Volume 6, Chapter 19: An Old Guardian’s Vague Outline
The young man, around twenty-nine years of age, was a young Confucian scholar. He wore black robes washed so many times they were fading into white. A bamboo flute was tied to his waist. He seemed to have fallen on hard times, but his appearance was handsome and scholarly. He had a noble bearing and didn’t seem to care in the least about leading an impoverished lifestyle. The young man had been fiddling with the folding fan in his hands this entire time, fanning it open and closed. The beautiful women on the fan peeked out now and again. The ornate and luxurious fan was at clear odds with his destitute attire. In addition, the flirtatious beauties painted on the fan and his cold expression were even more mismatched. Bizarrely though, these incompatibilities combined with an ineffable harmony. It made this young man look ever more charming and elegant.
The young man downed several more cups of wine, then sang in a soft and plain voice:
“Out of the melancholy dream,I spy hills and moon on an inclined beam.A lonely lamp illuminatesThe wall but darkens dim the window’s plates.The tall buildings of this abodeWas once upon my belovèd bestowed.I think of how her beautiful appearance might look now,Perhaps like the plum blossom after a springtime snowstorm,Her body enveloped by perfume and flush from the dawn.”1
He was a little flat, but as he sang this poem, it wandered and echoed through the building, its deep emotions sent out to everyone who could hear it. This restaurant was full of distinguished guests, and when he started singing, everyone fell silent. His voice wasn’t loud, but everyone could hear him clearly and distinctly. They all listened attentively, and some people even gently clapped along to the tune. When he got to the second verse, a flute began playing, the sound elegant and touching. The sound of the flute accompanying the singing enthralled everyone further.
After the song finished, the flute did not stop playing. Instead, a woman’s clean and clear voice rang out through the building. The woman sang the young man’s song again, but even though it was the same tune and lyrics, the phrasings changed a great deal. And the woman’s voice twisted and turned in agitation, giving full expression2 to the deeper meaning in the lyrics. Her singing made everyone fully forget what evening this was.
The young man closed his eyes a little, enjoying the outstanding and wonderful singing. A long while later, after the singing had vanished, lithe footsteps stopped in front of the entrance to the private room. He opened his eyes and said, “Lady Rumeng must have come to visit in person.” He sighed. “Your songs and dance are priceless, but today, you performed your singing in this tiny restaurant. If the womanizers of Jianye learn of this, they will stomp their feet and lament it.”
Brushing aside the bamboo curtain door, a young woman wearing a red hat with a layer of animal fur sewed on floated in. Behind her were a black-robed maid and a doughty, powerful, burly man. Once the young woman entered the private room, the black-robed maid helped her take off the headband. The young woman was tall and slim. She wore a simple, unadorned white satin gown that touched the ground. She looked like a white lotus in silent bloom. The young woman was in her early twenties and had a beautiful, elegant face. Putting the complexion of her skin aside, her willowy eyebrows were shaped like leaves. Thousands of flirtatious expressions swirled in her limpid and lucid, bright and shining eyes. She stepped forward and gracefully bowed low. “Your servant, Liu Rumeng, has met Song Yu, Sir Song, before,” she said.
The young man smiled. He stood up and said, “All of Jiangnan knows of and criticizes the song and dance of Rumeng, known aboard the pleasure boats as Lady Liu. I am but a humble wastrel. How can I be deserving of such courtesy from you?” However, the arrogance on his features did not diminish. There was not a single trace of humility.
The young woman sighed softly. Her barely furrowed brows gave off the slightest bit of distress. Her eyes roamed about, making her seem further weighed down with anxiety. She said in a low voice, “Your servant entertains people with sensuality in Qinhuai3 but is often supplanted and abused. As the Southern Chu army has beat back the Yong army, all the brothels and pleasure boats in Qinhuai have discussed that on the day of the Lantern Festival, a beauty pageant will be held at Xuanwu Lake. Three will be selected as the zhuangyuan, bangyan, and tanhua. From that point forward, only those three women can be called ‘most popular courtesan.’ In the past, everyone worked independently, but because more supporters are needed, everyone in the occupation is recognized as most popular courtesan. This pageant is different from the previous ones. All the sisters are required to perform on the spot, and all the honored guests at the latke will be judging us. The winners’ names will resound throughout Jiangnan, while the losers will never show their faces again.”
