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I hope chapter one wasn’t too overwhelming. It gets much easier from here onwards.

Translator’s note: In the Manchus, it was true that secondary wives received a rank and were “legitimate” rather than a concubine. This carried forward as they established the Qing Dynasty but it was corroded to some degree by the Han culture over time. The dynasty that this novel is set in contains elements from the Ming and from the Qing court but those are cherry-picked. Only the “legitimate wife” or 正妻 (zhengqi) is referred to as a wife in this translation. All others would be qie or concubine.

Chapter Two Ce Fei is Still Qie

The ce fei and shiqie didn’t think that they would see a beautiful play of brute force once they stepped into the zhengyuan. They looked suspiciously at wang fei and then at the servants who were at their limits due to pain but didn’t dare show it in their twisted expressions. What had happened here?

Seeing that wang fei was walking into the room, the four didn’t care whether if it was respectful or not and followed. Only Feng ce fei, when she passed, ordered for the people get carried back. However, when she saw that no servant in the surroundings moved, her expression changed and she didn’t speak further.

At the front, Yin Liu and Jin Zhan lowered their heads as they guided the others along and held the curtains open for the four. From far away, they saw Mu Jin and Yu Zan coming over with meal boxes. They stopped walking and waited for the two to come close. Seeing that those two weren’t clear as to what had happened, the four exchanged glances and looked at the servants who had suddenly become more obedient in the yard before lifting the curtain to enter the rooms.

The rooms had already been cleaned. The smell of meat had been covered by burning fragrance. But Qui Qing Ju didn’t like the smell and couldn’t resist looking at the flying cane and golden beast brazier.

Rui Xiang went forward immediately to extinguish the incense, changing it for a fainter, less fragrant one. Seeing wang fei’s expression relax slightly, she breathed a sigh of relief as well.

“Look at how clever wang fei’s yahuan is. No wonder that even wang ye complimented your yahuan,” Feng ce fei said with a faint smile as she bowed slightly to Qu Qing Ju. She was laughing at the fact that a few days earlier, wang ye had taken one of Qu Qing Ju’s yahuan as a tongfang. [1] She dared to do so because of wang ye’s favour but no one else dared to follow.

Who knew that when she finished, Qu Qing Ju didn’t even spare a look at her, as though she, a living breathing person, didn’t even exist. The room settled into a heavy silence.

Holding Shu Kui’s hand as she sat, Qu Qing Ju saw Mu Jin and Yu Zan entering with the meal boxes. She spoke: “Serve it up.”

The boxes were opened. Various types of porridge were displayed out. A bowl of lotus and lily porridge, a goblet of Eight Treasures chicken soup, a few small vegetable dishes and desserts that were elegant yet light. Steam rose from each dish, just one glance was enough to see how much effort had been put in.

“It looks like there are at least some that have skill in the kitchen. Give those that cooked a reward of five taels[2] of silver each,” Qu Qing Ju held a fine ceramic spoon and took a taste of porridge. She looked at Han Qing He, who was standing to one side. She was one of the shiqie in the wang fu. Her status was very low but she was very good at being obedient. Even if she wasn’t very favoured, it wasn’t that she wasn’t favoured at all.

“I heard that wang ye said you were very good at service, so today, you can serve the food,” The porridge was passable and Qu Qing Ju’s mood seemed to have lightened. Seeing Han shi dawdling about, she wasn’t irritated but asked in a slow voice, “Oh, Han shiqie isn’t willing?”

“Nu[3] doesn’t dare,” Han shi’s face showed a hint of humiliation. But the person in front of her was wang fei. She was only a shiqie, and it was in the natural order that she was to serve wang fei. Even if she didn’t want to, did she dare do otherwise?

The other three looked in disbelief at Qu Qing Ju, who had lowered her head to drink porridge. Was wang fei crazy? Even though Han shiqie wasn’t very favoured but she had been with wang ye for a long time and was the one that had taught wang ye. Wang fei, a not favoured wang fei, really dared to order Han shiqie to serve her food.

Not caring what others were thinking, Qu Qing Ju blocked the chopstick of shepherd’s purse[4] and pheasant Han shi had picked up, “I don’t like this dish. Remember to not serve this one next time.”

