Volume 6, Chapter 32: The Taste of Rancid Mouse

Volume 6, Chapter 32: The Taste of Rancid Mouse1


In the eighth month of the fourteenth year of Tongtai, the twenty-fourth year of the sixty-year cycle, the King held a royal wedding and conferred upon Lady Cai—the second daughter of the Minister over the Masses, Cai Kai—the title of Queen. On the same day, Noble Consort Lady Ji’s standing was confirmed.

On the eighteenth day of the eighth month, the King assumed the throne upon coming of age and ordered the royal palace to receive presents and congratulations. Blessing all inside and outside the palace, he did not behead criminals and pardoned all.

Southern Chu Dynastic Chronicles, Biography of King Min of Chu

In the seventh month of the fourteenth year of Tongtai, a heat wave hit Jiangnan, the temperature sweltering. The river flowed east, the time noon. Even on the river, few vessels were sailing. But underneath a large willow tree by the river, a young woman in green clothes was sitting. Although she didn’t look to be in her teenage years yet, she was elegant beyond words. Her crystal clear, pearly eyes captivated people. The clothing she wore was the type of summer garment commoner girls of Jiangnan liked to wear, simple and unadorned. However, her shining eyes with a winning look and picturesque appearance made it obvious she was not a normal pretty daughter from a humble family. She sat on bluestone holding her knees, her limpid and luminous eyes gazing at the young man pacing up and down the riverside who was completely ignoring the scorching sun overhead, her eyes full of doubt.

The young man looked martial and handsome, around fourteen years of age. Although his appearance was tender and puerile, he already exuded a heroic presence. But right now, he was roaming the riverside and looking around, his face anxious and urgent.

The green-clothed young woman finally couldn’t restrain herself anymore and raised her voice, saying, “Second brother, didn’t you hire a boat? Why isn’t it here yet?”

The young man pulled a long face and replied, “I clearly said we would be meeting here today. I paid half the boat fee upfront, so how come they’re so untrustworthy?”

“It’s all your fault, forcing me to come with you to Shouchun to see my sister-in-law. And you didn’t tell Mother about it, otherwise we could’ve gone with stepuncle and wouldn’t be here baking in the sun,” the young woman complained.

Helplessness showed in the young man’s eyes, but he quickly hid it. “But you said Mother wouldn’t let us go to Shouchun. I had planned to go to Zhongli to see big brother, to go with him into battle and kill the enemy. If you hadn’t insisted on coming with me, I could’ve strutted off and wouldn’t have needed to hire a private boat here.”

The young woman got so angry her charming face flushed red. She was a gentle and refined noblewoman, and even though she had fantasized about the vast world before, she didn’t have the courage to leave home and venture out. If not for her second brother mocking and ridiculing her while secretly encouraging her, she would never have had the bravery to go outside with him, even going so far as to keep it from their mother. Thinking of this, she wanted to curse him roundly, but as she was meek by nature and was most unused to cursing others, she was so angry she couldn’t say anything.

All of a sudden, the young man pointed at the river and said, “Great, the boat’s here.” The young woman was overjoyed. She stood up and gazed at the river, seeing a small passenger boat sailing over the waves toward them. Not long after, it docked on the shore. The young man said to the middle-aged boatman standing on the bow, “Uncle, why did it take you so long?”

The middle-aged boatman answered, “Young master Lu, my third son suddenly got an upset stomach today and couldn’t work aboard the boat. This humble one can’t pilot the boat himself and had to find a nephew as a helping hand at the last moment. This is why I was late. Please forgive me, young master.”

The young man’s face relaxed. “So that’s the case. Is third brother all right?”

“It’s nothing. He probably ate something unclean. Please come aboard, young master,” the middle-aged boatman said with a smile.

The young man glanced at the stern of the boat. The youngster helming the rudder had bronzed skin, looking strong and straightforward. He looked back and said, “Mei’er, come aboard.”

The green-clothed young woman replied, “Okay.” She walked over. She may have been young, but she was graceful to the extreme. Although the middle-aged boatman had seen a great deal, he couldn’t help praising her under his breath. Putting down the gangplank, he allowed the brother and sister duo to board the boat. Neither the young man nor young woman noticed the helmsman lower his head a little, hiding the burst of light in his eyes.

