Widow Li carried a bowl of food and a bowl of medicine from the kitchen to a small chamber.
‘Older cousin, eat your meal,’ widow Li said.
‘Why are you feeding rubbish for someone ill to eat?’ old Li asked and knocked over the bowl of food.
Widow Li cried while she was kneeling and picking up the fallen food and broken bowl.
‘The cost of your medicine rose,’ widow Li said. ‘There is only a few silver taels left.’
‘Don’t you know how to demand more silver taels?’ old Li asked.
‘Princess Kang Hua said she’s not going to give me anymore silver taels,’ widow Li said.
Old Li threw a cup at widow Li’s head. ‘You have a hold of Princess Kang Hua’s tail but you’re scared of her. If you’re this dumb then die.’
Widow Li’s head hurt and more tears flowed down her face.
‘You only know how to cry!’ old Li said. ‘You won’t be satisfied until I die. In the past it was a waste to take care of you.’
‘It’s not like that,’ widow Li said.
‘If it’s not like that then hurry and go to the Yan Manor and demand more silver taels!’ old Li said. ‘You can threaten Princess Kang Hua that you’ll tell Prime Minister Yan and ninth prince’s wife if Princess Kang Hua doesn’t give you the silver taels. If I wasn’t bedridden I’ll go there myself. Go! Buy proper food on the way back… useless woman!’
Widow Li tidied the small chamber, changed into dry clothes and walked toward the Yan Manor.
Xiao Zai who Pei Jin asked to follow widow Li was hiding on the roof. Pei Jin instructed if he didn’t find out about widow Li’s situation then he wasn’t allowed to return to the manor. But he didn’t expect to find out Princess Kang Hua was had a secret she didn’t want Yan Shi Ning to know. He was anticipating Pei Jin’s praises and finally the other guards couldn’t mock him anymore for his poor fighting skills.
Xiao Zai spat on old Li’s head through a roof hole.
‘Coward old man!’ Xiao Zai cursed softly and rushed back to the manor.
On the way to the Yan Manor, widow Li was burdened with guilt and anxiety. She didn’t like going to the Yan Manor to ask Princess Kang Hua for silver taels. She wished she never betrayed her conscience and never confided her secret to her older cousin.
Widow Li remembered her life with her older cousin far south from the imperial city. Although they worked hard to survive, he didn’t verbally or physically abuse her. She thought perhaps it was her retribution. Every year on the anniversary of big sister Dung Thi’s death, she would have nightmares and mumble in her sleep. Her cousin asked her why she had nightmares, she confessed what she did and everything changed for the worse.
Widow Li’s older cousin dragged her to the imperial city, called her a dumb woman for being easily chased away by one thousand taels and intimidated her to go to the Yan Manor. She listened and asked for money for the first time in her life. Princess Kang Hua gave her another two thousand silver taels. Her older cousin spent all the two thousand silver taels on gambling and women at brothels.
The second time widow Li’s older cousin told her to go ask for silver taels, Princess Kang Hua gave her another one thousand silver taels. But her older cousin also received retribution, he fell off a horse and his legs were crippled. She spent the one thousand silver taels to buy his medicine.
So that day it was the third time widow Li was forced to ask for money, she was truly scared what Princess Kang Hua would do to her. She vowed it was going to be the last time she asked for money and her older cousin’s health would be left up to his fate.
Half a shichen hour later widow Li left the Yan Manor with a paper note worth one thousand silver taels.
Inside the Yan Manor, Princess Kang Hua sat on a chair in her chamber and thought of a deadly plan to kill widow Li.
‘Widow Li is more daring by the day,’ old nurse maid said. ‘She dared to threaten princess. Last time princess warned her it was the last time. Princess, you need to get rid of her.’
Princess Kang Hua hated throwing paper notes out the window, especially paper notes she saved for her elderly years.
‘I know,’ Princess Kang Hua. ‘Go and send someone to eliminate her.’
Princess Kang Hua smiled coldly, soon there would be no one left to threaten her.
At Pei Jin’s Manor, Xiao Zai reported widow Li’s situation to Pei Jin.
‘Are you certain you heard properly?’ Pei Jin asked.
‘Ninth prince, you know I’m not a good fighter but everything else about me is good,’ Xiao Zai said. ‘If I don’t have good ears then you wouldn’t have asked me to eavesdrop.’
Pei Jin laughed. ‘Then why didn’t you follow her to the Yan Manor to eavesdrop?’
Xiao Zai looked pitifully at Pei Jin. ‘Ninth prince, I did want to follow her to the Yan Manor but the wall there is too high for me to climb. In the future I’ll learn how to climb high walls.’
‘Nonsense, hurry and go follow her,’ Pei Jin said. ‘But this time be careful.’
Xiao Zai left Bei Dou’s chamber and Pei Jin’s complexion darkened.
‘What secret do you think Princess Kang Hua is hiding from your wife?’ Bei Dou asked.
Pei Jin took a deep breath. ‘I fear the death of my wife’s mother wasn’t natural.’
Bei Dou was shocked speechless.
‘Princess Kang Hua isn’t someone who can easily be threatened,’ Pei Jin said. ‘To be safe I want you to send Xiao Hui to accompany Xiao Zai. Instruct Xiao Hui to protect widow Li and don’t let widow Li be assassinated. Also, you can’t tell my wife about this.’
Yan Shi Ning loved her mother, Pei Jin feared she would do something reckless if she found out.
That evening, west of Pei Jin’s manor, widow Li got out of bed and walked to the toilet hole outside.
‘Why is there only one person home?’ Xiao Hui asked. ‘Where’s widow Li?’
Xiao Hui rolled old Li’s body over. ‘Ah! Did I kill someone?’
‘Nonsense,’ Xiao Hui said.
Xiao Hui suspected Princess Kang Hua sent an assassin to kill widow Li.
In that moment widow Li walked back toward her chamber but she saw two dark figures who were standing in front of her older cousin’s bed. She didn’t see her older cousin move and was about to scream but one of dark figures covered her mouth.
Xiao Hui and Xiao Zai carried widow Li to an abandoned shelter nearby.
‘We’re not bad people,’ Xiao Zai said. ‘Right now our master is sleeping with our mistress. It’s safe for you to sleep here tonight, tomorrow you can see our master.’
‘Who is your master?’ widow Li asked.
‘You don’t need to worry,’ Xiao Hui said. ‘What you need to know you’ll know. What you don’t need to know even if you ask no one will tell you.’
Xiao Hui and Xiao Zai walked outside the shelter. Xiao Hui locked the door while Xiao Zai cried and held Xiao Hui’s arm.
‘Someone died… scary…’ Xiao Zai muttered.
Xiao Hui pulled his arm free. ‘You can die too.’
At Pei Jin’s Manor, Yan Shi Ning was dreaming. She dreamt her mother was hugging her and singing her a song. Suddenly her mother’s body began to bleed and her mother held her hand, ‘Shi Ning, you need to live a good life. I only want you to be safe. Don’t become like me…’
‘Mother… don’t go!’ Yan Shi Ning mumbled in her sleep. ‘Don’t leave me by myself…’
‘Shi Ning, Shi Ning!’ Pei Jin called.
Yan Shi Ning was startled awake, she opened her eyes and cried loudly. ‘Pei Jin, my mother…’
‘Don’t cry,’ Pei Jin said. ‘You have me.’
Yan Shi Ning hugged Pei Jin tightly. ‘Why did you go to Southern Jiang and didn’t come back to visit me… I was by myself…’
In Xuan Qing Yan Shi Ning didn’t have any friends because of hers and her mother’s status. Although Pei Jin bullied her, she knew that he cared about her and someone who would protect her. But when she needed him the most he disappeared to Southern Jiang.
‘In the future I won’t leave you by yourself again,’ Pei Jin promised.
End of Chapter Thirty-Two
Chapter Five (Part 1)
Outside the Yan Manor the nightwatchman struck bamboo sticks together.
Pei Jin awoken by the sounds of the struck bamboo sticks. He heard the nightwatchman signalled it was the hour of the ox (1am to 3am). He watched Yan Shi Ning who was sleeping peacefully next to him for a while. Then he parted the beaded curtains, got out of bed and stepped toward the table.
On the table incense sticks were burning, giving off a faint scent. Pei Jin’s eyes darkened. The last time he met Yan Shi Ning in the palace, he had smelt the same faint scent on her body. At that time he thought the scent was familiar and didn’t think too much about it. It wasn’t until he laid in bed next to Yan Shi Ning did it occur to him that the scent was eerily familiar. He didn’t want to make Yan Shi Ning anxious so he kept quiet about the scent. It was the same scent his adoptive mother, Consort Chen used that year.
His birth mother was a palace maid who died after giving birth to him. When his mother died, Consort Chen didn’t have children. Consort Chen asked his father to let her adopt him and his father consented.
Consort Chen was a gentle and kind person. She had a healthy body and was pregnant near the age of thirty. But during her pregnancy her health slowly declined. The imperial physicians who examined her reported the same outcome, she had a mysterious illness.
Consort Chen was isolated in a cold chamber of the palace and a rumor was spread about the ‘Jin curse,’ whoever was his mother wouldn’t survive a pregnancy. Consort Chen died when she was four months pregnant. Before she died she gripped the incense sticks in her hand, cried and told him that someone poisoned her.
Pei Jin became ill after Consort Chen died. But a young physician entered the palace and examined him. The physician told him that the incense sticks were poisoned. After he recovered, the physician resigned and left the palace. He hid the incense sticks and studied medicine under the guidance of the imperial physicians to secretly find out what was the poison added to the incense sticks. The incense sticks he hid didn’t have wings, but it flew away. He searched for them but he didn’t find out who had taken them.
Pei Jin regretted that Consort Chen’s death was still unresolved. Unexpectedly twelve years later the incense sticks reappeared in the Yan Manor, inside Yan Shi Ning’s chamber. His eyes narrowed while thinking about who wanted to harm Yan Shi Ning. His intuition conjured an image in his mind of the haughty and cold face of Yan Shi Ning’s step-mother, Princess Kang Hua.
Princess Kang Hua and the empress’ relationship was good whereas Princess Kang Hua and Yan Shi Ning’s relationship was bad. His heart pounded endlessly, luckily he discovered the incense sticks before it could seriously harm Yan Shi Ning.
Pei Jin contemplated for a while and decided to take the incense sticks away to show someone at his manor. He searched for fabrics around the chamber and found Yan Shi Ning’s undergarments. He smiled, picked up her undergarments and wrapped the incense sticks.
Pei Jing was about the leap out of the window when he remembered the purpose of his visit. He took out a jade pendant, walked to the bed and carefully put it on Yan Shi Ning’s palm.
‘This is something I won from an elder in Southern Jiang,’ Pei Jin whispered. ‘I thought it was a fake jade but it turned out to be a rare jade pendant. I was going to sell it but I thought about you. Apart from the tao (a Chinese toy drum) I gave you, I haven’t given you anything else. This will be my love token to you. It took a long time to carve the jade pendant for you, forgive me for my amateur craftsmanship.’
Pei Jin gently stroked Yan Shi Ning’s head and quickly leapt out the window.
The nightwatchman signalled it was the hour of the tiger (3am to 5am) and Pei Jin couldn’t wait until his and Yan Shi Ning’s wedding ceremony.
Yan Shi Ning awoken from a nightmare. In the nightmare she was a six-year-old again, the first time she met Pei Jin. That year she heard Pei Jin’s adoptive mother, Consort Chen who was four months pregnant had died. Pei Jin’s teacher resigned but Pei Jin’s teacher asked the emperor if he could take Pei Jin to stay with him in his country home while Pei Jin was grieving. The emperor could see Pei Jin’s grief and agreed.
Unfortunately Pei Jin’s teacher’s country home was in Xuan Qing, next to Dung Thi and Yan Shi Ning’s home.
In Yan Shi Ning’s nightmare it was that afternoon she was on her way home after a fight with other children, she saw Pei Jin stood with the sunset behind his back.
Yan Shi Ning thought Pei Jin was a handsome boy. But she was curious why Pei Jin was staring up at the sky.
‘Big brother, what are you looking at?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
‘I’m looking at the rice noodle rolls fallen from the sky,’ Pei Jin said.
‘Liar, only bird poo fall from the sky,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
‘Little sister, I’m not lying,’ Pei Jin said. ‘I caught this rice noodle roll from the sky.’
Pei Jin showed Yan Shi Ning the rice noodle roll in his hand and ate it.
Yan Shi Ning saw the serious expression on Pei Jin’s face and she believed him. Afterward she tilted her head back and she stared up at the sky.
‘Little sister, you can’t stand here,’ Pei Jin said. ‘You need to stand over there.’
Yan Shi Ning walked to the spot Pei Jin pointed to then she fell into the hole he dug and concealed!
Yan Shi Ning sobbed loudly. Pei Jin’s teacher heard the commotion and ran outside his home.
‘Pei Jin, what are you doing?’ Pei Jin’s teacher asked.
‘Teacher, I saw a little girl fell into a hole,’ Pei Jin said. ‘When I walked to the hole, little sister was crying. I wanted to give her the rice noodle roll that teacher’s wife made to console her. But I don’t know how to pull little sister up from the hole.’
Yan Shi Ning’s body shook with anger while she sobbed. She didn’t know how Pei Jin maintained a serious expression while lying smoothly. She cried louder, she was fooled by the liar!
Luckily Yan Shi Ning’s nightmare ended at that moment. She looked at her surroundings and sighed in relief when she saw the spot next to her on the bed was empty. The morning sunlight shone through the window and she reluctantly sat up on the bed.
‘Heavens!’ Yan Shi Ning cursed.
The six-year-old Yan Shi Ning fell into a hole but was quickly pulled out of the hole. Unfortunately twelve years later she fell into a hole for life. There wouldn’t be escape even after death.
Yan Shi Ning cursed mouthy boy. What danger? What grieving? Mouthy boy was allowed to leave the palace because his teacher feared his life was in danger and didn’t want him to grieve deeply by himself. But she saw his real personality behind his grieving mask.
Yan Shi Ning didn’t know how mouthy boy could deceive other people. What gentle ninth prince? He was a deadly liar! She reasoned that other people must be blind if they believed he was capable of being gentle and kind.
Yan Shi Ning felt insanely angry. She wanted to break apart her bed but when she fisted her hands, she felt something hard. It was a beautiful jade pendant. She looked closer at the jade pendant and she almost spatted out blood. Little lion was engraved at the top of the jade pendant. She didn’t need to think too deeply to know who the owner of the jade pendant was.
Yan Shi Ning got out of bed and searched everywhere in the chamber for her undergarments but it was missing.
‘Big brother, why did you take my undergarments?’ Yan Shi Ning mumbled.
End of Chapter Five (Part 1)