“Miss, Miss; why have you all arrested my family’s Miss?” Right at that time, Nuan Chun’s search brought him to the rear courtyard. Upon seeing his family’s Master had been trussed up, he was so startled his entire face became ashen and he threw himself over, regardless of everything.
Ruan Zhu was alarmed. How could this idiot be so foolish? She hurriedly said: “Nuan Chun, quickly return; there are no matters for you here.”
Nuan Chun did not listen and started fighting with some of the bailiffs. How could he be their opponent? After a round of punches and kicks, he slumped on the ground, unable to get up.
Master Jia saw that they were still beating him and walked forward to say some nice words before the bailiffs would let Nuan Chun go.
“Elder, look at Nuan Chun, please invite a physician to look at him.” Ruan Zhu shouted behind her as she was brought to the large gate by the bailiffs.
“I know.” Master Jia looked on helplessly as his Young Master’s newly wed wife was arrested, feeling as if he was about to puke! Seeing Nuan Chun had been beaten quite badly, he called for some servants to carry him into a room to lie down before having someone go invite a physician from a medicine hall.
“Master......” Xiao Wu apparently knew he had caused a disaster, and his eyes were filled with both remorse and fright. He had previously come to the capital to search for his parents but was unsuccessful. Being penniless at well, he had fainted at the roadside. If it weren’t for Master Jia offering him shelter, he would have long starved to death. Today, it was clear his good intention had inadvertently led to a disaster.
“Do you know when His Fifth Highness, who has left the city for army drills, will be able to return?”
“This small one has asked around. It will likely not be until tomorrow or the day after.”
“That long.” Master Jia was flustered. The Madam had met with mishap at Lu Yin Ge; if Young Master found out about this, wouldn’t he flay off his skin? That hateful Constable Shen took his money but still refused to release the person: “I will go send some more money to Constable Shen. Xiao Wu, go to the kitchen and find some delicious things to pack in a food case, then follow me to the prison for a look. I certainly must not let the Young Master’s wife go hungry. Cough cough......A whole group of greedy and insatiable shameful things dare to kidnap my family’s lady. Just wait until Master returns to put them in order.”
Ruan Zhu was locked in prison. The ornaments in her hair, the bracelets on her wrist–none of the considerably expensive jewelry on her remained. The emerald bracelet was whisked away by Constable Shen; the other bailiffs took advantage of the situation to steal her jadeite necklace and jasper hairpin. The earrings were ones that she personally gave away; the reason was very simple–she was too afraid they would tear her earlobe.
Ruan Zhu had barely entered the prison cell for two minutes when a prison matron called her out and took her to a single room, where ragged sackcloth clothes were thrown at her in exchange for the rare soft smoke muslin. The prison matron saw that the satin shoes inlaid with pearls she wore on her feet were also not bad and took them while she was at it.
Ruan Zhu’s heart was filled with grievances and hatred. Right now she was impoverished, and there was no difference between the current her and the beggars on the streets.
She followed behind the prison matron toward the cell. Her bare, tender, and small feet stepped along the passageway. Enduring the uneven surface that poked her feet and caused stabs of pain to shoot up her legs, she shed tears in her heart. They were truly sinister, ah! The ancient prisons did not believe in human rights.
The air inside the prison was dreadful. There was an extremely unpleasant odor that made her dizzy from nausea, and she did her best to endure the discomfort in her stomach.
Malnourished and sickly women were packed on either sides of the fence. There were old and young, all of them so thin as to almost not resemble humans. They turned their hunger-filled eyes over in ridicule as if they were saying: Look, hmm? Turns out this stupid bastard was the same as us.
Ruan Zhu recalled how she had just passed through here previously wearing her soft smoke gauze. Those eyes had had been filled with envy and hatred then, but had this quickly changed into these kind of expressions.
This was the inferiority at the root of human nature! If there were two people who were simultaneously brought to the execution grounds, and the one ahead was freed, the one behind would go mad......simply because there there was no one who could share his suffering, no one that would also go down the same path. If it were possible, the one behind would use his teeth and nails to tear the one in front to shreds.
With one in front and one behind, they arrived at a prison cell. The prison matron unlocked the door and pushed her inside.
