The Great Chen’s tomb was located in the western part of the capital.
The southwestern part of the tomb housed the founding emperor and ministers of the Great Chen. Because of the war, a lot of the ministers did not get their wish to return to this burial land.
Father and Uncle Yan were the late emperor’s trusted aides. When the previous emperor was building his tomb, he consulted the Feng Shui Master and built one for each of them in auspicious spots.
When Uncle Tong and I reached the tomb, we bumped into Yan Ping who arrived earlier to do his worshipping.
Perhaps he was shocked seeing me here, once he was done with his ritual, he rushed over. Uncle Tong watched the approaching him like he would to an enemy, “What is that brat doing here? He looked so gentle and kind, but the truth is, he is just like his father. They have scheming hearts. Do not trust him anymore, Xiao Lang.”
I was annoyed at him as I knelt in front of Father’s grassy grave, “How long has it been since you last pull out weeds from Father’s grave, Uncle Tong? See how tall they have become!”
Uncle Tong distractedly looked at me before quickly fussing over, “Xiao Lang! Xiao Lang! Your skirt has gotten dirty. You are really—— you look like a pretty young maiden, but the moment you speak, you resemble a wild monkey!”
I retorted back in grievance, “Are there monkeys as beautiful as me?”
Those personal maids that Feng Zhao Wen bestowed me were not lazy. They had been bathing me and scrubbing my skin every day for the past few months. My skins got so supple and healthy, it was as though I stole another person’s skin.
Uncle Tong looked at me in a mix of exasperation and amusement, “You who climbed trees to pluck their fruits are lesser than a monkey. At least they have their fur keeping them warm. Even monkeys are better than you!”
I grasped the mound, “Father-ah! Uncle Tong said your daughter is worse than a monkey! Get up and beat him up!”
Uncle Tong sighed amidst his laughter. Even his tears had fallen down, “The Old Master might really get up in anger because of you.” He turned around to wipe his face and eyed Yan Ping’s approaching figure. Then, he turned back around and helplessly sighed, “Look at your fingers. I wonder how His Majesty took care of you in the palace. It has never been this fair and smooth before. These grasses have not been pulled for three years, it is better if I do it instead.”
Back then, when I was raised by Father and Uncle Tong, washing my hands and face clean would already be considered an achievement.
From the sound of it, he seemed to be blaming me. But why did it felt like he was praising Feng Zhao Wen, upon closer inspection?
Uncle Tong kneeled over and helped me pull out the grasses, “After burying the Old Master, I had never visited his grave. First of all, my heart ached. Second of all, I felt guilty. I promised him I would take care of you, but what happened in the end? I ended up losing you…..”
He cried again.
I could not bear seeing him crying. I made him cry so many times since yesterday. Seeing Yan Ping coming over, I took that opportunity to put a handkerchief in his palm, “Uncle Tong, the little fox from Yan family is here. If he sees you crying, he will laugh at you!”
Speaking of which, carrying handkerchief with me seemed to be a habit I picked up after spending these past couple of months with Feng Zhao Wen.
I seemed to have changed a lot unknowingly.
When Yan Ping got to us, we were pulling out weeds with all our hearts. He rolled up his sleeves to help us, but I quickly stopped him, “Do not, General Yan! You might dirty your hands!”
He stood there awkwardly, “Xiao Yi, can you not be so courteous?”
I continued pulling out weeds while laughing at him, “You may not know, General; but the person my Father hated the most in his lifetime was you. I’m afraid he will go after you at night if you as much as touch the grass on his grave. I should not let that happen.”
He instantly paled. I could only apologize, “I was just telling the truth. I didn’t know General is afraid of ghosts.”
He shook his head, not saying a word.
After pulling all the weeds away, I leaned against the stone tablet half-dead. I whispered a complain, “Father-ah, you tire me to death. I should visit you more in the future so there wouldn’t be tall weeds growing on top of you.”
The sun felt really great. Had there been no Yan Ping standing a couple of steps away, I would have slept here.
After finishing our worship, Uncle Tong picked up his now empty basket, “Miss, let’s go back.”
He had changed now; he would glare at Yan Ping whenever he saw him.
I sloppily waved at Father, “Father-ah, I will come over to keep you company whenever I have time, from now on. But I’m afraid I will not be able to do that once I die. I mean, not everyone can be buried here.”
