High, sturdy stonewalls surrounded the Forever Blooming Hibiscus brothel like a well-guarded fortress, or more like a strongly fortified prison for the many helpless women forced to sell themselves inside. It was a sad, depressing looking place regardless of the garish, ornately decorated rooftops, and it broke his heart to know Lifen was inside.
Mo Yuan firmly hammered his fist on the massive wooden entrance gates, and it took several long minutes before a little peephole-style window opened. A young but brawny man stared back at him grumpily from the other side.
“We’re not open yet. Come back later!” The man’s voice was ill-mannered and of course, he immediately tried to shut the window, but Mo Yuan blocked him by shoving his mighty hand between the slot.
The man reopened the window and jeered with a smirk, “I get it that you’re in need but the girls don’t work during the days. Come back later with your gold and have as many as you’d like.”
“I’m searching for Lifen! I know she’s here. Open the gates before I smash them down.” Mo Yuan’s low hushed voice sounded dangerous.
The man glared at Mo Yuan suspiciously and spat, “There’s nobody by that name here!”
The tiny window slammed shut, but the massively thick lumber doors crashed down first from Mo Yuan forcibly kicking them in with his foot. The large, muscular man who was apparently the security for the establishment, gawked at the fallen gates in shock and immediately drew his sword.
“Call your leader and tell whoever is in charge that I’m here for Lifen. Young man, I would put down your sword if you’d like to see your next birthday.” Mo Yuan warned in his smooth even voice.
But the foolish young man pushed his sword closer to Mo Yuan, when an older female voice called from the high steps.
Her voice was crackly and raspy due to her advanced age as she demanded, “What is all this noise and disturbance? What has happened to my gates?”
Mo Yuan examined the older woman; perhaps the senior courtesan was in her late sixties or seventies. Grey streaked, thick dark hair braided up into a high bun. She wore many beautiful, ornate golden ornaments dangling from her tightly twisted up do. In her age spots marked hand, she carried a long wooden pipe with gold on the end, and jade by her scarlet painted mouth which she sucked on continuously. Dressed in the most exquisite fine silks in shades of emerald, she stood and grimaced at him from above.
She scrutinized Mo Yuan with her expert gaze and advised in her cracked shrill voice, “Boy, put your sword away before this rude man kills you with it. Look at the dark glint in his eyes. He’s killed many in his life so I’d advise you put your blade aside and tell me. Who is this manner less and disrespectfully person comes knocking down other’s doors?”
“Madam, he’s asking for Lifen.” The guard swiftly explained as he dropped on one knee before the woman.
Huge puffs of cloudy smoke billowed overhead and her keen, watchful stare never left Mo Yuan’s face as she asked curiously, “Why do you want Lifen?”
Half a dozen of solid gold bars, Mo Yuan threw at the woman’s feet and his jaw tensed as he stated, “I’m her husband. I’m here to repurchase her and pay off all her debts.”
The astute woman never took her focused gaze off Mo Yuan’s face but slyly stepped forward, so she now had the gold bars under her dress and declared amused, “So, you must be this ‘Mo Yuan Oppa’ I’ve heard about for the last six months! I thought the girl was lying but here you are and what a fine specimen of a man you are, Mo Yuan Oppa. I certainly understand her resistance to give you up.”
The Madam pointed to where Mo Yuan was standing and explained, “The very spot where you’re standing is where that stupid girl stood in wait for you…of course, when she wasn’t working.”
She went on in a mono-toned voice, “Lifen, Lifen, Lifen. She was full of surprises and turned out to be a shrewd girl, who helped me make more money in six months than I have the past three years. A girl like her is a rarity. Times like these, it’s difficult if not impossible to find a girl with such skills.”
“Judging by your fine appearance, Lifen’s husband, Mo Yuan. I assume you taught her all those fine skills that were highly beneficial for my establishment.”
The female gave Mo Yuan a fully appreciative visual once over, puffed on her pipe before suddenly frowning as if irritated and added in a tone of exasperation, “But how she complained! I’m married! I have a husband! That’s what she said whenever she didn’t want to do the required tasks before her. How she carried on and on about her handsome husband, who was an excellent wealthy Shifu! You were coming for her and so on but, Mo Yuan, you’re too late. You are exactly two days too late.”
Mo Yuan took a big threatening step towards the woman and demanded in a menacing tone, “Bring Lifen out. Now. I’ve never killed or taken a woman’s life when not in battle but there’s a first for everything.”
Six more gold blocks he threw towards the woman. It was out of character for him to be so rough with anyone but Lifen’s safety made him rash and blunt, unlike his true nature. Love and the fear of lost love made Mo Yuan impatient and temperamental.
