“Little Sister of the Ruan family.” Yu Lian Hua pushed away the two men and yelled at the boatman: “Row over there, hurry and row over there. That person is my friend.”
“You, a destitute ghost, has such a wealthy friend? Who are you trying to fool?” The brothel owner aboard the ship walked over, his two whiskers above his lips quivering with each word: “This old father doesn’t care who your friend is. First pay the cost of the flower wine and then if you want to die, no one will block your path.”
“What kind of words are you speaking? Cough, cough. That person really is my friend.” Yu Lian Hua was extremely embarrassed over him calling her a destitute ghost and badgering her money, especially since all of this was seen and heard by Ruan Zhu. She quickly counted out several copper coins from her bag and handed them over.
The two boats approached each other and Yu Lian Hua climbed aboard the decorated pleasure boat but was directly stopped by Nuan Chun, who held out a basin full of water: “Our family’s miss is most peeved when others are not clean. Madam Yu has touched and fondled the dirty things of those lowly men. Troubling Madam to please wash cleanly before coming over.”
Yu Lian Hua flushed and could only squat next to the basin, carefully washing her hands before picking up a towel by the side to wipe them clean.
Nuan Chun waited until she had finished before coldly carrying the basin with the towel to the side of the ship. Lifting both arms, he threw everything into the river. The water basin floated on top of the water surface for a while before sinking. Only the towel was still faintly visible, bobbing up and down.
Ruan Zhu massaged her temples. Really now, wasn’t this exactly environmental pollution? She had only instructed Nuan Qing to throw everything away after Yu Lian Hua had finished washing, but she hadn’t said to throw it in the river, ah!
The boatman repeatedly stamped his feet and could only sigh in pity. That water basin was made of copper. Selling it would have been enough to buy over ten catties of rice!
Yu Lian Hua awkwardly laughed: “Little Sister Ruan, I trust you have been well since we last met, ya? Hehe, ever since that day, Older Sister has actually really wanted to see you again.” It would be foolish if she didn’t look for an opportunity to curry favor with wealthy people. She did not miss her. She missed the shiny silver in her bag.
How could Ruan Zhu not know this? Pointing towards the ship’s hold, she said: “Please, have a seat inside.”
Yu Lian Hua followed behind Ruan Zhu as they entered the decorated pleasure boat and into the gorgeously arranged interior. The cups, plates, and other utensils were all elegantly molded and beautifully painted. With one glance, it was obvious that these were produced by famous kilns where any product of theirs if sold, would be enough to buy several bolts of the highest quality silk. She lowered her head to look at the shabby silk jacket on her body and then looked at the other party. Even the other’s servants were dressed more dignified than herself. Her expression became all the more solemn and cautious.
Ruan Zhu ordered Nuan Qing to serve two cups of iced strawberry juice. After a while, the drinks were placed on the table. Yu Lian Hua drank a sip and smacked her lips in satisfaction: “This chilled soup is so delicious. I wonder how it was created?”
Nuan Qing gave a puchi of laughter, his face extremely disdainful. Seeing his own Miss give him a meaningful glance, he respectfully bowed and exited the ship’s hold. Seeing Nuan Chun, he whispered: “That woman really feels no shame. Who does she think she is, ah? Daring to call herself ‘older sister’ and calling our family’s Miss ‘little sister’. It really makes one infuriated.”
Nuan Chun pulled him to the side: “If these words were to be heard by others, us brothers would be mocked for throwing away our Miss’s face. Don’t say such foolish things in the future.”
“I understand. I’m just so angry it’s unbearable.”
At this moment, Ruan Zhu was not familiar towards many matters in this era. It just so happened that the person in front of her currently was one that spoke harshly but did not have any bad intentions. Although her attire was very sloppy and her air was coarse, her personality was fortunately rather straightforward, worthy of Ruan Zhu to associate with her. If it was changed with one that had a weak personality and loved to cry for attention, it would be too late for Ruan Zhu to have a headache.
The two people discussed the local customs of Lan Zhou, one asking, the other answering. Yu Lian Hua gradually became less reserved and she chattered: “I won’t talk about the ones far away, but among the shores of Lan River, the Four Great Masters are definitely the most famous of all. Lu Piao Xiang’s guqin is able to captivate all who hear its sounds. With one soft look of Wan Zhi Yu’s eyes, any woman who sees him will have no resistance. It’s a pity he always wears a veil and no one has ever seen the face behind it. Feng Qing Bai is a master of poetry. As long as the poem is created by him, it will become popular very quickly. Shen Chong Yun’s sword dance interweaves strength and gentleness together and his figure is also top quality......”