Constable Shen had received Elder Jia’s bribe and had arranged a single cell for her. It was still one of those with a fence, but the environment was much better–with a bed, desk, and chair at the corner. The right and left cells on either side of her were filled with dirty women, and even children that were only a few months old were present. They were being held at their young mothers’ bosoms, and because they were extremely hungry, loudly wailed.
The cells were hot and stuffy and the great majority of these women did not wear clothes, exposing their pitch-black breasts.
“Little girl, your appearance isn’t bad. Your beautiful clothes have been taken, right? What did you do to come to this place?” An old woman in the left cell mockingly asked.
“You think everyone is the same as you; killing your own family’s man!” Another woman curled her lip.
“This old woman did it in order to enter the prison for a bit to eat. Goddamn! You know how many people outside have starved to death. It’s still being in prison that is better. There is food, there is someplace to stay; being able to muddle my way in is the ancestral shrine billowing out blue smoke.”[a] The old woman shook out the dust from a tattered blouse and put it on, swearing at the woman holding the baby in her arms: “If your child dares to cry one more time, this old woman will choke him to death. Annoying me to death.”
The young woman jumped with fright and hurriedly coaxed the child at her bosom.
Ruan Zhu plopped down on the chair and poked at her chin with her finger. Bored, she let her imagination run wild. The things she had experienced today were truly a lot, ah, so much.
First, was the strange discovery in the account ledgers. She had led Nuan Chun to Lu Yin Ge, went to find Steward Wang, then unexpectedly ran across him being offed by the crippled man. Worried she would be considered the murderer, she had hid in the chest. To her surprise, a bad luck demon had jumped in, immediately followed by hitmen from Nan Ling, however they also scrammed. She had thought it was safe then, but who would have thought a group of bailiffs would come over. Ai, she had still been considered the murderer and had been dragged into prison.
She didn’t expect Nuan Chun would disregard his own life for her and fight with the bailiffs. There was a faint stab of pain in her heart, but she hoped he was all right.
After a few minutes, the cell door opened and Xuanyuan Min Zhi was pushed in by the prison matron. The luxurious sapphire blue satin clothes had been replaced by a ragged gray sackcloth. She took a glance at his feet. Just like her, he was barefoot.
The sole chair was occupied by Ruan Zhu, and Xuanyuan Min Zhi could only sit down on the bed. Neither of the two spoke. They were perhaps thinking of their own worries!
The female prisoners had not seen a man in who knows how many years. They all foolishly looked towards this single cell, directing catcalls and obscenities towards him. He fiercely glared at them once before ignoring them completely.
Ruan Zhu was baffled. This was a female prison. How should it be said for an adult male to be thrown in here?
When it was time for the meal, the prison matron squeezed two bowls of coarse rice through the cell bars. Although it was only brown rice, this treatment could be considered not bad compared to the black and unidentifiable food that the other cells were given. Xuanyuan Min Zhi placed one of the bowls in front of her and then brought the other bowl to the head of the bed. Not in the least caring how unpalatable brown rice was, he gulped down large mouthfuls, and soon after, the bottom of the large bowl of rice could be seen.
Ruan Zhu looked at the bowl of rice and found it hard to swallow. Enduring the discomfort in her stomach, she ate a tiny mouthful, thought it disgusting, and hurriedly pushed the bowl to the side.
“If you don’t eat, your body won’t be able to take it. There is no need to make it difficult for yourself.” Xuanyuan Min Zhi placed his own empty bowl on top of the table and looked at her: “In the beginning, it will feel as if they are pressing down on your teeth but it will be much better after you eat it a few times. It’s better than being hungry; there’s lots of people that can’t even afford rice, hmm?”
“It sounds like you’ve suffered a lot?” She cast a cynical look his way. Was it possible for a noble mister of the imperial family that was born with a golden spoon in his mouth to comprehend the misery of the poor common folk?
“Those few months after I left Nan Ling, I have also chewed the weeds in Mount Lian. Afterwards, you sent me to old Sun’s family who handed out moldy rice. I also frequently ate steamed buns that were covered with green fuzz.” He indifferently responded. At old Sun’s place, it wasn’t that there weren’t opportunities to escape; rather, the current political situation was in upheaval, and if he fled, his days would be even more miserable. after he arrived in Yu Zhou, though the distance between him and the capital had lessened, the number of assassins after him from Nan Ling actually increased.
