As I was editing this chapter, I realized that Jiao Heng is not a Prime Minister. Yet. Therefore, he is just a marquis. I’ve already edit the mistake in the previous chapters. From now on, he will be referred to as Marquis of Jiao, Marquis Jiao, or Jiao Heng. Sorry for the confusion.
Also, we are still in the introduction stage, still learning about our MC and meeting new characters. Today, we are getting introduced to quite a few more so the pacing is going to seem a bit slow. But don’t worry, we’re almost there. 😀
BTW, isn’t the image above gorgeous?
As usual, let me know if there’s any errors or confusion in the story. 🙂 Enjoy!
Chapter 4: Courting Heartbreak
The harmonious strings of the guzheng accompanied the bright moon soaring across the sky in the back courtyard of the He’s residence. As usual, all that lived in the He’s resident stopped in their tasks to listen. Who doesn’t know that the eldest miss He was a talented guzheng master? Whenever she plucked the strings, she moved the heart and soul, capable of putting anyone into a trance.
This was because the previous madam was also a genius guzheng talent and she passed her knowledge and skills to the eldest miss. It was unfortunate that while the second miss was also talented with the instrument, she didn’t take much interest in it. Otherwise, the He family would have raised two genius guzheng masters in Jing.
It was also unfortunate that the elder miss also doesn’t often play. So whenever they hear the first stroke of the string, everyone will stop to listen.
Tonight, the eldest miss was playing a soft and wistful melody; making one can’t help but feel sad and regretful. One could only wonder at why the miss is playing such a song. Ever since she returned with the second miss from delivering the army’s supplies, there had been rumors among the maids that she was more quiet than usual and was often in a daze. But since the old master didn’t say anything and the young master and second miss didn’t seem to worry, as servants, they could only wonder and be concerned from afar.
From a distance away, He Yu Ting and her maid, Li Mei, stood silently watching He Xue Zhen played the guzheng at the pond gazebo in the courtyard. While Li Mei was heartily appreciating the music, He Yu Ting was contemplating the look on her sister’s inscrutable face.
In this world, the closest person to He Yu Ting was He Xue Zhen. Having grown up and sharing most of their lives together, there are not many things that they don’t understand about the other. Therefore, He Yu Ting, who was usually perceptive to her sister’s thoughts and actions, knew what was currently in He Xue Zhen’s heart.
Thinking about their recent meeting with the Marquis of Jiao and his brother, General Jiao Ying Jie, a few months earlier, He Yu Ting could not help but sigh. Fate really loves to play with human.
With a flick of her hand, she dismissed her maid and entered the gazebo just as He Xue Zhen plucked the last string, letting the final tone fade away into the quiet night. “Jiejie,” she spoke softly, announcing her presence as she went to stand beside her sister.
“Ting’er.” He Xue Zhen responded but she continued to stare at the guzheng. A long moment passed before she spoke again. “Tell me. Is this girl thinking too much?”
He Yu Ting knew she didn’t have to answer that question and stayed quiet. Instead, she walked over to the nearby table and poured a cup of cool tea. “Jiejie, come have a cup of tea.”
Silently, He Xue Zhen got up from the chair in front of the guzheng stand and sat next to He Yu Ting at the table. The two drank from their cups and allowed the peaceful night to pass for a few moments.
Then He Xue Zhen spoke, her gaze sad as she stared at the jade teacup in her hand. “I know that there are some matters that are inappropriate. But no matter how hard one tries, it is really hard to forget.”
“Jiejie…” He Yu Ting didn’t know how to comfort her sister and also stared at the intricate carvings of her own jade teacup.
Originally, her sister meeting a good man should really be a good matter. Unfortunately, for her hearts to be entangled to such a high up person and for it to happen in such a bad circumstance, the heavens must be very displeased with He family.
This man being one of the Emperor’s trusted high-ranked official, the matter was already not a good thing. Even if he was not a powerful court official, his status was already the accomplished eldest son of the Emperor’s most favored cousin and the Duke of Qiang De, the current Prime Minister. The Jiao family was considered almost as noble as the imperial family.
Just comparing their status to the He family, one could already see it was impossible. While her He family was one of the wealthiest, they were not noble. Even their ancestors were simple merchants.
Even more, besides being handsome and one of the few powerful man in the country, the Marquis of Jiao was also renown for his kindness and accomplishments for the people. It was well known that no matter who or what kind of status one have, if there was any grievances or injustice, one only need to seek the Marquis of Jiao and he will help to get justice. So it was not surprising that he was a goal for many noble families who want to better themselves and hoped to marry their daughter into the Qiang De Gong Fu. There were even rumors that the Emperor want to bestow him a marriage to one of his daughters.
Against all those noble families and even the royal princesses, how could a simple daughter of a merchant family compete?
Moreover, even if there was no issue of status, there was still another complication.
Twelve years ago, the He family encountered a difficult situation and was danger of losing all their businesses and lands due to some bad investments in the silk trade. With no choice, her father approached the Red Dragon Trading Guild’s master, Feng Xie, for help. After many discussions, Feng Xie agreed to help only after making a profitable exchange along with a marriage agreement to seal the partnership when their eldest children reach the appropriate marriageable age.
