32 A Birthday Present

[They say great beauty fells kingdoms

The rosy face is blamed for ruining the world

But of those who speak such wise words

Who truly knows the loneliness of she who sits in the boudoir

And can do nought

But wait for her husband to come and lose himself

In her dangerous charms?

The civil officials and martial men

They rule from above with a misplaced pride

But she with fragrance in her silk sleeves

With crimson rouge and the glow of the moon on her brow

Is where power lies

What is her husband to do when all he covets

Is her dangerous charms?

The son of the phoenix craves a banquet

That a python now has staked selfish claim on

When he falls from the sky the phoenix will mourn

And the oriole can rise.]

Meng Die folded the music score, which had been slipped to her beneath a lacquered tray bearing her evening meal. It was written for the guqin, which wasn't an instrument that she was well-versed in, given its reputation as a gentleman's leisure. But she could read it anyway, the notes of the scale resonating in her mind as she enjoyed its tune. Whoever had composed it had used a bold, daring melody that wasn't the preferred popular form in the famous musical works of the current era.

But she liked it. Not just its tune but also the hidden message in its lyrics.

Meng Die was but a lowly peasant's daughter, sold by her parents to a brothel. She had been lucky, though, that she'd been naturally gifted at music, to the point where her voice had turned her into her owner's main cash cow. Reluctant to subject her to the depravities of their customers, Meng Die's owners had packaged her like a fairy lost on the way to the heavens, who had to seek refuge under their roof. To keep up this impression, Meng Die had been dressed in pure, virginal colours with a veil on her face every time she'd performed. With her talents alone, she had managed to protect her chastity until the Minister of Rites had paid an exorbitant sum to take her home.

But at the end of the day, no matter how 'virtuous' she had made herself out to be, she was a whore. She could read most of the lyrics on the score because she'd had to learn scores during her tutelage. But how did the person who sent her this know that?

It didn't matter though. She could guess who he was, so maybe he was smarter than she'd previously given him credit for.

A small giggle escaped her lips as she considered the intent behind the words on the score. It was going to be risky, to be sure, but it had her best interests at heart too. And at the end of the day, it was in line with her plans. She'd seen the way that jealous old hag, the master's main wife, looked at her. It would only be a matter of time before she was put into her place.

But Meng Die didn't want to stay in her place. She liked Liang Hui's position and wanted to see how close to it she could climb. This sweet oriole, this little songbird, didn't mind dragging the phoenix's son off his high-horse if that was what it took.

She tucked the score back into her robes and headed into her bedchambers, to ready herself for a visit from the master. He'd already spent four nights here with her and had just sent word that he would be coming over again shortly.

Who knew that such an innocent spoiled young master would be such a fox beneath the surface?

But she did like his calligraphy, even though she wasn't educated enough to know what style he'd used. Perhaps she would help him, just because he'd inked such beautiful hopes for her future down on parchment.

Or perhaps, it was just simply because this was the first time anyone had ever composed her a song.


Lately, there had been a shift in the unspoken dynamics in the Hanlin Academy. Wu Bin could feel the change in the treatment he was receiving from his peers. They still smiled at him with politeness but the undertone of respect that they had always held for him seemed to have faded into quiet disregard.

He wasn't an idiot. He knew why this was. The attitude of his direct superiors had morphed too, from proud anticipation to a sympathetic disappointment, like they had already decided that this was the end of his political journey and he was going to be 'Compiler Wu' for the rest of his career, doomed to watch those behind overtake him.

Wu Bin stormed into the main compound of the Wu Estate, robes billowing about him in a flurry as he tried and failed to contain his anger. This was all the fourth prince's fault. Wu Bin had been wrong about him. He'd thought him a worthy future liege to pursue, had seen the fourth prince as the key to unlocking his ambitions. But this supposed 'magnanimous' member of the imperial family was nothing but petty and lust-driven.

But just because he was a royal, Wu Bin's hands were tied. It was unfair.

It wasn't long after stepping into his residences that Wu Bin received a summons from the steward to meet his father in his study.

He sighed inwardly. His father had refused all audiences with him ever since that day he'd commanded the house guards to drag Wu Bin away from the stables. But Wu Bin knew he had overstepped this time. His Yun Er had that effect on him. It was like all good sense was replaced in his mind by the memories of that svelte waist and those big trusting eyes as they looked at Wu Bin like he was the entire universe.

It was happening again. Wu Bin swallowed, his mouth suddenly dry. This had been happening a lot recently. His desire to own Yun Er left him a parched man in a desert, struggling to reach out and touch that one blessed oasis. Was this how the fourth prince felt as well?

Yun Er was a fox spirit here to destroy all of them. Not for the first time, Wu Bin contemplated killing him. That way, even if Wu Bin couldn't have him, no one else could, and he would be able to put aside these fantasies and set himself back on the path from whence he'd strayed.

The Minister of Rites was behind his desk but what stunned Wu Bin was that Yun Er was seated in the antique chair in front of the ornamental folding screen, which was usually reserved for important guests. He was dressed in simple clean silks again, not quite as fine as his clothes in the past but a far fry above the servants' attire Wu Bin was so used to seeing him in. The folds of his pale jade sleeves fell back as he lifted a teacup to his lips, revealing delicate wrists, contoured with heart-stopping grace.

Wu Bin's mind went blank. He forgot to greet his father, didn't even notice when the Minister of Rites' gaze darkened when he saw the lovestruck expression on his son's face. He couldn't pry his eyes off Yun Er, even for a second.

"Yun Er," he murmured, stepping into the room quickly. He wanted to stroll over to Yun Er, to take one of his white hands into his own and squeeze it, feel how soft and supple it was.

