In the evening, right after dinner, there was a knock at the door.
Xiao Hua was the closest so she went to open it. Outside was big fatty’s dad, butcher Zhang.
Butcher Zhang was tall, thick and sturdy.1 But he rather liked cleanliness, and his rough clothes were always clean.
This form of address dazed Xiao Hua a little, but she quickly snapped out of it and said: “Big bro Zhang, what’s the matter?”
Butcher Zhang scratched the back of his head and handed over a large piece of pork wrapped in lotus leaves.
“Our household’s big fatty is always here eating your food, really sorry for the inconvenience. Please accept this little bit of pork. Count it as our way of saying thanks.”
Xiao Hua repeatedly refused, “This won’t do. A few meals don’t count for much.”
Xiao Hua was still aware that the people in the alley were mostly quite poor. Half a kilo of pork was worth over a dozen coins which was several meals for many households.
“Just accept it if I’m offering it. Otherwise you’d be looking down on our family.”
In just a few words, Butcher Zhang’s old temper became evident. After he spoke, he glanced a little worriedly at Xiao Hua. Only after seeing no signs of dislike on her face did he feel relieved.
“Miss Tao, our household sells pork. It’s really no big deal. Just treat it as a thank you for taking care of our big fatty.”
“In that case, thank you, big bro Zhang.”
Xiao Hua accepted the lotus leaf package. Seeing Butcher Zhang remain in place without leaving, she asked: “Big bro Zhang, is there anything else?”
“Then I’ll head back inside first.” Xiao Hua said politely as she turned and closed the door.
Butcher Zhang who was left outside stood there in a daze for a long while before snapping out of it.
Zhao Da was drinking alcohol inside the house. Zhao San2 walked in.
“Time to change shifts?”
Zhao San nodded, and sat down across from him. The two brothers drank a few cups and Zhao San said: “Just now there was a man who gifted madam something.”
Zhao Da sprayed a mouthful of alcohol out onto the floor, his expression weird and nervous.
“Who has such guts!?”
“Butcher Zhang from the alley.” In comparison, Zhao San’s expression was rather calm.
“What did he give her?”
“Pork. I heard it’s to thank madam for taking care of his kid’s meals.”
Only now did Zhao Da’s breathing return to normal, and he cursed: “You fucking brat, why didn’t you speak clearly from the beginning? You made me think some man was having designs on the madam.”
The madam calling herself a widow was something Zhao Da was aware of. He had also reported it in detail to the estate. It wasn’t clear what sort of expression his highness would have.
Zhao Da temporarily couldn’t mind his highness’s expression. He could only mind what was in front of his eyes, and properly protect the madam and the little young master and mistress. Of course, this included protecting her from being harassed by men.
“This counts as a normal, neighborly interaction.”
Zhao San was a little unfamiliar with the ways of the world. Zhao Da was currently teaching him.
Well, the truth was that none of them were really familiar with the ways of the world. In the past they focused on their bitter training, or would come out with his highness to take care of things. They were all manly men. How could they understand how normal citizens lived their lives? Zhao Da had only slowly learned after getting here.
Zhao San nodded his head and didn’t speak. Since the boss said it was normal, then it was probably normal. He wouldn’t bring up that Butcher Zhang’s expression outside madam’s door was a little off.
Perhaps he had seen wrongly? After all, the boss was the smartest out of all of them.
The Jing Prince Estate.
It was still the same pavilion and it was still the same few people serving. Everything seemed to be the same, but it lacked any liveliness.
Before, there would always be someone bringing some life to the place, and now it had returned to the solemn respectfulness of the past. It was fine if there hadn’t been something to compare it to. But since there was, everyone felt weird about it.
The Jing Prince didn’t return to the Hall of Splendor. The western pavilion was still where he spent most of his time. He would return to sleep at night, and Eunuch Fu also often went in and out of the pavilion. But some hints could be seen if one looked closely. The Jing Prince was even more apathetic than before. It was hard to hear him say a single word normally. Eunuch Fu’s brows were always furrowed. Eunuch Chang’s expression had always been cold, but now the degree of coldness seems to have increased dramatically.
The palace maids and eunuchs within the pavilion also seemed to be weirdly restricted. No matter what it was they were doing, everyone seemed to be avoiding the eastern wing, intentionally or otherwise.
To be more precise, they avoided the eastern wing’s corner residence.
Qian Xi was in the corner residence, sitting on the couch by the window, finding it difficult to restrain her anger. It was fine to live in this place meant for servants, but the servants were making her angry.
