After the wings of night had descended over the city, most streets could be described by these two words: ‘dark’ and ‘quiet’; but there are always some places in the world where the situation is the opposite.
In the western part of Jinling, a winding section of the red-light district known as Spiral Market Street stood surrounded on both sides by tall pavilions and splendid buildings, and stayed silent and still in the daytime, but once night fell, the street was lit with wine and song and dance. The meandering road wound through the city, and the grace and charm of this gentle paradise mesmerized all who entered, causing them to linger and forget about returning home.
The entertainment houses of Spiral Market Street each had their own style and attraction, such as the popular music of Miaoyin House¹, the latest dances from Willow House, the beautiful women of Crimson Sleeve House, the talented artisans of Orchid House…. each had their own unique strength, and although they had their conflicts, they had nonetheless been established for some time and had their own unwritten rules of conduct, and thus, as neighbours, they managed to get along well enough, and sometimes even pitched in to help each other out.
“Mother Zhu, it’s not that I want to cause you to lose face by refusing to help,” Third Aunt Shen of Miaoyin House pleaded, her face full of remorse. “You and I have known each other for so long, and Willow House and Miaoyin House are like family. You may ask any other lady for help and I will certainly not refuse you, but Miss Gong Yu is not seeing any guests today….”
“Sister Shen, I have no use for any other lady, I need Miss Gong Yu to save us!” Mother Zhu’s face was pale, she was close to tears, and if she were not being held up, she would have long since fallen to her knees.
“What? What bothersome guests are these, that even Mother Zhu cannot handle them?”
Mother Zhu was about to speak when a young servant boy came running over, crying anxiously before he had even come to a stop, “Mother, mother, it’s terrible, Young Master He is wrecking the place!”
Third Aunt Shen raised an eyebrow, and reached out to support Mother Zhu, who had gone limp, asking, “Young Master He, son of Minister He, the Minister of Appointments?”
“Yes, it’s that brat!” Mother Zhu stamped her foot. “He came in drunk tonight, and insisted on seeing our Xinliu, but Xinliu was keeping company with Master Qiu, son of the Earl of Wen. But he refused to take no for an answer, and refused to see any of our other ladies, and started raising a fuss.”
Third Aunt Shen’s face grew serious. “It’s not his first day out, how can he not know the rules of these places?”
“Isn’t it because he’s used to relying on his power? The Earl of Wen may be a nobleman, but he has no place in the court, whereas Minister He has all the power of the Ministry of Appointments, a real position, and so this young master is used to being waited on hand and foot, and got impatient after a couple of hours.”
Third Aunt Shen sighed. “Such is the way of the world. Hadn’t you better try to convince Master Qiu to let him have his way?”
Mother Zhu let out an “Ai”, and said, “Master Qiu has loved Xinliu for a long time, how could he be willing to let go now? He came first, and as he refuses to leave, I can’t force him to leave against the rules, not to mention our girl Xinliu also can’t stand Young Master He….”
“What about Xinyang?”
“She’s sick, she can’t even get out of bed….”
Third Aunt Shen frowned, deep in thought.
“Sister Shen, I’m begging you. If Miss Gong Yu is willing to just show her face, Young Master He would certainly be delighted, and our business tonight will be saved, and I will do anything for you in the future, I will be forever in your debt….”
“Alright, alright, you don’t need to say things like this.” Third Aunt Shen gripped Mother Zhu’s arm tightly as she was about to kneel. “It is not up to me, which of these popular ladies do not have their pride? I don’t dare give you an answer, I must first ask Yu’er.”
“Sister, take me to her, I will ask Miss Gong Yu myself.”
“Oh…alright…follow me.” Third Aunt Shen took Mother Zhu by the arm, and the two had just turned around when they both halted in surprise.
A lady dressed in a yellow dress and a splendid green outer garment stood before the fence, and said with a small smile, “I have heard everything. I was just about to pay a visit to Sister Xinyang to see how she’s doing, and since Aunt is experiencing some trouble, it is no problem for me to help out.”
