage, while his fingers were curled tightly around the railings, knuckles whitening.
The cloud of white snow dancing across Long Fei-li’s eyes suddenly dissolved into an image, as though a faraway memory, lost for a thousand years, had surfaced within his mind…
Mermaid Palace of the Deep Seas.
The man turned, and without pausing, departed, his tall figure slowly disappearing from sight. Yet someone chased him, and two arms wound around his body.
Brows creasing, the man stopped, turning around.
A pair of coldly distant eyes took in the body plastered against his, and a flash of annoyance crossing his features.
The woman’s head was bowed low, and her expression could not be seen, but when she spoke, her voice trembled with unconcealed happiness.
‘Hao’zi, just now, did you say that you will be coming over to my room tonight?’ Zisu said.
‘En.’ His gaze fell towards her hands, his expression cold.
He turned away, and her hands could only fall from his waist to hang by her sides. As she moved, the light purple tassels hanging on her violet dress swayed.
They had been married for several years, but he had never deigned to touch her. Eventually, an Elder of the Celestial Tribe had advised him: Zisu was, after all, the Celestial Emperor’s youngest daughter, and he should not give others an opening to denounce him.
If that was what everyone wished for, then he would bestow her a night!
‘Then, I will wait for you…’
In a low voice, he interrupted her, ‘That is unnecessary. You can do as you please. I do not know what time I will be coming over.’
‘It doesn’t matter if you will only be done with your work late in the night. I will hang a palace lantern at my door – if it is lit, it means that I’m still awake.’
His gaze dipped down, landing on a small palace lantern which had been placed on the ground.
With a cold sneer, he said, ‘Why do you bring this everywhere you go?’
‘It’s dark here,’ she said quietly.
The Dragon Emperor, Long Hao, had bestowed to his wife, the Dragon Empress, Zisu, the most isolated and dimly-lit quarters within the Mermaid Palace.
‘Our Mermaid Palace of the Deep Seas is incomparable to the clear skies overarching the Celestial Palace. Princess Zisu, you have suffered,’ Long Hao said, his lips curling in derision.
Turning, he left with a sweep of his sleeves.
Behind him, Zisu stared at his back until it disappeared from view. Only then did she bend down, slowly picking up the palace lantern, before walking back to her room.
About the pseudonyms:
Feng Zhanbai = Bai Zhanfeng (descendant of the Bai family LFL is searching for)
Leng Yunyang = Prince Yunyang = Long Xiuwen (LFL’s 7th brother)
Na-ming = Na-ming Tianlang = 2nd Prince of Yue Luo (one of the two people asking for Yuzhi’s hand in marriage)
For the last scene, if it’s unclear: when Long Fei-li watched Xuanji perform, an image of their first lives surfaced in his mind, likely because Xuanji had dressed in a way extremely similar to Zisu [紫 zi = violet].
& the song which Xuanji sang actually exists in real life. ^^
It’s 星月神话 [xin yue shen hua; myth of the stars and moon] by 金莎 [Jin Sha].