Who could guess that Feng Xie and his wife would die only a few years later? Even more, even though the engagement was already agreed upon, it was only a spoken agreement and was not yet made official.
However, although Feng Peng Fei had not made any move to honor the agreement his father made, He Fu You did not dare to anger the young master who’d inherited the Red Dragon Trading Guild.
Even though the He family’s business ventures were successful and thriving, a majority of their dealings were backed by Feng Peng Fei’s guild that controlled the vast majority the empire’s trades.
If they offended the young master, losing their livelihood would be the last of their worries. If anything were to happen, even their lives will be in jeopardy.
Feng Peng Fei was renown as a genius businessman that could turn anything to gold. However, he also had a frightening reputation. Besides being cunning and ruthless, he was also vicious and merciless. It was said that a person would rather offend a high-ranked official than angering the merciless black-hearted Feng Peng Fei.
To disregard the marriage agreement would be akin to slapping Feng Peng Fei in the face. So for all intent and purposes, He Xue Zhen was already engaged to Feng Peng Fei.
Thinking of all this, He Yu Ting could only sigh in her heart and pray that the gods were kind and merciful.
The soft call from her sister had He Yu Ting looking up at her. He Xue Zhen was no longer looking at the teacup but directly at her. Her eyes were slightly red and a sad smile formed on her pink lips.
He Yu Ting felt her heart constricted at the sight. In just a few months, her usually happy sister already had the look of someone who suffered grievous wound.
“Tomorrow is an auspicious day,” her sister said, injecting cheer into her voice. “We haven’t gone out since we returned from Yangjing. Let’s go to the temple and light some incenses.”
Bai Yun Mountain.
“Miss, are you sure you don’t want to take the carriage?” Li Ping asked her mistress while helping her wipe the sweats off her forehead. At her side, Li Mei was already doing the same for He Yu Ting.
While allowing their maids to wipe their forehead, He Xue Zhen and He Yu Ting exchanged knowing smiles. “Li Ping, if you and your sister are tired of climbing up these steps, you two are allow to take the carriage.”
Li Ping finished and folded the silk handkerchief back into her sleeve. Then she pouted at her mistress. “Miss, how could I leave you and second miss to suffer while Li Mei and I rest in a carriage? I was only worried that you and second miss will exhaust yourselves before reaching the monastery.”
He Yu Ting grinned. “I know you two worried about us, but since when have you ever seen us take the carriage when we come to the monastery?” As she said this, she grabbed her sister’s hand and the two continued to climb the steps.
Li Ping and Li Mei could only sigh in their hearts as they followed their mistresses. What kind of people both misses were, in their hearts, the sisters knew very well.
Orphaned at a young age, the Li sisters had been sold into the He family when their distant relatives could not afford to raise them. With no other close relatives besides each other, the sisters were terrified of their fates after being sold. It was fortunate that the old madam was kind and had them each serve one of the young misses, who were only a few years younger than themselves.
As both misses grew up, they also inherited the old madam’s kindness. Despite their differences in status, He Xue Zhen and He Yu Ting treated them as cherished playmates when they were little and later as close confidants. Because the He sisters had always treated them very well and with sincerity, Li Ping and Li Mei were willing to wholeheartedly follow them for the rest of their lives.
But who knew that the personalities of the two daughters of the He family were so different from other rich and noble ladies of Jing? Take for example the attitude that both misses possessed whenever they come to Jade Cloud Estate Monastery.
Because it was built atop the mountain, there were hundreds of steps leading up to the monastery. However, due to its prestigious two-hundred-years old history, there were usually many visitors. So on an auspicious day like today, who could guess how many visitors they will receive?
Even though it was only midmorning, there was already a long line of carriages and sedan possessions marching up and down the main paths leading up the mountain. Many of them were extravagantly decorated to showcase their identity and status. All of them were carried by strong and powerfully built men and accompanied by maids and servants. With just a glance, who doesn’t know that inside are the members of Jing’s affluent, noble or elite families?
Among those carriages was also the He family’s carriage the master had given the misses to use. Although it was not as prestigious as the sedan or carriage of a noble family, it was still luxurious and comfortable with some servants and maids for convenience. After all, even though the He family does not have a title or noble blood, they were still one of the wealthiest family in Jing. Furthermore, everyone in Jing knew how much He Fu You loved and valued his daughters. How could he allow his daughters to suffer?
However, instead of making use of such an accommodation, He Xue Zhen and He Yu Ting always chose to climb the steps. They had arrived at the base of the mountain early at dawn and although it was now mid-morning, they had only managed to climb about a third of the mountain steps. Although they will soon arrive at the monastery, why climb the steps if taking the carriage would allow them to arrive much faster? The reasons for such endeavor were something only both misses would understand. As servants, the Li sisters could only follow their leads.
Just before the sun touched the top of the sky, He Xue Zhen and He Yu Ting finally arrived at the last step. Although exhausted and weak in the knees, the exercise and exhilaration helped to take away some of their tiredness, causing their cheeks to flush with red and making their faces appear more youthful and radiant.
