Old Madam sighed as she spoke, giving people the impression that if ‘one didn’t understand, then one was a beast, or something even worse than a beast.’ Zhou mama was also sobbing beside her, seemingly shouldering half of Old Madam’s difficulties.
Under such circumstances, Fang Feng Sheng could only ‘open up her heart’ by expressing that she was indeed a little resentful at first, but after thorough introspection realized that the Sun family also had their own share of difficulties, hence she became more amiable as opposed to her past cold self.
After laying their hearts bare, Old Madam and Feng Sheng seemed to have developed an extraordinarily close sense of affinity.
Old Madam also told Feng Sheng about the joke that the third and fourth misses had played out a few days ago, expressing that the two girls were not sensible and were rambunctious and disobedient, so she requested Feng Sheng to help them out when she had time, and that she would be satisfied if the two of them could be a bit like Feng Sheng.
Feng Sheng could only agree to do so.
After staying for a while, Feng Sheng took her leave and Old Madam bid Zhou mama to escort her out.
Before almost reaching the courtyard gate, Zhou mama voiced out, “Fourth Young Madam, there are some words that Old Madam can’t say. This servant is only a servant, but this one will be brazen and say a few more words, hoping Fourth Young Madam won’t blame me.”
“Mama, there’s no harm in speaking.”
Zhou mama cast a meaningful glance at Zhi Chun, and Feng Sheng understood and gestured at Zhi Chun to move aside.
“The one at Banyan Garden has an extraordinary identity. The two girls have grown up and have their own motives. Old Madam is their grandmother, and if she spoke too clearly, she might embarrass both daughters. It’s also unclear whether or not the two madams have similar intentions, so she naturally couldn’t state anything outright and could only pretend to be confused. But, as the person in charge of the residence’s back courtyard, Old Madam has too many worries. If this matter spreads out, the Sun family will lose face. Old Madam hopes to convince Fourth Young Madam to help look after the two girls. But she also has other intentions.”
“Mama, Old Madam’s meaning is——” Feng Sheng hid the shock in her eyes and continued, “Okay, I understand.”
Zhou mama smiled and nodded, “It’s good that you understand. Old Madam will remember Fourth Young Madam’s kindness.”
“Mama, don’t blame Feng Sheng for being rude, but what is that nobleman’s identity?” As if trying to cover up something, Feng Sheng quickly added, “So that Feng Sheng will know how to take care of it.”
“He’s a dragon son, the third prince of the current emperor.”
Zhou mama nodded, her gaze falling on Feng Sheng’s hand tightly clenching a handkerchief.
“Thank you, mama, Feng Sheng understands.”
Just as she stepped out of the courtyard door, she crossed paths with the Second Master, Sun Qing Hua.
Feng Sheng retreated to the side and saluted, “Father.”
Sun Qing Hua nodded and strode inside the courtyard.
On the way back, Zhi Chun probed Fang Feng Sheng, “Miss, Zhou mama is being so mysterious. What did she tell you?”
Feng Sheng laughed, “Her ah? She only told me that the one in Banyan Garden is a dragon son, the current third prince.”
“A prince?” Zhi Chun’s jaw was about to drop in shock.
“Then, then what did she tell you that meant? Also, the way you spoke to Old Madam just now confused this servant.”
“What she meant? You guess.”
Sun Qing Hua sauntered into the house and saw Old Madam conversing with Zhou mama.
“Mother, Fang-shi was here just now?”
Old Madam smiled and took the booklet placed beside her: “Fang-shi helped me copy scriptures and prayed for me. She just finished two books and sent them to me to see. Come take a look, there’s really nothing more to say about Fang-shi’s writing.”
Sun Qing Hua wasn’t the least bit interested, but Old Madam asked him to look at it, so he could only go up and do as she willed.
“These characters were written by Fang-shi?” He was astonished.
The characters on the paper were melodiously rounded, flexible, quaint and elegant. Regardless of whether one had studied calligraphy or not, one could see that the words were extremely beautiful.
