Author: Feast of Masks
Translated by Gumihou
Edited by Gumihou: Just some very small sentence restructuring.
After breakfast, the Xue family men set out for the fields.
Xue Qingshan also went out. However, instead of heading towards the fields, he headed towards town for a schoolfellow’s elder’s birthday celebration.
It was now one of the busier farming season, which meant that not many students would come to school. This was especially true for rural schools. Every two seasons (spring planting and autumn harvest), the children would be given a holiday. Naturally, this meant that Xue Qingshan was also quite free as well. Moreover, with no one to monitor his movements, he would often disappear during school vacation days.
Zhao’er was washing the dishes and cutleries used by herself and the little man in the kitchen. Zhou’shi was cooking pig feed while Tao’er was sweeping the yard. Having nothing much to do, Zhao’er collected Heizi’s food bowl. Then, she scooped out some of the leftovers meant for pig feed that was meant to be mixed with pigweed for the pigs and walked outside with the bowl.
Zhou’shi glanced at her once, but said nothing.
This leftover food was meant for Heizi. Village dogs were often treated like that. When the owners eat solid food, the dogs get the broth, if the owners eat sparsely, the dogs will starve. It was common for these village dogs to starve. However, Zhao’er cherished Heizi and regardless of the situation, she would make sure he got to eat a good meal.
Now and then, she would even supplement his meals. Naturally, she did this outside of others’ views.
At any rate, what happened was that Zhou’shi saw with her own eyes Zhao’er taking food out of her pig’s mouth to feed that dog!
She saw this sight the moment she stepped out of the main room, her old face pulled down. However, she did not scold Zhao’er directly. Instead, she stood at the front door and shouted towards the kitchen. “I asked you to feed the pigs, but the feed actually went to a dog’s mouth. Already reached this age, but still as useless as a fart. What a waste of my rice.”
Clearly, she was just pointing at the mulberry tree and scolding the  Chinese scholar tree.
The person in the kitchen, Zhou’shi, said nothing. Tao’er, who was still sweeping the yard, glanced over at her grandmother before swallowing her feelings down and kept on sweeping. Zhao’shi did not mention any names, who knows her true target? If anyone were to step forward, they would be sprayed with her curses instead.
This was a lesson they had learned well.
Zhao’er had just reached the courtyard when she heard the screaming. Showing no weaknesses, she turned a smiling face at Zhao’shi, “Granny, are you scolding Third Aunt? If you are scolding Third Aunt, that truly wronged Third Aunt, ah. If you must scold, you should scold me. After all, I was the one who collected these leftovers for Heizi. Naturally, I won’t let him eat soft rice either. Didn’t he often bring a rabbit home now and then to pay for his food and lodging? After all, you can’t make a cow work, but not allow them to eat grass, isn’t that right?”
Zhao’shi glared at Zhao’er. She knew that this girl was not some simpleton, which was why she had directed her scolding at Zhou’shi. However, she never thought that the girl would come forward and openly admit to taking the leftover food for the dog. She was just about to retaliate when a group of married women passed by the courtyard and one of them said with a laugh, “Lianxing’s wife is so lively even in the early mornings, ah.”
The person next to her interjected, “Don’t mention it, what Zhao’er said is true, ah. How could someone force a cow to work without letting it eat grass?”
“Right? Lianxing’s wife, surely this should be enough? How many people have their eye on that black dog of yours? At lean times like this when rabbits are difficult to find, he still manages to fetch one home. What a clever beast. Summer and autumn are the best seasons for wild game like voles, rabbits and pheasants, but that aside, what is even more amazing is how Heizi always bring them back home instead of eating them himself. If you don’t like Heizi, you can hand him over to our family. Your Uncle Shouxin had long had his eye on Heizi.”
The one keeps calling ‘Lianxing’s wife’ is one of Old Man Xue’s aunts, his father’s younger sister. Generally known as Aunt Shouxin, she was actually 10 years younger than Zhou’shi, but had higher seniority than her.