She cackled openly at Mo Yuan and smirked sarcastically, “Aren’t you so remarkably frightening and scary, Mo Yuan? Threatening an old, unarmed woman like me but I’m sorry to say……there isn’t enough gold in the world to make the girl come out and reappear.”
Puffing on her pipe, she declared, “I sold her! But I regret it now. She was my golden egg laying goose but the purchasing party was adamant. They paid an insanely, over the top, I can retire in this life and my next four lifetimes amount in gold and precious jewels for that farm girl.”
“Granted, she was a pretty young thing maybe a bit too thin but not worth what they paid. Plus she was starting to show the early signs of a certain illness that often inflicts the girls who work here. It’s a hazard of the profession being a courtesan.”
The brothel Madam briefly glanced down at the gold bullions and casually added, “Mo Yuan, if you’re looking for another wife I have many beautiful girls here that might strike your fancy.”
Deliberately he exhaled to calm himself. It was taking every ounce of self-control and cultivation for him to stay composed. Mo Yuan clenched his fist and growled, “Keep the damn gold and I’m not looking for another wife but tell me who bought her? Where did they take her?”
“I never met the man. He sent his people and an associate with the huge payment. I checked the money and she left in the sedan they sent for her. I don’t know where she’s gone but judging by the carriage, whoever purchased her must be incredibly wealthy.”
Informally she motioned to the guard with a subtle tilt of her head, which caused the dangling gold pieces of her hairpins to move and dance as she instructed, “Go to Lifen’s room, retrieve the items she left behind and give them her husband, Mo Yuan. Then fix the doors and be quiet about it so I can take my afternoon nap.”
Mo Yuan wordlessly watched the woman spin around and walk into the brothel. She wasn’t lying because she was in the business of making money by selling women. Had Lifen been inside she would have bartered with him and set a price. Because in a brothel everything and anything with a value, became a purchasable item especially the women. He’d seen horses handled with more value and respect than the women within a bordello.
He felt incompetent and helpless when the young man handed him a massive bundle of letters. All neatly tied together, and on top of the letters was her jade ring attached to the twine encircling the messages.
Lifen devotedly wrote Mo Yuan a letter every day for five months straight and suddenly stopped. Along with the many numerous notes, she’d also drafted several beautiful, sentimental verses and poetry for him that expressed her profound longing for him.
An example of her writings was one of his favorite poems, that he’d repeated to her in bed through the many nights when she laid in his arms. Lifen’s beautiful calligraphy had grown even more exquisite during their separation, and oddly resembled Mo Yuan’s very closely.
Looking at the moon and thinking of one faraway ~ Tang poet, Zhang Jiuling
Grown full now over the sea，
Brightening the whole of heaven，
Brings to separated hearts
The long thoughtfulness of night…
It is no darker though I blow out my candle.
It is no warmer though I put on my coat.
So I leave my message with the moon
And turn to my bed，
Hoping for dreams.
Without tears, Mo Yuan couldn’t read them without crying because he cursed himself terribly for leaving her behind. And he damned himself for not protecting her from being sold into a brothel.
Furthermore, if the bordello owner was correct and she was showing signs of illness, he knew it was syphilis because that was what Si Ming wrote for her.
Lifen’s first letter to him was hopeful.
My loving husband,
I swear that I didn’t kill my father. It was an accident. You know I would never murder anyone! I know that you’ll believe me and are coming to get me. I do! So, I’m not afraid. Lifen is not scared! I love you and I’m waiting for you so we can make our baby.
Lifen’s last letter to Mo Yuan was much different.
I’ve thought it over and I understand why you’re not coming to get me. You’re a dignified Shifu and I’m now considered a murderer who has lived in a bordello for five months.
I’m no longer worthy of you or fitting to be your proper wife and I’ve finally accepted it. That’s why I’m leaving my ring behind. I won’t wait anymore because I don’t want you to feel pressured or guilty.
Who am I kidding? You’ll never see any of these letters. That’s okay, it’s more for me and my closure.
Shifu, you can forget me but the three days being your wife were the happiest days of my life. I’m grateful for those days and thank you, Shifu, for everything else.
He cried thinking that she believed he’d deserted her, and in five months time he went from being her husband back to her Shifu. Lifen had to perform acts against her will and wishes and decided that he couldn’t delay any longer. It was time to tell Bai Zhi all and everything about his involvement in her heavenly trial. Hopefully, with their combined forces they would be able to find her quickly and bring her home, because it was time to end her heavenly trial.
To be continued…..