“Saying it like that, it seems I have caused much trouble for you.” The corner of Ruan Zhu’s mouth rose, the color of her eyes like limpid autumn waters.[b] “Thus, you sought revenge and also sent me to prison.”
Xuanyuan Min Zhi shook his head: “Having you enter the prison is because your family is able to materially provide you with assistance. I am just conveniently benefiting in the process.”
Ruan Zhu did not believe him: “You are a prince. Whatever you want, how could you not receive?”
A cold sneer appeared on Xuanyuan Min Zhi’s face: “All people chase after benefits. They think of nothing but personal gain and would sell their own soul to obtain that thing. Me being in this state today is all thanks to those traitors. Now, apart from myself, there is no one I trust.”
Ruan Zhu looked at the women in the adjacent cells, hesitating before landing her eyes back on his face: “I want to know. You used a trick to enter the female prison, didn’t you?”
Xuanyuan Min Zhi responded exasperatingly slowly: “I told the jailer I am your secondary husband. In life, we must lie together; in death, we must be buried together. If he agreed, I would give them a thousand taels of silver. Although you are very annoying, are ugly, and opinionated, to be able to leech some benefits, I cannot resign myself to be out of luck.”
Ruan Zhu was so angered she turned her face away, refusing to speak to him any longer. Looking at the bowl of brown rice on the table, she was still unwilling to eat it. The child in the adjacent cell was incessantly crying and the tiny figure of Zhi Xi entered her mind. Distress and longing overcame her for a moment. Carrying the bowl of rice, she walked to the edge of the cell fence and offered it towards the mother of the child: “You should eat this bowl of rice so that you will have milk to then feed the child.”
The child’s mother gratefully kneeled down in kowtow, but without waiting for the bowl to reach her hands, several blackened hands immediately stretched forward to snatch at the bowl. The bowl fell onto the ground and the rice was scattered all over while those women madly crawled on the ground, fighting for the tiny grains.
Ruan Zhu was stunned at the scene. Just for a tiny bit of food, even self-respect and their consciences could be thrown away.
Xuanyuan Min Zhi coldly spoke thus: “Truly an honorable Eldest Miss that has never gone hungry. Let’s see if after two days of no meals you’ll still have this rotten kindness. However, the other may not necessarily thank you.”
“I do not wish to let that child starve to death.” She was also a mother. At least her own Zhi Xi was still in the Ruan residence and had everyone to look after him. Ruan Yu would definitely not treat him badly.
“That child will definitely die. It doesn’t matter if it’s outside or in the prison cell. In famine, human lives are worth less than that of a dog’s.”
Xuanyuan Min Zhi sat on the bed and didn’t say another word. After entering the prison, his safety was guaranteed. There were surely the assassins’ spies outside the prison. If he were to somehow leave, how could he get in contact with his Emperor Father deep inside the palace?
Xuanyuan Min Zhi sank into contemplation.
After an indeterminate amount of time, the prison gate opened with a large bang and several people walked along the corridor. The ones the prison matron led were Elder Jia and several of his attendants, among which Ruan Zhu recognized one. It was the waiter in Lu Yin Ge that she had met before.
“Young Master’s Wife!” Master Jia hurriedly rushed over and yelled through the fence: “Are you all right? Is anywhere uncomfortable; they did not hit you, correct?”
Ruan Zhu was dazed: “Elder, you do not have to be so polite to me; you can just call me Zhu’er.”
“Oh, all......all right......” Master Jia stammered: “Xiao Wu, hand over the food......”
Xiao Wu unveiled the multiple layers in the food box and displayed the food inside. Up top were various kinds of pastries; there were two plates of dishes in the middle level; on the bottom was a jar of steaming carp soup.
Ruan Zhu took the offered carp soup, and after a sip, felt a nausea that was hard to bear and thought perhaps she had caught a cold. She handed it over to Master Jia and pointed at the child in the adjacent cell: “Bring the fish soup over there to feed the child.”
[a] This can indicate 1) a good thing has happened, 2) satire used to curse/mock people
[b] A traditional way of describing a girl’s beautiful eyes.
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