The days of the Zhu family, one of the richest and most powerful families in Jiang City, had been very eventful recently.
Their young lady, Zhu Xiangxiang, had gotten into a horrible car accident and urgently needed a blood transfusion. However, no one in the family was a match.
Her mother, Lin Qing, had finally enlisted the help of a private detective to get to the bottom of things. He found out that 16 years ago, back when the Zhu family had yet to make a name for themselves, Lin Qing had given birth to her daughter in the local health center of a small town, and the nurse who had been attending to her at the time had brought her the wrong child by mistake. To put it simply, two babies had been switched by accident.
Xiangxiang had grown up to be the princess of a wealthy family, while the rightful daughter's whereabouts remained a mystery.
It was like a story fresh out of a book, and those who knew about it sighed their laments for the real daughter. While Xiangxiang thrived from this twist of fate, the other girl had probably struggled all her life.
But the day had finally come—today, the real daughter was coming to see her biological family.
A lot of people had gathered outside the Zhu residence, eager to watch the spectacle unfold. If the rumors were true, then there was bound to be a lot of amusement in seeing a country bumpkin trying to make in high society.
Add that to the fact that Zhu Xiangxiang was a well-known socialite in Jiang City. Countless young and talented man admired her, but she was always aloof and prideful. She couldn't even be bothered to spare them a glance, let alone afford them a few words of courtesy. Needless to say, there was also a good amount of women who envied her status and hated her guts. Now, it turned out that the so-called phoenix was really but a hen. Those who hated her would definitely not miss out on the chance to mock and taunt her, indeed.
As expected, the matter became fodder for gossip and speculations, and the entertainment media wasted no time before jumping into the bandwagon. These past few days, all the tabloids had published nothing else aside from the two daughters of the Zhu family—the fake one versus the real one.
Across the street from the Zhu family villa, a sports car was parked rather inconspicuously among the flower beds. In it sat three sophisticated women dressed in all the latest fashion. The woman in the driver's seat had wavy hair and fiery red lips. She pulled her sunglasses down to the bridge of her nose and peered at the villa they had been surveilling. The corners of her mouth curved upwards as she toyed with the DSLR camera on her lap. "Zhu Xiangxiang must be restless now," Zhao Zhen said, "Pacing anxiously throughout that house."
"As she should be," Li Jiaojiao added sharply. "She's been acting high and mighty all this time, throwing the weight of her surname around. She's probably praying that the Zhu family won't kick her out as we speak."
Sun Qingqing turned to look at her friends and frowned. "But I heard that the real daughter grew up in a nunnery. She has no commendable educational attainment to speak of, let alone street smarts. Do you really think she'll be able to hold her own against the scheming Zhu Xiangxiang?"
"We're still in the picture, aren't we? We have all the money we'll ever need, and the stage will be set at last. I will spare no effort as long as I can make that Zhu Xiangxiang suffer." Li Jiaojiao rolled her eyes.
She had been chasing after her self-proclaimed Prince Charming for over a year, then when she had finally won him over, Zhu Xiangxiang just swooped down and stole him away with a snap of her fingers. Li Jiaojiao hated the woman with a fury.
"Oh, she's here," Zhao Zhen exclaimed, her eyes fixed on the rearview mirror.
Right on cue, a black car slid to a stop in front of the villa gates. The chauffeur alighted first before opening the door to the backseat.
Zhao Zhen quickly held up her DLSR camera and zoomed in on her target. They had parked in a rather awkward spot, and she could only see the figure of the woman even with her high-powered lens.
This said woman was tall and slender. She stepped out of the car gracefully, her back straight as a rod. She was dressed in the brown robes of a typical Buddhist nun, and when she walked, she looked like a willow gliding in the wind.
Her steps were steady and even, and her stature gave off a calming and reassuring air to the people around her. She had her head lowered, though, so they couldn't make out her face clearly.
Even so, Zhao Zhen snapped several pictures up until the figure disappeared through the gates. Then she checked the photos on her camera screen and fell deep into her thoughts.
"My God," Sun Qingqing muttered beside her. "She really is a nun."
Li Jiaojiao, on the other hand, was unfazed. She rubbed her hands together in anticipation. "Now that the characters are all here, the show is about to start. It's a pity that we can't sneak into that villa. A live broadcast of the play-by-play would have been very entertaining."
Members from different branches of the Zhu family had convened in the living room, waiting to meet the long-lost, biological young lady of the clan.
The matriarch, Old Madam Zhu, sat majestically in the main seat. She was flanked by her son, Zhu Wentao to her right, and her daughter, Zhu Wenjie to her left. Beside Zhu Wentao was his wife, Lin Qing, while Zhu Wenjiie had her daughter, Zhou Ying, next to her. And of course, next to Lin Qing was her beloved Zhu Xiangxiang.
From the corner of her eye, Zhou Ying secretly looked her cousin up and down. Zhu Xiangxiang was sporting a delicate cashmere sweater embroidered with silver gray orchids and a long, tan skirt. Her long hair was draped elegantly over her shoulders, framing her pretty little face. Her hands were folded daintily on her lap. She looked perfectly composed and dignified, just as any prominent social figure was expected to be.
