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As a busy man, my Uncle Qiao Yu rarely visited Chang An. Though I wasn't familiar with him, he was nice in my memories. In contrast, I was more familiar with my Aunt Ding-shi and my Cousin Qiao Ti. They used to visit Chang An almost every year and stay at our home.
My Aunt Ding-shi also came from an influential family and treated me well. She used to bring me many gifts every time she visited Chang An. I still remembered the time when she gifted me my favorite silk figurine as a child.
Yet, despite her kindness, I never liked my Cousin Qiao Ti.
Although two years younger, thanks to my Uncle's tall physique, she was always as tall as me. She liked pretty things, and that too, others' pretty things. The first time she visited Chang An, she was only eight. But she knew how to act sweet, innocent, yet admiring in front of elders. She told my Mother, "The jade necklace worn by my Elder Cousin is so beautiful, I have never seen one like that in Luoyang."
My Mother always treated her relatives well, and when she heard this, she smiled, "Since Ah Ti likes it, I'll gift it to you." Over the years, my Mother forced me to give away many of my things, jewelry, toys, perfume, etc. One time, Qiao Ti even wanted the paper in my study. Pure white mixed with orchid petals, I loved that paper Pei Qian made for me.
I gave her a hard, blank stare and refused, "Won't give," prompting my Mother to laugh at my pettiness.
I wasn't sure if that was the reason, but two days later, when I overheard Yu Ying and the girls gossiping about me and Pei Qian, she was with them. She sneered, "Elder Cousin Ah Jin isn't worthy of Young Master Ji Yuan."
Since then, I had never been friendly to Qiao Ti.
Times change; the former mind of an adolescent girl was a forgotten book. By the time you pulled it from a corner again, the mood was different.
"Paying respects to my Aunt," I bowed to her at the front door.
"Ah Jin," she held me, her eyes in tears from a mixture of grief and joy.
Qiao Ti gazed at me, her face, which had inherited my aunt's fine eyebrows, filled with probing and caution.
"Elder Cousin," she walked up to me and bowed with her brow lowered.
"Cousin," I smiled and returned the salute.
After my Aunt took my hand and poured out her regret, I invited the mother and daughter pair to sit in the main hall and asked Ah Yuan to serve tea.
Staring at Ah Yuan, my aunt said, "This maid looks very familiar. She looks like former Steward Li's daughter, the one who served Ah Jin......"
"You are right," I smiled, "After I arrived in Yong Capital, I ran into Steward Li's family by chance, and we reunited."
Ah Yuan stepped forward and bowed to my aunt, "Paying my respects to Madam."
She helped Ah Yuan up and smiled, "I thought you looked familiar, so you are an old friend."
I explained how Li Shang had survived that year, and how he left his hometown to return to Yong Capital.
"Fortunately, I went to town that day and ran into Steward Li's son Li Huan, reuniting with their family."
My Aunt nodded and wiped her eyes, "I know that Steward Li is faithful. It is fortunate that you can see each other despite disasters." She paused, patted Ah Yuan's hand and sighed to me, "Ah Jin is a new bride in the Wei Clan and your servants and maids are all strangers. How can you handle the ones above you? I am relieved that you have Ah Yuan."
I smiled, "That's very true, Aunt."
Then we talked about trivial matters. The mention of my Uncle made everyone sad, and my Aunt couldn't help but sob.
"Throughout his life, your Uncle was righteous; he respected elders and was kind to youngsters. When the Fu Clan's difficulties started, he and the ministers jointly submitted a petition to appeal for justice, offending Empress Bian. He traveled to Chang An to save you, but he was only halfway when the Late Emperor had already moved the blade......"
She choked on her sobs, "Your Uncle never slept peacefully after that, but didn't dare tell your grandmother. He had to cover up whenever your grandmother asked for your Mother. After you married into Laiyang, he wanted to meet you. But when war engulfed Luoyang, your Uncle trusted Dong Kuang. Didn't expect......," she covered her face with a silk handkerchief and wept.
"Mother......" Qiao Ti shed tears, glanced at me, and whispered words of comfort.
When my Aunt finally relaxed, I asked, "I wonder if Elder Cousin Ke is well?"
She wiped away her tears and replied, "Bo Gong is fine. He is studying at home behind closed doors. The Emperor is going to reopen the annual Xiao Lian in Yong Capital, and Bo Gong wants to take part."
I approved, "It's great my Elder Cousin has such ambition."
My Aunt sighed, "Although the Qiao Clan is an influential family in Luoyang, since your Uncle only has Bo Gong to carry on his blood, he doesn't dare neglect his work. But after the war, most of our acquaintances in the capital scattered. Even your Uncle isn't here, and no one can endorse him."
I finally understood; my Aunt had a favor she wanted to ask me.
I have met Elder Cousin Qiao Ke only two or three times. Though I wasn't familiar with him, I remembered his talent in learning. When my Father once tested him, he answered all the questions fluently, and even earned my Father's praise.