He Yu Ting smiled as she looked down the black stone steps. Even the most difficult road would end. The words of their mother echoed in their ears. As a small woman with a fragile body that succumbed easily to ailments and parents who had spent countess richness in hopes that their only daughter would get better, her mother always believed in the sincerity of one’s actions.
One of He Yu Ting’s most cherished memories of her mother was when she had taken He Xue Zhen and her to the monastery. Together, the three of them had climbed these very steps. She even remembered that when she had complained of sore feet and begged for them to use the carriage, her mother had crouched down in front of her crying daughter. Then she’d smiled and stroked her hair.
“Ting’er, tell mother. Why are we going to the temple?”
Frowning, He Yu Ting answered, “To pray for the gods’ blessing so father can return home safely from his business trip.”
“Good. But listen. Do you think the gods will grant our prayer if we only worry about ourselves while your father is suffering the wind and rain outside?”
He Yu Ting thought of her father who loved to pick her up and throw her into the air again and again to make her laugh. Then, she remembered how he always looked tired and hollow-eyed whenever he returned from a trip. She shook her head.
Nodding, her mother continued, her fingers gently wiping the tears from He Yu Ting’s face. “This girl… You must remember that no matter what one says, only actions will show a person’s real heart. Your father is enduring hardship outside for us. What is a little sore feet and exhaustion if we’re sincere in our prayers and are able to receive a blessing for his safe return?”
“It’s not a problem,” she agreed with a nod. A beat later, she frowned again. She tilted her head at an angle as she commented, “But there are lots of steps. Can we really climb all of them before it is lunch time?”
At her side, her sister laughed and pinched her cheeks. “Silly girl. You only want to eat.”
Her mother also laughed and patted her head. “Even the most difficult road would end. If Ting’er is good and sincerely climb the steps, we will get there by lunch time.”
It was the last time the three of them ever went to the monastery together. Not long after, her mother passed away from an illness and the only person left to accompany He Yu Ting to climb the steps was her father, eldest sister and her tangge.
“Miss, it looks like there is someone important currently praying in the temple.” Li Mei’s voice drew He Yu Ting out of her reverie. Turning around to look at the temple, she saw the gathering of people standing outside the temple’s door and spreading out into the front courtyard. Curious, the sisters entered the front courtyard.
Besides the group of noble ladies and noblemen standing to the side, there were also finely dressed servants and maid guarding the entrance into the main hall. Just from the tastefully chosen attire and the conduct of the servants, one could feel the strictness of protocols and importance of the noble person inside. At the side, people were quietly whispering to one another, not daring to be too loud that it would disturb the peace of the room inside. From behind these groups of people, He Xue Zhen and He Yu Ting heard the words “Qiang De” and “Princess Tong Qing.”
Who in the capital did not know that Princess Tong Qing was the wife of the Duke of Qiang De and was the emperor’s most favored cousin? Even more, this person had once saved the emperor’s life.
Before becoming the current emperor, the then crowned prince contracted a contagious illness that already killed hundreds of villagers while touring the countryside. No one dared to come near the crowned prince for fear of contracting the disease. But it was Xi Wan, the shu daughter of Xi family from the crown prince’s maternal family, who stayed by his majesty’s side and took care of him day and night.
It was said that even though the imperial physicians were able to find a cure, it was really the efforts of Xi Wan that really saved the crowned prince. If she wasn’t at his side all those time and helped to feed him food and medicine, would he lasted a month to wait for the cure when the disease typically kill a person within ten days?
The previous emperor was so grateful of Xi Wan’s kindness and compassion that he bestowed her the status of a princess and the title Tong Qing, letting her live in a luxurious wing of the imperial palace.
Overnight, from a lowly shu daughter to a titled princess, it was a luck that others could only wish for but never receive. Then being able to marry a good man who is the current Prime Minister as well as giving birth to two accomplished sons, Princess Tong Qing was indeed a fortunate woman who had received the heaven’s blessings.
If the person inside was indeed Princess Tong Qing, does that not mean that there was a chance that the Marquis of Jiao and General Jiao was in there as well? It was well known in the city that the marquis and general usually escort Princess Tong Qing to the monastery if they were not busy with the court or country matters. Recently, both the court and the country had been relatively quiet and peaceful.
He Xue Zhen heart became uncomfortable. There was even a hint of excitement as well. It had been many months. Would he still remember her? If he happens to look this way, will he recognize her?
At the thought, a tall figure in blue suddenly stepped out from the main hall and entered the courtyard. Quickly, He Xue Zhen turned her back to the familiar person, thankful that she was standing behind a crowd of people. Recalling the direction of her thoughts just moments before, she knew she was thinking too much and was not being sensible at all.
Grabbing her sister’s hand, she hastily led them towards the side entrance that lead to the East courtyard. “Let’s go to the Jade Pavilion to wait. There are too many people here right now. It’s better to not disturb them.”
Originally, coming to the monastery was He Xue Zhen’s desire to beg the gods to help her calm her wistful heart. But why was the heaven playing with her, allowing her to see him again?
 tangge: Older male cousin, from the father side
 shu: Born of a concubine; a concubine’s child