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    Chapter 73: Twin Pupils

    Yuan Ya strolled leisurely down the Golden Powder Street, a renowned entertainment district in the capital city. The street was lined with willow trees by the riverbank, their branches swaying gracefully. Despite being winter, the trees were adorned with snow willow decorations and lanterns, adding a touch of charm to the night. Groups of pleasure-seekers walked along with courtesans, who were elegant and beautifully dressed. Their eyes lingered on the faces of the noble young men they passed, their smiles bright and alluring. Even the air carried the scent of cosmetics as they wore red silk flowers in their hair, which shone brightly like flames even in the dark.

    It was a custom on this Golden Powder Street that courtesans wore identical red flowers in their hair to distinguish them from virtuous women. If a guest wished to engage with one, they could approach and take the flower pin from her hair to wear on their chest. Behind him, the young eunuch Zhong Qi looked worried, "Sir, if Lady finds out you've come to the brothel again..."

    Yuan Ya fanned himself with a hand fan, chuckling, "Haha, she wants me to be charming but fears I'll truly sink into debauchery." He showed clear impatience, "She lectures me every day as if I'm still a child, yet I'm taking my duties seriously now."

    Zhong Qi followed closely, "Sir, you've come so far now. Lady has mentioned recently that she wants to find a wife for you and is urging you to behave. Why not go watch a play instead?"

    Yuan Ya paid him no mind. "What sort of looking over? With my status, to be scrutinized and then deemed unworthy?" As Yuan Ya spoke, a wicked fire burned within him. Those ladies from scholarly families, the daughters of nobility, had the audacity to refuse! Since ancient times, it was always the princes who chose their consorts; when had it ever been the other way around? Did they think themselves worthy? They merely witnessed the Crown Prince's imprisonment and Second Brother's marriage to Princess Bei Xi, fearing entanglement in palace intrigues, so they all rejected him outright. How loathsome the ways of the world had become.

    Emperor Father's temper was capricious, causing all to live in fear of unknowingly offending His Majesty. Even Grand Tutor Ge was cast into the imperial prison, instilling a sense of insecurity among the court officials. Even Jiang's daughter, his own cousin, at the tender age of twelve, was hurriedly betrothed. On his visit to the Jiang residence today, he learned of this recent engagement.

    Yuan Ya gritted his teeth. Despite always perceiving his cousin as too young and thus never entertaining any thoughts towards her, the subtle sense of rejection was infuriating!

    He angrily fanned himself, paying no heed to how peculiar it was to use a fan in the middle of winter. As night fell, he tucked away his fan and was just about to seek solace in a brothel to distract himself from his restless mood when he collided with a woman right in front of him.

    The lady wore a delicate veil on her head and carried a radiant green jade lotus lantern in her hand, clearly an invaluable possession. Thus, when she was bumped, she instinctively protected the lantern, causing her body to lose balance and topple over. Yuan Ya was startled and hurriedly caught her, but as he did, the lady's unsteady posture caused the veil on her head to be grasped by him and slip down.

    The woman lifted her eyes in panic, and Yuan Ya, who had been smiling as he tried to comfort her, found himself staring into a pair of luminous, crystal-clear eyes... Startled, he blinked, and the woman, equally surprised, quickly closed her eyes, reached out to adjust her veil properly, but in doing so, she dropped the jade lamp, which shattered into pieces with a crisp sound.

    Seeing the woman's distress and ignoring the broken lamp, she covered her face with her veil and hastily retreated. Yuan Ya hurried forward and bowed deeply. "Miss, I'm terribly sorry for breaking your lamp. I'll make it up to you."

    The woman returned his bow, seemingly frightened by the attention around them. "Sir, there's no need for such formality. It was my fault for not watching where I was going. You don't have to compensate me."

    She turned to leave, but Yuan Ya noticed the bright red flower on her head, realizing that this woman was actually a singer on Golden Powder Street. His heart raced, and he chased after her. "I was indeed careless. Please give me a chance to make amends, Miss."

