Liu Yu, who never had good luck, didn’t pay much attention to the vagaries of fate. What she remembered most vividly was when this elder brother of Lu Sanlang got married, he paid a bride price of ninety-nine taels of silver.
Liu Yu raised her gaze and glanced at the departing figure on horseback. She bid farewell to Lin Jiuniang and headed towards the center of town.
It was impossible for a person’s two legs to catch up to a horse, and she hadn’t thought of chasing after him right now. If Lu Sanlang was indeed as Lin Jiuniang had mentioned, studying in Yuanzhou City during regular times, then this time when he returned to the town, he must be going straight home. She didn’t have much of a chance. Liu Yu went directly to the embroidery shop where she had just sold her embroidery.
The female shopkeeper, seeing her return, was a bit surprised. Liu Yu smiled and said, “I’d like to buy some more things. Do you happen to have any leftover fabric scraps from making clothes?”
It was indeed for business that she had returned. The female shopkeeper smiled and said, “Of course, we do. I wonder, miss, what are you buying these for? Fabric scraps come in different grades, from broken pieces suitable for shoe soles to fabric remnants that can be used for small items.”
Liu Yu replied, “I’d like to pick out some pieces that I can use to make purses.”
The female shopkeeper understood her request and turned to fetch a basket of fabric remnants from inside. She said, “Here they are. They’re sold by the piece, and the price varies depending on the fabric’s color and size. The cheaper ones are one or two wen per piece, while the more expensive ones can go for one or two wen each. Please feel free to choose.”
Liu Yu had a clear goal in mind and quickly selected more than ten pieces of fabric. Although it sounded like a lot, in reality, there were both outer fabric and lining fabric, and the better-colored fabric pieces were all quite small. Piecing them together, she could only make a few purses at most.
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Her thoughts were easily pulled back to her previous life, intertwined with her very being, just as her rebirth was.
She didn’t underestimate everything she had learned at the Liuxian Pavilion. The top courtesan houses spared no expense in cultivating promising talents. Hong Niangzi had invested heavily in their education. Aside from impure motives, everything she had learned was genuine. Reading and writing, singing and dancing, makeup and charm… these were things she would have never had the opportunity to touch upon in the Liu family.
Now, faced with the kind inquiry from the female shopkeeper, Liu Yu replied with a smile, “I’ve only learned some basics.”
The female shopkeeper didn’t sense her wandering thoughts and replied with a smile, “That’s still a skill. Practice more, and if you make something exquisite, you can always bring it here. It can earn you more than making hairpins.”
Liu Yu thanked her with a smile, settled the bill, and then left the embroidery shop.
It was now noon, and the streets of Changfeng Town were no longer as bustling as in the morning. There were only a few pedestrians around, but many vendors who had set up stalls were still waiting, hoping to make a few more sales.
Liu Yu looked at the various people on the street, searching for something.
Even in the prosperous Jiangnan region, beggars could still be seen on the streets, and Changfeng Town was no exception. Whether they had fallen on hard times, lost their homes, gone mad, or suffered from unfortunate circumstances, those who had wandered here were in dire straits. Her gaze finally settled on two half-grown beggar children huddled in a distant corner of an alley.
An eight or nine-year-old boy, dressed in tattered clothes with messy hair, squatted in front of a five or six-year-old girl. He took out a small piece of steamed bun from his pocket and offered it to the dirty-faced girl. She seemed to be very hungry and took the bun, biting into it. After a moment, she handed the bun to the boy, indicating that he should share it with her.
The boy said something, and then he pushed the remaining piece of bun back to the girl.
Liu Yu watched them for a while, then went to a nearby shop and spent ten copper coins to buy two meat buns and two steamed buns. She wrapped them in oil paper and walked back into the alley.
The boy was still watching his sister eat the steamed bun, suppressing his hunger and the urge to swallow his saliva. He was afraid that his sister would discover that he had lied about already eating.
A delicate hand reached out and offered a paper-wrapped package that still emitted a warm, enticing aroma. The boy’s hunger couldn’t be restrained any longer, and his stomach let out a loud growl, almost covering the sound of his saliva swallowing.
He didn’t take the food but moved slightly to protect his sister. With wary eyes, he looked at Liu Yu. However, as he realized she was a young woman, he relaxed a bit, though still cautious.
Liu Yu’s smile was comforting. She took out one of the buns, tore it in half, ate a piece herself, and then handed the rest to the boy, saying, “Don’t worry, I bought these from a nearby bakery. They’re safe to eat.”
The torn meat bun was still steaming, and the siblings, who hadn’t tasted meat for who knows how long, couldn’t resist. The girl with the cold bun in her hand stared wide-eyed. The small child, hiding behind her brother, swallowed saliva without making a sound.
Liu Yu handed the bun to the boy once again, saying, “Go ahead and eat. Consider this food as a reward because I need your help with something. I’ll explain.”
The boy, now reassured about the food’s safety, was curious about what she needed help with. He asked, “What do you want me to do? I can do some heavy work, but I need to bring my sister along.”
Liu Yu chuckled, understanding that the boy, as small and frail as he was, couldn’t handle heavy labor. However, she admired how he always looked out for his sister. It warmed her heart a little as she explained, “You don’t need to do any heavy work, and you don’t have to be separated from your sister. I just need you to gather information for me right here in this town. Keep an eye on a specific person, let me know where he goes and what he does. That’s all.”
“Just like that?” the boy asked.
“Yes, just like that.”
Indeed, there couldn’t have been a more suitable pair than these two young beggars for the task. Two semi-grown beggar children wandering around the town wouldn’t arouse suspicion.
Once the boy confirmed that it was safe, he reached out and took the paper bag from Liu Yu’s hand. The buns inside were still warm. He tore off a small piece of the meat bun that Liu Yu had previously nibbled on and handed it to his sister, saying, “Xiaoya, eat this.”
After swapping the piece of bun with the cold steamed bun his sister was holding, he remembered his manners and turned back to Liu Yu, expressing his thanks. Then, he asked, “Whom should I keep an eye on for you?”
Remarkably, he had very good manners.
Liu Yu hesitated for a moment, guessing that this brother and sister might have suffered some tragedy, losing their parents and ending up as beggars. However, she didn’t pry further into their circumstances. Given her current challenges, she had no capacity to meddle in other people’s affairs. She simply asked, “Do you know about the Lu Feng Fabric Shop?”
The town of Changfeng wasn’t particularly large, and naturally, the beggar boy knew about Lu Feng Fabric Shop. He nodded and waited for Liu Yu to continue.
“I need you to keep an eye on Lu Family’s Third Young Master for me,” Liu Yu explained.
The boy inquired, “Are you referring to the person who rode by on the horse earlier?”
Surprisingly, despite living in Lu Feng Town for an unknown period, he seemed more familiar with the town than Liu Yu. This made her hesitate slightly, as she was concerned he might be acquainted with the Lu family. If he were to reveal her plans to them for his gain…
Her thoughts swirled as she casually asked, “Do you know him?”
The boy, however, shook his head and replied, “Don’t know him. Horses are a rare sight here. I just heard people in the town talking about him.”
Without inquiring further about why Liu Yu wanted to keep an eye on Lu Sanlang, the boy asked, “How should I pass on information to you?”
Liu Yu considered for a moment and said, “Meet me at the North Stone Bridge in town every day around noon. If I’m not there by noon, you don’t need to wait.”
She then counted the remaining coins in her possession and added, “Today, these are on the house. From now on, for every accurate piece of information you provide, I’ll pay you ten copper coins as a reward.”
Ten copper coins would be enough to buy a bag of food like the one she gave him today.
The boy’s eyes immediately lit up, and he eagerly agreed, “Alright, I’ll keep a close watch.”