Third Aunt Shen went over to her and said quietly, “Can you handle it?”
Gong Yu laughed coldly. “Isn’t it just He Wenxin? I have my ways.”
She was the leading lady of Miaoyin House, and even her own mother could not control her, and so now, hearing her words, Third Aunt Shen didn’t say anymore, but only ordered Old Man Turtle to arrange for a sedan and saw them out herself, watching as servant girls followed after to wait on them.
When they arrived at Willow House, the place was a mess. Fortunately, the rooms reserved for noble guests were situated at the back and divided into many small courtyards, and so, aside from the disturbance to the neighbouring rooms, the people of Willow House had managed to control the situation.
The glamorously-robed youth at the center of the frenzy was the notorious He Wenxin. Although he was not ugly, his arrogant, aggressive nature made it difficult for anyone to like him, and Gong Yu only gave him a glance before a fierce expression crept over her face.
“Miss…” Mother Zhu was nearly in a panic, and cried out softly.
Gong Yu’s eyes skipped over the comical scene, and then, with a small smile playing on her lips, she slowly stepped into the courtyard, and Mother Zhu immediately gestured for everyone who had been fighting He Wenxin to step aside. The young master who had been frenziedly smashing things left and right suddenly felt the opening, and in one motion, grabbed a flowerpot nearby and flung it in Gong Yu’s direction.
Amidst the startled cries of the spectators, Gong Yu twisted and she quickly slid to her left, neatly dodging the flowerpot, all the while crying out weakly and falling to the ground.
“Miss Gong Yu!” Mother Zhu was so frightened she felt as if half her soul had departed, and ran over to help her, asking desperately, “Where are you hurt?”
As soon as He Wenxin heard Gong Yu’s name, a light came over his eyes, and he stared for a moment at the beautiful, charming lady of his dreams, whom he had yearned for but only seen a few times. A smile spread across his face and he hurried forward to lend a hand, saying, “How did Miss Gong Yu come here? You must be scared, it’s all the fault of these stupid servants….”
Gong Yu was shivering, but she pushed away He Wenxin’s hands and said lowly, “I came to the wrong place….”
“No, no,” He Wenxin replied quickly, then asked, “Where is my lady going?”
“Oh, I have no business tonight, and was just going to visit Sister Xinliu….”
Mother Zhu hurriedly cut in, “That girl Xinliu is receiving a guest, could Miss wait a bit?”
“Oh, in that case, I will return to Miaoyin House and come another day.”
“Aiya,” He Wenxin saw that although the heavens had not sent him a pastry, it had dropped a beautiful woman before him², and he was much appeased, and said coaxingly, “Since my lady has nothing planned tonight, I will keep you company, instead of letting you return to spend the night alone…come in, come in quickly….” He was making his eager invitation when he suddenly remembered that this courtyard had just been rendered to egg yolk pulp by himself, and was not a suitable place to host his beautiful guest, so he quickly glared at Mother Zhu and said, “Hurry and prepare your best courtyard for me! I am going to accompany Miss Gong Yu to drink and admire the moonlight.”
Mother Zhu looked up at the cloud-filled sky, what moon was there to admire? But of course these words could not be spoken aloud, and since his temper had been controlled, the important thing was to prepare the place quickly, and so she said with a smile, “The Spring Bridge Cottage is still empty, and is the most comfortable and the most elegant of all the cottages, would the young master and lady care to go there?”
“Hurry, hurry and take us there.” He Wenxin impatiently grasped Gong Yu by the arm. “Miss Gong Yu, shall we go?”
Gong Yu lowered her head, and once again brushed aside He Wenxin’s hand, beckoned one of her serving girls over, and silently walked on ahead. Although the Young Master He was not bright by nature, he understood that this leading lady of Miaoyin House had always been like this, and so suppressed his emotions and followed her out of the courtyard.
