25: Chengxin House
Edited by Quwu
In Shan Chao's eyes, once such a vile thing was revealed, the mastermind should be ashamed or, at the very least, be discomfited.
What was unexpected was that Xie Yun completely did not have such feelings, so much that his att.i.tude was extremely overbearing, as if such a matter was proper and expected as a matter of course, to the point that it seemed an extremely urgent task.
"Miss Jinxin has shown great hospitality, which I am truly unable to enjoy." Shan Chao calmed down after a moment of astonishment and gazed straight at Xie Yun as he said, "May Commander Xie take her back."
Xie Yun did not have a single expression. "Jinxin may be older by a few years, but she is also a rare, reliable person. You can just change to another if you truly do not like her. Leave, Jinxin will make arrangements for you."
"No need to arrange."
"No need to arrange!"
The two looked at each other face-to-face, the atmosphere tense with only the faint crackle of the candle-flame to be heard.
Shan Chao gave emphasis, biting each word out. "I said, no need to arrange."
Xie Yun's upper body leaned back slightly. He studied Shan Chao for a moment and then abruptly asked, "Is it because you're still one who has left home?"
Shan Chao stared blankly.
A mid-career monk like him actually did not have much consciousness of the Buddha. Yet, even if his heart did not have clear restrictions or laws, for some reason, he disliked intimate close contact with that sort of alluring, beautiful women. It was not that he felt Jinxin was unclean—on the contrary he had no such feelings. It was merely… defiance.
Are you treating me like a stallion? Since I've grown, you can put me out to stud just by pulling over a female?
Shan Chao let out a cold breath, and unwilling to speak directly, he only said, "Yes."
Xie Yun asked: "Then why do you act so natural when drinking wine?"
Shan Chao: "……"
Xie Yun raised an eyebrow while looking at him, wagging his index finger.
For those who have practised swordplay since they were young, their fingers were all long and slim. The shape of Xie Yun's fingers were especially elegant, thus this simple movement, seemed to jab with ridicule.
"With you like this, I feel as if I'm facing an intractable problem," he said slowly.
"If it were merely a matter of disliking Jinxin, that would still be fine; There are always differences in beauty preferences between people. However, if you simply don't want anyone, that would be very strange. Ma Xin and the others all have paramours in private, yet you have stayed in my manor for half a month without even glancing at any maid…"
"With you acting this way, I would think that you might have some special preferences." Xie Yun paused, and said, "If so, that would truly be troublesome."
For some reason, Shan Chao's heart suddenly tightened as if a formless claw suddenly had a resolute grip around his throat.
He did not even react to what Xie Yun's final goal was, or to say, the first thing he was conscious of was how terrifying the implication of that sentence was, and thus his direct rejection against understanding it himself.
Shan Chao's throat moved up and down, and a moment later, he spoke, his voice an unforeseen hard coldness. "No, it's not like that… Please do not make me do things I do not wish to do."
Under the lighting, Xie Yun's expression changed abruptly.
Although the world naturally changed over time, and the scenario was completely different, at that moment, the same person spoke the same answer with an intonation which was not the least different from his memories one bit all gave him the abrupt illusion of time flowing backwards.
—what had he said at that time?
"Even if power and the kingdom is akin to the yellow dust, this matter already concerns life and death; as long as you are willing to do this, you do not even need to do the job yourself, innumerable people would advance wave after wave to become the stepping stones under your feet…"
Yet that youth just stood firm within the sandstorm to gaze at him, each pitch hoa.r.s.e and cold and hard enough to penetrate bone, to the extent that even for a long time after, it would echo frequently in the remote dreamland of night: "There is no turning back on this matter… Master, please do not make me do things I do not wish to do!…"
Xie Yun suddenly found it ironic, so much that he wanted to laugh—yet the effort of enduring so many years dissipated that laugh without a trace before it could reach his throat.
The gaze that he used towards Shan Chao was deep and cold, and after a while, there was a sudden bang as he closed the book before him.
Shan Chao saw him get up and walk around the desk, striding towards the doorway. When their shoulders brushed, not even a glance was thrown. Xie Yun then opened the door and called, "Men, prepare the carriage!"
Footsteps immediately sounded outside, and nearby a manservant carrying a lantern on night-watch quickly stepped forward to answer. Even if bewilderment was written all over his face, he did not dare delay and rushed for the second gate.
"Didn't you say that you don't have any special preferences?" Xie Yun turned around and said.
Shan Chao stood there vigilantly.
The thread of mockery finally floated up from within the watery depths of Xie Yun's eyes. "…Then prove it to me."
An hour later.
