Two years passed. Ruoyu did not know how Yuxi was doing. The two did not stay in contact.
Due to homesickness, she was permitted to visit her side of the family on the same day that her older sister came to visit. Seeing Ruoqing again, after so long, Ruoyu cried tears of happiness.
Her sister had changed, her belly now round. Ruoyu could not run into her sister's embrace like she did in the past anymore because of this. Ruoqing was pregnant at around seven months, and Ruoyu could not be happier to learn that she would be an aunt in just two more months.
The two sisters talked for a long, long time, in the old courtyard they used to share. Ruoqing, a considerate and gracious older sister as always, brought two silver hairpins with her, topped with a blue bead. She slid one of the hairpins in her own hair and gave the other one to Ruoyu. It was a gift, which Ruoyu wore in her hair happily.
When the family gathered around the table for lunch, the meal was wonderful as well. Ruoyu had missed her father and her mother. To eat with them again felt like she was back to her days of just being a girl, even though she knew that this couldn't be the case. Once married, a girl would never belong to her old family again.
As Ruoyu ate her meal, the kitchen sent over a bowl of fish soup just for her, just the way that she liked it, blander than normal. She had always drank soup mostly unseasoned, even when young. It was just a bland taste that she had grown to like, and Ruoqing always made fun of her for drinking soup that was really no different than water. Ruoyu always argued that this was the only way one could taste the true flavor of the ingredients.
Again, today, Ruoqing made fun of this special bowl of soup, and Ruoyu laughed it off. Ruoqing demanded a sip, just to see if the flavors would jump out to her since now she was pregnant, and reluctantly, Ruoyu let her older sister drink a spoonful.
Ruoqing wrinkled her nose up and shook her head. "It's still as disgusting as I remember it."
Ruoyu only giggled some more, but after taking a sip herself, the taste did seem off, so she set it aside. Her taste in food had changed.
She would not have let her sister drink the soup if she knew what was to happen. This moment, this specific action, this specific bowl, and this specific spoonful of soup, would come to be the biggest regret of her lifetime.
An hour passed, and right before it was time for their departure, Ruoqing suddenly clutched her stomach, her expression pale. Ruoyu noticed, asking with furrowed brows if something was wrong. Ruoqing shook her head, sweat beading on her forehead, that nothing was wrong.
Then, the pain got worse. Something was clearly wrong. Ruoqing spoke up about it, and her mother and father had already called for a physician.
When Ruoqing, seconds later, slumped over, fainting, that was when it became clear to everyone that it was an emergency.
Ruoyu panicked. Everyone panicked.
Physicians were hurried, midwives were called, and in the chaos, she only managed to make out that her older sister was giving birth, two months too early.
How could this be? Ruoqing was always careful in nature. She wouldn't have done anything risky or stepped out of the guidelines the physicians had laid out for her. And she had been perfectly healthy as well.
But Ruoyu could not afford to worry for too long. As she stood there, in front of her sister's closed room with worry, a wave of dizziness overcame her, and she slumped to the floor.
When she woke up, on a bed in her old room, the first words escaping Ruoyu's mouth was a question about her sister.
Her mother was by her side, and she couldn't say anything, her voice choked up. She shook her head silently, tears slipping out of her reddening eyes. Ruoyu turned her face to her father, who was standing by the side. His eyes were lined with red too, and with difficulty, he told her the truth.
Ruoqing passed during childbirth.
It was Ruoyu's turn to shake her head. She opened her mouth to speak, finding her voice hoarse.
No, no, no, no, no— this couldn't be real. It had to be a nightmare. It had to be a lie.
Ruoyu stumbled off of her bed, legs collapsing under her. She had so little strength, but she couldn't even bother to stop and consider why. She pushed herself up, staggering across the room. Her parents rushed forward, holding her back, but she clawed at their arms, begging to see her sister.
