Since very young, there wasn't anyone in the Jiang family who could compare with Hao Chen's martial arts talent, his upright posture or his calm demeanor. He was apt in the arts of war, calligraphy, and could even discuss a poem for hours and hours with the country's brightest scholars.
At five he was able to recite some of the eldest manuscripts of their people.
At ten he could outwit some of the highest war ministers when planing strategies to defeat the enemy in battle.
At thirteen he was considered the youngest between the noble families to reach the status of Commander, being charged with the 3rd Division's Northwest Regiment.
Before twenty, Jiang Hao Chen was already a reputed General, the head of the country's special force's unit.
To the ordinary people, he was a God of War. Between the nobles, he was an esteemed master and role model, a large vessel opening a way to smaller ones to follow.
Of course, to most of then, trying to follow on Young Master Jiang's footsteps was like forcing a hen to catch chicken.
In the Jiang Household, everyone could see how the Master doted on his eldest son, and how Madam Jiang barely had eyes for anything else.
Wang Shu never begrudged his elder brother, nor did he lose his time and effort trying to emulate him. Bookish, introverted and always more comfortable on the background, young Shu learned that his nature wasn't one for battles and glories, but to silent contemplation.
In such a vast world, he was satisfied with his situation in life, knowing that each of them had its own task.
It was a cold winter's night, on the 21st year of Guozhi Emperor, when everything changed.
Wang Shu had always been a a frail child, with a sickly constitution and lung problems. This, together with his introverted manner made him an isolated kid among the other Jiang children. Even being the son of the First Madam didn't spare him from his bullying half brothers. The only one that could actually stand up for him was the Eldest Young Master, Jiang Hao Chen.
On that morning, however, Hao Chen was at the Baracks, inspecting a new archery coach that had been named by the emperor himself. So, when Jiang Bo, eldest son of his father's concubine, pushed him from the small wooden bridge and right into the frosty cold pond on the main garden, there was no-one there to rescue the Second Young Master.
His aidee would tell him later that First Madam lost all strength when they couldn't find him, and that even Eldest Young Master had run back home as soon as word reached him. Wang Shu himself estimated that he had stayed some two or three hours in the water, his upper body laying on some patch of the high ornamental grass, almost completely hidden. When one of the house servants finally found him, he was pale as death, with blue lips and completely unresponsive for three days, after which he burnt with a high fever for two nights.
The city's most prominent physicians seemed to be at a loss about what to do. Even the Imperial Doctor, that his brother succeeded in bringing out of the palace to see him, felt there wasn't much more to do. The trauma was simply too great for a barely twelve years old frail body to recover from. Madam Jiang threatened to kill herself if they couldn't bring her son back, but even with all their efforts, the situation looked gloomy.
It all changed on that fateful night. He remembered feeling too hot all over, as if there were shards of smoking coal on his skin. The room was completely dark and muffled, with the strong stench of medicine permeating the air.
Somehow, he was suddenly outside, his bare feet strong against the freezing stone floor of the porch. The cold, sweet breeze cooled down his neck, wiping the sweat from his forehead and cleaning his feverish thoughts. His father found him like that two hours later, after being warned by one of the patrolling guards that Second Young Master was awake.
Behind Master Jiang, still on their sleeping garments, with their hair down and stumbling onto each other, there were also Madam Jiang, third concubine, Hao Chen, and his younger sister, along with all their personal servants. It was really a sight.
"Shu'er" his father had called with wide eyes and trembling voice "Shu'er, you are awake". At his side, Madam Jiang was already in tears, crying so hard that the sound filled the night, wakening the rest of the household that rushed to the Bamboo Courtyard, where the two sons of the First Wife lived.
"Da Tao" he called fiercely, emotion clogging his throat "Call the physitian!".
"Your Servant will go immediately!" the old aidee answered equally stunned, almost stumbling on all those noble figures pressed together on the narrow passageway.
"Brother!" Hao Chen exclaimed, trying to reach him. He was almost at his father's side when Wang Shu turned to look at them.
His eyes dark, empty, his face as pale as the moon hanging among the stars.
Silence descended upon the family. So strong, so oppressive, that even Madam Jiang couldn't find it in herself to cry anymore.
"Tell his majesty" the young men interrupted his father, his eyes seemingly looking beyond them all, to memories still to come "Tell his majesty not to retreat. There is danger on his decision. He was right before. There are traitors on the border".
