Chapter 66: The Top Scoring Youth (Part II)
Jiang Chao rushed home to the Jiang fu in a fit of rage and charged towards Mei Qing Yuan. Lin Lang noticed the ill-tempered expression on his face and hastily said to him, "Second Young Master, furen is speaking to Young Miss at the moment."
"Out of the way!" Jiang Chao shoved Lin Lang aside. As he entered the room, he saw Jiang Su Su lying in Xia Yan's arms sobbing unceasingly as Xia Yan attentively comforted her.
As Jiang Chao observed Jiang Su Su crying, his emotions and thoughts were thrown into an even greater turmoil. He said, "What are you crying about? You have done something like this, making it impossible for me to hold my head up in the Imperial Academy, and all you can do now is cry?"
Jiang Su Su was shocked. In an aggrieved tone, she said, "Why are you being so fierce towards me? Is it possible that I would be happy? Right now, my reputation is in ruins. Second Brother, you're not consoling me, and even heaping criticism on me. What do you think you're doing?"
"Enough." Xia Yan frowned as she looked at Jiang Chao and said, "Chao'er, what's wrong with you? Su'er, you are the younger sister, how can you speak to him this way?"
Jiang Chao took another look at Jiang Su Su's beautiful, tear-stained little face and felt his anger dissipate slightly. He sat at a small table to the side and said, "I'm not criticising her. It's just that, today, the entire city was full of rumours about what happened last night and I could not hold my head up in the Imperial Academy. Mother was being painted as a malicious woman, and younger sister had become a joke. As a result, I feel extremely vexed."
Xia Yan gritted her teeth. "Zhou Da clearly said no such thing while in prison. Someone must have deliberately spread the rumours to sully my Su'er's reputation. Whoever it is has such an insidious mind!"
"Who could have done this?" Jiang Chao asked angrily. "Show me where to find them, and I will skin them alive."
Jiang Su Su snorted coldly and said, "Who else could it be? Apart from that s.l.u.t, Jiang Ruan, who else would do this?"
"Jiang Ruan?" Jiang Chao asked doubtfully. In his eyes, Jiang Ruan was just a young, motherless girl. How was it possible for her to have such deceptive, tricky ways? "How on earth would she be capable of doing something as big as this?"
Jiang Su Su's fingernails dug into her palms. "You are simply underestimating her!"
"I too think it's odd," Xia Yan said as she frowned. "It was clearly supposed to be Jiang Ruan falling into the river, how did it become Su'er? That business with the handkerchief was also very queer. Whether or not she was involved, Jiang Ruan cannot be allowed to stay." She felt, although Jiang Ruan looked so unremarkable, she always gave people the chills.
"Mother, you must avenge me," Jiang Su Su cried. "She must fall completely from grace and be utterly ruined."
"Don't fret." Xia Yan laughed, but there was no humour in her eyes. "I have already told your father about this situation; I only said that you fell into the water, but that there was something strange about the whole situation. In the next few days, you should work hard to gain your father's favour. I have a thousand ways to destroy this s.l.u.t. As for Jinying w.a.n.g, you should compose a message within the next few days, saying you would like to visit him at his fu to express your grat.i.tude for his help. Then we can find out what his intentions are."
When Xiao Shao was mentioned, Jiang Su Su's pretty face immediately turned red. She shyly bowed her head and did not speak further. Jiang Chao contemplated for a moment before saying, "If Jinying w.a.n.g really likes younger sister, then he will be able to help me in the future when I become a court official."
"Second Brother, what are you saying?' Jiang Su Su was somewhat embarra.s.sed. Xia Yan also frowned as she said, "Watch your words! How can you bring up your sister's good name and talk about it so freely?" She paused, then continued, "Right now, you should be studying hard so that you can grab the first place in the preliminary round of the imperial examination in a few days' time. By that time, Su'er's situation will most probably be forgotten in the rush of events, and your father will also be happier. At that time, Jiang Ruan will still be nothing but a little ant, and you can then deal with her as you like."
Hearing this, Jiang Su Su immediately said, "Second Brother, don't disappoint us."
Jiang Chao waved his hand. "Don't worry, everything is in order, and I have made sufficient preparation. I will definitely be able to achieve a good rank. When the time comes, my rise to success is going to be meteoric. I will definitely become a distinguished person and those inferior people won't be fit to even carry my shoes!" Having said this, his eyes clouded over as the memory of Liu Min's aloof gaze flashed across his mind.
Xia Yan patted his shoulder. "My son, Mother will pray for you."
