Our heroine, Luo Shiyiniang (Tan Songyun), is the daughter of a concubine. She spent her childhood bullied and looked down upon, and she and her mother were eventually sent away to be out of sight, out of mind. Our story opens when they’re suddenly called back to the capital: a situation has arisen in which a daughter of marriageable age has become useful.
It turns out that Shiyiniang’s oldest sister Yuanniang — the main wife of Xu Lingyi, Marquis Yongping — is sick and dying. Worried about preserving the alliance between the Xu and Luo families, as well as the position of Yuanniang’s son in the Xu household, Yuanniang and her mother (the Luo family’s matriarch) have cooked up a plan to get Xu Lingyi to marry one of her younger sisters after her death. This is where Shiyiniang comes in. Today, we might find the idea of a young woman being married off to her older brother-in-law pretty creeper, but no one bats an eyelid here.
Shiyiniang isn’t a pushover. She’s smart and articulate and has mad embroidery skills. She also has her own mystery that she wants to investigate within the Xu household. Her new husband, Xu Lingyi (Wallace Chung), is a respected court official and pillar of his family. Heavily compacted under the weight of the patriotic manly-man responsibilities he’d been forced to assume after the death of his father and older brother, he’s serious and aloof. He’s a strict and severe father to his two young sons, and never seems to talk to his Chinese opera-loving younger brother except to berate him. He’s a very filial son, though, and his mother is the household’s fearsome matriarch, committed to the family’s strict rules.
At the time of Shiyiniang’s entry, Xu Lingyi has three concubines, whom he’d accepted for a variety of reasons, from needing to strike a deal with a wealthy family, to being forced to protect a woman’s reputation after one of Yuanniang’s schemes. Although he’s slept with at least two of them, and gets nagged by his mother to pay them more attention (to fulfill more baby-producing expectations), he doesn’t love any of them and is generally uncomfortable in their company, especially because he can see how they preen and jostle for his attention. He can’t away from them fast enough.
Xu Lingyi only married Shiyiniang because of a promise he’d made to Yuanniang on her deathbed. It’s initially super awkward, as I suppose it would be if you’ve just married a stranger who was also your sister-in-law, but Xu Lingyi is intrigued by this young woman. Unlike the others, she doesn’t seem the least bit interested in currying favour, getting him to stay the night in her quarters, or fighting for power within the household. She’s someone he can actually talk to, and she mellows him out, improving his relationships with his children and brother. The marriage turns out to be a blessing in disguise as true affection blossoms. As a couple, they negotiate the various challenges thrown up by scheming concubines and a corrupt rival family.