After thinking for a while, I realized that the Great Chen had perished. This hill became a regular hill. Nobody cared about who were to be buried here or what not. I quickly made a suggestion to Uncle Tong, “Uncle Tong, why don’t we both be buried here after we die? To keep Father company?”
Uncle Tong staggered in his steps, “Miss, if you die, you will be buried with your husband and his family. Only this old head can be buried here to accompany the Old Master.”
I stared at him, then at Yan Ping who was closely following us. I kept my mouth shut in resentment.
Yan Ping seized the opportunity to speak, “Actually, you can be buried on his left side.” His eyes were shining brilliantly, “His Majesty finally pardoned you?”
On my Father’s left side was his Father, Uncle Yan.
I shook my head, “Your family’s grave is too high for me to climb.” I happily went on, “I lived pretty well in the palace. Sleeping on His Majesty’s bed, eating His Majesty’s rice. I would also joke around with him, at times. Don’t you think I have gotten a lot fatter than I was in the past?”
He bitterly smiled, “You still refuse to forgive me?”
I picked up my skirt lightly as I carefully walk on the pathway, exclaiming in surprise when I heard him asking that, “Will me forgiving you or not affect your meals and drinks and the way you go on with your life?”
He stared at me, finding it hard to believe I could utter those words.
I stopped for a moment and looked at him, “Don’t tell me you think I would still carry those silly notions with me? Willing to unconditionally give my everything to someone….”
Uncle Tong looked back at us and I smiled at him, “Uncle Tong, you can go first. I have something to discuss with General Yan.”
He unhappily glared at Yan Ping, “Miss, this Yan brat is not a good person. You have to be careful.”
I obediently nodded while facing Yan Ping’s gradually darkening face, “Don’t worry, I will.”
He then carried his basket and climbed down the hill.
After Uncle Tong was more than ten meters away, Yan Ping lowly muttered, “I thought even if others change, you would not.”
“You want me to always treat you well? To keep calling you daughter-in-law?”
He suddenly looked up, his eyes filled with delighted surprise. But once he saw the mocking look in my eyes, his eyes dimmed down.
“I didn’t know you are a girl! I didn’t know!”
I scratched my head; to me, this matter had long became dust and dirt. But this person in front of me was adamant to cling onto what was long gone.
“What would you do if you have known? Would you have married me?”
His gentle eyes were earnestly fixed on me, “Yes. If I had known you are a girl from the start, I wouldn’t have struggled for so long. I wouldn’t have thought I was a ‘broken sleeve’….. I wouldn’t have…. I wouldn’t have treated you like that…”
I laughed scornfully, “If you had known I was a girl, you wouldn’t have been disgusted when I kissed you in that boat. It would have been easier for you to pull off your ‘beauty trap’.”
His jade-like face immediately turned red, “I…. My Father said……”
I nodded, “Right, you have always listened well to your Father. You clearly knew I was foolishly in love, yet you put out that trap anyway. You are such an obedient son.”
His entire face was full of pain. Seeing that, I somehow felt carefree.
I smiled bitterly, my heart completely filled with hatred, “Did you know what I was doing when you and Qin Yu Zheng were all lovey dovey out there? I was begging my heavily poisoned Father to let me be with you. I angered him to death right then and there!”
I hadn’t wanted to tell anyone what happened that year. I was too afraid to put it out in plain view. But today, I wanted to tell it all to this man who said he wanted to marry me.
Even though Father getting poisoned completely points at the Empress Dowager’s direction, I would always remember the way Father’s blood was sprayed onto my face.
I don’t think I could ever completely wipe the stain away.
The person I couldn’t forgive was me, not Yan Ping.
He retreated a step, his eyes staring at me in disbelief. I stepped forward and looked at him tensely before scoffing, “I angered my Father to death and braved the rain to search for you. That one strike you gifted me; I will never forget.”
There were despair and pain in his eyes, along with pity. In the past, I would have done anything to get that pity.
But now, I casted it aside like it was an old pair of shoes.
He outstretched his hand, as though he wanted to touch my arm but he ended up hesitating and taking another step back. “I am sorry, I didn’t know…..”
