‘I don’t know why your imperial father favors your ninth brother’s wife more than your second wife,’ Consort Mu said.
‘That’s right!’ Pei Zhang said. ‘Imperial father even visited ninth brother’s wife and gave her two of his trusted imperial guards. I don’t know who imperial father is weary of.’
‘Who else can it be but us?’ Consort Mu asked. ‘I wanted to send our spies to your ninth brother’s manor but because of your imperial father, I can’t anymore. It doesn’t matter who wants to harm Yan Shi Ning. If anything happens to Yan Shi Ning while she’s pregnant, your imperial father won’t spare us.’
‘What do we do?’ Pei Zhang asked. ‘Do we stand by and watch her give birth?’
‘What else is there?’ Consort Mu asked.
‘Mother…’ Pei Zhang said.
‘Pei Zhang, don’t worry,’ Consort Mu said. ‘I have a way to deal with Yan Shi Ning.’
While Consort Mu and Pei Zhang were scheming, the bullied palace maid Xiao Nu was sobbing in a corner of the palace gardens. Her face was burning from the hot tea. She wanted to find a soothing cream but she knew no one would give her the cream because they feared Pei Zhang would punish them. Besides, she was too beautiful and the other palace maids were jealous of her and happy her face was scorched.
Xiao Nu cried for half a day and finally someone pitied her and gave her the soothing cream. It took away the stinging pain but she knew her face would scar.
Wang Fu Mu was walking through the gardens but stopped after he heard someone sobbing pitifully.
‘Who do you serve?’ Wang Fu Mu asked.
Xiao Nu stopped crying, stood and bowed to Wang Fu Mu.
‘Official Wang, I’m Xiao Nu and I serve Consort Mu,’ Xiao Nu said.
Wang Fu Mu’s eyes brightened. ‘What happened? Who did this to your face?’
‘Official Wang, it’s my fault… I was careless,’ Xiao Nu said.
Wang Fu Mu didn’t believe Xiao Nu. ‘Do you know what happens if you disturb the peace in the palace by crying to amuse yourself?’
‘I… I wouldn’t dare… I…’ Xiao Nu stuttered.
‘Hurry and speak clearly!’ Wang Fu Mu said.
Xiao Nu sobbed, Wang Fu Mu coaxed her and finally she confessed Pei Zhang threw hot tea on her face.
‘I understand,’ Wang Fu Mu said. ‘Go find Gentleman Ting Zi. I’ll send someone to him and he’ll give you a remedy that won’t leave scars.’
Xiao Nu was deeply grateful, she continuously bowed to Wang Fu Mu.
‘In the future be more careful,’ Wang Fu Mu said and left.
Wang Fu Mu smiled while walking toward the emperor’s chamber. Wang Fu Mu survived in the palace for years and he knew small and big connections were both valuable. The emperor made it hard for Pei Zhang and Pei Jin to spy on each other. So any hole in Pei Zhang’s defence would benefit Pei Jin. Wang Fu Mu anticipated Xiao Nu would be useful in the future.
North of the imperial city, Pei Jin and Yan Shi Ning travelled in a horse carriage and they happily viewed the sights of warmer landscapes.
Pei Jin knew Yan Shi Ning hated the cold winter so he asked his father to let him take Yan Shi Ning to a villa north of the imperial city for her to bathe in hot springs and avoid the cold winter. His father consented and also gave Yan Shi Ning two of his father’s most trusted imperial guards.
Pei Jin covered Yan Shi Ning’s body with a thick fur cape and he fed her mandarin segments.
‘Shi Ning, you only know how to eat and sleep,’ Pei Jin teased. ‘Shi Ning, you need to move a little.’
‘Pei Jin, aren’t you the one who wants me to act weak?’ Yan Shi Ning asked. ‘So of course I need to eat and sleep.’
‘If you didn’t act weak then you wouldn’t be allowed to go to the Feng Zhao villa,’ Pei Jin said. ‘Your father-in-law rarely allows anyone to visit the Feng Zhao villa. I’ve heard it was a beautiful place but I’ve never been there before. Your father-in-law is worried about your weak condition so of course we need to use this opportunity to visit the Feng Zhao villa.’
‘Pei Jin, you’re more of a schemer by the day,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
Pei Jin laughed like a fox. ‘What else can I do? I know you’re scared of being cold. When you were a little girl if it was a cold winter, you’ll stay in bed and didn’t want to go outside. So I’m scared you can’t endure the cold winter in the imperial city.’
Yan Shi Ning didn’t show Pei Jin that her heart was filled with sweetness. ‘Pei Jin, are you hiding something from me?’
‘Wife, everything your husband said was true,’ Pei Jin said.
Yan Shi Ning stared at Pei Jin’s eyes for a while and he confessed.
‘The truth is your father-in-law sent two of his imperial guards to follow us,’ Pei Jin said. ‘His purpose is to protect us and also spy on us. He’s scared I’ll secretly meet Huang Guo. That’s why he let us go to the Feng Zhao villa because he wants to separate me and Huang Guo. If we get to amuse ourselves sightseeing and also make him happy then of course I’ll grant his wish and keep my distance from Huang Guo.’
Pei Jin thought Yan Shi Ning wasn’t convinced he confessed everything. ‘Wife, I also want to go to the Feng Zhao villa to bathe together with you in the hot springs.’
Yan Shi Ning knew Pei Jin wanted to do it with her in the hot springs.
‘Pei Jin, wouldn’t us leaving the imperial city benefit seventh prince?’ Yan Shi Ning asked. ‘It’ll make it easier for him entice more court officials to his side.’
Pei Jin peeled another mandarin for Yan Shi Ning. ‘Wife, you don’t need to worry about seventh brother. Imperial father wants me to behave so I need to behave to let them slowly put their guards down. To me what’s most important is my wife and child are safe. Consort Mu and seventh brother are too cruel. So for now we need to hide somewhere safe.’
‘Are we truly not going to do anything?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
Yan Shi Ning was worried Pei Zhang’s second wife would give birth to a son and the emperor would make Pei Zhang the crown prince and kill everyone at Pei Jin’s manor.
‘Shi Ning, do you think we’re wearier of them or they’re wearier of our child?’ Pei Jin asked.
‘Of course they’re wearier,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
‘If they haven’t made a move then we don’t need to be impatient and make a move,’ Pei Jin said. ‘Consort Mu is a venomous snake hibernating in winter. We’ll be prepared to strike when they make a move. Also, seventh brother’s manor has always been stormy.’
‘Pei Jin, what are you implying?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
‘Seventh brother doesn’t care about beauty,’ Pei Jin said. ‘He only marries women from powerful families that are useful to him. Both his official wife and second wife are from powerful families. There’s a saying that a mountain cave can’t have two tigers unless one is a male and the other is a female. Seventh brother’s manor has two tigresses. His official wife is petty and jealous. His second wife’s heart isn’t good either. His official wife and second wife have opposed each other since the start. Of course his official wife isn’t going to let his pregnant second wife sit on her head. His official wife will do anything to protect her own child and position. His second wife isn’t going to stand idle, of course she’ll retaliate. Shi Ning, don’t let their harmonious act fool you. Inside seventh brother’s manor aren’t beautiful sceneries, no one can predict what will happen inside his manor… that’s why it’s best to have only one wife otherwise there’ll be no peace in the family.’
End of Chapter Sixty-Three