What did that mean?
Feng Sheng soon understood that Sun Ru Yi and Sun Ru Hua had been loitering outside Banyan Garden’s gate recently and must have attracted the attention of those inside. Naturally, she knew what their motive was. Lin Bi Pavilion was in a delicate location, and Sun Ru Yi stayed over from time to time, so it was only inevitable that people linked them together.
Perhaps, the last time, this master might have misunderstood.
Feng Sheng also didn’t explain, standing there with lowered brows and restrained eyes.
Zong Yue bore his gaze through her, then his eyes fell on the table. Noticing that there were dishes on the table, two sets of chopsticks and a jug of warm wine, a hint of mockery flashed in his eyes.
But he didn’t leave, and instead he paced over and sat down at the table.
“A mere little concubine-born daughter with a mind quite discerning, but unfortunately comes from a lowly background and is not held in high esteem.”
This sentence was even more unintelligible, but she could tell that the other party was ridiculing herself.
Feng Sheng had never been one to get spat in the face and let it dry by itself1 when insults were thrown at her door, so she couldn’t help but say, “This little girl really doesn’t understand what the gentleman means. Why must the gentleman say such cruel words?”
Zong Yue gave a light snort and didn’t speak further.
When De Wang saw this, he hurriedly moved closer, “Does Master think this wine is not bad? This lowly one will help you pour the wine.” Earlier, when the two entered, they could already smell the scent of wine that floated in the air, the aroma slightly bittersweet.
“You come here.”
De Wang had thought he was being asked to approach, until Zong Yue glanced at him and realized he meant the girl standing beside him.
Startled, Zhi Chun took a step forward and was about to say something, but Feng Sheng held out her hand to block her.
The sound hovered in her throat, but she couldn’t spit it out after all.
Zhi Chun could only stare at her miss holding the flask and pouring wine with her head down.
The pair of pure hands were slender and fair, but there were thin calluses on the index and middle fingers that were faintly discernible.
At first glance, it wasn’t obvious, but looking closely, one could see that these two fingers were different from other fingers, much like an unexpected flaw on a fine jade ornament.
But Zong Yue remembered her calligraphy, and then that book Sun Qing Hua had presented.
Although a prince had the most noble status under the heavens, his father treated his sons sternly, and when he was young, he studied rigorously and practiced diligently. Such fingers were only existent to those who held a brush all year round.
How could a lady in the boudoir have such a pair of hands?
Probably nothing more than just studying hard to please the elders.
He recalled that this woman had been withering here for more than half a month, and although she could just be pretending, she was still quite persevering. He once again thought about how her father had used a different daughter’s name as he offered him the scriptures she had copied and written, and how she might actually be clueless about it. Relating it with the experiences early in his childhood, Zong Yue expressed a rare kindness.
He sipped his wine and said, “Just now, you said that I had spoken ill of you? Your father served me a book of scriptures a few days ago, claiming that it was copied by his first daughter, Ru Yi. Is your boudoir name Ru Yi?”
Feng Sheng suddenly understood.
Not only did she understand why Old Madam would take advantage of her illness to have her come here to copy scriptures, Buddhist scriptures in particular, she also understood why this one would react in such a way when he saw the Buddhist prayer beads on her wrist that day.
She could guess it was because this master in front of her was a devout believer of Buddhism. So, was Old Madam just trying to cater to his interests?
Feng Sheng had actually guessed Old Madam’s intent before, but she hadn’t figured out some key points, so it was now all clear.
“……this servant feels that it will only be a matter of time before Miss goes back……”
As long as she could leave!
Feng Sheng lightly bit her lower lip, her feather-like lashes slightly trembling: “This little girl’s boudoir name isn’t Ru Yi.”
She seemed to understand Zong Yue’s meaning as well. Before her voice fell, her tears burst out, and as though afraid of being seen, she hung her head deeply.
When Zong Yue lifted the wine cup in his hand, she shuddered a bit and ambled forward to fill it up.
Zong Yue no longer spoke, but only drank and ate the dishes.
The food wasn’t particularly delicious, nor was the wine anything special, but against the misty and hazy lake scenery, his mood became better.
Glancing at the woman standing on one side, Zong Yue said, “I heard Lord Sun say that all his daughters are refined and proficient in poetry and song. Can this one sing a song?”
“Master asks if you can sing a song?” De Wang echoed.
“What do you take my miss for?!” Zhi Chun rushed out and exclaimed.
“Yes. Yes, a little.”
The two voices sounded almost simultaneously, and Zhi Chun gaped incredulously at Feng Sheng: “Miss.”