Thinking of how she was stopped earlier when she wanted to take a stroll around the courtyard, her face twisted in anger.
However, she also knew this wasn’t the time to throw a tantrum. Everyone in the pavilion was in the same camp, who would she throw a tantrum for? She would only be looked at mockingly.
After an unknown amount of time had passed, Qian Xi suddenly heard the sound of greetings from outside. She immediately stood up and rushed out.
“Highness, you have to mediate for this servant concubine.”
When Qian Xi cried out, all the gazes in the pavilion fell upon her.
“This servant concubine just wanted to stroll around the courtyard to improve her mood, but was blocked by a lackey.”
Ding Lan who was in the main residence’s corridor stepped forward. “The lackey Lady Qian Xi is talking about, is it this servant? This is madam’s courtyard. Those unrelated shouldn’t randomly enter it.”
Qian Xi didn’t expect this lackey to dare make things difficult for her in front of his highness. She gritted her teeth in resentment, but still had to look aggrieved on the surface.
“Highness, do you see—-”
Unfortunately the Jing Prince didn’t even bother to see, and directly entered the main residence.
After his highness and Eunuch Fu left, everyone else kneeling in the pavilion stood up. Some gave her a mocking glance while others directly sneered: “why don’t you properly consider your own status?”
What was status? Qian Xi understood it, but also didn’t understand.
Two years ago, she was going to be sent away with those other low-ranked palace maids, but was then singled out. Afterwards, she was assigned to live in a residence. The residence was very large, but there were very few people. There were only a few servants who served her. Qian Xi was still curious about the reason behind everything, but having lived like a princess for so long, her curiosity had faded.
When she was sent back to the Jing Prince Estate, Eunuch Fu met her and told her that from now on, she would be the western pavilion’s Madam Hua. At that time, Qian Xi was secretly overjoyed in her heart. Looks like this face of hers had some use after all. It turns out that having her stay behind was still to serve his highness.
As for what happened to the original Madam Hua and where she went, Qian Xi didn’t ask. She didn’t overthink Eunuch Fu’s words. In the future, she would replace Madam Hua.
As expected, she moved into the western pavilion. However, it wasn’t into the main residence, but rather a corner house in the eastern wing. She was allowed to come and go into the main residence, but only the living room and the eastern side room. She wasn’t allowed into the main eastern room. That room became something Qian Xi really wanted.
One day when the palace maids weren’t around, she secretly entered. It was an extremely luxurious bedroom. All the decorations were extremely lavish, and the jewelry box’s lid on the makeup counter couldn’t even be fully closed. It was full of jewelry that blinded her eyes.
Any woman would uncontrollably like these things, and Qian Xi was no exception. She sat obsessively in front of the makeup counter and put those jewelry on one by one. Since she now wore a beautiful bracelet she had to have the clothes to match, so she opened the closet. She then wore the clothes and bracelet as she sat on the kiln by the window, imagining how wonderful her life will be after becoming Madam Hua.
Then, that nightmarish face appeared in front of her eyes, looking at her in astonishment.
Qian Xi had also been very astonished, like a child who got caught stealing other people’s toys. But she also felt a little pleased with herself. She had been given permission to be here. Now, everything of yours belonged to me.
The events that followed were a mess. Qian Xi remembered grabbing a palace maid who wanted to enter the bedroom.
“Why are you going into my bedroom?”
That’s right, Qian Xi proudly claimed it as hers, asserting her own existence.
But very quickly, her face was slapped. She was slapped by that palace maid, and even sneered at after.
Are you even worthy?!
Qian Xi wanted someone to speak up for her, but realized no one paid her any attention. Afterwards, Eunuch Fu pulled her out and berated her, instructing her sternly that she wasn’t allowed to enter the main residence anymore.
Only then did Qian Xi realize that although that person had left, she wasn’t truly gone. Those subordinates of hers all worked together to shun her, ignore her and humiliate her. She had thought his highness would definitely take her side, and that he definitely didn’t know she was being bullied. Now she realized that perhaps she had misunderstood all along?!
Qian Xi stood there in a daze when Eunuch Fu walked over, his brows furrowed and his expression indescribably displeased.
Qian Xi was still a little afraid of Eunuch Fu. The past memories left a deep impression. This old eunuch was someone who would forget you in the blink of an eye, and his methods were also harsh.
“Eunuch Fu, what’s the matter?”
Eunuch Fu glanced at her with a little dislike and said: “Haven’t you learned your etiquette yet or what? Is “servant concubine” something anyone can call themselves? You should address yourself as servant.”
