Picked up from an NU request thread. Not so much a rebirth revenge story as a rebirth redemption one. If you’ve read a ton already, you may get bored. But if you haven’t saturated your soul with this genre yet, I’d recommend this story. It’s written better than most others in the field and the descriptions are very enjoyable.
**As always, if anyone wants to pick anything up, feel free. You do yours and I’ll do mine, is my motto. Official raw link to translate from is above if you want to support the author. Do use caution as it doesn’t look like it’s a secured site. Freebie raw is in the plot summary page.**
It was an awful dungeon that assaulted the senses - overflowing with human excrement smelling of sweat, rust, and waste. All of it mixed together to create a rotten sour pungent smell. The constant screams of prisoners declaring their innocence and unwillingness to be there grated the ears like a cacophony of drums.
“Let me out!”
“I’m innocent, let me out of here!”
“What’s with all the shouting!?” yelled the jailor. “Dinner is here.” He violently banged the cell bars with an iron rod to emphasize his point. For a moment the prison quieted as everyone waited for their meal. They scrambled after the chunks of hard sour bread tossed haphazardly at them as though they were wolves feasting on plump sheep, their eyes bright and ruthless.
Xiao Wan thought it was a disgrace. She sat in a corner only looking at the scene for a moment before turning her head away in disgust. She was the eldest born daughter of her mother’s first husband, cherished since she was a baby, spoiled beyond belief. Whatever she wanted she would get. It was shameful she was here at all.
The official performing the investigation was her good sister the Empress’s third daughter Chu Muqing, so how could she not be exonerated soon? Just Wait. Once out she would personally deal with the grievances the Xiao House suffered.
Xiao Wan was full of confidence despite being in the damp dungeon and rooming with several mice. Wait. Are those Droppings? “Ahhh! Mouse! There’s a mouse! Someone come!”
“What?! So noisy. What the hell’s the problem? It’s just a couple of mice.” The jailer frowned, then spoke again after thinking it over. “You from the Xiao House?”
“Yes yes!” Xiao Wan replied quickly. Finally these miscreants recognized her status. “The Xiao family is innocent. Let me see Her Royal Majesty and His Royal Highness. Let me see the Third Imperial Princess!”
“Ha! Every prisoner here says they’re innocent. If it’s true, there wouldn’t be anyone here. As for you, you’re currently just like any other prisoner. Nuthin’ special. Want to see Her Majesty and His Highness… tch! Dream on.”
He rubbed his chin in thought before speaking again. “I heard there was a good looking guy running around this morning gifting the guards with money so they’d treat you well. Yeah, before that I heard he knelt in front of the Ministry of Justice pleading for the Third Imperial Princess to speak to Her Majesty and His Highness on your behalf. But for an official like you?” He sighed shaking his head before going on. “Considering how heavy your crime is... it won’t do any good no matter how long he pleads or who he pleads to.”
The summer days were really hot in late June. Xiao Wan became distressed and her heart turned sour at the thought of her wonderful husband kneeling all day in the hot sun. The ground would be scorching, surely burning that delicate skin of his. How could a pregnant man[notes] bear such a thing?
Xiao Wan couldn’t help but remember their last meeting. She had torn the document out and handed it to him. She had also severed his ties with her and the Xiao House, hoping he wouldn’t be dragged into the whole affair.
About a month and a half ago Imperial Prince Qi led 200,000 troops to southern Xinjiang. Victory was assured as it was supposed to be an easy campaign. Instead the battles were fierce and the army lost ground - in just one month they lost three cities. The most devastating news was the death of Imperial Prince Qi and the subsequent attack on Eastern Wei. It was clearly coordinated and executed in one fell swoop. The enemy’s momentum was so strong that the entirety of Eastern Wei fell into a panic.
At that time Chu Muqing personally led a troop of 150,000 elite soldiers to defend against the southern Xinjiang invaders. They even took the initiative and left the city to attack the enemies beyond. Taking advantage of the uproar and the disorder in the enemy camps they were able to completely oust the Xinjiang troops from their territory. Afterwards the Third Imperial Princess’s[notes] reputation as a god of war spread like wildfire making the citizens appreciate her even more.
Eastern Wei’s victory came at a tremendous cost though. How did the Prince’s troop of 200,000 lose to the Xinjiang troops of 100,000? An investigation showed treachery was the cause, that intelligence was leaked about the army’s formation and its location. This allowed the enemy forces to ambush the troops resulting in his death. Unfortunately for Xiao Wan, the primary culprit was her mother, Xiao Yurong, thus the current situation.
Xiao Yurong’s defection made the Empress so angry she imprisoned all 120 members of the Xiao House and personally interrogated Xiao Yurong herself. The news of her betrayal was especially distressing because of the sensitive position she held. Xiao Yurong was head of the Ministry of War, was responsible for all military affairs and was essentially the chief administrator in charge of all the branches related to the nation’s defense. She held an incredibly important position.
If she was found guilty it would be inevitable that the entire House would be implicated. Surely the whole family down to the third generation would be executed.
She again remembered the last time she saw Ji Shumo. At that time, in order to keep him safe she had given him the marriage document after tearing it out. She had also handed him a sealed letter addressed to the Third Imperial Princess. She and the princess were good friends; based on this friendship she was sure the other would initiate an investigation and be able to prove her House’s innocence. Now even more so since the princess had sway given her reputation as the “god of war.”
By the fifth day Xiao Wan was no longer the same pristine looking eldest daughter of her House. Her current appearance was unkempt and she stank like she’d been rolling around in a barn, looking unwashed and dirty. She no longer looked on with disdain at the rations either, instead joining in the fray and fighting like her life depended on it. In her hand she held a piece of the crappy stale bread given at every mealtime.
She was used to eating and having whatever she wanted. But within a few days the lack of provisions in prison led her to feel a sense of food insecurity. It was especially acute when she saw how hard everyone fought in order to get their share.
The others started harassing her once they found out she was the eldest daughter of a wealthy house too. They united in their hatred for the rich and bullied her, while the prison guards ridiculed her from the side, even going so far as to make bets on if she’d be able to fight for any of the food.
Stuck in prison for the last few days gave her a taste of what it was like to be alienated. She was no longer surrounded by sycophants eager to please her as the eldest daughter of the Minister of War. Instead she was surrounded by people who wasted no opportunity to kick her while she was down.
Ji Shumo was the only one! He was the only one, regardless of the situation, who stayed by her side willing to suffer through thick and thin, through the good times and the bad times. She really didn’t love the wrong person! Ji Shumo didn’t abandon her despite her imprisonment. He was out there praying and pleading on her behalf, not hesitating even in the heat, despite his physical condition. These thoughts really made her heart warm. He was her driving force. She was going to stay alive to be with him and their baby. She really wanted to be there for the baby’s delivery!
Xiao Wan was just thinking how cold she felt, how parched her throat was, and how empty her stomach had been when she heard the sound of the gate opening. The movement brought a strong cold wind into her cell causing her single candle to flicker. She shivered huddling in a corner. “Has the truth been revealed? Are you here to let me go?”
“Go?” The guard laughed in a sinister voice. “When Xiao Yurong was interrogated by the Empress she was so afraid of her crime she committed suicide. But the arms of justice has a long reach and even death won’t stop it. It turns out Xiao Yurong was in league with the First Imperial Princess to assassinate the Imperial Prince to further her schemes for the throne later. Everyone related to the First Imperial Princess has already been gathered up. The Empress was so angry that she ordered the entire Xiao House be executed today at noon. You’ll be following along very shortly.”
Mother committed suicide by taking poison? Did she really aim to kill Prince Qi? Wasn’t the Xiao House framed?
“What are you doing? Hurry it up!” yelled her jailor as he dragged Xiao Wan’s stiffened and weak body up off the ground.
Her feet were bare and weighted down by manacles. The heavy chains pressed her down barely allowing her stand up. She was a little scared and had frozen up because of that fear. Before she could even properly balance herself she was shoved from behind straight out of the prison cell. The motion forced the heavy chains to scratch hard at her skin tearing a bit of flesh off.
“Ah!” She cried out in pain. As a pampered Young Miss, she really wasn’t used to this kind of treatment.
“Listen it’s hopeless for you.” Her jailor whispered to her.
Xiao Wan was deeply touched that the gentle Ji Shumo would disregard his pregnant body in order to plead so desperately for her. Her eyes filled with tenderness and her heart was moved, but at the same time she was glad that she made the wise decision to tear his name out and give him the marriage document. At least this way even if the entire Xiao House perished, he and the baby would be spared and the Xiao family bloodline would still continue.
Ji Shumo was pregnant but still knelt for her for five days. Remembering this, Xiao Wan gritted her teeth and endured the pain in her ankles as she struggled forward one step at a time, leaving a trail of bloody footprints behind her.
Once outside, the fierce sunlight assaulted her eyes leaving them quite pained. In a panic she shook her head and closed her eyes making her lashes quiver and cast a shadow on her pale weak face that hadn’t seen the sun in days. She really did look sickly all over.
Just as she turned around she saw a youth of about eighteen bathed in the light of the sun. He had on a loose white robe making him look cool and beautiful, clean and elegant. He was like a snow lotus with a complexion clear as jade, lips as crimson as hibiscus, and a head of long beautiful dark silky hair. He shined like a golden butterfly sunning in the sun.
The youth’s belly was slightly swollen, like a person three or four months along in their pregnancy. His movements were flowing and smooth and made it seem like he just stepped out of an ink painting. The fluttering robe only served to bring out his best features and made him look like a fairy.
“Shumo, Shumo…” Xiao Wan’s eyes lit up when she saw him. Her feet moved toward him of their own accord. The tears rushed down her face unchecked. “Silly Shumo, you’re pregnant. How could you kneel for so long just to ask for them to intercede on my behalf… I heard you came down with a fever from the rain. Are you OK now?”
She extended her hand out to touch him. He’s so beautiful and pure. But he moved to the side and avoided it, leaving her hand hanging empty in the air. The confusion and embarrassment showed on her face as she took back her hand awkwardly. Ji Shumo looked at her with a cold expression.
Xiao Wan had been in prison for five days and the marks it left on her were clearly visible. Her once beautiful face was now mottled black and blue with patches of swollen skin all over, courtesy of her fellow inmates. Her hair emitted a horrid stench when she moved and it lingered in the air between them. She looked nothing like the eldest daughter of a high house who would spend money like it grew on trees. There was absolutely nothing left of her aristocratic bearing.
He didn’t think the always beautifully dressed and vain Xiao Wan would look this filthy. He covered his nose with his hand and took several steps back. There was a scornful look in his eyes. “Fever? You think I would do such a foolish thing for you?”
“Shumo be careful not to hurt our baby.” Xiao Wan watched as he nearly tripped on a rock while retreating from her. Although he spoke his words clearly, she knew she must have heard wrong. Afterall how could Shumo speak to her in such a tone? He must not want to make me worried by admitting it. Shumo is so considerate.
Xiao Wan looked at his belly with an incredibly tender expression, like it was the only treasure in the world. Ji Shumo’s eyes flashed with malice when he saw her gaze. It filled him with hate and disgust. He spoke maliciously when he said, “You are so naive. You really think this baby is yours?”
Her body was frozen, stunned by his words. He walked over to her and after laughing lightly whispered, “Xiao Wan ah… Xiao Wan how can I possibly be pregnant with your child? How can you be worthy of me - a stupid fool like you. You’re just a hedonistic idiotic buffoon with rich parents. You are not worthy to be my wife and master!”
Bile rose in his throat when he remembered the year and all the things he did to in order to get closer to her and gain her trust. He rubbed his nose and stepped away from her again in disgust.
No it couldn’t be! Shumo for me, he knelt outside for five whole days pleading for help. How could the child not be mine? She was most definitely his beloved wife!
“Do you think it’s a joke? ‘Cause I’m not joking.”
It was then that a young woman in a fancy dress stepped next to Ji Shumo. The woman caught sight of Xiao Wan and gave her smile. She leaned over and draped her arms on his waist before kissing him and declaring, “The child in Shumo’s belly came from me so naturally his love belongs to me as well!”
“From Princess?” Xiao Wan whispered. “Yours, Chu Muqing?” she looked towards her old friend the Third Imperial Princess Chu Muqing.
Xiao Wan had met her a year ago. Back then Chu Muqing was the unfavored third princess, but somehow they hit it off really well and became fast friends. She did not expect that that same woman would one day turn herself into a national hero. Not only that, she even gained the Empress’s recognition and was conferred the title of Crown Princess.
Seeing Xiao Wan’s confused expression made Chu Muqing laugh. “Xiao Wan.... it’s gotten to this point and you still haven’t figured it out? The Xiao House being accused of treason and the matter with my eldest sister. Think back to the battle. Back then I specifically requested permission to go out. Then I completely and perfectly defeated the enemy troops. Not only did I win the people’s hearts, I also got Mother Empress’s approval and became the Crown Princess.”
Xiao Wan shivered and looked at Chu Muqing. Speaking with confidence she said, “The one that leaked information about our troops, it was you. Why? Why would you entrap the Xiao House like that? Why frame my mother that way?”
“Why? Because your House supports my sister Chu Shiyu. Because your mother despises and looks down on me. Because the Xiao House has a daughter as stupid as you!”
That bitch always scolding me for being too calculating and scheming, too short-sighted and not a good person. Makes my blood boil! I wanted to kill her so badly. It was because of her that I lost favor with Mother Empress to begin with. Tch. You won’t support my bid for the throne? Fine then I’ll destroy the one you support, destroy your precious daughter, and destroy your precious House!
“Xiao Wan, your role in the Ministry of War is to maintain the records. Every single piece of military intelligence has to pass through your hands.” Chu Muqing looked down at Ji Shumo nestled in her arms. Then raised her head to look at Xiao Wan. The meaning of that action was clear.
Xiao Wan thought back to the last month and half and how she had spent day and night at the office becoming a crazy workaholic because of the conflict with the south. At that time Ji Shumo would often bring her nourishing medicinal soup. She thought he was incredibly considerate to do so in person.
Normally the office of the Ministry of War was off limits, especially so those places that held confidential information. Even the Emperor needed the Empress’s permission to enter. However despite this, Ji Shumo was allowed to constantly enter and leave at will. The guards recognized that he was Xiao Wan’s husband and had been stunned that he was given this kind of permission. Who was Xiao Wan? Though she was only a small clerk, her name was well known throughout the military as she was the favored daughter of Xiao Yurong, the head of Military Affairs.
Chu Muqing used Xiao Wan’s desire to pamper and spoil Ji Shumo to gain entrance to those confidential places in order to steal as much information as possible. In addition to that, Ji Shumo also planted incriminating evidence to frame Xiao Yurong as a traitor.
“Shumo, why… why would you do such a thing. Was I not good to you? Why betray me?”
Ji Shumo smiled condescendingly at her words. It was as though she asked a really stupid question.
Xiao Wan’s heart was shaken but she was unwilling to give up. “These past few years… have you really never loved me at all?”
“Love you?” Ji Shumo snorted like it was a funny joke. “I married you because you were convenient and easy to take advantage of. Honestly you’re even more stupid than Xie Chuchen. Thanks to your money I was able to revive my Ji House. You’re completely idiotic and spoiled by your rich family. How could you possibly be worthy of my love?!”
His words were like a knife, painfully cutting her heart out. “And mother? Did you kill her?” Mother lived her life for this nation. That at her death she’d be suspected of treason… Xiao Wan oh Xiao Wan… how could you possibly be this stupid? She stumbled nearly collapsing under the heavy weight of the realization.
Seeing this Chu Muqing stabbed her with even more cold truths. “I managed to poison your mother with an insidious and slow acting poison that would only take full effect during her interrogation, making it look like she committed suicide to escape. Xiao Yurong was a really smart person that Mother Empress trusted. Any credibility she had vanished when she committed suicide though. The only way to interpret her suicide is that the Xiao House colluded with the enemy to sell the nation out so that Chu Shiyu would have enough military strength to usurp the throne.”
Upon hearing this Xiao Wan wanted to tear the Empress to pieces. She understood now the trickery involved. “With just those few bits of evidence, Her majesty was willing to condemn my mother, the Xiao House and the First Imperial Princess? How foolish of her!”
“It wasn’t just documentary evidence, there were also testimonials.”
Xiao Wan watched as Chu Muqing glanced down at Ji Shumo as she said this. The gesture made Xiao Wan’s stomach drop. She could guess what she was intimating. Chu Muqing continued with a smile.
“Aside from Shumo’s testimonial, there were the witnessed interactions between Eldest Sister and the Xiao House. Witnesses say they heard conversations between the two about building ties with outside nations -- all for their own self interests of course. Besides your younger sister also testified. I only had to promise her reprieve from death and she was more than willing to sell you lot out. She testified in front of Mother Empress that Xiao Yurong was working under the direct orders of Chu Shiyu the entire time. Mother Empress sentenced the entire Xiao House to death. Your younger sister was lucky to be spared.”
Chu Muqing’s words echoed in Xiao Wan’s mind like a sharp sword piercing her heart, cutting it to bits before drawing blood. Her body was stiff and she felt like she was drowning. Although she wanted to speak she was unable to make a single sound. They're doing this deliberately, deliberately told me the truth to sink me into despair, so I won’t know peace even in death.
“Now the Xiao name will be synonymous with betrayal, the infamy remembered throughout history. I bet Xiao Yurong died never expecting the house she painstakingly built up and guarded would be destroyed by her own daughters!”
Chu Muqing laughed when she saw Xiao Wan burst into tears. “Xiao Wan, in this life, the person I’m most grateful to is you. Thanks to you I was able to get rid of the three people standing in my way. I was able to get everything my heart wanted. Now I will send you on your way. Try not to be so stupid in your next life eh.”
Xia Wan stared at Ji Shumo with red rimmed eyes. “Ji Shumo! You are my husband! We live and die together! If I die you’re coming with me!”
The beautiful teenager took three steps back and shook his head at her. He looked at her with limpid eyes, as dazzling and bright as a full moon, yet as cold as ice.
“Don’t think that I’m as stupid and desperate as Xie Chuchen, to kneel so foolishly in front of the Ministry of Justice just to save your ass. Don’t forget you already gave me the marriage document. You and I are separate individuals with nothing to do with each other anymore! Don’t try to drag me down with you!”
Argh!!! Yes I was foolish enough to do that! Damn it!! She had wanted to save him because she trusted him, but in the end it was all a deception on his part to get the document from her. She felt an intense pain grip her stomach and a fishiness rose to her throat. She coughed violently and a mouthful of blood came out. Looking down at her hand she could see the strands of blood stuck on her palm. She couldn’t help but shiver.
She led the wolf into her home. She was responsible for her mother’s death and the downfall of the entire Xiao House. She had single-mindedly pursued Ji Shumo. She ignored her figure, gave up her self-respect, and spent god knows how much money for three years in her pursuit of him. At last she thought she’d finally won his heart.
She remembered how she couldn’t sleep the night the Ji House gave their assent to the marriage. Then on the wedding day, because she didn’t want Ji Shumo to feel slighted, she had personally gone out to greet him when he was only a third of a mile away from the residence. She was dressed gaily in a festive outfit. The wedding had an impressive guest list comprised of high ranking officials, nobilities, and military officials. Needless to say it was an extravagant affair, bustling with noise and merriment.
She remembered the day she found out about the pregnancy; she was so happy preparing for the baby, thinking about how to raise it.
Finally she remembered when the military officers surrounded the Xiao House. She was so nervous and only thought about protecting Ji Shumo. She told the officers he was not her husband, that he was innocent and that they should release him.
As it turned out everything Ji Shumo did was for his own interests. To think she’d gone so far for someone else, thinking he had reciprocated her love. She finally understood it was all just pretend, like playing dress up.
Xiao Wan’s heart hurt so much it felt like she couldn’t breathe, as though there were wild animals tearing away at her flesh. It was summer but her body was cold as though she was suffering from severe blood loss. She couldn’t stop shivering nor could she keep the pained sobs from escaping her mouth. She wanted to roar out at them but all that came out were her pitiful cries. Her pain and grief were so sharp she wished she was already dead.
“Come on now. Xiao Wan has to finish her parade through the streets. It’s already getting late. She needs to be delivered to the execution grounds soon.” Chu Muqing spoke to the officials after she was satisfied saying her piece to Xiao Wan.
At her command they quickly stepped forward and tied Xiao Wan’s hands. The rough hemp rope buried into her skin and the angle they forced her arms into made her arms burn and tingle from lack of blood flow. She looked up and having finally found her voice again screamed. “Chu Muqing you treacherous bitch! This old lady here was really blind to take you for a friend. You will definitely suffer retribution for this one day!” Then she turned her eyes to Ji Shumo. “Ji Shumo you think Chu Muqing cares about you? You’re just used goods. You’ll regret this one day! She’ll definitely toss you aside once she’s done with you!”
Xiao Wan didn’t get to finish everything she wanted to say before a dirty rag was stuffed in her face and she was forcefully pulled away.
That last gaze she shot Ji Shumo was so intense that it shook his confidence. As if seeking solace and reassurance he pulled Chu Muqing’s arms closer to him.
The Empress had been incredibly angered by the treason. So much so that she ordered the Xiao House be forced to walk without shoes or shirts through the streets, completely unprotected from the scorching heat of the sun. She wanted to set an example and warn anyone else with the same ideas.
The purpose of the parade was to make Xiao Wan face the common people and bear their anger and condemnation, and indeed their faces were full of disgust as they looked at her. However with what happened earlier Xiao Wan was completely numb to their glares. Her heart was broken and her mind was in shambles. Xiao Wan walked forward feeling the heavy chains dragging her feet with every step she took. Eventually her path led her to ten guards. They would be her escort for the execution. After walking for an hour her ankles were rubbed raw and blood was oozing out at a constant rate. The soles of her feet had long ago blistered and turned dark from the constant contact with the hot ground.