After boarding, the small craft sailed upstream against the current, the sun blazing in the sky. The river breeze was scorching hot. The two boatmen piloted the skiff for over ten li,2 then turned into a small tributary. This river was wide, and wind came from all directions. The green willows on both banks created a shady shelter, the branches and leaves blotting out the sky and reflecting in the water. The envelopment formed a slice of cool, the best place for traveling boats to rest on a summer’s day.

At present, a dozen passenger ships, or perhaps cargo ships, both big and small were on the river. There was even a gorgeous pleasure boat among them, the blackwood gilded. The long and narrow, beautiful hull was shaped just like the slim body of a Jiangnan maiden. Many palace lanterns hung from the bow, and though they weren’t currently lit, the four large words of “Dragons Flying Phoenixes Dancing” could still clearly be seen. Catching a glimpse of it, the young woman intoned in a low voice, “The Dreamy Pleasure Boat.” Envy appearing on her face, she said, “Second brother, this is such a pretty pleasure boat. It’d be great if we could go aboard and look around.”

A wry smile appeared on the lips of the young man. He wasn’t at all like his little sister who didn’t go outside the house and stayed indoors all day. On most days, he wandered around the interior and exterior of the city of Jianye, so he knew about the Dreamy Pleasure Boat. Embarrassed for a moment, he replied, “Mei’er, that isn’t a place you should go.”

Curiosity shone in the young woman’s eyes as she gazed at her second brother. “Second brother, you aren’t tricking me, right?” Doubt filled her expression.

The young man wanted to say he never tricked people in his defense, but he realized he couldn’t say it. After all, every nine out of ten sentences he said to his little sister were lies. He could only say in shame, “Mei’er, that’s the pleasure boat of the Most Popular Courtesan of Jiangnan, Liu Rumeng.”

The young woman may have been young, but she’d heard of Liu Rumeng’s reputation. Although she still didn’t understand romance, she did understand the significance. She blushed and wanted to hide in the cabin. Then a hauntingly beautiful melody being played on a flute drifted over from aboard the pleasure boat. The emotional music washed over people like cold water. The blistering summer day lost its might, following which a heavenly voice came from the pleasure boat.

“Planned to get together to pick blooming lotuses,
Budding duckweed go aboard the magnolia boats.
When they come to the confluence, dawn is breaking on their oars;
Done plucking, moonlight fills the towers as they return to shore.
Flowers are silent, water flows without emotion.
Every year, they willingly grieve over spring passing.
If a west wind blows strong the next day,
How can red faces stop autumn?”3

The young woman was fascinated by the music and said to the young man, “What a beautiful song, such a moving flute. Second brother, it’s rare to get such a golden opportunity these days. Can I go meet Lady Liu?” Longing glittered in her eyes.

Hesitation appeared in the young man’s eyes, but seeing the look in the young woman’s eyes, he softened. Eventually, he sighed, “All right. Lady Liu’s reputation reverberates through Jiangnan. As long as you just meet her, Dad won’t blame me too much if he learns of it.” He then had the middle-aged boatman drive toward the pleasure boat.

Soon after, the skiff docked with the pleasure boat. A pretty boatwoman aboard the pleasure boat gazed at the skiff and said in a distinct voice, “Little young master, is there anything you need?”

The young man sighed. Looking at his little sister’s pleading eyes, he said, “Please report to Lady Liu that Lu Feng and Lu Mei were passing through here, and upon hearing the lady’s ethereal singing, wanted to board the pleasure boat and meet her.” While he spoke, he squeezed his purse and thought about how he didn’t know if he had enough taels.

The boatwoman giggled. “Little young master, at your age, don’t be cracking jokes, please? What’s more, Her Ladyship is resting here and is not welcoming visitors at the moment.”

The young man blushed, glanced at his little sister, and replied, “To tell the truth, it’s actually my little sister who heard the flute song and was enraptured. Due to this, she wants to meet Lady Liu.”

The boatwoman smiled and looked at Lu Mei. A light sparkling in her eyes, she walked to the cabin door and said a few whispered words. Not long after, she walked back and declared, “Her Ladyship said that since you appreciate her talents, she is inviting you aboard for a respite.”

The young man, Lu Feng, was relieved and whispered a few instructions to the boatman before he brought Lu Mei on the pleasure boat. A pretty maid walked out of the cabin and pushed the bead curtain aside. The two siblings walked in, feeling a refreshing temperature greet them inside the cabin.

Lu Feng looked around and stared. The cabin was quite spacious, furnished in a simple yet elegant and sophisticated fashion. On one side was a rattan bed atop which sat a small square table. Silverware rested on the table, chilled watermelons on the plates. A basin of ice also sat in the cabin, explaining why it was so cool. A woman was resting at the table, wearing white clothes that weren’t at all made of fine silk. Her fine hair was black as ink and hung in front of her body. Although she only had light makeup on, she had a special type of charm and luster. There was also a man wearing dark robes in the cabin standing at the window. He was gazing intently beyond the bead curtain at the wispy willows on the riverbank. His black robes touched the floor, and a bamboo flute hung from his belt. He exuded an apathetic and dignified aura.

Lu Mei, on the other hand, wasn’t in the mood to appreciate the furnishings in the cabin. Taking a few steps to arrive at the rattan bed, she joyfully said, “Are you older sister Liu? You sang really well!”

Liu Rumeng hadn’t been in the mood to receive guests, but her accompanist, Song Yu, had just indicated for her to meet the two people, so she had invited the Lu siblings aboard. However, when she heard Lu Mei’s delighted praise without any deceit, she was touched. She said with a tender smile, “Rumeng has always relied on this to make a living. Miss is mistaken in praising me.” She reached out with a slender white hand and pulled Lu Mei to her and sat her down. Liu Rumeng’s luminous eyes roamed about and examined everything about the young woman, discovering the young woman was delicate and beautiful. Although she was young, she was a naturally beautiful girl. She would be an unrivaled beauty once she grew to be thirteen or fourteen. Liu Rumeng was even more touched by the fact the young woman was a being of pure innocence and even had an inherent disposition of delicate refinement. She knew at a glance the young woman wasn’t the daughter of a commoner family.

The more she looked, the fonder she grew. Liu Rumeng asked with a smile, “Is your name Lu Mei? The name truly fits. Even I can’t help but love it. Where do you plan to go?”

Lu Mei glanced at Lu Feng, seeing him shake his head slightly, then said, “Second brother and I are going to see eldest brother and his wife. Passing by, I overheard older sister’s singing, so I pleaded with second brother to take me to see older sister.”

Liu Rumeng didn’t fail to notice the subtle looks between the two siblings, but in her mind, she knew pretending she didn’t notice was better. “Do you like to sing as well?”

Lu Mei nodded and shyly said, “I don’t sing that well…”

Lu Feng was growing impatient. His gaze landing on the man in black robes, he took a few steps forward and said, “I presume you are Sir Song, Song Yu. Sir’s reputation precedes him. How fortunate I am to meet you today.”

Yulun looked back at the words and lightly said, “Second young master Lu is a tiger cub of a martial family. Why did you take note of such a petty individual like me?”

Lu Feng was rocked to the core. Although he was young, he was extraordinarily smart. He replied that he was quite knowledgeable about the personages of Jianye, so knew of Song Yu’s talent and reputation and even knew the man was a confidant and advisor to Shang Chengye. Shang Chengye had received his assistance for the past few years, reaping huge spoils from the court. He was no longer the shiftless son of an outstanding prime minister.

Lu Mei had wanted to board the pleasure boat to meet Liu Rumeng, whereas Lu Feng thought the man playing the flute had to be Song Yu. The man was dissolute and, other than occasionally offering advice to Shang Chengye, had almost always been at Liu Rumeng’s side over the years.

Yulun noticed his expression changing and thought, Rumor says the majority of the Lu family’s hidden influence in Jianye is controlled by this young man. Now, it looks like that’s the truth. As a matter of fact, Song Yu being Shang Chengye’s advisor was a well-hidden secret. Only a select few people knew of it. That Lu Feng knew demonstrated he could dip deep into the inner workings of the Lu family’s hidden power in Jianye.

After receiving this answer, Yulun didn’t ask any further and turned his head back to the window, gazing out, his expression impassive as if completely uninterested in the people behind him. Lu Feng, meanwhile, was racking his brains. Could it be that their chance meeting on the road today was a trap that didn’t work? He began to feel a faint sense of regret.

After nearly two hours, the sun was declining to the west, the heat wave on the river was subsiding, and Lu Feng bade farewell with Lu Mei. Lu Mei’s reluctance to part showed on her face. During the two hours, Liu Rumeng had taught her many things about melody, song, and dance, which she was grateful for. And Liu Rumeng was talkative, her words washing over Lu Mei like a spring breeze. Lu Mei couldn’t bear to leave. On the other hand, Lu Feng had wanted to depart for a long time. The two hours felt like a year to him. He had a mind to pry into Song Yu’s depths, but to his surprise, the man’s words were cold, and Song Yu wasn’t willing to talk much with him. Lu Feng was quite embarrassed by the snubbing, so he hurriedly bade farewell.