—Changping District, Chengxin House.
There were many brothels on Changping Street, brightly lit with good wine and the sound of silks and woodwinds, that the night breeze carried the scent of cosmetics. Shan Chao, since his birth, had never seen such a bustling and extravagant night-scape before—although the night banquet in the Imperial Palace could be said to be a rare sight in the world, Changping District was more unrestrained with ostentatious displays of a life in luxury in all respects in the eight directions which left people in fear that in a moment of inattention, they would drown in this gentle cave of prosperity.
Xie Yun set down his wine goblet with a clink, the good grape liquor within a luminous cup, giving the sight of red ripples undulating in the white jade cup as red as pigeon's blood and as slender as mutton fat, glittering under the lamp-light.
Xie Yun's hand laid above the white cup, his index and third fingers slightly combined. The movement extremely elegant with his joints long and moist, that, in a moment of distraction, his fingers seemed to fuse together with the mutton-fat jade.
Shan Chao's gaze involuntarily fixed upon it, not moving away for several breaths until Xie Yun suddenly raised his fingertips and leisurely knocked on the walls of the cup twice.
"……" Shan Chao abruptly raised his eyes to see Xie Yun's cold expression. "What are you looking at?"
Shan Chao's breathing was slightly confused, and he shifted his gaze without answering.
Fortunately, Xie Yun did not pursue. He only gave a sneer and said, "Pour wine."
This command, however, was not directed at him, but towards the lady on the side.
The brothels of Chang'an were money-squandering establishments, and it was common to spend upwards of a thousand gold taels in a night. The Chengxin House, no matter what, was more expensive than any other establishment in any respect by a fold. But the price was not a cheat as it was directly reflected in the lady's appearance and good looks.
Xie Yun did not conceal his face—masking himself would directly announce to the whole of Chang'an that the Imperial Guard Commander was strolling through brothels. However, he scattered a handful of gold seeds right upon entry as gratuity and mentioned by name the leading courtesan to pour wine. The brothel keeper merely glanced at the seeds' purity and immediately became aware that this was a n.o.ble guest, and without demur, invited them into a private room with the seat of honour and even gave four currently popular ladies to play music as accompaniment.
The courtesan reached out, filling Shan Chao's cup to the brim with a light gold limpid wine, and said with a smile: "This is the 'Bone-Seeping Fragrance' personally brewed by the ladies of Chengxin House, the raw material being fresh flowers and fruit, intoxicating without harming the body. May this gentleman have a taste."
She had reviewed innumerable people, and her insight was accurate. Xie Yun may be handsome without compare and liberal with money, but—he was too ostentatious, and his eyes and brows clearly revealed a killing aura, definitely not belonging to a n.o.bleman of a peaceful time. By contrast, Shan Chao was steadier and much more reliable and was not an expert in the ways of romance with his eyes not even drifting towards the ladies since entering. To win the favour of such a novice was a peace of cake.
The courtesan was still very confident in her looks, and the hand fiddling with her gauze handkerchief slowly moved to stroke Shan Chao's shoulder and knew immediately that this gentleman was a martial artist with a tall and straight frame standing alone. He was definitely a much higher standard than the hedonistic playboys she interacted with, and thus a bit of fondness grew in her heart.
Who would have thought that Shan Chao would dodge her, raise his head to drain the cup in one gulp, and then silently put down the jade cup.
"……" The courtesan did not know how to react, and hurriedly smiled. "Is it to this gentleman's taste?" As she spoke she poured another cup.
Shan Chao did not answer her, and once again, raised the cup to drain it.
The courtesan's hand holding the jade bottle froze in mid-air, currently in a bout of confusion, when she heard Xie Yun open his mouth. "Pour again."
The courtesan did not dare to say much, smiling as she poured a cup of limpid wine again, and stared blankly as Shan Chao, for the third time, drained in silence the 'Bone-Seeping Fragrance' so in demand in the pleasure districts.
And he did not change his expression, nor did he make a sound. It even seemed that he did not even notice the music accompaniment and only sat facing Xie Yun with his back straight.
The courtesan truly did not know what tricks these two n.o.ble guests were up to today. She intuited that she met a dead end. She was thinking about finding a topic of conversation when she heard Xie Yun lightly say, "What are you staring for?"
The sound was slow and light, yet the intonation was sharp and cold, and the courtesan's white and soft hand could not help but tremble a bit.