Yu Lian Hua’s eyes shined with infatuation and obsession, continuing to drink the fruit juice as she talked. Her cup was soon empty.
“It seems as if you’ve seen them with your own eyes?”
“Last year when the prefectural magistrate’s Madam organized the ceremony for Guanyin[a], I was able to sort of see them from a distance but they quickly left. It really is a pity. It would have been nice if I could have looked at them from up close.”
Ruan Zhu did not agree. They were basically the same as the celebrities in her past life that relied on their looks, some small talents, or funny jokes for their reputation to shoot up. If one were to truly come in contact with them, one may find that these celebrities are not necessarily as perfect as imagined. Thinking of her family’s hubby, he seemed to be classified as a young entrepreneur, if using terms from her previous world. A person who was at the level of a chairman or CEO, handsome and wealthy. How many of those female stars would crane their neck and break their heads as they fought with each other to become his mistress?
“I do not understand. Since the Four Great Masters are such outstanding characters, why on earth would they be courtesans? What did you say about Lu Piao Xiang–his guqin skill is extraordinary? Feng Qing Bai’s poetry skills are outstanding? If they have such talents, isn’t being a courtesan disrespecting themselves?”
Maybe it really was self-disrespect, hmm? In the late Ming dynasty, which of the Eight Beauties of Qinhuai[b] were not doubly blessed in appearance and skill? But after becoming accustomed to being with men of nobility that lived a life of brocade garments, jade meals[c] which one of them would be willing to join the ranks of the poverty-stricken common people? In her previous life, weren’t there also lots of college students that went overseas to become prostitutes?
Yu Lian Hua was stunned: “How would I know this?”
As the two of them were conversing, directly in front of them was a refined two-story pleasure boat. Sounds of singing drifted over. Accompanied with ethereal traditional Chinese instruments, the overall noise was extremely pleasing to the ear. The other boat floated closer. On board the ship, they could see gorgeous brocade clothes, glittering and glamorous, creating an atmosphere that was conspicuously romantic and flashy to the extreme.
All of the windows on the boat were thrown open so Yu Lian Hua could clearly see outside. Her eyes immediately brightened and sparkled with light as she pointed towards a peerlessly handsome man standing at the bow of the ship: “I recognize that mister, he’s the young master of Ming Xiang Cui Yu. My father is the manager at his store so I’ve seen him a few times before.”
Ruan Zhu had also seen him. He was dressed even more ostentatiously than the previous times she had met him. A silver cap inlaid with precious gems bound his crow-black hair on top of his head while a pale blue brocade chang pao embroidered with dark flowers covered his body. On his waist was tied a white jade belt of considerable value, edged with gold. A white soft smoke gauze robe was draped on his back. His entire body appeared even more dazzling underneath the sun with the light shining on him just so. Accompanying his picturesque appearance, his pair of peach blossom eyes looked even more flirtatious.
Yu Lian Hua incessantly dawdled: “In the Liu clan, there has been members that have become part of the imperial court. They are a powerful aristocratic household in Lan Zhou and even the prefectural magistrate will give them some face. Mister Liu has good bearing and is elegant, distinguished, free, and accomplished. Even Lan Zhou’s Four Great Masters may not have his refined bearing.”
She had just been praising the Four Great Masters to an extremely disturbing degree, and now they had lost their charm. To be able to compare a noble son of an aristocratic and prestigious house with some brothel prostitutes, Yu Lian Hua was truly talented. If this was known to Liu Fei Xu, Ruan Zhu wondered if he would be so infuriated steam would come out?
Liu Fei Xu’s appearance really was handsome but Ruan Zhu barely glanced at him before moving her eyes away. This empty person really had a beautiful exterior but it was a pity his insides were lacking. It was too hard for such a man to make her attracted.
She called for Nuan Qing to pour another cup of chilled strawberry juice. Picking up a flaky almond pastry, she took a small bite and couldn’t help but give a ‘like’: “This pastry is not bad. Where was this bought?”
Seeing his Miss like it, Nuan Qing smiled: “Early this morning, Master instructed Yun Feng to Huangji pastry store to buy multiple types. It’s been said this is a shop with a long-established reputation and the wealthy families in Lan Zhou like to eat their pastries. It’s just that they are much more expensive than other stores. If Miss likes them, this one can go bring more over.”
