When Feng Sheng turned to leave, Fan Jin Chuan called out to her, “Worthy Brother Fang.”
He laughed bitterly and shook his head. “I apologize for my mother. She shouldn’t have scolded you so terribly that day.”
“Don’t worry about it. Aunt is an elder. She behaved the way she did because she also misunderstood something,” Feng Sheng assured with a listless smile.
“Is that why you didn’t accept me?”
Yes, that day, Feng Sheng had indeed rejected Fan Jin Chuan. Unfortunately, she was only halfway through her sentence when news of Man’er’s suicide attempt had interrupted them.
“That’s right, but not entirely. Right now, I have no desire for affection or romance. Brother Fan should know that. Also——” she turned to him and smiled. “It doesn’t matter whether I accept or not. Brother Fan’s outcome is already determined, isn’t it? I wish you and Miss Man’er mutual respect in marriage and an early birth of a precious son.”
These words instantly crushed Fan Jin Chuan. Incapable of mustering even a forced smile, his shoulders slumped.
A while later, he uttered, “I’m sorry for disturbing you.”
Feng Sheng nodded and abruptly entered the room.
Fan Jin Chuan was rooted on his spot for quite a while. He watched her disappear before he slowly turned around to leave.
After Feng Sheng trod in, she instructed Zhi Qiu, “When you see Uncle Yu tomorrow, tell him to search for a residence outside. We’ll move out as soon as possible.”
Zhi Chun probed, “Young Master, why do you suddenly want to move out? Isn’t it nice living here?”
“If Young Master says we’re moving, then we’re moving. Why ask so many whys?” Zhi Qiu admonished as she yanked Zhi Chun away.
Feng Sheng listened to the two girls bickering in whispers outside, pressing her temples out of fatigue and leaning against her chair. She was mulling over which step she ought to take next, but her mind was in complete shambles.
She rose to her feet and ambled to the study, lighting a solitary lamp on the writing desk.
The dusky yellow flame illuminated the area, and she stood for a moment before sitting behind the desk and flipping through the paperwork resting atop.
Days were busy and time passed slowly. The eighteenth day of the month was underway.
Fan Jin Chuan’s wedding was not a big event. He invited only his closest friends, but presents had been streaming in since the day before yesterday. He refused to accept these gifts and had his servants return them all.
When Feng Sheng arrived, Fan Jin Chuan, dressed in a bridegroom’s wedding attire, was entertaining guests.
When Feng Sheng emerged into his view, he was momentarily dazed.
Fan Jin Chuan had lost a lot of weight since their last meeting, but he seemed to be in good spirits. He smiled and cupped his hands at Feng Sheng, spewing out pleasantries like ‘you’re here’ and such.
Witnessing this attitude, Feng Sheng also put her mind at ease. She had initially feared he would forgo his manners in the presence of others, which would certainly embarrass him.
The wedding quickly came to pass. It was a simple and straightforward ceremony of the bride and groom kowtowing to heaven and earth.1
Bao-shi‘s eyes welled with tears as she watched Fan Jin Chuan and Man’er kneeling in front of her. She expressed, “Now that you two are married, even if Mother dies, I can close my eyes.”
“Mother.” Man’er, whose face was shrouded by a veil, bashfully spoke.
“Mother, what are you saying all that for at a time like this?” Fan Jin Chuan asked.
Bao-shi wiped her tears. “Today is your big day. Mother indeed shouldn’t be saying such words.”
One of Fan Jin Chuan’s close friends stepped out to round things up. “Alright, alright, quickly send the bride to the bridal chamber. Zi Jin, you should also join us. Today, we won’t return without getting drunk.”
Feng Sheng trailed after the crowd to the east chamber.
A few more guests arrived before the ceremony, headed by the Yangzhou prefectural magistrate, Du Ming Liang, who shared the same mentor as Fan Jin Chuan, and with him were a few high officials. Fan Jin Chuan was too occupied to welcome guests, so Feng Sheng took it upon herself to entertain them, drinking tea and conversing merrily, until Fan Jin Chuan hurried over before Feng Sheng withdrew.
The other two tables were all of Fan Jin Chuan’s friends and people from the yamen. Feng Sheng sat at the friends’ table. None of them were familiar to her, but a young man named Lu Zi Yue always sought her out for chat.
This man named Lu Zi Yue had quite an incomprehensible background. From his attire, one could tell he was a literati, with a casual and elegant bearing rather similar to those renowned scholars in the Wei and Jin Dynasties. He was unrestrained in his conduct and uninhibited in his speech.