The Spring Bridge Cottage was located a little to the east of Willow House, and to arrive there, one had to first cross a lake and wind through a peach orchid. But with such beautiful company, He Wenxin did not notice the long journey, and was beaming the entire way. Just as they had passed the lake and walked onto the clear stone path, Gong Yu suddenly halted, and said in a low voice, “Pray the young master go ahead, and Gong Yu will follow.”
He Wenxin stared blankly, and immediately asked, “Where are you going?”
“When I fell just now, my robes became dirty with mud, I want to go change.”
“No worries,” He Wenxin said. “I admire beautiful ladies, not what they wear, you don’t need to go to the trouble of changing.”
Gong Yu’s eyelids fluttered, and she said gently, “Since I will be accompanying the young master for a drink, Gong Yu is not willing to harbour any imperfection in her appearance, pray the young master forgive me.”
In the face of these words from such a beautiful woman, He Wenxin had nothing to say, and so just smiled. “Alright, alright, alright, but I will not go ahead, I will wait here. Once you change, we can go together.”
Gong Yu turned a gentle gaze on him and smiled without speaking, then turned quickly and disappeared into a small building to one side. He Wenxin was attracted by her pretty air and dazedly took a few steps forward, wanting to take another look, when suddenly he felt something beneath his foot, and when he looked down, he saw the bright reflection of a dropped object. He bent down for a closer look, and realized it was a shining chain of pearls, which must have fallen from the beautiful head.
Stooping and picking up the pearl chain, He Wenxin’s mind filled with images of the beautiful lady changing, and his heart lurched and he immediately tucked the pearls into his sleeve and strode towards the building Gong Yu had disappeared into, intending to feast his eyes with this excuse. Mother Zhu, who had gone ahead, immediately saw his intent and was about to protest when she was unceremoniously shoved aside by one of the He family servants.
When he arrived at the small building lit with the glow of a small lamp, He Wenxin snuck to the window with a wicked smile, and was just about to peek inside when a voice drifted from within.
“Miss, is Miss Xinliu upstairs in this building with Master Qiu?”
“Yes…Master Qiu is a dashing young hero, and is such a good match for Sister Xinliu, I am truly happy for both of them….”
“How can Miss be happy? Those two are enjoying themselves upstairs while Miss is lowering herself to spend time with that vile He person³?”
Gong Yu gave a quiet sigh. “Sisters must help each other out…but that He person is really far too vulgar, if he only had a tenth of the elegance of Master Qiu, I would not be so unhappy….”
Hearing words such as these, any person would find it difficult to withstand, and He Wenxin was not just anybody, and so fury rose in his heart as his courage grew with his anger, and hearing that the fellow, Master Qiu, was just upstairs, he immediately charged towards the stairs, ran up to the second floor and stopped in front of the door to the room, yelling, “You whose name is Qiu, get your a** out here!”
He raised such a racket that everyone on the path outside could hear him, and Mother Zhu hurried over fearfully with some of her people as the He family servants ran up to the second floor.
Besides Xinliu and Master Qiu, there were two other guests on the second floor, and the first two unlucky persons who were kicked out by He Wenxin looked to be around forty, and even if He Wenxin had had even lower intelligence than he already did, he would realize that these weren’t the people he was looking for, and he had just arrived at the third door when it suddenly opened, and a handsome youth in his twenties jumped out, shouting loudly, “Who’s raising such a racket?”
He Wenxin’s vision grew red and he charged forward with a punch. But Master Qiu was also a noble son by birth, and was used to the pleasures of food and drink, not being bullied, and plus, he had drunk a little wine and the beautiful woman he loved was standing behind him, so he was not going to just stand there, but immediately threw a punch in return.
