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A rustling noise of something like silk reached my ears, making me feel unbearably itchy. It sounded like some people were purposely speaking in whispers in a great hall.
“Where is the emperor?”
“He went to court.”
“Amitabha, he’s been absent for three days, and now he’s finally going. That’s right…has the person inside awakened yet? Can I take a look? I heard this Master has an impressive background. The emperor’s been by her side since the first day she arrived.”
“Why should I, isn’t she dead asleep? Even the imperial physician said it’s not likely she’ll wake up again.” The voice drew closer and closer as it spoke. There was the sound of someone lifting a sleeve and drawing aside what sounded like cloth. Though my eyes were closed, I could still feel my surroundings grow brighter, and a soft breeze blow in…the air grew fresh and unhindered.
It felt like coming back from the dead…though my hands felt weak as ever.
Where was I…?
“I told you not to move the curtain, she’s very delicate and fragile…don’t give her a chill. There were a lot of imperial physicians executed recently. If you act without any propriety, be careful it’s not our heads that roll next time.”
There was a pained cry as someone dragged the figure away by his ear while he pleaded for mercy. Abruptly, the light dimmed into the dreary atmosphere of the dead.
No, I don’t want this…
Don’t…don’t take away my light. My heart wailed mournfully as my hand reached towards the silk curtains, twisting them aside as I straightened up.
I opened my eyes.
Subconsciously, I craned my head and felt at the offensive material of the curtain. A ray of light pierced through to shine on my fingers, lifeless and pallid to an offensive point.
It suddenly became quiet outside.
Those two people seemed thoroughly frightened, trembling as they watched me shaking to open the bed curtains. After being used to the dark for so long, this sudden light was unbearable and I squinted for quite a while, my mind buzzing until I recovered. I gave them a gentle smile. The two exchanged glances with ashen faces before prostrating themselves on the ground. With their identical ash blue robes and horse-hoof sleeves, they were probably young eunuchs.
“We’ve disturbed Master’s peace and quiet, please punish us, Master.” the steadier of the two eunuchs spoke as he knocked their head repeatedly against the ground.
Just hearing this sound was insufferable. Did he think his head was cast from copper? I clicked my tongue, looking away when I saw a hint of red. What peace and quiet? Pah, I’m not dead yet.
“You’re making my eyes hurt moving up and down like that, so get up.” I waved my hand and tried to rise, but felt strange when my hands touched the bedding. The material was exquisite, thick and soft. It was embroidered with beautiful clouds and dragons, but I didn’t recall it being so tasteful. In my house…
Huh? How come I couldn’t remember a thing?
I blinked a few times, staring at the equally curious pair of eunuchs, and asked them, “Where am I?”
“To reply Master, this is his majesty’s sleeping chambers.”
The emperor’s sleeping chambers, then.
My breath caught, and I wanted to get off the bed that instant, but my body was simply too weak. I paused to rest for a while before setting my toes on the floor, but it felt like I was standing on cotton. Before I could steady myself on my feet, my body swayed, and someone came to support me.
“Master, if you want anything, just tell us. Please don’t get off the bed yourself,” the cleverer of the two eunuchs spoke as he examined my complexion, gently pulling me back as he waved a hand behind him. “What are you dawdling for, go call his majesty and tell him Master’s awakened.”
Call his majesty? Don’t…
I…I-I’m afraid…afraid of strangers.
How did I end up on the imperial dragon bed? What happened here, and why couldn’t I remember anything? I furiously slapped my head, scaring the person next to me. He wanted to stop me, yet didn’t dare, hands hovering beneath mine.
Was he waiting to catch something, or what?
It couldn’t be that he was waiting to collect the hairs that fell off my head after I beat myself up?
“Master, are you feeling unwell anywhere?”
A little…let me think.
I raised my head as someone inserted a soft cushion behind my back to make me comfortable. My body shifted a few times before I spoke, “I have no energy in my body, find myself short of breath when speaking, and my stomach’s burning with pain. Oh…hey, uh, Little Second, take my pulse for me.”
“To reply Master, your servant’s name isn’t Little Second,” he bowed in extreme respect, reaching out with his hands to tuck me in.
I was at a loss.
“Is that so…I just blurted out whatever was on my mind, my memory’s not so clear.”
“Master, you’re probably confused because you’re hungry. You’ve been unconscious for three days, but we’ve only dared to give you some soup. Please close your eyes and rest for a while, I’ll instruct the imperial kitchen to prepare some food right away.” Still bowing, he carefully backed away and left.
