‘Mother, what’s your plan?’ Pei Zhang asked.
‘The cold winter is over and they’ll be returning to the imperial city,’ Consort Mu said. ‘There’ll be many opportunities like Consort La won’t live past spring and your imperial father’s birthday banquet.’
At the Feng Zhao villa Pei Jin, Yan Shi Ning and everyone else were amusing themselves.
Some sat in front of the door and relaxed and others were hunting, playing, eating or sleeping.
They only needed to think about what amusements they should plan each day. Their only regret was that they couldn’t stay at Feng Zhao villa forever.
On the twelfth day of the fourth month, sad news was delivered to the Feng Zhao villa, Consort La died.
‘Pei Jin, why did Consort La die this sudden…’ Yan Shi Ning asked in a sad tone.
Pei Jin hugged Yan Shi Ning and asked everyone to pack their belongings.
That day Pei Jin, Yan Shi Ning and everyone else travelled back to the imperial city.
Inside the horse carriage Yan Shi Nin rubbed her big stomach. ‘Pei Jin, Consort La was only older than me a few years…’
‘Each person has their own fate,’ Pei Jin said.
‘What about Pei Khan?’ Yan Shi Ning asked. ‘He’s only a little boy… who will protect him?’
Pei Jin thought Pei Khan’s situation was like his own childhood, he didn’t have anyone to protect him either.
‘Pei Jin…’ Yan Shi Ning said.
‘Um?’ Pei Jin asked.
‘Can we bring Pei Khan to our home and protect him?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
‘I want to bring Pei Khan home too but right now our home won’t be safe for Pei Khan,’ Pei Jin said.
Yan Shi Ning understood as long as the emperor was alive, Pei Khan’s life in the palace would be pitiful but Pei Khan would stay alive.
‘Pei Khan is a pitiful little boy… he’s only five years old,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
‘Shi Ning, it’s good for Pei Khan to experience pain while he’s young… it’ll help him grow stronger and adapt to life in the palace,’ Pei Jin said. ‘If we want to protect Pei Khan then we need to grow stronger until no one can threaten us.’
Yan Shi Ning held her stomach protectively.
‘Winter hibernation is over,’ Pei Jin said.
Pei Jin hugged Yan Shi Ning and their child.
Later that day a simple funeral was held for Consort La at the palace. Yan Shi Ning was pregnant and wasn’t allowed to attend the funeral. She could only watch at a far distance. Pei Khan was too little so she couldn’t see him and had to wait for Pei Jin to ask about Pei Khan.
‘Pei Khan silently cried,’ Pei Jin said. ‘I don’t know if Consort La’s death has hurt him mentally but now he can’t say even say two words.’
‘Pei Jin, go console Pei Khan,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
‘I want to but he’s surrounded by palace maids and eunuchs,’ Pei Jin said. ‘I won’t have an opportunity to talk privately with him.’
Yan Shi Ning felt helpless.
Pei Jin held Yan Shi Ning’s hand. ‘In another three days I’ll take you to visit Pei Khan.’
Yan Shi Ning worried about Pei Khan. She knew the emperor didn’t favour Consort La because the emperor was ashamed of Pei Khan since he couldn’t speak. So the people in the palace wouldn’t care about Pei Khan.
‘Wife, is the little fox inside your stomach troubling you again?’ Pei Jin asked.
‘What little fox?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
Pei Jin was happy to see Yan Shi Ning smile. ‘Wife, after little fox is born let’s conceive a little lion… we can’t… let’s wait another two years before we conceive a little lion.’
Yan Shi Ning was speechless. She understood why Pei Jin didn’t want their child to have a sibling too soon. Suddenly she heard a noise. ‘Pei Jin, there’s someone else here.’
Pei Jin looked at a small hidden spot. ‘Thirteenth brother?’
Pei Khan looked around the room. He didn’t see anyone else and crawled out of his hiding spot.
‘Thirteen brother, why are you here?’ Yan Shi Ning asked. ‘Where are your palace maids and eunuchs?’
Pei Khan’s teary eyes stared at Yan Shi Ning’s big stomach, it made Yan Shi Ning’s heart ached.
Pei Jin knelt in front of Pei Khan. ‘Thirteenth brother, did you hide here by yourself?’
Pei Khan pointed a finger at Pei Jin.
‘Thirteenth brother, were you waiting for me?’ Pei Jin asked.
Pei Khan nodded his head.
‘Thirteenth brother, what did you wanted to tell me?’ Pei Jin asked.
Pei Khan pulled out a hairpin and gave it to Yan Shi Ning, it was the butterfly hairpin she didn’t accept from Consort La.
End of Chapter Sixty-Six
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