Song Caitang didn’t know anything about what Madam Zhang and her daughter were plotting. She was still on the way home in Old Madam Li’s carriage.
Tianhua Temple was outside the city, and the journey was quite far. They had to get to the temple very urgently when they were coming in from the city, so the carriage had traveled very quickly. But now, they weren’t in a hurry to go anywhere, so the carriage traveled at a much more leisurely pace, and they were feeling very relaxed.
The spring sun was lovely, and the chirping of birds and fragrance of flowers filled the air. Old Madam Li was happy to chat with Song Caitang for a long time, but she was getting on in age, and she felt tired after some time.
Wen Yuansi was a filial and meticulous person, as could be seen in the way he had designed this carriage. He was the one who drew the design and watched the carpenters put it together. He had already considered all of her basic needs, so sleeping in the carriage wasn’t a problem at all. It was wide enough and very comfortable, even with an extra Song Caitang inside.
Song Caitang did not move away. She helped the old lady to lie down comfortably, then got a book and leaned against the window, but she did not flip a single page.
Over the past few nights, she had been dreaming a lot.
Some people believed that one’s dreams were often based on what happened earlier in the day, but her dreams were really, really strange.
Each time, she would find herself in a location that was completely unfamiliar to herself. Sometimes it was an overgrown field, sometimes it was in the midst of a blizzard. She had a full view of her surroundings, but she couldn’t find anything else around her. Her dreams always started with the chirp of a bird, and she would watch herself grow from a tiny baby until she reached teenagerhood. Her personality was bold, her eyes were bright. She had many experiences and had gotten into a lot of trouble.
The faces in her dreams were blurry, and she couldn’t see their features, but every one of them seemed very real. She could smell them and she could feel the warmth of their bodies. Some were good people and some were bad, and they led her through a series of love and hate relationships that were carved deeply in her heart.
The last part of the dream was always water.
It was water that seemed so vast and boundless, and it felt like she would never reach the surface.
The water was freezing and no matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t find a way out of the water.
Under such circumstances, she should have been extremely terrified. But she felt so warm, so safe, as though she was certain she wouldn’t die…
When she woke up, she would always find tears at the corners of her eyes.
She would not be able to remember the details of those thrilling events, and the strong emotions she had felt during the dream seemed distant. Everything was a blur.
These were not her experiences, but they had appeared in her dreams. Why? It wasn’t hard to conclude why this was happening.
The book in her hands remained untouched for a long time.
She was very curious. What in the world did the previous owner of this body go through in the past?
Who… was she?
She had a feeling that someday, she would find those lost memories of the past. The people whose faces were blurry in her dreams would be recollected.
What sort of story would she piece together when that happened?
The carriage swayed a little, causing the beads on her hairpin to tinkle as they struck each other. Song Caitang was in no mood to read, so she put the book aside and quietly looked out of the window instead.
After a long time, she noticed a person.
The Guan family had countless stores under their name. Most of them were handled by her grandmother and Guan Qing, but her grandmother was in charge only in name. Almost everything was run by Guan Qing. It was very common for Guan Qing to not only go out daily to check on the business, but sometimes she would only return a few days later. It was also common for the store managers to report any matters directly to the house.
The man Song Caitang had spotted was someone she had seen once. He had a squarish face, thin lips, and eagle eyes. He always looked like someone who was secretly extremely ambitious – it was none other than the store manager of the store along West Street, Manager Liu.
Based on the route Manager Liu was taking, he was probably headed for the Guan house.
But the way he walked…
He kept his arms close and avoided where most people were walking, as though he was afraid of being noticed.
And when he arrived at the Guan house, he went in from the back corner gate.
Song Caitang frowned slightly.
The Guans were merchants, but there were rules they observed around the house. If it was not a serious or important matter, they were not to open the middle gate. Friends, family, and other guests of the Guans were to go by the side gate. For example, Song Caitang’s carriage would go past a corner gate first, but the carriage would not stop and she would not alight. They had to go all the way to the side gate.
The servants used the corner gate, and those with even lower status would use that back corner gate. The Guans were merchants, so their store managers were often of higher status than many other people and they usually used the side gate. Yet this Manager Liu headed straight for the back corner gate…
Her instinct told her that something was up.
But before she could think about it any further, the carriage came to a stop and she noticed someone standing at the gate.
This person had thin brows, round eyes, sharp eye corners, wore a pale yellow dress suitable for spring, and had a pretty and genteel smile on her face.
That… was obviously Guan Rongrong.
Song Caitang felt a little grossed out.