Fang-shi could write such words?
“It’s said that Fang-shi‘s handwriting is good and that she’s a talented girl, that’s why Wen Cheng likes her. But in the end, outsiders aren’t aware of what’s good and what’s not. Today, Fang-shi has showcased her unique skill, which is incomparable to others. Anyway, I heard you say that the third prince believes in Buddhism and especially likes copying Buddhist scriptures. What would happen if he sees these characters?”
Sun Qing Hua was puzzled, “What does Mother mean?”
Old Madam squinted at him, “Do you really think you and Song-shi can hide your thoughts from your mother? That’s all I can do to help the fourth girl.”
Sun Qing Hua suddenly had a flash of realization: “Thank you, Mother.”
After saying that, he took the booklet and left, completely forgetting the purpose of his trip. Apparently, the agitation in his heart made him forget everything for a while.
After all, she was old, so Old Madam was exhausted after all the talking and thinking she had done today.
After the meal, she let Zhou mama serve her and retired to rest.
Zhou mama helped her take her coat off and assisted her on the couch, somewhat preoccupied.
“What’s the matter with you?”
“This servant just can’t help but wonder if Fourth Young Madam will really do what Old Madam wants.”
“As long as she still wants to avenge her father’s death, she will definitely do so. She is Fang Yan’s only daughter, and the father and daughter have a strong bond. Otherwise, would she have been sick like that when she heard that something had happened to Fang Yan? At present, she’s content with her own lot; however, only an outstanding talent can recognize current trends1. If given a little hope, she will not let it go. This woman is a wise person, so she knows what to do.”
“Since Old Madam says she is wise, we made our intentions known by plainly acting it out. Even if she really understood our meaning, what would happen if it backfires?”
“Backfire? With just her? I did say she’s smart, but did you forget one other thing? After all, a mere woman can’t turn the tide.”
“Master, Prefectural Magistrate Sun is out seeking an audience.”
Zong Yue hadn’t spoken yet, but De Wang yelled on.
“There’s no end to it. This Magistrate Sun is really undeterred. The master is too lazy to see him, yet he comes every day.”
Unlike De Wang, De Cai was much more reserved.
“Master, after all, Prefectural Magistrate Sun is a magistrate, and now that we live in Sun Manor, wouldn’t it be rude to just refuse to see him?”
“What’s wrong with that? Master will see him if he wants to, but he doesn’t……”
“Let him in.”
De Wang immediately stopped prattling.
Sun Qing Hua trod in, cupped his hands2, and bowed, “This lowly official has met Your Highness.”
“Magistrate Sun, no need to be polite. Sit.”
De Wang scurried to move a small wooden stool and placed it at Sun Qing Hua’s feet. Sun Qing Hua thanked him for the seat before slumping down.
Knowing that the Third Prince was reticent, Sun Qing Hua began chattering by himself as though doing a soliloquy, starting with how he knew that His Highness had come to search for aides and especially recruited local talents in Shaoxing under the name of the government office. Since the official documents would be distributed to the following states and counties, and those who saw the official documents would have to rush to Shaoxing City, it would still require about ten days. At that time, a great number of talents would have gathered and His Highness would surely be pleased.
One had to say, Sun Qing Hua was still relatively capable.
This time, Zong Yue traveled lightly and simply because he didn’t want to cause a commotion around the area. He used the the government office as shield, so bystanders only took it as an official lord looking for an aide, and certainly could not associate it with the third prince. This way, Zong Yue saved a lot of trouble.
“Lord Sun worked hard.”
“It’s an honor for this lowly official to work for Your Highness. That matter was for official business, but this lowly official has a private matter to discuss.”
Zong Yue glanced at him: “Speak.”
“This lowly official has heard that Your Highness likes to read Buddhist scriptures, and it just so happens that this lowly official has a daughter who is also knowledgeable about the subject. She has copied a volume of the ‘Earth Store Sutra’ in her spare time, and this lowly official would like to ask Your Highness to examine it and judge if the youngest daughter has skill.”
After saying that, Sun Qing Hua hung his head, and the one above him remained unspeaking, making him even more apprehensive, so much so that he was sweating profusely, but he had to force himself to calm down.
Just as he wanted to give up, he suddenly heard a command from above, “Bring it to me to look at.”
Sun Qing Hua was delighted and took a step forward.
At this time, De Wang bustled over and snatched the booklet from his hand: “Don’t you know any rules? You can’t just mess up in front of the master. Stand there.”
The booklet arrived in Zong Yue’s hands.
One could easily spot the intricately patterned thumb ring inlaid with sapphires symbolizing wealth and power. He flipped over the booklet in an unremarkable manner and raised his head: “Did your daughter copy this Buddhist sutra?”
Sun Qing Hua assumed that Zong Yue was interested, wiped the sweat on his forehead, and said with some joy, “It is exactly the work of this one’s little daughter.”
“Oh? Which miss is it? Lord Sun seems to have more than one daughter?” Zong Yue had a point.
Sun Qing Hua wiped his sweat again and laughed as he blushed with shame, “The little girl was naughty. She accidentally offended Your Highness the other day and was driven out by the people beside Your Highness.”
“Lord Sun is talking about those two girls who trespassed a few days ago?” De Wang pried curiously.
“Exactly. The youngest daughter is really stubborn. This lowly official did not send out orders in the manor, so she was unaware that Banyan Garden was inhabited and rashly barged in, almost disturbing Your Highness.”
“Then which of those two is Lord Sun’s daughter? Or are they both Lord Sun’s daughters?” De Wang glanced at Zong Yue and asked again.
“That’s not it. One of them is the daughter of this lowly official’s elder brother. This lowly official’s daughter is ranked fourth, with the boudoir name3 Ru Yi.”
Sun Qing Hua’s meaning was already very clear.
From before when he had specifically said ‘Your Highness, please examine’, he already had the intention of offering his daughter, and now he was mentioning his daughter’s boudoir name. Where in the heavens was there a father who, if not without that kind of motive, would do such an ambiguous thing?
But there were still quite a few fathers who did so. Zong Yue was a prince and had seen too much of this kind of thing. What fish didn’t want to leap over the dragon gate4 in one go? Even if she could only be a concubine, with an identity like Sun Qing Hua’s, it was already considered a great honor.
“Leave the booklet behind. Lord Sun can retire if there’s nothing else.”
“Your Highness……” Sun Qing Hua still seemed to have words left unsaid, but De Wang had already come up and urged him to leave.
Until he arrived outside the Banyan Garden, Sun Qing Hua was still wondering what this third prince meant. Was he interested or not? Or did he discover that it was someone else who copied the scriptures?
In a brief moment of enlightenment, he thought it impossible for the third prince to find out. After all, the third prince had not seen Fang-shi. How could the calligraphy of a lady who never left the boudoir flow out? He thought too much.
Standing in the garden outside while stunned, Sun Qing Hua prepared to go back to let Song-shi supervise Sun Ru Yi as she memorized scriptures, so as not to expose anything in front of the third prince.
Today, Sun Ru Yi was dejected and dispirited.
Sun Ru Hua asked her what was wrong, and she answered that her mother had compelled her to read Buddhist scriptures for most of last night.
She further mentioned it was all because of her father, who asserted that since she wanted to pray for Old Madam, she naturally had to understand the meaning of the Buddhist scriptures so as to appear pious. Although Sun Ru Yi was literate, she had always been lazy, so it was conceivable.
When Sun Ru Hua heard this, her eyes flickered, but she said nothing, and just comforted her to study diligently.
At noon, the wind suddenly picked up and the sky darkened, and it looked like it was going to rain.
The servant girls urged Sun Ru Yi and Sun Ru Hua to go back. Unlike Fang Feng Sheng, both of them went back at noon. When they showed their concern for Fang Feng Sheng, she just shook her head and said that Zhi Chun had already gone to help her carry her lunch, so she wouldn’t return.
As soon as Sun Ru Yi and the others left, the rain started to patter down.
Feng Sheng stood up and observed ripples on the lake, and then noticed the rain hitting the willow leaves. The light breeze was exceptionally refreshing.
It had been a long time since she was in such a laid-back mood, and as she was staring into the vast expanse of blue water, she was suddenly in the mood for a drink.
The sound of footsteps rang out, and Zhi Chun hurried in with her food box.
There was a lot of rainwater on her hair and clothes, so Feng Sheng took the handkerchief she usually used to wipe her hands and offered it to her. Zhi Chun put the food box on the table to rid her body of rainwater using the handkerchief.
“Miss, when this servant went to the big kitchen to get food, this servant saw that the kitchen had a new batch of millet wine, so this servant asked the kitchen maid for a jug. This servant remembered that you used to like this wine the most, and it just happened to be raining today. Do you want this servant to warm it up for you later?”
“Clever girl, how did you know I was craving for wine today?”
Zhi Chun smilingly went to put away the handkerchief, and proceeded to boil water with the brazier used to boil tea: “Since Miss has married, there were several things you used to like that you don’t anymore, and such a Miss was a stranger to this servant. This period of time, after seeing Miss gradually recover her past radiance, this servant has been thinking that it will only be a matter of time before Miss goes back.”
Talk about going back!
For a while, Feng Sheng had initially felt a sense of heroism, but when she was finally able to clearly assess her current circumstances, her eyes couldn’t help but dim a little, and she turned to gaze at the lake outside the waterside pavilion.
——a blanket of mist over an infinite stretch of water, a diagonal drizzle of rain, and an inexplicable hint of melancholy sprouting from one’s heart.
If she left this place for good, then she could go back! If she could only go back!
“Miss, did this servant say something wrong?”
Feng Sheng snapped out of it and smiled, “It has nothing to do with you. By the way, don’t boil the water too hot. If the wine is overly warm, it will taste bad instead.”
Zhi Chun went to touch the copper kettle, closed the furnace door, and poured water into a bowl, putting the wine jug aside.
“Miss, it will be ready to drink in a moment. This servant will help you lay out the food so you can have a couple of bites first.”
“You stay with me here.”
Setting up the dishes, Zhi Chun went to fetch the wine. Feng Sheng took it and opened the lid of the jug, and a fragrance of wine wafted out.
Feng Sheng sniffed, “This was aged for only a few years, but it’s still good wine.”
“Miss, this servant will pour the wine for you.”
As she was saying that, there was the sound of footsteps and muffled talking outside.
“Master, it’s raining heavily. You can rest here for a while, and this lowly one will go back to get an umbrella. Heh, it’s you guys again!” De Wang exclaimed with a glare.
“I should be the one saying that! Why did you even come in knowing there are others inside?!”
“Zhi Chun, quiet down!” Feng Sheng stood up and curtsied, “I’ve met the gentleman.”
Zong Yue’s gaze hovered over the table and landed on Fang Feng Sheng’s face.
“You’ve taken great pains.”
Feng Sheng: Want to see the heavens overturn? Why don’t I show you?
1 安分守己: to be content with one’s lot (idiom); fig. to know one’s place
识时务者为俊杰: only an outstanding talent can recognize current trends (idiom); fig. a wise man submits to circumstances.
2 Something like this:
3 闺名叫: a boudoir name is a woman’s given name, and apart from her family, husband, and close friends, no other men can know. Giving this away to some stranger is almost like a breach of etiquette.
4 鱼跃龙门: a fish leaping over the dragon gate (idiom); fig. gain quick success, or go from a low social standing to a high social standing. 龙门 is mythical Dragon gate where a carp can transform into a dragon if he leaps over. Sorta like… magikarp evolving to gyarados in Pokemon lol.