She wanted to maintain her pride so bit her lip and tried her best to keep from crying out in pain. Despite all the hardship she didn’t utter a single word of complaint. This really surprised those escorting her, after all her reputation for being the spoiled eldest daughter of the Xiao House was well known. Everyone thought she was incompetent and just a good for nothing whose parents spoiled her rotten. They had expected her to scream and wail at her treatment, yet she did not. They couldn’t help but take a closer look at her because of this.
How could they have known that the pain in her heart was incomparable and had already numbed her to the physical ones assailing her.
She finally finished her walk of shame at around noon. By this time her whole body was unbearably foul. She smelled bad before but now it was an overpowering stench with tentacles that seeped into everything around her.
She could see other members of her family at the execution scaffold. The sight of her bloodied feet and disgraceful appearance caused each and every one of the them to weep, their faces pale losing all coloring.
She looked at everyone there and couldn’t find her little sister Xiao Qingru. Xiao Wan had never looked very highly upon her sister because the other was born from a concubine, from a father from the Liu clan. This resulted in the two sisters constantly being at odds with one another.
In order to convince the Empress that the Xiao House intended to rebel and aid the First Imperial Princess’s scheme to take the throne, it was necessary to have someone unimpeachable testify. What more perfect and damning testimony than one coming from Xiao Yurong’s own daughter. Even if the Empress didn’t want to believe it she would have no choice but to do so.
Xiao Wan realized at that moment why she had not been confined together with everyone else in the Xiao House, and instead was separated and locked away somewhere else. Had they been detained together there was a chance Xiao Wan would have noticed something was odd about her sister. So placing them in separate locations was probably Chu Muqing’s idea. Of course considering what she now knew of her former friend, it was also likely that Chu Muqing just wanted her to suffer the torture of being bullied without anyone to help her.
She didn’t expect she would be this stupid. To be so near death and not realize the situation. Chu Muqing and Ji Shumo had really fooled her. To think she had asked Chu Muqing for help. To think she tried so hard to save Ji Shumo. It was just too ridiculous! These two people were in fact her downfall.
She couldn’t help but laugh. She laughed and laughed like a maniac there on the execution grounds. This strange sight made everyone think that she had lost her mind, that the hardships had finally broken her. And for a time the only sound was the sound of her desperate laughter. The tears streamed down her face flowing unchecked. Finally a voice in the crowd broke the tense atmosphere.
A somewhat familiar voice rang out. “My wife! My lord!” Although the sound was weak, the panic and alarm the speaker felt was obvious to everyone present.
Everyone in the Xiao House was about the be executed for treason. Who would be so foolish as to address someone there as “wife.” Wasn’t this just looking to join them? Looking for death? Everyone was looking at one another suspiciously when the figure of a young man staggered toward them.
His face was almost completely obscured by his hair completely hiding his former beauty. The only thing visible was the sunken skin around his eyes and a pair of brightly shining pupils. The contrast presented a sickly image causing a path to instantly part for him. The filthy robe he had on did nothing to hide his emaciated form. Combine this with his colorless pale skin and no one in the crowd would have been surprised if he keeled over right then and there.
Although his appearance was shocking, the most shocking was his hair. It was in total disarray, completely windblown and disheveled like a mad scientist, with loose strands scattered all over his face. Most shocking was the length. They were all aware that one’s appearance and health were important. For men, the hair was especially so because those who cut their hair short were rarely ever able to marry into a respectable house. Why did a man so young cut his hair so short?
The young man didn’t care one whit for the questioning gazes thrown his way. There was only one thing he cared about and that was Xiao Wan. He was stunned at the sight in front of him.
It was the first time he had seen her look him in the eye in over three years, his excitement made his heart beat rapidly and his aches and pains were quickly forgotten. Ignoring the crowd he ran joyfully to her. She was the only thing in his eyes, his heart and his mind.
Xiao Wan could see her reflection reflected clearly in his eyes. He was not her Ji Shumo though.
“Who the hell are you?!” The official stepped forward to stop the youth from advancing farther. “We’re about to begin the execution. Step back!” He lightly pushed him away, but even that slight nudge caused the youth to knit his brow in pain, to lose his footing and somehow topple to the ground.
Hearing that the execution was about to start he hurriedly tried to explain. “You’ve left me out by mistake...I...I am Xiao Wan’s young husband. My surname is Xie. I am guilty of the same crimes and should be given the same punishment.”
Everyone was stunned. Why would a fish that managed to escape death’s net voluntarily deliver itself back?
The official looked at the young man who seemed intent on seeking his own death. He patiently explained, “The Xiao House is guilty of treason and are all sentenced to death.” Just to clarify the point even further he asked, “Are you sure you are a husband of the Xiao House?”
“Yes!” - “No!” Two voices simultaneously spoke out a firm contradictory reply.
Xiao Wan’s angry rebuttal surprised him. The young man opened his eyes wide looking like a tiny deer, his disbelief clearly showing. “Xiao Wan, I am your official husband. Would you really deny me?”
Xiao Wan felt a strong headache coming on. She looked at the stubborn youth in front of her. What is wrong with Xie Chuchen’s brain?! To do such a crazy thing and come forward at a time like this, to declare himself as my husband. Doesn't he know he’ll be executed too?! Xiao Wan continued to stare at the youth with a complicated expression.
Faced with this silent stare Xie Chuchen wondered if Xiao Wan had forgotten his name or perhaps she was remembering the past and was disgusted by him. He bit his lip, strongly affected by her stare. He could only quietly whisper, “My wife, my lord, is it no good? Will you not let me accompany you?”
Let me accompany you? This request stunned Xiao Wan. When Xie Chuchen fell his legs were exposed and it became clear from the swollen thighs and bloody knees that he was the one who had knelt in front of the Ministry of Justice.
She remembered the words of the guard from before: “Your young husband is really dedicated to you though. He was kneeling for five days straight. If it weren’t for the fact he got a fever and fainted during the crazy downpour we had last night, I’m pretty sure he’d still be kneeling out there right now.”
Then she recalled Ji Shumo’s words: “Don’t think that I’m as stupid and desperate as Xie Chuchen, to kneel so foolishly in front of the Ministry of Justice just to save your ass…”
She always thought that Ji Shumo would be the man who would give everything up for her, that he was the man she held in the palm of her hands. The truth couldn’t be more different. Instead the one to give up so much for her, the one to suffer for her was Xie Chuchen.
Looks like you’ll only know who you can trust when the chips start to fall. She still didn’t understand why Xie Chuchen would be so selfless regarding her. Why did he want to marry her so much back then? And why admit to being her husband now when it was only detrimental to him?
Could it be that he just doesn’t understand the situation?
Many months ago Xie Chuchen had been ecstatic to learn he was pregnant. Xiao Wan didn’t know who the baby belonged to, so had sent him a bowl of safflower soup as an abortion drug. This shameful act made her lose an incredible amount of face. Unable to bear it she sent him away to one of the deserted Xiao properties and left him there to fend for himself.
She would have probably forgotten all about him, not even remembering his name had he not shown up today.
It was because of his placement at such an obscure location that he was missed when the Xiao properties were searched. This fool! Why willingly place your head under the blade?! Her gaze fell on his face. She realized he was still feverish because his face was flushed red. Indeed he had ignored his body and rushed over as soon as he heard the execution was to take place.
Does she hate me so much that she won’t even let me be a part of her final moments?
“Are you a part of the Xiao House?” The official repeated again, this time impatiently.
“No.” Xiao Wan cleared her throat and looked coldly at the young man in front of her. “Young Master Xie did I officially wed you? Did we ever go to pay respects to the ancestors together? I have no affections for you! Stop speaking nonsense and misleading people. I only have one husband and that is Ji Shumo!”
She couldn’t help but laugh bitterly as she watched his face lose all color, like his soul had been punched out of him. How stupid is this man? He’s surely the biggest fool for having married me. Ever since then she had used him mercilessly in whatever way she felt like, yet he had tried so hard to save her. Now that the Xiao House faced extinction she didn’t want to implicate him. It would only serve to harm the Xie family if they lost their beloved son.
She was damned to die so she could only hope he would be able to live well and go to the mother of the child he lost. Whatever, just forget me and live happily you fool. You should not have to pay for my stupidity. Let this death serve as an apology.
“What did you say?” Xie Chuchen was struck dumb by her comment.
“Young Master!” Zhao-er pushed through the crowd and ran over to Xie Chuchen crouching down next to him. Seeing the dazed look on the Young Master’s face Zhao-er carefully held out a hand to support him. To see this type of expression on his House’s Young Master was almost unbearable to Zhao-er. He glared at Xiao Wan and regretted not getting there quicker, wishing he could have prevented those cruel words from being spoken. He really wanted to just curse her out!
“Xiao Wan, my house’s Young Master endured the mockery and ridicule of those around just to marry you. He knelt for so long in the public square in front the administration building pleading for leniency on your behalf. The Young Master spent so much cash trying to grease the wheels for you.” He felt so much frustration on the Young Master’s behalf he had to let it out! “Young Master always took what you said to heart, remembering every word. Even that time when you wanted money to help the Ji House get through their financial crisis, Young Master didn’t question, just gave you what you needed. Then when you callously made him abort the baby...Young Master did exactly as you ordered. And you even spent all day that day with Ji Shumo! Young Master didn’t utter a word of complaint did he?! Did you come by even once to see how he was doing this year?”
Xiao Wan had no idea how Xie Chuchen was doing because until today she just didn’t care about him. In fact they never even consummated their marriage. She could count the number of times they met on two hands, that was how little contact they had. She only went to him if there was something she wanted. Now that Zhao-er forced her to face her long string of offenses she felt inadequate and horrible, like a complete scumbag.
“How can you talk that way to the person who is so single mindedly devoted to you? You’re completely ruthless, absolutely cold-blooded! Someone like you isn’t worthy to be Young Master’s wife! You don’t deserve him at all! When you’re gone he’ll definitely find someone better, someone who’ll love him dearly and know how to return his tender affections!” Zhao-er’s chest was heaving up and down. He truly was incensed and it showed.
Silence reigned over the square. It was well known in the city that Xiao Wan only had one husband and that husband was Ji Shumo. The only people who knew otherwise were Xiao Yurong and Grandfather Chen.
In reality Ji Shumo was not Xiao Wan’s only husband, in fact he wasn’t even her main husband. Xie Chuchen was. Both men had married her that day. It was just that the one to enter through the front door with pomp and ceremony had been Ji Shumo while Xie Chuchen was forced to furtively sneak in through the back door. He really did cut quite a sorry figure that day. There had been no ceremony, no rituals, and no bridal chamber for him, only a small unkempt courtyard. It was as though every motion was purposefully made to humiliate and shame him.
Some in the crowd finally recognized the young man as Xie Chuchen, the Young Master of an influential rich family in the capital. He had a bad reputation with all kinds of rumors about how he was unruly, arrogant, headstrong, and dastardly.
What woman in her right mind would marry such a man? Wasn’t this just asking for torment?!
“I heard Xie Chuchen got married last year. Don’t know who he married, everyone was real tight lipped about the whole affair. Was it to Xiao Wan?!”
“Ah! You’re right. It’s gotta be it. Both of them are spoiled self indulgent sons of rich houses! How pitiful for Young Master Ji to be a pearl cast before such swine!”
“Yeah but looking at the guy right now... doesn’t it seem like the rumors don’t match the person?”
“The time for execution is nigh!”
A white cloth suddenly dropped down separating Xie Chuchen from Xiao Wan. It was like his soul left his body again.
Those of the Xiao House lost their heads one by one as the executioner’s blade flashed. Xiao Wan was ashamed and couldn’t stand to look at the sight.
Beside her a boy asked, “Big Sister, where’s mother? No one will answer when I ask. Why is there so much blood? Why? What’s going on!?” He was so scared his entire body was shivering.[notes]
Xiao Wan turned in his direction intending to say something comforting. But she was too slow as the executioner reached him at that time and beheaded him before she even opened her mouth. A metallic smell hit her nose and blood splattered across the upper part of her body. Those that landed on her face mingled with the tear streaks from earlier making her look like she was crying a bloody river.
Xiao Wan didn’t hold much affection for this younger brother of hers, but he was only five. For something like this to happen to someone so young…
Xiao Wan was the last one in line. This forced her to watch as her relatives were executed one by one. The light courtesy cloth draped between her and the audience was already soaked with blood splatter. With eyes filled with resentment she gazed through it up in the direction of the woman who issued the command for the execution.
Her heart boiled with unceasing anger and hatred and her eyes never left the direction of the woman even when the blade came down on her. Her dying moment was filled with the shrill cry of “Wife!”
This fool! Why is he still here? He should have left in anger ages ago! That sorrowful voice stunned her heart making it beat erratically just before her death.
Once the executions were complete the courtesy cloth was moved and those in charge began the process of clearing up the scene.
Upon seeing the aftermath some in the audience turned their heads in fear while others turned around and vomited. Xie Chuchen screamed before peeling Zhao-er’s hand off him and running desperately forward towards the carnage.
He stumbled onto the platform falling into the pool of blood. He tried to stand up a few times but his shaky legs were unable to support him. In the end he just crawled on his hands and knees. His body was stiff and his consciousness was hazy still from the fever. He kept whispering, “Wife. Wife. Wife,” almost like a mantra.
He finally reached his wife. The woman in front of him couldn’t reply though. He looked at the blood draining from her neck and his eyes immediately teared up even more. He was sobbing so much he was practically choking himself. He squatted down and touched her cheeks with his fingertips. They were so thin. He knew she was used to living luxuriously and being spoiled so she must have had a hard time in prison. He tried his best to convince the jailers to take care of her and he desperately hoped they had shown her some consideration.
The bit of warmth in her cheeks gave him the courage to reach forward some more and cup her face in his hands. But that bit of pressure proved too much and caused Xiao Wan’s head to drop. Blood spurted out and a bit hit him. Although flustered he reached for her head before it fell all the way and held onto it. When he did so a thick stench akin to rotten eggs assailed him. The blood kept flowing and he wanted to return her head back in place, but he was really afraid. There was just so much blood everywhere, he didn’t know how to stop it.
Maybe it was just his imagination, but it felt like the blood was burning his skin. Looking at her body made him so sad. He could already feel it cooling.
“I know you’ve never recognized me as your husband and have hated my existence, but no matter what happens, in my heart you will always be my one and only wife.” After wiping his eyes he continued with his confession. “You never knew how much I cared. I waited three years in order to marry you, but in your heart there was only ever Ji Shumo. There was never any space for me…”
“Even when facing death you refuse to acknowledge me, refuse my position in the Xiao House, refuse my position as your proper main husband.”
Many people knew that Xiao Wan’s husband Ji Shumo was someone amazing with both beauty and talent. However no one knew that Xie Chuchen was also her husband, her main husband at that.
They all knew that the Young Master Xie was incredibly arrogant and proud to the point of being unreasonable. That he wasn’t versed in the four arts. They would never have guessed that he was so hung up on the willful and spoiled Xiao Wan, that he wanted her so much he would stoop to coercing marriage.
Xie Chuchen hugged her body tightly to himself as he felt her grow colder. He was unable to suppress his own tremors, choking on his own pain and helplessness. In a voice barely understandable from all the sobbing he’d done he said what sounded like, “Wife… don’t leave me. Don’t leave me OK?”
Although Xiao Wan was technically dead her spirit was still floating around. She laughed at herself when she witnessed all this. Oh this sinner is definitely going to Hell.
Xiao Wan had stuck around and listened to his words. She couldn’t help but tear up herself at the obvious grief the other was going through. She thought back to all the wrongs she’d done in her life and remembered the cold words she’d spoken before being executed. She really wanted to just give him a hug and comfort him a little. The moment she reached out a flash of light blinded her.
Zhao-er stared at the scene his eyes wide open feeling a bit scared. He finally found his voice and called out, “Young Master!” Glancing at Xiao Wan he saw that her eyes were still open.
Wanting to bring attention to this fact he said, “Xiao Wan is dead. Young Master you still have a high fever. You’re body is still unwell.” On top of that Young Master only recently had that abortion. Your body hasn’t even fully recovered from that and yet...all that kneeling in the hot sun and then the pouring rain! Oh Young Master! How can you endure so much! Finally that bitch is dead. Now the Young Master can heal and move on.
The word “dead” kept on ringing in Xie Chuchen’s mind. Xiao Wan dead? Wife is dead?
Xiao Wan’s head was drenched in blood at this point. Her hair was plastered to her face because of the stickiness of the blood. They only somewhat obscured the discolored bruises and cuts on her face making it look even more horrifying. Despite this Xie Chuchen still treated her as solemnly and gently as a treasure. He reached over and firmly closed her eyes.
“Zhao-er, my wife’s body… bring her home with us.” Were it not for his own lack of strength he would do it himself, but he knew he wouldn’t be able to carry her in his current condition.
Eh?! Return home? thought Zhao-er. When he saw his Young Master holding the head he could no longer control his fright. In a trembling voice he said, “How can we b-bring a dead person back. Ah! It is very inauspicious!” To carry a body that’s clearly already decomposing back… aye! That’s a nightmare waiting to happen. It’s so filthy… But if this is what the Young Master wants… He reached over for the body.
When he did so Xie Chuchen instinctively tightened his hold refusing to let go as though he was clinging to a piece of driftwood for dear life.
Everyone was rooted to the spot. They silently observed the macabre scene unable to tear their eyes away as this young man began laughing like an imbecile. He made quite a sight. Just when they thought that was as crazy as it would get he lifted her head up and kissed her on the lips. As if that wasn’t enough contact he pressed his face against her cheeks and closed his eyes as he whispered, “Wife let’s go home.”
Zhao-er looked down, girded his courage and picked up Xiao Wan’s body.
Despite the raging sun burning down on him Xie Chuchen continued to look tenderly at the woman in his arms. It was clear he was on the verge of collapse yet he kept staring. “Now there won’t be a Ji Shumo anymore. It’s just you and me. You and me…”
Zhao-er was at his limit. Here he was standing holding a dead body close and his master was still dilly dallying! Young Master let’s go!
When they finally left the sky filled up with dark clouds and became gloomy as snow fell, first gently then more fiercely. It was June and summer had just begun yet the snow somehow turned into a powerful storm. It was an ill omen of the calamity to follow as a drought hit Eastern Wei lasting for three years. However Xiao Wan knew none of these things. When she woke up again she was displaced in time, sent back one year prior.
“Young Miss can you please stop staring at yourself so shamelessly in the mirror?”
We all know you’re incredibly beautiful.” The one speaking was a young girl in an emerald green cheongsam.
Her name was Tao Hua[notes] a name she absolutely hated to death. The person who gave her this name was the one standing in front of her, the one and only ignorant and incompetent eldest daughter of the Xiao House.
It was because of this that she had to constantly wear green, making her detest the name all the more. The more she looked at the Young Miss in front of her the more annoyed she became. Inevitably it showed in her voice.
Xiao Wan heard the familiar voice and the thick layer of scorn underneath it. She who had been obsessed with the mirror couldn’t keep the tears from forming in her eyes and her body from trembling slightly.
Another girl dressed in a goose-yellow cheongsam frowned becoming anxious when she saw Xiao Wan remain oddly silent with her body turned away. Why wasn’t Xiao Wan yelling at Tao Hua? Did the sun suddenly rise in the West? A day didn’t go by where the two weren’t at each other’s throats. Tao Hua was so impudent just then with her tone and remark, it was a great opportunity for Xiao Wan to yell at her.
Three years ago Xiao Yurong had sent the two girls to protect and care for Xiao Wan. One person was skilled in the healing arts while the other was skilled in martial arts. However Xiao Wan only saw them as personal servants who were there to monitor her. She lashed out at them by changing their names, one was changed to the vulgar Tao Hua and the other was changed to the slightly tacky Liu Shui. She had smiled and said that Tao Hua and Liu Shui were like a poetic metaphor of the romantic love between men and women. Having them by her side would surely bring her luck in love and attract many beautiful men to her.
Xiao Wan didn’t know anything about poetry, in fact she was just an unread person who only knew how to eat, drink and be merry, spending most of her time dallying with beautiful men. She had wretched luck in love though. So it was shocking to everyone when she managed to reel in Ji Shumo with her pretty mouth and empty flattery. It was like tossing a priceless pearl in front of a pig. Make no mistake their Young Miss was the pig...
Indeed tonight the beautiful pearl that was Young Master Ji would be ruined by the overly spoiled and hedonistic Xiao Wan. The loss of Young Master Ji in the pool of eligible bachelors would surely break the hearts of many young girls.
Speaking of girls… the girl in yellow stepped forward a few steps and finally saw Xiao Wan’s face reflected in the mirror. She sucked in a deep breath and knelt down by her side when she saw the mess of tears and makeup streaks that marred Xiao Wan’s pretty complexion.
“Young Miss, Tao Hua is just being thoughtless. You know she likes to fuss over everything. Don’t mind her.” The girl kneeling on the ground didn’t have the same viper tongue as Tao Hua. Instead she was a thoughtful girl with a calm and collected personality that was reflective of her name: Liu Shui. At a glance she knew something wasn’t right with Xiao Wan.
Liu Shui gently tried to to coax Xiao Wan, but instead of making the other feel better it only made Xiao Wan’s cries become louder and even more unrestrained. Xiao Wan repeatedly rubbed her face with her hands wiping the hot tears and snot into her makeup and smearing everything all over looking like a tearstained little kitty.
