儿 | er |(lit. child) diminutive marker used as a form of endearment
时辰 | sichen |time system comprising of 12 two-hour periods of the day; one sichen is the equivalent of two modern hours
里 | li |unit of measurement that has varied over time but has now been standardized to 500 meters (Wikipedia)
Both Zong Zhi and Min Zhi were extremely prideful men who were unwilling to expose their worries in front of their families. To them, men who were unable to even protect their wife and children were useless and had no right to be a husband.
Fortunately, the Emperor didn’t urgently press the issue as he knew doing so would be counterproductive.
Ruan Zi Xu somewhat understood the Emperor’s narrow-mindedness, as he only wanted to see his daughters living happily while his sons-in-laws did the worrying. Apart from managing his businesses every day, he played with his grandchildren while eating candy[a] during his spare time, paying particular attention to the successor of his clan, little Yu Ze, and spending his days freely and unrestrained.
He had become accustomed to living in Guan Ju Villa and seldom returned to the Ruan residence within the city. His excuse was the same as his daughters–the Ruan residence was too cheerless and not nearly as lively as Guan Ju Villa.
But Ruan Zhu could still discern his loneliness, just like how a sixty- or seventy-year-old elder would still want to look for a partner. Ruan Zhi Xu was only forty years of age. Being alone for the rest of his life was inexcusable.
A year ago, Zong Zhi had invited a prominent scholar from the Imperial Hanlin Academy to be Zhi Xi’s master. Very quickly, Bo Yu and Bo Ya also reached the age of enrollment and they all gathered together to study. But Bo Ya had no interest in studying, especially not towards those subjects, and everything went in her left ear and out her right.
At the time, Zong Zhi had simply remarked–The child had indeed inherited Ruan Zhu’s genes. He had poked fun of his wife about this once: Fortunately, Bo Ya is female. Even if she was no good at studying, it would be enough if she was virtuous and beautiful as they wouldn’t need to worry about her unable to be married off.
Ruan Zhu had been outwardly displeased but rejoiced inside that luckily, her son Bo Yu resembled Zong Zhi and had displayed brilliance at a young age. He could completely memorize and recite everything his Master had taught him the same day, and also had never forgotten a single word in the poems Ruan Zhu had him commit to memory. It was not an exaggeration to say Bo Yu could read ten lines in a glance. On this point, even his elder brother Zhi Xi couldn’t compare.
But Zhi Xi had an earnest temperament, the demeanor of his father Yun Shi Yi, and treated his younger brothers and sister dearly.
Thud! Right when Ruan Zhu turned around, Bo Zhao fell from the sofa and burst into tears, whether because he had truly been hurt from the fall or from the shock of it all. She picked up her son and patted his back, softly coaxing: “Zhao’er, don’t cry. You are a man and the more you fall, the stronger and resilient you will become. It would be awful if you became a false woman with all of your crying. If you can’t find a wife in the future, you must not blame Ma for not reminding you.”
How could a six-month-old toddler understand these deep concepts? He continued to wail without pause.
Min Zhi entered and only discovered his son had fallen from the sofa after he asked. Immediately feeling distressed, he took his son from his wife’s arms: “Zhu’er, what are you doing? There are wet nurses to care for the children. Do you find it interesting to be an imperial consort who does odd jobs like a commoner? To see my son fall?”
“Aren’t I only worried my son won’t be close to me? Yu Ze’s already been snatched away by Papa; I absolutely don’t want this son to be taken by the wet nurse.” Ruan Zhu felt wronged by her husband’s words and pouted: “A child’s mind is very simple and pure–whoever treats him well, that’s who he’ll be close to. If you don’t even know this, then it’s clear you’ve lived for naught these few years.”
Actually, Ruan Zhi Xu hadn’t ‘snatched’ Yu Ze away. Every few days, he would take the toddler out for some fun but they would return within a couple of sichens.
