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Chapter 169

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Chapter 169 : Affection

The weather grew increasingly chillier.

After it rained all night, the air was much fresher by the next day. Bai Zhi pushed the window open. Rain drops from the previous night still clung to the branches outside the window, their beads glittering and translucent like jade as they slowly fell to the ground. The unique scent of earth after a rain slowly permeated the room.

Jiang Ruan freshened up, had breakfast, and then stepped toward the window. Lu Zhu rushed into the room and after placing rose pastries and tea on the table, blinked at Jiang Ruan, and suddenly whispered, “Miss, Furen has passed away.”

Rose cake

Jiang Ruan responded with “Hmm,” and sat in a chair by the window. The rose pastries that Lu Zhu brought looked very tasty. They had a hint of pink, making the pastry look incredibly moist and lovely in the morning sun. She twisted a piece of the snack slowly with her snow-white fingertips, displaying her unique charm even more.

“Second Miss has died, as has Fifth Yiniang,” Lu Zhu continued.

Three people had died in quick succession, but Jiang Ruan’s expression remained unchanged, as if she had anticipated this ending. Her eyes seemed to flash with boredom, but the look was too brief for anyone to notice.

“Wangye‘s spies witnessed it firsthand,” Lu Zhu quickly continued, concerned about Jiang Ruan’s reaction. “Second Young Master took his men to find Second Miss, but he ended up killing Second Miss. Then, when he returned home, he informed Master that Second Miss had been abducted by mountain bandits and had committed suicide. As for Fifth Yiniang, she swallowed gold and died of her own volition.” Lu Zhu pondered, “Yet, Furen’s death was somewhat odd. I heard that Second Young Master went to the rural residence last night. After his visit, in the middle of the night, someone found that Furen had committed suicide by hanging with a sheet of white damask. However, for the time being, Master has kept quiet about this matter for unknown reasons.”

Jiang Ruan stated flatly, “It’s not strange. Three people have recently died in the fu. On the one hand, Hong Ying’s death can easily be dismissed- after all she was merely a yiniang. But on the other hand, Jiang fu‘s di daughter and Furen both unexpectedly died at the same time. This would inevitably spark speculation from those with ulterior motives. The rumours about the Jiang fu have already spread widely throughout the capital. Since Father is cautious, naturally, he will not add fuel to the fire at this time.”

Lu Zhu had a moment of clarity. “This is why. But, why did Furen commit suicide? And Second Young Master went too far when he killed Second Miss just to end her pain.”

Jiang Ruan’s eyes flashed with mockery and her tone was frighteningly cold. “He did not do this to give Jiang Su Su immediate relief. He simply did not want Jiang Su Su to be a stumbling block to his official career. As long as Jiang Su Su was alive, one day she would be used as evidence and a tool to castigate him. Moreover, my Second Brother is at the pinnacle of his career so he obviously had to personally destroy such incriminating evidence.”

Lu Zhu gasped because she had not thought that deeply about this matter. Because, regardless of how Jiang Chao and his sister treated Jiang Ruan, they always maintained a united front. The affection between the siblings was genuine. Therefore, who could imagine that Jiang Chao would abandon and murder his sister for his own selfish desires; this was utterly appalling and disturbing.

Although Lu Zhu came from a poor family, her experience was broader than that of Bai Zhi and Lian Qiao. However, her inherent nature was kind, hence, she was unable to perceive such depraved, dark and sinister matters. She had always believed that human nature was inherently good. That said, Jiang Ruan was different because no matter what, she tended to be skeptical towards human nature and firmly believed that it was inherently evil. As such, matters that others would find difficult to consider, she would naturally take into consideration.

Jiang Ruan went on, “As for Furen’s death, it was merely due to Second Brother’s instigation. And so, as the result of these two setbacks[1], it would seem that Second Brother has cast all caution to the wind. He has put himself on a road of no return and is obviously prepared to risk everything for his goal. I’m afraid that it won’t be long before he will orchestrate something big.”

[1] 破罐破摔 (pòguànpòshuāi) – lit. to smash a pot just because it has a crack (idiom); fig. to give up altogether after a setback; to throw one’s hands up in frustration and let it all go to hell.

When Lu Zhu heard what Jiang Ruan said, she was taken aback and asked, “Are they preparing to deal with Miss?”