This scene really scared Tao Hua and Liu Shui as they had never seen Xiao Wan cry so bitterly before. Tao Hua bit her lip in consternation. Why was the Young Miss making such a scene? They would definitely be chastised then ruthlessly punished for this!
Liu Shui glared at Tao Hua. This is all your fault!
Tao Hua paled and could only look down at the floor while biting her lip. She spread her hands out in surrender. I’m confused too! The Young Miss doesn’t normally get this emotional when provoked.
Tao Hua gnashed her teeth and was apologizing with, “Young Miss this servant was wrong. I should not have provoked Young Miss,” when Xiao Wan suddenly interrupted asking, “What month is it? What year is it?”
Xiao Wan’s voice came out sounding hoarse but gentle, not at all like her normal haughty tone. Liu Shui thought it sounded strange, like it was laced with pain and sorrow.
Xiao Wan was finally able to marry her beautiful and tender love after working hard to chase him for three years. This achievement earned her the envy and hate of many ladies in the capital. Just a moment ago she was giddy and choking with happiness. Why was she now suddenly suffering as though she was grieving?
Liu Shui was filled with doubt and suspicions, nonetheless she answered the question respectfully. “Answering Young Miss, today is the 26th year of xxxx, July 6th.”[notes]
“Today is really July 6th the 26th year of xxxx? Are you sure?” Xiao Wan lifted her extremely red rimmed eyes and asked one more time.
“Servant is certain.” Thinking she knew what was on Xiao Wan’s mind she promptly added, “Today is the day you’ll wed Young Master Ji and take him as your main husband.”
Today was the day she would wed Ji Shumo.
Xiao Wan was struck dumb. She pursed her rouged lips then bit them with her pearly white teeth. A strong fishy metallic taste filled her throat making her feel unwell. She looked at her ten slender fingers, tender like spring onions, pure like jade with not a knick to be found. It was as though she was never in prison scrambling and fighting for food. There were no cuts or gashes, wounds or scars. Instead what she saw were her nails perfectly crescent shaped and perfectly painted ruby red.
Her feet weren’t bare and blistered or swollen and bloodied from walking through the mud under the hot sun. Instead they were shod in magnificent red boots.
Her body didn’t exude the smell of rotten eggs and the sourness of unwashed flesh she’d acquired while in prison. Instead she was dressed in a traditional silky red changpao that showed off the beautiful contours of her neck and exposed a tantalizing view of her delicate clavicle.
Her lustrous inky hair was bound up with a pretty butterfly hairpin and dotted with tiny pearls. Resting atop her head was a beautiful golden head piece[notes] decorated with expensive buyaos.
The face that stared back at her was exquisite conveying elegance and luxury - her composure extraordinary.
This was the image that greeted Xiao Wan when she regained consciousness. She was in her own room and nothing was out of place. It was the time before she was sentenced. There were no traces of the ransacking that occurred when the Xiao properties were searched and their possessions confiscated. Instead there were festive decorations all around. There were even mandarin ducks[notes] embroidered on the new crimson brocade sheets.
She remembered wanting to give Ji Shumo a place to sleep comfortably and peacefully once he entered the Xiao House. To do this she had gone out of her to shop for the highest quality brocade she could find.
Thinking it was a dream she pinched herself ruthlessly and immediately made a pained expression from the pressure. That hurt…
In fact even if she hadn’t asked Tao Hua and Liu Shui about the date, she could tell from the pitapita sounds of all the firecrackers. She had had only one big marriage ceremony in her life where she performed a baitang,[notes] and that had been her ceremony with Ji Shumo.
Back then her long awaited marriage to Ji Shumo had been the most exciting day of her life. However all she felt now was a strong sense of suffocation and the coldness of the blade as it slid across her neck. The scene she saw when she closed her eyes was filled with blood. All this was thanks to her good husband who kept her in his heart.[notes]
All her hatred… was it all just for a nightmare or was it really the future to be?
Tao Hua watched as Xiao Wan repeatedly touched her face. Tao Hua was getting impatient from kneeling there next to her for so long. “Young Miss I know today you’ll be getting married. I also know that today is July 6th of the 26th year of xxxx but really you must stop crying! Otherwise you’ll be late!”
Xiao Wan immediately stiffened. She had heard those exact same words from Tao Hua before. She remembered that the night before the wedding she couldn’t sleep because she was so excited. Her mood had been unusually good, so good that even though she hated the two girls she had made them stay up with her to chat. Tao Hua was so annoyed she disobeyed Xiao Wan’s orders and left after saying two sentences.
The first sentence had been to tell her to stop admiring herself in the mirror. The second sentence had been to remind her to hurry or she would miss this once in a lifetime opportunity to marry Ji Shumo.
Xiao Wan had been so excited that day she had binged on pastries and sweets and nearly choked to death from stuffing them in her mouth too fast. A faraway look come into her eyes as she remembered the half eaten cake in her hand. This scene and many others flashed rapidly by in her mind.
Liu Shui watched as Tao Hua’s face became unhappier by the second. It was clear she was about to get up so Liu Shui had sought to beg Xiao Wan’s forgiveness for the other’s impudence. She had mentioned Ji Shumo earlier in hopes of distracting Xiao Wan.
Meanwhile the doubts in Xiao Wan’s mind disappeared. She remembered everything, all the things that were said, all the things she did, everything came back to her. Everything that would happen in the future, it was all because she married Ji Shumo.
Am I reborn? Did I go back in time - return to the day of the big wedding with Ji Shumo? Fine! I have to grab this second chance from the Heavens and make sure the Xiao House doesn’t get exterminated. With a bang she stood up.
Tao Hua watched as Xiao Wan paced restlessly back and forth with a sorrowful determined expression on her face, her gaze somewhere off in the distance looking as though she was lost in herself. Love Affair’s heart felt uneasy and she mentally retreated. What is wrong with this Young Miss today! Why isn’t she getting angry and yelling at me like usual? Why the sad face? Did something shameful happen?
In her previous life Xiao Wan especially hated Tao Hua because of her poisonously sharp tongue. Because Tao Hua nitpicked at everything Xiao Wan did the two quarrelled almost everyday. Xiao Wan rarely held her anger in check and would easily explode. Their relationship was never good, so when Tao Hua criticized Ji Shumo for being a sham and a hypocrite Xiao Wan was extremely skeptical. Warning Xiao Wan to be weary of him also failed and only succeeding in earning her severe tongue lashings. Ultimately Love Affair’s efforts achieved the opposite effect serving to make Xiao Wan suspicious of Tao Hua and pushing Xiao Wan closer to Ji Shumo.
Some time afterwards Tao Hua was caught secretly transferring the family funds and moving it to her own name and account. She was punished according to house rules and was caned fifty times before being kicked out.
Tao Hua had a poisonous mouth but she was always there at the critical moments observing and sharing her thoughts. Only by eliminating her could Ji Shumo blind Xiao Wan and deceive her, resulting in the extermination of the Xiao House and all its one hundred twenty members.
Xiao Wan remembered Tao Hua kept insisting she was innocent, that there was a villain in the House intent on causing them harm. After being reborn, Xiao Wan now knew that Ji Shumo had set a trap to strip away her protection by getting rid of Tao Hua.
Xiao Wan was feeling guilty, so when she saw Tao Hua about to get up she bent down and extended her hand to help the other girl stand. This made Tao Hua blush because although she greatly disliked the Young Miss, the Young Miss looked more charming than usual today, plus she never had this kind of a temperament in the past. It was then that Tao Hua got a full frontal view of Xiao Wan.
Pfft! It was really hard to not laugh! That tear streaked kitty like face was just so out of place when compared to her current refined temperament.
Once Tao Hua stood up Xiao Wan looked over at Liu Shui. She had been silent for some time and with her head bowed she gave off the impression of someone in deep thought. Although Liu Shui was only a year older, she appeared to be very thoughtful and meticulous, especially when compared to Tao Hua who just blurted out what was on her mind without a single filter over her mouth.
Xiao Wan’s relationship with Liu Shui turned for the worse after Tao Hua was driven out of the Xiao House. It was more than a month ago in this timeline when Xiao Wan caught sight of Liu Shui visiting Xie Chuchen’s courtyard with various fruits and tonics. One time she even caught Liu Shui sneaking out to buy prenatal medicine.
It was at that moment that she realized Xie Chuchen had been pregnant for over a month. A husband she loathed and had never touched was pregnant and secretly trying to give birth to a bastard child. Xiao Wan remembered feeling like the blood had completely drained out of her face - she was so shocked. She had originally intended to kill her unloyal young husband but ultimately decided to give him a bowl of safflower soup instead. She completely disregarded his weak physical condition and forced him to abort the baby. Afterwards she had planned to make him fend for himself by sending him to one of the far away abandoned Xiao properties.
She remembered Liu Shui had walked in right when Xie Chuchen was on the ground clutching his stomach. He looked broken and torn with blood seeping out all around him. Liu Shui had turned to look at her with an odd mix of sorrow and despair on her face, as though Xiao Wan had committed the biggest mistake of her life.
The once polite and friendly Liu Shui became so angry that she went against Xiao Yurong’s instructions to always protect Xiao Wan. She had become so emotional that she physically beat Xiao Wan for what she had done to Xie Chuchen. She left the Xiao House that very night in order to protect Xie Chuchen.
Xiao Wan recalled Xie Chuchen’s disposition had been extremely dejected and his eyes were cold and empty. It was quite a contrast to the indignation and anger Liu Shui had when she abruptly appeared. Thinking about it now upset Xiao Wan greatly. The baby’s mother… was it Liu Shui? Could it be that Liu Shui has liked Xie Chuchen this whole time.?
The loud pitapitas of the firecrackers caused Xiao Wan to lose her train of thought making her a bit irritable. It was clear from the sounds that those outside were becoming anxious after waiting for so long. A yell of, “Miss Xiao the sedan is here. Please come out as soon as you’re dressed. Don’t make people wait any longer!” came from the crowd outside.
At that Xiao Wan’s heart skipped a beat. I can’t make the same mistakes as before. I have to destroy all possibilities that lead to the Xiao House tragedy! I absolutely can not, positively CAN NOT, take that viper snake as a husband!
A sharp glint showed in Xiao Wan’s eyes. Ha! Let him return to the chair humiliated under the eyes of thousands! “Yun Yan, Hua Xia, get ready!”[notes]
The two named girls stared blankly at the back of the Eldest Young Miss. Huh?! Wait. What? Why is the Young Miss using our actual names? Is this a trick? Both thought.
Xiao Wan turned to look at the two girls and her eyes glittered with a joyful expression. It was obvious their guards were up. They had such comical looks of disbelief she couldn’t help but tease them.
“Could it be that you actually like this young lady here to holler Tao Hua and Liu Shui every time I need you for something? I no longer need luck in the romance department so naturally I’m returning your original names to you.[notes] Although if you like the names I gave you and you want to keep using them…”
Hua Xia (Tao Hua) grabbed her head in her hands and turned to Yun Yan (Liu Shui), “The Young Miss becoming so happy because she’s taking a husband, so happy that her personality changed… is this good or bad?”
Yun Yan wondered if Xiao Wan was happy.
Although Xiao Wan’s lips were curved up in a smile there was a gloomy aura all around her body that didn’t escape Yun Yan’s eyes. Yun Yan was really sensitive to the smell of blood and she could tell Xiao Wan’s smile held a hint of it. Earlier she watched as Xiao Wan struggled internally over something. The Young Miss had continuously and ruthlessly bitten her lip in order to remain calm.
Yun Yan knew Xiao Wan was looking forward to Ji Shumo’s arrival so she had mentioned it on purpose earlier. When she said, “Today is the day you’ll wed Young Master Ji and take him as your main husband,” she had seen an odd expression of repressed pain and hatred in Xiao Wan’s eyes.
Yun Yan still noticed despite Xiao Wan’s attempt to hide it. She also noticed that the look she gave Hua Xia didn’t hold any anger but instead was filled with an awkward regret. When Xiao Wan looked at Yun Yan her eyes were also odd, filled with a strange combination of suspicion, grief and sorrow. Yun Yan was at a loss as to how to handle this kind of Xiao Wan. Although she could reach out to touch Xiao Wan, it didn’t really feel like she was there. It was like her heart was a million miles away.
While Yun Yan was thinking all this, Xiao Wan had finished touching up her make-up and was turning to leave. The lights from the firecrackers reflected splendidly into the room creating the illusion of a cheerful atmosphere all around. Xiao Wan felt that her entire body was suffused with courage.
She stepped outside delighting many people with her appearance. She was very beautiful and graceful; her clothes very befitting of the occasion. Many moved forward to give compliments and congratulations hoping to win her favor.
“Congratulations Miss Xiao! May you enjoy a blessed marriage!”
“Hope Miss Xiao and Young Master Ji have a daughter soon!”
Previously Xiao Wan had been overjoyed when faced with all these well wishers. She really believed she and Ji Shumo’s marriage was fated and that they would live blissfully with each other until they turned old and grey. The reality was just the opposite.
When trouble came to the Xiao House’s doorstep this group of well wishers and so-called friends were in fact the first ones to run. The husband who held her heart in the palm of his had hands had conspired with her friend to drive her to the abyss of despair, turning her into a sinner and a traitor in the eyes of everyone.
Although the present her was much wiser and saw through the charade, she still enjoyed the celebratory atmosphere. Her eyes scanned the crowd searching for her mother.
“Greetings and congratulations cousin.”
This familiar voice threw Xiao Wan’s heart into chaos causing her eyes to dart around. She sucked in a deep breath and calmed her heart before slowly turning to address the speaker. Her lips quivered uncontrollably for a moment as she looked at the person dressed in bright brocade and the two others with her; standing there before Xiao Wan were the Three Imperial Princesses.
Xiao Wan’s mother, Xiao Yurong, was a trusted person the Empress held in close confidence. Xiao Wan was also her mother’s treasured darling so it was a given her wedding would be an especially grand affair involving the Imperial House and high officials, so much so that it even alarmed the Three Imperial Princesses.[notes]
The Eldest Imperial Princess Chu Shiyu was the daughter of Lord Chen Gui, who in turn was Chen Yunshu’s maternal nephew. Chen Yunshu was Xiao Yurong’s father so it made Chu Shiyu and Xiao Wan once removed cousins. The Chen House and the Xiao House had always had good relations with each other. Therefore it was no surprise to anyone when the Xiao House, through Xiao Yurong as a representative, formally expressed their support of her when she gained the title of Crown Princess.
In her previous life Xiao Wan and Chu Shiyu had had an OK relationship. It wasn’t until Chu Shiyu became Crown Princess and took up nearly all of Xiao Yurong’s attention that Xiao Wan became jealous causing the cousin’s relationship to sour. She felt that Chu Shiyu was too serious and proper and was using her status to pressure other people. Chu Shiyu even got Xiao Yurong to scold Xiao Wan. At that point Xiao Wan viewed Chu Shiyu as an annoying busybody and only felt animosity towards her.
However after having experienced all the sorrow and pain from her previous life, Xiao Wan’s feelings towards this older cousin of hers changed. Seeing that bright smile on Chu Shiyu’s face made Xiao Wan feel a deep sense of guilt and shame and her heart became uneasy.
If not for her, if not for the Xiao House, then Chu Muqing would probably have not been able to frame Chu Shiyu. She would not have been stripped of her title and sent to the Imperial Prison. I have to find an opportunity to warn her about that treacherous Chu Muqing slut!
Chu Shiyu saw Xiao Wan’s eyes darting around like she was looking for an escape route. Chu Shiyu was a clever girl and realized that her cousin had to be bitter about something. It was a misunderstanding though! She definitely had not ratted Xiao Wan out to Xiao Yurong... recently.
The guidance and care Xiao Yurong had given Chu Shiyu had deeply influenced how she felt about Xiao Wan. Unlike the loathing Xiao Wan felt for Chu Shiyu, Chu Shiyu actually wanted to look after Xiao Wan and treat that spoiled cousin of hers well.
She knew Xiao Yurong dedicated her life to serving the nation and the people, reducing the time she could spend with her children. Inevitably Xiao Wan grew up without the attentions of a mother or father. This resulted in Xiao Wan being spoiled with material things and becoming more rebellious as she got older.
Chu Shiyu had been under Xiao Yurong’s care since she was a child.[notes] Because of this she felt that it was her responsibility to look after her cousin.
So when she saw her cousin going into the capital and making friends with people of questionable character, she couldn’t help but remind Xiao Wan to be careful - although it came out more as a lecture then as advice. She warned Xiao Wan these types of friendships were shallow and could not to be relied upon. Xiao Wan would silently listen to her but it was clear she didn’t really understand. It seemed like this cousin of hers just enjoyed playing in the city and taking liberties with beautiful men, stirring up trouble wherever she went, leaving others to deal with the aftermath so she wouldn’t be bothered by it and bring trouble to the Xiao House’s front gates.
It wasn’t until Xiao Wan met Ji Shumo that she curtailed her philandering. It seemed love had found a way. The always solemn and earnest Xiao Yurong[notes] displayed a rare genuine smile that day. In fact, of the guests there her wishes and congratulations were the most sincere.
Standing beside Chu Shiyu was a tall woman in elegant dark clothing. Her hair was piled high atop her head and her facial features were bold and stern, giving off a strong and unyielding courageous air, as though she was a soldier coming off the battlefield. It was quite a contrast when compared to Chu Shiyu’s gentle scholarly air. This person was in fact the Second Imperial Princess Chu Morong the daughter of Feng Hou.
Lord Chen Gui giving birth to a daughter changed Feng Hou’s blood lineage.[notes] Chu Morong had no choice but to give up her spot as the Crown Princess,[notes] narrowly missing a great opportunity. Chu Morong didn’t particular care about it, but her father was a brooding soul who tended to worry a lot and he had really wanted Chu Morong to ascend the throne.
As a result of this the two princesses had been secretly competing with each other. So long as they didn’t overstep their bounds the Empress turned a blind eye to their shenanigans. She didn’t seem to favor one over the other in choosing an heir designate.
They didn’t normally cross paths because Chu Morong was stationed at the borders and only returned to the capital a few months out of the year. She spent her spare time either studying military law and tactics or training her body in martial arts. She was quite unlike Xiao Wan who whiled away her idle time by spending money frivolously and carousing all over the place eating and drinking with scoundrels.
It truly was an example of “people with different desires followed different paths.” The rumors Chu Morong heard about Xiao Wan were not complimentary. Her image of Xiao Wan was one of a rich spoiled hedonistic person who only knew how to take and demand. To someone like Chu Morong who believed that a woman should defend her home and should strive to always better herself, someone like Xiao Wan who only damaged her own House’s reputation by being extravagant was someone she looked disdainfully upon.
The only reason she was here at Xiao Wan’s wedding ceremony at all was because her father wouldn’t stop nagging her about it, incessantly warning her to behave appropriately and cozy up to Xiao Wan. Basically he was hoping to gain the support of the Xiao House through Xiao Wan. Ay… this kind of thing… making friends with such a hedonistic fool… I’d rather go to hell!
Chu Morong groaned inwardly while trying to stretch her face out into a smile. She cupped her hands and said, “Salutations Miss Xiao, I wish Miss Xiao and her young husband an enduring and lifelong love.”
The perfunctory praise and false flattery was incredibly obvious. However Xiao Wan’s heart filled with guilt when she remembered how she had caused the death of this Second Imperial Princess. Because of this her reaction to the Princess’ tone was polite, “Second Imperial Princess, thank you for joining this ordinary woman in her wedding celebration. Please --”
Xiao Wan stretched her hands out in a welcoming gesture filled with respect and courtesy. The two Imperial Princesses were rather startled by this kind of reaction from Xiao Wan. This elegant and magnanimous attitude was so unlike the Xiao Wan they knew...could marrying change a person’s temperament that much?
The young girl beside Chu Morong flashed a pout before saying in a mischievous tone, “Hey! Miss Wan[notes] you greet two elder sisters and go so far as to clasp hands but you don’t even say hello to your good friend? I even prepared a great gift.”
The trees cast a shadow on Xiao Wan’s face making it appear unusually pale. Her fingers became stiff and awkward and an intense hatred twisted up from her gut. She hid her fingers in the sleeves of her red robe and clenched them firmly in order to suppress the hatred from erupting.
Indeed it was a huge gift I really want to return to you you bitch!
Xiao Wan breathed deeply a few times through her mouth while looking at Chu Muqing’s smiling face. She was deeply impressed.
“Miss Qing[notes], how could I forget you? You’ve helped me a lot over the years, giving me all kinds of ideas to win over Shumo!” Xiao Wan, while holding her murderous urges in check, stepped closer to Chu Muqing and cheerfully patted her on the shoulders. She did it all while maintaining a brilliant smile on her face. “This type of kindness, I’d never forget even if I died. What kind of gift did you prepare I wonder?! Indeed! You truly are my biggest supporter!”
Xiao Wan and Chu Muqing first met about a year and a half ago while playing in the city. They hit it off right away and became fast friends. Chu Muqing was born from an unimportant father and had never received any care or attention from the Empress. She didn’t seem interested in the politics of the royal palace and passed her days being an idle loafer. Looks were deceiving though, for although Chu Muqing had an innocent and sweet face her heart was corrupted long ago. She had survived as a child because of her ability to read people’s expressions, and at that moment she could tell that Xiao Wan’s expression was off. Her heart sped up and she became uneasy. But then Xiao Wan patted her on the shoulders like she usually did, treating her as a good sister. With a calmed heart she said, “Good! Then Miss Wan will treat me to drinks till I get totally smashed!”