Watching the two siblings leave, sadness flickered in Yulun’s eyes. Liu Rumeng approached him and said with a sigh, “Did you recognize the two of them?”

“After this much time, you still don’t know who they are?” Yulun coolly replied.

Liu Rumeng slightly raised her long, shapely eyebrows. “I couldn’t be bothered to ask too much. Besides, that little girl was tender and pleasant. And I didn’t want to employ any schemes. In any case, it’s just like ships passing in the night.”

“That was Lu Can’s second son, Lu Feng, and his beloved daughter, Lu Mei,” said Yulun indifferently.

Liu Rumeng was a little taken aback and said, “So they were daughter and son of the Grand General, quite rare indeed. So not even the Princess’s status may be more respected than Lu Mei’s status, yet she doesn’t have an ounce of haughtiness. She truly is worthy of being the daughter of a prestigious family. But why is such a beloved daughter leaving home by herself and following her elder brother?”

“What’s special about the daughter of a prestigious family?” stated Yulun evenly. “She can’t escape power struggles either. The King’s about to host a royal wedding. After the wedding, he’s to take the reins of government. This royal wedding is important to the extreme, as the appointment of queen is top priority.”

Realization dawned upon Liu Rumeng. “So that’s how it is. With the Grand General’s status and position, might Miss Lu be appointed as Queen? However, she doesn’t seem to be thirteen yet. Isn’t she a little young?”

Yulun coldly said, “What does age have to do with anything? If not for Miss Lu still being under the age of thirteen and not yet the age for selection, I’m afraid she would’ve been included in the roster for queen candidates already. After the upcoming appointment, the entire court will be debating without rest. Shang Weijun may have intended to appoint one of his kinswomen as Queen, but Lu Can dissuaded him in writing. After all, the Shang family already has a queen dowager. If they pushed out a queen too, it would be a little overboard.”

Liu Rumeng reflected, “If the Grand General intended to have Miss Lu appointed Queen, why is Miss Lu currently wandering around?”

“Because the Grand General doesn’t have that intention,” replied Yulun without emotion. “A few days ago, the Queen Dowager hinted to Lady Lu the intention for Miss Lu to be selected as Queen. Now, it looks like the Lu family isn’t willing, and it’s likely they didn’t want to publicly reject the offer, so they had Miss Lu leave Jianye.”

Liu Rumeng’s pretty eyes roamed about. “Since Queen Dowager had this intention but was furtively denied by the Lu family, hasn’t the Grand General offended the Queen Dowager?”

“There was no other choice,” Yulun said with a mirthless smile. “You should know that Prime Minister Shang categorically refuses to see Lu Mei become Queen. If the Lu family becomes related to the King, Prime Minister Shang would probably jolt awake even while dreaming, so he’s blocking Lu Mei on the grounds that she’s underage and advocating that Lady Cai be conferred the title of Queen. But if the Lu family doesn’t unite with the royal family through marriage, Prime Minister Shang will still be perturbed, so he proposed the absurd idea that Lu Mei be conferred the title of Noble Consort. Unfortunately, the Queen Dowager doesn’t have a strong will, as she wishes to unite with the Lu family through marriage yet yields to Prime Minister Shang’s plan to denigrate Lu Mei as a noble consort. It’s little wonder the Lu family permitted Lu Mei to escape Jianye. Lu Can’s status in Southern Chu is so lofty right now that if his daughter enters the palace without being Queen, he would lose all dignity.”

Liu Rumeng considered this over and over again, then sighed, “This way, no matter what happens, grudges will be sown between both the Lu family and Prime Minister Shang. Rumors say that in the past, Prime Minister Shang tried to matchmake his adopted daughter with Lu Yun, but the Grand General rejected the offer. Afterwards, he tried to pair Lu Yun with Grand Princess Shuning, but the Grand General declined on the grounds that he’d already betrothed Young General Lu to another. Now, Miss Lu has skipped out on the queen selection. I’m afraid the Queen Dowager and the King will believe the Grand General is looking down on the court. After all is said and done, this event will cause no end of trouble.”