Curses, no wonder I was so hungry. I was even experiencing double vision, so I thought I had bad eyesight… I gave a ridiculing laugh and closed my eyes.
Soft footsteps pattered towards me, so light I wouldn’t have heard them if I wasn’t paying attention. I lifted my eyes to see a small wooden serving table set on the bed, followed by various fragrant, delicious dishes. There was someone standing against the light in the doorframe, quietly watching the young eunuchs entering in single file.
The delicious aroma enticed me to crack my eyes open.
“Come, Master. Please try this warm porridge first.” the same eunuch from before spoke, and I hnn’d in agreement. My energy was just about gone, and it felt extremely comfortable to lean against a soft cushion, half-awake as I opened my mouth and waited to be fed…
But a long time passed without me getting any food.
I frowned, and just when I was about to open my eyes, I felt a space on the bed next to me sink down. Someone drew near me, and a smooth, warm object brushed against my lips while the person blew against its surface.
I sipped a tiny mouthful.
The porridge was thick and glutinous, carrying with it a faint fragrance. The level of saltiness was just right, and it was easy to swallow once I had it in my mouth. The taste lingered by my teeth for a long time afterward. I wanted to eat more, but that person didn’t move, mystifying me.
I lazily opened my eyes and saw that the person holding the bowl and spoon before me wasn’t a eunuch.
Why did I know?
He clearly had a Adam’s apple and traces of stubble by his chin, though it was a bit wan. Firm eyebrows framed a pair of tender eyes, making him hard to describe…at any rate, he was an outstandingly handsome man.
He fed me another spoonful.
I didn’t swallow, but couldn’t help but dodge to one side.
He raised his eyebrows, and the eunuchs around his prostrated their shaking bodies to the floor in dreadful fear. The man’s lips turned up, his smile warm and intimate as he softly urged, “Drink it, it’ll bolster your body.”
The tone was light but carried an unmistakable force. Very few people could turn a simple suggestion into something that sounded like a threat, but he was one of them. I was a little dazed. My eyes fixed on him and his hand, still holding the spoon. The color of his sleeves was a bold yellow, embroidered with flying dragons in gold thread.
I blinked, moving my gaze downwards before I realized he was dressed in yellow from head to toe.
I was lying on the dragon bed, being personally fed porridge by the emperor?!
T-t-this…what was going on?
“What’s wrong? This expression…you look like I’m feeding you arsenic.” his face turned wooden and his eyebrows arched, though there was still laughter in his eyes. “It’s going to turn cold, you should drink it up before it does.”
I braced myself and took the bowl from his hands, hesitating slightly before draining the contents in one gulp. The man seemed as if he’d seen something unexpected, looking at me as if floored. He turned his head aside and muttered to himself, “What’s the matter, she really drank what I gave her…”
Did I do something wrong?
He was the emperor. Even if he gave me arsenic, I’d have no choice but to drink it, right? I used my sleeve to wipe my mouth and stole a glance at him. His smile seemed full of meaning as he looked at me in silence, turning my entire body cold.
I lowered my eyes and crawled out from the covers until I was kneeling on the bed. After that bout of illness, my movements were still natural and spontaneous, clean and complete. “Your Majesty, I can’t remember anything, nor do I know how I ended up lying here…anyways, if it’s taking responsibility or rebuking, come at me outright. You don’t need this policy of comforting me first and punishing me later, I don’t even know what I did.”
Why would I be lying on this bed? What kind of status did I have? I couldn’t remember anything.
“Shao’er, what’s happened to you?”
A pair of hands rested on my shoulders, shifting me slightly. The fabric draped around me like a cocoon, similar to the feeling I’d gotten from my dreams these past days. I could remember these large palms stroking my forehead and my face, over and over again.
His voice was a little hoarse as he spoke. “Why does it seem like you’ve become a completely different person after waking up?”
I looked at him in astonishment. It seemed like…this person had no intentions to hurt me. Could it be that I misunderstood? He propped himself against the bed to lean over and study me with unblinking eyes that hid a smile.
“You don’t remember what you came to the palace for?”
I was ignorant. So I hadn’t always been part of the imperial court?
“Think a bit, besides me…was there anyone else you wanted to see?” his voice was calm and filled with warmth.