Feng Sheng hung her head.
Today, she was wearing a summer shirt with white sleeves and dark blue flowers on the front. Her waist was very well-defined, looking almost as though one could grasp it with one hand. To be able to emanate this kind of bearing, it especially gave off a sense of delicateness.
“De Wang, go get the pipa.”
De Wang scowled miserably, “Master, on this rainy day, where do you want this lowly one to find a pipa…… this lowly one will go find one, Master, you wait.”
“You’re quite sensible.” Zong Yue’s gaze hovered over her body, and his eyes paused on her white face.
Feng Sheng dropped her head down even more until only the tip of her chin was exposed.
Not long after, unknown as to where it even came from, De Wang arrived with a pipa.
The pipa was handed over to Feng Sheng, who seemed to be at a loss for words, until De Wang went to move a wooden stool and placed it a short distance away. She finally picked herself up and dallied to perch herself on the stool.
A folk tune, also known as xiao diao, shi diao, xiao ling,2 etc., was a folk song that was widely spread around the Wu3 area. As early as in the Qin Dynasty, the palace’s music court had already included such folk songs. ‘Book of Jin, Music Records’ once said: There are many various Wu songs in Jiangnan4. Until the Song and Ming dynasties, the songs became popular not only in Jiangnan, as it had spread to the point where everyone could come up with a couple of lines, regardless of place and gender.
If she were from a humble family, it wouldn’t have mattered. However, families of officials had always paid special attention to ethics and education. A man inquiring whether a daughter from an official family could sing a song or not was considered extremely insulting. It was almost similar to regarding her like the women from brothels.
Fang Feng Sheng was aware that the man sitting across her meant to insult her, but she was unperturbed. Sun Qing Hua had taken the initiative to say that the daughters in the family were all adept at poetry and song. So, was it surprising that the other party would do this?
She thought silently in her heart, her white hand falling on the strings and gently plucking twice.
Outside the pavilion, rain fell unceasingly.
Inside the pavilion, silence reigned.
Suddenly, like an effervescent stream, two tinkling sounds surfaced.
In a short while, a series of beautiful melodies overflowed, reverberating between walls.
It was graceful and fluent one moment, smooth and melodious the next, and then gradually, it evolved into a mournful whimper. At the same time, the woman’s tender and poignant singing voice also spiraled out.
The folk tune was sung in authentic Wu dialect with a soft ‘you’5, which put emphasis on one’s soft, coy, and glutinous attributes.
It was said that Jiangnan women were made of water, and apart from the nourishing Jiangnan waters, the soft ‘you’ also contributed a lot to the Wu dialect accent. It was just that nowadays, all spoke the official language, and only the xiao diao of Jiangnan could interpret the femininity and tenderness of Jiangnan women in extreme saturation.6
Zong Yue didn’t think that this woman looked like an outstanding beauty, and even felt that her eyebrows and eyes were dull and not attractive in the slightest. Originally he wouldn’t even spare her a second glance, and because of Sun Qing Hua’s and his daughters’ behavior, he inevitably felt some loathsome disgust. But at this time, as she held the pipa halfway over her face, her eyebrows and eyes half-drooping, singing a xiao diao from Jiangnan, he was really mesmerized.
The song was over, and the sound fell.
Zong Yue stood up and paced over.
The intricately patterned ring inlaid with blue jewels, a jade thumb ring that radiated a gentle glow, represented the pinnacle of wealth and power.
As he towered over her, he twisted her chin with only two fingers in extreme condescension.
“Unexpectedly, you’re still a gem.”
Tinted with a layer of fire, the man’s dark eyes slid from the fair, jade-like face to the slender neck. The collar was clearly buttoned up, but it was as though he could pierce into it.
“Gentleman.” Feng Sheng half-hung her eyes, blushing shyly.
The left hand behind Zong Yue’s back made a gesture, and De Wang hurried to drag Zhi Chun to keep her away.
Zhi Chun refused to budge, and De Wang glared and stuck his tongue out to scare her. This waterside pavilion had another room separated by a screen in the middle, and in the end, the two retreated behind this screen.
“Lord Sun has raised a good daughter.”
In a trance, Feng Sheng found herself falling into the other’s arms. The pipa in her bosom had disappeared at some point, and the man’s arm around her waist was strong and forceful.
Her heart thumped. She hadn’t expected this third prince to be so impetuous. Feng Sheng had never experienced matters between men and women, but she knew that this man was getting excited, not the least bit concerned that they were still in broad daylight.