“Who in Qinhuai doesn’t know that Lady Rumeng has mastered artistry and beauty? Why are you worried about this?” the young man quietly returned.
Tears seemed to form in Liu Rumeng’s eyes for a moment. “Your servant has always come and gone as she pleased, never inhibited,” she said. “Among Qinhuai’s brothels are two giants in a secret standoff. Myriad Flowers Tower and Moonlight Pavilion refuse to give in to each other. In this struggle to be the most popular courtesan, both sides wracked their brains. Forget about Myriad Flowers Tower. Their designated lead, Lady Qiuyan, has artistry and beauty no worse than that of your servant’s. But Second Miss Xiao of Moonlight Pavilion used every possible scheme to force your servant to ally with them, while your servant would not permit it. Then they played a trick to steal away your servant’s requested new songs for this pageant. If your servant can only sing those hackneyed tunes at the Xuanwu Lake Pageant, I fear I’ll be mocked by people, much less achieve the status of most popular courtesan. After much thought, your servant realized only Sir Song could help her. Please have mercy on me, sir.”
The young man furrowed his brows at her words and said, “You should know that although I frequently write lyrical poems for others, I mostly serve the girls working for Myriad Flowers Tower. I have a rather good friendship with the Myriad Flowers Tower Lord. This is a matter of grave importance, and if I help you, won’t I offend the Myriad Flowers Tower Lord? Furthermore, who in Qinhuai doesn’t know that Moonlight Pavilion’s Second Miss Xiao is ruthless? If I spoil her big plans, I’m afraid I won’t be able to take shelter in Qinhuai any further. You should know of my difficulties.”
Liu Rumeng covered her face and replied, “If I don’t get four or five new songs, I fear it’ll be difficult for me to survive. Time is urgent. Where can your servant go to purchase new songs this magnificent? Alas, will your servant really suffer a crushing defeat this time? Whatever. I, Liu Rumeng, have never measured up to Liu Piaoxiang. When I remember how Lady Piaoxiang toppled a city with dance, how she struck out on her own on the Qinhuai River, when I remember how she teased nobles and aristocrats, the story of her denouncement of the Prince of Han, I, Rumeng, often feel emotional. I’ve always wanted to imitate elder sister Piaoxiang’s dashing appearance. Today, it looks like it was nothing more than a pipe dream.”
The deepest of griefs shone in the young man’s eyes for a split second before vanishing. He sighed and said, “I admire that Lady Rumeng has this sort of ambition. If you don’t mind, I’m willing to accompany you to the dressing table to compose music and lyrical poems for you. Although, I don’t know if you’re missing a zither player. My zither skills are quite worth watching too.”
When Liu Rumeng first saw that her hopes had been destroyed, she poured her heart out. She never expected Song Yu to suddenly agree to write for her, even willing to take it a step further and leave himself at her mercy. She started with delight and dropped her arm. The sleeve of her gown no longer hid the strings of pearly tears rolling down her beautiful face. A smile broke through the tears as she stopped crying, making her beauty look ever more incomparable. She went over and tugged on Song Yu’s sleeve. “Aiyah, if Sir Song deigns to do so, Rumeng is willing to address Sir as master. I’ll listen and benefit from your advice.”
When Song Yu saw her expression of pleasant surprise, he felt his mind swept away, surprisingly unable to control himself. He had been lurking in the brothels among prostitutes to numb himself. He had done no more than join the many prostitutes for fun on occasion. Even in his most indulgent moments, he only looked and moved with lust. His heart was impervious to desires and passions even though he stayed among all sorts of flowers. He may have heard of Liu Rumeng’s name before, but he had reservations. When he heard this woman was surnamed Liu, he purposely avoided her. They hadn’t met until this very day. He never could have imagined that Liu Rumeng would exactly resemble the beautiful woman he had long adored no matter her bearing and talent. He couldn’t help but be enraptured.