I looked at him, sensing that he was truly trying to guide me along. Within the court, women dreamed of seeing the emperor everyday. Could there be anyone else? Was it possible that this person discovered me in an affair and wanted to surprise me with his knowledge? But that’s not right. If I had been discovered, could I still sit so harmlessly on the dragon bed and get personal treatment from the emperor?
What a tangled mess…
“If you can’t remember, there’s no need to waste your efforts,” A pair of hands brushed my forehead, smoothing it out. His mood seemed to have lightened as he raised his voice. “Someone call the imperial physician.”
Some old guy turned up.
I’d never seen him before, but I hadn’t crossed paths with many people. As to the people and furnishings in this great hall, I had no impressions of them in my memories. Numbly, I watched as he examined my pulse, pinching the area as he kept muttering to himself. Then he reverently prostrated himself on the ground and said a whole bunch of stuff, but it was more or less that my vital energy passageways were obstructed, and there was qi in my heart; my body was feeble, I lacked adequate qi and blood…finally he cast an uncertain glance at me and added that all of these had temporarily caused my amnesia.
I think this guy was just spouting off a load of bull.
It was complete nonsense.
Though I had no proof…
The emperor’s eyes had never left my face, as if trying to find clues in my expression. I straightened my clothes and sat properly before staring back, but he broke the gaze to ask the imperial physician, “When will she be cured?”
“The body can be nursed to health, but…there’s no telling when her memory will recover. Your servant cannot help your majesty resolve this difficulty and deserves to die.” The white-haired old man knocked his head against the floor, body shivering.
But the emperor was in excellent spirits as he waved his hand. “Someone, take him to fill out the prescription. Reward him with two hundred taels of gold.”
I was shocked speechless. He was so liberal with his money.
It didn’t take long before someone carried in a bowl of liquid medicine. I gave a sniff and sneered. This was a harmless prescription that couldn’t hurt the body. Its ingredients were all precious, expensive medicines that would neither alleviate my illnesses nor cure me completely.
Huh, how did one whiff send a whole list of ingredient names tumbling into my head…? I crinkled my brows and stared at the bowl of black-colored soup. I was very familiar with its makeup…
“What is it, is there anything wrong?” On the side, the emperor drew closer, sitting personally by the edge of the bed with a hand on my leg. I felt a bit repulsed, but…since I was lying on his bed, I let it pass.
“Definitely wrong,” I nodded, looking straight at him. “From the time since I’ve woke, it’s been nothing but soups and liquids. I’m…hungry.”
He gave a sudden laugh at my unexpected answer.
“The dishes are all on the table, it’s not as if you’re not allowed to eat. Unless…you still want me to feed you?”
Che, this person, the Son of Heaven, was so imposing. Even with him just sitting there, I didn’t dare to eat first.
“And I thought your personality changed. Your old habit of criticizing others is still the same.” The emperor’s voice carried an unmistakable cheer and warmth as he picked up a pair of jade chopsticks.
A court lady on the side immediately stepped forward with a curtesy. “Your servant shall serve you.”
He handed the chopsticks over and pointed at various dishes: ‘Oh, bring her some fish in bamboo shoots, also some slow-cooked chicken with lily bulbs…right, that section of leg there is her favorite.‘
I was completely tongue-tied. Looking at the tasty dishes that were brought before my lips, I had to swallow my drool. The emperor gave me a “kindly” look with raised eyebrows, as if to tell me he’d feed me personally if I didn’t eat. The jade chopsticks came through to offer me a piece of chicken wrapped around a white bamboo shoot glistening with oil. It looked delicious. I obediently took a bite and chewed it.
It was so good that my eyes squeezed shut…I felt like I could even eat my tongue. Not a bit greasy, but tasty and refreshing. The flavor levels were just right. How long had it been since I tasted something like this…?
Afterwards, the other dishes served my way all turned out to be things I liked to eat. With my appetite whetted, I actually ate two bowls of rice. The emperor seemed to be hungry too, and drank a bowl of porridge to accompany me. It was very odd. He was so familiar with my likes and favorites. I blew on a hot cup of tea in my hands and carefully took a sip. How invigorating.
“Your Majesty…” I lifted my eyes to look at him. “I heard I’ve just entered the palace recently. Exactly what kind of person am I?”
He seemed a bit blank, and looked at me with a strange expression. Before his gaze, I replaced the teacup back on the table.