At first, Xiao Lian promoted the virtuous into Court officials. But for ages, the nobles have controlled the exams. During the Late Emperor's reign, even scholarly families weren't good enough without a noble's endorsement. In the past, this would be easy. But now the Qiao Clan had weakened; my Aunt had no choice but to come to me for help.
For the first time, I felt the power this "Wei Clan's eldest son's wife" identity held.
"Since my Aunt trusts me, I am obliged. But I have something to tell you. It has been less than a year since I entered the Wei family, and I have been mostly away from my husband. I am stuck in the Residence and unexposed to the Imperial Court's affairs. When I meet my husband, I will tell him about my Elder Cousin's issue. The Prime Minister has always loved talent, and with my Elder Cousin's ambition, he will be fine."
My Aunt nodded and gripped my hand, "Thank you for your trouble, Ah Jin."
I smiled, "Of course."
She sighed, "Your Uncle will be pleased if he knows your kindness." With that, she bowed her head and wiped her tears again.
We both talked about what happened after we separated, sitting in the main hall for ages. Qiao Ti sat beside us and said very little. Except helping her mother wipe her tears occasionally, she looked calm most of the times, just staring at me.
My Aunt and Qiao Ti stayed for dinner before bidding farewell. I looked at the evening sky and sighed; it was a long day.
"Furen, Madam is so talkative; others can't get a word in while she's talking," Ah Yuan exclaimed.
I smiled, noncommittal.
My Mother had once called my Aunt a shrewd woman. While I never cared before, I understood her words after spending so much time with my Aunt today. More than meeting me, I feared that the primary reason for her visit was my Elder Cousin. Yet, the Qiao Clan was my mother's parent's family, and they were my last relatives; I wouldn't refuse to lend a helping hand.
Wei An progressed with his wheelchair, but only half-way, and not without hiccups. He reluctantly admitted that he couldn't make a few parts which needed to be strong and precise; his carpentry skills were still too shallow.
"Why don't you take a break? When we return to Yong Capital, I will find two carpenters to help Fourth Brother-in-law. It's no problem," I encouraged.
He nodded and returned to making more pieces of wood.
With no one in the mansion, the days were boring. The only books in the mansion were old History Classics. I took one to read but didn't turn two pages before throwing it on my desk. Concubine Xu was idle as well, and she often visited to keep me company.
I learned from our chats that she was originally the daughter of Madam Wu's (T/N: Wei Jue's first wife) maid and grew up in the mansion since childhood. Wei Zhao took her as a concubine from Madam Wu when she was 17. Concubine Xu didn't elaborate more, and I didn't know the exact details of what happened that year. Yet, she didn't show a hint of a servant's humility. From her speech, it was clear she knew to read and understood etiquette. Although of low birth, with her beauty, it wasn't surprising Wei Zhao liked her.
In order to pass time, I cleaned out the loom used by Wei Tan's mother, Madam Wu, after I learned Concubine Xu weaved. I learned to weave from her, trying to be like the virtuous women taught in the books.
The weather cooled, and reports of victories in the North kept coming endlessly. After Tan Xi's death, his four sons divided his army. While the army remained leaderless, Wei Jue marched North, trying to divide and conquer. Now that he had destroyed Tan Xi's third son, Tan Kui, he battled Tan Xi's eldest son, Tan Meng, in You Province.
Meanwhile, in a sudden movement in Huaiyang in the South, Wu Zhang became critically ill. With no heirs, the base passed to his younger brother Wu Kun.
After I heard this news, I became distracted.
Luoyang was far away from Huaiyang, and we just got fragments of news occasionally. But I understood that power shifting hands involved many murky schemes; only a few were lucky to survive. Was Pei Qian safe and sound there?
"Off late, Furen seems distracted," commented Concubine Xu after I tore several loom threads in a row.
I smiled apologetically at her after realizing my mind had wandered off again.
"Furen must be tired," she looked at the darkening sky outside the door and continued, "It's late, why don't you rest?"
I nodded, "It's fine, we'll continue tomorrow."
She bowed and excused herself.
I felt tired, so after washing up, I laid on the bed and sighed; I recognized my habit of worrying too much sometimes.
Breaking off ties was easier said than done; how many people could do it? I couldn't help but worry about Pei Qian. Not that I still loved him, but I couldn't sweep him away as a stranger either.
I slept lightly because I had a lot on my mind.
Around midnight, I sensed a movement in the fog. The night breeze brushed across my neck, as if the doors and windows weren't closed shut.
I snapped awake when a rough touch brushed against my cheek.
I squinted as sudden candlelight streamed into my eyes. As I struggled to recognize who stood in front of me, I froze in shock.
"Awake?" Wei Tan looked surprised for a moment, before smiling, "Furen, please forgive me; I didn't mean to wake you."
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Beginning as an avid reader, I am translating novels with the help of machine translation and online dictionaries.
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