“I’m just afraid they won’t do anything.” Jiang Ruan smiled, but it was a little cold in Lu Zhu’s eyes. “I’m also curious to see who will be the winner of this round.”

Lu Zhu remained silent. After a brief moment, she appeared to recall something and said, “Miss, this servant heard Jin Er mention that Xiao Wangye will depart in less than ten days.”

Jiang Ruan paused and lowered her gaze. Ten days. How is it so quick?

* * *

At the same time, Xiao Shao was holed up in his study, immersed in reports. The express horse courier from the border regions had arrived with military intelligence outlining the dire situation there, making anyone reading the report overwhelmed with stress and apprehension. Jiang Xin Zhi’s whereabouts were unknown; Guan Liang Han had been injured; and the army’s morale was low. Furthermore, time and time again Tian Jin’s army kept frequently changing their battle tactics, thus catching the troops off guard. If this continued, the remaining troops would be completely wiped out.

On his left was a map of the battle formation and some kind of way he must maintain control of the situation even from thousands of miles away. Everyone knew Jinying Wang to be a young hero who commanded 300,000 Jinyi Guards, but no one had witnessed him strategize and plan a victory from thousands of miles away before. It would take him more than a month to travel from the capital to the border. Thus, for the time being, he could only write down the defence strategy and send it to the border station. He needed the troops to hold out until he arrived in person, at which point they would take the enemy by surprise.

The room was deafeningly quiet now that all of the Jinyi Guards had withdrawn. He hadn’t slept a wink because he’d been meticulously studying the enemy’s formation, and hadn’t even eaten anything till now.

The door was pushed open suddenly. Xiao Shao frowned. The tip of his nose smelled the aroma of food, but when he saw the person coming, he was taken aback. Jiang Ruan had personally come to deliver snacks and porridge.

Even though she currently lived in the Jinying Wangfu, the two of them strictly adhered to etiquette and had never violated it. In addition, Xiao Shao was always stealthy in his movements and traces. He hurried outside during the day and returned at night to examine the military formation. The two rarely interacted. Jiang Ruan’s demeanour was even more desolate. Every day, she lived comfortably in the Jinying Wangfu, but she refused to leave the courtyard.

Xiao Shao was surprised because he had not expected Jiang Ruan to come in person. She arrived by his side and placed the snacks and porridge on the table. “The osmanthus cake and chicken porridge are not too sweet,” she explained. “I’ve tried them, they are delicious.” She did everything as naturally as if she’d done it a thousand times before. Xiao Shao gave her a glance but did not move.

Osmanthus cake

“You haven’t eaten anything all day. Do you want to starve to death in your own house?” Jiang Ruan asked.

Jiang Ruan always treated others with kindness and kept a smile on her face, which made her facial features appear vivid and lively. However, upon closer inspection, the smile did not reach the bottoms of her eyes, as if it were a mask and made people feel a little alienated. She rarely expressed her feelings except to those close to her. Even when facing Jiang Xin Zhi, she always wore a reassuring expression and never a particularly unhappy one.

She had a clear distinction between what she liked and didn’t like, but regardless of her true emotions, she always managed to mask them with a smile. This made her expression slightly intriguing because even when she was smiling, it concealed a different meaning. For instance, right now, it was obvious that she had a smile on her face, but a certain person could see anger and displeasure in her eyes.

Xiao Shao responded with “um,” took the spoon from Jiang Ruan’s hand, scooped a mouthful of porridge slowly, and tasted it in silence. He usually thought there was nothing special to eat, but for some reason, he thought the food was especially delicious today. Xiao Shao was in a good mood and finished the porridge quickly. Even the pastries he didn’t normally eat were gone.

Jiang Ruan was quite pleased with Xiao Shao’s tactfulness, she then sat down opposite him and asked, “I heard you’re going to battle soon?”

She asked so bluntly, but Xiao Shao strangely didn’t mind it at all. He replied, “Hmm.”

“You… Be careful.” Jiang Ruan pondered for a moment before telling him that. Ultimately, she would marry the man in front of her, regardless of who he was. It seemed that Xiao Shao had been helping her unconditionally. In this life, she no longer trusted people easily, but Xiao Shao was an exception. She said after a brief pause,”I will guard the Jinying Wangfu for you.”

Xiao Shao was again stunned by her words and couldn’t help raising his eyes to look at her.