When Lu Zhu's discreet inquiries at Mei Qing Yuan unearthed this conversation, she immediately reported it to Jiang Ruan, who merely smiled faintly. Lu Zhu took note of her indifferent att.i.tude and asked, with some impatience, "Miss, it will be the preliminary round of the imperial examination in a few days' time. Second Young Master obviously has a well thought-out strategy. If he really does achieve the top ranking, won't that be disastrous for us?"
"He has no talent and no morals, how will he achieve the top rank?" Jiang Ruan looked over the painting she had just completed and put down her brush. Lu Zhu moved closer to take a look. Painted on the scroll was a moonlit scene; the moonlight shone brightly on the mountains, and the faint light from the fireflies glimmered within the forest.
"Miss has painted this beautifully," Lu Zhu said in praise. "Should we hang this up?"
"No need, send it to the Imperial Academy," Jiang Ruan said.
"A painting?" Lu Zhu asked in shock. "Miss wants to send a painting? Not a letter?"
"He will understand," Jiang Ruan said as she rolled up the scroll.
Moonlight and fireflies – the one whose light was brighter would shine forth and illuminate a greater area. Fireflies were only able to fly to locations within a short radius of several metres, and their light could only illuminate a small area. On the other hand, the moon was so high in the sky that it could illuminate mountains and rivers, lakes and seas. The higher the position, the wider the area of illumination. If one wanted to help more people, then one required even more power. It is only with the highest position that one could have the freedom to do as one wanted.
It would be impossible for the intelligent Liu Min to not understand this principle.
Although Lu Zhu did not understand why, she still took the scroll as Jiang Ruan whispered additional instructions to her. Lu Zhu's face expressed her surprise, but she nodded and went out.
In the following days, all was quiet. On the surface, nothing of note occurred. However, new rumours had started making the rounds in the capital that after the Emperor had appointed Zhao daren of the Imperial Hanlin Academy as the Chief Examiner, Zhao daren had started accepting bribes and gifts from the candidates. When this matter had become widespread talk among the people, the imperial censors had, one after another, pet.i.tioned the Emperor to investigate the matter thoroughly. The yearly preliminary round of the imperial examination was of such great import that the Emperor had been incensed upon hearing the news and had ordered another examiner to take over while he suspended Zhao daren and placed him under investigation.
When the news of Zhao daren's suspension was made known, it was said that Jiang Quan did not return to the Jiang fu for two days, and when he did, he was in a raging temper. Mei Qing Yuan was a complete mess, and Jiang Chao was black-faced as he dealt out punishments to quite a few servant girls who were guilty of minor infringements. The Jiang fu's servants were on tenterhooks all day long; only Ruan Ju was as peaceful as it usually was.
It was at this time that Jiang Su Su sent a message ahead of herself to Jinying w.a.n.g fu, declaring her intention to visit Xiao Shao in order to express her grat.i.tude for his help on the night of the Lantern Festival. Who knew that Xiao Shao was not there. Instead, Jiang Su Su encountered Jinying w.a.n.g fu's 61-year-old loyal steward who heaped a torrent of verbal abuse upon her, leaving her to rush home in a fury.
Lian Qiao and Lu Zhu were simply dying to enact Jiang Su Su's angry and embarra.s.sed appearance for Jiang Ruan, who could not help but feel a little more at ease as a result.
In addition, Zhou momo's condition had improved greatly with careful nursing. She was able to carry out simple tasks in Ruan Ju, but she tied a strip of cloth around her eyes in order to not frighten the other servants.
As for the servant girls that Xia Yan had sent to Ruan Ju, Jiang Ruan had left them alone. Lian Qiao was rather hot-headed, so she had set out to manage these servants until they were obedient and submissive. Although Bai Zhi looked gentle, in reality, she basically did not like getting close to people. Thus, these servant girls were treated in an offhand manner while at Ruan Ju, and consequently always felt unsettled and at a loss as to what to do. The only exception was Shu Xiang. She did her work neatly and proved herself to be quick-witted. She was also gentle and always behaved in a proper manner, such that Lian Qiao and Bai Zhi could not find fault with her at all.
Meanwhile, the rumours in the capital pertaining to the mother-daughter pair of Xia Yan and Jiang Su Su had been superseded by the talk of the chief examiner's acceptance of bribes, so it could be said that they had profited from this disaster.
On the day of the imperial civil service examination, overseen by the Ministry of Rites, Jiang Chao was not very happy when he returned to the fu. This was because the Emperor had appointed the upright and unyielding Zhi Chen as the chief examiner who gave absolutely no room for negotiation.
