Xiao Huang’s bare arm was glistening with sweat as he carried a shovel to clean the accumulated manure in the stable that had not been cleaned for a very long time. There were streams of sweat on his back, one that disappeared after flowing down the waistband of his pants.
E Huang dragged me by my arm, “Your Ladyship, this servant is more than enough to watch over him. You should go and rest!”
Ever since I bravely rejected the emperor’s suggestion to castrate our new servant, His Majesty had never brought up the matter again. Just, on the second day, a group of eunuchs clutching a decree almost broke our door.
The content of the edict was the same as the paper that Feng Zhao Wen showed me previously. Just, this time, it was written on a yellow silk and had beared the mark of the imperial jade seal.
The emperor was getting anxious.
Other than me who would rather die than surrender and the resentful Xiao Huang, everyone else were joyful.
Uncle Tong sighed with teary eyes, “The old Master had always been worried about this. He thought you wouldn’t be able to marry. Even though your future husband is far from what the old Master has in mind for you, at least you can still marry. I now have the cheek to face the old Master once I die.”
E Huang disagreed with what Uncle Tong said, “Uncle Tong, every single noble in the capital would kill to be able to make their daughters the empress. Don’t you think you are being too disrespectful?
The four jiejies behind her looked at Uncle Tong in hostility for the first time since they met.
After congratulating us, the eunuch in charge of reading the decree immediately gave way. The large entourage behind him was a breath-taking sight. They were carrying treasures and gifts that were given by the palace to us. Our courtyard was packed with all kinds of things; from jade hairpins in the shape of phoenix, to magnificent buyaos and red agates from the east.
(TN: The headgear above is a buyao.)
I became fixated on all the trays containing those treasures for a very long time. I stared at the courtyard speechlessly and calmly waved them off to send them away.
Facing such precious gifts, I honestly felt that…. dying over surrendering wasn’t a necessary thing after all.
Xiao Huang was shocked by how fast I changed my mind. He repeatedly asked me, “Are you sure he hasn’t forced you or threatened you?”
After Feng Zhao Wen left yesterday, he had asked me the same question for around 20 times.
Xiao Huang must had been bored and idle.
While E Huang and the four jiejies managed the gifts, I took him around our house, showing him what needed to be done; from the dirty stable to the backyard’s toilet.
E Huang could not understand why I was so happy while ordering Xiao Huang about. She trailed after me from behind, calling, “Your Ladyship! Your Ladyship!” My head hurts from the way she kept calling me, so I sent her to the frontyard.
Xiao Huang took 4 hours to deal with the stable and two hours to deal with the toilet. He kept throwing up while doing the second task. In the end, he crouched in front of a large water tank on the backyard, taking big gulps of water. When he finished drinking, he raised his head and was greeted with the sight of stacks and stacks of firewood. He paled.
In the end, he laid on the ground, refusing to get up no matter what. He whined while mumbling to himself before pointing accusingly at me, “You are exacting revenge based on your personal selfish reasons!”
I laughed happily while nodding in acknowledgement, “Honestly, I had been waiting for this from the moment I found out you were just pretending to be stupid. Now that you sent yourself right in front of my doorstep, the gods are treating me really well!”
It was unfortunate that his eyes were no longer misty after he lost weight. It looked clear now. His voice sounded rogue-ish when he spoke, “You regret running away with me back then, aren’t you?” His tone was harsh and carried traces of grievance.
I ran over and kicked his legs, “Stop playing dead. Go and do your chores.”
He got up and lifted an axe to split a firewood in half. He threw the pieces to the ground before turning to me with red eyes, roaring, “You never bullied me back then; when I was stupid. Life is so pointless, I might as well become a fool! At least, everything was simple and straightforward.”
He actually cried as he sat on the ground.
I carefully crouched in front of him. Seeing the beads and beads of tears rolling from his eyes, my heart softened, “You are a grown man and yet you still cry and whine when you are forced to do work. Won’t you be embarrassed if this is spread out? I was only reminiscing the hardship we faced for those three years. That’s why I made you do all this, so you can learn.”
He looked just like the idiot he was back then when he cried. His appearance did not matter, my heart softened just the same.
He placed the axe on my hand while wiping his tears, “Why don’t you do the work and I watch? We’ll learn together!”
Though my heart softened, my original purpose could not be forgotten. I returned the axe to him before patting his shoulder, “We will cook more chicken legs for you tonight.”
He suddenly appeared downcasted, “After we split up, I no longer eats chicken legs.”