Xiao Shao had a firm grasp of Jiang Ruan’s character; he had seen it clearly since the first moment he laid eyes on her. This girl was composed and decisive, ruthless and merciless, and her body was brimming with hostility. She appeared to harbour many secrets and stubbornly kept her heart hidden. She gave the appearance of being heartless, but this was not the case. She risked her life for Jiang Xin Zhi and she was willing to become alienated in order to protect the Zhao family. She even helped Xuan Pei, whom she had only met once in the palace. She was actually a very protective person, but the number of people she protected were very few.

She really meant what she said today. This was a promise she made to him, and she meant that the Jinying Wangfu was her responsibility from now on. I’ll protect it for you.

The girl in front of him was stunningly beautiful. Her features were as lovely as a painting. Her beauty was different from that of Jiang Su Su’s quiet elegance. Every feature of her face was naturally exquisite and now that she had gradually shed her childlike look, she was revealing her magnificent peerlessness. The pair of bright and limpid eyes were reminiscent of the crystal-clear waters of a mountain spring. The outer corner of her eyes had a faint curl, giving her a flattering appearance. And when she smiled, it appeared as if the glow of sunset was reflected in her eyes.

Xiao Shao admitted that he had seen countless beautiful women in his lifetime, but he could not deny that the girl in front of him embodied the phrase “the temptress who causes national calamity.” If she were ambitious and put her all into seduction, and she happened to meet an emperor who adored beautiful women, perhaps the country would truly be overthrown.

“There’s no need for you to do this.” After taking a look at her, Xiao Shao said, “Jinying Wangfu will protect you. If you can’t protect it, there’s no need to make special efforts for this reason.”

If Jiang Ruan was a protector by nature, but Xiao Shao was even more so. In the beginning, the 300,000 Jinyi Guard had no leader, Xiao Shao was still young, and the Emperor did not dare to hand over power to him easily. The Jinyi Guard became a hot potato. At that time, everyone said that such an elite troop was only loyal to the Jinying Wangfu making it very difficult to subdue them. Everyone had believed that the Emperor would eventually disband the troop and so, amid such a flurry of rumours, the Jinyi Guard had a terrible time. All the troops and soldiers they had previously crushed struck back at them when they were weakest and it was at this time that Xiao Shao stepped forward. He was given a mission to infiltrate the southern border and kill its leader to save the Jinyi Guard. He overturned a wangfu for the sake of an ordinary secret guard of the Jinyi Guard. He also fought to the death with powerful officials due to the tragic death of his subordinate. Everyone knew of Xiao Shao’s protective nature. As a result, the whole Jinyi Guard respected him, loved him, and were willing to go through fire and water for him.

With a temper like Xiao Shao’s, now that Jiang Ruan was his future wife, he naturally took Jiang Ruan under his wing. He did not want Jiang Ruan to suffer in vain. Even so, she had surprised him greatly by making such a promise.

“No, Xiao Shao.” Jiang Ruan refused. “This wangfu is not dispensable. This is the Jinying Wangfu, the home of your father and mother. This is the place established by the former Jinying Wang’s meritorious deeds and pride. It represents the Xiao family’s dignity. It must not be trampled upon, even if this dynasty falls. I won’t allow it to be trampled,” she whispered.

Xiao Shao was shocked, and an inexplicable complex emotion surged in his heart. Jinying Wangfu. When the world mentioned the Jinying Wangfu or Jinying Wang, only the rebellion of former Jinying Wang would come to mind. If a bad person had done one good thing among a thousand bad things, he was a good man. But a good person who had done a thousand good deeds and one bad deed, would have all of his good deeds obliterated and nullified. He had guarded the Xiao family and the Jinyi Guard for so many years. The world feared his power but did not respect him from the heart. People were always forgetful. They had already forgotten who led this Jinyi Guard, who they now cursed as thieves, to fight against the foreign clans and keep the dynasty in balance all these years. The foundation laid by the ancestors became more flourishing and splendid, but those who charged into battle gradually vanished.

However, she stated that the former Jinying Wang’s meritorious deeds and pride were the Xiao family’s dignity. Even if the dynasty was overthrown, it must not be trampled on. At this moment, the shock in his heart could not be expressed in words and he acted before he could think. He took Jiang Ruan’s hand and drew her into his arms.

