Since Jiang Ruan was the young girl at Bao Guang Temple, how did her good-hearted and innocent temperament become so aggressive and menacing? Could five years of oppression in the rural residence and her biological father and stepmother making life difficult for her really have caused such a transformation? Setting aside the change in temperament, how could such a young lady come up with methods like these?
There was also another mystery surrounding her . Hui Jue’s prophecies were all thanks to her, as was the early warning of the flood situation in the capital . Who on earth was she? Xiao Shao returned the jade pendant earring to his sleeve, and his eyes shone like brilliant starlight in the depths of the night as he pursed his lips .
As the pendant earring had confirmed it, he owed Jiang Ruan his life, and he would surely repay her in future .
“Many thanks,” he said softly .
* * *
Jiang Ruan had a dream .
The time period in the dream seemed to be a long time ago, so she wasn’t too sure when it was, but it was very likely five years ago .
Five years ago, Zhao Mei was bedridden with a serious illness . A doctor had come to examine her but then p.r.o.nounced it a hopeless situation and suggested that it would be best to start considering the funeral arrangements . She looked upon Zhao Mei’s emaciated body lying on the bed and her heartfelt sorrow beyond measure .
It just so happened that it was time for the annual visit to Bao Guang Temple to offer incense . Bao Guang Temple’s touzhu incense was the most efficacious, and she wanted to go and offer incense . However, Jiang Quan said that since Zhao Mei was gravely ill, and Jiang Ruan was her biological daughter, she should stay behind to tend to her .
At that time, Jiang Ruan had felt frustrated and angry, but could also not refute Jiang Quan openly . So, she decided to secretly follow Xia Yan and Jiang Su Su’s carriage, dressed as a Jiang fu maidservant and blending in with them . Once she reached Bao Guang Temple, she would beg the head monk to allow her to burn one stick of incense, to plead that Zhao Mei’s condition would take a turn for the better .
Thus, she asked Lian Qiao to accompany her, and left Bai Zhi in the fu to pretend to be her . She changed into a maidservant’s outfit, and completely blended in with the other maidservants, and they all went off to Bao Guang Temple together .
That was the boldest thing she had ever done . After she had succeeded in infiltrating the group of servants, she felt proud of herself for a time . However, she did not know that the ease with which she had become part of the group was because Xia Yan had known much earlier that she was there, and had deliberately let it pa.s.s .
After that, she seized the opportunity when no one was paying attention to her to hide in a prayer hall, waiting for an opportune time to slip out .
Even though she had infiltrated the group of servants, she could not eat the vegetarian meal with the maidservants, so as not to be found out . She could only visit the temple’s kitchen secretly in order to steal some food . She never thought that she would be discovered and handed over to the Jiang fu’s head servant, in order to be ‘well disciplined’ .
That old female servant did indeed ‘discipline’ her firmly . She was beaten black and blue but did not dare call out, for fear of her ident.i.ty as Eldest Jiang Miss being disclosed . At that time, her body bore a mult.i.tude of bruises, a witness to her great difficulty in obtaining a portion of food .
The situation did not end there . The next day, she was unable to burn the touzhu incense . Even though Bao Guang Temple was so well-regarded, in reality, favour was determined by how much was donated via the buying of incense . Since Xia Yan had donated a considerable sum of money to the temple, she was the one who offered the incense .
On thinking about it, her heart’s desire at that time must have been that Zhao Mei and Jiang Ruan died horrible deaths . In Jiang Ruan’s previous life, the incense offered due to this desire had certainly been efficacious .
On the way home, Xia Yan ‘accidentally’ discovered she was in the crowd, and they returned to the fu in such an uproar that her name was known in every household . When Jiang Quan found out that Bai Zhi had pretended to be her in the fu he was boiling with rage, and made her and Bai Zhi kneel in the fu’s main hall in front of all the servants while they were punished according to the rules of the fu .
Shame, resentment, anger, aggrievement – her emotions at that time were mult.i.tudinous but, in the end, they could only be manifested in completely useless tears . Jiang Xin Zhi went head to head with Jiang Quan on her behalf, and was made to kneel in the ancestral hall for three days as punishment . When Zhao Mei heard about it, her condition worsened until she was even closer to death’s door . As the situation escalated, Xia Yan and Jiang Su Su came to plead for leniency on her behalf .