“How good could an infant’s memory be? After a few years, we’ll dismiss the wet nurse and our son will forget about her after a few days.” The Bo Zhao in his arms was still crying incessantly. Just like before, Min Zhi was no good at coaxing and opened his diaper for a look: “He didn’t pee, ah. I see this kid is asking for a spanking.”
Ruan Zhu pushed him: “He might be hungry. I’ll feed him.” Pushing aside her own collar, she wiped her breasts with a brocade handkerchief dipped in clean water before hoisting her son up so he could suckle.
Min Zhi watched as his son touched his wife’s snowy mounds, jealousy welling up inside him.
The little guy was very interesting. While he nursed from one side, he used his hand to protect the other. Min Zhi reached over to nudge the little hand away. Bo Zhao’s small mouth moved as if he was going to cry. Ruan Zhu hurriedly placed his little hand back on her chest and rebuked her husband: “Go outside if you have nothing to do. Stop stirring up trouble.”
Min Zhi embraced his wife from behind: “Zhu’er, let’s go see the lotuses later, okay?”
Ruan Zhu recalled last time’s clandestine affair, feeling both sweet and shy: “It’s already autumn and it’ll be cold. Besides, aren’t you afraid of being punished?” After what happened last time, Min Zhi had been penalized with not being able to approach her for a month.
“Not afraid.” Min Zhi picked up his wife along with the child still in her arms to set them on his lap: “Then, how about we head to my Fei Yu Pavilion later? Zhu’er, I will definitely please you.”
“No good. If Big Brother Lu, Second Cousin, and also Jing Yan find out, they won’t be happy. It’s also not far.”
“Every time, we only get three days and have to rotate among five guys. When Head Yun returns, then it’ll be sharing among six men. And there’s also your vacation days too. Zhu’er, I think this is too cruel.”
“Ai, the others haven’t complained so why are you so fussy? Doesn’t everyone do this? Or do you want to chop me up and each person gets one section?” She was also very helpless and felt the current setup was the most fair.
“I still have to wait quite a few days before it’s my turn. Or how about......” He whispered right next to her ear: “We all gather tonight?”
To be able to be loved by so many men was an unspeakably honey-sweet feeling. She also really liked it. Although she’d become a bit tired, they all considered her body and health and were not too demanding! Ruan Zhu’s eyes gleamed and she lightly dropped her head in a nod.
Min Zhi was overjoyed and lowered his head to peck at his wife’s mouth multiple times. She pushed him away: “Don’t press against our baby.” She continued to sit in his lap as she fed her child and then patted the toddler’s back to make him burp after he had had his fill. Rising from her husband’s lap, she strolled along the room, coaxing her son to sleep.
Min Zhi waited until Bo Zhao had fallen asleep to softly say: “I’ll take him back to his room. It’s late; you should hurry and bathe and then wait for us later in bed.”
“It’s still early!”
“It’s not. Quickly, go prepare. You’re more finicky than other people with everything you do. Don’t make us wait.”
“Really, this man.” Ruan Zhu watched the father and son pair leave the room and was just about to call for Nuan Chun to enter and assist her in bathing.
But at this time, Xiao Xi Zi entered. “Niang niang, Third Concubine-Father Hua has come to pay his respects.”
Ever since Ruan Yu became pregnant, Mei Yan Ying Ying Chu had been handed over to Xing Yun and Liu Shui for them to manage and she only went to inspect the store every few days or so. The people by her side had then been changed to Xiao Xi Zi and Xiao Chun Zi. These two palace eunuchs worked intelligently and had been Qu Gao and He Gua’s disciples for many years, learning under their instructions.
“Didn’t Third Concubine-Father wish to go to Lao Shu Village to find my mother? Why hasn’t he left yet? Let him in!” Ruan Zhu remembered how when she had gone to Fu Rui Hall the day before yesterday to pay respects to her father, Third Concubine-Father Hua had been there to bid Ruan Zi Xu farewell, saying he wanted to go to Lao Shu Village to accompany Madam Ruan. At the time, Ruan Zi Xu had contemplated for a long time.