Finally, they relented, and Ruoyu pushed open the doors, stumbling into the courtyard. Her feet carried her to the room that she last saw Ruoqing enter. When she walked inside, her sister wasn't there— only a body covered with a white cloth. Still shaking her head, Ruoyu delicately reached over and lifted the sheet, seeing who it was.
The moment her eyes saw that face, she dropped the cloth and fell back, sinking to the floor. She curled up and covered her head, pleading for this nightmare to end, pleading to wake up. But when she opened her eyes, the white sheet was still there, the person laying under there still unmoving. On the person's hair, slid in on the side, was a silver hairpin, topped with a blue bead, an exact matching one with what Ruoyu wore right now, an exact matching one with what Ruoqing gave Ruoyu only a few hours ago, when they first reunited.
Ruoyu, with trembling hands slid two hairpins out, clutching them tightly. The sharp point of the pin dug into her skin, enough to draw blood, but she didn't notice.
She just wanted to wake up.
In her memories of her sister, Zhang Ruoqing was always warm and smiling. Now, there was nothing left except for memories of that face, eyes closed, peacefully still. Chillingly still.
Years later, the pain of that moment would still be fresh. Even when those distant memories of taking strolls and softly chatting with Ruoqing were blurred, the anguish remained, ever-so-vividly, like the cuts of a dagger on her heart.
They said that time would heal all wounds, but time still left its unfading scars.
The physician said that he could not detect why Ruoyu passed out, merely concluding that the emotional distress at the moment caused her to faint. Her poor health afterwards, which consistently seemed to worsen, was also attributed to grief.
They said that Zhang Ruoqing underwent premature labor due to pure chance as well. They said that the conditions were horrid, with the baby being born so early, numerous complications rising up. They said that the midwife told Ruoqing that she could only save the life of her child or preserve her own life. They said that without even hesitating, Ruoqing insisted on delivering her child safely.
Ruoqing's baby survived. Moments later, just like the midwife said, Ruoqing passed away.
When the baby, a girl, was born, she was born with dark, hideous splotches over her right arm and back. A divine seer had been hired by the father's side of the family to take a look at the girl, and the seer determined that with the splotches and the reading of her palm, that the child was destined to doom her parents. Her mother had already died for her. If her father chose to raise the child, he was sure to arrive at a quick death as well.
At the news that the child was so inauspicious, the family would not take the child. So, she had been abandoned at the place where she was born.
Days later, when Ruoyu had enough strength again, she went back to her parent's home. She wanted to see the baby. She wanted to see the monster that her sister sacrificed her life so pointlessly for.
They allowed her to. And as Ruoyu stared at the wrinkled, ugly face of the baby, she expected to feel more pain, more disappointment. Instead, she felt nothing. Her heart was blank.
Later on, she asked her parents what they were going to do about the baby. They said that they didn't want to draw inauspicious energy to their home, even if it was their grandchild, so they were likely going to give up the baby to a monk, or something of that sort.
Ruoyu wanted to laugh.
Her sister gave up her life so that this baby could come into this world. Yet it had all been for nothing. The baby was unlucky and unwelcomed. It would be a child that grew up without the love of either parent.
In the end, with a turn of events, Ruoyu found herself walking back to the Yang Villa, holding a bundle with the infant in her arms.
She wasn't sure why she did it. She hated the child. It was the cause of her grief, her misery. It killed her sister. But she didn't have the heart to abandon it, knowing that everyone else in the world had already chosen to turn their backs on this newborn life.
Years later, she would grow to love this child, even though she never wanted to. She would find moments of joy in the small accomplishments of this child. She would take pride in seeing the child slowly grow older and older. She would come to view this niece of hers as her own daughter. And so, over those years, the child became known as the First Miss of the Yang Household, given the name "Yang Qingxia"— "Qing", after her mother, Ruoqing.