Of the over 200 households in Yuqing Village, Xue and Zheng were some of the main surnames. With a dozen other different surnames in the mix. With most of them carrying the same surnames, everyone was somehow related to everyone else. Even so, even among relatives, certain formalities should be observed. When you are of a lower status, you must pay respect to your seniors. Therefore, when Aunt Shouxin spoke, it was with the tone of an elder advising a younger generation.
Zhao’shi was incredibly stumped. Though she yelled and scolded indiscriminately, she was in fact, very reluctant to give up Heizi to someone else. The reason was exactly what these people had said. Heizi would often bring wild game back to the house. Regardless of whether they were tall, fat or thin, it was rare for the villagers to get a bite of meat.
She maintained a blank wooden expression, unwilling to speak. It was Zhao’er who spoke up, “Seventh Granny, that’s not possible, ah. Heizi is my life companion. If you take him away, it will be like taking my life away.”
She beamed and spoke wittily, causing Matron Shouxin to laugh. The matron pointed at Zhao’er and declared to the people around her, “Look at the little brat, not a shred of courtesy in her. Fine, fine, fine, Seventh Granny don’t want your dog. I don’t want to be accused of taking Zhao’er’s life away.”
Even as she sent the women away, Zhao’er kept up her smile and witty banter. Finally, once the last of them had left, she turned around to feed Heixi.
Zhao’shi glared at her for a moment before turning to enter her room. She was about to step in when someone called from behind.
“Mother, why are you standing here?”
It was Xue Cuiping, Zhao’shi’s eldest daughter who had returned.
Xue Cuiping looked similar to Zhao’shi but for a pair of large almond eyes. In her twenties, she was dressed in washed-out blue floral jacket and a pair of wide-leg pants in marmalade red. She had a bamboo basket under one arm. There was a layer of cloth over the basket, so no one could see what was in it. She was looking warily at Zhao’shi.
Clearly, this was a case of ‘speak of Cao Cao and Cao Cao appears ’. Well, the old man did say to get her to speak with the brat. Zhao’shi was planning to send someone with a letter to Shangshui Village, this would save her some trouble.
Mother and daughter entered the house as they chatted and soon disappeared behind the curtains leading to the main branch room.
Zhao’er remained squatted in place as she watched Heizi eat. Even as she stoked his glossy black head, she was busy pondering over why her Eldest Aunt would suddenly come to visit her maternal family during one of the busiest farming seasons.
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“That’s not right, ah, Mother, aren’t you just letting others poke at my backbone?!” At the main house, Xue Cuiping exclaimed in shocked disbelief after hearing what Zhao’shi had to say.
Zhao’shi hastily reached out to pull her away from the doors and windows, the other hand gesturing for her to lower her voice. She can’t let anyone hear about this!
“Why is not right? You’re Gouzi’s aunt, and the closest to your Second Brother ever since you’re a child. In this family, if there’s anyone that child is willing to listen to, it would most likely be you.”
Zhou’shi actually spoke the truth. Xue Cui Ping did get along well with Second Brother Xue Qingsong. Back when she was still an unmarried maiden, she also got along well with Qi’shi. When Xue Gouzi was born, she also coddled him a lot.
Xue Gouzi had always been shy and introverted ever since he was a child. Once his parents left, he grew even more silent and gloomy. There were times when no one saw him speak a word for 10 days to half a month. Among all the Xue clan members, he was closes to this Aunt Xue Cuiping.
“But…” Xue Cuiping bit her lip. She thought: I should never have come back here at this time. I never thought that before I could accomplish my mission here, I would be saddled with another difficult task.
“Don’t forget, your Xingzi comes to our school, but your Eldest Brother never asks you for the tuition money. Now that your Eldest Brother needs your help, do you still want to ignore it? Juncai’s fortune is your Eldest Brother’s fortune. Once the main house prospered, would you be left to suffer?”
“Then, why don’t mother go tell Gouzi yourself?”
Zhao’shi had never been the patient type. To be able to speak so gently, one should understand that it is because Xue Cuiping is her own daughter. Seeing this daughter pushing back and forth like this, moreover, pricking her conscience with these words, Zhou’shi could not take it anymore and burst out, “If your mother could speak to him about it, would I need you? Want mother to go? How could I? Once this matter is revealed to outsiders, what do you think will happen?”