Third Concubine-Father Hua was Madam Ruan’s third secondary husband and he had two sons born from her. The year Madam Ruan had departed the Ruan clan, he and his children had actually stayed behind and he continued to work as an accountant for the Ruan clan, from Yu Zhou to the capital, and then to Lan Zhou.
How Ruan Zhu had treated him could be considered pretty well, and Third Concubine-Father Hua’s two sons had now become adults. She had given each of them a fifth-rank imperial bodyguard, helped them settle down, and allowed them to return to being listed on the Hua clan’s household register. The two men currently had their own careers and residences and life was not worrying.
As a man of this time period, Third Concubine-Father Hua was undoubtedly very intelligent and knew how to pursue his goals. If he had followed Madam Ruan in leaving the Ruan clan at that time, his two sons would become mediocre and without any drive, just like how Fourth Concubine-Father Zhu now coarsely passed his days in the small mountain village, hindering his child’s future.
A few days ago, Ruan Zhu had once again sent men to inquire about Mother Ruan, and the reply had been that Fourth Concubine-Father Zhu’s child was now hoisting a hoe and working in the fields. There originally was no reason to go through all of this hardship as Ruan Yu had left behind quite a sum that one time she had visited, but who knew whose greedy eyes they had attracted, for they were robbed one day in the middle of the night. Fourth Concubine-Father had unfortunately been struck with a sword while protecting his child and merely one night later, breathed his last.
As for Wei Rong, he had died of a sexual disease several years prior. Madam Ruan had retrieved him from an unlicensed whorehouse a few years ago, but had then discovered he had been infected by said illness. Once the disease had set, his appearance had, reportedly, been awfully frightening with pus oozing from his entire body. Madam Ruan had been worried her entire family would also be infected so together with her son, they had carried Wei Rong to an abandoned and dilapidated temple, where a few steamed buns were thrown inside every day for him to eat.
Madam Ruan presently lived with her son, and they were extremely hard-pressed for money, frequently eating without knowing when their next meal would be. But why was she not willing to return?
Really, what a pain! Ruan Zhu didn’t understand what Madam Ruan was being so stubborn for. Was it because of her unyielding character, or was it because she didn’t have the face to see her former lover? But she had decided to personally visit Lao Shu Village and would bring back Madam Ruan even if she had to tie her up to do so.
Third Concubine-Father Hua entered and performed the rites to Ruan Zhu: “Niang niang, I have come to bid you farewell. It is all thanks to your favor these past few years that Yang’er and Xian’er have lived smoothly and have also presently settled down. Like this, my worries have also been eased.”
Ruan Zhu’s eyes turned: “Where do you intend to go?”
Third Concubine-Father Hua’s eyes were slightly melancholy: “The reason I did not leave with your mother at that time was in fear of harming my two children, and now they all have their own families and careers. I originally should have accompanied your mother and have heard she is not doing too well.”
Ruan Zhu faintly sighed: “I was just thinking of going to Lao Shu Village. Let us go there together then!”
Joy flashed across Third Concubine-Father’s face before it immediately dimmed again: “I am afraid your mother is too stubborn and will still refuse to return.”
“Then we’ll just tie her up.”
Lao Shu Village was five hundred li from Lan Zhou. The mountain road was difficult to pass and the carriage could only travel several dozen li a day, resulting in them arriving over ten days later.
“It’s only several hundred li. If I was on a horse, I could arrive in only three days. Are you tired? How about getting off the carriage for a quick break and eating something before entering the village?” Yun Shi Wei had been bestowed the position of a deputy of the Privy Council, but he hadn’t yet taken office when he decided to accompany his wife to Lao Shu Village.
The mountain road was rugged and hard to traverse, and Ruan Zhu became dizzy from all of the jolting. Fortunately, she had been continuously held against his chest during their journey, which had lessened the bumpiness and suffering.
“I’m fine. Have you forgotten how much worse it was the year we had to flee from the southern border? At that time, I was even pregnant with Zhi Xi!”
