Qi Ling Road was frequented by the poor people of the capital.
It was adjacent to the area where the manual labourers lived, where the most inferior people from the lowest class of society came and went. These people were commonly of low status, born in abject poverty, and they relied on hard labor to live. Their lives were very challenging.
Thus, among these people, it was extremely difficult for men to find wives.
Therefore, the low-class brothels and male brothels along Qi Ling Road did a thriving business.
Needless to say, the women in the low-grade brothels in Qi Ling Road were very different from the women serving in the pleasure houses of the capital city. They received patrons day and night, and the madams of these brothels were excessively harsh towards the women. On a regular day, they were given only one meal, and even if they were sick, they had to keep on receiving patrons. However, if the illness was debilitating, then they would be bundled up in a woven mat and tossed into a mass grave where the bodies were frequently eaten by wolves.
Yet, the male brothel on Qi Ling Road was different from the typical low-grade brothel.
Occasionally, among these inferior people from the lowest class, one or two had unusual tastes. Women’s bodies were weak and could not take much physical abuse. Moreover, the young men at the male brothel were very different from those in the capital city; they were not that type of delicate, fair young men. Most of them came from poverty-stricken families, and as selling their labour only earned them a pittance, they resorted to selling their bodies. These young men had strong bones and robust bodies, and their looks were not the most important aspect. However, even though they were robust, they were frequently abused to death.
On this day, the male brothel on Qi Ling Road was accepting business. When the madam of the brothel saw the three people, a smile came to her face when she assessed the first two, but she frowned at the last person. She snapped her short, stubby fingers with their painted nails, and tossed a coquettish glance at the man opposite her as she said, “Gentleman, what’s the meaning of this? The first two are genuine good-quality goods, but this one . . . could it be that you’re just having fun with this slave?”
The men on the ground were in bedraggled clothes. The first two looked like young travellers. Although their hair was a mess, they were items of the best quality with their soft, smooth skin and tender flesh. In this male brothel, it was enough to catapult them to the leading roles. However, the man who was behind them was between forty and fifty years old with a big belly. He was really . . . He would definitely spoil people’s appetites.
Jin Yi turned a blind eye to the coquettish charms of the male brothel’s madam, retrieved some banknotes from his clothes, and said, “Here, this is the payment.”
When the madam saw the banknotes, she was so happy she smiled until her eyes were little slits. Laughingly, she said, “If Gentleman trusts this slave, then also hand this man over to this slave. Although he is older than most, the good thing is that his body is soft and tender. Some people here like excitement, so they extinguish the lamps and find it great fun. If such people don’t look at this person’s face and he’s taught how to use his body, then that will do!”
She spoke so loudly and casually about these matters which flipped yin and yang that Jin Yi felt a little uncomfortable. He said, “These three men will have to be well trained. Madam will have to make extra effort.”
This brothel’s madam had been in this business for many years, so she was naturally not given to kindness. When she heard Jin Yi’s words, she gained a degree of understanding. Who knew which rich and noble family had garnered which enemy? Her sole responsibility was to collect money and handle matters. On observing that the bearing of the man before her was not that of an ordinary person, she laughed and said, “Gentleman does not trust this slave’s intention? Don’t worry, since it’s like this, then I will arrange for them to receive patrons today.”
She looked at Jin Yi, fluttering the handkerchief she held in his face as she lowered her voice and asked, intimately, “Gentleman would like to see this with his own eyes?”
Jin Yi shuddered as goose bumps rose all over his body, and said, “That’s alright. Many thanks.”
* * *
When Li An regained consciousness, Li Yang and Li Dong were still out cold. Li An practised martial arts regularly and had some foundation. He wanted to utilise his internal strength, but when he moved, he discovered that his entire body was soft, completely lacking strength.
Taken aback, he squinted, and he was gradually able to see what was around him more clearly. Taking measure of his surroundings, he saw that he was in a small room, which emitted an odd scent, like the smell of the cosmetics women applied. Yet, it was mixed with something else which he could not distinguish.
The decorations in the room were both cheap and somewhat gaudy. At present, he was sitting on a bed, over which hung a peachy-pink, gauzy canopy. It seemed like a woman’s boudoir, but, at the same time, it was not quite that either.
Despite how clever Li An was on a normal day, he still could not figure out where he was. He looked once again at Li Yang and Li Dong who were lying unconscious on the bed and his heart constricted. Without a doubt, they had fallen into a trap.
Since their opponent dared to abduct them from the Sky Prison, this fearlessness could only come about due to a strong and powerful backer. But, this kind of action, and to end up in this kind of unknown place, what on earth was the intention behind it?
 天牢 (tian lao) – lit. Sky Prison. Refers to a prison set up in the capital city under the direct control of the imperial government. It is where serious prisoners are incarcerated, and is above ground (as compared to a dungeon).
As he was pondering over this, he heard the door being pushed open with a ‘creak’, and someone walked in leisurely.
The footsteps approached unhurriedly and the corner of a vibrant crabapple-pink skirt appeared. Looking upwards from that delicate and beautiful skirt, one saw a graceful figure and a lovely face with a sweet-tempered smile, but whose eyes were as cold and hard as a knife.
“Eldest Jiang Miss. As expected, it is you.” Li An laughed grimly.
His intuition had told him she was behind all this much earlier, but the instant he saw Jiang Ruan, he could not describe what he felt in his heart with words. Was he angry at having been forced into this situation, or suppressing his rage through gritted teeth? Or, in resignation at his inferior skills, indifferently conceding defeat?