Liu Yu gave a faint smile, then left the alley.
The girl, who had remained silent until now, raised the half-eaten bun in her hand and said, “Brother, the meat bun smells so good. You should have some too.”
“Sure, you eat,” replied the brother.
“Sister from earlier looked like a fairy,” the little girl said.
Liu Yu gradually walked away, and the voices of the siblings faded into the distance.
Outside the village of the Liu family, Liu Yu put the remaining twenty-five copper coins from today and her old purse into a somewhat hidden tree hollow. Then, she continued through the woods toward the Liu family’s small courtyard located to the north of the village.
Before she even entered the courtyard, she smelled a familiar and sweet fragrance in the air. As she entered the yard, she saw Wang Shi busy in the kitchen. All the women and girls of the Liu family were gathered around the kitchen.
During the Qing Dynasty, unlike in the previous dynasty, people had gradually adopted a three-meals-a-day schedule. However, this was only applicable to wealthier households. In rural families like the Liu family, meals were still contingent on certain conditions.
For example, in the Liu family, Liu Kangsheng and his son had three meals a day, but they were often working outside during lunchtime. Consequently, Wang Shi would usually make a batch of steamed buns and rolls, enough for each person to have four or five of them, which they would take with them to eat for lunch the following day.
The head of the household ate the steamed buns and rolls, while the women and children in the family had to share these and had no separate meals. Even though they followed this routine, there were still different ranks within the family.
The first rank naturally included the eldest grandson, Liu Tianbao, who was studying with the old scholar in the neighboring village. Even though he was only six years old, his position in the family was not inferior to that of the three Liu brothers.
The second rank included Wang Shi and the three daughters-in-law. As for Liu Yan and the other granddaughters, they were lucky to get one or two buns, but they couldn’t have more.
However, Liu Yu couldn’t eat with them. Without needing Liu Kangsheng to say anything, every time mealtime approached, Wang Shi would avoid her gaze and distribute food to everyone else, deliberately skipping Liu Yu. This was her way of demonstrating that she wouldn’t favor the daughter she had brought into the family, making it abundantly clear to the Liu family that Liu Yu was a stepdaughter.
Although Wang Shi would later secretly give her a bun or half a bun to eat, maintaining her image in public, in private, she would pamper Liu Yu to show that, as the mother, she still loved her daughter.
Liu Yu’s gradual growth and understanding led her to stop accepting the secretly offered food from Wang Shi. When Wang Shi asked why, she simply claimed not to enjoy eating them.
Over time, Wang Shi came to believe that Liu Yu genuinely didn’t like those meals, and she became more at ease with her performance in front of the family, even shedding any initial guilt about it.
And now, in the yard, as the smell of food wafted through the air, Liu Yu walked in and saw Wang Shi busy at the stove, surrounded by the women and girls of the Liu family.
As Liu Yu grew older and wiser, she no longer accepted the secret offerings from Wang Shi. When Wang Shi asked why, Liu Yu simply claimed that she didn’t enjoy eating them.
Over time, everyone assumed that she genuinely didn’t like the food. Wang Shi no longer felt guilty about starving Liu Yu to maintain her own image, and any initial remorse she may have had disappeared completely.
At this moment, the steamed buns in the kitchen were about to be taken out of the pot. However, the seven or eight people standing in the kitchen, including Wang Shi, didn’t greet Liu Yu when she returned. Instead, their attention turned to the bundle of fabric that Liu Yu had taken out in the morning. Their eyes fell on the bundle in Liu Yu’s hands, and with a single glance, they knew that the bundle this morning had been sold. Realizing the amount of silver that the bundle of fabric could fetch, Wang Shi instructed Wu Shi to watch the stove and hurriedly went into Liu Yu’s room.
Liu Yu entered the room and silently counted down from eight to one.
As the countdown reached its conclusion, Wang Shi entered the room.
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