Already irritated by her mother-in-law, Xue Cuiping became even more annoyed by her mother’s demands. She said, “Then, why is everyone not saying anything, but forcing me, an outsider, to be the villain? If others know, won’t they see me, his aunt, as a bad person? To actually pressure my dead second brother’s orphan child?!”
Hearing Xue Cuiping getting louder, Zhou’shi fiercely pulled at her sleeves, fearful that someone would actually hear them. She hissed, “Are you afraid that no one will hear you?”
Naturally, Xue Cuiping did not want to argue with her mother. She muttered under her breath, “If anything, I think mother and father should not interfere in this business. It’s Eldest Brother’s matter, so just let him or Eldest Sister-in-law handle it. To make others be the villain while their entire family remain clean, just what are they thinking?!”
“Why drag your eldest brother into this mess? Your eldest brother is scholar and depended on his dignity and face. Moreover, he still feels guilty about Second, so how could he do such a thing?!”
Xue Cuiping pressed her lips together, forcing down a belly full of words.
If he truly felt guilty about Second Brother, would the family end up fussing like this? In fact, Xue Cuiping also saw through her Eldest Brother’s true nature. If Eldest Sister-in-law was a smiling tiger, Eldest Brother was no better. Bad things are delegated to others even as that one family continues to play ignorant as they benefit from everything.
However, so what if she knew all of this? She was a married woman and could not shake off the deep-rooted sense of awe and respect her parents have for Eldest Brother. So long as this kind of favouritism and awe is not broken for a day, the family will forever place the main branch first. As for herself, she also has some self-interest and some things that she could not compromise on. Therefore, though she knew what was happening in this family for the past two years, she could only ignore her conscience and feigned ignorance.
She pushed back a piece of hair that had fallen to her cheek, saying, “Mother, let’s not speak of this first. I am here to borrow some seeds. You should also know of my mother-in-law’s illness. Last year, we were in a hurry to raise money to buy medicine and failed to leave any seeds-”
Before she could finish speaking, Zhao’shi interrupted.
Zhao’shi fiercely slapped her twice, “Borrowing seeds again? Do you think your maternal family has mountains of gold and silver? Those Liu family sons just let you, a married woman, come to your maternal home to dig for fortune?”
“That Liu family is filled with nothing but broken-headed morons. An entire family of ill-luck bringers. Not a single useful person in that lot. Can’t even raise a single woman…” Zhao’shi continued to curse. When Xue Cuiping started to cry, she hardened her heart and even beat her a couple more times before saying, “Once you dealt with Gouzi’s matter. Mother will give you the seeds.”
“Go now, and don’t dawdle.”
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When Gouzi heard that his Eldest Aunt had returned home, he felt a sense of something like fate or destiny.
Later, when Xue Cuiping parted the curtain of the second branch room with a smile and stepped in, he felt curiously unaffected.
As Xue Cuiping talked, Xue Gouzi was not really listening. He was busy thinking about all the strange things between dreams and reality.
The dream Xue Tingxiang had also experienced the same thing. After the death of his father and mother had passed away one after another, his resentment against the Xue clan began to accumulate. Especially as the main branch continued with their hypocritical behaviour with the tacit acquiescence of the rest of the family members. Up till this point, he still had some trust in his Eldest Aunt. When this Eldest Aunt also stepped to the other side, he fell into complete despair. This time, instead of being a silent despair, he chose to explode and lash out against everyone.
In fact, the main branch as well as the rest of the Xue family had been waiting for this outburst. So long as he was the one who raised the matter, countless large hats  would be set on his head. He had no ability to resist at all. After all, these people were all his elders. Whatever anger and unwillingness would all be strangled at birth.
What had happened in the dream was happening for real in his life. What was he to do?
Xue Cuiping’s mouth was still working non-stop. One could see that she felt guilty about saying all these things before her pale and weak nephew. Even so, regardless of her feelings, her mouth continued to open and close. Xue Gouzi was barely hearing her words, which was how he could maintain a tranquil expression. However, next to him, there was someone who could not endure it anymore.
