儿 | er | (lit. child) diminutive marker used as a form of endearment
When it came to the Ruan clan that lived in the west of the city, there was no one in the whole of Yu Zhou that did not know of them. During the founding of the country by the Great Ancestor, an ancestor of the Ruan family had been at his beck and call and often showed his might. Even though he later went back to his province and returned to his maternal family, the imperial court remembered the contributions of the Ruan household and had bestowed a multitude of items that caused the clan to have never lacked for anything. Although several hundred years had gone by, the glory of the past laid the foundation for the Ruan clan’s extraordinary status. On top of every generation operating businesses in the correct method, their numbers of farmland, shops, real estate, and silver they had stored in the banks only ever increased and had never lessened.
The Ruan clan remained a large and influential family in Yu Zhou. The local governor, several prefectural magistrates, and the garrisoned general frequently curried favor with them. The reason was not because of the ancestor but because the Ruan family was wealthy beyond compare.
Last summer, a flood had devastated the outskirts of the city. Thousands of commoners had drowned and countless houses and buildings had collapsed. If it were not for the Ruan clan funding the construction of these buildings and quieting the civilians’ anger, there may have been civil unrest. If that had happened, the local official would have been punished by the imperial court. A lesser punishment would be the removal of their post as even saving their head would be difficult.
This year, starting from spring, there was no rain for several months in a row and not a single grain of early season rice was harvested. Don’t mention the farmers not having anything to eat, they didn’t even have any seeds with which to plant the summer harvest. Once again, the Ruan clan stepped in and provided rice and backed the farmers in working their land. Fortunately, the Heavens were kind and rain fell several times, and the autumn harvest was not bad.
These acts were gargantuan blessings during the natural catastrophes. After the imperial court was aware of these matters, unavoidable commendation was given. An imperial edict was issued, giving the Ruan family a black official hat. But the master of the Ruan clan had no intention of becoming an official and wholeheartedly wanted to continue as a commoner to preserve the accomplishments of previous generations, thus kowtowed in thanks but refused to receive the imperial edict.
It was good that this current Emperor’s vision was not bad. Even though his face was refused, he was too lazy to bicker with a small commoner. If the Emperor was someone lacking in experience or was narrow-minded, perhaps he would have ordered the execution of the Ruan clan under the charge of offending the Heavenly order.
The Master of Ruan clan was precisely Ruan Zhu’s father, Ruan Zi Xu. He had two daughters but no sons. Ruan Zhu was the eldest daughter and had been married off to Lan Zhou in spring. His second daughter still remained at home and the number of matches seeking marriage with her have broken their doorstep.
These two daughters were both born of the principal husband and were Master Ruan’s own flesh and blood.
Madam Ruan’s maternal family lived in the capital and her father was a military official from Qi Ping though his post was not high. Influenced by her family, Madam Yuan knew a few martial arts moves and her temper was also somewhat fiery but she was actually an exquisite beauty. She was already thirty-some years old and had given birth to over a dozen children but her figure still resembled a young maiden and caused her several husbands to increasingly love her like crazy.
The entrance of the Ruan residence was like all other aristocratic clans, a lofty gate engraved with the pattern of all kinds of beasts. A guardian stone lion crouched by either side of the entry and on the vermilion gate, there was a plaque with a black background and six large words ‘Imperial-Built Yu Zhou’s Ruan Residence’ written in large gold lettering. Reportedly, this plaque had been bestowed by the Great Ancestor that fateful year.
Ruan Zhu was thinking. Her nominal parents lived just inside. She calmed her mind and carefully filtered through the remaining memories left behind in this body. After a while, she instructed Nuan Chun to lead the way west until they arrived at a side door. Exchanging the carriage for a sedan, she was then lifted by four porters and carried inside.
The gatekeeper on duty hastily went inside to announce upon seeing that it was their family’s eldest daughter returning home.
The porters entered the courtyard and passed an arched door before stopping. From the courtyard interior came a group of small manservants that exchanged spots with the porters, but Ruan Zhu came out from the sedan as she saw a middle-aged couple walk out from the chao shou veranda that corresponded to the figures in her head.
抄手游廊 | Chao Shou veranda (lit. folded arms veranda) | It goes along the courtyard and connects back on itself (green lines on picture)
“Daughter Ruan Zhu pays respects to Father and Mother.”
