The New Year was just around the corner, and the date of the wedding was also drawing closer.
This day, Ju Mu’er had Su Qing accompany her to the Stone Flower Alley. One of the houses in the alley was the place where she secretly gave qin-playing lessons to the courtesans.
Before then, only Su Qing had ever known about this place, the others around her had no idea of the existence of such a location. However, while at the winery, Long Er recently assigned two guards to follow her, when Ju Mu’er exited the house, it didn’t seem like a good idea to avoid them, otherwise it might look like she was about to do something suspicious, and if they reported it to Long Er then it would be another chaotic mess.
This was why once the date for the qin-playing lessons had been set, Ju Mu’er had decided to allow one of the guards, whose family name was Chen, to accompany her. However, when they arrived at the mouth of the alleyway, she informed him that she wanted to trouble him to wait there. She explained the crux of the matter, specifically highlighting the fact that the young ladies who were about to attend the qin-playing lessons would find it inconvenient to meet an outsider.
Upon hearing this, the guard calmly stopped by the tea-stall at the mouth of the alleyway, preparing to rest there while waiting for them.
Su Qing led Ju Mu’er into the house. The house was of a two-halls design, with one hall on the inside and one on the outside. Inside the inner hall there were a few qin already set up, in the outer hall there was only a chair and a table, the overall inner furbishment of the place was quite simple.
Ju Mu’er and Su Qing waited for a while, and slowly, one after the other, five courtesans arrived. Each of them had a face veil on, and none of them bared an inch of their face. Su Qing knew that this rule was part of the agreement of giving qin-playing lessons, and she didn’t spare another glance at them, merely moved to the outer hall to sit and wait.
The courtesans entered the inner hall, and they took off their face veils, instantly growing loud and boisterous. As one, they all teased Ju Mu’er about her impending marriage, clamouring around her as they pestered her with questions about what Master Long Er was like. Even a person as calm and collected as Ju Mu’er, inevitably grew red-faced as a result of their impossibly brazen words.
Later on, Ju Mu’er put on a poker face and pretended to be strict with them, saying that this was the last time she would be able to give them lessons on qin-playing. At this, the courtesans hurriedly began to settle down, and immediately brought up all the questions they usually encountered whenever they played the qin. Ju Mu’er also had them each perform one song, making sure to give detailed feedback to every lady, and this went on for a whole two hours. Then, the lesson finally drew to a close.
As soon as the courtesans realised that the qin-playing lessons were over, they began to gossip. One of them suddenly said, “Young Lady Mu’er, since it’s the last time we’ll be able to meet, why doesn’t Young Lady play a challengingly advanced song for us, so we can broaden our horizons.” As soon as this was said, the other courtesans excitedly agreed with her suggestion.
When talking of the art of qin and se, Ju Mu’er had carved a name for herself from a very young age. There even as a long-standing saying amongst the people, “In a winery by the South side of the city, there is a lady called Mu’er, with masterful hands and a divine qin, heavenly music flows from within.”
This was also the reason why when Shi Boyin’s Execution Qin recital was held, invitations had been sent far and wide to all qin masters of repute, and yet Ju Mu’er had been qualified enough to enter the area to observe. She had also been the sole female qin-master to attend the event, as well as the youngest in age of all the qin-masters present.
The only problem was that later on, a lot of fuss was made about her being blind, having to withdraw from the betrothal contract, as well as allegedly being in close contact with a married man, all these matters took precedence over her qin-playing skills. Soon, there were fewer discussions focused on her qin-playing skills, and rumours about these negative issues grew much greater in number, so it was very rare for people to mention the sentence “With masterful hands and a divine qin, heavenly music flows from within.” recently.
Not to mention, Ju Mu’er was usually one to shy away from the limelight, whenever she taught the courtesans she never tried to flaunt her mastery of the qin, all she did was teach and guide each one, according to their respective needs, usually beginning from the very basics of the art. She never used the opportunity to play and show off.
This was also why the courtesans had long since had a growing sense of curiosity about this. According to rumours, her skills were verily the epitome of divine mastery, but they had yet to see for themselves, just what Ju Mu’er’s qin-playing skills were like, and with today’s opening, all the courtesans were equally eager in convincing her to play the qin for them.
Ju Mu’er merely laughed, “What counts as a challengingly advanced song?”
The courtesans hastily began to voice out a couple of song names, but the courtesan who had initially suggested this said, “Those songs are often played by many others, how rare can they be? If we must listen to a song, then we need to listen to a song we’ve never heard before.”
Ju Mu’er smiled again, asking with interest, “And what do you mean by a song that you’ve never heard before?”