“Gentleman, no.” She stretched out her hand against the other man’s chest.
“If you don’t want it here, then where do you want it?” The man’s voice was husky, and his palm rubbed against her full waist.
“Gentleman, you really musn’t.”
“This master doesn’t believe you don’t know who I am, but have you been withering here for days just to copy scriptures? Follow this master, and this master will accept you into his manor.”
After he said this, the man pressed her down.
The unsteady breathing expressed the man’s impatience, and the low, hoarse voice proclaimed the man’s emotion. Just when the man’s face was already close at hand, a pair of jade hands blocked it again.
“Your Highness, please listen to this little girl.”
Feng Sheng’s repeated obstruction had clearly displeased Zong Yue. He frowned and stared at her reddened eyes, “Speak.”
“In the end, this little girl is from a family of officials, so such an act is undoubtedly illicit. Although this little girl wholeheartedly wants to please Your Highness, this little girl would like to ask Your Highness to save this little girl a bit of face. If you really like this little girl, then you should ask this little girl’s elders, and then this little girl will naturally follow. But if matters end like this, although this little girl is powerless to resist, this little girl will also die to preserve her innocence.”
Zong Yue narrowed his narrow eyes.
The turbulent gaze fell on the woman’s fair neck—a pale blue vein, fragile as fresh petals of a flower. Long fingers rubbed against the slender waist under the palm, like caressing a naughty cat.
“Fine, this master promises you.”
“Thank you, Your Highness. Also pleading Your Highness to personally ask the elders at home for this little girl.” While her words were still pouring out, Feng Sheng’s voice shook again, “This little girl knows in her heart that she comes from a lowly background, and if she follows Your Highness right this moment, it’s unlikely that she will have a title. It will somewhat give this little girl some face. Please understand, Your Highness.”7
Feng Sheng hurriedly fled with Zhi Chun.
Obviously, she had already walked out of Lin Bi Pavilion, but she could still feel the other party’s scorching gaze falling behind her.
“Don’t talk, move quickly.” When she reached the corner, Feng Sheng raised her eyes to peek at Zong Yue in the pavilion, and then lowered her head again.
In the pavilion, Zong Yue ordered, “De Wang, you go and ask this girl her name.” The words had not yet fallen, he said again: “Forget it, Sun Qing Hua is clear about it himself.”
Like a dog wagging its tail, De Wang flattered beside him: “This is great, Master. Congratulations, Master, for obtaining a stunning beauty. His Majesty always said that the prince was indifferent because none of the beauties in the capital can enter your eyes. It was true when everyone said that Jiangnan produces beauties.”
Although the outer appearance couldn’t be considered upper-class, she still succeeded in having a unique demeanor.
Zong Yue rubbed his fingers, as though the sweet fragrance was still within his palm.
1 唾面自干: to be spat on in the face and let it dry by itself, not wiping it off (idiom); fig. to turn the other cheek; to drain the cup of humiliation
2 小调 (xiǎo diào), a Chinese folk song genre; 时调 (shí diào) regional folk song popular during a certain period of time; 小令 (xiǎo lìng) a short lyric; a single song. I kept the pinyin for these as they don’t seem to have direct translations and are really just alternative names of… folk songs. The Book of Jin mentioned in this paragraph is an official Chinese historical text covering the history of the Jin dynasty from 265 to 420.
3 吴 (Wú): area comprising southern Jiangsu, northern Zhejiang and Shanghai; name of states in Southern China at different historical periods
4 江南 (Jiāngnán): literally “South of the River” meaning “South of the Yangtze”, is a geographic area in China referring to lands immediately to the south of the lower reaches of the Yangtze River, including the southern part of its delta.
6 淋漓尽致: extreme saturation (idiom); fig. vividly and thoroughly, in great detail, without restraint. Also, just to add the part about 女人是水 (women are made out of water), Baidu says it’s because: first, women like to cry; second, women are as gentle and tender as water; and third, water is pure and weak (as in, they’re used to cleanse and have no form or shape, thus weak). I guess these are the stereotypes for Jiangnan women.
7 I just felt the need to explain why she keeps emphasizing to the prince how he should “ask” for her through the elders:
If the prince takes her from asking the elders, it goes through official channels. Meaning their “marriage” (well, as a concubine), will be official and she will be an actual concubine. She will get marriage money from her parents, and the prince may have to pay the elders some money. Part of that money will be given to her, but it won’t be much. If she follows him right as he’s taking liberties with her, she will have nothing. No respect, no money, no position. She might not even become a concubine.