Sharp features blurred by powder, gaze drawn low, a painted smile. Dark hair and ivory skin, playing a monochrome canvas for the sheer brocade. A still figure, save for the agile hands that floated across the qin. A silent figure, save for the melody that swam through the room, sweet and mesmeric. Sitting here, in this place, he was a decoration, an art piece, all silk, ink and porcelain.
"You've gotten better at this song," a low voice comments, and the notes comes to a slow halt as his eyes flicker away from the instrument to focus on the man beside him. A familiar client, known to most as Duke Ying, one as difficult as he was powerful. The corner of his lips draw up, just slightly, changing the tone of his expression from pleasant to pleased. The man's cup was running low, but a quick, meaningful glance at the girl on the other side of him fixes that.
"Thank you, I had time to improve," Ran finally speaks, his voice just loud enough for his companion to hear but not anyone else. The official liked conversations to be private, even when they were about nothing in particular. Putting aside his qin, Ran shifted closer, and the girl takes the cue to replace him as the musician. "It's been a while since you last came, after all," he continued, as if he had been looking forward — he hadn't, and both of them knew this, but the older man laughs anyway.
Another man steps into the room and the meeting started to take its shape, at last. Ran scanned the group, wondering how many more were left to come. Another cup was drained and, this time, he takes it upon himself to pour the tea. It was quite the important bunch gathered here, today. From the time he'd spent with certain officials, he could make a fairly confident guess what the topic of the day was. And there was always a topic of the day. Men like these don't patronize this hall unless there was; they preferred the quieter, more secluded rooms.
As waitresses fluttered in and out of view, carrying with them the scent of teas and cakes, he noticed the stark lack of his sister. Wenyao never liked to be around the Emperor's men, even though she'd been so young when she'd last seen them that he wasn't sure she even remembered. He did. He's known some of these faces for much longer than they've known his. He held his breath every time a new one walked in, that their eyes might somehow light up in recognition despite how he'd changed, and what he was now. Ning Rong did not like being around the Emperor's men, either.
But he was Ran, and Ran did not care. He could be around these men for hours on end, reacting to their stories, laughing at their jokes and pouring them drinks. He could even fall into their arms, if he needed. He knew them, too, but in a different way. He knew not about their pasts, but about their secrets and preferences. Like how, for example, Duke Ying liked being treated as the only real presence in a room. And so Ran sits, going against his usual habit of interacting with the rest of the room, and listens.
"-just the logical thing to do, considering the circumstance. Don't you agree, Ran?" The Duke questioned suddenly, forcing Ran's gaze back on him. The official he'd been speaking to also looked towards him. Ran never really understood why people want so often to hear the word Yes, but he says it regardless. It wasn't a lie. In his honest opinion, their logic was screwed, born out of pure greed and would cause nothing but devastation to the world around them. But it was logic, nonetheless.
"Even so, that child will definitely make things-" the official's words cut off, as he sees someone from his peripheral vision. The Duke, too, looks towards the new entry. He doesn't seem to like whoever he sees, which was not unusual but often vital to know. In the midst of pouring tea yet again, Ran followed his line of sight, curious. His eyes climbed up the man's tall figure, familiar and unfamiliar at once, to his fine clothes and to his face.
"Duke Zongsheng, good evening." Somebody's light greeting fills the room, to him a shocking statement. Time seemed to stumble and trip, and his brief glance turns into a gaze, which turns into a prolonged stare. His movements falter, barely, but visible. And for a lingering second, he is Ning Rong once again, with that twisting feeling in his heart and the desperate need to run far away.
But he is Ran, and Ran does not care.
He placed the pot back down, turning his attention back to the other Duke. There was a glint in the older man's eyes as if he had noticed that moment, the stare. Ran pretends not to see, but he leans just a little further in, his sleeves brush against the man's arms. The silver of tension dissipates, thankfully, and now the discussions begin full force, as if they had just been waiting for this one adversary to show up.
He looked again at the figure of Young Master Zeng, Zeng Yangui, poor, naive Yangui. And, like he had not felt a single thing then, like he did not know too clearly who this man was, he nods his greeting.