The pretty smile… wasn’t so bad. But that was a gentle look that Guan Rongrong had never shown her.
Before the carriage had come to a complete stop, Guan Rongrong approached the carriage and greeted Old Madam Li, even though the curtain was still down, “Rongrong greets Old Madam Li. It’s been a long and hard journey, and I imagine you must be thirsty and tired. Why not take a seat in our living room for a while, and I’ll serve you some tea?”
She walked like she was a daughter of a prominent family, and the way she bowed was both elegant and beautiful at the same time.
Song Caitang got it now. This gentleness was targeted at the old lady inside the carriage.
Old Madam Li was already awake, but she did not intend to alight and have tea. She merely wanted to make sure Song Caitang got home safely. So, she turned the offer down, “I’ve not been home for many days and there are many things I need to attend to. I’ve already sent Caitang home, so I will take my leave now.”
Guan Rongrong did not back off despite that, and even though she couldn’t see Old Madam Li because of the curtain, she still put on her brightest and most beautiful smile, “A cup of tea wouldn’t take too long, would it? You’ve sent my younger sister all the way home and we haven’t thanked you for that yet!”
Song Caitang was certain now. Guan Rongrong was trying to get close to Old Madam Li.
She smiled apologetically at Old Madam Li and whispered, “You’re going back already?”
Old Madam Li nodded and gave Song Caitang a cheeky wink as she whispered back, “I’ll invite you over to my place in a couple of days.”
“Ooh!” Song Caitang tilted her head, “I’ll go over and visit you then!”
To stop Guan Rongrong from keeping Old Madam Li back for too long, Song Caitang hopped out of the carriage and pulled Guan Rongrong back towards the house, “Second Cousin, you came to welcome me?”
“Old Madam Li hasn’t…”
“Your dress is so pretty.”
“Isn’t it pretty? This is made from material that’s just arrived, and it’s the most trendy pattern too. Wait here for a while, Old Madam Li hasn’t…”
“Is this… Xiang embroidery1? The colors and sheen are really outstanding.”
“You’ve got a good eye at least. This is indeed Xiang embroidery, done by an embroider the family just employed. I heard that she started at a very young age and she was already one of the best among her community in Hunan, where they all start learning this skill. She’s got to be the first one in Luanze!”
Song Caitang successfully distracted Guan Rongrong and made her talk about her dress both proudly yet modestly for a long time.
By the time Guan Rongrong would finally realize what just happened, she would definitely be very displeased. But at least Old Madam Li would have been able to leave by then. Besides, Guan Rongrong wasn’t on good terms with Song Caitang in the first place. Making it worse wasn’t going to make much of a difference.
But Guan Rongrong’s reaction was not what she expected.
“If you like it, I’ll send a few bales of the material to you,” Guan Rongrong kept that same gentle smile on her face, “Oh forget it. I’ll just make you some clothes and send those over. Save you the trouble.”
All the alarms went off inside Song Caitang’s head. This woman was behaving suspiciously!
She turned her head slightly to glance at Qinxiu behind her.
After scaring her into subservience at Tianhua Temple, Qinxiu understood what Song Caitang was capable of. It was a little too early to say if Qinxiu had truly switched loyalties, but she certainly did not dare to hide what she knew anymore.
Qinxiu shook her head.
Song Caitang narrowed her eyes.
Qinxiu was sent by Madam Zhang to watch her and they communicated often. If even Qinxiu didn’t know about this… then was this some new plan that Madam Zhang had come up with?
Song Caitang did not agree to it or turn Guan Rongrong’s offer down. She just continued walking and used her non-response as a response.
As she expected, Guan Rongrong quickly switched gears, “You’ve been very busy and it’s been hard to arrange for a time. I’ve already spoken to Mother, and we’ll not wait any longer. In a few days’ time, we’ll throw you a welcome party!”
“A… welcome party?” Song Caitang was very curious as to how Guan Rongrong could have come up with something like that. She had been here for months now. She was getting her welcome party only now?
Guan Rongrong knew that putting it this way could make others misunderstand her, so she patiently explained herself, “Actually, we should have thrown one when you first came, but you were ill at that time, remember? Then after you regained your senses, you were busy every day, so even if we wanted to throw one, we couldn’t find the time to do so. We finally have the chance to do it, so of course we have to do it.”
“Caitang, you have no idea how badly it hurt us inside to see the way you were when you first arrived at our house. You are the daughter of my aunt, so the same blood runs in our body. You’re the closest person to me and I love you sooo much! Now that you’re well again, Mother and I can’t wait to let everyone see that the Guans have such a lovely cousin. They’d be so envious!”