Jiang Ruan was stunned to find herself already in Xiao Shao’s embrace. As she lay against Xiao Shao’s chest, she felt his chin on her head. “Thank you,” the young man stated in a deep voice accompanied by a faint sigh.

Jiang Ruan pondered, hesitating, then extending her hand to embrace his waist. “You don’t have to thank me,” she told him. “Since I’m going to marry you, this is my responsibility.”

Xiao Shao gradually loosened his embrace, and Jiang Ruan withdrew. Before she straightened up, Xiao Shao pinched her chin. Stunned, she looked up at Xiao Shao only to find that the man was looking at her intently.

This young man was not only incredibly handsome but also possessed rare heroism. However, he was always indifferent and lonely, giving people a sense of alienation. However, when his expression softened, the entire person appeared to be exquisitely gentle. His eyelashes were long and straight. They formed a beautiful arc as they drooped. His black eyes, which look like the night sky sprinkled with small diamonds, were particularly striking. When the darkness of the night abruptly gave way to an endless amount of light, people’s eyes were dazzled by the brightness.

Holding Jiang Ruan’s chin, he leaned forward and lifted his thin lips slightly. Suddenly, the air became incredibly romantic. On this chilly day in late autumn, he felt the radiance of spring quickly pressing in. The incredibly handsome young man slowly leaned over in a firm and irresistible posture.

In a daze, Jiang Ruan felt her body stiffen. She had every intention of evading him, but upon seeing his dark, starry eyes, she didn’t move for some reason.

This young man appeared aloof, but he was actually affectionate. Despite his cold exterior, he had a warm heart. Because he was powerful, he lived his life without any constraints. In her past life, she was too far away from him, and in this life, due to unexpected circumstances, she became close to him. He didn’t put any pressure. Just like a cloud or a drop of water, he slowly surrounded her and came into her life. She had tried to resist, but realised there was nothing she could do. She had a tenacious temper, but the other person was not weak either.

In this life, he helped her quietly while rejecting a mutually advantageous marriage alliance. He was simply not a person who could be manipulated by others.

Jiang Ruan closed her eyes slowly and did not reject him.

Like a dragonfly skimming the surface of the water, his kiss barely made contact with her lips before he retreated – he was a gentleman after all.

Jiang Ruan slowly opened her eyes, and when she did so, she noticed joy in the young man’s eyes as well as his undisguised affection. The subtle emotion caused her heart to ripple but then stabbed her heart like a small knife.

He was such a good man. He was so sincere and his affection was not fake. But, why in this life?

If she could change to her past life when she was still a simple and foolish girl with an eternal longing for love, she would be able to love Xiao Shao wholeheartedly and reciprocate his love. But the Heavens brought about unanticipated events, and Xiao Shao met her—a woman who was heartless and cruel, who lived for vengeance and who could not love anyone.

A sudden sense of dejection rose in her heart that came from feelings of self-loathing and abandonment. When Xiao Shao saw her expression, he was taken aback for a moment. He lifted her chin again and forced her to turn her face toward his.

“What’s the matter with you?” he asked with a frown.

Jiang Ruan looked at him and suddenly smiled. “Xiao Shao, do you regret asking the Empress Dowager to marry me?”

“I have no regrets.” Xiao Shao gave her a look. No matter how composed he was normally, facing the woman he liked, he was just like any other naive youth who was falling in love for the first time. He had never attempted to guess the complex thoughts of women, so he did not understand why Jiang Ruan had suddenly become depressed.

His fiancée has always been good at hiding her feelings. For example, at this moment, he clearly sensed Jiang Ruan’s sudden low spirit and disgust, but after a while, she returned to her usual calm smile.

Jiang Ruan suddenly wrapped her arm around his neck, drew him closer, and hugged him tightly.

Jiang Ruan’s sudden initiative caught Xiao Shao off guard. After a brief pause, he reached out and patted her on the back, as if to calm a frightened little animal.

Jiang Ruan rested her chin on his shoulder. He couldn’t see Jiang Ruan’s face, and he had no idea what decision his fiancée had taken right now.

This man was so kind; Jiang Ruan closed her eyes. He’s so kind that she couldn’t bring herself to hurt him. Since he said he had no regrets, he would never have the chance to regret again in this life. She was willing to try unravelling the knots in her heart. Regardless of whether or not there was love between them, she would never cause him to regret his decision.

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