Ruan Zhu kneeled down in kowtow and Ruan Zi Xu strode over and supported her up, choked with emotion: “You’ve left home for so long yet you don’t even send a letter, that is asking for this father to worry. You child, how could you always make one fret? Your belly is already this big yet you still run around, if you have an accident, how would that be good?”
Ruan Zhu controlled her rolling emotions and smiled: “It’s not that this daughter was not willing to write a letter, but Papa knows that daughter’s writing is not presentable and was afraid that if Papa saw them, he’d find them a joke. Mother would then be irritated and scold Papa for being unable to teach children.”
Ruan Zi Xu had been teased to happiness: “Since you know, why didn’t you properly study when you were younger?”
“Who told me to be like Mother? Mother is also not one that likes studying, so why don’t you say those words to her?” Ruan Zhu said all of these intimate words and walked towards the middle-aged Madam that was standing not far from her father. When she came in front of her, she called out: “Mother.”
Unexpectedly, what awaited Ruan Zhu was a shower of scolding:
“You damned silly girl without any sense, the situation is so chaotic, and the famine is causing this year to not be any good. Fortunately, you became pregnant yet you arbitrarily run around. My grandchild hasn’t even been born yet, how could they withstand the persistent torment?”
After Madam Ruan finished scolding, she pulled Ruan Zhu left and right, looking her all over, her eyes a little moist.
She had birthed two daughters to the principal husband and one daughter to a secondary husband. In addition, there were seven sons to other secondary husbands. Out of all of these children, her eldest daughter could not be considered one that stood out and her appearance was only of the upper-middle level. She did not pay particular attention to this child, but she couldn’t help but to miss her as it’s been so long since she left home.
In the end, she was still her child, regardless of what had happened before, right? She thought for a bit and her eyes swept to Yun Shi Wei. As the two brothers very closely resembled each other, she was unable to distinguish between the two as she had only met them a few times and mistook him as the eldest Yun brother. Opening her mouth, Madam Ruan started reprimanding again: “Zhu Zhu is young and isn’t sensible but how old are you already? Useless thing, you don’t even know how crucial it is for a woman to conceive? If by chance an accident occurs, I’ll see what you do then?”
Madam Yun always spoke harshly but it was without any bad intent. Whatever she thought of, she would scold but after she finished, she would feel refreshed and even she wouldn’t remember what it was that she was scolding for.
Being admonished, Yun Shi Wei became nervous but did not forget to kowtow before his parents-in-law.
Ruan Zi Xu helped him up but couldn’t help but to also berate him: “You child don’t even know the slightest how to feel distressed for your wife and don’t think twice when doing things. How could I be willing to hand over my daughter to you?”
Yun Shi Wei hastily explained: “We had previously gone to the southern border for a stroll and who could have imagined that Zhu Zhu would coincidentally become pregnant? The southern border was hit with both the drought and the rebels and Eldest Brother went to Liu Zhou to deal with some matters with wood and has still yet to return. We couldn’t wait any longer and were forced to leave but returning to Lan Zhou requires a very long journey so that is why we came to disturb Mother and Father.”
It was at this moment that Madam Yun knew that the one in front of her eyes was the second son of the Yun clan. She swept her eyes aside and saw a handsome young man that exuded a noble and refined air like a calm lotus standing upright in the water.
“This Mister is?”
Ruan Zhu was just about to introduce him when Yun Shi Wei opened his loose lips: “He’s called Lu Piao Xiang. He is a guqin player and intends to enter our house as number three.” He was the second, so per seniority, Lu Piao Xiang really was third, but this sort of introduction actually made Ruan Zhu embarrassed.
“Mother, that’s not right, Lu Piao Xiang did not come here to be number three.” Ruan Zhu was flustered and wanted to clear the situation.
“This one is Lu Piao Xiang, family is from the capital, and has come to see Aunt and Uncle.” Lu Piao Xiang gracefully cupped his hands in greeting and faintly smiled: “May Aunt and Uncle not take me as an outsider as Shi Wei did not speak falsely–I indeed came here to become number three.”
Ruan Zhu was embarrassed to death. It turns out the phrase ‘number three’ could be thrown around like this by the ancient people. But this number three should be different from the ‘number three’ of the future, right!?[a]
The more this so-called mother in law looked, the more she took a liking to him. Lu Piao Xiang’s cultured and refined bearing had won over the good impression of the two parents of the Ruan household.
