In the early evening, a sedan chair stopped at the Magistrate residence. It was the best house in the entire town, tall and familiar to her. She knew this place, for she grew up in it. Even as it was now occupied by a virtual stranger. The only common thing was their shared blood, something that she knew was barely there.
Not when these were the same people who cast her aside when she was first born and also let her adoptive mother take the full brunt of raising her. And then choosing to read it once she was considered a legal adult with all sorts of rights conferred and given to her. And when she was right for marriage at the very least.
But of course, she knew that it was not possible for them to think about it right now. They could force her, into a marriage against her own will. And she may or may not have met her fiance, who was not old, but a young scholar, perhaps just slightly older. Which didn’t matter nearly as much as say if he was a thirty-year-old man now, who was twice her age very very much?
He was not that, even as she guessed that he was twenty at most. And she walked into the courtyard and entering the entrance meant for women. It was best to be avoided as much as possible, and many knew that she was going to sit down upon the feast meant for them. Alone and without any help.
She didn’t even know what to do. Zhao’en was not a woman and thus excluded since she knew that children often ate separately. Since the small rooms at the top were all taken up by one family, who often invited all of their family together. Only theirs were so huge, since only they could afford to have that many children at least at this point.
With farmers and any commoners who were not merchants or rich enough to have more than one have only one wife. But only scholars could pick up more than one wife if they were wealthy enough to. Or merchants who converted. When they needed it right now much more than before.
Inside, were all of them seated. Her stepmother, who only sat there once. With no concubines either, and sitting at the top was none other than her grandmother. Not an unusual choice here, since the older she was, the more respected she was accorded. That by being a mother, of an Emperor gave her more rights than any other time. Allowing her to reign and also rule on his behalf, as long as their heir was the accepted one right now.
When they needed it a lot more, and she took the most junior seat. Never seeing her more than just being a daughter of a concubine, as much as it pained her to think of it that way if at all. That despite being married with the rites of a first wife, but yet here she was. As well as how she was treated, cast aside when useful, and brought it when necessary.
Without any care of the way, it destroyed her life, or even what they were bringing her out of. This was not anything which they needed to do so right now much more than before.
Food was being served here before her, and she picked up the chopsticks. Or at least tried to see if anyone else was eating, before placing it back. Knowing the rite, just as it was rare. Only in the first few days of the new year did she eat like a family, otherwise it was a shared supper. Where they ate it together, often smaller since she was getting older and needing to watch what she ate a lot more.
She waited for the oldest and the others to eat before she did. Knowing that here it was wholly dependent on when they ate, and then she started to it. The meal she ate quietly with her head down and simply not drawing attention to herself, she could not wait to be lost. She could not wait to leave as she was alone here and hopelessly unaware of what was happening or at least going along.
Once she did, she simply gave a slight smile before finding some way to leave. Careful to avoid it and out to the gardens where she was no longer there, maybe hoping to find something to do.
“So, we meet again.” Where he gave a slight wink when he came here, holding the same fan. Except dressed in a much better set of robes. While remembering what they said to each other. With no way to confirm. “And you must hate it.”
“Well, when you are ignored and expected to just close your mouth amongst strangers. Who makes you feel as though letting you in is an honor itself, I kind of think that it is a little too much and overboard. At least in the restaurant, I was paid for such behavior, but not here. In fact, it is as though they are bestowing upon me some great honor that I must thank them for.”
“Maybe you should attend more of this and then write to them. You’ll offend many, but most of us would also agree on how true it is. Or at least through the eyes of a commoner who was thrust into such a situation.” He took the chance to mostly laugh, out of an incredible amount of humor.
“Like I care. If it makes me no longer marriageable then I’ll leave, not as though I’ll leave.”
“So you don’t want to get married?”
She shrugged her own shoulders, it was right to say that she did not want. “It’s not that, but I have no honest opinion. It isn’t fair, but it does give me plenty of things over the other. And it is something that I might consider, perhaps soon. Right now, I’m not so sure.”
“Well, pity for you but they hope that we marry within the next few months. And already have been looking for a good auspicious date.”
“What about you?”
“The least changes for us before and after marriage.” Keeping their surname, even as girls were usually not invested and only cared for the children they could bear. And assuring that most would not be capable of showing the wisdom. Even as many could agree that it was far from the case. “Even though as people get older, it most certainly does not mean that they get wiser.”
“So, you think that wisdom does not apply to age?”
“People have the chance of gaining it because they have the experience, but would I listen to any old man just because he has an age bigger than mine. No, not when you’re running an empire. You should know your opinions yourself and then work from there.”
As much as she could guess that perhaps he had the opposite sort of issue, always distrusted or possibly told to listen to older people. To simply push aside. “There is the truth, but honestly, I feel as though sometimes the decisions they make for us simply make a horrible cycle.”
“The idea of arranging marriages itself is one which many deem as necessary, just as so many of such unions become dispassionate, loveless. And those with love are sometimes condemned, others barely accepted as binding. And yet creates the situation where we’re in, bind us as teenagers instead of adults. Or just young girls, and call it a marriage. And then wonder why so many times it is mistreated when perhaps, marriage should not be left in the hands of people who do not control the outcomes.”
“Just as my mother would have said that most peasant girls at that age would be working instead and probably never marry until they were twenty. Many couples do separate, although many of them could be said that a lot of them were of convenience. And only a few were of love. But I do agree that it perhaps should not be left in the hands of those who do not have a hand in its outcome.”
“And or families who marry their children to build alliances. Even as they are dependent on whether it lasts, but rather they still have a common interest in each other.”
“Why do you have such a view? I can’t really say much about marriage merely because I do not have a married mother, and my real mother was treated like a concubine by them.”
“Well, my mother detests my father for his mistresses. They were married no older than children, she was fourteen, and he had been sixteen. They were quite young. Initially, it went well. But they drifted apart once he was an adult, an now they barely have anything to converse in.”
“Then, do you want to see me run away?”
“I don’t know. I don’t want you to take anything, you have been surprisingly open about this. As almost no one else would, perhaps it is a fairytale they use to trick girls. Marry well, and all would go their way when it often depended on a few more variables than that.”
“I never got that fairytale, I was raised by spinster women after all. Who had a lot of surrogate children, whom they fed as well as raised? Who would work for her, and I can sell it to them should I no longer want to do so.” As much as they had more freedoms.
A widow without children was ranked one of the lower, but scarcely higher than that of a daughter-in-law. Who married into the family and were expected to take anything to be it absolute humiliation, cheating, beatings like them. And divorces were granted only if the woman asked and have her wounds examined or otherwise.
“Honestly, I wonder whether this all began from when we listened to them. Sure it was the word of their day, but why are we heeding the wisdom of someone dead over a thousand years. In a thousand years, a lot of things has changed for China. Even as there have been things which sprung up, but there are some which till now I do not get. Maybe for an Emperor, I do.”
“I also do, since you’re the richest man in the entire world. You can have anything you want, and anything you wish. Even as for some ministers they do not take concubines, while all the lower ranking scholar families were that as well.”
While realizing just how different they were. They were speaking and perhaps mocking some of the most traditional ways they were looking at. She was raised by someone so removed from it, while he merely took the time to see and realize just why.
“And that it is necessary. Since being an Emperor would sometimes mean having to marry someone you don’t like, but it is appropriate because of her family.” While also showing how it was applied. “And it would make sense to also do it to all the richest families as well since you would need their support. And that’s how a harem is probably made.”
She laughed while seeing her father behind her. Not blinking an eye on what they were discussing, but of course, he chose to leave after seeing him. A necessity it was. “You both are getting along well.”
“I apologize for what is said.”
“What you believe in is simply what we can’t control. Because as parents, there comes a day that we won’t be here for you. But still, that was a fairly interesting discussion. One that I can attest to myself.” Experiencing both loves and at the same time, much loss. She knew that her father had gone through both and did not comment. “And very true, to his own word. Although in mine, I was devastated after her death. And they forced me, so I didn’t have much choice. Now, your grandmother would want to see you.”
Choosing to bring her deep into the rooms again, further into the region which was given for girls to live upon. Before the door opened, perhaps he sought because otherwise, it would be a frantic search suggesting that she was fleeing the house.
Before she was brought deep into it, where she was already feeling an immense ability to not trust anything here. But she stepped inside, to face the woman who was her grandmother. Sitting while she stood, the sign that she was so very well respected and also enjoyable by this point at the very least.
“I’ve been looking for you.” She said it, keenly aware that perhaps she did an affront to her. Especially when she left instead, or rather choosing to go. This was not anything which they could want to do at least right now.
She bowed down, knowing that it was best to try and avoid trouble as much as possible. There was no point in trying to do anything while they were here at the very least, while they were trying right now. At least a situation which they could not rectify or indeed seek to.
“You know what we are supposed to do.”
“Obey our fathers when young, and then our husbands when married and grown. Be a good mother, as well as fruitful, and associate herself with womanly virtues.” She almost revolted while speaking of this at the very least, deep within herself where she not only immensely disliked it but also found it with such an issue that she would not do so again.
“It seems that that mother of yours has done one right thing. I’ll repay her later when you’re married.” So, in a sense keeping her docile and here. Even as she did not depend on them, she ran her own restaurant. Free from their threats, sure they could threaten her. But it was her father who would prevent such pettiness.
She may have raised the unruly member of her house, but anything could be said about why they did not choose to do so. Such as why they had not raised her, or why she was taken in such a dubious fashion that many people would have questioned it. She was not related to them, even as she was put into a situation of much legal greyness that it would be immensely difficult to even remotely untangle right now.
“Of course, I thank you on her behalf.” Be dutiful, and no one would find it strange. It was the woman who was there for her and raised her as well. Just as she barely kept a smile on her face. The sort which she used to deal with her customers whenever they raised her ire.
Not much, except than to smile. But to keep her own thoughts to herself, she was powerless here. She had not much say. “How about I pick a set of jewelry for you, you certainly need it once you go over.”
And one of the heirlooms. Down there, there were many. She chose the last of the last, which revealed itself to be that of her mother’s. Where she did not do much but add another to it. Two of them, as it seems. Perhaps because she was cautious in her behavior, never to do anything.
“Marriage is the only road which is given to all women. That is the truth.” She did not even need to bring the others up, for her mother did not lead a comfortable life. She worked, but now she could work from the side. Away from all of this but also able to retain all of it, rather than one who hung by a thread.
These riches were all promised based on a couple of things, the ability to deliver a son. There was never an element there which was calculated, or she could simply reboot again. And why an old woman was at her most dangerous if she did not have any children.
“I hope you will do well to remember this.” Not something which was lied upon, since her mother was so different. So removed from all of this, as well as so vaguely different. She walked out with them and seeing her father alone.
Before knowing that he also wanted a word with her. Perhaps seeing it. The wedding gift. “I did not have much use for it, and when I married her around three years later, there was no mention of it again. She didn’t want it, for it didn’t make her easy.”
Even as he looked at it before returning. “This is very much yours, as I always did intend to pass it back to you. She never liked it, and this would benefit you as well.” An extra gift.
She guessed that she should not have sold it. Or perhaps bring it with her when necessary. But he also gave her something else. Plenty of ingots. “Not for the wedding but perhaps when you decide to leave. For you need the gold, after all, to find a place to run to and leave.”
She kept it within herself at the very least. “Why?”
“Because I owe you that much. I left you with her, and you are my daughter. To see you happy is all that matters. Not a secure or glorious future. That is never the case here because you will find your way. Just as she had done so when she paid her debt and became an owner.” Unlike others, who thought that they needed someone. He did not trust nor did he believe in that, but knew that she perhaps knew what to think.
To her, that was all that mattered. She just wanted to be able to do as she wished in her life.
“Thank you, but I’m not sure I need it.”
“Keep it. Consider it a gift from father to daughter, in case it should ever be used. Back then, when I left you, I believed that it was better to never contact you. But since I’m here today, I want to free you to allow you to really go on. You have a mind on your own, and since I was never here, I can’t make any.”
“And my mother does that as well.” While keeping it, guessing that it was a gift of sorts. In return for not showing up for most of her childhood and leaving her here. “Did you ever thought of coming back?”
“That was something I resolved myself to not ask, but if I had the chance or heard about you somewhere close, I might have. I did not have any contact with your mother, so I did not know much about how she raised you other than it was to the principles that we agreed upon when we married. Just that it was a shame, she could not instill those in you herself.”
She knew in its own way, this was also serving on behalf on that as well. The fact that he perhaps knew that he could not, and knew that it was better to leave her to someone who would teach her that she was an equal. Not something to be traded around, but a person with her own thoughts and beliefs. That also translated to her personal goals. She left the place, still knowing that he was not forcing her by any means.
She could choose, and he was supportive of that.