With a mysterious air, the same courtesan commented, “Young Lady Mu’er, previously I overheard a discussion between some of the guests, and they mentioned that the Qin-Sage Shi Boyin was the true grandmaster of the world of qin. If one were to debate on the skills of qin-playing, then on this earth alone, there would probably be no one greater than he. They also mentioned that a great number of fledgling nobles would gladly throw thousands of pieces of gold at him, just to listen to him play one song. Yet this Shi Boyin was quite an odd one, and he had this one rule, which stated that he would only ever play the qin for kindred spirits.
T/N: "Kindred Spirits"So the literal translation of the term 知音人 [Zhīyīn rén] is know music people or people who understand the notes/music. I chose to use kindred spirits (I can still hear it being said in Anne’s voice (from Anne of Green Gables), because Zhīyīn can refer to men and women (from one person’s POV) and it doesn’t necessarily come with romantic undertones (can be bosom buddies like Anna and Diana). Thus, they’re not soul mates because Zhīyīn are birds of a feather, while soulmates tend to have conflicting/opposites attract undertones.
“Kindred spirits?” Someone asked out of curiosity, “Then, how would one have to be like, in order to be considered his kindred spirit?”
“I suppose they’d have to be people who knew and fully comprehended the qin right?” Commented another.
The courtesan who had first spoken replied, “I think so too. I also heard a guest mention that the Minister of the Ministry of Personnel—Shi Zechun, was one such individual.”
Ju Mu’er’s heart seemed to skip a beat, but she continued to listen quietly as they talked.
Another person burst out at this, “Wasn’t the Minister of the Ministry of Personnel the one who was killed by Shi Boyin?”
The courtesan nodded her head, “T’was him. According to rumours, the Minister of Personnel was a fanatic about the qin, and his home was filled with qin music scores and famous qins. Whenever he heard talk of there being a new score, or a divine score, or perhaps a famous qin or even an excellent qin, he would have to personally visit that place. If he happened to stumble across anything he liked, then even the cost was the dispersing of a thousand pieces of gold, he would still be adamant about procuring it. He was head over heels for the qin, and buried in affection for the rhythm of music, so he had been cracking his head to think of ways to seek a meeting with Shi Boyin. He sought information from all around, engaged people to lobby for him, and even personally performed a few songs on the qin outside the place where Shi Boyin stayed. He was so earnest in his mission, and was quite a skillful player of the qin, so he ultimately succeeded in moving Shi Boyin. Word has it that the two of them performed a qin duet together, and with qin facing qin, they played for a whole three days, finally becoming intimate friends.”
“Ah, they were even intimate friends?! Then why did Shi Boyin kill him?”
“Apparently, the Minister of Personnel had gotten his hands on a rare qin music score, however he hadn’t been able to fully comprehend it and couldn’t play it well. So, he had invited Shi Boyin to his residence to guide him, and Shi Boyin spent two whole days at the Minister’s Residence, poring over the piece, and finally he succeeded in understanding it. However, this qin music score was exceptionally masterful, and Shi Boyin began to covet it. He wanted to convince the Minister to willingly part with it, but the Minister did not share his sentiments. The duo began to quarrel, and an altercation broke out. Due to the hatred within his heart, and so he could take ownership of the qin music score, Shi Boyin put poison into the food and drink at the Minister’s home.”
“How cruel of him!” A few courtesans exclaimed in shock, crying out on behalf of the poor Minister of Personnel.
That courtesan continued to say, “Supposedly, at the qin gathering, Shi Boyin had played a number of songs, and apparently one of those songs was the song from the Minister. Young Lady Mu’er, how about you play this legendary qin song, and allow us the opportunity of getting to know it.”
The moment she said this, the other courtesans heartily agreed. A qin song that could cause such a gigantic case? Naturally everyone was curious about it.
Yet, Ju Mu’er merely smiled faintly, and replied, “I for one haven’t heard of any legendary qin music score, and how could I know which of the songs that Sir Shi had played spontaneously, was the one from the music score? This lady’s guests are indeed knowledgeable, at least much more so than my blind girl self.”
The courtesan was caught off-guard by this response, “Alright then, no matter if it is or isn’t the song in the music score, Sir Shi’s songs definitely won’t be bad, so won’t you let us have a listen ma, Young Lady?”
Ju Mu’er shook her head, “Sir Shi’s qin-playing skills are extraordinary, almost celestial in a sense, so how could a puny qin-player like myself compare? The songs he performed during the Execution Qin Recital were extremely complicated and of high-skill, I did pay a great deal of attention to them, but my memory of them after the event was pretty poor. The demands you all have are extremely high, but I can’t play them.”
T/N: "Execution Qin Recital"Before being executed, Shi Boyin was granted one last ‘mercy’ and allowed to have a Qin Recital. I wasn’t able to find any real instance of this, so I’m tl-ing it as this. (Thus the meaning is more like pre-execution qin recital). (Like a last meal, but with qin-playing instead of food? And more people...
The courtesans all sighed at this, proclaiming their disappointment at this new development. Ju Mu’er began to pluck at the strings, and slowly started to play some qin notes, she also slowly commented, “I think it’d be better for me to play a song you’re all familiar with 《Warmth of A Spring Day 》. All of you listen carefully for any changes, if you think I play it well, then think about it, and tell me just where you think it’s been well-played?”
T/N: "《Warmth of A Spring Day 》"So I can’t seem to find a real qin song called Warmth of A Spring Day, but I did find these two songs, 《Spring Day》(Link 1) and《Warm Spring Farming Ch’an》(Link 2) Farming Ch’an refers to a particular Buddhist practice (Can Google for more) https://www.bilibili.com/video/BV1J7411U7De/?spm_id_from=333.788.videocard.5 https://v.qq.com/x/page/t0382v38a49.html The qin is on the left in the first video, and the sort of ‘twangy’ noises in the second.
As she talked she began to play. This song, 《Warmth of A Spring Day 》was one of the most popular songs to be played in the Pleasure House. It’s melody was one of gentle beauty, with a simple tone. One thing about it was that it was very easy to play, the second thing was that it embodied the beauty of artistic conception, and thirdly, it didn’t reflect bad taste, nor was it a melody of lonely-pride, so it was a favourite amongst the courtesans.
Almost every single qin-playing courtesan knew how to play this song, and there was even an acknowledgement in the Pleasure House that upon learning how to play this song, one could be considered a qin-player. This is also why when the courtesans heard she was going to play 《Warmth of A Spring Day 》, they couldn’t muster up any feelings of excitement about it.
However, it was as if Ju Mu’er couldn’t hear a word of their complaints, and nonchalantly she played the entire song. Initially, everyone heard the familiar melody, it was a tad languid, and also seemed to have a hint of sweetness to it, it definitely seemed like the familiar melody that was the Pleasure House favourite. Yet, as Ju Mu’er continued to play, it suddenly became a great deal lighter, it felt as though they were at spring’s first period of breaking the earth, all the farmers were bustling about, and the melody made people’s bodies feel a little frisky, as they began to fill up with energy. Then, when it reached the third time, it suddenly felt like it was a whisper of a lingering grudge. The feeling was like one had finally reached the point in time where Spring was warm and the flowers were blooming, but somehow they still kept on waiting, with the silhouette of their lover nowhere to be seen...
Ju Mu’er played the song a total of six times, and every single time there was only a slight change, yet it was enough to give the listener a completely different experience. After she finished playing six times, she stopped playing.
All the courtesans were in somewhat of a daze, even those whose qin-playing skills weren’t masterful at all and couldn’t really recognise any ‘heavenly melodies’, they were still able to realise that such a simple song had been gifted six different transformations. And because this was a song they had often listened to, so it had been all the more mind-boggling to think of playing it so uniquely.
Ju Mu’er said, “When learning the qin, one cannot be too rigid and wooden, if one seeks refinement then one needs to practice more, if one seeks beauty then one needs to be able change more often, when one follows what they desire, their playing possesses emotions and intent, and excellent qin-playing can naturally flow from them. This is all I can teach you.”
The courtesans seemed to awaken from their daze, and hurriedly gave their thanks. Ju Mu’er lightly smiled, and commented, “It’s been quite a while, why don’t we end it here ba~ I will not be returning here again, so I will take my leave from you ladies here.”
The courtesans got to their feet, and one after the other, they bade her farewell, put their face veils back on, and in single file, left the place.
Su Qing was still waiting in the outer hall, and she had seen how the rest had already left, yet Ju Mu’er was still stuck inside for a while. Thus, she ran over to the doorway of the inner hall, intending to call out to her, instead she came across the sight of Ju Mu’er sitting there, looking like she was still thinking about something.
Su Qing was still contemplating what it might be, when she had heard Ju Mu’er suddenly show her qin-playing skills, she had been quite confused about it while waiting in the outer hall, and now, looking at how Ju Mu’er was deep in thought, she really didn’t know what to do. She was about to step into the hall, when suddenly, one of the face-veil-wearing ladies returned. She overtook Su Qing, walked into the hall and called out, “Young Lady Mu’er.”
Ju Mu’er started in surprise, then replied, “Young Lady Yueyao.”
Su Qing remained standing at the door, looking at both of them with her head tilted to one side.
Lin Yueyao walked closely towards Ju Mu’er, asking in an undertone, “If I want to contact Young Lady in the future, how should I do so? The big doors of the Long Residence aren’t something a woman like me can walk through.”
Ju Mu’er seemed a little put-on-the-spot by this question, and didn’t immediately reply. Su Qing noticed her dilemma and hastily jumped out to reply, “If you want to meet jiějie, then just come look for me, I usually sell flowers on the East Main Street.”
Ju Mu’er froze for a moment when she heard this, instinctively opening her mouth wanting to say something, but Su Qing cut in, patting her chest affirming, “Really! Just look for me, and I’ll be sure to pass the message on to jiějie.”
Lin Yueyao turned her head and looked earnestly at Su Qing, then looked again at Ju Mu’er, finally nodded her head and softly replied, “In that case, I’ll be on my way back now.”
When she had left the place, Ju Mu’er abruptly let out a sigh of relief, and turned to Su Qing to say, “Qing’er, you spend a great deal of time outside, so you must be extremely careful, make sure to be cautious in everything you do.”
“Jiějie don’t worry, I’m really very smart, nothing will happen!” Su Qing smilingly replied.
Ju Mu’er rebuked her, “Yes, I can’t recall which smart ‘ghost’ nearly crossed the gates of hell, forcing Aunt Su to burst out into tears and say that she wanted to follow her too. What a shock it gave me.”
Su Qing stuck out her tongue in jest, then came over to hold Ju Mu’er, “It was only that one time, it never happened again after that.”
The two of them spoke for a little while, then they made their way outside together. Once they exited from the Stone Flower Alley, Su Qing suddenly turned to tell Ju Mu’er, “That’s Second Master’s carriage.” The second she finished speaking, they both watched as Long Er stepped down off the carriage.
Su Qing giggled with a broad smile, and led Ju Mu’er right to where Long Er was standing.
Long Er asked, “I thought you dismissed everyone ages ago? Why were the two of you in there for so long? I was about to go in and get you.”
Ju Mu’er asked, “Why is Second Master here?”
“I was passing by when I saw Guard Chen standing by the roadside. I stopped and asked him what was happening and he explained that you were giving qin-playing lessons inside, but that the lessons had just ended and you would soon be coming out. I still had a bit of time left on my hands, and decided to wait a while. Who would have known I’d end up waiting for so long?!”
How long of a wait could it have been? Ju Mu’er pursed her lips, she felt like rebutting his statement, but chose not to say anything. Long Er was staring at her, and Ju Mu’er had some sense of feeling of his gaze, her face growing redder and redder without any obvious cause.
Su Qing was standing beside this duo, watching everything, and she couldn’t help but try to cover the broad smile she let out.
Long Er pulled Ju Mu’er over towards him, “Are you going back now? I still have some time, let me escort you.”
Before Ju Mu’er could say anything, Su Qing began to speak, “Ah, I just remembered that I haven’t collected the payment for the two baskets of flowers I sent to the Ma Residence recently. I’ll be off to collect my money, so I can’t accompany jiějie back.”
What tactfulness from a lovely young lady, she truly did have good sense. Long Er sent a glance of praise towards Su Qing, then said to her, “From now on, you can send a basket of flowers to the Long Residence every day.”
Su Qing was overjoyed at this and hastily gave her thanks, “Thank you Second Master, I’ll be sure to pick the best flowers to be sent to your residence.” While she spoke she squeezed Ju Mu’er’s hand, this was money that had dropped into her lap from the skies, of course it was worth her excitement!
Ju Mu’er was tickled by their interaction, and smiled. Long Er turned back to instruct Guard Chen to escort Su Qing to collect her payment, while he tasked himself with leading Ju Mu’er up into the carriage and back home.
Thus, both groups parted ways from that street, and Ju Mu’er was helped up into the carriage. Just as she sat down, she heard the door close behind her, and then Long Er’s voice broke the silence, “It’s been so long since we last saw each other, let me take a look at you.”
“I still look the same.” Ju Mu’er answered, but was given a flick in the forehead by Long Er for her troubles.
“Today I had the manservants deliver the newly harvested crisp pears to you, did you eat any of them?”
“I did.” Ju Mu’er nodded her head, those crisp pears had been fragrant and sweet.
“Did you like them? If you did, then I’ll have them send you some more.” Long Er touched her hands, felt how cold they were, then he reached up to feel her face, which was also cold to the touch. Thus, he directly lifted both his hands up and covered the entirety of her small face, seemingly irked as he commented, “So icy-cold!”
Ju Mu’er couldn’t see him, but she imagined what his expression would be like, and she reached to cover the back of his hands, calling, “Second Master.”
She wanted to get closer to him, yet felt like she should stay further away from him too.
“Second Master.” Ju Mu’er couldn’t hold it in and called out to him again.
“Hmm?” Long Er replied, his tone going up at the end, very much a tone inflected with laziness.
Ju Mu’er bit her lip, then suddenly, without heed or caution, she pounced toward him, falling into his embrace.
“You missed me, didn’t you?”
A/N: This chapter has been edited, the secret will be left for a later chapter ba. That’s why the content has been edited, and some of the later events have been brought forward.
End of Chapter