    Recalling the brief yet captivating glimpse of her, he thought of her long, dense eyelashes beneath which lay eyes like precious gems, each a different color – one green like emerald glass, the other red like a rare ruby. Her moon-white complexion only accentuated the brilliance of her heterochromatic eyes.

    Yuan Ya was entranced. Despite her frosty appearance, those unique eyes gave her an unparalleled allure. Considering she was a courtesan, the prospect of getting closer to her stirred his desire even more. He kept following her closely. "Miss, I won't be able to rest easy if I don't make it up to you. I'll be plagued by guilt for the rest of my life. Please show mercy. May I ask which building you live in? Your flower seems worn; I'd like to buy you a new one. What do you think?"

    The woman paused, hesitated for a moment, then slightly bowed. "Please follow me, sir."

    She lived in a humble alleyway on Golden Powder Street, a place Yuan Ya would never have guessed existed without her guidance. Looking back at his guards, he felt a bit relieved, then followed her into a modest, shabby courtyard.

    As soon as the woman opened the door, a sharp scolding came from inside. "You were supposed to be a lamp, but you're gone half a day! Is the water boiling for the stove? Fine, you don't entertain guests, but you can't even manage simple chores. Sell you off and get a few more pretty heads to start business. My dear, you can't build a reputation now. You should take advantage while you're young... In our line of work, we can't afford to miss opportunities. Better plan ahead!"

    The woman lowered her head, her veil hanging down, and seemed to glance at Yuan Ya without speaking. Filled with compassion, he coughed softly. "Isn't Mother coming out to greet customers?"

    Startled, the madam quickly drew aside the curtain and indeed saw an elderly woman dressed in a faded purplish-brown cotton coat, with only a copper hairpin adorning her head. She hurriedly greeted Yuan Ya with a smile, her expression growing more sincere upon seeing his luxurious fur garment. "Oh my, we have a guest! Please, honored guest, come inside and take your seat. I'll serve you tea right away."

    Yuan Ya simply smiled and bowed slightly. "Mother, I accidentally broke this lady's lamp. I was just about to offer compensation by purchasing a new lamp for her. Zhong Qi, quickly bring out a hundred taels of silver in banknotes for Mother. That glass lantern looks extremely delicate; it must be an imported item."

    The madam's face lit up with joy. Seeing Zhong Qi step forward with the banknote, she hastily said, "Honored guest, you have such good taste! Indeed, it was imported from overseas and once worth its weight in gold! It's only become less valuable as they've become more common. If I hadn't been in dire straits, how could I have parted with it?"

    Yuan Ya bowed again, saying politely, "It's cold outside. The courtyard isn't suitable for conversation. Could Mother kindly prepare some wine and food to warm us up?" As he spoke, Zhong Qi, standing beside him, smoothly stepped forward to hand another silver ingot to the madam, who received it with a broad grin. Meanwhile, the woman remained in the room without removing her veil, turning coldly to speak. "I noticed you causing a scene outside, which might draw unwanted attention. That's why I invited you here. Since you've compensated, please return. I don't entertain guests."

    Yuan Ya was taken aback, while the madam's face froze. She tried to persuade, "My child, this gentleman has shown genuine sincerity. Perhaps you could accompany him for a chat and a drink..."

    The woman remained unperturbed. "Mother, even if I exchange this lamp for silver, it's enough to cover the monthly rent. If you don't listen to me and end up in trouble, don't blame your daughter." With that, she turned and slammed the curtain, retreating into the inner chamber.

    The madam entered, her face filled with awkwardness.

    Yuan Ya, standing outside, could faintly hear her pleading inside, "With the lights off, one can't tell... the condition of your eyes..."

    "The nobleman has a good temperament, I assume he has a kind heart too..."

    "By continually hiding like this, all our wealth will flow away like water... If this continues, we'll exhaust our resources eventually..."