Guan Rongrong’s smile never faded a single bit and her words seemed to be dripping with honey. She spoke as though she and Song Caitang were biological sisters. But who was Song Caitang really? It didn’t take much to understand what Guan Rongrong was really after.
She was still trying to get herself connected with Old Madam Li.
Song Caitang’s coroner skills were not respected in this era, but she had been lucky enough to catch the eye of someone of high standing. Everyone wanted to butter up to people with high standing or people who were very capable…
Madam Zhang and Guan Rongrong weren’t trying to welcome her at all. They wanted to make use of her to widen their network.
Song Caitang put on her brightest smile, “I would really love to, but I don’t have the time.”
“You’re already home, so what do you mean by you don’t have the time?” Guan Rongrong’s eyes widened. She was certain Song Caitang was just giving her excuses.
Song Caitang pointed to the boxes that Qingqiao and Qinxiu were carrying, “All the knives in there have been used, but I haven’t washed them properly yet.”
Guan Rongrong stared at the two boxes and remembered what Song Caitang had been doing during her time away from home. Her face instantly paled as her throat tightened and she subconsciously took a step back.
Song Caitang didn’t stop there. “You know, they’ve been used on dead bodies and they’re very dirty. If I don’t wash them properly, I can’t use them next time.”
Guan Rongrong couldn’t keep the smile on anymore. “Why didn’t you wash them at Tianhua Temple before returning?!”
Song Caitang slowly threw her hands into the air and sighed, “It’s a long process. I have to wash them very thoroughly and several times. After that, I need an extremely large platform to leave them out to dry. It’s very hard to do that at the temple, so… I’m afraid I’d be too busy for this welcome party.”
Guan Rongrong bit her lip and glared at her cousin, “Mother and I will plan it and invite the guests. You don’t have to do anything, you just have to turn up!”
Song Caitang did not say anything.
Guan Rongrong got angry. “Song Caitang, when someone offers to do you a favor, you ought to at least respond!”
But Song Caitang continued to smile at her without saying anything.
Just then, Auntie Xu came over, “Cousin Young Mistress, Old Madam has heard that you have returned and has sent me here to welcome you.”
Auntie Xu was Madam Bai’s most trusted maid. Her presence represented Madam Bai herself.
Guan Rongrong had to hold back her anger. She could neither let it out nor swallow it, which was a terribly uncomfortable feeling.
Song Caitang greeted Auntie Xu warmly and said, “I was about to go and say hello to Grandmother.”
She took a step forward and asked Guan Rongrong at the same time, “Does Second Cousin want to go along?”
Madam Bai and Madam Zhang were not on good terms. They kept up appearances only because they were supposed to be mother-in-law and daughter-in-law. Of course, Guan Rongrong was going to remain on her mother’s side.
“I’ve already greeted her in the morning. You can go by yourself!”
With that, she picked up her skirt and stormed off.
As she walked away, she kept telling herself to hold it in — Don’t get angry now!!
Magistrate Wen was the reward for her hard work!
For some reason, before this, she didn’t think she stood a chance and didn’t even dare to dream of the possibility. But after she thought about it more, she saw a plausible path ahead. She now felt that Magistrate Wen OUGHT to be hers!
Otherwise, why would they both be at marriageable age yet not betrothed to anyone yet? It must be because they were waiting for one another!
Song Caitang regaining her senses at this time and her ability to examine bodies were meant to be of help to her!
She… she was destined to be with Wen Yuansi!!
Song Caitang nearly burst out laughing after she saw that Guan Rongrong had gone quite a distance away.
This girl was still the same. She couldn’t put on pretenses for too long and was always too easily agitated.
Well… on the bright side, that meant she was a fairly authentic person.
Madam Bai had been waiting eagerly for a long time. When she finally saw Song Caitang, she had a very pleased smile on her face, and she refused to let go of Song Caitang’s hand.
“Are you adjusting well to the weather here?” “Are you used to the food here?” “Do you have enough clothes to wear?” “Are the servants attentive enough?” “If you need anything, just let your Eldest Sister know and she’ll get it for you!”
Question after question was asked in quick succession. Madam Bai did not start wailing or say things like “you look so much like your mother” that might trigger sad feelings. Her concern was genuine and Song Caitang could feel it. It filled Song Caitang’s heart with warmth.
“The spring sun is warm and I’m enjoying it very much.” “The food here is delicious, and the vegetarian food at Tianhua Temple was quite unique too.” “I’ve got more than enough clothes. The servants have been very attentive, and Eldest Sister has already given me a lot of things!”