Ruan Zi Xu led his daughter and son-in-law into the main compound. This was a richly built building with five large rooms and written on the plaque above the main entrance was the words ‘Jin Se Hall’. Entering the central building, the parents pulled their daughter away for a few words and after seeing her exhausted expression, arranged for her to rest in a heated room.
Ruan Zi Xu called for people to prepare a room for Lu Piao Xiang and allocated a few servants for him before pulling Yun Shi Wei into the study, inquiring of their circumstances. Upon hearing that Yun Shi Yi had yet to return, he inevitably became worried. He also asked a little more about Lu Piao Xiang and Yun Shi Wei said all that he knew.
Madam Ruan dispatched the small servant by her side to notify everyone in the household to have their meal at Jin Se Hall.
Ruan Zhu had been given a bellyful of words she should say to the Yun parents when she met them next and didn’t expect the meeting with her parents would be this this relaxed. When she entered the heated room, Nuan Chun and Nuan Qing attended to her as she changed into a set of lounge wear, washed her feet and laid on a soft couch bed to rest.
A servant of the Ruan household served some tea and refreshments but she wasn’t in the mood to eat. She was too tired and fell asleep not long after she had laid down.
Perhaps because she was familiar with this home, she slept particularly soundly. When she woke, she saw a young girl sitting by the head of the bed using a pair of large watery eyes to look at her. Her skin was satiny white and glossy, like something cut out of jade, which naturally pleased the eye.
Ruan Zhu had a good impression of her and knew that this was her full-blooded little sister Ruan Yu.[b]
“Eldest Sister, earlier I went to the Ci Shan Hall in the north of the city and only knew you had returned when I returned to the residence. It’s been so long and you don’t even write a letter home, I thought you no longer wanted us and this home anymore. After all, when that matter occurred at that time, you weren’t very happy. But I indeed always thought my eldest sister was good, hmm!”
“Why do you say that?” Ruan Zhu was curious. Could it be that when ‘she’ had been married off to Lan Zhou there had been an ulterior motive?
Tears fell from Ruan Yu’s eyes: “Us two sisters have had a good relationship ever since we were little but as it happens, you were married off to distant Lan Zhou, leaving me alone at home. Although our siblings are not few, but there is no one that knows me like you do.”
Ruan Zhu beckoned to Nuan Chun and the latter came to support her in sitting up. She held a handkerchief and used it to wipe at Ruan Yu’s tears. Smiling, she comforted: “Didn’t I come back? What are you crying for? If worst comes to worst, is accompanying you every day in the future not enough?”
Ruan Yu’s small face was taut: “Eldest Sister is taking me for a child. You already have a husband, how could you accompany me every day like in the past?”
In the few scattered memories left in Ruan Zhu’s head, the second daughter of the Ruan family had a large role, but what had really happened at that time?
Ruan Yu hatefully spat: “Those concubines with rotten consciences tried to frame our Papa with poison. Isn’t it all to have Mother sever her relationship with Pa and to take advantage of our Ruan family’s assets?”
There was this situation? Ruan Zhu felt a little slow.
“Fortunately, Eldest Sister had taken the responsibility of the poison but was punished by Mother to stay in your room for a month and later was sent to Lan Zhou to be married. It’s been this long yet you don’t know how much suffering you’ve received?” Tears once again fell from Ruan Yu and she sobbed: “At that time, there were three families that weren’t bad who had asked for your hand in marriage but the qualifications of the Yun family in Lan Zhou were the worst and they were also the ones farthest away. For Mother to do that, isn’t that disliking you?”
“That can’t be!” Ruan Zhu’s head throbbed painfully. Ancient family affairs were so chaotic and they couldn’t be cut off. Even logic was twisted. “I think Mother treats me very well and earlier I was in a cheerful mood.”
After all, Ruan Zhu was Madam Ruan’s own flesh and blood that the latter had birthed out of her own belly. Even if a concubine is favored, it was unlikely to replace the love in the natural mother-daughter bond. Besides, she felt that Madam Ruan was not muddled. Maybe she understood some of it deep inside her but in order to maintain control of this large household, she had to pretend to be so.
“I hate that I’m not male and can’t inherit Father’s properties. But anyway, I won’t let those concubine-born children have their way with it.” Ruan Yu’s eyes were very firm: “All of those uncles that branched off from the Yun clan want to send in their son to our Papa, and Mother’s concubines also want to do the same with their sons. They are all truly dreaming. As long as I am here, I absolutely won’t let them bully us.”