Song Yu had been born into a poor family in Southern Chu. His given name was Song Min, and by the age of twelve he had passed the imperial examination. His hometown lauded him a prodigy, but his home was unexpectedly destroyed in a fire. With no alternative, he was stranded in Jianye. On the brink of death and stricken by poverty and disease, he was saved by the renowned Liu Piaoxiang, famous throughout Jiangnan, and he earned his keep aboard the Floating Fragrance Pleasure Boat as a page. Though he was young at the time, he began to admire Liu Piaoxiang. Because of his infatuation, he willingly and gladly stayed aboard the pleasure boat managing the servants. Even though he had zero opportunities to get close to this beautiful woman, each furrow of Lou Piaoxiang’s brow and each smile had become his most precious memories. Because he had always been watching out for Liu Piaoxiang, he knew a little of the love affair between Jiang Zhe and her. Although he was happy for Liu Piaoxiang finding a husband, the pain in his heart could not go away. After Liu Piaoxiang floated off the pleasure boat, he left as well, heartbroken, and thus avoided the slaughter of witnesses that followed. Because of this, he happened to join the Secret Camp. But he was appalled to learn that Liu Piaoxiang had died. To get revenge for his beloved, he concentrated on training hard. His martial prowess may have been above average, but with his tireless hard work, he eventually advanced to become one of the eight elite operatives of the Secret Camp, leading to Jiang Zhe conferring him the name “Yulun.”
Among the eight elite operatives of the Secret Camp, of the Dragon Group, Jiang Zhe most often put Chiji in an important role, as he was a talented commander and valued comradery; Daoli had a determined nature and handled matters without emotion, but he was only cold on the outside, for he was warm on the inside. Of the Tiger Group, Baiyi looked simple on the surface but had talent for leadership, so he led the main force of the Secret Camp. Of the Covert Group, Shanzi was skilled with concealed weapons and at scheming to the point that he neglected his martial arts later on. Still, the assassinations the Covert Group of the Secret Camp all relied on his support. Quhuang, also in the Covert Group, blended into the crowd with a normal appearance, and only when an enemy was on the brink of death would they notice his presence. Of the Hidden Group, Hualiu looked gentle on the surface and was easy to get close to, but he was calculating. Even though he was often soft because of friendship, he could act coldly and emotionlessly in the truly necessary times. Lü’er, also in the Hidden Group, was candid and kind on the surface but was in fact shrewd and capable, good at business.
Yulun, meanwhile, was the most unique among the eight elite operatives. He had been the leader of the Tiger Group, yet lower ranked than Baiyi. It could be said his martial arts were the cream of the crop of the Secret Camp. He should have been like Huo Yi, killing people in broad daylight. However, he was fonder of acting as an assassin. Because his appearance and bearing stood out too much, Jiang Zhe hadn’t believed he suited the Covert Group at the beginning. But as time passed, everyone had to accept that he was the best assassin. The fan in his hands was actually his weapon. The ribs of the fan were made of high quality steel and concealed a steel needle in the center. He could use it when facing an enemy to immediately attack his opponent’s vital points. Countless experts had died to this fan. However, Yulun mostly used calculated sneak attacks to deal with enemies. He made tight plans and meticulous designs so that he never failed a mission. He made good use of strategy and observed the hearts of people. When he had an occasional stroke of genius, he took the life of an enemy in impossible circumstances, but nobody knew he was the one who acted. And the first thing he did when he got off the streets was let loose to hide his true colors. Coupled with his outstanding talent, finishing poems and lyrics in a single stroke, he would linger in the pleasure district around the prostitutes whenever he had free time. This kind of indulgence became his best cover. On the surface, he had the bearing of a noble scholar yet behaved like a rake. No one thought of him as an assassin with a heart of stone.
The operatives of the Secret Camp officially completed their contract during the first month of the twenty-second year of Southern Chu’s Xiande era, the first month of the sixth year of Great Yong’s Longsheng era, or two years ago. According to the contract from ten years ago, the operatives of the Secret Camp could all obtain freedom and live the life they wanted to live. Even before this time arrived, Chiji and Hualiu officially broke away from the Secret Camp, while Daoli began to focus more of his energy on the Hai Family Shipping Company. Although they had earned their freedom, the operatives of the Secret Camp mostly chose to continue to devote themselves to Jiang Zhe. After all, no matter whether they wanted to attain prestige or wealth, it wouldn’t be difficult to achieve if they followed Jiang Zhe. Besides, their loyalty to Jiang Zhe was deep-seated. Yulun was likely the only exception out of the eight elite operatives. He was a disciple of Jiang Zhe in name only at this point.