Feng Sheng had heard Fan Jin Chuan mention Lu Zi Yue a few times, from which she understood that this person was very good friends with him, else, she really dared not imagine such a man to actually be that pedant, Fan Jin Chuan’s good friend.
“Worthy Brother Feng Fu, shouldn’t you be drinking inside? Why are you standing here to cool off?”
Feng Sheng turned her head, and the man who had just arrived was prescisely Lu Zi Yue. Just now, after three rounds of drinks, Feng Sheng left the table on the pretext of relieving herself. Upon noticing the beautiful night sky and the cool and refreshing night breeze, she no longer felt the need to return.
“It was too hot inside, so I went out for some air.”
“That’s true. It’s also that we don’t know each other very well, so drinking together isn’t as pleasant.”
“Why is Brother Zi Yue out here too?”
“Zi Jin was dragged away for a round of drinks. I’m a man of strange temperament. I can’t easily integrate myself into a crowd, so I escaped for a breath of fresh air,” Lu Zi Yue explained with a bright and clear smile.
With this, Feng Sheng’s favorable impression of this person increased a notch. Gathered in the room were Du Ming Liang and other officials, and all were high officials second to none in the local area. It didn’t matter whether the two separate tables had other intentions or not, as it seemed as though all of them had formed connections with those of the higher social class. It was said that this Lu Zi Yue had lived in Yangzhou all year round, and to be able to reach a point where he could casually mingle with high officials was truly rare for men of his status.
None of the two spoke, but Lu Zi Yue seemed awfully curious about Feng Sheng, as his eyes kept darting towards her direction, intentionally or otherwise.
Slightly annoyed, Feng Sheng was about to politely take her leave when Lu Zi Yue promptly uttered, “I’ve endured this long. Please don’t take offense at what I’m about to say. Fan Zi Jin is just a pedant, so don’t bother yourself with him.”
“Brother Lu, where are these words stemming from?”
“He told me about you and him long ago, when you were still a man.”
Feng Sheng’s smile stiffened and her brows furrowed.
Lu Zi Yue seemed to sense her displeasure and smirked. “He truly is a fool. The matter particularly bewildered and confused him, so he told me all about it. He’s the type of person who hides everything in his heart. He’s fettered by old conventions, and he’s too concerned about morality and ethics. He’s also a greatly filial son, so the outcome between you two was doomed from the start.”
“Brother Lu, did you misunderstand something?”
“Misunderstand? Well, let’s just say I misunderstood. I honestly don’t mean any malice. I just wanted to tease you to cheer you up, but I didn’t expect I’d say the wrong thing. I have no other reason for saying such words, except to simply take up the cudgels for the injured party.2 I also quite admire that you can come to this kind of occasion. He truly is quite muddled.”
Feng Sheng restrained the emotion in her eyes and plastered on a smile. “It seems that Brother Lu has really misunderstood. I’ve been friends with Brother Fan for a long time. He is my official superior, and I work alongside him. Today is his big celebration, so I naturally wanted to come.”
“Is that really so?”
“What else can it be?”
Lu Zi Yue studied her expression, the corners of his lips still upturned. “Fine, it seems I was overthinking. Worthy Brother Feng Fu must not blame me. Let’s go in and drink. I’ll first punish myself with three cups as an apology to you.”
By the time Feng Sheng left the Salt Distribution Commission yamen, it was already the dead of night.
She had had a little too much to drink. That Lu Zi Yue had constantly sought her out for a toast, and she had to expend quite the amount of effort to shake him off. Nonetheless, this person didn’t seem to harbor any ill will. He was simply a drunken lunatic.
Dao Qi fetched the carriage and waited for her outside, and when Feng Sheng got in, she leaned against the cushion and kneaded her forehead.
Right then, she felt something was amiss. There was someone else in the carriage.
Looking over, Prince Wei was actually sitting there.
Prince Wei was enrobed in azure blue brocade with lined embroidery, and embroidered on the lapels and cuffs were intricate patterns of gold thread. His black hair was tied to the top of his head with a white jade crown securing it, making his complexion appear as clear as jade, peerlessly handsome.
“What are you doing here?!”
Feng Sheng’s eyes surveyed the interior, and she realized that the one asking such a question should have been Prince Wei, as the carriage obviously wasn’t hers.
“It’s Fan Zi Jin’s wedding. This prince has come to give a present.”
“Then why am I in your carriage?”