A burst of firecrackers went off in front of the gates as the two of them were chatting. The loud pitapita sounds caused the birds to cry out and fly off in surprise while the crowd in front came to life. Xiao Wan looked up and saw the top of a festively decorated sedan chair coming forward.
The matchmaker, noticing that Xiao Wan had yet to make a move towards it, walked over to her and urged her, “Miss Xiao, the sedan chair is here! Kick it open to invite your husband inside!” He spoke with a face beaming with pleasure.
In the previous life Xiao Wan hadn’t even waited for the matchmaker to speak. She had been so excited she had rushed out ahead to pick up Ji Shumo, wanting to proclaim to the entire world that Ji Shumo was hers.
But now she was really conflicted!
Originally she wanted to make him lose face by not greeting him at all and leave him hanging in the sedan. The shame would definitely follow him all the way to the capital. But the amount of officials and influential people at the ceremony was no small number. It wouldn’t just be Ji Shumo who would lose face, she would too! She already had a reputation for being a spoiled good for nothing. She would surely get the added reputation of “that scum woman who abandoned her husband at the front gates.” Her mother wouldn’t be able to lift her head in public and the Xiao House’s reputation would also plummet. Now that her head had cooled she realized she had to be careful and not act rashly.
When she saw Chu Muqing again she realized something really important, and that was her ability to anticipate the future using memories from her previous life. However if the present her didn’t marry Ji Shumo then everything she knew about the future could prove useless, as the course of events would be different. If Chu Muqing had other traps and schemes to use against her then she would be defenseless! Her knowledge of the future was her best advantage. Therefore it would be best to go along with Chu Muqing’s plan and bring Ji Shumo into her House as a husband.
There were a few very good reasons go ahead with the marriage. First, it would be easier to secretly torment Ji Shumo if he was close to her side. To let him go back and be free would be too good for him. Second, it would lull Chu Muqing into a sense of complacency and lower her guard if she thought Xiao Wan was still the same fool easily blinded by beauty. Third, she would be able follow Ji Shumo and find the evidence Chu Muqing planted to frame everyone, and if possible catch them red handed and make them fall victim to their own schemes.
Smile Xiao Wan! Smile. You can’t let anyone see the hatred in your heart. She repeated this mantra over and over again.
Xiao Wan quickly stepped toward the sedan chair in an eager manner, a joyful smile plastered on her face. Everyone broke out in raucous cheer when they saw how impatient Xiao Wan was to greet her husband. Xiao Wan raised up her red boot and lightly kicked at door of the sedan chair. She kept her eyes open without blinking not willing to miss a thing. There was only a slight bit of movement inside.
With the door open the bead curtain swayed slightly in the breeze. A long slender finger poked out and moved it gently to the side revealing a bewitching face. Xiao Wan couldn’t restrain her heart from jumping at the sight. When she looked at those indifferent eyes of his she felt a twang, like a taut bowstring finally snapping.
She thought she could fake it, but it seemed she underestimated her feelings of the past three years. Just watching him lift the bead curtain made her heart go pitter patter and the smile on her face remained fixed, refusing to drop.
So much regret came from this love… still she was unwilling to part from it… even with all the pain and sorrow. But she knew she had to cut out these feelings of affection. She had to guard the Xiao House!
Xiao Wan stood straight and tall with her crimson robe blowing in the breeze. Without all the profusive silky embellishments she normally adorned herself with, the image she presented now was that of a strong tenacious beauty. It was hard to imagine given her usual behavior and habit of excessive extravagance. This way of dress looked very becoming on her. Ji Shumo could only stare blankly in a daze at the sight of her.
Xiao Wan’s eyes shone with tenderness as she gently called his name. “Shumo.” She reached to him and grasped his ten fingers in the palms her two hands. He offered little resistance as she slowly pulled him out of the sedan.
The seventeen year old Ji Shumo was the capital’s beauty, a delicate flower blossom with three years of accomplishment in poetry and five years in songwriting. He was unrivaled when it came to the four arts[notes] and was the undisputed number one Young Master longingly desired by all the ladies in the capital. However this talented beauty was finally marrying into someone’s House. Many lamented in their hearts: If they had half the audacity and brazenness of Xiao Wan, it could have been them taking this gifted scholar home.
Indeed Xiao Wan had chased Ji Shumo for a full three years. At that time she had thought that her sincerity had finally moved him. No one thought she was a good match for Ji Shumo and yet here she was about to be wed to him in a grand ceremony. She had at that time secretly vowed in her heart to always treat him well.
The memories of the past rolled through her mind like a tide and she had to suppress the sorrow that rose up threatening to suffocate her. After several deep breaths she was finally able to calm herself and resist the impulse to cut off Ji Shumo’s right hand. She carefully pulled him out.
Ji Shumo’s natural elegance and refinement complimented the outfit he wore beautifully, making him appear even more charming than usual. He raised his eyes to their joined hands and to the crowd behind. He resisted the tug from her a bit, trying to discretely pull his hands out of her grip.
Xiao Wan had always paid attention to him, so although the movement was tiny it didn’t escape her notice. She used to think it was because he was shy and embarrassed easily, but now she realized it was from a dislike and an unwillingness to be touched by her.
In the past she would never insist if Ji Shumo was unwilling, but now… Ha! Don’t you like Chu Muqing? Didn’t you marry me so you could use me? Such nonsense! Xiao Wan schooled her features and tenderly gazed at Ji Shumo while saying, “You had a long journey and your body must be tired and weak. Here I’ll carry you over to the fire OK?”[notes] Xiao Wan reached over and lifted Ji Shumo up before the other could protest. His body stiffened at the contact but she ignored it. The image of a loving wife carrying her husband was so charming it evoked sighs and applause from the crowd.
Xiao Wan felt a slight tremor from the body of the person in her arms and gazed down to see a panic stricken Ji Shumo.
Meanwhile in the crowd Chu Muqing’s heart was finally put at ease and a smile escaped her lips.
Xiao Wan held onto Ji Shumo as she carefully crossed over the fire. After successfully doing so, instead of letting him down she held onto him even tighter making him knit his brows in a frown. He really wanted to physically break free from her, but because the crowd was there he refrained and instead whispered, “Put me down.”
Release you so you can make flirty eyes with Chu Muqing? Please, I must have been really blind before to not see. Xiao Wan snorted in her heart. She looked on with interest, watching Ji Shumo fidgeting in her arms. She loosened her hold slightly acting as though she was acquiescing. The abruptness of her actions caused Ji Shumo to panic and he instinctively wrapped his arms around her neck.
For a brief moment the two were very close, almost touching, nose to nose, lips to lips. It was a very ambiguous pose and from an observer’s point of view it looked like Ji Shumo was taking the initiative to lean in for a kiss.
His body had the faint familiar scent that most scholars carried with them, the fragrance of sweet incense. Xiao Wan used to think of this scent day and night, just yearning for him. The sadness forming in her heart upon remembering the past was so strong it nearly suffocated her.
Xiao Wan had been completely infatuated with him back then. She had wanted so much to pamper and spoil him, to protect and guard him, just give him the best of everything. She had been overflowing with affection for him, but for him it had only been a game that he and Chu Muqing came up with. Sharp needles of pain pricked her heart like it was a pincushion and the overpowering feeling of wanting to hack the two bastards to pieces flooded her.
Ji Shumo didn’t expect the normally obedient Xiao Wan to deny his request, leaving him momentarily stunned in her embrace. Xiao Wan had never failed to do what he asked of her before, no matter how hesitant she was or how difficult the task. The same went for material goods, no matter how precious something was, he only had to express interest and she would offer it to him. It understandably shocked him that a request as simple as to be put down was refused!
The two remained in their positions, both calculating what to do, trying to probe the other out. From the sidelines Chu Muqing’s smile had turned sullen and her lips were pulled down in a frown, looking like she’d just drunk a mouthful of vinegar. Indeed she was jealous.
Suddenly a sharp abrasive voice rang out. It was a voice Xiao Wan had recently became familiar with. “You all! What’s the big idea?! To actually go so far as to ignite such a huge roaring fire by the doorway. What if my Young Master gets hurt. Call someone to take care of this right now!”
The guards at the doorwary looked over in disdain at the two young men, one dressed in white and the other in red. They even cracked a few jokes about the Young Master’s hair catching on fire.
At this the young man in white didn’t hold back and gave the guards a severe scolding.
The guards opinion of the two dropped even further upon seeing such unruly behavior. “Love to but can’t. Today our House’s Young Miss will take a husband. Why should we bother with you?” As he spoke he raised his hand to add fuel to the fire causing the flames to burn even more vigorously.
“Eh! Take a husband?!” The young man’s expression went from green to white. Livid with anger he cursed up a storm at the two guards. “You… how… how dare you bully us like so! Young Master let’s go! Xiao Wan is only an idle second generation. Why should Young Master have to marry through the side door? To actually leave guards at the doorway to humiliate Young Master. Then… then.. to even dare take some other Young Master as a concubine… I...I’d NEVER! The audacity!”
“Zhao-er!” The young boy in red chided the one in white in an urgent tone of voice. His expression did not look good at all. “Go back, go back! I…” His voice faded away as he bit his lip and gathered up the hem that was dragging on the ground in preparation to leap over the fire. As he was about to leap a voice not too far away rang out, “Move the fire pan.”
The red robed young man stiffly raised his head up at those words. His dark obsidian eyes were filled with heat as he looked at Xiao Wan in the waning evening light. They quickly dimmed like he was splashed with cold water when he noticed the intimate way she held onto Ji Shumo. He hung his head down and bit his lip before bracing himself and looking back up at her again.
The sorrowful expression clutched at Xiao Wan’s heart and she unconsciously loosened her grip and released Ji Shumo before taking several steps towards the melancholy young man in red.
The young man at the doorway dressed in a crimson festive robe had a beautiful countenance with ruby lips and pearly white teeth. His inky black hair fluttered around him, toyed by the cool breeze. Although it was tied back with a red ribbon several strands still managed to float in front to caress his rosy cheeks, bringing attention to his sharp eyes and enticingly kissable lips.
Xiao Wan gazed at him in a daze. She tried to reconcile the image of the him in front of her with the image of the crazed emaciated him she remembered at the execution grounds. She was shocked at the difference a year made. The Xie Chuchen in front of her now would make anyone’s heart speed up. The orange light of the setting sun reflected off his smooth hair giving it a lustrous sheen. The warm light gave his cheeks a becoming rosy glow and accentuated his smooth ivory and jade like complexion. He looked like a flower in full bloom, an incomparable beauty.
The Xie Chuchen in her memory was sickly, with dry short hair and a pale haggard appearance. His eyes were deep pools of melancholy and the air around him always seemed stagnant.
My goodness! What did I do to him to make such a fine man turn into such a ghost?! Xiao Wan silently cursed herself out in her heart: Weren’t you the Young Miss who encouraged everyone to treat him poorly, to deliberately make things hard for him, to humiliate him at every turn, to annoy him so much he would be forced to leave? Who else do I have to blame but myself?
She glanced at the guards by the back door with savage eyes, scaring them shitless. In a panic they went to remove the fire pan.
Before the guards could do so, a flicker of red flashed across Xiao Wan’s field of vision. Xie Chuchen had leapt like a butterfly over the pan despite the roaring fire. He was like a moth to a flame, knowing full well the danger but refusing to let it stop him. He wanted to start off on the right foot even if it meant putting himself in harm’s way. The image of Xie Chuchen’s fluttering sleeves passing over the fire would engrave itself in Xiao Wan’s mind forever. It was a beautiful gesture and it showed his dedication.
Just then Xie Chuchen fell down and the hem of his robe smouldered catching on fire. Xiao Wan was shocked. She rushed forward and stamped desperately on the hem trying to put out the fire. After extinguishing it Xiao Wan gave Xie Chuchen a once over, checking to make sure he was OK.
She became angry when she saw the calmness that was reflected on his face. After taking a deep breath to unsuccessfully sooth her anger she yelled at him. “Why did you jump over the fire?! The guards were about to move it out of your way. Fortunately the flame that caught on your robe was tiny, had it been bigger…”
Xiao Wan fell back several steps at the realization of what could have happened. It had truly caused her heart to panic. The memories came back to her and she remembered.
It was the day before her marriage to Ji Shumo and she had been over the moon making final preparations. Xie Chuchen had shown up that day wearing the Xiao House’s jade pendant. This was problematic for Xiao Wan as the Xiao House would not recognize Ji Shumo’s status as her main husband without it.
The pendant was an heirloom piece passed on to the first born daughter of the main wife. The daughter would hold on to it until the day she found the man she wanted to take as her main husband, at which time she would have the jade piece delivered to him. He would then return the jade when he formally entered the House.
The heirloom served to represent a promise: that she would take him and him alone as her main husband. It was a custom a previous Head of House set up ages ago in order to guard against a future Xiao House female from being careless and breaking faith.
Xiao Wan had actually dropped the jade somewhere and lost it some time ago. She looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. In the end she gave up and secretly had a duplicate of it made hoping that when the time came it would fool everyone.
But unfortunately for her right before she was to marry Ji Shumo, Xie Chuchen appeared with the jade! He used it to claim his rights to marry her. Xiao Wan was determined to marry Ji Shumo first so she refused. Xie Chuchen compromised and was willing to marry Xiao Wan on the same day instead. He promised to return the jade and not to tell anyone of the marriage between them. He only hoped that he could stay by her side and accompany her, to live their lives like a genuine husband and wife.
If Xiao Wan refused then he would appeal the matter to Grandfather Chen and ask him to mediate. The jade pendant was a representative symbol carried by the main husband, if her Grandfather found out that Xie Chuchen had it then he would never accept Ji Shumo as her main husband. How could she allow her sweetheart to be wronged like that?
She was shocked he would threaten Ji Shumo in that way. Left with no other choice Xiao Wan agreed to his plan, but not without making some excessive demands of her own. First, he was not allowed to tell anyone that he had the jade pendant as it would threaten Ji Shumo’s position. Second, he could not do anything to cause alarm on her wedding day with Ji Shumo. If Xie Chuchen wanted to get married he had to find his own way through the back door. Third, after marrying into the Xiao House he had to abide by her arrangements without objections.
Firmly believing that Xie Chuchen wanted to get into the Xiao House for the sake of privilege and fortune she ordered everyone to humiliate and harass him whenever they could. She thought he was despicable and she despised him for it.
Xie Chuchen agreed despite the unfair compromise. He dressed up carefully in a festive wedding robe on the day of Xiao Wan’s wedding to Ji Shumo. Using his own small sedan he brought an attendant with him and headed over to the Xiao House for marriage.
At the doorway he tried to cross over the roaring fire pan but his robe got caught and the fire that lit up travelled all the way up his body and burned his hair. Xiao Wan had passed by the back doorway at that time and upon witnessing the scene had screamed out in disgust, “Ugly people sure are strange!” then promptly grabbed Ji Shumo’s hand and went to the front hall to perform the customary baitang.
At that time Xie Chuchen had been seriously injured by the fire. Aside from his hair his leg was also severely burned. The event had naturally shocked Xiao Yurong and Grandfather Chen. Ultimately the two elders found out the truth about the jade pendant and gave Xiao Wan a severe scolding. They also chose to recognize Xie Chuchen as her main husband.
That was the beginning of the grudge Xiao Wan bore against Xie Chuchen. In her eyes he became an extremely shrewd scheming man. She decided it would be best to never touch him. Even if the elders didn’t acknowledge it, in her heart Ji Shumo would always be her main husband and that was all that mattered. She would take care to always pamper and spoil him!
Because she had hesitated so long in kicking the door of the sedan open and carrying Ji Shumo through the front gates, the timeline shifted a little. Her tardiness allowed her to meet Xie Chuchen before he leapt over the fire pan, thereby avoiding disaster. At the same time her voice had attracted the attention of the crowd and they all walked over to her. Their gazes first locked on her noting her tense expression before swiveling to Xie Chuchen in his festive red robe. Those in the crowd began whispering.
Ji Shumo looked on with a dark and gloomy expression. He’d been so abruptly released by Xiao Wan a moment ago he barely managed to right his balance and avoid falling down. He had to admit he was disturbed at the turn of events. He felt like something had quietly changed without his knowing.
“Yes. I’m sorry.” Xie Chuchen panicked and was unable to face Xiao Wan’s anger directly. He could only quietly apologize with his head down. He kept biting his lip and fidgeting with the fabric of his robe in nervousness. He knew that she really disliked him and didn’t want to marry him.
Would she drive him away because he broke the agreement and made a scene? So many people were alarmed by him. The more he thought about it the more apprehensive he became and the courage he gathered to cross the fire vanished like smoke. Tears filled his eyes making his vision hazy. He slowly raised his head and tried to appease her by apologizing again.
“I’m sorry for disturbing so many people.”
Despite Xiao Wan’s quick reaction earlier, the fire still burned away part of Xie Chuchen’s robe exposing a pair of deliciously smooth creamy legs. Afraid he would suffer injuries like in the previous life she called out to Zhao-er. “Zhao-er carry your Young Master back home.”
Zhao-er was so surprised to be called out by name that he could only stare blankly, not sure how to react. How does this good for nothing woman know my name?
Xie Chuchen looked at Xiao Wan with a stubborn defiance in his eyes. His eyes brimmed with tears but he refused to let them fall, instead he spoke up in a clear voice interrupting Xiao Wan. “I already crossed over the fire pan… so… that means... I am your official husband now… I will not go back! Xiao Wan, you promised to marry me!”
Xie Chuchen’s loud declaration startled the crowd and they couldn’t help but speculate amongst themselves. Xiao Wan felt a blunt ache in her heart at his stubborn desire to be married. Her brow wrinkled in consternation.
This young man in front of her had been the last rays of warmth in her previous life. Even now, if she closed her eyes she could clearly remember being led to the execution grounds after the Xiao House fell. She remembered how despite being discarded and neglected, despite his poor health, he still appeared in front of everyone and declared he was her husband. His words at the time had etched themselves into her memory: “My wife! My Lord!” She also remembered his heartbreaking sobs as he cradled her body, how he completely ignored her stench and his own obvious panic to be near her.
She had kept him a secret in her previous life, not telling anyone about him or the position he held in the Xiao House. To the outside world she made sure to always assert that Ji Shumo was her main husband. The only ones who knew the truth were Xiao Yurong and Grandfather Chen.
She had hated Xie Chuchen to her very bones, had treated him like the plague and isolated him in a desolate and dilapidated tiny courtyard. She ruthlessly ridiculed him every time they met. Everything about him was fair game, from his poor understanding of etiquette, his lack of skills in the four arts, his clumsiness[notes] to his slow wit and stupid expression.
She would curse him out and remind him he was only able to marry her because he had the fortune of finding the jade pendant. He was only worth anything because he had the jade. She found it hard to breathe remembering how viciously she had spoken to him in her previous life.
She owed him a debt. How could she repay it by letting him into the Xiao House?[notes]
Someone in the crowd finally recognized Xie Chuchen. “Isn’t that the Young Master of the Xie House?”
Even though the Xie House had gone into decline recently, it was still an incredibly rich House and he was a well known figure. In fact as the great-grandchild of the Xie House and the only direct heir, Xie Chuchen was pretty much the richest man in the capital. Someone had jokingly said that marrying Xie Chuchen was like the equivalent of getting half the national treasury.
Ever since he was twelve people had been knocking down his door asking his parents for his hand in marriage. Everyone near and far knew of his unruly behavior and his lack of accomplishments. He was an arrogant and prideful, constantly rude and unreasonable Young Master. However he suffered no repercussions and always got away with it because his parents heavily doted on him.
His whole world changed when he turned fourteen. That year his mother was running some errands when she met with an accident and passed away, leaving behind an orphan and a widowed husband. The once large business empire broke up as the concubines fought to get a piece of the wealth left behind. Today the Xie business was comprised of many small and disjointed enterprises, owned by many differnt individuals.
Without his mother’s protection Xie Chuchen went from being a highly sought after beauty coveted by many to just an unruly youth who no one bothered with. These past few years the only ones to propose marriage were those older ladies who desired his sweet sweet flesh.
Rumors had it that Xie Chuchen’s maternal aunt was in the process of selecting a recently widowed middle-aged woman for Xie Chuchen to marry. Even though he’d only be the second husband the dowry would be substantial.
Another rumor said Xie Chuchen was promised to a high official, to serve her as an attendant.
Although Xiao Wan’s reputation was no better than Xie Chuchen, she was still the first born daughter of the main wife. Everyone was shocked that Xie Chuchen would crash her grand wedding by walking in through the side door dressed the way he was dressed.
People began whispering ferociously.
“He actually demanded she marry him!”
“Wait! Does Xiao Wan intend to take Xie Chuchen as a concubine?!”
“Even his fantastic looks can’t make up for that reputation of his.”
“Xiao Wan must be really greedy to accept even Xie Chuchen as a husband.”
“To pick today of all days… isn’t that just slapping Ji Shumo in the face?”
“Maybe Xie Chuchen came here on purpose to cause trouble, acting this way to deliberately force Xiao Wan to marry him?”
In an instant everyone’s gossipy heart ignited with desire. Their hungry gazes kept switching between Xiao Wan, Xie Chuchen, and Ji Shumo. The one husband was still in the process of formally entering the House, yet another husband already appeared through the side door! This was the biggest scandal of the year!
The course of events had already changed from her previous life. Xiao Wan knitted her brows not sure what to say. Seeing that the crowd was looking at Xie Chuchen’s thighs with lascivious eyes, she moved to block their view. It was an unconscious move motivated by her desire to protect him.
The crowd’s interpretation of it was quite different though. “Look! She’s embarrassed by him so she’s trying to hide him!”
