Chapter 1 – Jiuzhu

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Seeing off the official from the Ministry of Rites who’d delivered the edict, the Ming family’s mood was extremely heavy.

Ming Jingzhou clasped the decree, both hands trembling slightly.
It was as if that wasn’t an imperial edict embroidered with golden dragons and auspicious clouds, but a thousand jin* hammer.

*斤 – a catty, equal to around 500 g

“Third Uncle.” Ming Cunfu was afraid that Ming Jingzhou couldn’t catch his breath and would crumple into a faint.
He hurriedly got up to support him.

It should be a good thing for his younger cousin* to be linked by marriage with the imperial family.
But thinking of the person Jiuzhu was espousing, the word “congratulations” could not leave his mouth.

*堂妹 – younger female patrilineal cousin

In the capital city, who didn’t know that His Majesty favored Noble Consort Su and excessively doted on Chen wang*, who was born from Noble Consort Su.

*王 – lit.
king; a title often to given to the Emperor's sons

When Chen wang was not yet fifteen, he was conferred the title of wang together with the eldest prince who was older by five years.
Nowadays he was fully twenty years old, his official residence outside of the palace resplendently built in jade and gold.
However, he was frequently kept behind in the palace by His Majesty, and the other princes and princesses all avoided him like the tip of a spear.

There was a rumor in the imperial court that Chen wang was the hidden Crown Prince.
If it weren’t for Noble Consort Su’s humble family background, and the fact that Chen wang was neither the legitimate nor the eldest prince, His Majesty would have sealed him as the heir to the throne early on.
But aside from the pretty face gifted by Noble Consort Su, there was nothing about him that was worthy of praise.
Many of the imperial court’s officials were united in opposition to his succession.

Jiuzhu knelt on the ground.
She looked at her father’s mournful face, and then at her disconsolate cousin.
Lifting her skirts to stand up, she very carefully walked to Ming Jingzhou’s side and took a hold of the imperial edict to look over.

“The edict says that Chen wang possesses innate talent and unvarnished beauty, is well-favored and studious.
These are all good words.” Rolling the imperial edict back up to stuff into Ming Jingzhou’s hands, Jiuzhu gently patted his wrist.
“Daddy doesn’t need to be so sad.”

Seeing his daughter’s sweetly tender and naive face, Ming Jingzhou’s voice trembled.
“West market’s Grandma Wang even boasts when selling melons, not to mention…”

Not to mention when His Majesty is getting a wife for his own son.

Ming Cunfu coughed drily, reminding his family’s Third Uncle to not utter words that offended the imperial family.
“Meimei*, Third Uncle and elder brother are like this because we can’t bear for you to marry out.”

*妹妹 – younger sister, little sister

Back when their lineage lost power in court and was banished to a bitter and cold land, in order to protect his newly-born little cousin, Third Uncle entrusted her to the clan elders.
Later on the current Emperor ascended the throne and his father, Second Uncle and Third Uncle were reinstated and returned to the capital to hold office.

Officials in the capital weren’t allowed to leave the city without an imperial order, but Third Uncle dispatched people numerous times to the clan’s homeland in Lingzhou to fetch his younger cousin.
At first, the clan elders always refused to let them do so with the excuse that his little sister’s body was weak and not suited to travel.

But his Third Uncle and Third Aunt truly longed for their child.
After his younger cousin had been nursed for a year, they spent a large sum of money to hire an accompanying physician, and only then were they able to bring back his younger cousin who was already six years old.

“Younger cousin” had just been brought home when Third Aunt began to sense that something wasn’t right.
Although the little girl’s eyebrows bore some resemblance to her and Third Uncle, she suspected that this child was not her flesh and blood.

Later on they investigated and discovered that not long after their family’s three brothers were exiled, the clansmen, not daring to raise Jiuzhu for fear of offending the officials in power, abandoned her in the wilderness.

The name Jiuzhu* signified that her parents treated her like jade, like pearl.
But those heartless clansmen actually discarded their family’s precious pearl like that.

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*玖珠 – the first character means “black jade” and the second is “pearl”

Third Uncle and Third Aunt were heartbroken upon learning the truth.
They immediately sent that fake younger cousin back to Lingzhou, and moreover opened the ancestral hall to remove themselves from the clan and henceforth establish their own family.

His father and Second Uncle came from the same bloodline as Third Uncle.
After being sent to a bitterly cold exile, they relied on each other even more, sharing joys and sorrows together.
Naturally they also couldn’t stomach this offense, and together with Third Uncle’s family struck themselves off the clan register.
 From then on, the three families had nothing to do with the Ming clan from Lingzhou.

Jiuzhu had been found by him and his lackey several months earlier in a tiny and dilapidated temple in Lingzhou.
The temple’s walls were mottled, the tiles broken and the windows rotted, so wretched that even mice weren’t willing to enter.

His already sixteen years old younger cousin was holding a big steamed bun, nibbling it with a face full of contentment.
Upon seeing him, she quickly hid the bun behind her back and opened her mouth to say: “Does gongzi* want to offer incense or divine your fortune? Our temple’s deity is especially effective.”

*公子 – an honorific for a son of an official or a noble

Ming Cunfu looked at the portrait of the deity on the sacrificial altar, which had already gathered dust.
He truly couldn’t see where its efficacy lay.

But afterwards, he still really hoped that the temple was effective.
After all, the two female Daoists said that he had the blessing of the Wen Qu star*.
In the future he would pluck a branch of osmanthus from the Toad Palace**, encounter noble persons of high rank, and enjoy a smooth official’s career.

*文曲星 – one of the 28 stars of traditional Chinese astronomy and astrology; the fourth star in the Big Dipper.
The Wen Qu star governs literary destiny.**蟾宫折桂 – an idiom signifying success in the imperial examination

Scholars ah, who didn’t want to succeed in the imperial exam.

It absolutely must be effective!

“Sixth Brother Fu.” Jiuzhu pulled Ming Cunfu’s sleeve.
“What are you thinking about?”

Ming Cunfu returned to his senses.
Before he could open his mouth, however, there came the sound of harried footsteps from outside.

“Mother has come back?” Jiuzhu quickly stepped towards the doorway, just in time to run into Shen shi* who was coming their way.

*氏 – maiden name

Shen shi’s countenance, which initially bore traces of anxiety, softened the moment she caught sight of Jiuzhu.
“Jiuzhu, why are you standing at the door? The wind is cold in late autumn, don’t let it sting your face.”

Jiuzhu detected the scent of incense wafting from Shen shi’s body.
She reached out a hand to support Shen shi’s crooked arm as they walked inside the room.
“Don’t worry, Mother, the skin on my face is thick so the wind can’t blow through it.”

The two of them had not been together for long but they were already very close.
Perhaps this was the invisible bond between mother and daughter.

Shen shi had just sat down when she ordered the servants to bring Jiuzhu some tonic soup.
Gazing at her daughter’s little face, her eyes brimmed with distress.

There’s a type of thinness that’s called “mother feels you are very thin.”

These past ten or so years, the Jiuzhu in her imagination had experienced all sorts of suffering, to the extent that when she saw those unfortunate souls in the operas, she couldn’t help but think: what would she do if her own daughter was living such a miserable existence?  

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So now when Jiuzhu stood in front of her, alive and fair, she formed a habit of occasionally stuffing her daughter with food.
It was as if

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