Prince Wei gazed at her. “That’s something you’ll have to ask yourself.”
“Ai, no.” Feng Sheng rubbed her brow and asked, “Has Your Highness seen my carriage?”
“Didn’t see it.”
“Then ask the driver to stop the carriage. I’ll go down,” she said. Feng Sheng extended her arm to lift the carriage curtain, but Prince Wei grabbed her wrist.
Feng Sheng stared back at him, but he still didn’t look at Feng Sheng and instead faced forward with an indifferent expression.
“Now that you’re here, this prince will send you back.”
“My carriage driver will look for me.”
“This prince has already ordered someone to inform him.”
When was this? How come she didn’t notice? But it was evident that Prince Wei had no intention of answering, so Feng Sheng could only sit down.
The carriage forged on.
She had no choice but to admit that Prince Wei’s carriage was of excellent quality. As she settled herself inside, Feng Sheng found it not the least bit jarring. It was nothing like her carriage, which had to be padded with various cushions to ease discomfort.
Not only was it stable and comfortable, next to the carriage wall also stood a small table, and on it were perched a wind furnace and several objects for brewing tea. She didn’t know what principle of nature these objects followed, but they did not move a single jot.
“Tea.” Prince Wei pointed to her front, and only then did Feng Sheng fathom that there was tea prepared for her.
She took a sip, wanting to speak but not knowing what to say. However, she also felt strange remaining wordless all the while.
“If Your Highness is here to give a present, why didn’t you go in? It’s a happy occasion to say the least. You can also enjoy a cup of celebratory wine.”
“There are people in there that this prince doesn’t want to see.”
Feng Sheng replied with an ‘oh’ and said nothing more.
As the silence persisted, a thought suddenly occurred to her. She informed, “I’ve changed my address. The driver……”
How did the driver know?
However, Feng Sheng was not without tact, and she knew that such a thing was inappropriate to ask. She was well aware that Prince Wei had an unusually extraordinary concern for her. He was versed in several of her matters, and he was so far-reaching and infinitely resourceful that it was numbing.
“What do you need those salt merchants’ account books for?” Prince Wei picked up a teacup and sipped from it as he questioned.
Such a query was one Feng Sheng didn’t know how to answer.
Just as she was still trying to phrase her response, Prince Wei spoke again, “Stop while you’re ahead, and don’t do what you shouldn’t.”
“What is it that I shouldn’t do?”
Prince Wei set down his tea and leaned back, his meaningful eyes lingering. “I thought you understood.”
“Your Highness Prince Wei, don’t think too much about it. It’s just a leverage for them to surrender. After all, they had previously attempted every possible means to get me killed, so how will I know whether or not they’re sincere?”
How clumsy this excuse was, Feng Sheng herself didn’t want to ponder over in detail, but it was all she could muster at the moment.
“This prince has to go back to the capital. Might not be back until some time later.” Prince Wei followed up.
Feng Sheng raised her head to glance at him, feeling slightly awkward.
He was returning to the capital. What did he have to tell her for?
“Wishing Your Highness Prince Wei a pleasant journey.”
“Remember this prince’s words. Don’t do anything you shouldn’t. Hitting a stone with an egg is something only a fool would do.”
Feng Sheng expelled a hollow laugh.
That moment, the carriage came to a halt.
She pushed aside the curtain for a glimpse outside and discovered that they had reached her residence.
“Your Highness Prince Wei, I have arrived. We shall meet again someday.” Without waiting for Prince Wei’s reply, she hopped out of the carriage with speed as though fleeing for her life.
Prince Wei chuckled in spite of himself and knocked on the carriage wall. The carriage abruptly left the place.
Relieved, Feng Sheng, stood by the gate and waited for Prince Wei’s carriage to leave, only to discover that tailing behind them was a carriage Dao Qi was driving.
“Young Master, is everything alright?” asked Dao Qi as he jumped off the carriage.
“It’s nothing. Go in.”
On the other side, disguised as a carriage driver, De Cai inquired, “Your Highness, when will we depart?”
“Tomorrow.” After a pause, Prince Wei added, “You stay and watch over her.”
De Cai hesitated before replying, “Yes.”
That was simply how he was. Had it been De Wang, he probably would have asked another ten thousand whys.
1 拜堂 (bài táng): ritual kneeling to heaven and earth by bride and groom in a old-fashioned wedding ceremony. Here are photos to give you an idea what an ancient Chinese wedding ceremony looks like.
2 打抱不平: take up the cudgels for the injured party; defend sb. against an injustice