Han shi’s expression changed slightly, the hand that held the chopsticks tightened but she didn’t argue. In the end, she only woodenly bowed: “May wang fei have mercy. Nu has served wang ye for a long time, and assumed that wang fei would like the same dishes as wang ye. Nu thought wrong.”

This was telling her, that she had seniority with wang ye? Qu Qing Ju smiled but didn’t speak, turning her gaze to a dish of lettuce stems and pig stomach.

Sometimes, silence was the greatest humiliation. Everybody could see that wang fei didn’t even look properly at Han shiqie, as though this woman wasn’t different from any other shiqie who had to hold curtains and serve food for the wife in other noble families.

Qu Qing Ju took a long time to use her morning meal. Feng ce fei and the others stood until their legs felt soft but they never received a word to sit, so they could only stand at one side, and look upon Qu Qing Ju elegantly ordering Han shiqie to serve her food.

“Is there something wang fei has called us here for?” Seeing Qu Qing Ju finally setting down her chopstick, the ce fei Feng Zi Jin couldn’t resist any longer. Her face still held a warm smile, “Or did wang fei call us here just for conversation?”

Qu Qing Ju took the tea that Jin Zan held to rinse and used rose and lemon water to wash her hands. The smooth cotton fabric wiped away the droplets on her fingertips. Qu Qing Ju finally looked at Feng Zi Jin: “I’ve always heard that Feng ce fei’s personality was as soft as water, but today I’ve seen that this rumor is true, your personality just as rushed and impatient as boiling water is.”

Standing to the right of Feng Zi Jin was ce fei Jiang Yong Xu, who upon hearing this, buried her head deeper to disguise the smile at the corner of her lips. This Feng Zi Jin always loved using a warm and friendly façade to evoke the pity of wang ye, but wang fei purposefully said the exact opposite. It could be seen that wang fei didn’t really have the personality of mud. It seems that this wang fei¸ who had just entered the wang fu, had her own way of doing things.

Seeing Qu Qing Ju laughing at her expense, Feng Zi Jin felt anger rise but the smile on her face became even warmer, “Wang fei is making a joke. Nu doesn’t deserve such compliments. Wang fei’s open mind and innocent heart is what nu and others admire.”

“What ben wang fei is like, the Emperor already stated very clearly when the marriage was bestowed,” Qu Qing Ju smiled as her gaze swept across Feng Zi Jin quickly, as though she was very surprise that a little qie dared to discuss the behaviour of a wife, “The Emperor’s words are golden, his eyes are of a dragon, his pupils of a phoenix, he naturally sees more clearly than anybody else in this world.”

Anything that Feng Zi Jin wanted to say was blocked by these words. What could she say? Wang fei had been handpicked personally by the Emperor. She was only a little qie, she couldn’t say a word against the Emperor. Even wang ye didn’t dare say anything about that.

As of the present, there were four imperial sons that had lived to adulthood. The Emperor was reaching his sixth decade. The struggle for the throne hadn’t floated to the surface but underneath, it was already storms and clouds. No imperial son would want to throw dirty water on himself.

Wang fei dared to say something as audacious as this, it was clearly using the situation to her advantage. She was clearly relying on the fact that wang ye couldn’t repudiate her, his wife.

Thinking back to the words on the imperial decree of marriage, something like naturally outstanding, virtuous and of good fortune. If the Emperor declared Qu Qing Ju was virtuous and of good fortune, who dared say otherwise?

Thinking there, the smile on Feng Zi Jin’s face froze and she made a full bow[5]: “Wang fei have mercy, nu spoke wrongly.”

“It is fine to say what ever in front of me, since once the door is closed, everybody is a member of Duan Wang Fu. But if you slip outside, if others say I cannot maintain discipline, it would be a minor matter, but if you shame Duan Wang Fu, it would be a different matter altogether,” Qu Qing Ju sighed lightly, “Technically, you have great seniority in this wang fu, I shouldn’t need to say more, it has wasted my words.”

“The fact that wang fei is concerned for us nu, it is our honor, it is not wasted.” Jiang Yong Yu, who had been standing silently by one side the entire time, came forward and performed a bow, “nu may have spent more time in this fu but is not as respected and valued as wang fei and not as knowledgeable. Wang fei’s attentions have taught nu.”

The other three didn’t think Jiang Yong Yu would lower herself to such a respectful attitude. They felt distain inside but on the outside, their faces all showed looks of agreement.