    Yuan Ya held his breath as he listened to the woman remaining silent, until finally, she blurted out, "This young master bears a striking resemblance to that guest from the other day... I won't entertain him."

    Startled, Yuan Ya witnessed the madam whispering something about similar-looking people. He could only hear the woman's sobbing voice, "No one can save us. Why would Mother involve others in our troubles?"

    The madam ceased her persuasion. After a moment, she reluctantly returned the silver to Zhong Qi with great reluctance, "Ah, Sir, my daughter is unwell and her temper has worsened. Please forgive her."

    Yuan Ya was greatly intrigued but still gestured for Zhong Qi to give the madam the money. "I sense this sister fears causing trouble. Has she encountered someone powerful, making her too afraid to serve guests? Mother, you can tell me. Though I'm not accomplished, I do have connections in the capital. If she's truly being bullied, I can intervene on your behalf, and the culprit should show me some respect."

    The madam appeared deeply hesitant, holding the silver ingot. After much deliberation, she returned it, whispering, "Thank you, kind sir, for your concern. No need, just don't mention having seen my daughter when you leave..."

    Yuan Ya asked, "Are Mother and this sister from the south? Your accent sounds southern. May I ask for your surname and name, Mother? My name is Yuan." He was subtly hinting at his noble status, hoping it might encourage her to seek his help.

    To his surprise, the madam's expression changed drastically, revealing even more fear. She hastily opened the door and invited Yuan Ya out, "It's cold and dewy outside, Sir. Please return. We're not from the south; you must have misheard."

    Seeing that he couldn't persuade her, and the curtain of the inner room remained still, clearly indicating the woman wouldn't come out, Yuan Ya considered tonight's unexpected encounter a fortunate discovery. A beauty like her deserved better. He decided to gather more information tomorrow, find out who she was afraid of, and then make plans accordingly.

    Resolute in his decision, he left and walked back to Gold Powder Street. After ensuring the alleyway was clear, he discreetly instructed his guard to inquire further the next day. Zhong Qi remarked, "Is Sir planning to be the hero who saves the damsel in distress?"

    Yuan Ya replied, "A beauty like her, trapped in such a life, must have been taken by some wicked patron who forbids her from entertaining others. Her appearance is so unique; I'll learn more about her situation tomorrow. When the time comes, I'll chase away the villain, and the beauty will surely appreciate my intervention."

    Without mentioning his tender concern for the ladies upon returning to the palace, let's move on to the following events.

    Unbeknownst to him, the next day, the guards went to investigate but returned to report to Duke Yuan Ya that the madam and courtesan had vanished without a trace. When they inquired with the neighbors, everyone was vague and hesitant, not daring to speak too much.

    Yuan Ya was astonished. "Missing? Or did they flee out of fear?"

    The guard replied, "The furniture and valuables in the house remain untouched. The chickens and rabbits in the courtyard are still there, uneaten. Our men have thoroughly searched the premises, and even the 100 taels of silver given by the young master last night are still locked in the cabinet. There are other suspicious details."

    Yuan Ya urged, "Speak quickly!"

    The guard continued, "The door latch of the main entrance is broken, and the bed in the lady's chamber is in disarray. There are bloodstains on the floor and a detached embroidered shoe. In the courtyard, there are tracks in the mud, suggesting that someone broke into the yard during the night and abducted them while they were asleep."

    Yuan Ya recalled the gentle gaze of the woman from the previous night, her pitiful demeanor, and the madam's evident terror. Now he realized they had encountered such a malevolent intruder. He wondered where the stunning Hu woman had been forcibly taken and what indignities she might be enduring. Filled with rage, he exclaimed, "In the very shadow of the emperor, such a villain dares to act so arrogantly and oppress a vulnerable woman! Prepare the sedan chair! I'm going to the Jingzhao Prefecture to report this to the authorities!"

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