Everyone waited nervously for the day the results were to be released. Surprisingly, Jiang Chao only managed to place 458th, and did not even achieve the gongyuan. Jiang Quan shut himself in his library and refused to see anyone; the previous days' action of taking Jiang Chao to social events around the capital now seemed to be one big joke. Jiang Su Su was extremely disappointed. Xia Yan wanted to comfort and advise Jiang Quan, but, for the first time, he lashed out against her. Lin Lang could only stand to one side, not daring to open her mouth.
 Gong yuan ( 贡元 ) – it seems this is a plaque which the candidate who came in first in his province/county could display outside his residence, something like a medal of honour.
When Jiang Chao received news of his failure, without a word, he immediately walked out of the fu. He spent the next few days in public houses drinking himself into a drunken stupor. He did not go home, and seemed to be in a pit of depression.
Lu Zhu recounted all of this to Jiang Ruan in a voice full of pent-up anger. "So, it turns out that Second Young Master was just talking big when in reality he was totally lacking in ability. They say he has been drinking everyday. Today, Master sent people to accompany him back home, intending to teach him a good lesson according to family rules."
Jiang Ruan took a sip of her tea and said, "He's proud and arrogant, and values face more than his life. Naturally, he is not able to accept failure."
"This servant thinks that Second Young Master is not as good as Miss; Miss is way more intelligent than he is." Lu Zhu pursed her lips.
Jiang Ruan lowered her eyes and remained silent. Over the past few days, she had sent Lu Zhu to the marketplace to spread the rumour that the chief examiner was taking bribes. In her previous life, the truth about Zhao daren's acceptance of bribes had only been exposed a few years later. Not that she had revealed the truth early, the Emperor was bound to appoint a new chief examiner. In order to be prepared for any eventuality, the new appointee was an upright and plainspoken person, a member of the qing liu who did not take part in the power struggles. Although Jiang Chao's essay was alright, it was also excessively slick and evasive. Thus, someone from the qing liu would definitely look down on this kind of essay. So, even if he had not failed, he was not going to achieve a good ranking.
 Qing liu ( 清流 ) – historically, this refers to the group of 'uncontaminated people' who were concerned with politics but held themselves aloof from those in power.
On the other hand, Liu Min's upright and solitary temperament would definitely pique the chief examiner's interest. Moreover, at the court examinations (the top grade imperial exam) presided over by the Emperor himself, because of the letters she had written him subtly influencing him to change his perspective, he would definitely leave a good impression on the Emperor.
Liu Min, Liu Min, Jiang Ruan thought with a wry smile, don't disappoint me.
Sure enough, three days later, when the results of the court examinations were released, the Emperor awarded Liu Min the highest rank (zhuang yuan), Mo Cong ranked second (bang yan), and w.a.n.g Zi Ling ranked third (tan hua lang).
The top three rankers rode horses in a parade through the streets. All three of them wore their new official's gowns and rode high on their horses, looking for all the world like the fine young talents they were. Many young ladies stole out from the women's quarters to sneak a look at them. The person who attracted the most attention was the zhuang yuan lang, the top scoring youth. His features were already exquisite, but the red official's gown lent him a more kindly and gentle appearance, while also emphasising his lofty and unyielding nature, as one of the qing liu. When his white horse went by, the bolder ladies threw silk flowers to him.
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Liu Min's heart still harboured some suspicion, as he still remembered the question posed by the Emperor in the court examination:
"Master." In a flash, there were two black-clad men in the room.
"Send a group of Jin Yi guards to keep a watch on the Imperial Academy and follow the messenger who delivered these letters," said Xiao Shao. "The two of you monitor Liu Min."
Xiao Shao nodded. His elegant face, full of heroic spirit, just happened to notice the painting hanging in front of Liu Min's table, where the moonlight shone brightly on the mountains and lakes, and the gleam of fireflies dotted the forest.
He looked at it for a moment, then turned and walked out of the room.
The graceful bearing of the zhuang yuan lang won the admiration of many young ladies yet to be married, who were still sequestered in the women's quarters. That evening, Jiang Ruan did not read her books. Lian Qiao and Bai Zhi exchanged glances before Lian Qiao said, "Today, many servants in the fu were saying that the zhuang yuan lang is very good looking and extremely graceful and elegant, truly a man of talent."
Bai Zhi glared at Lian Qiao. "What kind of nonsense are you spouting in front of Miss, and without the least bit of shame? Can it be that you are suffering from unrequited love?"