Years later, she would also discover that she was infertile. Yang Chen would take another wife, one who died within a few years due to disease. He would simultaneously have affairs outside of the household. The first child he brought back was another daughter, one who Ruoyu would claim as her own daughter, just to give the child a status that she could never own if she called another woman her mother.
The second child he brought back was the daughter of a woman, one who she had also grown to hate along those years. That child, she extended no mercy to.
But that was getting ahead of the story. To rewind, one would have to go back to not a few weeks since Zhang Ruoyu adopted the child who would eventually be called "Qingxia". That would be the day where her world upside down, yet again.
The more Zhang Ruoyu thought about it, the more peculiar everything became. Could it really be a coincidence that her sister went into early labor? Could it really only be grief that caused her health to worsen so quickly?
She went through many tests and many physicians. At last, one told her that she had been poisoned. He said that the poison in her body was so faint that it would be almost impossible to detect. He said that despite the low amount, the poison was so potent that any dosage higher would surely cost her her life.
The news brought a cold shudder down Ruoyu's back.
Could it be that her sister was also poisoned? Who would do it, though? Surely, her parents would not have the heart to kill their own daughter.
With more deduction, Ruoyu realized that it was the bowl of fish soup. Her bowl of fish soup. That was the only thing that she shared with her sister that the rest of her family did not also share.
And after some thorough investigation, she came to one name— a name that she had not spoken of in years.
This news came suddenly to Ruoyu. She could not believe her ears. Yet there was a maid who confessed to it. Liu Yuxi was the one who bribed that maid to poison the soup.
Ruoyu had tracked Yuxi down, discovering that the Liu Family had fallen apart, and that Liu Yuxi now lived alone, in a run-down hut.
At the time, Ruoyu had barged in, demanding an answer, an explanation from this old friend of hers. She did not trust that maid. She knew that it couldn't be the truth. No matter how much Liu Yuxi despised Ruoyu for marrying the man she loved, she was not the type who was cruel enough to scheme and kill her.
Yuxi was sitting at a table, almost as if she expected Ruoyu's arrival. When she saw Ruoyu again, for the first time in two years, instead of saying anything, she began laughing. It was maniacal laughter, the laughter of an insane person. She laughed until she couldn't breathe, and only then did she stop, a giggle still caught in her throat.
Ruoyu stared at the woman in front of her, no longer recognizing the Liu Yuxi she used to know. She asked the question that she had wanted to ask, all this time.
Liu Yuxi only answered in one way. "It was supposed to be your father. But I don't mind that you and your sister were the ones who drank it either."
Upon hearing that, Ruoyu did not want to be there anymore. She didn't want to be in the same room, in the same vicinity, as this woman. She didn't even want to know what Liu Yuxi meant. All she wanted to do was to leave.
So, she spun around and walked out.
When she went back to the villa, the first person she went to find was her husband.
She told him the truth, the fact that Liu Yuxi was a murderer, the fact that Liu Yuxi killed her sister, the fact that Liu Yuxi was the true monster all along. Tears streamed down her cheeks, staining her skin. She was a mess, nothing befitting of the image of a perfect wife. Except, she couldn't control her emotions. She couldn't control the feelings rising up within her. And at this moment, she could not care about a composed and proper image in front of him.
Yang Chen had leapt up, fear struck across his face. She thought, at the time, that it was fear of Liu Yuxi, or fear for Ruoyu's well-being. Yet, later on, she would realize that it wasn't fear of any of those, but rather, concern that the woman he loved so badly, Liu Yuxi, was getting accused of such horrid things. From the start, he had never believed her, not even for a bit. He had seen her as a crazy woman, gone mad from grief to the point where she would spew nonsense accusations.
At the time, he had reached over to comfort her. She let him comfort her, all until he murmured, "Where is the proof?"
She stepped back in bewilderment, thinking of the maid who confessed. She called for someone to hurry over to her parents' villa to fetch that maid, yet they came back with the news that the servant who confessed hung herself.
There was no witness anymore. There was no evidence.
Yang Chen, upon hearing that, looked at her with pity. He cupped the side of her face, gently saying, "I think you must be tired, Dearest Wife."
She shook her head, continuing to repeat the same words she had been saying all along. Even if there was no evidence, Liu Yuxi was a murderer. Even if there was no witness, Liu Yuxi killed her sister. Even if he didn't believe it, Liu Yuxi was the monster all along, and he had loved a monster.
He only echoed his words from before, saying, "You're too tired." Then, he called over a servant, ordering for the Madam to be escorted back to her chambers to rest.
She continued to struggle, to repeat the truth, but he was no longer willing to listen. She had lost him, perhaps much longer before this, already.
That was the reality of things. Her sister was dead, and her husband loved the woman who was the murderer over her, his own wife.
At that moment, she lost all hope.
The servants did escort her back to her room. She sat down in front of the mirror and stared at her reflection.
It was a mistake. It was all a mistake.
Her eyes dragged over all the rouge and cosmetics on the vanity table.
Why did Yang Chen love Liu Yuxi?
Yuxi had always been the prettier one. That was a fact that was always clear in her mind. There was a type of beauty that Yuxi had, one which didn't need jewels or silks to shine. It was a beauty that she could not even try to compare herself with. When standing next to Liu Yuxi, her faults became clear. Her chin was too sharp, her nose too long, her eyes not as wide and pretty as Liu Yuxi, her lips not as soft and naturally pink as Liu Yuxi.
This was a fact that she knew so clearly, yet so many times in the past, she had tried her best to cover up her flaws with powder, to redden her pale lips with rouge. She had tried to hide her insecurities behind beautiful silks, all in hope that she could be more beautiful. She had swallowed every complaint silently, acted out the role of a quiet, obedient, and open-minded wife to perfection, all in the hope that she could be more desirable.
Except, in the end, she was neither more beautiful nor more desirable. Yang Chen did not love her. The only thing holding their marriage together was that cursed agreement between two families, a decision which doomed her to this fate.
She was stupid, doing all of these things for someone's love which she could never get. From then on, she would no longer remain a fool. She would no longer crave for pathetic love.
She wanted power. Enough power to take revenge. Enough power to ruin Liu Yuxi's life.
Her hands reached under the vanity table, opening a drawer and taking out a small box. In there, there were the two hairpins— the hairpins that Ruoqing gave her on the day that she passed. She slid the cover open, then opened a hidden compartment. She drew out a blank slip of paper, getting a brush and ink to write, "Liu Yuxi, I hate you."
And then, she smiled.
A few years passed. During that time, she no longer remained an obedient, non-interfering wife. She became Yang Chen's advisor, pulling strings for him in the background and slowly increasing his position in the government. He was unwilling to think too deeply about the schemes of the government, but she was willing to get her hands dirty for him. She was willing to be the one with blood staining her hands.
She did it not for love, but for power. If he had power, then she would have power.
She knew that Yang Chen still met with Liu Yuxi. She didn't do anything to stop them. On the outside, she seemed like a virtuous wife for not being jealous. On the inside, she saw it as giving them a taste of happiness before taking it all away.
On a rainy day, Yang Chen returned to the villa with a baby, saying that it was Yuxi's. She had stared at the infant, knowing that the time had come.
The baby would stay in the villa and grow up, as an illegitimate daughter with no worth in the family. Liu Yuxi was not allowed to come into the villa, forever known as an outside lover. For someone like Liu Yuxi, who cared about a title, this was sure to be shameful. Liu Yuxi would also be a mother who would not see her child grow up. She hoped that Liu Yuxi would suffer, separated from her newborn infant only a few days after its birth.
It puzzled her that Liu Yuxi's child seemed to be so sickly, from the moment she entered the villa. Yet she could not concern herself over this. She had a toddler Qingxia to take care of, after all.
Despite all of her planning, the Yang Family had its failures in court. Their government position was stripped from them, and only because of all the work and scheming she had done behind the scenes, Yang Chen managed to preserve his life.
She fell to her backup plan, supporting Yang Chen to become a merchant. Yet he had never been good at finances. Luck had never been on her side.
So, instead of wrapping her mind around power and revenge, she fell to taking care of Qingxia. The child meant everything to her. As long as she could get Qingxia a happy and content future, she would consider her life fulfilled.
Years and years and years went on. She watched as Qingxia grew from a baby, to a toddler, to a girl, to a young woman.
Time slipped by so fast that it was already time for Qingxia to marry. They found her a good match, from the Huang Household. The birthmarks on Qingxia's skin had faded. The rumors about her birth and bad luck had vanished, replaced by the identity that Madam Zhang crafted for this "daughter" of hers. She was going to have a happy marriage— or so the madam thought.
After a month into the marriage, Qingxia's husband passed due to illness.
The thought of her daughter facing an unhappy marriage, forever stuck at a household that didn't fully welcome her, was a thought that disturbed her. She would not have Qingxia suffer that kind of fate. With some strings pulled, she managed to get Qingxia to return home, safe and sound.
Except, fate had always been an enemy. Soon enough, the madam received word that her daughter was pregnant. Qingxia had been feeling unwell, so a physician went to check on her. The physician kept the truth from the young woman, but he reported back to the madam. The physician also brought more news— by the looks of it, her body was too weak. She would not be able to bear the child safely. At best, either the child or mother would survive. At worst— the more possible outcome— both would die.
The news struck the madam terribly, memories of her dead sister, memories of her sister's choice, memories of the pain and agony, rising up. Could it be that the poison her sister ingested had carried over to her child? Was Qingxia truly going to suffer the same fate?
She had already lost her sister. She didn't want to lose this niece and daughter of hers either. A part of her mind could already see the events playing out. If Qingxia was given the choice, Qingxia would save her child over herself. That was a fact that she knew for sure. But even that part, she wasn't sure if that would happen. The physician said that both would likely die.
For months, she struggled with this idea, unsure of what to do.
Then, she remembered the box. The box with her deepest secrets, which she had hidden all this time. She went to find the box, opening it and reading its old letters. There were only two, anyways, and the one she looked for was one she wrote a few years back.
'After all these years, you still haunt my dreams… I wonder why?
I miss you. I miss you so much that it hurts, that when I wake up after these dreams, I find tears on my cheeks.
Back then, why did you make that choice? Why did you choose to save her?
I know that you will call me selfish. You were always the more selfless one. But if I were the one making the decision, I would've saved you. And this many years later, I still wish that I could've been there to make the choice.
You would hate me. I know you would. Only, if you were still alive, why would it matter if you hated me or not? I think it would've been worth it. I would make that sacrifice for you.
It's spring again. Yet another year has passed, but I still think of you.'
The end of the letter gave her the answer.
She could not afford to lose anymore. She knew that it was selfish of her. She knew that it wasn't her decision to make. But she would rather have her daughter alive, than to deal with the possibility that her daughter would die.
She was always willing to play the villain's role, regardless.
Thus, one morning, she called over the First Miss's maid and handed over a vial. The unborn child would have to be gone.
Her father had been wrong at best, a liar and a hypocrite at worst.
Kindness was not the key to life. It was a tool of manipulation. Mercy was not true justice. Only cruelty would provide justice. And if forgiveness was a strength, then she would rather be a weakling for the rest of her life.
She could never bring herself to forgive that woman, the cause of all her grief.
She had been "Madam Zhang" for so long. "Madam Zhang" to some, "Mother" to others, and the meaningless "Dearest Wife" to another. It was easy to forget that a long, long time ago, she had another name. It was the name of a girl, untarnished by the darkness alongside her, living in a land of light.
"Zhang Ruoyu" — that was her name.
If someone called this name out, she would treat it no differently than the name of a stranger.
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