"Unfilial son!" Books clattered onto the floor as Wu Shengqi swept the contents of his tabletop off in a fit. His teeth were clenched and his hands shook as he pointed an accusatory finger straight at Wu Bin's face. Some of the clarity returned to Wu Bin's mind and he hastened to kneel in front of his father, aware that he had committed an obvious wrong.


"THIS FATHER IS TELLING YOU TO SHUT UP!" But Wu Shengqi didn't give him a chance to apologise. "DO YOU KNOW HOW HUMILIATED I AM BECAUSE OF YOU? DO YOU KNOW WHAT THEY'RE SAYING ABOUT YOU?!" he roared. The officials who attended morning court had to walk out of the palace on foot as only individuals with special status or permission were allowed to have palanquins or to ride horses within the palace's walls. He'd spent the entire journey out face burning with embarrassment as the men around him joked and jested about how the most promising child of the Wu Family offended the wrong person and was now suffering in the Hanlin Academy. Their jibes implied that Wu Shengqi had failed in his duty as a father.

The minister of rites couldn't even deny it. If he hadn't been so indulgent with Wu Bin, so proud of his achievements that he'd closed one eye to his infatuation, none of this would have happened.

Die Er's words echoed in his mind.

[Master, you know that this concubine is a romantic at heart…I wouldn't suggest separating the lovebirds unless there was another option, but Die Er thinks your idea to gift the slave to the fourth prince is a brilliant one, Master is so intelligent, Die Er really respects you. Once the fourth prince receives the present, he will stop putting pressure on the big young master. And that slave will be removed from Big Young Master's sight too, this is two birds with one stone, right?]

Die Er was right. The only thing holding Wu Shengqi from giving this Yan boy away had been worry that he would forever estrange his son if he did that. But now, seeing his son be unable to contain his obsession even in front of him, Wu Shengqi made up his mind.

Lovebirds? No mere servant was fit to be the lovebird of his son. Yan Yun was too dangerous to keep around any longer, best to foist him off on someone else before he ruined the Wu Family's pride and joy. And he had faith that his son would come around once he saw that he no longer had any chance of getting his manservant back. Wu Bin wasn't a fool, despite what it seemed like at the moment. Wu Shengqi knew his son like the back of his hand, had been the one to encourage Wu Bin's ambitions. He himself might be a mediocre politician but his son was destined to bring glory to the name of Wu. Wu Bin wouldn't abandon his rightful inheritance just out of a paltry desire for a boy.

Wu Bin didn't dare to move an inch until he saw Wu Shengqi calm down. His father sank back into his seat and gestured for Wu Bin to stand up. His expression was stern, his gaze hard as agates, and Wu Bin had a bad feeling about what he was about to say.

"Your predicament in the Hanlin Academy has been made known to the entire court," his father said. Wu Bin pursed his lips.

"It's nothing Bin Er can't handle it, father," he tried to reassure but Wu Shengqi held up a hand to silence him.

"Do you take me for an idiot?" he said with a cold laugh. "Bin Er ah, your father has been in court for more than half his life. I may not be the most outstanding official but I have my ways of obtaining information too."

Wu Bin's blood ran cold. He couldn't help but throw a nervous glance in his Yun Er's direction. Was this why his father had called Yun Er in? Was he going to punish Yun Er for being the root of the problem? If his father knew that the fourth prince was putting pressure on Wu Bin because he thought Wu Bin had broken his promise to deliver Yun Er onto his bed, what would his father do?

"From tomorrow onwards, Yan Yun will be living in the western residences," his father said, not heeding the thunderstruck look on Wu Bin's face. "He will be trained for a month in dance, to prepare him for presentation to the fourth prince at the birthday banquet."

"NO!" Wu Bin shouted before he could stop himself.

His father's gaze was unfeeling. For Wu Bin, who had always been doted on, it was a foreign feeling to be regarded so dismissively by the man who had raised him like a precious treasure. It robbed Wu Bin of some of the heat of his anger, replacing it with a sudden helplessness.

"F-father," he stammered. "Please, this son has never asked you for much—"

"And yet you're wasting your father's favour on a slave," Wu Shengqi said. "Save your pleas. My mind is set and you will just be wasting your breath."

"But father…" The cogs in the wheels of Wu Bin's brain finally started turning faster as he tried desperately to formulate an argument logical enough to convince his father otherwise. "If the Wu Family gifted a beauty to the fourth prince so openly in front of the emperor, would His Majesty suspect us of planting spies in the fourth prince's manor? Or trying to sow discord?"

His father brushed aside his excuses. "What's the big deal?" he said disinterestedly. "Which adult prince hasn't received a beauty or two from a court official before? If I recall, last year, the Minister of Works gifted one of the fourth prince's current bedwarmer to him."

"But—but then what about our promise to Yun Er's father?" In his panic, he'd even forgotten about the hidden rivalry his father had felt for the late prime minister. "Yun Er isn't trained for the politics of the imperial household, wouldn't this be akin to sending your old friend's son into the maws of the tiger—"

"Big Young Master," Yan Zheyun's voice was like a quiet murmuring stream, cutting through the malice in the air with a refreshing coolness. He'd been keeping a low presence for the entire conversation but it was time for him to take a stance.

"Big Young Master," he said again, once he was certain he had Wu Bin's full attention. "Yun Er has already agreed to the arrangement."

He sat back in his seat and enjoyed how small Wu Bin looked, pale and crestfallen as he stared at Yan Zheyun like Yan Zheyun was the scum responsible for breaking his heart.

"So please don't fight with the master anymore. Yun Er will forever remember being taken in by the Wu Family and will hate to be the one responsible for any disharmony."

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