Minister Wen's airy voice floats above the muted din of the tearoom, cutting through the hum of bustling attendants and murmured conversations. He dons a robe of rusty cinnabar — an unremarkable red, among swathes of ruby and vermilion. Nonetheless, Yangui finds him easily; Minister Wen has a habit of sticking out in a rather inconspicuous way, be it due to his youthful features, or the relaxed curve of his spine, or the enigmatic glimmer in his eye. At Wen's beckon, Yangui takes his place beside the older man, nodding briefly to Duke Ying and his small entourage.
"Congratulations on your recent promotion." Minister Wen gestures to the nearby waitress, who rushes to fill their empty teacups. "We've been waiting on you to join us for quite a while! I must say, you've been a vice minister for far too long." Minister Wen winks at Yangui — the glimmer in his eye never dimming — before sipping at his tea. "I can think of no one better than you to attend to the Emperor, Duke Zongsheng."
The laugh Wen Jia lets out is jovial and light, tinkling like small, silver bells. It drowns out Yangui's more composed chuckle, drowns out the stares of the other men in the room — some curious, some disdainful.
"You're too kind, Minister Wen,"
Yangui replies. He sips his tea, careful not to wince at how utterly bitter it is.
Politicians can have extreme tastes.
"I'm honored, but I've only served as a vice minister in the capital for two years. I'm afraid your hopes in me are misplaced."
Minister Wen waves him off, thumbing a confection from a nearby dish. "So humble, so formal — call me Youyun, Zeng Huaizheng, all right? And your reputation proceeds you. I have little doubt in your capability."
Wen Youyun offers compliments like each one is a petal from a lush tree, thick with cherry blossoms — easily, expeditiously, endlessly.
"But the honored Duke of Zongsheng is rather young," Duke Ying's rumbling voice interjects. The Duke turns to his compatriot, chuckling as his teacup is refilled with a single, meaningful glance. "Zeng Huaizheng was practically a child when he received his jinshi. How old are you now, twenty-four, twenty-five?"
"Twenty-four, Duke Ying."
”And how did you place in your exams, young Duke?”
"Second, Duke Ying. I was the bangyan."
"Ah, to think I only obtained a degree of your level when I was twenty-nine! Placing not nearly as well, even. You're certainly undefeated in the examination room, Zeng Huaizheng, and I commend you for that. Don't you agree, Minister Chen, Ran?"
Yangui's gaze follows Duke Ying's as it travels to the men by his side. Minister Chen Hong, with his thin face, jutting cheekbones, and wispy tresses streaked with gray, is a name Yangui easily recognizes, but Ran certainly is not.
That must be the courtesan,
he thinks, and the powdered, painted visage of the young man seated next to Duke Ying proves him correct. He looks as if he should be an art piece — perhaps immortalized on a porcelain vase, or painted in the gongbi style onto a handscroll. He, like every other product of the Mengxiang Pavilion, appears to be crafted and carved like a piece of expensive jade — in that flawless, inhuman way. But when Yangui's eyes take in the colors of the courtesan — absorbing the ebonies and ivories and scarlets — he finds something disturbingly human. Something disturbingly familiar.
Disturbing, because he can't tell what it is.
"Of course, we expect nothing less from a descendant of the venerable Zengzi." Duke Ying heaves out a gentle sigh, opting for one of the confectioneries laid out on the porcelain display. "It's a shame what happened to your family. Out of all clans, I never could've imagined that Zengs would be caught in the center of that conflict." Duke Ying shook his head, as if he were sorrowful. "Zeng Shangru was a virtuous man."
"Yes, it was a shame," Wen Youyun mused, his light tone of voice interspersing with the rather severe one of Duke Ying. "But men and jade are both refined by bitter tools." The hand Wen Youyun places on Yangui's shoulder seems too light-hearted for the topic at hand. "Perhaps the unfortunate end of the Zeng clan has left the new Duke Zongsheng with invaluable wisdom.”
Yangui tips his head graciously in response, having no words to summon when it comes to his fallen family, but the conversation trickles off when Duke Ying and Minister Chen do nothing but hum politely.
"We've discussed our newest addition for long enough — better to see how he performs," Duke Ying interrupts, calling every man in the room to silence. Yangui straightens up. The men gather, briefly running through the topic at hand out of convention rather than necessity. Every politician knows the state of the empire.
"I believe the solution is rather simple," a man, who Yangui only knows by the surname Mao, speaks up. He leans forward, and the light of the sun through the lattice-patterned window glints on his greasy hair. The corner of his lip flits up, and he speaks. "Raise the taxes on the peasants." He leans back once again, the expression on his face infuriatingly blasé. "There's no other solution."
Yangui coughs politely before interjecting.
"Pardon me, but —"
"I mean no offense, Zeng Huaizheng, nor do I hold any grievances against you," Mao interrupts coolly, "but I understand that this is your first meeting as a minister. This is the highest court in the empire — we may function differently here, compared to what you're used to. I advise that you sit back and listen for your first few conferences, just to make sure you have a grasp on things."
Yangui shuts his mouth, unable to find fault with that. He truly didn't have any experience in the highest court; while his former position occasionally offered a chance at input, Yangui had mostly assisted instead of contributed. He sits back gingerly, only to be interrupted by a familiar voice.
"No, let him speak," Duke Ying interjects. "All members are to be listened to, Minister Mao. Go on, Duke Zongsheng."
The clustered officials are like a line of two-meter-tall statues, formed from long-dried clay with chipped obsidian for eyes. Zeng Yangui, reminded of his days in the classroom, speaks without hesitation.
"Silver trade may have declined, but the empire isn't in a dire enough position to impose such extreme taxes on the peasant class. Even so, the foremost prerequisite of government is the people's confidence in their ruler. Thus, our duty is to uphold that confidence by supporting the people; if we tax them to such an extent, where would their confidence go? If the people's faith diminishes, where does this empire stand? If there is no other solution, we will create one, because this one is unjust."
The silence of the next few moments is palpable, only disturbed by the rustling movements of the attendants. Finally, Duke Ying chuckles.
"The foremost requisite for government? Is that from the Analects, Zeng Huaizheng? Book twelve, chapter seven, is it? You truly are well read. I doubt any man in this room could best your knowledge of the classics.
"Let me tell you something that your education has not taught you." Duke Ying's gaze feels heavy and lacking of substance all at once. "In a well looked after field, each seedling should grow luxuriantly at no expense of another. Each seedling should receive a precise amount of sunlight, a precise amount of water, a precise amount of space when sown. But that's not what happens. In reality, there are weeds, pests, and rodents. Sometimes the sun does not emerge for a fortnight; sometimes, the river does not flood. Whatever the case, there are always crops that grow better than others. Some seedlings do not grow at all.
"What I mean to say, Zeng Huaizheng, is that your readings are applicable in that perfect field of perfect growth. But our empire, like the fields within it, are not so perfect. Forgive me for speaking to you like you are a child, but the ideas you hold do not disprove me.
"Do you know where this began? Where our pests and rodents came about? It began when the Ning Clan and its associates were purged, and when a prominent source of our empire's silver was purged with it. You're familiar with this, correct? With the Ning Clan and their downfall. If I remember correctly, the unfortunate collapse of your own family was quick to follow."
Yangui forces himself to remain composed, but he fears that the gaggle of men nearest to him — Ying, Wen, Chen, and even the courtesan Ran — could see the tremble in his eyes. Yes, Zeng Yangui is familiar with the Ning Clan. He is familiar with the stench of mold and iron on a bruised purple twilight, familiar with the teary, trembling eyes of someone he once held dear. Someone he still holds dear. Someone he doesn't dare to hold dear, because he does not know if Ning Rong is well and content or ill and troubled. If Ning Rong is alive or dead.
The mention of his family only wrenches the invisible blade deeper into his chest, because Zeng Yangui, in this case, does know what happened to his family. None of which is particularly pleasant.
"So I must reiterate, Zeng Huaizheng; you are very educated. But for someone who has watched their supposedly venerable family meet a fate not unlike those met by the most corruptible of men, you know nothing."
Yangui did not recognize him. On one hand, it was a relief. On the other, a bitter pill. To be forgotten was a punishment even when it was, at the same time, the intention. He focused his attention to the words being spoken — he was not helpless in the face of those, in contrast to the more abstract sentiments. A minister, they called him? It was a strangely suitable title for such a young face. Just too bad that it was granted, or so he assumed, in part due to the end of a truly noble legacy.
Was that guilt tugging at his conscience when they spoke of the downfall of the Zengs? Perhaps. Would he rather hear about that than have the topic turn to the death of his own clan? Ran considered it, then decided they were both equally grating to the ears. The lulling melody in the background only helped to soften the blow as much as a thin cloth would lessen the pain of walking across a bed of nails. Luckily for Ran, he was much better at bearing uncomfortable conversation than the latter option. That was why he sought out the courtesan house instead of, say, the circus, after all.