Even with the inevitable looming over her head, there was no trace of panic in Zhu Xiangxiang's expression. It was almost as if she was about to meet an ordinary guest instead of the woman who was bound to snatch her position as the young lady of the Zhu family.
Zhou Ying pursed her lips ever so slightly. 'Let's see if you can still keep your cool when the rightful daughter finally arrives.'
Just then, the butler, Uncle Wen, stepped into the living room. "The young lady is here."
All eyes turned toward the foyer in unison.
Though the rumors had been rampant about her having stayed in the nunnery all this time, the Zhu family were still taken aback when they saw her walk inside in nun's robes.
As for Lin Qing, she felt neither pleasure nor excitement upon meeting her biological daughter. If anything, she frowned in what could easily be construed as disappointment.
Old Madam Zhu waved a hand and beckoned at the girl. "Here, come to Grandma. I'm afraid my eyes are not what they used to be. Come closer so I can see you properly."
The girl did as she was bidden, and the old woman took her hand, squeezing it gently as she peered at her real granddaughter. And the more she looked, the more satisfied she felt. "You are very beautiful. What is your name?"
"Ming Jing," the girl answered, her voice ringing clear and true.
"My sweet child. You must have suffered a lot all these years. From now on, you're a part of this family. If anyone dares to bully you, don't hesitate to tell Grandma, and I will grant you justice. I won't let those people off easily." Old Madam Zhu swept her gaze across the room meaningfully, a warning glint in her eyes.
She was the feared matriarch of the family. Her word was no less than an imperial edict. At that moment, she was showing everyone that she had given her favor to this true granddaughter, and that she was expecting them not to give the girl a hard time in the future.
"Xiangxiang," Old Madam Zhu turned to her other granddaughter.
Zhu Xiangxiang had been silent the entire time. Now, she stood up and walked over with a serene smile on her face.
Lin Qing startled to attention and looked on with worry.
"Regardless of the truth and our past mistakes, both you and Ming Jing are daughters of the Zhu family now. Do not expect me to favor one over the other—I won't. You are the elder sister, so I shall entrust Ming Jing to you. You have to take care of her and make sure she is comfortable in this home, do you understand?"
"Of course, Grandma," Zhu Xiangxiang answered softly.
Then she looked at Ming Jing and took the latter's hand. "Ming Jing, my name is Xiangxiang. You may call me sister or just call me by my name. Let me introduce you to the rest of our family."
Her words and actions were neither too rigid nor overly intimate. They came out naturally, as if there had never been tension beneath the surface.
Ming Jing nodded and let herself be guided over to her relatives. She greeted them one by one, which they returned with praises and red packets as a welcome gift.
When it was Zhu Wenjie's turn, she stuffed a thick red packet in Ming Jing's hands and smiled warmly at the girl. "I always thought that Xiangxiang didn't resemble my sister-in-law in the slightest. Now that I've seen you, I finally understand why. You are indeed your mother's daughter; you're practically made from the same mold."
Lin Qing's already glum face turned even darker. She shot Zhu Wenjie a vicious glare.
The other woman only smirked, pleased to have rattled her sister-in-law's good senses. She would love to make her suffer even worse.
Her remarks just now had been a deliberate attempt at mockery. In truth, Ming Jing didn't look like Lin Qing at all. If it hadn't been for the DNA test results delivered by the private detective, they would all have thought that the man was scamming them.
"Cousin," Zhou Ying chimed in, her tone seemingly bright and innocent. "You grew up in a nunnery, didn't you? Were your days there very boring? Have you ever gone to school? Do you know some Chinese characters, at least?"
This time, it was Old Madam Zhu who scowled. "Yingying," she snapped at her granddaughter.
Zhu Xiangxiang opened her mouth and was about to admonish her cousin, but paused when Ming Jing moved. She rubbed her Buddha beads between her fingertips, and the sound of their round, polished surfaces grinding against each other brought forth a sudden sense of harmony and tranquility.
And then she spoke. "With my Master's generosity, I was thankfully taught how to read and write when I was young. I'm not very talented, but at the very least, I won't be making a fool of myself. The nunnery is quiet and life can be difficult at times, but I never felt the need to complain. As for further education, I spent each day in cultivation, so I didn't have the chance to attend school."
Ming Jing's eloquence was undeniable. Despite her modest claims, it didn't seem like she lacked much education at all.
The rest of her narrative seemed to check out, though. Her skin was white as snow, characteristic of someone who rarely went out in the sun. She was skinny by most standards, and even her cheeks looked paper-thin and almost translucent. She had fine features indeed—fair eyebrows, a straight, delicate nose and rosy lips.
But her eyes stood out from the rest of her features. They were as clear and placid as the deepest lake, undisturbed by anything and everything that took place beyond her mind. Yet at the same time, they gleamed with mystical knowledge. She was comparable to the Bodhisattva herself, ever compassionate and merciful with her own brand of strength.
For a brief second Zhou Ying almost got down on her knees and worshiped Ming Jing.