The national power of Great Yong was at its height, and Jiang Zhe was like the sun at high noon. With the status Yulun had, he could have gotten almost everything he had yearned for. However, he chose to leave the Secret Camp and returned to the capital of Southern Chu, Jianye, to live out the rest of his life. Yulun didn’t know if Jiang Zhe had ever thought of silencing him, but he returned to Jianye safe and sound in the end, and he lived the life he wanted. In comparison to the other elite operatives, he had the weakest loyalty to Jiang Zhe. His departure from the Secret Camp and Jiang Zhe wasn’t due to Southern Chu or any other reason. He simply wished to return to the very beginning. In reality, if Jiang Zhe had forced him to stay in the Secret Camp, he wouldn’t have opposed it.
After leaving the Secret Camp, Yulun’s life rapidly plummeted into a predicament. Everything he had learned as part of the Secret Camp related to killing and scheming. He had never learned how to make a living. After all, he wasn’t part of the Covert or Hidden Groups. He had stood on high for years, so he wasn’t used to humbling himself, let alone depending on his own efforts to make a living. His only skill was killing, but he didn’t even know how to contact the assassin organizations. Outside of this business, he only knew how to write poems and lyrics, but he disdained exchanging poems for cash. Furthermore, he didn’t care for money while in the Secret Camp. He spent all the gold and silver he obtained very quickly. If he had not gotten a travel expense fund before departing from the organization, he would have left empty-handed.
After shaking off the yoke, Yulun essentially headed straight for the Qinhuai River and arrived there. He looked imposing and handsome, and together with his soaring literary talent and bags full of gold, he quickly became a respected guest on the Qinhuai River. He dallied in the pleasure district every day, frequenting brothels with strong alcohol and song and dance. In times of leisure, he recited poems in defiance. His elegant poems moved people, for they were full of pathos. Even when ordinary songstresses sang a song they had perfected, it would be popular for a fortnight. As time passed, the money in his bag dried up. If not for the most popular courtesans in the brothels requesting lyrical poems from him and paying him in gold and silver, his pockets would have been empty long ago.
Even so, he would soon become destitute. From a life of luxury and extravagance, in a position that he could rally the multitudes to his call, he had fallen into this predicament. If the average person was bound to suffer and regret, then Yulun relished such hardship. He had endured this poor lifestyle for exactly one and a half years.
When Quhuang came to Jianye for business one day, he learned Yulun had retired to this district and specially went to see him. When Quhuang saw how impoverished Yulun was, he was shocked. As a result, the always taciturn Quhuang dragged Yulun to a tavern to drink together for a night, refusing all attempts of protest. Afterwards, he gave nearly all of the gold and silver on his person to Yulun before disappearing without a trace. One month later, Quhuang turned up once again but with an assassination mission this time. Thereafter, Yulun’s lifestyle changed. After a set period of time, he would always receive some sort of task from either the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets or the Secret Camp. All these tasks were centered around Jianye, and most of them were quite difficult. In fact, the Pavilion of Heavenly Secrets had several businesses in Jianye, while the Secret Camp quite often frequented activities in Jianye. It was just that after Yulun left the Secret Camp, they didn’t receive his detailed actions anymore. Every time he completed a mission, the remuneration he received allowed him to live a life of luxury for a period of time. Thus he no longer had to live in extreme poverty.
Yulun didn’t hesitate to accept this change. Although he turned from the manager of affairs into a tool to be ordered around by the Secret Camp, he didn’t utter a word of complaint, nor did he have a speck of remorse. The flame of his life seemed to have burned out over ten years ago, and only in the pleasure district of Qinhuai could Yulun find peace and joy. At times, though, Yulun himself couldn’t understand why he acted like a moth attracted to flame, with no complaints or regrets. Every time he tried to figure it out, that unforgettable, bright, and beautiful face popped up before his eyes.
When he bumped into Liu Rumeng today on the upper floor of this very ordinary restaurant, he finally felt his spirit begin to stir again. This woman’s looks weren’t in the least bit similar to Liu Piaoxiang’s, but after she confessed her problems, Yulun realized this woman’s sensuality was identical to the one of the woman of his dreams. For this sole reason, he agreed to stay beside this woman, completely forgetting how dangerous and hard to fathom the mission he had taken three months ago was. Having thought of all this, he felt Liu Rumeng’s eyes had become more lonely and grief-stricken.