Though, he supposed, a circus would have been more interesting than these men. More varied, at least. Here, it was always the same debates, topics and proposals rotating but all coming down to the same complicated drivel, same avaricious excuses. The elaborate metaphors and quoting of analects, the literary flourish, weaving pictures of flowers and skies, all for no other reason than to serve their own ends. These men spew meaningful words without meaning a single one of them. Did they have any respect for the depth of these ideas, for the truths within these lessons, which have been rendered hollow by their frivolous usage? They didn't. He knew so, because he was just like them.
Forgive me for speaking to you like you are a child, Duke Ying had said, but he was all too aware that the minister wasn't repentant. His position gave him the best view of the smugness hidden away in the man's gaze. It seemed, however, that Ran wasn't the only one good at keeping his mouth shut; Yangui still had not spoken. Why? He was a minister, too. An educated, intelligent man just as any of them in this room, if not more. And he did not have to pretend to be otherwise, unlike certain other people. Amazing, how one man can have grown so much and yet not at all. That is to say, quite frustrating.
He turned away from the scene, pouring tea like it was a meditation routine. It was common for Ran to come across arguments he'd very much like to disagree with in these meetings, but quite unlike him to get worked up. The power of old friends, perhaps. Or maybe he simply had gone too long being nice and quiet, something inside him was itching to act up. Ran had always been of the calm sort — but timid, or humble? Not exactly. And he'd never learnt to appreciate people poking at his old wounds, knowingly or otherwise.
"For someone who has watched their supposedly venerable family meet a fate not unlike those met by the most corruptible of men," Duke Ying finally arrived at his conclusion, "you know nothing." He was right. Yangui still hadn't learnt his lesson on people and their terrifying ability to take advantage of naivete. A second passed, with no more words from either party. Ran guessed that Yangui would continue to maintain his mute streak, and no defense would be put up against this flimsy argument. Despite himself, he looked up, once again taking in the different, yet familiar features.
And he laughed. A short, soft sound, not quite malicious but not so innocuous, balancing just on the edge of being a scoff. In any other moment, another room, it might have passed by unnoticed. Here, it stuck, suddenly and uneasily. As if on cue, the song ended, plunging the room into silence.
"Oh," he spoke, "my apologies." With not so much as a flinch at his supposed mistake, the corners of his lips ever lifted, Ran was not apologetic. But even if they could see it, would they say it? No. At most, he was only as fake as Duke Ying.
"Pardon me, please cont-" he began, as if to excuse himself from the attention he'd snatched, only to be cut off.
"No, go on. Tell us what amused you so," Duke Ying's tone was light, and yet threatening. Of course, normally, this would be the cue to do exactly the opposite of what he was told. But, right now, it was the chance he'd been fishing for. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he wondered if he was making a grand mistake. If this was worth it, just to feel a little better about his sins.
"Men and jade are both refined by bitter tools," Ran quoted, his voice almost in a drawl, "is that not what you said, my lord?" He paused to level his gaze across the room, stopping finally on his client's dark eyes staring into his. Was there anger, or surprise? He couldn't tell. The Duke was a master of hiding his thoughts when he wanted to be. Annoyingly so. Luckily for him, this was a moment of not caring.
"What are you say-" Minister Chen interrupted, sounding indignant.
"It's just that I thought your words were wise, my lord," He carried on, pretending not to have heard the disruption, and glanced again at Yangui, wondering if his following words remained in the man's memory as they did in his: "if a bird wishes to call itself a phoenix, it must have first risen from the flames." His next glance flitted across the room, as he continued, "Otherwise, it is just an arrogant pheasant."
"And I laughed at myself, because I am too foolish to understand your lesson to completion." He finally lowered his gaze, to where it belonged. Or, at least, where they thought it belonged. But his words did not soften. "Because, surely, to lose your family, and then to have their honor doubted and legacy insulted by unproven rumors... it must be the most hellish fire of them all?"
A man who has climbed out of the ashes of his fallen home and to the same heights as every single one of you — you have no place to look down at him from. Or so he would have said, if he did not think that he had already crossed enough lines for the day.
Putting on an embarrassed front, he pulled himself back from where he had begun to lean toward the table in his speech, as if withdrawing from the conversation, "I'm sorry, I have tainted your ears ignorant ramblings."