The sadness in Yulun’s eyes grew stronger at the words. “‘Rancid mouse now a delicacy, / Wondering if Kun and Peng discuss on end.’4 How could the Grand General be a man lusting after power, much less have a mind to curry favor with the rich and powerful to climb the political ladder?5 But a man like Prime Minister Shang won’t believe in the willpower of the Grand General.”

Liu Rumeng sighed gently again and finally spoke after a long time, “You should try to ask Shang daren to explain things to Prime Minister Shang. Since the Grand General is currently leading troops in the field, facing the millions of heavy cavalry from Great Yong, if a mishap occurs in the court, I’m afraid the country will be on the verge of collapse.”

Yulun gave a long sigh without saying anything, thinking of the order he’d received yesterday. He had been badly shaken by the familiar handwriting on the paper.

“Zhao Long is about to assume the throne. The royal wedding and appointment of the Queen is imminent. The Lu family stands above the crowd in Jiangnan, and the Shang family must desire that Lu Can’s daughter become a royal consort. Can is noble and pure in character and will refuse to sell his daughter for glory. This will be bound to give rise to discord between them. But persuade the Shang family that if Can becomes the King’s father-in-law, he’ll be sure to have designs of rebellion and use this reason to break off the marriage.”

Yulun had read it in his head multiple times, then gave a wry smile to himself and said, “Sir, in your eyes, if someone becomes your enemy, you won’t have any clemency for them? Lu Can used to be your disciple. Now, you want to put him to death. Yet why are you indulging me such?”

When Yulun thought about the three orders he’d received in three years, he was chilled to the bone.

In the twelfth year of Tongtai, Xiangyang fell. The news reached Jianye, and Shang Weijun was extremely terrified. He wanted to imprison the defending general of Xiangyang, Rong Yuan, and denounce him.

That man sent over the first letter and had Yulun offer advice to spread rumors at this opportune moment that Lu Can intended to make the court denounce the troops of Xiangyang, which forced Shang Weijun to come forward and soothe Rong Yuan. This action not only made Rong Yuan hate Lu Can even more, it also gave Shang Weijun a power in the military and won Yulun the trust of the Shang family.

In the thirteenth year of Tongtai, Ba Prefecture fell. Yu Mian entrenched in Jiange, and the Chengdu garrison fought to the death and refused to surrender. The two armies cemented their lines. Great Yong proposed a peace treaty. If Southern Chu ceded Jiange and Chengdu, Great Yong would return the captured Southern Chu troops to Southern Chu and was even willing to return Ba Prefecture to Southern Chu. Lu Can was set on rejecting it and wanted to dispatch the navy to Sichuan as a relief force.

Yulun received the second order at this time, and through Shang Chengye, convinced the Shang family that if the navy entered Sichuan, the defenses along the Yangtze River would be emptied. If the battle were drawn out and a defeat, once the Yong navy in Dinghai seized the opportunity to launch an attack, it would likely imperil Jianye. Instead of splitting the troops and fighting hard battles, it was better to hold Ba Prefecture, lest the Yong armies sail downstream on the Yangtze River.

After the peace talks concluded successfully, Yulun again followed orders and took the opportunity to persuade Shang Weijun to cast the blame on Yu Mian. Lu Can was incensed and quarreled with Shang Weijun face to face. Eventually, Yu Mian was allowed to continue defending Ba Prefecture. But all this increased Shang Weijun’s suspicions of the Lu family ever more.

Along with the present third order, Yulun knew from the bottom of his heart that Shang Weijun’s suspicions of the Lu family would reach the tipping point. Following Zhao Long’s ascension to the throne, Jiang Zhe, who’d bided his time for three years, would likely launch his counterattack.


Footnotes:

  1. A reference to a poem entitled “Anding Gate Tower” (安定城楼) by Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin (李商隐)
  2. Around 6 km (about 3.5 miles)
  3. This is a poem entitled “Planned to Get Together to Pick Blooming Lotuses, to the Tune of Partridge in the Sky’” (鹧鸪天·守得莲开结伴游) by Song Dynasty poet Yan Jidao (晏几道) about a group of women making a date to pick blooming lotuses as a metaphor for aging.
  4. A reference to a poem entitled “Anding Gate Tower” (安定城楼) by Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin (李商隐), but with the words changed a little
  5. 攀龙附凤, panlong-fufeng – idiom, lit. clamber over the dragon to follow the phoenix; fig. social climbing, play up to people of power and influence
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