The two had not had much training in martial arts, and normally even if they were involved in fights, they rarely had to get involved personally, so now, their fighting had no skill or style, but resembled a street brawl, and was quite ugly to behold. Mother Zhu, who had hurried over, was almost in tears of panic, and was about to shout for her people to pull them apart when the He family servants rushed over to help their master subdue his opponent. Although Master Qiu also had servants, they had been invited elsewhere for drinks, and had not received the news, and Mother Zhu saw that the situation was deteriorating and hurriedly ordered the guards of Willow House to help. The servants of the He family were accustomed to handling their captives roughly, and fell upon their victim and began beating him furiously, while He Wenxin was even more violent and grabbed a large flower vase and began lowering it with all his strength down onto Master Qiu’s head.
“Master, dodge!” A frantic cry rose from the room, and Master Qiu immediately twisted towards the left, but suddenly his right leg grew numb and he lost his balance, and, in a flash, his vision darkened, and he only felt a tremendous pain in his forehead before he toppled to the ground.
The white flower vase, which was half the height of a person, shattered brilliantly on his head, and the sound froze every person in the room, as everyone’s eyes seemed to widen in slow motion, watching as fresh blow sprayed from Master Qiu’s forehead, as his whole body shook for a few moments and then fell onto the glass shard-covered floor, and his head became showered in red. At that moment, even the killer himself was shocked into stillness.
As the initial shock passed, a sharp cry sounded from the room, and everyone began to realize what had happened. With a face pale as clay, Mother Zhu rushed to Master Qiu’s side and grasped his wrist, then her whole body went limp, as if she were about to faint.
“He…it’s his fault he didn’t dodge…he didn’t dodge…” He Wenxin kept repeating, backing up a few steps to lean on the railing. One of the more daring guests stepped forward and examined closely for a moment before lifting his head and saying in a shaking voice, “Dead…he’s dead….”
At his words, Mother Zhu seemed to regain some of her composure, and stood up, her hair a mess, and crying, “Help, help, call the authorities, hurry and call the authorities….”
Although He Wenxin was stunned because he had killed someone by his own hand, one of the guards among his servants hurriedly tried to take control of the situation. “Wait, don’t…don’t report it…let’s talk, let’s first talk about this….”
Hearing this, He Wenxin seemed to wake up, and he hurried forward and grabbed Mother Zhu, saying, “I won’t let you report it, I’ll pay, I’ll pay!”
“What’s the bloody use in paying money now?” Mother Zhu cried loudly. “Master Qiu is also of noble birth, how could the old Earl of Wen let this slide? My Willow House is ruined…ruined….”
“Young Master, hurry, let’s leave, let’s go home and have the old master think of a plan, hurry!” The guard who had spoken up before pulled He Wenxin out the door, but they were blocked by the people of Willow House, and the situation descended into chaos once more.
In direct contrast to the frenzied mess was Gong Yu, who had appeared at some point in the hallway of the second floor. She had changed into a light blue dress, and now slowly walked around the chaos, slipping unnoticed into the room in which everything had happened.
On the ground in the room sat a beautiful young lady, her face stunned and fearful, her eyes dripping with horrified tears, her body shaking so hard that the chattering of her teeth could be clearly heard. She was obviously in shock over the bloody events that had taken place before her eyes.
Gong Yu walked over to her and knelt, gently patting her back, and said, “Sister Xinliu, don’t be afraid, it’s alright…nothing will happen to you….”
Her voice was clear and sweet, and brought a strange comfort with it. Xin Liu shakily lifted her head to meet her eyes, and then fell into her embrace, sobbing loudly.
As the chaos outside the room continued, Gong Yu lightly stroked the long hair of the person in her arms, and as her gaze swept across the bloody corpse by the door, a cold smile slid across her lips before her face became expressionless once more.
¹literally, ‘miraculous music’ house
²some Chinese idiom lol I don’t know exactly what it means either but I think you get the gist
³literally, “that person who’s surname is He”
Qiu Zhengping (‘Master Qiu’) is the son of the Earl of Wen, which is a court title (i.e. his surname is not ‘Wen’) without much actual power, according to Mother Zhu.