On thinking about it now, she was itching to skin them both alive .
It seemed that, from that time onwards, everyone began to ostracize her and she was even forbidden to step foot outside; eventually, the people in the capital only knew of the Jiang family’s Second Miss, with no idea who the Jiang family’s Eldest Miss was .
From that time onwards, Bao Guang Temple had become her nightmare . In this life, Xia Yan had still thought of scheming against her at Bao Guang Temple, and had hoped that she would agree to go . If it could be said that Bao Guang Temple was her execution ground in her previous life, then, in this life, it was the stage for the ma.s.sacre she had orchestrated . For the Grand Councillor fu, it had only just begun .
At the end of her dream there seemed to be a gleam of moonlight, in which a pair of eyes, like cold stars in a gentle night, twinkled at her brightly while impa.s.sively watching her .
Who was that?
It was as if, within the memory of having stolen the food that night, she had not been the one to eat the food in the end . It was as if something extraordinary had happened in the prayer hall that night .
Time is like a musty veil of light muslin concealing a treasure, quietly covering our memories . If, one day, a spring breeze should happen to blow, lifting a corner of the veil, the memories will be as fresh as before, still emitting a faint l.u.s.tre .
It was as if she heard a cold, indifferent voice whispering beside her, “Many thanks . ”
Who was it?
* * *
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Sunlight gradually filtered through the dense shrubbery and into the mountain cave, the interior of which appeared a mottled green due to this tiny gleam of light .
In her previous life, had Jiang Quan and Xuan Li already known about this, and thus agreed without qualms to allow her to take the place of Jiang Su Su in entering the palace, so that the healthy and perfect Jiang family daughter could be kept for the new Emperor, to be his Empress?
No, that wasn’t it . Even if she did not have this ‘cold’ const.i.tution, Jiang Quan would not have let her remain in place . Jiang Quan and Xuan Li had chosen her to be the sacrificial lamb from the start .
However, Xiao Shao did her a favor by telling her this . .
His helping her in this way reminded Jiang Ruan of his words the previous night . He owed her his life?
She was about to ask him to clarify his statement, when she suddenly heard the sound of horse’s hooves outside . Xiao Shao pushed aside the shrubbery at the mouth of the cave and, sure enough, a pleasantly surprised voice could be heard saying, “w.a.n.gye!”
Jiang Ruan walked out as well . Outside, the sun was shining brilliantly . Within the forest, a group of horses and troops saw them, and rode in their direction in quick succession .
Foremost among them were Guan Liang Han and Jiang Xin Zhi .
After searching fruitlessly for an entire night, Guan Liang Han and Jiang Xin Zhi were extremely anxious, especially Jiang Xin Zhi, who hated that he could not comb through the entire mountain . His hands were constantly trembling . Now, on seeing Jiang Ruan safe and sound, he let out a long, relieved breath . Calling her name, he raced towards her on horseback .
The soldiers also rushed over . In front of the mountain cave, the black-clad youth and the young lady in plain clothes stood, bathed in the sunlight, looking into the distance, and presenting a sight to warm the heart . When Jiang Xin Zhi drew nearer, the expression on his face morphed into something more complicated .
Jiang Ruan’s hair was mussed, her clothes were slightly disorderly, and a man’s black and gold rain silk crane-patterned brocade cloak was still in her hand . She looked as if she had woken up not long ago, and her face was still rosy, just like the most beautiful rose-tinted clouds at sunrise, exquisitely gorgeous .
On the other hand, Xiao Shao presented a cold and detached countenance . Yet, at that moment, he seemed to think of something and his eyes became softer and gentler . Such a scene lay before everyone’s eyes, and immediately inspired a myriad of contrasting thoughts . These two possessed a natural beauty that was indeed rare, and even with the difficulties they had just experienced, their graceful bearing and beauty still shone through . Moreover, the slight smiles on their faces at present brought the same thought to the minds of everyone there .
It was truly . . . exceptionally harmonious .
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