"You wretched hussy! Be surprised if I don't tear out your lips." Lian Qiao's face turned red as she laughingly heckled Bai Zhi. "Right now, I'm very happy. The more satisfied zhuang yuan lang is, the more dispirited those people in that place will be. When I think of this, I cannot help but be happy."
"These words cannot be said too carelessly." Bai Zhi cast a glance outside the door. "Don't forget that there are others outside, and the walls have ears." She was speaking of Shu Xiang and the rest.
Jiang Ruan smiled slightly. "Second Brother is probably feeling that the situation right now is intolerable, and will likely make his way to a tavern to drink. Yesterday, a new one opened in the east of the capital, and it is near the biggest brothel in the capital, Bai Hua Lou. It just so happens that today is the deflowering ceremony for Miss Mu Dan. Second Brother has been disappointed by the imperial examination's results so he needs to gain satisfaction from the affairs of the heart. However, Miss Mu Dan comes at a considerable price. Second Brother is rich and arrogant, but it is not certain that Jiang fu has the silver necessary to pay the price for this beauty of Second Brother's."
Lian Qiao and Bai Zhi looked at each other and saw the surprise in the other's eyes. Jiang Ruan was a wise and virtuous lady who kept to her chambers, yet she spoke of the brothel in a relaxed and magnanimous fashion, which caused them to feel uncomfortable and tense.
At this point, Lu Zhu entered the room. When she saw Jiang Ruan looking at her, she walked over to half-squat by Jiang Ruan's side. She whispered, "Miss, it's done. This servant sent Da Niu to accompany Second Young Master to the tavern, and deliberately mentioned that Miss Mu Dan admires talented scholars the most. I think nothing will go wrong."
Jiang Ruan smiled slightly. The capital's Bai Hua Lou was a money-squandering establishment, it had already taken possession of silver from the children of many of the prosperous families. Miss Mu Dan was the main draw of Bai Hua Lou. On normal days, it was her skills but not her body on offer, and she had both natural talent and natural beauty. Today, as it was her deflowering ceremony, there would be many people hoping to fulfill their desire to be her intimate guest.
 Ru mu zhi bin ( 入幕之宾 ) – lit., a guest (宾) who is able to enter the curtain/ screen (入幕). Rooms in a house were usually separated by curtains, and, in a brothel, the performers were usually separated from their audience by a curtain, too. Only special guests would be invited to go beyond the curtain to a person's private room; in the same way, only those guests recognised or admired by the performer would be allowed to actually meet her. Probably, the implication is that many of the brothel guests wanted to be the first to deflower Miss Mu Dan (go through the curtain).
Miss Mu Dan had an addiction – she really liked talented scholars. If someone was particularly talented and received her direct favour, naturally, his luck with women was good. Jiang Chao had failed the examination, and he had just witnessed the zhuang yuan lang, flushed with success. He was likely to be upset and indignant about the entire situation, finding it unbearable. Becoming Miss Mu Dan's intimate guest would probably be the only thing that would soothe his heart.
While Miss Mu Dan said she liked talented scholars, in the end, she was still in the flesh trade. It was not unusual for her to earn thousands of pounds in gold a night, let alone this 'first night'. Many young masters from upper cla.s.s families were fighting for the opportunity to be the one, so how could Jiang Chao stand out?
In her previous life, the right to partic.i.p.ate in Miss Mu Dan's deflowering ceremony had been bought by Li Yang, the eldest son of the capital's powerful minister, Senior Marquis Li Dong. Li Yang had bought the first night of Miss Mu Dan with 10 hu of precious gems and 5000 liang of gold. As a result, Miss Mu Dan enjoyed the fame, throughout the capital, of being its most expensive courtesan. In this life, she was not sure if Jiang Chao had the resources to challenge Li Yang.
 Hu ( 斛 ) – an ancient dry measure, equivalent to 50 litres;
 Liang ( 两 ) – a tael, a unit of weight equivalent to 50g (which means Li Yang paid 250 kg of gold and 500 litres of gems).
Li Dong . . . Jiang Ruan smiled coldly. She would never forget how, in her previous life, Pei'er had died under him. Li Yang's appearance at this time marked a new beginning. The death knell had sounded; her vengeance was finally starting.
 T/N: Refer to Ch 1 for a refresher! Pei'er was Jiang Ruan's foster son, who died while being raped and bullied by Li Dong in front of her eyes.
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Translated by : Shl
Edited by : Anks & Ely
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