Song Caitang also responded to each question seriously.
And then, for some reason – perhaps it was true that some people were actually destined to get along – the atmosphere became very lively and enjoyable. The grandmother and granddaughter duo didn’t have anything particularly important to talk about, yet they couldn’t stop talking and had so much fun.
But when the topic reached Guan Qing, Song Caitang asked, “Where is Eldest Sister?”
“She went out first thing in the morning to attend to some of the stores.” Madam Bai took out a little box from her bedside table, opened it in a very secretive manner and held it in front of Song Caitang, “Tangtang, take a candy.”
Song Caitang was in disbelief, but she said, “I’ll pass, you can eat one.”
Madam Bai smiled even more brightly as she gently caressed Song Caitang’s hair, “Tangtang’s such a good girl. You’re so filial.”
Song Caitang sighed inwardly. Her grandmother really loved eating candy.
Since Guan Qing left the house first thing in the morning, that meant Manager Liu wasn’t here to look for her.
If he wasn’t here to speak to Guan Qing or her grandmother, then who would he be looking for?
It seemed there was only one possibility. Madam Zhang.
What plans were she brewing again?
Madam Bai only took one candy, then carefully put the lid back on the box and hid it again.
Song Caitang now understood why Guan Qing and Guan Wan did not do anything despite knowing that their grandmother was hiding sweets. It was because their grandmother was someone with great self-control.
But her conclusion was overturned immediately.
Madam Bai looked sadly in the direction of the box and said, “Wan’er is about to come to my room, so I can’t let her find out.”
Song Caitang didn’t know what to say to that.
But Madam Bai was right. Guan Wan came in less than 15 minutes later.
“Oh! I’m sorry for coming over so late! I made you some bird’s nest soup with lotus seeds, try some!”
She held the bowl up with a little perspiration on the tip of her nose and a serious yet hopeful expression on her small face. Song Caitang could almost imagine what she must have looked like when she made this bowl of bird’s nest soup.
“Thank you,” Song Caitang took the bowl from her and scooped some into her mouth with a small spoon, “Oh! It’s delicious!”
That wasn’t just a polite remark. The soup was really delicious.
Guan Wan seemed to have magical hands or something. Any food that went through her hands would instantly become incredibly yummy.
It wasn’t that Song Caitang hadn’t eaten bird’s nest soup before. This bowl was just way tastier than she imagined.
“I’m glad you like it!” Guan Wan was very happy but also a little shy after being complimented. She let Song Caitang eat in peace and turned her attention to Madam Bai instead.
Madam Bai smiled brightly and let Guan Wan look at her all she wanted.
Suddenly, Guan Wan’s nose twitched, and she frowned. “Grandmother, you secretly ate candy again!”
“I didn’t! I don’t have any candy around here! Your nose must be picking up something else!”
“There’s a sweet smell lingering in the air! My nose is definitely right!”
The grandmother and granddaughter started arguing.
And as she watched them squabble, Song Caitang suddenly realized that while Guan Wan was cute and usually easygoing, she was very stubborn when she wanted to be and did not back down easily.
That part… made her a lot like Guan Qing.
After they were done arguing, Madam Bai called for the storyteller hired by the household and got her to read a new book to her.
“Life is like a drama, and dramas are modeled after real life. Don’t despise these stories – they can be very useful.”
Song Caitang now knew two things her grandmother liked. One was candy, and the other was plays.
The storyteller was very good and read the play very well. But some younger ones often found it hard to pay attention for too long.
It didn’t take long for Guan Wan to start chatting with Song Caitang softly.
Song Caitang didn’t take much note of what she was saying, but there was one thing she mentioned that instantly caught her attention.
Guan Wan said that the pacification commissioner, Lu Guangzong, seemed to have gone missing.
Either you went missing, or you weren’t missing. What did “seemed to have gone missing” even mean?
Guan Wan said, “The kitchen helpers heard from elsewhere that Pacification Commissioner Lu has not been seen in many days and it’s getting very difficult to explain why that is so. His son is very anxious and it seems he might be about to ask Governor Zhang and Magistrate Wen for help.”
Pacification Commissioner Lu had lived in the capital for several years, was highly valued and respected by the emperor, and was connected to the Yun Nianyao case. The Yun Nianyao case had been solved and the killer had owned up, so there was nothing left unresolved about the case. Why did Lu Guangzong go missing?
To go missing at this point… was very strange indeed.
It’s one of the four most distinguished embroidery styles in China. ↩️
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