Even the air seemed still. Hao Chen exchanged a terrified look with his father, that had visibly palled. Some two or three months before, the Emperor had started to repel seemingly random attacks to bordering cities, just to learn later that it was the begging of an invading venture from one of the enemy kingdoms.
He had just now decided on a warpath, but changed the routes after receiving a urgent message from the main border city.
That, however, was state secret. No-one was supposed to know anything.
"Shu'er..." Master Jiang, Minister of Revenue, tried again, almost shaking in fear "What are you talking about child?".
Wang Shu smiled slightly, turning his face once more to the sky.
"There is truth on the stars" he said in a soft voice "You have to hurry, it'll soon be too late".
The chaos that followed was such that even the nearby cities talked about it. It would take almost a year for everyone to stop commenting on the night when Jiang Household went crazy.
It took almost the same amount of time for Wang Shu to recover and then be tested by the Minister of Rites and the Chief of the Astrology Bureau. It was then discovered that not only the Jiang family had an outstanding God of War, but that he Second Young Master had been born with the Sight, the ability to read the stars and the Empire's fortune.
From the house of Scholars, Jiang Wang Shu was then transferred to the Astrology Bureau as the Chief's apprentice and future head of the office.
The fortune of the Jiang family was then sang to the four winds, their ancestors were praised and even the most unfavored wife felt like she could die happily after being so distinguished. Looking, back, Wang Shu could see that it was at that moment that the tides changed.
Being thus favored at court was a dangerous thing, even in such conflictuous times. As the saying goes, a fly before his own eye is bigger than an elephant in the next field.
While everyone was busy watching for foreign enemies, they didn't see the hatred and jealousy burning in the eyes of their comrades.
Specially one particularly nasty figure.
After everything that followed, there was only him left as head of the family, along with three of his brother's children and two concubines, that committed suicide before he could exit the palace to start taking care of things.
The suspicion of treason that still hanged over his eldest brother was even harder to bear, as if those sick people couldn't let him be even in death. He always prayed for Hao Chen's spirit to rest peacefully, but at the same time he highly doubted that possibility.
That was why, even now, he still couldn't see himself as Master Jiang. That had been his father and then his brother rightful place. To everyone, he was still Master Shu of the Jiang Family, one so ashamed for his kin that couldn't even use their name.
Ashamed... Jiang Wang Shu was ashamed, but of himself.
He had been weak, careless, and then too afraid to fight and clean Hao Chen's name. It was his fault that things now sanded like this. That the same people that once praised and looked up to him now slandered his name and bullied his niece to the point of almost killing her.
"Master!" his aidee, Xiao Si, cried out, bringing him back to the large garden on his courtyard.
"Master!" the younger man called again, sweat dripping from his face even though the sun was just lukewarm and white, soft clouds covered the sky.
"Xiao Si" he greeted, sounding tired to his own ears "Has something happened to the children?"
"Master" he breathed hard, almost colliding with the stone table where Wang Shu was drinking tea and playing chess with himself "Master, there are bad news! It is Fifth Young Miss!".
His blood turning to ice, Wang Shu felt fear rolling down his back like cold water, his heart beating painfully fast.
"Yue'er? Has she...?".
"Master, she is awake! Miss woke up just this morning!"
Wang Shu release the breath he didn't know he was holding. Thank the Heavens, he thought.
His niece was well. She would survive this. All of them would.
"That is wonderful news!" he exclaimed, getting up so fast that half the pieces on his chess board went to the floor "I'll go see her right now!".
Wang Shu stopped midstep, looking at the his servant's worried face.
"Xiao Si" he started slowly, trying to ignore his growing sense of foreboding "What happened to my niece?".
"Well, that is..." the cleared his throat, stalling for time and trying to find the right words.
"You can speak freely" the older man exclaimed, feeling annoyed and impatient with the other one.
"Yes" he accepted, lowering his head for a second "If I may be so bold... Master, Fifth young miss woke up well, but then she... She started to say some weird things, and ask where she was... Third miss tried to call the physician but...". he stopped once more.
At this point, with his brows furrowed, Wang Shu was trying to control the need to shake Xiang Si until the men spilled every single word he was holding in his mouth.
"And then what? What exactly happened to Yue'er?" he urged.
Xiao Si swallowed loudly, finally looking at his master.
"She ran away".