Yu Lian Hua picked up a flaky almond pastry and swallowed it in one go, her eyes unblinkingly staring at the other picturesque pleasure boat in front of them. She inarticulately said: “He’s coming over, he’s coming over, Liu clan’s eldest Mister Liu Fei Xu, hurry and see, he’s looking over here, oh my God, he’s looking directly at me!......”
Emotionally moved, Yu Lian Hua shrieked and stood up, her arms around her stomach as she gasped for air, as if she had seen an uncommon, prehistoric species.
Ruan Zhu couldn’t help but to find it ridiculous and freely ate her pastries, lightly sipping at her strawberry juice. Towards Yu Lian Hua, she turned a deaf ear.
Liu Fei Xu was currently in the middle of a lovely scene of blossoming plants swaying in the breeze[d]. This situation indeed satisfied his vanity. He grasped a fan in one hand and maintained a natural and poised noble smile. See, he was still exceedingly popular, unless there were eyes that did not recognize jade inlaid with gold......He felt a little apprehensive in his mind and in a blink just so happened to see her.
“Stop the boat.” He shouted in a clear voice and waved his hand towards the beautiful woman aboard the other boat: “Hey, Miss Qin, I hope you have been well?” Although he was clear about her identity, he still wasn’t willing to change her appellation.
“Little Miss, you have an acquaintance.” The boatman stopped steering the boat and called to Ruan Zhu.
Wherever she went she could still chance upon this Mister Peacock. Ruan Zhu had no way out.
The two boats slowly drew closer and servants laid a board across the gap to create a makeshift passageway. Liu Fei Xu walked a few steps and cupped his hands in greeting: “Miss Qin, this one hadn’t thought we could coincidentally meet here. What is the point of sightseeing with just one person? How about you come over so we can all congregate in the same place?”
Ruan Zhu bowed back and it could be considered as returning politeness. She really wanted to say, but I’m not alone right now.
But Yu Lian Hua was so happy she had gone a little crazy and couldn’t wait any longer. Hearing Liu Fei Xu’s vocal invitation, she immediately pulled Ruan Zhu up the plank.
Ruan Zhu’s sleeve had been pulled so she was forced to keep up with her.
Arriving on the other party’s pleasure boat, Yu Lian Hua immediately changed her position and obediently followed behind Ruan Zhu’s heels. The stylish and imposing surroundings made her not dare to breathe loudly. Although her own father was a manager of a Liu clan shop, in reality, he was pretty much the same as a servant, not subjected to flattery and not worthy of being kept in others’ eyes.
The ship’s cabin was filled with young males and females. From looking at the boat, it was obvious they were all wealthy and respectable persons. There were also many musicians that plucked at their instruments and sang, forming a circle as they sat on the ground. In front of each one of them was a short table that was piled with all kinds of delicacies and other fine things. A few men and women mutually cast amorous glances at each other. It was like a social party for young men and women to break new ground and form social connections.
“Miss Qin seldom comes here so let me introduce you......”
“No need for the inconvenience. If you would be so kind as to find me a place to sit, that would be fine.” Ruan Zhu saw that this seemed to be a place where blind dates were conducted. She was a married person, currently very happy and blessed with her life and did not want to accidentally have an affair.
Ruan Zhu was arranged in a corner but this was what she had requested. It was very interesting to observe how the ancient people courted each other. Yu Lian Hua sat next to her and touched Ruan Zhu a bit, whispering: “The man in white sitting three seats from the left really looks like someone.”
“Like whom?” Ruan Zhu looked in the direction of what she said. A man in simple yet elegant clothing sat there, his appearance not inferior to Liu Fei Xu. On his right and left were beautifully dressed women that attentively tried to offer him tea or wine. But his countenance was cold and he turned a blind eye to the women.
“The Four Great Master’s number one, Lu Piao Xiang.” From the corner of Yu Lian Hua’s mouth, drool spilled over as she stared at him with fixed eyes. A long while later, she finally sighed: “What a pity that I can’t sit next to him. Legend is, his guqin skill is wonderfully mysterious and he is regarded as Tian Chu’s number one guqin master. There are lots of women that wish to stay by his side.”
[a] 观音, a Buddhist bodhisattva associated with compassion. A Pretty Big Deal in East Asia (Wikipedia)
[b] 秦淮八艳, eight female courtesans that possessed great beauty and were skilled in literature, poetry, fine arts, dancing, and music (Wikipedia)
[c] 锦衣玉食, idiom meaning a life of luxury/extravagance
[d] 花枝招展, idiom meaning gorgeously dressed women
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