Liu Rumeng was discerning and careful, so she could sense that his attitude had changed. She had long heard of this young man, Song Yu. Many of her sisters on the Qinhuai River had brought up this man. But somehow, the two of them had never met before. She had wondered before if Song Yu purposely avoided her, but she felt it wasn’t possible. Her sisters had all said Song Yu behaved strangely. He may not have expressed his sorrow in song every day, but he got drunk in Qinhuai and embraced courtesans in brothels. He threw his money away as he wantonly indulged himself. He also gave high ranking officials and scholars contemptuous looks, but he wasn’t overbearing in the slightest to the women selling their bodies to make a living, like her. He instead treated them like friends. He was nothing like the men pursuing pleasure in Qinhuai, who even when grinning ear to ear still held them in contempt. A perceptive sister once said that although this Sir Song lived near brothels, he was never truly happy. Even makeup and cosmetics couldn’t hide his aloofness. Even if he laughed and cheered, he couldn’t disguise the pain in his eyes. Liu Rumeng had been skeptical about what they told her, but she realized it was true when she saw him today. She just didn’t know why he was so heartbroken to the extent that he, a jewel, would go into exile and that he was not yet thirty.
However, the secrets Song Yu held could slowly be explored. Liu Rumeng saluted and said, “As Sir has consented to Rumeng, why not return with Rumeng right now? Alas, Moonlight Pavilion has always been rude and unreasonable. If they find out Sir is helping your servant, I fear something unspeakable will occur.”
Yulun looked back at her and said lightly, “I still don’t take the Moonlight Pavilion seriously. Please return first, miss. Tomorrow I will personally go to the pleasure boat to see you.”
Liu Rumeng wanted to try to persuade him again when she saw Song Yu’s cold expression, and his features revealed an irresistible aura that awed her. Her thoughts all over the place, she gracefully bowed and said, “That being the case, your servant will be expecting Sir on the boat.”
Yulun turned his back on her and raised his cup to the moon. His heart stricken with grief, he couldn’t help muttering, “The former young master who loved you probably has eyes only for his new woman with fair features these days. How would he still remember the forlorn burial mound in the city of Jianye? Lady Liu, I had believed that no one else on Earth remembered you. I never expected to meet another person in the brothels today who knew of you.”
While grief gnawed at Yulun’s heart, someone laughed as he brushed aside the bamboo curtain and entered. “Brother Song, you’ve made me look good this time. Many thanks for your idea. Why are you nursing your grievances in this joint on such a grand occasion? How about coming with me to the Moonlight Pavilion and drinking to our hearts’ content?” the man asked.
A cold gleam flickered in Yulun’s eyes for a moment. “Brother Shang is exaggerating,” he said with a chuckle. “I was merely thinking aloud. The affairs of state have people worrying over them. Why should us commoners interfere? Drinking is fine, but, brother Shang, don’t speak of those disheartening topics again.”
This man was Shang Chengye. He may have had a precious status as the only son of Shang Weijun, but he was mediocre and stupid. If the people who met him on normal days didn’t brown nose, then they respected him only on the surface while actually holding him in contempt. Although Shang Chengye was dumb, he also realized as time passed that a majority of the people beside him were putting on a pretense. He had gotten to know his only close friend in the pleasure district. Although Song Yu was often cynical, he treated Shang Chengye like a normal person and got along well with him. So when Shang Chengye heard Yulun’s reply, not only was he not angry, but he smiled and went over to drag Yulun outside. He said as he walked, “Of course. My father and them can manage national security. Let’s go, we must get plastered tonight.”
Yulun smiled and allowed Shang Chengye to drag him outside.
- This is a poem entitled “Dream, to the Tune of ‘Washing Mountain Stream Sand’” (浣溪沙·惆怅梦余山月斜) by late Tang Dynasty poet Wei Zhuang (韦庄).
- 淋漓尽致, linli-jinzhi – idiom, lit. saturated or soaked to the brim; fig. describe thoroughly
- A district in Nanjing (Jianye); named for the Qinhuai River