Zhang Yue’er was presently in charge of all affairs related to the courtyard. As such, Liu Yuru required Zhang Yue’er’s permission to leave the house.  

Not knowing the reason for Liu Yuru’s instructions, Yinhong could only remind her, “It’d be a good time to talk to Madam about your marriage, don’t you think?”

Liu Yuru considered for a moment and sighed. “You’re right. I ought to talk to Mother about it.”

She walked over to Su Wan’s room. Su Wan’s room smelled of medicine all year around. She was lying on the divan, her head bent over a book.

Liu Yuru entered and proceeded to inspect the furnishings in the room. After confirming that the servants had not been remiss in attending to Su Wan, she sat down beside Su Wan. “Mother, did you hear? Old Madam Ye visited us today.” 

“Yes, I’ve heard.” Su Wan coughed lightly and smiled. “Your father sent for me, but I am feeling unwell and unable to receive guests, so I had Concubine Yue go in my stead.”

Liu Yuru did not expose Su Wan’s lie. She knew Su Wan was trying to comfort her; it was beyond humiliating to be denied the right to conduct marriage talks for her biological daughter, and for a concubine to receive guests on her behalf.   

Though Liu Yuru felt a little sad, she said nothing and served tea smilingly to Su Wan. Then she summarised the day’s events.

“Concubine Yue and Father are anxious to get their hands on the Ye family’s betrothal gifts, which are certain to be generous. They’re in a hurry to secure the union, lest the marriage falls through.” Liu Yuru smiled and said, “Don’t worry about it, Mother. This marriage would not be a raw deal for me.”

Su Wan frowned despite these words.

She seemed to want to say something, but eventually said nothing and sighed helplessly, “It is not right and proper of your Father to act like this. We’ll be looked down on.”

Liu Yuru felt bitterness in her heart—of course she knew that too. But she could not cry and complain to her Mother. After all, there was nothing Su Wan could do. Mentioning it would only deepen her grief. So Liu Yuru pretended to know nothing. “Mother, you overthink. Old Madam Ye really dotes on me.”

Seeing her daughter’s silly, obliviously cheerful appearance, Su Wan did not know if she ought to be worried or thankful. At length, she let out a long sigh. She instructed her daughter to behave, said she was tired, and lay down to sleep. 

Liu Yuru sighed as she walked out of Su Wan’s room. As she looked out at the patch of sky that was enclosed by the courtyard walls, she wondered if she’d be able to come back often to visit Su Wan after getting married. After setting her thoughts in order, she obtained Zhang Yue’er’s permission and hastened to the Liew residence.

On her way there, she had someone head to the Liew Manor in advance to inform Liew Siyu of her arrival. Liew Siyu had ample time to prepare for her arrival, but Liu Yuru could tell it hadn’t been long since Liu Siyu stopped crying.

Feigning ignorance, she walked up, pulled Liew Siyu to her smilingly and said, “What’s with you today? Why have you come to see me with swollen eyes? ” 

Hearing this, Liew Siyu’s eyes promptly reddened. Liu Yuru gave the surrounding maids a meaningful look, dismissing them. Then she pulled Liew Siyu along as she entered the garden and said, “Let it all out. We’ll have a nice stroll around the garden. Tell me all about it when you feel better?”

Liew Siyu sniffed. She forcibly raised the corners of her mouth several times, but none of her attempts at a smile worked out. Finally she said, resigned, “Forget it. I won’t force myself to smile around you.”

“What in the world happened? Won’t you tell me about it?”

“Old Master Gu came to my house,” Liew Siyu began with difficulty. “Two days ago, Old Master Gu and his wife came together. They summoned me to the main hall, looked over me briefly, praised me, gave me a jade bracelet, and then dismissed me.”   

Liu Yuru frowned. “Why’d they do that?”

“Beats me. But my parents think,” Liew Siyu said, on the verge of tears again, “they mean to propose marriage on Gu Jiusi’s behalf.” 

The unexpected answer made Liu Yuru sigh. Dream Gu Jiusi’s eyes flashed across her mind. Regardless of the authenticity of the dream, this marriage must not go through.

While Liu Yuru and Liew Siyu met up, three youths dressed in the Liu family servant attire walked into the garden with their heads hung low.

The two flanking the one in the middle were a tad shorter. The one in the middle was much taller. Walking together, they perfectly formed the word, “山” (shan; mountain)

Though the trio were dressed in servant garb and had stiff expressions, there was no sense of timidity in their gestures and bearing. They obviously did not look like servants, especially the one in the middle, who even whipped out a fan from his sleeve as he walked. He lightly prodded the youth in front of him with the fan and asked, “Chen Xun, what the devil are you up to?”  