Zhao’er’s expression was very ugly. However, she still forced a smile and said, “Eldest Aunt, Gou’er has been seek for many days now and just recovering. He is still not well. If you have anything to say, please come and talk about it later.”
In fact, Zhao’er had already expected such a day to arrive sooner or later. Otherwise, she would not have worked so desperately to earn every bit of money she could. However, as malice from their own relatives approached, she knew that the one who would suffer most would be her little man. Therefore, Zhao’er could not just leave matters alone.
She knew that the ones who could hurt you most are also the ones most closely related to you. She had already suffered this pain before. When Mother Qiu [it’s just ‘mother’, but she was talking about Gouzi’s mother, so add that for clarification. Can delete this.] was dying, she had made a promise to properly look after her little man. She had sworn an oath to do so.
In that instance, Zhao’er’s eyes appeared very sharp. Like a mother beast on the verge of insanity.
Xue Cuiping was frightened by the look in Zhao’er’s eyes. She subconsciously shook her head, unable to believe what she was seeing. She smiled uncomfortably. How could there be such a scary look in a little girl’s eyes?
“Zhao’er, Eldest Aunt is just here to advise Gou’er. Eldest Aunt only wants the best for Gou’er and for this family…”
Xue Gouzi suddenly spoke.
He had just interrupted Xue Cuiping’s blabbering and happened to cut off Zhao’er before she reached her breaking point.
Xue Cuiping hastily turned to him, “Gou’er, listen to Eldest Aunt…”
“Eldest Aunt, you have talked for a long time, but I still can’t understand your meaning. What ‘family must come first’, what ‘Kong Rong giving up pears ’? Just what is Eldest Brother expecting me to give up? Eldest Aunt, you must not know that Eldest Brother has everything. Grandfather, Grandmother, Eldest Uncle and Aunt also doted on him a lot. His brushes, papers, ink and inkstones are all very good. He used paper to practice his calligraphy while I could only afford to practice my writing on the sand with a branch. The papers I used are all the cheapest rice papers Zhao’er bought for me, and the ink often runs when I write on it.
Eldest Brother also has a lot of books. I only have one, <<Qiong Lin’s Primary Education >>. Moreover, this was bought by my father after several months of carpentry work. I know I am not as talented as Eldest Brother in studying, and my calligraphy is not as good as his, therefore, I do not dare to wish for the same things. I have nothing. I really do not know what it is that I should be giving up for Eldest Brother.”
Xue Gouzi’s eyes were bright and moist, suffused with bewilderment, uncertainty and worldly ignorance. There was envy in his expression that implied feelings of inferiority, along with sadness for his own inferiority.
Having just endured serious illness, he looked pale and weak, his body thin and bony. Anyone looking at him would sigh or cry for sadness at his unfortunate circumstances.
His answer closed all paths of argument for Xue Cuiping. Already distressed and guilty, she felt even more keenly how she had no face to meet her Second Brother and Second Sister-in-law in the afterlife. Even so, her situation back home was rather pressing. Spring planting season had arrived, and if she could not secure the seeds for spring planting and was not able to sow the seedlings on time, the entire family would go hungry this year.
Therefore, she hardened her heart, licked her lips and said, “Eldest Aunt is talking about going to school in town. You know how your Eldest Brother Juncai is better at studying. He is at a critical moment now. As the younger brother, you should give way. After all, aren’t you a year younger? It won’t be too late to go next year.”
Zhao’er abruptly turned around and grabbed the stick from behind the door.
Before she could do anything drastic, Xue Gouzi was speaking again, “Why should I give it up? Hasn’t it already been decided that I should go? Did Eldest Uncle ask you to speak to me? Has he forgotten what he had promised my father before his death? I see, so when Eldest Uncle said he would treat me like his own son, it was all lies, ah…”
Author has something to say: The reversal of fate has begun
Gumihou: Indeed, it has.
 Chinese Scholar Tree – it exists. It’s the styphnolobium japonicum, otherwise known as the Japanese Pagoda Tree. Native to China.
Cao Cao was a warlord and a great chancellor of the Eastern Han dynasty. A brilliant ruler and a military genius character in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms