In the capital fell torrential rain. The mid-afternoon sunlight had been abruptly covered and replaced by dark clouds, as though a tribulation from the heavens had suddenly descended.
Yun Ruoyan lay curled up amidst piles of firewood in a locked shack. The long green gown covering up her body was smudged with dirt and ashes, leaving her bedraggled. As the door to the shack swung open, a dim light permeated the dark room, but the woman on the floor didn’t move.
Pei Ziao walked in, wrinkling his nose at the damp and musty air. He walked towards the shadow on the floor and kicked at her waist, not holding back.
The tears on Yun Ruoyan’s face hadn’t fully dried. She opened her eyes a tiny slit, staring at the man clothed in silk brocade. His countenance was as handsome as ever, his eyes and brows gentle, and yet the mocking smile dancing by his lips left her trembling as though she were in a frozen cellar.
That had been the man she’d loved most in the world—just a few days prior, they had been a happy couple! But now, this man, who had been her light in the perennial darkness, had pushed her into the abyss himself!
“It’s been so many days since we’ve last talked! Are you alright, dear sister?” A tender voice emerged from outside the shack. Yun Ruoyan turned towards the voice and saw a face with which she was intimately familiar.
Never would Yun Ruoyan have thought that a girl as seemingly harmless as Yi Qianying would be in cahoots with her husband—for goodness’ sake, she was her cousin!
Pei Ziao waved his hand, commanding a servant to lift Yun Ruoyan’s body. Her delicate limbs were roughly pushed into a kneeling position, right in front of Pei Ziao.
Yi Qianying walked over with a bowl of medicine. “Sister, today’s the day when the Yun and Lin families are to be beheaded. Aren’t you going to go see?”
Yun Ruoyan’s eyes flashed as she raised her head starkly, the tear tracks on her face shining amidst the darkness. “W-What did you say?!”
“Oh, don’t you know?” Yi Qianying covered up a smile with her hand, nudging Pei Ziao. “Ziao, after all, no matter what she’s done, she’s still a member of both families, isn’t she? Why didn’t you tell her anything?”
Pei Ziao gave her an indulgent smile, his gaze affectionate and warm, a measure of love that Yun Ruoyan had never felt from him during their marriage.
But at the present moment, Yun Ruoyan couldn’t care less about her husband’s betrayal. “Yi Qianying! What did you say just now?! What’s happened to the Yun and Lin families?”
The day she was locked inside the little shack, all she knew was that something big had happened in the Yun household, but for her entire family to be executed…?
Yi Qianying smiled shyly. “I didn’t know you still cared about those two families, sister! After all, when you decided to break off any ties with the Lins on account of Pei Ziao, I thought that you would long have forgotten about them. The emperor has decreed that both the Yuns and Lins are to be summarily executed at noon today for treachery, for high treason. How’s my parting gift to you, sister?”
“What……” Yun Ruoyan stared straight at the woman in front of her, daggers in her eyes. In the past, she’d wondered how the Yun household had fallen so low in a single night, but she’d never dared link those events to these two!
Yun Ruoyan grit her teeth, her eyes red from regret and fury. She howled, “Yi Qianying, you wretched wench! The Yuns have always treated you like their own daughter, and I, like my own sister. Why did you do all this?!”
Yi Qianying smiled daintily once more, her fingers curling around the hair by her temples. “Sister, are you playing dumb, or do you really not understand? I suppose it’s the latter; after all, as ugly and rough a person as you are… I suppose you’re still wholly dedicated to your husband. How could Pei Ziao, with his identity and status, ever be interested in such a hideous woman? It’d be humiliating for Ziao to bring you out with him, let alone call you his wife!”
“A hideous woman…” Was this truly how it was? No wonder Pei Ziao was never willing to consummate their marriage—but even then, she wasn’t one of those people who would force herself onto others! If Pei Ziao hadn’t told her that he’d loved her, she wouldn’t have married into the Pei household!
But...but Pei Ziao himself had been the one who said he didn’t care about her appearance, nor the birthmark on her face!
Was it all a lie?
Then, did Pei Ziao marry her solely because she was the sole wife-born daughter of the Yun family?
Yun Ruoyan felt as though a film had been removed from her eyes, that she was finally seeing the true colors of the man with whom she’d shared a bed for so many years. A well of regret sprung up from within her, but it was far, far too late.
By the side, Yi Qianying slowly brought the medicinal brew closer. The dark yellow tonic giving off a hint of danger.
A smile hung on Yi Qianying’s lips. “Sister, let me send you off on your last voyage. Don’t worry, I’ll take care of both your husband and the Yun family businesses for you.”
As Yun Ruoyan looked at the bowl Yi Qianying held in her hands, she turned towards Pei Ziao—but all she saw was a pair of cold, distant eyes.
“Qianying, stop wasting time talking nonsense to her. Pour it down her throat!” An icy voice emerged from his lips, and Pei Ziao shifted his gaze away from her disdainfully.
“Pei Ziao, why are you treating me like this? I want to hear it from your own lips!”
Pei Ziao smiled coldly, turning back and clutching Yun Ruoyan’s lower jaw as if he were about to break it off. “Why? Because you’re not only ugly, but also completely useless!”
And then he hurled Yun Ruoyan against the floor.
She’d heard that word thrown at her countless times, of course, but this was the first that she’d heard it from the man that she loved with all her heart.
Did Pei Ziao think she was useless too?
Perhaps it was true. After all, she was born ugly, and she couldn’t even become a third-rank blademaster, something that even the least talented cultivator among the masses could accomplish.
Yi Qianying dropped her pretense as she raised the brew and approached Yun Ruoyan.
Perhaps out of a desire to live, Yun Ruoyan, who had been tortured to such an extent that she no longer looked human, struggled so fiercely that she actually broke free from the servants’ grasp.
A crisp slap rang out as Yi Qianying clutched her cheek in shock.
Did Yun Ruoyan really hit her? Yun Ruoyan, famed for her ugliness throughout the kingdom of Li? How dare she!
The next moment, Pei Ziao rushed forward and slapped Yun Ruoyan back in turn. “You wretch! Are you crazy?!”
Pei Ziao used so much strength that Yun Ruoyan felt a taste of iron in her mouth, and a trickle of blood seeped out of the corner of her lips.
Immediately afterwards, Pei Ziao snatched the bowl from Yi Qianying’s hands, pinched Yun Ruoyan’s lower jaw tightly, and forced the brew down her throat.
When the bowl was finally emptied, he released her, and as she coughed, Yun Ruoyan raised her head and grit her teeth. “Pei Ziao! I won’t let you off! In the afterlife, I swear on my name and the heavens above, I will collect this blood debt!”
Yun Ruoyan’s bloodshot eyes opened wide, her gaze burning with fury, the vengeance in her words and appearance startling Pei Ziao enough that he had an urge to run from her in fear. But as she spoke her last, Yun Ruoyan felt her heart clench and a torrent of blood rush out of her throat. It splashed on the floor, bright and vile.
No longer did Pei Ziao want to look at this woman who nauseated him, nor her vilifying gaze. “You, you, and you, throw her outside! Don’t let this dirty wench die within the Pei household!”
As Yi Qianying looked on, she laughed coldly, raising her slender, white neck. “Vengeance? I look forward to it. But it seems like you won’t be able to carry it out in this lifetime, Yun Ruoyan!”
1. Aristocratic families tended to be large, as males were expected to take a wife and multiple concubines. Children of wives are afforded higher status in the family than children of concubines, and I use the terms ‘wife-born’ and ‘concubine-born’ in reference to this distinction.