“You’ll know in a bit.”

Chen Xun, who was walking in front, counselled, “Patience, Jiusi.”  

“You’ve said the same thing practically all day today,” Gu Jiusi grumbled. “When we were outside you said you’d tell me when we sneak into the Liew manor, and now that we’re in the Liew manor you’re still leaving me hanging. Are you asking for a beating?”

“I’ll spill,” Yang Wenchang, who had been bringing up the rear, piped up excitedly, “We’ve brought you here to see your wife!”

“My wife?!”

Gu Jiusi stopped abruptly. Yang Wenchang nearly crashed into him. Seeing Gu Jiusi’s utterly stupefied expression, he answered somewhat apprehensively, “That’s right.”

“Where did this supposed wife of mine come from?” Gu Jiusi’s brows furrowed. “Why don’t I know she exists?”

“Your parents called on the Liews two days ago,” Yang Wenchang ventured carefully. “Didn’t you know?”

Hearing this, Gu Jiusi sucked in a deep breath, squeezed his fan and turned to leave. On either side of him, Yang Wenchang and Chen Xun immediately held him back and urged in a low voice, “Don’t go, don’t go. Since you’re here, you might as well steal a glance before you go. At least find out what she looks like.”

“She can be as beautiful as a fairy for all I care— Not interested!” Gu Jiusi scowled in a low voice. Just as Chen Xun was about to say more, Yang Wenchang pushed them towards the fake mountain and whispered urgently, “Someone’s coming!”

The three burly lads panicked and quickly hid inside a fake mountain cave. It was a bit of a squeeze as the three grown fellows squished up against each other. Gu Jiusi pointedly jabbed Chen Xun with his fan. Chen Xun gritted his teeth silently and held Gu Jiusi’s fan in place. The two of them exchanged a flurry of murderous glares in the cave. The sound of footsteps came from outside the cave, followed by the sound of two girls chatting.

After eavesdropping for a good while, the trio got a sense of the situation: One of the girls was Liew Siyu; her unwillingness to marry Gu Jiusi was the reason for her anguished weeping.

And judging by how she was addressed, the other talking girl was Liu Yuru, the first daughter of the Liu family, who had been infamous in Yangzhou for spoiling the concubine while neglecting the principal wife.

And so the trio stopped fooling around and began to eavesdrop in earnest. Liew Siyu sobbed piteously as she got to an emotional part. “Yuru, the Gu family is a powerful family with a large enterprise. The prospect of my father accepting the match for the money terrifies me. How am I to live if I do marry him?”

Liu Yuru sighed, held Liew Siyu’s hand and said gently, “I get it. I feel you. If I had to marry him, I would want to throw myself into this lake immediately.”

Gu Jiusi’s expression turned ugly at these words. His buddies looked at him. Gu Jiusi shook his fan open with feigned nonchalance and pretended he didn’t hear anything as he lightly fanned himself. Yang Wenchang quietly raised his arms to hold down the fan that kept trying to smack his face.

The three of them turned their attention back to the conversation. They heard Liu Yuru advise Liew Siyu, “How about this? We’ll find out what he’s like. When the time comes, act contrary to his likes and preferences till he’s forced to break the betrothal.”

“Force him to break the betrothal?” Liew Siyu stared blankly as Liu Yuru nodded and pressed on, “For example, I’ve heard that the main reason why Gu Jiusi is yet to be betrothed is because of his high standards. He despises ladies who are bound by rules and etiquette, particularly those who extoll the wisdom of the ancients. When you go back today, be sure to study the Four Books and Five Classics. Pay extra attention to the sections that preach how one ought to behave in word and deed. Memorise some choice examples and admonish him constantly with them when you do meet him.” 

Both Chen Xun and Yang Wenchang looked at Gu Jiusi and gave him a thumbs up.  Their awed expressions seemed to say, “This girl sure is something.”

Gu Jiusi remained silent, his eyes filled with contempt.

Liu Yuru continued, “I’ve also heard that he hates pretentious women. He’s especially disdainful of those who intentionally try to get close to him. Should you see him in the future, speak in an affected voice. The moment he says anything that’s the least bit harsh, turn on the waterworks. Never speak too logically, like a normal person. You must sound incoherent and behave absurdly while acting like a gold digger.”

“That’s…” Liew Siyu said hesitantly. “That’s not very nice.”

“Just don’t make it too obvious,” Liu Yuru said, smiling. “Avoid having any direct contact with him before others. Arrange a couple of meetings with him in private, disgust him a couple of times. You should be good after that. With his current reputation, everyone would think he’s slandering you even if he were to speak out against you.”