This was the first time he brought up what happened to him after we split up. I was not interested in any of it, though. When I first knew him, he was a chubby idiot. I did his homework for him, I got punished on his behalf, we slept on the same bed and shared our meals with each other. We held each other’s hands as we grew up together. I was his companion yet he accompanied me just the same. We weaved a beautiful dream together in the palace of the Great Chen.
The moment we woke up from that dream, the kingdom perished and our family members died. The land was engulfed in a war. When I held his hand while we fled from the war, I held his hand while considering him as my brother; my loved one.
The only thought I had in mind back then was, I was the only one who could protect that innocent kid.
I knew Father wanted me to have a peaceful life. I wanted it too. But I also wanted an old idiot to reminisce the past with me once I became old.
I heard, when Feng Zhao Wen vanquished a kingdom, none of the emperors, even those who had ruled for decades, managed to keep their heads intact.
For the past 100 years, the world was in chaos. The warlords were competing with each other and bandits were all over the land. The common people were displaced and often had to leave. People with aspirations like Uncle Yan were anticipating the appearance of a wise ruler who could end the wars and unite all the kingdoms. Loyal people like Father, on the other hand, were trying their best to defend the Great Chen. Even though he knew the future was bleak and he was no longer young, he stood at the pinnacle of power while knowing very well that he had no control over his own life.
He was just another puppet in the empress dowager’s hand. As for the nobles who revolted, they too were helpless. What else could they do when the court was targeted?
I patted his head; thousands of emotions were floating up in my heart as I promised him, “As long as you work hard, I will ask the kitchen to prepare whatever you want, be it duck legs or goose legs!”
He mumbled back, “I am not that greedy…..” When he saw the faint smile on my face, he blushed.
When I visited the Great Chen’s imperial palace in the past, he would always do his best to take care of my meals. He would even share his favorite food with me. I naturally must treat him just as well. Since I made a promise to him, I naturally must fulfill it. I made a detour to the kitchen and instructed them to cook a lot of meals today.
When I returned, Xiao Huang was still sitting in front of the two stacks of firewood. I kindly advised the child, “Diligence is a kind of virtue. An Er, you totally lacked that one!”
Once he wiped his tears and made sure I fulfilled my promise, he obediently went back to cutting firewood.
I joyfully turned around and walked away to search for Uncle Tong. I was totally satisfied with the progress of my teaching for him. In order to be successful, one must went through trials and tribulations first. It was all for his own good!
When I found Uncle Tong, he was originally sitting down, but when he saw me, he got up and paid respect to me, “This commoner greets the empress!”
I jumped up in fright, looking at him like I would to a ghost. When I was sure he wasn’t being possessed, I cried, “E Huang kept doing all these bowing and curtsying to me, and now even you! Why are you bullying me? If you do this again, I will leave this house!”
He quickly coaxed me, “I was just practicing so I wouldn’t do it wrong when the time comes.”
I tugged on his sleeves, “The date hasn’t even been set yet. Are you already tired of me?”
He gave me a hard face, “Yes, you are right. I am already tired of you. I have been planning to marry you off, long ago. Other people’s daughters got married at 15 or 16; what about you? You are already 21 years old. Only His Majesty is willing to marry you.” The corner of his lips was curled and his beard was shaking. It was clear that he was pleased.
Now that I thought about it, His Majesty was really not bad!
If he found out that I had been harboring the deposed emperor of the Great Chen, though….. Just thinking about it makes me shiver. Once I finished reforming Xiao Huang, I should send him out as soon as possible.
I whispered to Uncle Tong, “Was Father in the possession of a military seal?”
Uncle Tong froze, looking curious, “Didn’t you buried it?”
“Buried it?” I didn’t even know how that seal looked like.
Uncle Tong looked like he had just received a big blow, “Don’t tell me Xiao Lang doesn’t know how the seal looks like… The night before the old Master was buried, I gave you a box and it contained a jade….”
That weird thing was the military seal?
I pounded on his bed while laughing until my tummy hurts. There were tears in my eyes.
He patted my shoulder, “Xiao Lang….”
When I raised my head to look at him, I realized that he was looking at me with a face full of fear.
I hugged his one arm and gently asked, “Uncle Tong, do you wish to see another war?”
He patted my forehead, “Are you a fool, Xiao Lang? Who on their right mind will like wars? All I want is to see you living nice and well with your children. Growing old in peace.”
The more I thought about it, the happier I became. I promised him, “I will! I will!”