Xie Chuchen on the other hand thought she was trying to block him from entering the Xiao House. You promised! This made him feel wronged and he stared at her back with a hurt look in his eyes.
“Wan-er,[notes] what’s going on?”
Upon hearing the stern tone of the question Xiao Wan’s entire body stiffened involuntarily. She turned around to find a middle aged woman and an elderly gray haired man slowly approaching.
The woman’s lips tightened in a frown as she looked at the scene. She saw Xiao Wan standing directly in front of Xie Chuchen as though shielding him from the crowd. This middle aged woman was of course none other than Xiao Yurong, Xiao Wan’s mother.
The gray haired elderly man was the previous head of house, the ever swift and decisive Grandfather Chen. He had headed the house for decades before Xiao Yurong took over.
The two had been waiting for Xiao Wan and Ji Shumo in the reception hall for the baitang, but when neither showed up they became impatient. While waiting they overheard talk of a Young Master dressed in festive clothing creating a disturbance at the side door. Xiao Wan was delayed because she was handling the matter. At this point they decided to go and see for themselves.
Xiao Yurong swept Xiao Wan with a stare so severe it was bordering on fierce. It was obvious she thought the ruckus was a result of Xiao Wan’s philandering.
When it came to things related to work Xiao Yurong was an efficient taskmaster, always quick and decisive, however she was the complete opposite when it came to handling Xiao Wan. She treasured her daughter so much she only ever used kid gloves on her. This resulted in Xiao Wan being a good for nothing idle loafer whose favorite activity was, ironically, to clash with her mother.
Xiao Yurong’s main husband had become very ill and passed away a year after giving birth to Xiao Wan. Perhaps because of this Xiao Yurong tended to spoil and pamper Xiao Wan. It was especially easy to do because the girl was an incredibly obedient and adorable child. Unfortunately as Xiao Wan got older her temperament completely changed and she became a young woman who enjoyed rebelling against her elders.
Xiao Yurong had worried whether daughter would ever get married. In the end Xiao Wan completely surprised her by not only getting married, but getting married to the most sought after scholar in the nation! Xiao Yurong’s trepidations were finally eased and her face glowed with happiness. Things had been going well until today. What is this setback on the big wedding day?! Xiao Wan had better have a good explanation for this.
Xiao Wan felt like her heart was about to leap out of her chest at the sound of her mother’s voice. She was at a total loss, not knowing what to do or say. Before she knew it tears flowed down her cheeks. Were it not for the crowd of onlookers she would have jumped into her mother’s arms and cried her heart out right then and there.
“Mother…” She was choking so hard on her emotions that it took her several breaths before she could expel that one word. Her actions were like a loud declaration of her guilty conscience.
Xiao Yurong was about to angrily demand an explanation when she saw Xiao Wan’s timid and pathetic looking face. Combined with the high pitched sad sound of “Mother” and her anger completely fizzled out. She glanced at Xie Chuchen and thought, how should I handle this demand for marriage by this Young Master?
She was about to ask him to leave when Grandfather Chen spoke up. “This Young Master, why not come this way and change out of those clothes OK”?
It was then that Xie Chuchen realized the state of his clothes. Embarrassed he could only look timidly at Xiao Wan. His heartbeat immediately sped up in nervousness upon seeing her knitted brows.
A pair of dark eyes turned to look sharply at Xiao Wan before falling hesitantly on Xie Chuchen. Grandfather Chen bent over and picked up a smooth jade pendant that had fallen to the ground. After gently caressing it for a second he spoke in a soft voice. “Wan-er do you really want this Young Master to return home in such a state of dress? He also has burns on his ankle. I’m afraid it would be inconvenient…”
It was clear Grandfather Chen wanted Xie Chuchen to stay at the Xiao House to recuperate after seeing the jade pendant. It seemed he was willing to recognize Xie Chuchen as Xiao Wan’s official husband. Xiao Wan did not want this!
How could Xie Chuchen not know what Xiao Wan wanted? With a twinkle in his eyes he immediately pretended to be seriously injured and walked forward with a distinct limp. He couldn’t help the smug smile on his face as he followed them back inside. There was no way he was going to let such a golden opportunity slip through his hands.
The distraction brought by Xie Chuchen didn’t last long. Soon enough everyone’s attention returned to the original newlyweds and the baitang[notes] proceeded as planned. After finishing the baitang someone helped Ji Shumo up and led him to the bridal chamber. Meanwhile Xiao Wan downed all the toasts offered to her and responded to their good-natured heckling. The crowd followed her as she impatiently made her way to the bridal chamber.
Once there Xiao Wan pushed open the door to find Ji Shumo nervously shoving a white envelope into his sleeve. Xiao Wan pretended not to see, and instead turned and closed the door behind her, effectively shutting out the crowd. In the meantime Ji Shumo had fixed his facial expression and put on a suitably calm face. Despite this his hands still clenched tightly when he saw Xiao Wan’s heated gaze. He couldn’t help but lower his head guiltily.
“Shumo…” Xiao Wan whispered her eyes filled with a thousand inexpressible emotions. “I’m incredibly happy today.” Incredibly happy that Heaven gave me a chance to redeem myself… to atone for the mistakes I made. “That I can marry you is the blessing of three lifetimes.” To think that you would have my entire family executed in exchange for all the warmth and tenderness I gave you. Hahaha… How ridiculous.
Xiao Wan went to sit next to her new husband. Ji Shumo involuntarily stiffened when he smelled the faint sweet fragrance of wine on Xiao Wan’s body.
Xiao Wan’s breath blew hotly on Ji Shumo’s skin as she softly whispered, “Shumo, you look beautiful today.” Edging closer to her husband she stretched her finger to lightly graze Shumo’s face before trailing downwards over the rest of his body. The desire in her eyes seemed to suggest something was about to happen. Oh you are indeed a beautiful poisonous snake Ji Shumo!
Ji Shumo’s heart skipped a beat at the look in Xiao Wan’s eyes and the close proximity of her body. He immediately got up off the bed and picked up the cup on the table. “We still haven’t exchanged wine yet!” [notes]
“Of course.” Xiao Wan took the cup Ji Shumo offered, but instead of drinking from it she held onto it while leaning across the table towards her husband. Ji Shumo watched nervously as Xiao Wan moved closer.
Xiao Wan looked down and picked up the second cup that was on the table. She now had one cup in each hand. After looking at them for a second she handed the one Ji Shumo gave her back to him. “Let us drink then.”
And so it was that after exchanging only one cup of wedding wine Ji Shumo collapsed unconscious onto the floor.
So that’s why I always slept like a dead log every night. It was because of you and your tricks. Xiao Wan couldn’t help but laugh as she looked at Ji Shumo sprawled on the ground, a victim of his own drug. In her previous life she had pampered and spoiled him outrageously, always taking into consideration how he felt and never touching him or forcing him if he expressed any kind of discomfort. It was clear to her now that he simply disdained physical intimacy with her.
Xiao Wan dragged Ji Shumo’s body off the floor and tossed him onto the bed. She felt a strong desire to wash her hands after handling him but settled with just wiping her hands on her clothes. Count yourself lucky Shumo. If it weren’t for the fact that you still have some value I wouldn’t bother touching your disgusting body!
Xie Chuchen knew it was Xiao Wan and Ji Shumo’s wedding night. But Xiao Wan had promised him that as long as he completed the ceremony by crossing through the gate, then she would recognize him as her official husband. Therefore technically it was also his wedding night with her.
Earlier he had taken care to bath in scented water and made sure he was presentable. His heart was a whirlwind of chaotic emotions - nervousness, anticipation, trepidation, giddiness but the overriding ones were joy and happiness. However he began to grow lonely as the night drew on and there was no sign of Xiao Wan in sight. Finally unable to bear it any longer he snuck out to Xiao Wan’s courtyard. If she’s not coming then I’ll just go and watch her from afar. She won’t mind… if she doesn’t know. And so he consoled himself with the thought that he would just satisfy his longing by gazing at her.
That night after the noise and clamor of the day’s events quieted down and only the sounds of the nighttime critters could be heard Xiao Wan thought about the day and all that had transpired.
She had gone through the baitang with Ji Shumo in a distracted daze. Her mind had been on Xie Chuchen. She had been worried about Xie Chuchen’s condition and concerned about how Grandfather Chen was treating him, if he was giving Xie Chuchen a hard time or not. It wasn’t until she managed to grab Yun Yan and pressed her for details that the stone in her heart finally dissipated.
In hushed voices they discussed what happened. She learned that Grandfather Chen arranged a courtyard for Xie Chuchen and even requested a doctor come and visit in order to check on his injured ankle.
Although the contents of the conversation were good, Xiao Wan couldn’t help but notice Yun Yan’s oddly cold and drawn expression. Xiao Wan’s thoughts had jumped all over the place. Was it possible... was it possible that Yun Yan and Xie Chuchen... at first sight…?
The things Xiao Wan had gone through made her more cautious and sensitive to everything around her. She wondered how hard Yun Yan would laugh if she found out she would one day attack Xiao Wan with a shoe out of rage one day.
Thinking back to the conversation she had with Yun Yan only made her sigh. She pushed open the doors and stepped outside. As she did so she saw a flash of white move across her field of vision.
Xie Chuchen had been hiding in a small corner when he heard the sound of the door opening. He stepped out of his hiding spot thinking that Xiao Wan had opened the door to return to her room, never considering it was possible she was leaving instead. He did not expect to come face to face with his beloved the moment he stepped out. In a fluster, he moved back only to step on the hem of his robe. With his foot injured he couldn’t right himself quickly enough despite his flailing. He ended up falling forward right into Xiao Wan. The image he presented was that of a lecherous wolf trying to grab onto her.
It was the first time he was so close to her. Knowing he was actually touching her made his heart beat a mile a minute and his legs turned to jelly. What… what to do?!
Since Xie Chuchen was practically in her arms it was easy for Xiao Wan to see his face. He really is beautiful. Such thick long lashes. Haha! Look at how they tremble! Something rippled in her heart, like a stone tossed into a still pond. A flicker flashed in her eyes, partly desire partly something else too fleeting for her grasp.
“Wife…Xiao... I… ah… I didn’t mean to…” Xiao Wan’s scrutiny was making Xie Chuchen feel really awkward and more than a tad bit embarrassed. Two adorable bright red splotches appeared on his cheeks. In fact his whole body was practically burning up from embarrassment. He hurriedly tried to stand back on his own two feet. Although he wanted to cherish being held by Xiao Wan for a little longer he didn’t dare push his luck. He straightened up and hid his hands behind his back.
He was so annoyed at himself for being clumsy and awkward. Great. Now she’s going to think I have no manners. A lecher! A groper! A frivolous man who’d throw himself at anybody. He was so flustered. He wasn’t sure how to address her. Wife? Dear? Miss Xiao? He shook his head. No. No. Miss Xiao was too distant and unfamiliar. Honestly he just wanted to call her dear wife but he was sure she wouldn’t allow it.
“Your injury… is it OK?” Xiao Wan asked with obvious concern in her voice.
“Ah.. yes. The doctor gave me some ointments to apply. As long as I apply it everyday it should heal fine.” Xie Chuchen spoke slowly and carefully after glancing at her and seeing that she wasn’t angry. He took a quiet breath in an effort to calm himself down.
“You. In the future don’t do such a foolish thing again. It’s not worth it.”
Not worth it? That such a small injury elicited Xiao Wan’s concern was already beyond Xie Chuchen’s expectations. He was so happy to get her attention he was practically giddy with excitement. It was quite an improvement considering just a few days ago she was staring knives and daggers at him, her face full of anger.
Xiao Wan grabbed a bottle of liquor and poured herself a cup after settling down on the stone steps in front of the doorway. She immediately proceeded to toss it back. Xie Chuchen decided to risk it and sat down next to her. He was concerned so he said, “Drinking will hurt your body. Don’t drink so much.”
“Well luckily you’re here. Share some with me yeah?” Xiao Wan had originally intended to drink the night away in solitude, hoping that perhaps the liquor would help her think of a way out of the mess she made. Xie Chuchen showing up was unexpected and the invitation had popped out of her mouth on its own. Might as well indulge and share some wedding wine with him.
An inexplicable sweet happiness bubbled up inside Xie Chuchen when he realized Xiao Wan wasn’t going to chase him away or ask why he was sneaking around. The two lightly bumped wine cups before hooking arms together to formally drink their wedding wine. Xie Chuchen glanced up at Xiao Wan as he took small sips from his cup, all the while his heart raced madly.
He was nervous but also secretly delighted. The fire pan crossed. The wine drunk. The only things left are the baitang and the bridal room. Xie Chuchen was ignorant about the affairs between men and woman and only had a vague idea of what the bridal room entailed. All he really knew was that it involved the bride and groom being in the same bed.
As a result this beautiful little muffin ball gazed at Xiao Wan with bright eyes scheming of how to get her in bed so he could complete the bridal chamber part of the ceremony. Get her drunk. Carry her to bed. Then sit down beside her and the bridal chamber part of it should be complete. Then I’ll definitely be her official husband! Good plan!
Unfortunately Xie Chuchen completely overestimated his tolerance for alcohol. He had never drunk much, only a cup here and there, so his current attempt to out drink Xiao Wan failed miserably. With such a strong wine his throat already burned with just a cup. His face broke down in disappointment. He didn’t give up and instead bolstered his self-confidence with some internal words to himself. The plan was to get Xiao Wan drunk. Already started. It’s too late to back down now. With that thought in mind he put on a brave face and moved to pour another cup for Xiao Wan.
So it was that while Xiao Wan was thinking of how to prevent the tragedy from her previous life from happening, Xie Chuchen was getting completely smashed. In his inebriated state he let loose what was on his mind without a care in the world, shouting at the top of his lungs.
“Xiao Wan! I really like you!” His eyes grew misty with emotion, glistening in the moonlight and giving him an ethereal appearance.
Xiao Wan who had been immersed in thoughts of the past was completely dumbstruck by Xie Chuchen’s sudden declaration.
She remembered how in her previous life she would often ridicule his cheap mouth. Back then she only saw him as a conniving schemer who somehow managed to steal the jade from her, forcing his way into the position of her main husband. However after everything that had happened, after everything she’d learned, the current her was finally willing to recognize his sincerity.
What she didn’t understand was why. She really was just an idle loafer who took advantage of her position as a rich Young Miss to party and have a good time. Was it possible that Xie Chuchen liked her just because?
She stared at him and asked, “Have we met before?” It was a question she had been wondering about since her rebirth.
“Yes! Of course!” He slammed his cup down and hiccuped. He resentfully put both his hands on his hips and looked at Xiao Wan with a ferocious glare. “We’ve met several times. Three years ago you… you…”
Xiao Wan grimaced and immediately felt guilty. Three years ago she was quite a licentious player taking advantage of any pretty young thing she came across. Had she taken advantage of Xie Chuchen? Was this a karmic debt?
She shook her head. No… that couldn’t be. If it was three years ago then his reputation as a headstrong and unruly Young Master of the Xie House was well known. She wouldn’t have touched him with a ten foot pole.
“Did I make some kind of deal with you three years ago? Did I give you that jade pendant? Or did I save you and demand you give your heart to me?” Xiao Wan had used all kinds of tricks when pursuing her interests. Sometimes she even hired hooligans to create trouble just so she could swoop in and “save” the beauty.
At the mention of the jade pendant Xie Chuchen knitted his brows in distress and bit his lips before saying in a low voice, “I picked it up…” After saying that one sentence his body became soft and he collapsed against Xiao Wan.
“It’s hot…” he gasped while looking at Xiao Wan with his dewey eyes. For some reason he found her clothing really interesting and began picking at the fabric. His throat felt dry and parched and he was a little uncomfortable.
Seeing this Xiao Wan didn’t push him away but let him lean into her. Soon Xie Chuchen became even more demanding and wrapped his arms around her slim waist before yelling out, “Ah! Dear wife. I’m so happy! I finally got to marry you. It’s like a dream. A dream!”
He took an arm away from her waist and reached up to her face, cautiously touching the dream in front of him. He thought it was a dream, but it felt so real that he wasn’t sure. After touching her some more he became a little confused. Wow this dream sure feels solid! It’s even hot to the touch! Xie Chuchen licked his dry lips and softly spoke the words in his heart. “Dear wife… hug me?”
He thought about the scene earlier by the gate and the way Xiao Wan held Ji Shumo in her arms. The thought left a heavy feeling in the pit of his stomach and he suddenly didn’t feel so great. He imagined Xiao Wan holding him in the same way. This husband also wants to be hugged like that! He looked up at Xiao Wan with a happy expectant look on his face.
Xiao Wan decided not to nitpick and tease Xie Chuchen about his behavior. Although she nursed a lot of grievances in her heart since her rebirth she couldn’t help but be touched by his honesty.
However she didn’t want to give him false hope and she certainly didn’t want to bring him misfortune. She knew it was better to nip his feelings in the bud and hurt him now instead of prolonging the inevitable and hurting him later. Despite knowing this she ended up giving into his request and wrapping him up in a hug anyway. Turns out I’m weak to this kind of earnest imploring look. The bad mood she was in slowly dissipated and feelings of tenderness towards Xie Chuchen began to take its place.
Xie Chuchen gazed at Xiao Wan’s face, entranced by her lips. The wine left a dewiness to them and the rosy color made them look incredibly soft. In a trance he slowly inched forward towards them. His breath blew gently across her face.
Xiao Wan watched as his face gradually got closer, her heart beating a bit faster than before.
Who knew this drunk would use his hands to hold the sides of her face and bite her lip! Dissatisfied he muttered, “Blech too bitter. No good!”
Xiao Wan froze. Xie Chuchen didn’t pay her any mind and leaned into her even more. He sucked in a deep breath and nuzzled his head against her chest. Soon his breathing deepened into an even rhythm as he fell asleep.
Xiao Wan was at a loss as to what to do with the warm and softly snoring unconscious person in her embrace. It was the first time her determination wavered since she’d been reborn. She felt a moment of helplessness and unexpectedly had the urge to get closer to him. How could a player like her be overwhelmed like this? How could she possibly be swayed by such an inexperienced greenhorn like him? Clenching her teeth she decided on her next course of action. Although cruel, it would be for the best.
The morning summer light spilled through the lattice windows and filled the room with a golden haze, catching the dust as it floated in the air. Ji Shumo slowly opened his eyes. He quickly discovered he was in bed with Xiao Wan, that the two were completely tangled up in each other’s embrace under the blankets. They were skin to skin, their bodies warm from the contact. Her hands were pressed against his chest. It looked as though he’d taken the initiative to pull her close to him as his arms were wrapped tightly around her waist.
His face burned uncontrollably at the realization. What happened last night?! He couldn’t remember a thing. He only had a cup of the wedding wine before falling asleep. That must have been what happened. He rubbed his forehead feeling really upset over the whole thing. Did she take advantage of me last night? He glared at her angrily. Just as these thoughts flitted through his mind Xiao Wan opened her eyes and looked directly at him. Unnerved he shifted his gaze away from her.
Xiao Wan laid perfectly still beside him. She whispered, “Good morning Shumo,” in a voice so tired and worn out it was barely audible.
Ji Shumo felt a chill go down his spine at her words and tone. His entire body got goosebumps and his face took on a constipated look. He tried to wipe it away and replace it with a suitable loving expression. Their intimate position left him unsure of what to do. He took his arms back and scooted back a little bit in order to put some distance between them.
Contrary to what he expected, Xiao Wan didn’t express alarm at his movement. On her face was a gentle indulgent smile. That smile made him nervous and he kept scooting back until his back was pressed against the wall. Once he could no longer retreat, Xiao Wan moved forward to kiss him lightly on the forehead.
The old her would grab him and smother him with kisses every morning, pampering and spoiling him everyday. Xiao Wan saw no reason to deviate from the actions of her old self, only this time her motivations for doing so were different. She asked, “What would you like to have for breakfast? Tell me and I’ll have someone prepare it.”
Ji Shumo turned his head and glanced at her, a hint of disgust just discernible in his gaze. “I’ll share whatever dear wife wants to eat.”
She had to admire him for his ability to disguise his loathing and disgust for so long. Indeed to have that kind of patience was truly something. Then again the old her had really been blind to not recognize his contradictions for what they really were. Instead she had attributed his rejections of her to his shyness. The heartache she felt for Ji Shumo was replaced by anger and indignation once she remembered his trickery.
You’re no longer my reason for being Shumo. Instead I’m going to live for myself. I’ll protect the Xiao House and make sure you and that rotten bitch pay for your actions.
Although Xiao Wan was resentful when she saw the look in his eyes, she nevertheless maintained a gentle tone when she asked about breakfast.
After eating she gave him a warm kiss and together the two walked to the main hall to greet her mother.
Xiao Yurong wasn’t the only one waiting there. Sitting beside her were two others: Liu Shi and Wang Shi. The former was the father of the fifteen year old Xiao Qingru while the latter was the father of the three year old baby Xiao Xiao. Both children had birthdays coming up soon.
After Xiao Wan’s father,*[notes] Wen Mo, passed away Xiao Yurong opted to leave the position of main husband empty refusing to shift either of the two men into the spot. As a result, Chen taigong managed the Xiao House’s external affairs with Xiao Yurong while Liu Shi managed the House’s internal affairs. This had been the set up for years, however Xiao Wan’s marriage meant a change in that structure would be inevitable.
It was only proper that authority and responsibility for the Xiao House would gradually shift over to her. The prospect of losing that power made Liu Shui gnash his teeth bitterly. It seemed his dreams of being Xiao Wan’s main husband and ruling the Xiao House was drifting farther and farther away.