“Alright,” Liew Siyu made up her mind. “You’re right. If I don’t disgust him, he’ll bring trouble to my door.”

“Also,” Liu Yuru said, thinking seriously for a moment. “He never attends the flower viewing banquets held in Spring. Once, the Ye family hosted a wine tasting event. When a maid got close to him when he arrived, he sneezed twice in a row. The perfume sachet on the maid’s body gave off a very pungent scent and was made with flower petals. It’s quite possible that he’s not fond of strong floral scents. He might dislike flowers, even. I’ll find you a perfume sachet with a potent odour. When you meet him, don’t forget to dab the scent on your handkerchief. You’ll want to wave it well and often in his face.”

Yang Wenchang and Chen Xun pitied Gu Jiusi even more.

Gu Jiusi was prone to sneezing when around strong floral scents. His skin crawled. This girl even figured out this much through observation. If she made a serious effort to investigate him, more misfortunes might come his way.

Fury rose unbidden within Gu Jiusi as he listened to the girls’ schemes to sabotage this marriage. 

Liew Siyu asked in a voice filled with worry, “What should I do if he still wants to marry me even after all that?”

Gu Jiusi reached his limit.

He felt so humiliated, he dashed out of the cave before Chen Xun and Yang Wenchang could react and yelled, “Oh don’t you worry. I will never marry you!”

Both Liu Yuru and Liew Siyu turned their heads at the same time. Liu Yuru blanked as she looked at the face that had appeared in her dream this morning. 

Liew Siyu frowned. “What’d you say?” The surprised Liew Siyu spluttered. “You…Whose servant are you? Why are you here? You…”  Liu Yuru took one look at Gu Jiusi’s raised eyebrows and opened mouth and knew at once that he was about to announce his identity.

Even if Gu Jiusi’s sighted in their backyard, the Liew family would not dream of mistreating him in any way. Should word of this spread, the ones to suffer the consequences would just be Liu Yuru and Liew Siyu.

There was no time to waste. Liu Yuru decisively stepped up and shouted angrily, “Where are these servants from? How dare you barge into the courtyard without permission?! Men, seize them and throw them out of the manor!”

So saying, she turned tail and ran off with Liew Siyu in tow. It took Gu Jiusi a good while to recover his bearings after Liu Yuru’s outburst. By the time he’d recovered his senses, the three of them —him, Yang Wenchang and Chen Xun— were cornered outside the fake mountain cave by clueless servants.

This was the first time the Liew family servants had encountered trespassers sneaking into the Liew Manor. Though they had no idea who they were, it was obvious that they were nothing more than some two-bit thugs. Thus, the servants did not hold back as they went after the trio.

However, the three of them had cut their teeth brawling and getting into scrapes on the street. Gu Jiusi in particular had practised martial arts from childhood and was very much proficient at it. He ducked and swerved amidst the pursuing crowd while bodily pulling along a friend with each hand. The trio were chased around for a good while before they climbed over the wall and made their escape.

It wasn’t till the trio shook off their pursuers, their clothes in a great mess as they slumped, panting, against a wall, that Chen Xun finally said, “That girl’s such a scaredy cat, screaming for help right away like that. Man, I’m pooped from all that running.”

“She, a scaredy cat?” Gu Jiusi scoffed. “As if, it’s all an act. She knew very well what she was doing. She was just afraid we would tarnish their reputations! Liu Yuru, this black lotus. Projecting a pure and saintly appearance on the outside, while being dark and twisted on the inside. She’s far more devious than Liew Siyu.”

“That explains it,” Yang Wenchang muttered under his breath, “I wondered how someone like her could get to marry Brother Shi’an.”

“Who’d you say she’s gonna marry?” Gu Jiusi jerked his head around reflexively. Yang Wenchang replied tentatively, a puzzled look on his face, “It’s that —uh— White Heron Academy’s top student, Ye Shi’an. It’s said that long ago, Old Madam Ye had made it known that she had her heart set on Liu Yuru as her daughter-in-law. You didn’t know?”

Gu Jiusi was stunned. That girl’s appearance flashed across his mind. 

However you diced it, she’s just an ordinary girl—her background was ordinary, her looks were unremarkable, her personality was the stuffy by-the-book type. Save for being a touch scheming, there was nothing that stood out about her. A girl like that, wed to the likes of Ye Shi’an, the detestable hypocrite with a limitless future, someone who’d been accepted as Grand Secretary Su Wen’s protégé at an early age?

Gu Jiusi thought about it—

Nice! He approved of this marriage!