Jiang Ruan smiled faintly and said, “Second Young Master Li is indeed not an ordinary person. Eldest Young Master Li and the Grand Councillor daren have yet to come to their senses, but Second Young Master Li is already awake and clear-minded.” She paused, then continued, “However, to be awake at present may not be a good thing.”
“What do you intend to do?” Li An asked.
Jiang Ruan said, “Second Young Master Li cannot see where he is?”
Li An regarded Jiang Ruan carefully, and heard her softly and gently explain, “This is a male brothel, but it’s no ordinary male brothel. This place is solely for the enjoyment of the lower classes, the slaves who make a living through manual labour.”
The initial look of disdain on Li An’s face changed abruptly on hearing Jiang Ruan’s words, and he involuntarily stiffened.
After a long while, he forced out words from between his clenched teeth. “What do you mean by this?”
“The Grand Councillor daren was always abusing his power to stir up trouble and considered human life to be worth no more than an ant. Countless people from the lowest classes in society died by his hand. Eldest Young Master Li and Second Young Master Li are the same. If, one day, you had no choice but to struggle and cry out beneath the body of a so-called ‘untouchable’, I wondered how marvellous it would be to get a taste of your own medicine?”
Li An glared at her unblinkingly, but his eyes were not as icily calm as they had been a few moments ago. He wanted to yell at her, but the drug which had rendered his body soft and weak also caused him to be unable to raise his voice. Instead, he could only utter, “B*tch!”
This kind of method could only have been thought of by a lady with a certain kind of experience! He was not afraid of death, and was also not afraid of other kinds of torment, but to make him perform such vile acts under the body of an ‘untouchable’ . . . the more he thought about this he felt cold all over. And, repulsed!
Jiang Ruan watched him with great interest. With a slight smile on her face, she said, “So, it turns out that Second Young Master Li can also feel fear. I originally thought that nothing on this earth could confound Second Young Master Li, so how could you repeatedly lose to me?”
Her exposure of him did not stop here. With a smile, she continued, “I believe that Second Young Master Li has had the life-long desire to be the best in every field. However now that the Grand Councillor fu has collapsed, Second Young Master Li no longer has the opportunity to taste the sweetness of being first in this lifetime. Hence, Ruan niang has considerately lent Second Young Master Li a hand.” She laughed gaily as she said, “I see that the three of you, father and sons, are somewhat good-looking. From today onwards, the three of you will receive patrons together. I wonder if Second Young Master Li will be able to be first in this aspect.”
Blood surged in Li An’s veins and his eyes turned red. He had faced countless opponents in his lifetime and had been able to knock them all down with hardly any effort. However, he had never met anyone like Jiang Ruan. Terrifyingly, her every movement seemed to have been calculated and planned way in advance. It was only at the end that he was able to clearly see what his true weakness was. Death was not to be feared; what was to be feared was living a life that was worse than death, and living such a life without end.
His entire being was taken over by panic and he made a supreme effort to find a way to escape. However, when he saw the young lady’s mocking expression, a sort of despairing desperation gripped his heart.
It was impossible to escape. The young lady before him was not human, she was a devil, a poppy who grew from the very depths of hell. Her beauty moved people, but once she got close, her bloody tendrils would wrap resolutely around you while simultaneously dragging you down to hell.
It was not that she never made a move, but that a single move led decisively to a comprehensive loss for others.
Li An slowly raised his head to look her in the eye, and said, “Why did you want to deal with the Grand Councillor fu?”
Jiang Ruan regarded him silently, wordlessly. Abruptly, the sweet-tempered and charming smile disappeared completely from face and her uptilted eyes, and for the first time, the hatred she had for him was totally exposed. Just like a tranquil ocean suddenly turning turbulent, everything was a swell of surging black waves, and within that black surge was bloody hostility, a deep-seated hatred soaked in bloody death, of absolutely irreconcilable enemies.
Being stared at by such a pair of eyes sent chills down Li An’s back. He suddenly felt that to set himself against the young lady before him was the most brainless decision he had ever made in his life.
Jiang Ruan stood in the middle of the room, ramrod straight. Her coldly beautiful face caused a fearful apprehension to arise in one’s heart. She put her hands in her sleeves, then crossed them over her chest in a dignified and elegant posture, but still exuding a life-threatening aura.
She sighed softly and said, “It’s probably because, from a previous lifetime, the Grand Councillor fu owes me a tremendous life debt.”
Li An was stunned. Jiang Ruan’s statement was baffling, but he had another absurd feeling that what she had said was true. He observed Jiang Ruan without moving a muscle. Without warning, he gave a miserable smile and said, “If one agrees to bet, one must accept one’s loss. I have lost.”
“Wrong,” Jiang Ruan said as she considered him. Her smile was as sweet and gentle as before as she said, “I had never set myself against Second Young Master Li. I only wanted to destroy the Grand Councillor fu, and you, Second Young Master Li, were simply unable to defend it.”
She said, impassively, “The Grand Councillor fu has approximately a hundred and three people. Yesterday, all of them were beheaded at the Meridian Gate. His Majesty was furious, and the entire extended family was deemed to be guilty of the capital crime by association, and accordingly punished.”
 午门 (Wu men) – the southern and largest gate of the Forbidden City in Beijing.
 株连九族 (zhu lian jiu zhu) – a practice in ancient China whereby the extended family members (九族 = lit. nine clans) of a person guilty of a capital offence were also regarded as criminally responsible and shared the punishment.
One hundred and three lives to a hundred and three lives. Exactly right! The debt of the previous life had been settled.
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