Qian Xi was a little stunned. She addressed herself as servant concubine because she had heard that person address herself that way before. Since she was going to be replacing her, wasn’t it correct to address herself like this to his highness? Of course, Qian Xi didn’t dare say all this and only silently agreed.
“From now on, these two nanas will be responsible for teaching you etiquette. Don’t leave the room if there’s no reason for it.”
After speaking, Eunuch Fu left, leaving behind two stern looking old nanas.
Qian Xi was completely frozen.
There were many young women similar to Xiao Hua in age living in the East Yuling alley. These young women would sit together during their leisure time and do some needlework, pluck vegetables or chat idly to pass the time.
Young women had a lot to chat about when they were together. Examples include raising children, which store sold cheap cloth, which store had fresh vegetables, and also all sorts of gossip about the alley.
Because of Auntie Ma’s daughter-in-law, Xiao Hua was added into this group. Because this Miss Tao was good looking and her words were sweet, many of the young women liked to chat with her. There were many such cliques within the East Yuling alley. Their group included Auntie Ma’s daughter-in-law Cui Zhi, tofu-maker Liu’s wife, blacksmith Yang’s wife, and a few other wives. They recently met up mostly at Xiao Hua’s place.
This was because Miss Tao’s place was clean and tidy, and the situation inside was simple. Which family in the alley didn’t have a bunch of people living together? There were the in-laws as well as the aunts and uncles. When women gossiped, they preferred a quiet environment.
Since Xiao Hua, Ding Xiang and Chun Cao didn’t have much to do during the day, and these young women all had extremely good personalities, they didn’t mind making some more friends.
Their topics of conversation were broad and would often jump around. One minute they’d be talking about some household’s woman getting into an argument with her mother-in-law, and the next they’d be talking about which place sold the most tender vegetables that day.
Since Xiao Hua’s group hadn’t lived there for long, they would mostly listen and not speak as much.
“Miss Tao, big sis is jealous of how idle your days are. No need to attend to a mother-in-law, and there isn’t much you have to do. But ultimately, I feel it’s best if a woman has a man to rely on. Haven’t you considered anyone else?”
The blacksmith’s wife was very outspoken, and would speak whatever came to her mind. If anyone else heard this, they would feel she was too meddlesome. But Xiao Hua knew she was actually saying it for her own good.
Xiao Hua had heard similar words quite a few times. All the aunties and young women in the alley would more or less tell her the same thing. After all, a widow with two children would have a difficult life. It’s better to have a man to rely on.
“The children are still young.” Xiao Hua could only say. It wasn’t like she could say she wasn’t actually a widow, and that she had a man. It’s just that the man didn’t want her anymore.
The tofu-maker’s wife interrupted on the side, “It’s good that they’re young. The children don’t remember much at the moment, and it’s easier for them to get closer to others. This would make it easier for the man to get along with them. Which man would be willing to raise two children who still remembered their own dad?”
Xiao Hua didn’t know how to react to these words, and could only pretend to be shy and smile.
“Don’t be shy, it’s proper for a widow to remarry. No one would dare say that widows have to remain single their entire lives. It’s best for women to have a considerate man by their side.”
Ding Xiang was crouched on the side doing laundry, her face already indescribably twisted.
But she was a widow now, and the madam was a widow too. The two children didn’t have a father. Therefore, she could only listen while stifling her internal injuries.
“That’s right, that’s right. You have two children and the entire house is full of women. Although you have some savings for the moment, what are you going to do in the future? Women like us can’t be like men and go out to make a living. It’s still better to find a reliable man to marry.”
“Hey, Miss Tao. What do you think of butcher Zhang? I see that you treat big fatty pretty well. Our family’s little hairball said that big fatty wants you to be his mom.” Cui Zhi said on the side.
“That’s right, that’s right. Big fatty seems to like Miss Tao quite a bit.”
“Butcher Zhang won’t do. He’s not good enough for Miss Tao.” A weak voice said on the side.
- Idiom used here in Chinese is five large and three thick, referring to five places that are large and three that are thick. Large: hands, feet, ears, shoulders, buttocks. Thick: waist, legs, neck. Just in case there were any misconceptions about which places….
- The “Da” in Zhao Da means big, oldest, boss. Wasn’t sure before if that was his title so I had left it as is. The “San” in Zhao San means third or three. So translated properly, Zhao Da would be Boss Zhao and Zhao San would be Zhao number three or something like that. Either a squad designation, or they are actually brothers, it’s not really clear. I’ll leave it as is for now.