"My poor niece," Zhu Wenjie said. "You're as beautiful and tender as a flower. What a pity that you've suffered so much at such a young age. You're the complete opposite of Xiangxiang, who grew up in luxury and only went to the best private schools in the country. She has famous and expensive brands in her wardrobe, and dines in the most luxurious restaurants. She even learned piano and classical dance when she was little. If the accident hadn't happened at your birth, the number one socialite in Jiang City should be you, Ming Jing. Am I not right, Xiangxiang?"
With every word she spoke, she threw a seed of discord to the ground, willing it to fester. She must establish the rivalry between these two young women no matter what.
Zhu Xiangxiang responded with a smile. "I apologize for saying this, Aunt, but since things had come to this point, I don't think there's any point in talking about our different childhood. I will be making it up to Ming Jing in the future anyway."
Before anyone else could say more, Lin Qing stepped up and stood in front of Ming Jing. She took out the jade bracelet she had worn for most of her married life and put it around the girl's wrist. Then she said in a rather dry tone, "You have to listen to your sister from now on. This place is your home now."
Ming Jing had a very thin frame, and the bracelet sat awkwardly on her wrist. It didn't suit her at all, and even looked like it might slip out of her hand altogether. It was a mystery whether Lin Qing had given it to her on purpose or not.
Ming Jing stroked the cool jade against her skin and lowered her eyes. "Thank you, Mother," she said in an emotionless voice.
Lin Qing sputtered and almost choked. "Do you not know how to call me Mom?" They no longer lived in a feudal society, and the way she had just been addressed was too formal and decidedly out of place.
Zhu Wentao waved his hand and shook his head. "Come on, this child has just returned to us. Don't push her so hard."
He hadn't exactly harbored high hopes for his long-lost daughter, but now that he had met her, he held a lasting good impression of her. Ming Jing was more outstanding than anyone in their family. She didn't put on any airs, but one could tell at a glance that she wasn't a pushover. Zhu Wentao decided there and then to nurture the girl properly in the days ahead. He was pretty sure that this girl would not be inferior to Xiangxiang in any way.
"Oh, that's right. We also have a younger brother named Shaodan. He is one year younger than us and is always playing around. He stays outside all day. I'll be sure to introduce you once he comes home."
After a few more inane pleasantries, the relatives said their farewells and took their leave.
Lin Qing glanced at Ming Jing's robes and frowned in obvious disdain. "How unsightly. What are you even wearing? Xiangxiang, lend her a set of your clothes first. Tomorrow, you must take her shopping for a more presentable wardrobe. And take off that hat from your head. If you don't have hair, then you should start wearing a wig."
Ming Jing murmured her assent and followed Zhu Xiangxiang upstairs.
"You're her biological mother," Old Madam Zhu scolded when the girls had left. "That child has been in this house for less than an hour. Can't you afford any kindness at all? You're going to scare your own daughter away."
"But Mom, you saw the hideous clothes she had one. I can't afford to lose face in public, especially not because of her."
"Do you think that child chose the fate she was dealt with? You've known that she hasn't lived well, for the most part, you should have taken the initiative and prepared her clothes in advance. You should have picked her up personally, to begin with! You haven't even supported her a single day in her life, yet you dare to show her your discontent? What utter absurdity! Stop making a fool of yourself."
Lin Qing was at a loss for words.
But Old Madam Zhu wasn't done yet. She scoffed and added, "Moreover, despite being raised in a nunnery, she doesn't seem any worse than Xiangxiang, a child that you raised yourself. Ming Jing is your own flesh in blood, you have to treat her carefully. Mind your attitude in the future." With that, she picked up her walking stick and hobbled gracefully out of the living room.
Upstairs, Zhu Xiangxiang was staring out the French windows as she waited for Ming Jing to finish changing in the cloakroom. She turned when she heard the other girl come out, and her eyes instantly narrowed.
But whatever emotions she had on her face disappeared in an instant, and she walked over like nothing was amiss. "I see that you're taller than I am. This skirt is a little short on you, but it still looks pretty good."
It was true, too. Ming Jing had a tall and slender stature, on par with a supermodel's in most aspects. Zhu Xiangxiang's clothes were more or less perfect for her.
Ming Jing folded her own clothes neatly and took off her hat. Zhu Xiangxiang blinked at the back of her round and naked head, and contemplated how she had never known a bald head could look so good on a woman.
Ming Jing was given the innermost room on the second floor. Unlike Zhu Xiangxiang's, which sported a large balcony and a walk-in cloakroom next to an equally massive bathroom, hers was just a guest room that had been modified at the last minute. It did have its own bathroom, as well, and the basic toiletries were provided. Someone had even prepared various kinds of sanitary pads in the cabinet. All things considered, this room had been meticulously thought out.
"I live right next door," Zhu Xiangxiang said. "If there's anything you need, just call me. You should get some rest. Dinner will be served at seven." And then she left.
Ming Jing hadn't brought anything with her when she came, so she had nothing to unpack, either.
She sat on the bed cross-legged and began to meditate. "Nuns do not lie. There is a reason for everything. Buddha, please forgive me."