Faced with such a good looking and talented son in law made Xiao Yurong incredibly happy. After sipping her tea she pulled out a thick red envelope and placed it in his hand. She earnestly spoke the words, “Xiao Wan is very stubborn and mischievous. I’ll have to rely on you to look after her in the future.”
Ji Shumo meekly nodded his head keeping it down to hide the cold in his eyes. “Yes mother.”
That Xiao Yurong would never attach as much importance to Qingru’s wedding, that such an idiotic Xiao Wan could marry such a fine and virtuous man, that Xiao Yurong could look at Ji Shumo with such a pleasant face, it was too much for Liu Shi. Feeling disgusted he thought to cause some trouble for Xiao Wan. It would be hard to trip up or nitpick on the impeccable Ji Shumo. On the other hand the ill-reputed Xie Chuchen would be an easy target. Feigning a casual voice he said, “Xiao Wan how come your other husband isn’t with you to pay his respects?”[notes] There was so much hoopla that day. I hope everything is alright.”
Last night while eavesdropping on Xiao Yurong and Chen taigong he found out that Xie Chuchen, as crazy as it seemed, had the jade pendant in his possession. Didn’t this mean that Xie Chuchen was promised the main husband position sometime in the past?
Xiao Wan recalled that the one who betrayed them and brought the Xiao House to ruin was an assistant of Liu Shi’s. In a bad mood she spoke. “Liu ce jun[notes] Young Master Xie is not my official husband. He injured his ankle yesterday and because of this was unable to move around easily. It was simply more convenient for him to rest here.”
Xiao Wan was stewing inside. How dare a minor concubine try to step over her head! Who she married was not of his business. She deliberately emphasized the “ce jun” to put Liu Shi in his place.
Liu Shi rubbed his nose somewhat discouraged at her reply. Resentfully he looked to Xiao Yurong.
Xiao Yurong knitted her brows and stood up before saying, “Yesterday father informed me that the jade pendant is in his possession again. Wan-er, the pendant. Why was the one with the pendant not Shumo but Xie Chuchen? Moreover why was the one in Xie Chuchen’s possession the real one.”
Xie Chuchen was so hungover he didn’t wake up until late afternoon. When he came to his senses he sat bolt upright in a panic. He was supposed to greet the head of house in the morning! Realizing this he immediately got out of bed and glanced around the room looking for Zhao-er to help him get ready. Upon finding the man he shot him an accusing glare. Why did you not wake me up! Why did you let me oversleep!? It was shameful he was late for his first meeting with his in-laws. Yesterday’s impression was already bad enough, to compound it with today’s tardiness… just how cold would everyone’s gazes be?
Xie Chuchen grinned when he remembered his triumphs from the night before: the crossing of the fire pan and the sharing of the wedding wine. His smile quickly collapsed however upon realizing his failure at negotiations. Last night he had tried to get Xiao Wan drunk but ended up being the drunk one instead! He was so disappointed in himself. How could he have missed such a wonderful opportunity?!
Tapping himself on the chest in annoyance he realized his clothes were different from the night before. Although he was afraid Zhao-er would make fun of him, he asked anyway. “Zhao-er last night, were you the one that brought me back?” What he really wanted to ask was whether or not he and Xiao Wan visited the bridal chamber last night, but out of embarrassment he could only ask in a circumspect manner.
Zhao-er thought about the Young Master’s brazen behavior last night and paused in helping him comb his hair. He muttered a bit to himself before actually answering the question. “It was Ms. Xiao who brought the Young Master back last night.” Zhao-er sighed as if to express his discontent before continuing. “Young Master refused to let go of Ms. Xiao’s waist. On top of that Young Master kept yelling “dear wife” over and over again nonstop demanding she stay.”
Wife? Dear Wife?!
Embarrassment clouded Xie Chuchen’s clear and beautiful eyes. Apparently he had spoken those things he didn’t have the courage to say to her. To address her as “dear wife” was a secret he treasured in his heart. That he shouted it out in his drunken stupor was mortifying enough to burn his face crimson red.
“That’s not all. In the end Young Master even vomited all over Ms. Xiao.”
Deathly pale Xie Chuchen asked, “What… what was her reaction?” As if the first part of Zhao-er’s report wasn’t bad enough! Xie Chuchen let his imagination run wild. Apparently he was the kind of drunk who forgot his duties and responsibilities as soon as he indulged in pleasures!
Zhao-er glanced at his Young Master and wondered at the amount of humiliation Xie Chuchen had to be feeling at the moment. “Ms. Xiao was very angry. She said to return to the Xie House after Young Master recovers from the injuries. Young Master… let’s go back OK? The people of the Xiao House think Young Master is brazen for demanding to marry Ms. Xiao. This kind of reputation is no good!”
In reality the truth was not as cruel. That night Zhao-er had pretended to be asleep when the two came back. He had expected Xiao Wan to raise her voice in anger at Xie Chuchen when Xie Chuchen vomited on her. Unexpectedly it didn’t happen. In fact he was quite surprised at the consideration she showed Xie Chuchen. Instead of yelling in anger she dampened a cloth and wiped the stains on Xie Chuchen’s face and hands. Not only that she even put him in bed and gently tucked the quilt around him. She made sure he was fully covered and didn’t leave his side until the wee hours of the morning. She didn’t know Zhao-er was awake and watching her the whole time.
Zhao-er wasn’t fooled by her display of tenderness. He knew better. His opinion of her had always been that of a player who used her pretty mouth to smooth talk and corrupt young men. Now he added “wily schemer” to the description. His silly Young Master was too naive to realize it, so Zhao-er had to take it upon himself to protect him. The Young Master was too good for the likes of Xiao Wan. Clearly her reputation for being a player was well earned. Just look at the facts; it wasn’t even the first day of marriage and she already brought a concubine into the House![notes] No matter what, he had to try his best to protect the Young Master from Xiao Wan’s wily tricks, that was why he deliberately lied about Xiao Wan’s reaction. He wanted his Young Master to understand what a despicable and disloyal person Xiao Wan was, then perhaps his Young Master could cut her out of his heart.
Xie Chuchen really wanted to change Zhao-er’s opinion of Xiao Wan for the better but who would have expected it to turn for the worse instead.
He remembered he still needed to go to the main hall to pay his respects. At the thought his appetite completely deserted him. He was so nervous and worried that beads of sweat formed on his forehead. With the haggard look of someone clearly suffering from a hangover he rushed out to the main hall, his clothes barely appropriately draped on him.
He sensed the strange atmosphere the moment he entered. Looking around he saw that everyone was already seated; he was indeed the last one to arrive. The beating drum of his heart thudded loudly against his chest as he withdrew to the side. Just as he did so saw Xiao Wan and the fire and passion he saw there rooted him to the spot.
Her hair was unbound and loosely framed her face, the glossy dark strands providing a contrast against her porcelain skin. Without the heavy makeup she normally wore, the image was even more ethereal, giving her a truly enchanting look. She no longer had the air of an arrogant spoiled Young Miss, instead she comported herself in a dignified and earnest manner. It was an understatement to say the aura around her had completely changed recently.
Xie Chuchen had never seen this side of her before. The image gave him the courage to stop retreating and move farther into the hall. He steadied himself with a deep breath and moved forward.
“Mother, I didn’t give Xie Chuchen the jade pendant. He found it on his own so it shouldn’t count. I absolutely do not want to take Young Master Xie as my husband. I would feel really embarrassed.”
The words were jarring to Xie Chuchen. Though they came from a familiar voice, the tone was so cold it was like it came from a stranger’s lips. It froze him in place and left his face pale.
Trying to explain the situation as clearly as she could Xiao Wan continued with, “Ji Shumo is the only one in my heart. I was afraid that Mother and the elders would refuse to recognize Ji Shumo’s position as my main husband without it, so that’s why I made that fake pendant.”
After saying so she turned around and looked at Ji Shumo. “Shumo, I don’t want to marry him. He must have found the jade pendant when I lost it and hung onto it because he coveted the Xiao House’s wealth. That’s why he so brazenly tried to marry me! The only one I love is Shumo. How could I marry another man? Young Master Xie raised a ruckus that day because he was trying to sabotage our marriage!”
The words came out easily for Xiao Wan because they really were her true feelings from the previous life. Back then, after Xie Chuchen successfully crossed the fire pan she had used various means to keep his existence a secret. She managed to keep him hidden for over half a month before he was discovered, forcing her to explain why he was there. She retold the events leading up to everything based on her own interpretations. As a result Xie Chuchen’s character was thoroughly assassinated. He was cast into the role of a greedy thief who plotted to marry into a wealthy and powerful family. It somehow turned into Xie Chuchen stealing the jade pendant and blackmailing her to marry him.
At this point Xie Chuchen became a despised eyesore to everyone in the House. He was bullied mercilessly. Xiao Wan had even ridiculed his appearance. How dare he try to snatch a beauty when he himself was so ugly with his burnt hair.
“I, Xiao Wan, will never accept a husband with such a notorious reputation!” Xiao Wan laughed before turning to Ji Shumo again. “Shumo is the only one that’s sincere. Not greedy for the Xiao House’s wealth or privilege at all!”
Indeed! Shumo is so sincere towards me that he can’t wait for me to die.
Her tone was so awkward when she spoke that last sentence. Her heart was conflicted not knowing if the lines she spoke were true or not. She wondered if Ji Shumo would feel the prick of a guilty conscience or if he was secretly laughing at her stupidity. The old her had been so foolishly and recklessly in love with him that she had been blind to everything around her, disregarding all sense. This time around she would not let Ji Shumo create such havoc in her life. She had to make sure her plan succeeded.
She really wanted Ji Shumo to understand what love turned into sorrow and despair tasted like.
Zhao-er strode into the hall incensed at the words he heard. He marched right over to Xiao Wan and pointed his finger at her yelling, “You! What did you say?! My family’s Young Master is not that kind of person!”
Zhao-er served Xie Chuchen since they were both little boys, as a result they became good friends over the years. Xie Chuchen’s headstrong and unruly personality had rubbed off on Zhao-er, so although he was only a servant he never failed to speak his mind. He didn’t care that they were at the Xiao House, he didn’t care that even at home he wouldn’t have been allowed to yell and scold like so, he still bombarded Xiao Wan with spittle and curses. “Despicable, shameless woman! First you sweet talk my Young Master, then you dispatch people to bully him, then you cause him injury with the fire pan! You have no conscience!” His words resounded loudly in the large hall.
Xiao Wan simply took it all in stride, calmly letting him rant without interrupting.
When he ran out of new words to use he went back and recycled the insults he first threw, repeating words such as “shameless woman,” “bad woman,” and “despicable.” He glared fiercely at her the entire time happy in his heart that his Young Master came in time to hear her horrible words. Now his Young Master would see her for what she really was!
He cautiously glanced over at his Young Master to gauge the other’s reaction. He saw his Young Master standing by the doorway staring at Xiao Wan with a crestfallen expression on his face, looking for all the world like heaven and earth had somehow collapsed.
Xie Chuchen’s lips trembled without a sound coming out.
Although Xiao Wan presented a serene image that was unperturbed by Zhao-er’s cursing, in reality her heart had become a chaotic mess. She never expected Xie Chuchen to appear in the hall. Last night she had resolved to keep Xie Chuchen away from the misfortune of her House, to allow him the freedom to search for his own happiness somewhere else. Yet here he was appearing like he would collapse at any moment at the entryway of the hall.
The image of him standing there cut to the bottom of her heart and an overbearing sense of panic struck, choking her up. It was like she couldn’t breathe.
Better to get the pain over with! Better to break it off sooner than later! Prolonging it will only feel worse in the long run! Xiao Wan repeated the mantra in her mind. She endured the urge to go over and envelop him in a hug. Her throat closed up so she had to struggle to swallow before turning her head away and and stiffly spoke. “What shameless? What did I do to your Young Master. I only met him for the second time yesterday.”
She frowned. “Were it not for him having no sense of shame and coming here to demand I be his wife, do you think I’d even look at your Young Master? Considering his unsavory reputation and unruly behavior, do you think this Young Miss would bother with him?! As for the injury, wasn’t it his own fault for crossing over the fire pan? Did this Young Lady force him to do it? He did it all on his own. He’s the one that threw himself into my arms. He’s the one entangling himself in other people’s lives needlessly!”
Xiao Wan spoke so plainly and sensibly that Zhao-er had nothing with which to refute her claims. He could only indignantly point his finger at her. “You… you... you…” He could find no fault in her logic or any words to scold her with.
Xie Chuchen looked at Xiao Wan surreptitiously as his eyes misted and his vision blurred. He couldn’t say anything either. He watched as Xiao Wan turned to Ji Shumo and ask solicitously, “Shumo, what kind of presents should we bring when we visit your family later today? What would be a suitable gift?”
Xiao Wan’s care showed in her eyes and through the tone of her voice. It made Xie Chuchen envious and bitter at the same time. His hands were clenched inside his sleeves. He opened his eyes wide in an attempt to keep the tears from overflowing, trying his best to force them back inside. He stared at Xiao Wan with a gloomy expression, the confidence he built up completely gone. Although he was sad, although his heart felt like it just shattered, he was still unwilling to let go.
Xiao Wan didn’t expect her casual words to have such an effect on Xie Chuchen. He had such a complicated look on his face, like he was suffering from some kind of secret anguish. She didn’t understand why he had such an agonized look.
Xiao Wan’s earlier ridicule surprised everyone there; unruly, unsavory, weren’t those words an apt description of her as well?
“Someone, come and see this Young Master and his servant out. His continued presence will only breed misunderstanding.”
She avoided looking at Xie Chuchen, who was clutching his chest as though he wanted to speak, but unable to do so because of the tears threatening to overflow. Xiao Wan closed her eyes for a moment in agitation. It’s better for you to hate me. Don’t become the same foolish person from my previous life… I don’t deserve to be your dear wife.
Xiao Wan had a reputation for chasing after beautiful men, not caring if they were single or not. Had she not fallen for Ji Shumo, who knew the number of men she would have sullied. In fact her reputation as a dissolute rich Young Miss was so widespread that men would literally confine themselves indoors if they heard she was out and about. Some even purposefully bad-mouthed themselves in order to appear unappealing. It didn’t work though. The only person Xiao Wan refused to touch was Young Master Xie. The reason was because the two shared the same level of notoriety and Xiao Wan preferred her men to be both beautiful and talented, like the extremely well regarded Ji Shumo.
Yesterday changed everyone’s opinion of this long held belief. Perhaps she had loosened her criteria and even the beautiful but talentless Xie Chuchen was no longer safe from her, it was especially believable considering Xie Chuchen’s grief and indignation that day. His appearance had caused quite a stir during the wedding banquet. Unexpectedly someone actually took a liking to this foppish woman. There had to be something wrong with his eyesight… Who would have expected that it was only their second time meeting? Not only that, but to listen to Xiao Wan say it you’d think it was Xie Chuchen who threw himself into her embrace, getting into her business. Wasn’t Xiao Wan exactly that kind of person herself?! How brazenly shameless could she be to ridicule someone for doing the exact same thing she did? Seriously what the hell?!
“I can’t endure you misunderstanding my Young Master’s intentions anymore!” Zhao-er spat on the ground. “Young Master, let’s go.” Zhao-er tried to pull Xie Chuchen but the other refused to budge even an inch.
“I don’t want to go back home. Will you really break your promise?” Xie Chuchen stubbornly refused to yield to Zhao-er’s tugs and stood his ground as though he was rooted to the spot, staring at Xiao Wan.
This only made Xiao Wan more uncomfortable and she rubbed her eyebrow trying to cover up her worry. Noting the frown of disgust on Ji Shumo’s face she reached out to hold his hand before gently saying, “Shumo, let’s go. I want to see mother-in-law…”
In truth Ji Shumo didn’t care who Xiao Wan got affectionate with as long as it wasn’t him. He secretly hoped she would find plenty of others to dally with, this way his life would proceed smoothly without too much stress from her.
It still disgusted him that she was so fickle though. He tried to pull his hand out of her grasp in order to put some distance between them. Much to his consternation, instead of releasing his hand she yanked him over into an embrace. The grip on his hand wasn’t a gentle one either. It was fierce and pinched his skin.
“Shumo, about the bridal presents for your family… do you think your parents will be satisfied with them?”
Though the words were spoken with tenderness and affection Ji Shumo couldn’t help but feel a chill, as though there were threads of coldness underlying her words.
“Are you cold Shumo? You’re trembling.” Xiao Wan looked at Ji Shumo with worry in her eyes. She pulled him even closer and rubbed his hands with her own trying to warm him up.
Xie Chuchen stared at their public display of affection, his own head in a daze. A kind of feeling he couldn’t really describe welled up inside him as a slow sour bitterness seeped into his heart. Just comparing the two of them he knew how inadequate he was. Ji Shumo was all elegant and refined in his flowing clean robe. He on the other hand was clearly a reject disheveled from head to toe.
The scornful stares of those in the Xiao House took its toll on Zhao-er and he got antsy. “Young Master… let’s go back.”
“Go back, go back to where?” Xie Chuchen’s voice was rough and strained as though he was enduring a lot emotionally.
Zhao-er stamped his feet impatiently. “Go home of course! We’ve been gone for a whole night. Surely everyone will be worried!” He didn’t understand why his Young Master wanted to run away from home. Why did he want to stay at the Xiao House and be insulted like this? Not only that but to want to be married to a woman like Xiao Wan…
Xie Chuchen wondered if he had a home to return to. He forced a smile and in a broken high pitched voice said, “Ok, home. Let’s return home.” He wiped the tears off his face, not sure when he began crying. He turned and slowly limped away towards the front gates.
Grooms traditionally returned to their ancestral home on the third day after their wedding ceremony. If there was affection between the bride and groom, the groom would be allowed to return a day earlier than customary. In this way a husband would would reunite with his family as soon as possible and not feel heartache at missing them. On rare occasions a bride will accompany her groom and bring gifts to present to her in-laws as sign of her sincerity and deep respect.
Half an hour later Xiao Wan and Ji Shumo reached Ji Shumo’s ancestral home. They were greeted at the front gates by Ji Shumo’s parents. Ji Shumo’s mother eagerly pulled Xiao Wan’s arm, her eyes would glance at the cart full of gifts from time to time. She smiled and said, “Wan-er, it’s only a visit. You’re too polite, bringing so many presents.”
“I wasn’t sure what mother and father-in-law liked, so I brought a bunch of treasures over.”
Xiao Wan looked vibrant and full of youthful energy standing there dressed in a scarlet cheongsam. Her hair, tied up in a high ponytail with a red ribbon, flowed in the breeze and gave her a dashing air. She waved her hand in a grand gesture signalling for the servants to open the boxes in the cart. Inside were a blinding array of jades and unusual treasures that sparkled brightly in the sunlight, dazing those nosy onlookers who were gawking in the streets. One box in the back even held a priceless antique calligraphy.
As soon as Ji Xiao Feng, Ji Shumo’s mother, saw the calligraphy and all the treasures within, her eyes lit up. She nearly fainted from happiness at the dazzling array of gems, antiques, and paintings.
Ji Xiao Feng worked as a fourth ranked assistant in the Ministry of Revenue and although it was a prestigious title, it paid little by way of income. As a result it was a struggle for her, who enjoyed collecting antiques and artwork, to balance the budget every month.
Xiao Wan made use of several different methods in order to win Ji Shumo’s hand in marriage. She worked especially hard on his mother. Aware she loved antiques and fine art, Xiao Wan spent a large sum to purchase antiques and calligraphy as presents to satisfy her. Xiao Wan also helped the Ji House financially by giving her two shops.
The two shops were doing really well and the Ji House had a lot of goodwill towards Xiao Wan. As a result Ji Xiao Feng proposed marriage between her and Ji Shumo, which Xiao Wan “reluctantly” accepted.
Xiao Wan noticed the signs of deterioration as she stood in front of the gate. Looking at it she realized it was very likely that the Ji House wanted Ji Shumo to marry someone rich, someone they could easily take advantage of, in order to revitalize their coffers. It made financial sense for Ji Shumo to enter the Xiao House. Why else would Ji Shumo do an about face and agree to marry her, the her that he had disdained for so long? She had to make sure to tell Yun Yan to investigate the matter once she got back home. Now that she saw clearly, she realized how ridiculous their play was.
Looking at Xiao Wan’s hand as she gestured toward the gifts made Ji Xiao Feng’s heartbeat speed up. Stuttering she said, “Wan-er, you really… this is too extravagant…”
Back then Xiao Wan thought Ji Xiao Feng’s reaction was just an expression of how fond the other woman was of her. Now that she paid more attention, it was easy for her to see the scorn in Ji Xiao Feng’s eyes. It was only when the other woman saw the flash of gems and jewelry behind her that Ji Xiao Feng’s eyes shown with excitement. The excitement wasn’t for Xiao Wan’s arrival but for the riches behind her.
The old her would have been fooled thinking Ji Shumo’s mother loved her like a daughter. How stupidly easy to fool she was back then. Thinking that such treasures would fall into the mother of her enemy’s possession jabbed her heart with pain. Suddenly a wicked thought came to her. She watched as Ji Shumo’s mother reached her fingers toward the calligraphy as if to stroke it.
“Mother-in-law, do you like Yan Zhenqing’s calligraphy? This calligraphy scroll is definitely authentic. It cost well over a thousand gold to purchase.
“Wan-er, do you see mother as a stranger? You bringing Ji Shumo back personally is enough to make me happy. This child, why are you spending so much, behaving as though we’re on ceremony with each other?” Ji Xiao Feng purposefully put on an act of not caring for the gifts in front of the passersby.
“Mother-in-law’s words are wise. I was too intent on returning Ji Shumo that I didn’t properly think about what gift to bring and brought too much. Now I’ve given people the wrong impression about our relationship. I’ll have my servants line up the items one by one and mother-in-law can choose one you like best. I will return everything else to the Xiao House. Mother-in-law is truly a virtuous person. This child feels very guilty. I will remember mother-in-law’s words for the future…”
Xiao Wan had an expression of guilt and contrition on her face while she said, “Yun Yan, Hua Xia, come take these things and bring them back home. Don’t let their presence cause others to misunderstand the situation and think that Ji Xiao Feng is selling her son. Mother-in-law is an honest and virtuous woman. She doesn’t need such ostentatious ceremony.”
Xiao Wan’s reaction threw the people of the Ji House for a loop. They had expected Xiao Wan to insist on giving the gifts, not reduce it. Ji Xiao Feng was especially caught off guard unable to do anything to stop the withdrawal. If she accepted the gifts it would look like she was selling her son. How could that be considered virtuous?
To think they shot the duck down only to have it fly away and escape. The Ji people wrung their hands in consternation as the people on the streets whispered. The solicitous and welcoming expression Ji Xiao Feng had on earlier vanished and with an unhappy voice she said, “It’s windy out here, let’s all go inside.”
Pretending not to notice Ji Xiao Feng’s dark expression and Ji Shumo’s meaningful glances, Xiao Wan said, “Thank you for your concern mother-in-law,” as she swaggered empty-handed through the front gate. She hid her laugh behind her sleeves as she thought of how the gifts would be returned to the Xiao House.
Ji Xiao Feng’s attitude towards Xiao Wan warmed up considerably by lunchtime. She was very solicitous and encouraged Xiao Wan to eat more.
Outwardly Xiao Wan pretended to be touched by the consideration her mother-in-law showed her, but inwardly she was laughing at Ji Xiao Feng’s lousy acting skills. She was fully aware of the other party’s goal and the pretense involved. Ji Xiao Feng’s acting was just that bad.
“Shumo, you’re too thin. Eat more.” Xiao Wan picked up a nice fatty piece of pork shiny with oil and dropped it in Ji Shumo’s bowl, completely ignoring his look of disgust at the meat. Then she pretended to suck on her chopstick as she pulled it across her mouth, as if to savor every last drop of flavor, before she used the same chopsticks to pick up more food for him. She knew Ji Shumo preferred to eat light vegetarian dishes so she made sure to dip into every single dish that he would normally eat.
Ji Shumo not only hated eating dishes that were too greasy, he also found it disgusting when meat grease contaminated other food. He was a serious freak about his food, so it grossed him out to see Xiao Wan dip into all the dishes with her saliva coated chopsticks. Bile rose in his throat as he looked at the pile of food Xiao Wan placed in his bowl. His appetite disappeared and his face paled.
In contrast to Ji Shumo, who had put down his chopsticks stiffly, Xiao Wan ate with gusto. Her table manners were abominable; she held a hoof in her left hand and a wing in her right, alternating her bites between each, her head moving left then right, left then right. She was so unrestrained that even Yun Yan and Hua Xia[notes] hid their faces in their hands in embarrassment.
After gorging herself on all the meat available she asked Ji Shumo why he wasn’t eating his favorite sauteed winter melons.
Ji Shumo’s face looked calm but his eyes had a glazed tortured look. Xiao Wan deliberately held his gaze putting him on the spot, forcing him to answer the question. He could only stare at her chopsticks as though mesmerized.
She suddenly reached over and picked up a winter melon and brought it to Ji Shumo’s lips. “Come Shumo, ah...”
Ji Shumo eyed the winter melon pressing against his lips. He could clearly see the damp spot of saliva on the chopstick and it made him break out in goosebumps. Unable to hold it in he pushed her hand abruptly away and leaned over to the side to throw up the contents in his stomach. However since he didn’t eat anything there was only saliva and spit that came out. His pathetic form would have normally melted her heart.
This time around though she purposefully patted his back with her greasy hands. Slowly and firmly caressing him and wiping away all the oil and grease onto his robe. She knew how much he abhorred her touch. “Shumo… what happened? Where does it hurt?”
Ji Shumo tried to avoid her greasy claws but she only shifted her target to his face. Oh dear god… he wanted to vomit again.
Xiao Wan grabbed Ji Shumo’s face firmly and looked him up and down. Suddenly in amazement she said, “No appetite, vomiting, such symptoms… It seems I’m to blame for last night…”
It was as though a bolt of lightning struck him. Ji Shumo uncontrollably shook before sinking into his chair finally out of her grasp.
With a sigh and a smile Xiao Wan said, “Maybe it’s your stomach that bothers you. Do you want to see a physician?”
Ji Xiao Feng’s heart nearly stopped. She quickly jumped in with, “It’s probably just the grease. Shumo has never been good with greasy things. There’s no need for a physician.”
The Ji family had eaten their meal absentmindedly, hardly touching anything. Ji Xiao Feng barely finished speaking before servants began clearing the table. Xiao Wan was the only one who ate till she was full. Satisfied she leaned back in her chair and let out a loud burp.
Ji Shumo looked at her with clear pain in his eyes. Oh! That look made her incredibly happy. This happiness made her hungry again. She really wanted to eat and drink more!
While Xiao Wan was relaxing Ji Shumo went back to his room with his father. The only ones left in the dining hall were Ji Xiao Feng and her three daughters.
Ji Shumo was the youngest of his siblings and the most loved by Ji Xiao Feng. She went to great lengths to nurture his growth. Her work was rewarded as Ji Shumo earned an excellent reputation and was held in high regard. Countless people offered for his hand in marriage, but Ji Xiao Feng shot them all down. Only a noble lady was worthy of her son. She had even hoped he would become a royal concubine, however the possibility that he would be bullied cooled her to the idea. Consequently she went through Ji Shumo’s list of admirers looking for the one most infatuated with him.
Xiao Wan fit the bill perfectly. She had pursued Ji Shumo for three years and in those three years had gone out of her way to get in Ji Xiao Feng’s good graces. Although Ji Xiao Feng looked down on Xiao Wan because of her horrible reputation, Ji Xiao Feng still pretended to treat her like a confidant and friend, easily exploiting Xiao Wan’s gullibility to benefit the Ji House. Having Ji Shumo marry Xiao Wan was perfect. In this way he would become the main husband and gain better access to the wealth behind the Xiao House.
Ji Xiao Feng rose from being an assistant of the ninth rank to an assistant of the fourth rank thanks to her gifted son and stupid daughter-in-law. Her House also gained two highly profitable shops and countless valuable antiques and gifts. Xiao Wan was so enthralled by Ji Shumo that she came with him for the groom’s return home visit. She would use Xiao Wan’s love for Ji Shumo to fulfill her own desires. Now was the perfect time to broach the subject.
“Wan-er, Shumo’s eldest sister here is incredibly talented, quick-witted and clever. She’s capable of so much more. But alas she’s just a low level assistant of the ninth rank stuck serving at the academy…” Ji Xiao Feng heaved a big sigh and glanced over at Xiao Wan waiting for her to pick up on the cue. Who would have guessed she would pull a look of confusion instead? Ji Xiao Feng had to grind her teeth and continue further. “I heard the Assistant Minister position in the Ministry of Public Works is open. Perhaps you can put in a word or two…?”
Xiao Wan nodded but said, “It’s too much to jump from a ninth rank assistant directly to a fourth ranked one. Isn’t there a seventh ranked vacancy in the Ministry of Revenue? Mother-in-law works there, why not try to get her a position there instead of going to a different department?”
Xiao Wan snickered silently. The Ministry of Public Works was a huge department with oversight in quite a few fields including engineering, artisanal work, field work, water irrigation, transportation and more. In short it was a huge part of the government. An assistant position in the ministry would be cushy and lucrative.
Ji Xiao Feng wanted to put her incompetent daughter in a high position in the Ministry of Public Works because it meant she and her house would gain even more wealth and power. In her previous life Xiao Wan had picked up on Ji Xiao Feng’s hint and immediately rushed to fulfill it. In the process she caused her own mother a lot of grief resulting in a huge argument between the two. How could she make the same stupid mistake twice?
Ji Xiao Feng’s smile froze awkwardly on her face at Xiao Wan’s rejection. She had tried to get her daughter into the position at the Ministry of Revenue but her application was rejected after a short investigation. This was why she thought of Xiao Wan and her mother. How could they not get the even better position at the Ministry of Public Works if they used Xiao Yurong’s influence as the third highest ranked official?
Ji Xiao Feng knew Xiao Wan failed the provincial level examinations. Despite this, Xiao Yurong was still able to get her daughter a seventh rank position in the Ministry of War. It was a cushy position with practically no obligations. If a lazy good for nothing like Xiao Wan could get a position like that, how could she herself be willing to let her own daughter remain as a small ninth rank assistant at the university?
“Sis can’t you talk to Aunty about it?” Ji Shumo’s eldest sister couldn’t help but voice her thoughts eagerly. If you can do this then Shumo will surely have a whole new level of respect for you. You’ll be our family’s great benefactor!”
Xiao Wan snorted surreptitiously. Ji Shumo was no longer her achilles ankle. If they thought they could use him to manipulate her they were in for a rude awakening!
A refusal was just on the tip of her tongue when she saw Ji Shumo approaching. His cold eyes stared at her expectedly. In a heavy voice she said, “Shumo, this request… if I could grant it for you I would. But Shumo, you’ve really overestimated me.”
Her refusal was completely unexpected.
“I want to help eldest sister-in-law but you know mother doesn’t interfere in these matters. Even if she did and sister-in-law got the position, there will be gossip about how she only got it because she went through the back door. This will reflect poorly on her as she continues her career being an official. Next month is the imperial exams, if sister-in-law has the ability then taking the exams will be best. At that time sister-in-law,” Xiao Wan turned to her sister-in-law and continued with, “you can showcase your abilities and earn the position of assistant minister based on your own merits.” Trying to get something for nothing? I’m not that stupid anymore.
Shumo’s eldest sister had participated in the provincial part of the imperial exams but had failed to do well. Her face turned green at Xiao Wan’s proposal because of this. What ability? She didn’t have any. In fact she was as idle as Xiao Wan. Becoming a ninth rank official was the best she could do.
Watching her brother rise in fame had her itching to gain more. She wanted to ride on his coat-tails and use the Xiao House’s influence to do so. It was why she was treating Xiao Wan like she was an honourable guest the entire visit. After all that, Xiao Wan still refused!
The faces around the table turned ugly. Ji Shumo was particularly stunned as Xiao Wan had always treated his desires like they were the most important things in the world. Her refusal was clear and blunt, leaving no wiggle room to negotiate.
Ji Xiao Feng laughed awkwardly before switching to a different topic. Addressing Xiao Wan she said, “Your second eldest sister-in-law’s shops are doing really well and can benefit from expansion. Raising capital for another two branches...” She let her voice trail off to give Xiao Wan the opportunity to jump in. Xiao Wan was a silly spendthrift so Ji Xiao Wan knew she would offer the money.
Xiao Wan didn’t take the bait and instead said, “Oh! Opening a branch would be good.”
“It’s just that money is a little tight for it… wouldn’t Wan-er…?”
“How much money do you want to borrow?”
At “how much” Ji Xiao Feng broke out in a big smile but the word “borrow” made it disappear.
“If mother-in-law doesn’t have enough money and is interested in borrowing the funds, I can lend some. After we formalize a promissory note I’ll find a way to get the funds from the treasurer at the my House later tonight.”
“A promissory note?” Ji Xiao Feng was dumbstruck.
Xiao Wan shyly nodded. I know mother-in-law is dissatisfied but I had to spend a lot in order to arrange my wedding with Shumo. My savings are spent right now. Money is a little tight for me as well, so I’ll have to require a promissory note from you.”
She wasn’t faking either. The old her had spent a small fortune on the lavish wedding, on top of that she also spent a great deal in the months leading up to the wedding. Just the two shops alone were rather expensive. Her mother had refused to give her the money so she was only able to successfully purchase it through scrimping and saving her own funds. It was worth it to see the smile on Ji Shumo’s face. After that she had given them even more money, nearly wiping out her own savings in the process.
It wasn’t until later that Xiao Wan discovered all 3,200 silver she worked so hard for was gambled away by Ji Shumo’s eldest sister.
Ji Xiao Feng gave Ji Shumo a meaningful glance when she saw that her efforts to extort money from Xiao Wan failed. Xiao Wan gleefully ate a piece of fruit while pretending not to see the exchange. She was trying to think of a way to get the two shops back from them.
While Xiao Wan made her plans, Ji Shumo was communicating silently with his mother through eye contact and slight gestures. He turned to Xiao Wan and smiled sweetly at her. “Wife… darling wife. Does it have to be a loan? Aren’t we family? Why split hairs over such a small thing?”
It was rare for Ji Shumo to play the charming husband for Xiao Wan, calling her “darling wife” in such a sweet and endearing manner. Xiao Wan simply raised her eyes to him enjoying it. She stretched her hand out to his waist and roughly pulled him over to her. With a sigh she said, “Shumo, recently I’ve spent money too recklessly. Mother is angry she docked my monthly salary. The promissory note just makes it easier for me to get the money from the treasury and show mother where the money is going. I can show that I’m using it for you and not for fooling around.”
How despicable! She really does want to force us to borrow the money.
Xiao Wan spoke with some hesitancy. “Since we don’t have sufficient money on hand, it will be better to take it slow and not open a new branch. Don’t you agree?”
Ji Shumo was so angry he threw Xiao Wan’s hand off his waist. “Why are you lying?” Ji Shumo asked in irritation. “You have so many valuable antiques and artwork. Selling just one or two would bring in enough funds. How can you say you have no money?”
Xiao Wan’s face sank.
“This wife. You say you love me but yet you’re so unwilling to part with even a single silver for me? Is this how much you love me?” Ji Shumo had a very hurt look in on his face.
Oh, you want to play? OK. I’ll entertain you in that game. Xiao Wan sighed. “Shumo, if you need money I’ll gladly give it to you. All I ask in exchange is a promissory note…”
She not only circumvented his questioning, but brought the responsibility back to him. He stood up unable to stay calm. The bruises on his own wrist from her hold the other day caught his eye and he was reminded of how Xiao Wan had walked into the Ji House empty-handed without a single gift. His body trembled in anger at the memory. His trembling didn’t affect Xiao Wan at all though.
It was obvious to everyone that her priorities had changed, that the blind stupidity that made her so easy to manipulate was no longer there. They couldn’t help but be extremely angry at this turn in events and it showed clearly on their faces.
Xiao Wan couldn’t stand the way they looked. They acted as though it was their right to get money from her. She cleared her throat and spoke. “Shumo, it’s late. Let’s go back home.”
Ji Shumo declared. “You can go. I’m staying!”
Xiao Wan’s heart sank in disappointment but she smiled anyway. “Are you sure you want to remain here? You want me to return home, alone, without you?”
“Yes!” Ji Shumo nodded his head without looking at her.
There was a limit to her patience. She could get angry too! How did she endure his ridiculous temper tantrums before? Well one thing was for sure, she wasn’t going stand it anymore. He had behaved in this unreasonable spoiled way for so long that Xiao Wan wondered what it was she actually found so sweet and endearing about him.
Her old self tolerated his behavior in the past because she had been blinded by love; even if he was unreasonable she would put up with it and do whatever it took to soften his anger. In some ways she even found the challenge satisfying.
The her now still loved him, but that love was mixed with a newfound sense of resentment and anger. A strong feeling of irritation came over her as she watched him play his part in the farce.
Right now she had to put up with it because he played a vital role in her own plan. She needed to appease him in order to maintain the situation. With that in mind she smiled and said, “Ji Shumo, as your wife I’m willing to accede to any of your requests…”
Ji Shumo’s heart relaxed at her words. She was finally going to grant his request regarding the shop.
Xiao Wan continued, “I will certainly not refuse your request. Normally the groom home visit would end before sunset, but if Shumo wants to stay and chat with mother and father-in-law some more then obviously I’m not going to refuse. I really want to stay and accompany you, but it’s tradition that a newlywed’s house shouldn’t be left empty the first month of marriage. So dear husband I will be returning first…” Xiao Wan smiled and waved her hand as if to settle the matter. “Just send word to me when you’re ready to come back home and I’ll come and pick you up.”
Ji Shumo was so shocked at how graceful her movements were that he could only stare at her sleeve as it waved. She looked genuinely happy. He quickly came back to his senses and decided on his next move. From now on he was going to give her the cold shoulder and the silent treatment. He was definitely not returning to the Xiao House until she acquiesced to his wishes.
She had obsessively chased after him for three years, so he knew what her temperament was like and how to deal with her. She was as soft as a marshmallow when it came to him. All he had to do was wait for her to get back home, then she would definitely feel regret and miss him immediately. She’d come back, admit she was wrong, and work hard to coax him out of his mood. She wouldn’t dare deny his requests after that.
Ji Shumo would have been right and this would have been the order of events had this been the same Xiao Wan he was accustomed to, however this Xiao Wan had a new lease on life and her priorities were completely different. Not only did she feel no regrets about him staying, she was in fact motivated and liberated.
Xiao Wan had originally intended on spoiling Ji Shumo as she had done in her previous life but then she realized this: although Ji Shumo hated her, he needed her to stay in love with him in order for to complete his objectives. As for her, it didn’t matter how she treated him, she would be able to use him as long as she could keep an eye on him. There was no reason for her to go out of her way to appease and spoil him. This realization considerably lightened her mood, making her feel refreshed and unburdened. What a great time to teach him a lesson. He’ll know I’m not the same obedient Xiao Wan that he can lead by the nose anymore. She was in a good mood laughing cheerily as her entourage made their way back home.
Hua Xia on the other hand was sweating nervously as she drove the carriage back . Perhaps Xiao Wan had become stupid because of Ji Shumo? In a rare display of concern she refrained from using her sharp tongue and instead asked, “Miss, don’t laugh so much. You’re scaring everyone. If you don’t want to let go of Ji Shumo, then you have to go back and get him. If Miss and Ji Shumo have a fall out it will only be Miss’s heart that breaks!”
Xiao Wan leaned against the goose down cushion and gently pushed the curtain apart. She couldn’t resist smiling as she looked up at the bright sunshine. “No, he needs to understand. I’m not the same Xiao Wan anymore.”
Hua Xia had become accustomed to the feeling of having her liver and guts wretched everytime Xiao Wan foolishly threw money around whenever it involved Ji Shumo. She couldn’t help but roll her eyes at the words coming out of Xiao Wan’s lips. Turning to Yun Yan next to her she said, “How can love fade away so fast? The Young Miss will definitely regret it after a few days... and guess who’s gonna bear the brunt of it? Us!”
Yun Yan covered her face, her brows seemingly locked in a permanent furrow. Xiao Wan had asked her and Hua Xia to collect a bunch of antiques and artwork with the intentions of giving everything to Ji Shumo and his mother. But in the end not only did she not hand everything over, she even refused Ji Shumo’s request in a way that left him no face at all. Then she topped it all off by letting him stay and leaving the Ji House with a bounce in her steps.
This was just too strange! When had Xiao Wan ever been able to withstand Ji Shumo’s displeasure? If it weren’t for the fact they’d been guarding her since leaving the Xiao House, they would have thought that the Xiao Wan in front of them was an imposter.
Xiao Wan’s good mood didn’t last for too long though. Looking out the window she saw two familiar figures trying to sneak around a wall.
“Young Master, just grab my hand. I’ll pull you up.”
“I, I can’t...”
Xiao Wan narrowed her eyes at the curious sight. She had Hua Xia stop the carriage and cautiously walked over to the two people. She worriedly watched as the young man tried to climb over the wall.
“Zhao-er, I can’t climb up.” Because of his ankle injury Xie Chuchen’s movements were really clumsy. He jumped several times trying to grasp Zhao-er’s offered hand, but he just couldn’t get a good hold. Ultimately he ended up yanking Zhao-er down off the wall. The two gave up, bit the bullet and walked to the front gate. Suddenly Zhao-er’s eyes widened in surprise.
“Young Master! There’s a doggie hole here!”
The two young men squatted down and proceeded to wiggle their way in through the hole unaware of the eyes behind that were watching them.
Xie Chuchen was able to wiggle through the hole successfully, however Zhao-er was more portly and couldn’t get all the way through, leaving him tragically stuck halfway.
“Zhao-er!” Just as Xie Chuchen was trying to figure a way to help his friend a mocking voice spoke up.
“Oh what’s this? Why are you crawling in through the dog hole like a thief cousin? Do you have a guilty conscience or something?” The woman that spoke had a rotund belly that was barely restrained by the teal green belt of the dress she wore. In her hair was a flower blossom pin and in her eyes was a tremendous amount of scorn.
The young man by her side had a toothsome smile and red lips. His brocade clothes were richly embroidered. What came out of his mouth was just as unkind. “To go missing for an entire day, what woman did you elope with? Returning like a loser, was it possible you were discarded immediately?”
“What drivel are you spouting?!” Zhao-er angrily yelled from his position. He wanted to do more but he couldn’t move out of the hole. The only thing he could do was attack with his words the two vicious siblings in front of him.
“How dare you speak that way to your superiors! You clearly don’t know how to behave!” She had long wanted to tell Xie Chuchen’s manservant off for some time. She looked at Zhao-er stuck in the hole, signaled one of the wet nurses at the side with her eyes. With one hand on her hip that lady sashayed forward and raised her foot to kick Zhao-er in the face.
Xie Chuchen blanched and immediately stepped forward taking the hit instead. It was painful but he refused to move and leave Zhao-er defenseless. There was now a clear footprint added to his already messy and dirty clothes. He stared at his two cousins with ice daggers shooting out of his eyes.
At this point a middle aged woman could be seen walking towards them. Her face was round, the picture of glowing health, while her body was plump, decked out in jewels making her shine like a treasure herself. Her physical appearance was similar to the two siblings; it was obvious she was their mother.
Upon seeing Xie Chuchen’s filthy sorry figure she immediately set to criticizing him. ”Chen-er![notes] What is with your appearance?! Go clean up and make yourself presentable. Missing for a whole day, your dad’s been worried sick about you. How would I ever face your mother if something happened to you?”
Xie Chuchen laughed sarcastically at that. “Second aunt, there’s no need to put on a show of concern. You just want me to freshen up so I can look presentable when you sell me out as a concubine right? If I went missing then the Xu House would definitely make second aunt pay for it right?”
Xie Chuchen’s mother had worked hard to make the Xie House a prosperous and powerful one. It was through hard work and dedication that Xie Xinxuan, Xie Chuchen’s mother, made them the richest house in the nation. After her death everything fell apart. Her younger sister, Xie Qingrong, took over raising Xie Chuchen and made a show of caring and consoling the young boy. Through him she was able to take over more than half of Xie Xinxuan’s properties.
Despite the immensity of the legacy left behind by Xie Xinxuan, Xie Qingrong managed to go through it in a matter of three years, spending more than half of the money on booze, food, men, and gambling. Once the money was squandered away Xie Qingrong’s mask fell off and her initial care and concern towards Xie Chuchen and his father turned into cold neglect.
Despite profits at the Xie shops declining, Xie Qingrong still gambled like she always did. Their current financial state meant she couldn’t pay her gambling debts. In order to save herself she made a secret deal with the Third Young Miss of the Xu House; she would give Xie Chuchen to her in exchange for 1,200 silvers as a dowry.
Xie Chuchen was so stubborn, she knew it was unlikely he’d agree to a marriage where he wouldn’t be the main husband. She planned on delivering him into the wedding sedan by druggin him unconscious. By the time he woke up, it would be too late for him to do anything about it, as his tofu would have already been eaten.
Her plans were ruined when Xie Chuchen disappeared the day before the ceremony!
Xie Qingrong narrowed her eyes as Xie Chuchen aired out her secret plan. He must have snuck out because he overheard her speaking to the Xu matchmaker about it.
She stopped bothering with the show of concern and said, “Well, since you already know, hurry up and make yourself presentable! The Xu people will be here with the sedan chair soon. Don’t cause any more delays!” She shot him a warning look that clearly said he shouldn’t try to escape again.
Xie Chuchen swallowed his anger before saying, “I’m already married. I’ll have to trouble second aunt to take care of this other marriage.”
“Already married?!” Xie Qingrong couldn’t contain her laughter and her body shook like a rolling log of jello as she guffawed. ”You mean, when you brazenly crashed Xiao Wan’s wedding spouting nonsense about how she promised to marry you? Everyone knows Xiao Wan will only marry one man, and that man is Ji Shumo. We all know how insanely infatuated she is with him. You and Ji Shumo are as different as night and day and you still dare to want to marry Xiao Wan?”
Xie Chuchen lost all the color in his face, like she had struck a nerve. Xie Qingrong saw this. Together with his dejected return through the doggie hole and his posturing, Xie Qingrong immediately realized Xiao Wan did not officially recognize Xie Chuchen as a husband. Regardless of his status, she already accepted the dowry from the Xu House. She had to uphold her end of the bargain and send Xie Chuchen over. It was imperative he not run away again! How could she convince him?
She suddenly leaned forward and spoke earnestly, “Chen-er, Xiao Wan won’t be a virtuous wife to you. Don’t hold her in such high regard in your heart. Listen, Aunty picked out a real nice girl for you to marry. The Xu’s Third Young Miss has a promising future, is beautiful, and her House is well off. She’ll definitely treat you well and pamper you. Now put a smile on that face of yours and go and make yourself presentable so you can give her a proper greeting when she arrives.”
The Third Young Miss of the Xu House was named Xu Qing. She recently turned eighteen but already had twelve husbands; Xie Chuchen would become the thirteenth. She was known for her bossy and domineering attitude toward her husbands. Together she and Xiao Wan were the top two lechers in the capital. Any fool would recognize Xie Qingrong’s words for the barefaced lies they were.
“Chen-er, with your reputation there’s no one who’d be willing to take you as a main husband.” Xie Qingrong paused when she saw the sneer on Xie Chuchen’s face. She felt the need to add, “You have to be aware the financial situation of our House isn’t great right now. If you don’t marry into the Xu House we’ll lose the 1,200 dowry. On top of that we’ll have to pay them 2,200 for breach of contract. Your father’s health is getting worse by the day. If he doesn’t get medicine...”
Xie Chuchen’s eyes widened in panic and his brows furrowed in worry. He clenched his fingers unconsciously into fists in his sleeve, a bitter smile on his face.
The look on Xie Chuchen’s face was exactly the look Xie Qingrong was looking for. Feeling relieved she immediately gave the two wet nurses standing to the side a look. They took the hint and walked over to Xie Chuchen, one on his left, the other on his right. “Young Master this way...”
Zhao-er finally understood the situation. Those two are here to make sure the Young Master doesn’t run away again. No wonder he’s been so depressed lately. This must be why he ran away to the Xiao House and tried to marry Xiao Wan. It explains why he didn’t want to return and why he didn’t want to go through the front gate...It explains so much!
“Young Master!” Zhao-er shouted in tears. ”You can’t marry the Xu Third Young Miss! She’s a monster! It’s said that any man she marries will be tormented! Don’t go with them!”
She had hung out together with Xu Qing several times so she knew exactly what kind of personality the other girl had. Xiao Wan didn’t intend to interfere in their family affairs... She just never expected the Xie family would actually try to coerce Xie Chuchen to marry Xu Qing. No wonder he looked so sad when she asked him to go back home. It was because he was returning to this! His situation sent a stab to her heart as she stood watching from the front gate.
“I...” Xie Chuchen knew it was impossible for him to escape. Despite being his mother’s first born child he had no authority. His aunt had seized control of the House and he was left penniless. If he didn’t go along with his aunt’s plan then there would be no way to treat his father’s illness. He couldn’t bear the thought of his father languishing sick in bed.
A sharp voice yelled out, “Is this the one who’s to be Third Young Miss’s thirteenth husband?” It was the matchmaker from the Xu House. She was dressed brightly in a crimson outfit with a face loaded with makeup that only served to accentuate the mole on her face. She critically looked at Xie Chuchen up and down, noting his filthy appearance before speaking. “Ah! Mistress Xie, originally our Third Young Miss wanted to hold a festive wedding ceremony for the beautiful and talented Young Master Xie, however the recent scandal has made her lose considerable face. The Third Young Miss is very angry and wants Young Master Xie to just enter through the side door and proceed directly to the bridal chamber. Forget about the front gate.”
The matchmaker purposefully chose her words to be as insulting as possible, however she was left unsatisfied with Xie Chuchen’s blank stare and lack of reaction. She frowned and finally yelled at him. “It’s already so late! Do you want the Third Young Miss to wait for you? Hurry up and change!” She walked over and yanked him by the arm after saying so.
Xie Chuchen wasn’t offended because he was actually lost in thought, recalling bits and pieces of conversation, so when the matchmaker grabbed him he nearly lost his balance and staggered a few steps. In his mind he were the words:
The only one that child has space for in her heart is Ji Shumo.
How can I, Xiao Wan have such a lousy good for nothing as my main husband?!
Xie Chuchen bit his lip remember those words. For him the only person he wanted to marry was Xiao Wan. Since she refused him then it didn’t matter who he married; it was all the same to him. His hair fell in front of his face covering his eyes as he stiffly walked forward escorted on either side by the two stout wet nurses. The matchmaker continued to prod him from behind. What did he have left to fear? There was no hope left, might as well just go along with the charade. His eyes became vacant, a window to an empty soul.
Xiao Wan became increasingly uncomfortable as she watched the spectacle from the front gate, her distress level rising. She kept hearing Xie Chuchen’s voice at the execution grounds and remembering the desperation and despair in his eyes. His bitter and gut-wrenching cries still haunted her even now. She couldn’t help but remember his drunken embarrassment and happiness when they shared the wedding wine together.
“Xiao Wan, I’m your husband! You have to acknowledge me!”
“Xiao Wan, I really like you!”
“Dear wife. I’m so happy! I finally get to marry you...”
After the experience of being betrayed in her previous life, Xiao Wan’s heart had considerably hardened, yet a seed of pity and sorrow still managed to burrow through. How can you stand there so cold and composed? I never wanted to take you for my husband... I don’t even like you. But this I know. I definitely owe you a debt. I won’t stand by as your chance at happiness is destroyed. I failed you as a wife before, I won’t let it happen again.
Originally she wanted to cut him free and have nothing further to do with him, but now she wanted to protect him and she was one who always acted on her impulses. She never imagined how drastically her actions would change the course of both their lives.
Xiao Wan would look back at that moment and realize how fortunate it was she interfered, that she decided to make Xie Chuchen a part of her life, to pull him closer and protect him under her wing. Had she pushed him away she would never have known what a wonderful, beautiful, and delicious husband he was.
“What are you dawdling for? Get a move on it!” berated the matchmaker in a sharp voice. She was about to yank Xie Chuchen to get him to hurry when something made her let loose a bloodcurdling scream instead.
A distinct brittle cracking sound immediately followed. Two beautiful jade-like fingers pinched the matchmaker’s hand before she could grab Xie Chuchen. Never mind fight back, the matchmaker didn’t even get to see who grabbed her before she was flung loudly against the wall of the gate.
Xiao Wan swept the two standing at Xie Chuchen’s side with a glare, a menacing smile on her face, projecting the aura of a rich aristocrat who did as she pleased. The two understood and made to move away from Xie Chuchen, however before they even got a chance to let go of his arm, Xiao Wan sent one flying far with a kick. Before that one could recover she knocked the other wet nurse down and stepped on that one’s chest.
Xiao Wan twirled her hair around her fingers and stretched her lips up in an insincere smile before saying, “Tell this Young Lady[notes] which foot did you use to kick Xie Chuchen so ruthlessly earlier? Was it this? Or this one?” Xiao Wan tapped each foot to emphasize her point as she spoke.
The wet nurse looked at Xiao Wan’s foot as she tapped, the terror apparent in her eyes. She shook her head vigorously. Her obvious fear only made Xiao Wan sneer. “Oh. You don’t want to say? Why don’t I cripple both your legs then.”
Xiao Wan was basically a tyrant, bossy and domineering, always throwing her weight around. Her ranking in the top four in the capital for being the most terrifying was truly well deserved!
Her intimidating pressure made the wet nurse under her foot howl, begging for forgiveness. “It hurts! It hurts! This servant knows her wrongs. Please Young Miss, spare this servant!”
“Wrongs?” Xiao Wan’s blood boiled when she thought about Xie Chuchen swaying and nearly collapsing from the kick earlier. Unwilling to contain her anger she kicked the wet nurse several times hard in the chest. The kick was so forceful that it sent one of the wet nurse’s tooth flying.
Looking at the swollen and bleeding sorry figure of the woman underneath her made Xiao Wan feel a bit better. She couldn’t help but smile as she turned around to look at Xie Chuchen. She assumed a gallant and handsome pose - at least she thought it was gallant and handsome.
“Don’t be afraid. While I’m here I won’t let anyone bully you.” She kicked the woman under her one more time to emphasize her point, making the other howl in grief and pain.
The previous her hated to read, but she was inclined to learn martial arts. It wasn’t because she liked it or wanted to strengthen her body. It was so she could impress the beauties around her by playing the hero, thrashing the thugs and making a show of it. This way the beauties would admire her for saving them.
Although she earnestly studied martial arts for a period of time, the previous her only studied in fits, a little bit of everything, nevertheless it was enough for her intended purpose. She would carouse the streets looking for beautiful talented young men, oftening paying people to act as thugs and bully them. Then she would appear all bright and dazzling to save the day, winning their affections. This was her three years ago.
She did a complete 180 and stopped playing around when she met Ji Shumo, exclusively giving all her attention to him. She didn't use her martial arts at all after that since she only ever used it for her scams; she herself was heavily guarded by bodyguards, so she never needed to fight personally.
Despite this, her hero-saving-the-beauty-act was still perfect and went off without a hitch. Arrange herself in front of the beautiful youth? Check. Send the bad person flying with a kick? Check. Raise her head with a flourish while delivering her lines? Check. Pose heroically? Check. Every movement was well choreographed and played out. She’d done this so many times it was practically instinct. Especially that last line, it was delivered so well! Earlier when she kicked the wet nurse, she went on autopilot and unconsciously let out her catchphrase.
The strange yet familiar voice caused Xie Chuchen to stiffen. His brain couldn’t wrap itself around the situation. He kept his head down during the entire scuffle, not saying a word or daring to raise his eyes.
It had to be a illusion. Maybe he wanted to see her so much he was imagining her voice. He lifted his head and instantly saw Xiao Wan standing with her back to him. Her hair flying behind her, her dark red robe setting off her body making her look like a god descending, blocking the sun... but also blocking the bone chilling wind.
It was just like three years ago. At that time he’d seen the same image, the same awesome speech, the same body standing in front protecting him.
Xie Chuchen couldn’t breathe. Memories he’d buried deep in his heart came crashing back, weighing like a stone on his heart. Despite this the hope that there was something he could depend on refused to leave.
It felt like it was just another one of the dreams he’d had over and over the past few years - a dream of being saved. This thought terrified him. Despite his fear, he walked forward with measured steps. Upon reaching her he tugged at the hem of her sleeve then slowly and resolutely leaned forward into her body, hoping the warmth would reach the darkest place in his heart.
Xie Qingrong stared with knitted brows clearly distressed at the scene. Her daughter, Xie Xi, too aggravated to contain herself or notice the look on her mother’s face, walked over and shoved her finger in Xiao Wan’s face yelling, "How dare you! How dare you come into the Xie House and be so disrespectful! You wild woman! Come! Give this lady--!"[notes]Seeing her beloved wet nurse who had mothered her since infancy be assaulted and her teeth knocked out angered her so greatly she could only sputter. Her brother also glared on at the scene in anger once the shock of the events wore off.
Xiao Wan interrupted Xie Xi’s angry tirade with, “This person... are you born from such lowly birth? Dare have the audacity to point at this Young Miss’s face and raise such a ruckus. Such poor upbringing can only reflect badly on the Master of the House. How worrisome!” Xiao Wan mockingly laughed at the young woman in front of her as she fiercely slapped the woman’s finger away from her face.
Xie Xi only knew a life of luxury and constant pampering. Her delicate finger immediately turned red at the harsh slap and she, perhaps because her balance wasn’t stable to begin with, took a tumble leaving her in an undignified and sorry looking state. Xie Xi held her aching finger in her hand.
Xiao Wan took out an embroidered kerchief and used it to wipe her hand and the bloodstains that splattered on her clothes. Once done she tossed the soiled fabric disdainfully away.
In an instant Xie Xi’s expression changed. She was interrupted by Xiao Wan’s sharp tongue before she could fully let out her rage, choking her up and making her face pale.
Xiao Wan continued in a cold voice, "The upbringing of the people in this family isn’t the only thing at issue either. A mere servant," she pointed to the wet nurse on the ground, "was actually audacious enough to kick my house’s Zhangzi[notes]. A recognized husband of my house? This kind of insolence needs to be punished. According to common law she should be flogged fifty times then ejected from the house."
Immediately after Xiao Wan raised her hand calling over her servant. "Hua Xia bring this Young Lady a sturdy board! One that can be used without breaking easily!"
Xie Xi could only stutter, “You, you!” when she saw Hua Xia’s quick return with a heavy coarse looking board in hand. Her face paled as she yelled, “You dare!” How could her elderly wet nurse withstand such a thing?!
“What doesn’t this Young Lady dare not do?” Xiao Wan asked looking at Xie Xi out of the corner of her eye as she directed Hua Xia to carry out the punishment. The wet nurse had long since fainted from fear.
“Oh? Are you going to stop this Young Lady from carrying out the law? Didn’t expect the Xie people would not only lack a proper upbringing, but to also lack family law. Indeed, this Young Lady is truly disappointed!”
Xie Xi in a fluster said, “How can I allow an outsider like you to pass judgement and punishment on my family servants?!”
“Outsider?” Xiao Wan bared her teeth in a smile. She looked at Xie Xi contemptuously. What a stupid girl. “I am Xiao Wan and this person you’re bullying is my husband. How can you say I don’t have the right to enforce punishment? The fact that this Young Lady has not crippled her is merciful enough!”
“Xiao, Xiao Wan!” Startled, Xie Xi could only repeat the name. The anger she felt drained away and a new terrified expression replaced it. Her House was a small common House; there was no way it could compete with an influential one like Xiao Wan’s. Xie Xi had certainly heard of Xiao Wan’s name, but this was the first time she’d clap eyes on the person.
She looked at Xie Chuchen and yelled, “You, you’re really his official husband?!” before swiveling her head to Xiao Wan and adding, “And you, you’re really Xiao Wan?!”
Xie Chuchen was standing against Xiao Wan barely daring to breathe in her scent. The moment he heard his cousin’s words, he completely froze. He scurried away the instant Xiao Wan turned her head away, as though the idea of clinging to her warmth had never occurred to him.
Xiao Wan followed Xie Xi’s gaze that was directed at Xie Chuchen. Seeing his horrified face as he retreated away from her made her frown. She heaved a sigh wondering if her earlier violence scared him. She hadn’t meant to be so rough, but the sight of him being bullied really rubbed her the wrong way. She couldn’t resist making an example of them!
“You, is it possible you’re deaf? Chuchen said it earlier. This Young Lady just said it not a minute ago. What’s there to misunderstand? Are you deaf and stupid?” Xiao Wan looked around arrogantly before speaking. “Listen, and listen well! This Young Lady will not cower or back down from anyone! This Young Lady stands by her actions. I am Xiao Wan, Xie Chuchen’s wife. I ask that you speak more respectfully. I’m not some rude wild woman or some ill-mannered concubine born child!” Xiao Wan straight out called Xie Xi out for being a concubine’s daughter and of low birth.
It made Xie Xi livid! However her anger had nowhere to go since she couldn’t take it out on Xiao Wan as she was actually afraid of Xiao Wan. Unbearable! She could only turn to her mother beseechingly.
After clearing up the misunderstanding caused by the gossip at the wedding, Xiao Wan snuck a peek at Xie Chuchen. She couldn’t help but smile slightly as she did so, imagining his reaction. Surely he’ll be moved to tears! Sadly this was not the case. Instead Xie Chuchen retreated even farther from her, treating her as though she was diseased.
How upsetting! She reached forward wanting to pull him back against her side, but he only glanced at her quickly before tucking his head down, a frightened look of alarm on his face.
Xie Chuchen’s body was a dirty mess but the smell of him soothed her and set her mind at east. The warmth of his body and the pliant yielding way he molded to her side had given her a strange sense of satisfaction she couldn’t describe. If she were to voice a complaint, it would be that he was too thin. A plumper him would feel even better!
Just as she was letting her imagination roam she saw the horror on Xie Chuchen’s face. He was scared stiff. She took advantage of his stillness and reached over to sweep his hair from his face. So dirty! She took out a clean cloth and carefully wiped his face.
Soon enough Xie Chuchen’s handsome face emerged once the grime and dirt was cleared away. Their faces were close enough to each other that their breaths intermingled in the air. Xiao Wan’s expression grew softer as she stared at him. He was like a treasure she wanted to grasp.
“Chuchen, how could you return to your ancestral home without me? Were you angry I accompanied Shumo to his home first? I promised that I’d accompany you later. How could you return by yourself like that? Won’t people get the wrong idea?”
Her line of questioning was meant to let everyone know she officially recognized Xie Chuchen as her husband, that he was a person of the Xiao House, and that he made the groom home visit on his own out of jealousy. It was absolutely not because he was abandoned or discarded.
Xie Chuchen’s lips trembled as he spoke. “Xiao, Young Miss Xiao...”
Regardless of whether it was this life or the previous, this was the first time Xiao Wan referred to Xie Chuchen so intimately by his first name, “Chuchen.”
Chuchen, Chuchen, a name that stood for something exceptional. Although people ridiculed him for not living up to his name, looking at him now, Xiao Wan felt the he was the embodiment of it. He was so beautiful his brightness outshone everything around him. It was truly a pleasure to be with him in that moment.
His name was so pleasant to say and hear that Xiao Wan couldn’t resist calling out to him again. “Chuchen.” It really was addictive this feeling! A bright smile formed on her lips as she spoke.
In this life she vowed to be more perceptive; she would never be so blind again as to let a wonderful treasure gather dust! Xie Chuchen looked like he just lost his soul. Xiao Wan laughed joyfully at his stupefied expression. He had so many faces! “What? How is it now you’re call me Young Miss Xiao when last night you were passionately calling me “dear wife” and clinging to me like glue? Not letting me leave. Do you know how sore my body is because of you?”
Her words were a bombshell that shocked everyone present. Xie Chuchen’s originally pale face turned the color of cooked shrimp. Was there a hole he could run into?
Last night should have been Xiao Wan and Ji Shumo’s consummation. Was it safe to assume from her words that she left Ji Shumo, the apple of her eye, to be with the good for nothing Xie Chuchen? Moreover was she -herself- publicly acknowledging she was Xie Chuchen’s darling wife?!!
Xie Qingrong’s eyes lit up like a marquee, dollar signs flashing away.