I realized that my face must have looked menacing, so I forced myself to smile, “You don’t have to apologize. Uncle Yan had his own aspiration; siding with the enemy and betraying the country. My Father on the other hand, had integrity. I was simply foolish and was having wishful desires back then. I created my own trouble, it was not worthy of your pity.”
He anxiously explained himself, “No, it was not wishful-thinking. I just didn’t know you are a girl….. My Father spent his entire life waging war campaigns, he just wanted to see the world unite for once.”
“What you said is right. Even though Father put his entire heart into helping the little emperor, it will be really hard for him to defend his seat. Uncle Yan loved the land while Father was simply trying to fulfill his promise to the late emperor to protect the Great Chen. Each of them have their own purposes. I have no right to blame anyone.”
I turned around and continued walking. Yan Ping shouted from behind, “Xiao Yi, I am earnestly proposing to you! There are a lot of concubines in His Majesty’s harem. He…… Placing you by his side is not something he plans on doing for a long term!”
I turned back at him, facing the glaring sunshine while smiling lightly, pointing towards my Father’s grave, “Alright, then. Bring your proposal to my Father. If he climbs out of his grave and gives you his approval, I will naturally marry you!”
He stood there without moving, completely dispirited. After I walked far away, I turned around and could see his silhouette slowly drifting away.
When I got back home, E Huang and the rest were already there. They seemed to be disheartened with something.
Without waiting for me to ask about their sales, they knelt on the ground, “Miss, the cart overturned. All the jars are broken into pieces!”
Why did it felt like His Majesty purposely sent people to topple over our stall? What else was it then? The four women were so strong, how was it possible they didn’t have enough power to push the cart?
Hearing my suspicion, E Huang hesitated, “Miss, why don’t you go back to the palace and ask His Majesty?”
I had a feeling she was trying to instigate me into returning to the palace. I twisted her ear, “You mooched off of me but is secretly helping other people!” Now that I thought about it, she was Feng Zhao Wen’s maid. I did not pay her salary nor was I her real master. What I said just now wasn’t really that accurate.
While I was pacing around the courtyard to contain my anger, Tian Bing Qing and a couple of palace’s servants arrived while carrying black lacquer food containers.
He did not say anything, simply placing the containers down. In it were all the foods that I like; spicy shrimps and caramelized pork hock….. Their aromas reached my nose.
My previous anger gradually turned soft after smelling them.
“His Majesty ordered us to present Miss An with imperial meals…..” I rushed forward, trying to grab a bite or two but was subdued by the four maids, “Miss, the decree has not end.”
“His Majesty presented Miss An with the imperial meals’ aroma; she can feel free to smell them. She is also bestowed with a bowl of tonic to care for her health.” Tian Bing Qing quickly finished his words; it was as if he had something against me. He ordered those servants to put those meals back into their containers, leaving only a bowl of tonic.
Feng Zhao Wen, did you have anything against me?
I jumped out noisily, “I must enter the palace tonight! E Huang, where is my jade pendant? Take it out! I must question him personally, tonight! You can kill a soldier, but you must not insult him!”
E Huang accepted my order with shaking shoulders, “I will take them now. Please wait for a moment, Miss.” She practically flew to my chamber.
Uncle Tong encouraged me from the side line, “How can our An Clan’s Xiao Lang be ridiculed like this by other people! You must enter the palace and discuss this with His Majesty! He should not treat you like that just because our An Clan has lost our prestige.”
He must had been angered and indignant with the way I was treated! That was why he was so anxious for me to enter the palace and speak this out with Feng Zhao Wen. A cold breeze blew through the courtyard for a moment and when E Huang returned with the pendant, I placed it in Uncle Tong’s palm, “Uncle Tong, you have always doted on me. I will have to hand this matter over to you; talk to the emperor on my behalf. I climbed up and down the hill the whole day today, I am too tired. Let me go to my room to rest first.”
Uncle Tong shouted from behind, “Xiao Lang, Uncle Tong is old. It is better for young people to duke it out when it comes to things like this. I think you will be able to come up with an even more reasonable argument if you personally enter the palace.”
I lazily turned to look at him, “People says that older people are wiser. Only someone with a rich experience can have a sensible conversation with an emperor. I am immature, let me sleep for a while to recover my self-control.”