Yun Shi Wei recalled the dire situation of that year, but because it was also the longest period of time that they had been alone together, he also felt full of sweetness. He lowly laughed: “Zhu Zhu, when will you be willing to give me a child?”
Ruan Zhu thought about how since she had been traveling these past few days, she hadn’t had the chance to breastfeed her children so her milk had then stopped soon after. As soon as her menses came again, it would be easy for her to become pregnant: “Second Cousin, have you taken the contraceptive? If you haven’t, I can consider this for you.” Shi Wei was twenty-six years old. In the ancient era, a man shouldn’t not have a son at this age.
“No, of course not.” Yun Shi Wei repeated his answer, excitedly hugging his wife as he gave her a very long kiss.
Ruan Zhu had brought several dozen troops with her to enter Lao Shu Village. The villagers had never seen such a sight before and all came outside to see the excitement.
The soldiers halted at the entrance of Madam Ruan’s house, and Ruan Zhu, dressed head to toe in luxurious clothes, stepped gracefully down from the carriage with Yun Shi Wei’s support.
The villagers pointed and gossiped among themselves, all exposing amazement and envy though none of them had the courage to step forward.
Yun Shi Wei held his wife’s hand as they entered the small courtyard. Third Concubine-Father Hua came down from the carriage behind, but didn’t dare to follow too closely.
Ruan Zhu stood in the small courtyard, extremely surprised, taking in the man on the roof and the mother and child working on the ground, her eyes incredulous.
The courtyard was full of movement. A large pile of hay had been pushed into the middle and Fourth Concubine-Father Zhu’s son, Zhu Ming, was currently binding them. The hay bundles were then thrown onto the roof by Madam Ruan where they were caught by the man on top of the roof and then neatly laid in place.
The man towering over them was around forty or so years of age with a handsome countenance and radiated with energy despite his dark complexion. Ruan Zhu recognized him–was too familiar with him–and turned towards Shi Wei: “We came at the wrong time. This endeavor has been stolen by Papa.”
That’s correct–the man that was repairing the roof was precisely Ruan Zi Xu. But when had he arrived in Lao Shu Village and why hadn’t he mentioned it to her, causing her to make such a difficult trek in vain? Ai, trying to guess the thoughts of the elderly was too hard.
Madam Ruan stopped her movements of throwing hay and stared at her daughter for a long time, unable to say anything. In the end, her face spread open in a smile: “Zhu’er, it is wonderful you were able to come. Ma will cook something delicious for you in a little while.” Ruan Zhu felt distressed. Madam Ruan wasn’t yet forty, but the great changes over these years had caused the noble madam who had lead a pampered life to become a female villager who worked the land.
Atop the roof, Ruan Zi Xu had long seen the imposing soldiers entering the village. Stepping down the ladder, he glanced at his daughter: “How have you just arrived? You actually took half a month to travel only five hundred li? Did you go on a scenic tour or did you come to bring your mother home?”
Ruan Zhu laughed: “Pa, it’s you that’s too quick. This daughter remembers that you hadn’t yet left on the day that we did. Ma, when did Pa arrive?”
“Your father has been here for nearly ten days now. When he arrived, he argued that this was bad, that was bad, the house was leaking terribly–he almost drove me mad.” Madam Ruan handed a towel to her lord for him to wipe his sweat. Though she was nagging, one could see she was in a very good mood.
“Why repair the house or whatever? Pa, Ma, you might as well return to Lan Zhou with me.”
“If you want to return, return by yourself. I will live here for a while and then see.” Ruan Zhi Xu was overjoyed at being attended to by his wife. In his memory, she had only been this attentive when they had been newlywed. Soon after, Wei Rong had entered the family and the husband and wife pair became like strangers. Being able to experience a world with only two people these past few days, oh Buddha, it was like he had returned to his young days.
Ruan Zhu was confused and shifted her eyes: “Has Pa and Ma become addicted to restoring houses after repairing this one? When we return to Lan Zhou, this daughter will give my dear parents a plot of land and let the two of you build houses every day for fun.”
Madam Ruan happily mock-scolded her: “Look at this girl, thinking constructing houses is done as a hobby.”
“Eldest Sister, this seat is for you.” Fourth Concubine-Father Zhu’s son, Zhu Ming, moved a chair over. Ruan Zhu felt a bit melancholy upon thinking of his deceased father and patted his head, warmly saying: “Return with Eldest Sister, okay? You need to study.”
Fourth Concubine-Father Zhu only had this one child. Madam Ruan had originally birthed twins for him, but unfortunately, it had been a difficult birth and only Zhu Ming had survived. This child was only twelve, and the rustic lifestyle had caused him to be simple and honest. Turning his head to glance at Ruan Zi Xu and Madam Ruan, he gave Ruan Zhu a naive smile and shook his head: “I will listen to Mother and Father.”
Ruan Zi Xu placed his hand on Zhu Ming’s shoulder: “This child is very good. I will bring him up as if he was my own and teach him how to read and how to do business. In the future, when he settles down, inherits the Zhu clan, and burns the joss sticks, Fourth Zhu will surely be comforted upon knowing it.”
Madam Ruan suddenly leaned against her husband’s shoulder, choked with emotion: “My Lord, it was I who let you down previously!” She had felt lonely when younger because Ruan Zi Xu was constantly busy with work and gone for the entire day. As a result, being with Wei Rong gave her a novel experience while being with Ruan Zi Xu became unfamiliar. It even caused her to feel disinclined towards looking after his two daughters. As she experienced several grim years of hardship, she began to reminisce his protective umbrella more and more. Him being able to show her consideration and care without any complaints or regrets since their marriage was the most sincere love.
Ruan Zi Xu patted her shoulder: “If I could have arrived to bring you home earlier, many things would not have happened.”
Having gone through so many tribulations, this mature couple had finally reconciled! Ruan Zhu felt relieved and wished that everyone henceforth would be harmonious.
“Master, Madam!” Third Concubine-Father Hua stepped out from behind Ruan Zhu and fell to his knees.
But Madam Ruan didn’t even glance at him and fished out a letter of divorce from her pocket, throwing it over. Third Concubine-Father Hua’s face changed tremendously upon seeing it, and the hand that held the letter trembled.
Madam Ruan resolutely said: “After asking myself, with the exception of Wei Rong, I treated you the best during our time in the Ruan residence, but in the end, you actually abandoned me to ensure your future. Third Hua, I do not blame you for being heartless, so you should also not blame me.”
“Madam, what I did was also for our children.” Third Concubine-Father Hua cried out.
“That is why I do not blame you. But I can no longer be together with you. You should leave! I will look after Yang’er and Xian’er.”
Towards Third Concubine-Father Hua being divorced, Ruan Zhu didn’t feel the least bit of injustice. As a man, he couldn’t support his wife and children or give them shelter from the wind and rain; instead, he continued to rely on others to survive. Having lived such an easy life for so many years, he still could courageously argue that it was all for his children?
Ruan Zi Xu had fulfilled all of the responsibilities of a man–professional success, a wealthy family, a flawless character. Unfortunately, Madam Ruan hadn’t cherished him previously but now that she had mended her ways, she could live in bliss for the remaining half of her life.
Females had numerous Lord Husbands, but how many of them would sincerely and genuinely accompany you to the end? Ruan Zhu felt rueful. At least the six men by her side could all be trusted.
Ruan Zhu only resided in Lao Shu Village for three days before departing. Before she left, she took Zhu Ming with her and left behind a squadron of imperial bodyguards to protect Ruan Zi Xu and Madam Ruan. She left behind a message for her parents to take it easy and to quickly return home after they were done with their honeymoon. A world with only two people was good, but it was also important that they changed the location to one where they had no worries about basic necessities.
Even in her dreams, Ruan Zhu would’ve never thought that the day they arrived in Lan Zhou, Yun Shi Yi would return.
[a] 含饴弄孙, idiom meaning enjoying a happy and leisurely old age
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