Ruan Zhu understood now. It turns out all of this was for the inheritance.
Ruan Zi Xu walked inside the heated room. His eyes were filled with a trace of tears and a hand stroked his two daughters’ beautiful hair. His voice was rather dejected: “It is this father that is not good, letting you children also have to bear wrongs.”
“Papa!” Ruan Yu cried out and got up. “What kind of talk is Pa saying, what sort of wrongs could I possibly feel? On the contrary, it is those greedy bastards without a conscience that feel wronged. Every time they appear in front of my eyes, don’t they have to lower their heads?”
The status of a secondary husband was low and was equivalent to half a slave. When favored, they still could not be placed on par with the principal husband. The children of these slaves, even if given an identity of a Young Master or Lady, were only noble to a certain moot point. Otherwise, why would they separate it by legitimate-born and concubine-born?
“Pa!” Ruan Zhu stood up and saluted in greeting. Thinking of the memories in her head, the previous Ruan Zhu had always been this docile and sensible.
Ruan Zi Xu helped her sit down and softly reproached her: “Your health and body are so important, what are you minding these meaningless rites for?”
Yet Ruan Yu placed her hand on top of her sister’s belly, her expression showing that she was considering something. Ruan Zhu nudged her hand away. In her last life, she was an only daughter and did not understand the affection between siblings. Being so intimately touched, she felt a strange emotion that she didn’t know how to explain.
“Eldest Sister!” Ruan Yu lifted her head and suddenly said: “If you give birth to a son, you should give him our Ruan surname, okay! He can enter the Ruan clan’s family tree and can become Papa’s heir, okay?!”
What kind of argument was this? Ruan Zhu was stunned silly. Say she agreed, but would Yun Shi Yi also agree? The Yun clan also had business and a lineage that needed to be inherited. Furthermore, as a father, how would he be willing to have his own flesh and blood not carry his surname? In addition, their child would have to pray at another family’s ancestral hall to another family’s forebear?
But Ruan Zi Xu placed his hopeful eyes on Ruan Zhu: “The Ruan clan has a lot of assets and the amount of people in Tian Chu that can compare is also few. Which part of our clan does not cause others to covet? But unless it is my, Ruan Zi Xu’s, own flesh and blood, no one has the qualifications to inherit. Zhu’er, Father does not want the first son of your principal husband. After a few years, if you could give one of your concubine-born sons up for adoption, this father will raise him to be the most outstanding legitimate eldest grandson and have him inherit my Ruan family.”
Ruan Yu clapped her hands: “Let’s do it like that then. Papa no longer needs to be anxious about the successor. We’ll just have those avaricious and insatiable people cough up blood!”
Ruan Zhu considered it for a while: “This matter isn’t urgent, let’s wait a few years.”
Ruan clan was so wealthy, how could she have the nerve to let her son monopolize everything? What if Ruan Yu also had the same idea one day?
To Ruan Zhu, it wasn’t essential to have too much money. It was fine to have just enough to use and disputes based around money were absolutely not necessary.
The evening meal was exceptionally ceremonious and all of the Ruan household was present and sitting in the main building. All the secondary husbands sat at one table, children sat at another while their respective servants stood beside them to serve them. Because Ruan Zhu had just returned for the first time since she married, she sat with her parents. Ruan Yu had said she missed her second sister so had also squeezed in.
While eating, Ruan Zi Xu wanted to give his wife some dishes before filling his daughter’s bowl full as well. Thinking a bit, he also decided to add some food to Yun Shi Wei’s and Lu Piao Xiang’s bowls. Lu Piao Xiang did not dare to accept but Yun Shi Wei was one that loved to prattle. After picking some things up with his chopsticks for Ruan Zhu, he then focused on eating.
The Ruan family paid particular attention to eating in silence. During the meal, only Ruan Zi Xu said a few words of reminders to the younger generation and then afterwards kept silent.
After the meal was finished, tea was served and they finally started chatting.
Ruan Zhu sized up each member. She could basically find clues in her brain about everyone based on their appearance. The information was neither complete nor that clear, but it more or less was enough for her understand who each family member was. As her eyes swept the room, she saw that concubine-born Ruan Ju had discretely fixed her gaze on Lu Piao Xiang.
[a] 小三 lit. small three is slang for mistress aka the other woman. The joke is that they’re using 小三 literally while she’s thinking of it in modern terms.
[b] The 玉 Yu in her name means jade.
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