Feng Zi Jin looked once at Jiang Yong Yu. Inside she thought disdainfully, it was obvious that she wasn’t of high birth, that she would even curry favor with an unfavored wang fei.

Taking in all of the expressions, Qu Qing Ju held her chin in one hand on the carved wooden armrest, her right index finger tapping on the chair. Of the four women in front of her, Feng Zi Jin’s birth was the best, her father was a third-rank assistant minister of the Ministry of Works. Jiang Yong Yu’s father was only a sixth-rank official in the Ministry of Works. The other two shiqie was of even lower-birth. Han Qing He’s father was only an eighth-rank official. It was only the fact that she taught Duan Wang on matters of adulthood that she was elevated to become a shiqie. The other silent and often ignored shiqie was Luo Yin Xiu. Her father was deceased and she had, along with her mother, depended on the support of her maternal uncle who was a seventh-rank official in the Department of Transportation.

Looking at the appearance, Feng Zi Jin was the most beautiful, followed by Jiang Yong Yu. Similar to her name, Han Qing He was very clean and Luo Yin Xiu’s appearance was just as unremarkable as her personality.

These four simple-looking women and a few unable-to-be-seen-publically tongfang were enough to cause the original to be majorly ill. It could be seen that they weren’t so simple after all.

“Naturally it would be good to remember,” Qu Qing Ju stood, holding Mu Jin’s hand as she started walking outside. The four, seeing her movements, obediently followed to the yard. The yard had been cleaned, not showing any signs that would allow an observer to find that an hour ago, there had been people undergoing a beating.

Squinting as she took a look at the sky, Qu Qing Ju then turned to look at the four women: “Today’s weather isn’t bad, accompany me on a walk. After so many days ill, I didn’t have the time to develop a relationship with you. We will remedy that bit by bit from now on.”

In any other fu, when the wife was sick, which concubine didn’t come to pay their respects? It was only the concubines in Duan Wang Fu that had the guts to only send presents but didn’t come in person. The original endured, but she didn’t have to continue.

Listening to wang fei’s warm voice saying words with a heavy undertone, Luo Yin Xiu, who had the least courage, couldn’t help but shudder. She had originally thought to pay respects daily but Feng ce fei didn’t do so. She was only an unfavored shiqie and couldn’t even say additional words, or walk an extra step. Now that wang fei wanted to settle old scores, Feng ce fei was fine with wang ye’s favor, but she had no such favor, what could she do now?

Jiang Yong Yu, after hearing this, stopped and then looked at FEng Zi Jin. She didn’t have wang ye’s favor but due to the fact she understood her position, her life in the wang fu could be considered not too good or too bad. Today, upon seeing wang fei, she peculiarly felt that wang fei had some element of power. The woman walking in front of her looked the same, but didn’t have that personality of mud. The beating of the servants in the morning had been wang fei making an example, otherwise she wouldn’t have made such a ruckus.

Any nobleman with no problems in their brain would always give the wife some measure of respect, especially somebody as intelligent as wang ye. In the past, wang fei had been soft and didn’t care to take up the issues and so nothing had happened. Now that wang fei wanted to bother with it, nothing would be smoothed over just because Feng Zi Jin was favoured.

Wang fei didn’t have the attention and love of her father and stepmother at home but she had an influential maternal family. Wang ye wasn’t a person without any ambition and naturally knew how to respect his wife.

She looked sympathetically at Feng Zi Jin who was walking in front of her once, then Jiang Yong Yu shifted her gaze away. She saw that a procession that was making their way towards them. At the very front was the master of this fu, Duan Qin Wang.[6]

[1] 通房: lowest rank in concubine.

[2] 两 (liang): a tael. Approximately 50 grams. The conversion of silver to gold and to copper ratio would have varied across time.

[3] 奴(nu): way of referring to oneself as a servant, like “this servant”.

[4] 荠菜: shepherd’s purse. It is related to the mustard family and usually considered a weed.

[5] 万福(wan fu): literal meaning is ten thousand good fortune. This is the proper greeting between women, the right hand covering the left in a loose fist and performing a movement from the right side of the chest moving downwards and at the same time, bowing with the legs bent as though trying to sit down.

[6] 端亲王: before, he had always been referred to as Duan Wang (端王) but Duan Qin Wang is his proper rank. This is the highest level of prince. The only rank higher would be the Emperor.

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