Adjacent to the back of the Sun Manor was a row of houses where most of the Sun Manor’s servants lived.
Fang Feng Sheng’s dowry servants1, Wang Er’s whole family, lived here. Because Fang Feng Sheng was now given face2 in the manor, once she informed that she was dropping them a visit, the granny guarding the back door didn’t dare stop her.
Uncle Yu was the Fang family’s steward, a tall and silent man over forty years of age. He walked with a limp caused by an injury he had suffered early in his life, rendering him a bit handicapped. He was with Fang Yan for a considerable length of time, going all the way back to when Fang Feng Sheng was still a child.
This time, Fang Yan’s misfortune had greatly affected him, quickly turning his hair silver and covering his face with frost and dust.
“Miss, is your body well?”
“When Miss fainted that day, I was extremely worried. I’m glad you’re fine now.”
Fang Feng Sheng sat down on a chair, and Uncle Yu followed suit.
Wang Er’s wife brought tea. She and her husband, Wang Er, were servants who had accompanied Fang Feng Sheng to the Sun family after marriage. Because Fang Feng Sheng was not very favored in the manor, Wang Er was assigned to the carriages and horses, while his wife was reduced to a low-rank servant tending to flowers and plants, both jobs being insignificant and unrewarding.
“Is there anything Uncle Yu wants to tell me? We didn’t seem to have finished our conversation that day.”
Uncle Yu observed the tea in his hand with half-drooped eyelids. “I have nothing more to say. As long as Miss is alright, we’re all well.”
Wang Er’s wife, who was standing idly by, wiped her tears and added, “Yes, as long as Miss is fine, we are all fine. Miss, when you got sick, this servant and this servant’s husband were terrified, but we’re powerless, and all we can do is worry.”
“But I’m not fine at all. Do you think I can be fine?”
Fang Feng Sheng’s pale lips curled up into a desolate smile, her face suddenly mournful, “Even if none of you tell me, I’m well aware of the recent events at home. A few clan elders from the Fang family are conservative and seek stability, so my father’s position as head of the family has probably changed. Will the next be from eldest uncle’s family, or from fourth uncle’s family? Anyway, it’s not like there’s anything important in that old house. If they want to take it, then they can just take it. But my father——”
At the mention of Fang Yan, Fang Feng Sheng felt a suffocating pain in her heart. She caressed her chest with her delicate fingers and felt hollow inside, as though someone had pierced a hole in it.
Her fingers shook and her voice trembled as she deplored, “I can’t accept that my father died so unclearly under the guise of committing suicide to escape punishment! He’s my father. He had raised and taught me for over ten years. I know him best. Perhaps from others’ perspective, an advisor’s job is to cook up schemes using deceit and trickery. But the Liang Huai Salt Administration should also be held accountable. With my father’s personality, he wouldn’t get so easily entangled in such affairs, much less advise Lord Zhou to embezzle tax and silver.”
“So Uncle Yu, can you tell me what’s going on?”
The air seemed to have stagnated.
They were at a standstill for an unknown period of time, until Uncle Yu sighed softly and answered, “Miss, why do you need to get to the bottom of this? Some things are way too complicated. It’s not that I don’t want to tell you, but I don’t know anything either.”
“Uncle Yu, my father trusts you the most. If anyone else said they didn’t know, I would believe them. But since it’s you, I don’t believe it.”
Uncle Yu still had his head half-hung, staring intently at the teacup in his hand as though it contained the world’s most beautiful view.
Fang Feng Sheng straightened her back and took a deep breath, “Uncle Yu, I’ll one day find out the truth even if you don’t tell me. I can’t accept that my father died just like that.”
“Miss, why should you bother?”
“Uncle Yu, you know my personality. I’ll figure this out as long as I’m alive!”
“Wait for a while,” Uncle Yu muttered, stood up, and strode to the inner room.
Uncle Yu handed Fang Feng Sheng a letter.
The letter was sealed with lacquer and the envelope was old and yellowed, evident that it was written long ago.
After opening, on it was Fang Yan’s handwriting, which no one was more familiar with than Fang Feng Sheng.
This was Fang Feng Sheng’s first time seeing Fang Yan’s handwriting since she got married. To be more precise, this was the first time Fang Feng Sheng received something from Fang Yan since she got married.
Although she obeyed her father’s orders and married into the Sun family, a gap between father and daughter had formed, and they were estranged for nearly two years.
As a result, Fang Feng Sheng was desperately eager to read it.
Feng Sheng, my child, see the letter as follows:
I remember the day your mother gave birth to you, where the sky was filled with colorful haze. People were saying that the child would be extraordinary, and that the child would be a son, but who would’ve thought it would instead be a daughter.
Your mother panicked and blamed herself for not giving birth to a son.
In the past ten years, you’ve gone far beyond Father’s wildest dreams. I had thought that because you’re a woman, you should abide by ethics, but my heart can’t bear you to be bound by them. As long as Father is still strong, I can indulge you for these two years, but who knows…?
Lord Zhou is just and upright, and although Father felt something was wrong, I did not have the heart to refute him… The Great Zhou Dynasty was founded only four generations ago, but I never imagined that the Liang Huai Salt Administration would become so corrupt… Lord Zhou had insisted on submitting a memorial, but I was merely an assistant and was unable to share his worries, so I could only follow him and stay with him until death.
You’re the only one Father worries about.
I remembered the engagement Brother Jing Fang3 and I had agreed on more than ten years ago, so I came to his door to ask him, not to give you riches and honor, but to protect and keep you safe.
If Father is safe and sound this time, I will let you know the details. If Father dies, this letter will be given to you, so please take care of yourself and stay away from this matter.
A certain scene seemed to unfurl before Fang Feng Sheng’s eyes——
The green lamp’s tiny flame was the size of a bean. A thin man in a blue shirt, the hair on his temples greying, was hunched on a desk, writing in a scurry—reminiscent for one second, melancholy the next.
He wrote in such a hurry that the ink on the paper had not dried enough, yet he hastily packed and sealed it with lacquer.
The night was as thick as ink, much like his black eyes, dark and deep.
“So, when my father forced me to marry into the Sun family, it was because he had anticipated that something might happen?”
In the quiet air, Fang Feng Sheng’s despondent voice rang out.
Wang Er’s wife had long gone, and only Uncle Yu and Zhi Chun remained.
“Why, then, did my father commit suicide? Lord Zhou had insisted on reporting this to the court. How come Lord Zhou had turned out to be the greedy one and implicated my father, compelling him to kill himself? What the hell happened?”
No one could answer her.
Fang Feng Sheng laughed.
It was a silent laugh at first, but it gradually grew more and more deranged until she couldn’t stop and started to convulse.
“Miss!” Zhi Chun anxiously cried out.
Fang Feng Sheng’s soul seemed to have left her body, her eyes out of focus.
She was laughing one moment, crying the next, and then just laughing and sobbing incoherently altogether.
“I thought my father disliked me for being a woman. I thought my father still wanted a son. I thought my father was sanctimonious; obviously my mother had just died, but he immediately took in a new woman. I thought he couldn’t wait to have a son, so he forced me out to marry once Concubine He got pregnant. I thought……”
“Miss, don’t laugh! Don’t laugh!” Zhi Chun rushed up and hugged her.
Others didn’t know, but Zhi Chun knew what kind of torture the girl had endured the past two years.
She was supposed to fly unbridled, but her wings were forcefully torn out. The current Fang Feng Sheng was a stranger to Zhi Chun. Growing up with Fang Feng Sheng, she watched the girl’s dazzling radiance transform into a pool of stagnant water.
And all of this was caused by the Master. Zhi Chun still remembered the day the girl trudged out of the Master’s study, how ashen her heart had been, and how she seemed to have lost all her faith at once.
The Master died in prison, but now it was suddenly disclosed that, although he had coerced her to marry—to the point of threatening to sever the relationship between father and daughter—all of it was to protect her. How could Miss be reconciled even just for a moment?
Fang Feng Sheng choked and coughed.
She was already emaciated, and after such a revelation, her poor health, which had been in a sorry state the past two years, would only dwindle further.
“So I was wrong…”
A mouthful of blood sprayed out of her mouth.
Zhi Chun screamed and frantically went to wipe her face and stroke her chest. Uncle Yu also stood up, watching her with deep concern in his eyes.
“Wang Er’s wife, go get a doctor,” Zhi Chun cried out.
Wang Er’s wife ran inside in a panic and rushed up to see, “What’s wrong? What happened? I’m calling the doctor.”
As soon as she turned around, she was tugged at the corner of her coat.
Fang Feng Sheng, who had been wheezing with her eyes closed, suddenly stirred.
She pushed Zhi Chun aside and shot straight up.
The thin shoulders hidden under the xiangfei-red cloth made the garments appear much larger, and although bony, her spine was ramrod straight and upright.
“Uncle Yu, can you tell me where my father is buried?”
“Several of the clan elders didn’t allow Master to enter the ancestral grave, so I buried him at the foot of Nanshan Mountain.”
“I want to go see him,” Fang Feng Sheng willed. She wiped the corners of her mouth and turned to step forward, “But before I do, I need to leave this place.”
“Miss!” Uncle Yu exclaimed, his voice deep.
Fang Feng Sheng’s footsteps hastened.
“Miss, I gave you the letter hoping you will follow Master’s wishes to love yourself, to stop fighting with yourself, and to live a good and peaceful life. Husband and wife can be harmonious, and with children running around your knees, I’m sure Master will be at ease in the Nine Springs4.”
Fang Feng Sheng didn’t even look back: “Uncle Yu, are you reconciled?”
Uncle Yu was stunned. Reconciled?
The scene from the night of Fang Yan’s accident seemed to flash before his face——
“Ah5 Yu, I only have one daughter in my life, and I love her like a treasure. I blame myself for my selfishness, for a woman should never leave the house and should abide by the three obediences and four virtues6. Actually, it couldn’t have been that bad, but I was too willful and taught her too many things….
“How can the sparrow and swallow know the will of the great swan?7 But having been a swan, having seen how high and wide the sky is, how could she be willing to be a sparrow? I’m sure the child is still blaming me for her marriage. But if I don’t let her blame me, she won’t agree… She’s stubborn and headstrong. If something happens to me, I’m afraid she won’t let it go. You should try your best to pacify her. As long as she can live in peace, even if I die, I will have no regrets…”
But, how can one be reconciled?
Uncle Yu still hadn’t forgotten how miserable he felt when he collected Fang Yan’s corpse.
They tortured him!
He had followed Fang Yan for nearly twenty years, and no one knew Fang Yan’s character better than he did. He wouldn’t commit suicide when the situation was still unclear because it would be equivalent to confessing his crime. It was those people who first used torture but couldn’t extort a confession, so they simply killed him off under the guise of suicide.
“Master, what about me?”
“You saved my life, so I pledged my life to you. Now that you’re in danger, how can you leave me out of it? This isn’t a situation that others can’t solve, so why do you have to take such risks?”
Fang Yan heaved a sigh and smiled listlessly, “Ah Yu, you don’t understand. You see how scared Lord Zhou is? But I can’t be afraid. Someone has to step up and tell His Majesty. Maybe I’m just thinking too much. Court Elder Song8 is Lord Zhou’s mentor, and with his help, nothing should happen, and even if something does, there will still be room to maneuver. But Feng Sheng is so precious to me that I can’t risk it. Only by entrusting her to you can I push through with this with a peace of mind…”
“Uncle Yu, I don’t know about you, but I’m not reconciled. My surname is Fang, and I’m Fang Yan’s daughter.”
1 陪房(péifáng): lit. servants who accompany the bride to their husband’s house. I shortened it to ‘dowry servants’ since it seemed fitting.
2 脸(liǎn): lit. face, can mean self-respect, reputation, favor, personal esteem etc. depending on the context. I feel like this is something a lot of c-novel readers are familiar with.
4 九泉 (jiǔ quán): underworld in Chinese mythology
5 阿 (ā): prefix used before monosyllabic names, kinship terms etc to indicate familiarity
6 三从四德 (sān cóng sì dé): Three Obediences and Four Virtues. The most basic set of moral principles and social code of behavior for maidens and married women in Ancient China. The Three Obediences being: obey your father before marriage, obey your husband in marriage, and obey your son in widowhood (although this depends on the situation). The Four Virtues: Female virtues, female words, female appearances, and female work. This link summarizes it well.
7 燕雀安知鸿鹄之志: an idiom, lit. ‘can the sparrow and swallow know the will of the great swan?’; meaning, ‘how can we small fry predict the ambitions of the great?’ This was a famous quote by Chen She in The Records of the Grand Historian, House of Chen She by Sima Qian.