She could only force a smile and pour cup after cup, and Shan Chao did not speak, drinking cup after cup. Although n.o.body spoke or or raised difficult questions, the gradually tensing atmosphere left her feeling as if she were sitting on needles. It was with difficulty that the whole jade bottle was cleared when the courtesan finally gathered her courage and tactfully spoke. "For the past two days, your servant has felt under the weather, and thus there is a pallor to my looks. If our guests do not like it, there are still a few sisters in the house like Chunhua and Qiuyue whose looks and talents are the pick of the bunch. Would our guests do us the honour of taking a look?"
The courtesan's reasoning was a different approach, yet had a similar intended outcome as Commander Xie: it doesn't matter if you do not like it, we'll just change to another one.
This was also an area where she was knowledgeable and discreet and would not be jealous even if the guests chose another lady. Her words were spoken gently and cleverly, clearly showing where the superiority of Chengxin House lay.
Yet Shan Chao only smiled, though, the smile was very brief and vanished in the blink of an eye in his dark eyes. "Many thanks to Miss for your great hospitality, but there is no need. Please do retire."
The courtesan started.
"…Does this guest find the music crude and cannot bear to hear it?"
"Then have the ladies been insolent in words and actions and cannot cater to your eye?"
"Not at all."
"Then…" The courtesan was about to ask some more, when Shan Chao abruptly got up and looked down at Xie Yun. "Master, I shall take my leave first. If Master has his eye set on a lady… or a few ladies, you might as well pa.s.s the spring night for a time. I shall await you outside then."
In this world there are even teachers who teach their disciples how to visit brothels—truly teaching by word and example. This was the courtesan's only thought.
Xie Yun slowly raised a hand, waving towards the outside, yet faced the ladies. "Leave."
The courtesan did not dare speak a word, hurriedly rising to back out, and led the four other ladies to quietly back out.
Only when there was no other people in the room did Xie Yun finally open his mouth to ask, "You're looking down on them?"
Shan Chao said, "Not at all."
"The officials in Chang'an city change repeatedly, and many influential clans have been wiped out in the span of an evening. The womenfolk in the boudoirs were thus sold to the pleasure districts, entering Chengxin House for the most part. The ladies in this building are not just entertainers; many of them have literary and artistic talent that would not lose to Jinxin's, so do not negligently belittle them."
Shan Chao quieted for a while, and spoke. "I do not look down on anyone." And then the topic of his discussion turned, and he coldly said, "Commander Xie—since you place so much attention on Jinxin, to mention her every two or three sentences, is it because she was bestowed by Empress Wu?"
Xie Yun did not expect this question, and after starting for a moment, raised the tip of one eyebrow in bare concealment. "I thought the degree of your stupidity would at least be lighter than Lady Helan, yet it is the same. I was wrong."
Shan Chao: "……"
Shan Chao opened his mouth on the spot. He had yet to speak, when Xie Yun suddenly asked, "Do you know why this place is called Chengxin House?"
"Chengxin." Xie Yun enunciated. "The late Emperor's deposed Crown Prince Li Chengqian favoured a Ministry of Ceremonies musician named 'Chengxin'. The Emperor was angered when he heard this and arrested and killed Chengxin, along with several others. Chengqian wept endlessly in sorrow, praying for Chengxin day and night in his yard. He reported ill to Court attendance for several months and then finally lost his life in rebellion…"
"Thus, Chengxin is equivalent to the south wind1." Xie Yun's gaze peered from the corner of his eye towards Shan Chao as if carrying a dangerous meaning. "And that is the reason why this brothel is famed in the four directions around Chang'an."
Shan Chao's pupils contracted slightly.
In the next moment, several knocks sounded on the door and then was pushed open. Four youths with pretty faces walked in a line, clearly no older than fourteen or fifteen, each fair and gentle, young and puerile, and gave a salute in order.
Shan Chao spoke in amazement. "You—"
Xie Yun touched his own forehead and said, "Don't serve me, I don't have such a preference."
And then he raised his jaw towards Shan Chao and instructed the boys, "To that side. You will all be heavily rewarded for great service."
Chapter 25 Translator's Note: Courtesans in Ancient China, Tang-dynasty specific.
The cla.s.s of courtesan in Chengxin house would be categorised under yiji.
Courtesans would represent a rare species of woman in ancient China, because historically these women would be one of the few outside of n.o.ble circles who could read and write, and thus communicate with the literati and low society.
Let us not forget though, that the context of how they ended up in Chengxin House: due to the movements of Court, and officials rising and falling in the political sphere, their often very large families would follow along. Tang law mainly killed men above a certain age and demoted the rest as servants, and from this path some girls were taken in by brothels and trained to become courtesans. This is therefore a direct result of the imperial court's influence of the time, and a hovering danger for everyone with a family in the story.
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