What a joke. If I didn’t ask, wouldn’t I be an idiot? I’d slept enough and ate enough, it was time for proper matters.
He propped himself up against the bed and scooted over, voice exceptionally mild. “You’re already on Zhen’s bed, who else could you be?”
“A woman,” I replied.
“Yes,” he raised his eyes and gave me a meaningful smile, taking the chance to tuck me in as he spoke slowly. “It’s a long story, but suffice to say, you’re Zhen’s empress.”
I did a spit-take.
It was my turn to be agape. I stared blankly at him, but he just lowered his head to grasp my hand, a small smile playing about his lips. The imposing aura of an emperor had disappeared to be replaced with an easy, intimate air. It was difficult to meet his gaze, which gave me an indescribable feeling…I hastily averted my eyes.
This was the dragon bed. I frowned slightly…
It was absolutely true that I woke up on here. Even if I was a mere concubine in the imperial harem, this was an exceptional favor. Inwardly, I puzzled things out as I lowered my head to touch the silks.
But I was his woman?
His face didn’t seemed to be lying, and his tone was fair and reasonable. Still, it felt…this wasn’t the case, though I couldn’t figure out which part was off. His intimacy felt a little foreign to me. Hey, I say…where’s he touching with those hands? I carefully withdrew my leg and hid it securely beneath the covers.
Inside the huge room, the flames were dazzling. At some point in time, the servants had all disappeared, leaving just the two of us. The atmosphere was a bit strange. His eyes were very bright. I could tell from his expression that he wasn’t angry at my sudden show of disrespect, but gave him an uncertain glance. Though we hadn’t interacted much, I was pretty certain he wouldn’t try to trick me. Moreover, he couldn’t even bear to hurt me while I was severely ill…that thought made me release a breath and feel more relieved.
I curled up within the boundaries of my bedding. Even though I’d just woken up, I still felt sleepy. Eating a full meal really…made it hard to keep my eyes open. I propped up my body and reclined against the headboard, thoughts tangled as I spoke. “Why did I suddenly get so ill? Has my body always been so weak?”
He gave me a stiff look, hands stroking my hair as if he held tender feelings that were difficult to express. There was a distressed look in his eyes as he heaved a sigh and drew me into his arms, speaking in a low voice. “This was all Zhen’s fault. Those people…Zhen won’t forgive them.”
His gaze was as calm as ice, seven parts fierce and three parts sharp.
My eyebrows pressed together as I huddled into that warmth. My body that had been braced taut like a spring eventually learned to relax. It looked like things weren’t all that peaceful in the court, there were still premeditated murder plots floating about. If the victim was a favorite concubine, then there were probably no shortage of threats.
Curses…so much for freedom and leisure.
I tightened my grip minutely on his cuffs and asked, “As your majesty’s woman, which level of the imperial harem would chenqie belong to?”
I couldn’t stay on the dragon bed for the rest of my life, right? Once I’d rested enough, I’d have to return to wherever I came from so the other women wouldn’t resent me. Otherwise, as an imperial concubine, I’d have to spend the night engaging in the merry, amorous passions of a man and woman. Even if I shrank in a corner to study pornography books, that wouldn’t be an excuse.
He seemed surprised. “Giving you status is easy enough. How about guifei, the highest ranking imperial concubine?” The emperor held my hand, stroking it a few times as he leaned back and said, “Bestowing the title is a little troublesome since the imperial palace relies on different sources of power for influence. But it’s not impossible.”
This guy, were all emperors so easygoing?
But that couldn’t be right. My head felt a bit dizzy, and I muddled around in the dark until I felt a strand of thought leading me to a door…
Let me think a bit.
“Qieshen has been lying on the emperor’s bed for two or three days and am your majesty’s empress. But I didn’t have any official status until now?” I lifted my eyes, muttering indecisively as I felt the robes beneath my hands. The material was satiny soft, the Son of Heaven really wore things 1,000 times, 10,000 times better than ordinary people. I raised my head to look at him, my smile somewhat chilly. “Just entering the palace for a few days and getting ill can earn a place as the emperor’s highest rank imperial concubine?”
Was that his meaning?
Our eyes met, and his mouth seemed to tremble, though the rest of his face didn’t move. His eyes gleamed as he looked at me with a smile that wasn’t a smile, asking lightly, “Who told you these things?”
My eyes drifted into the distance until they settled on somewhere outside the rooms, where the the two little eunuchs were kneeling on the ground. His electric gaze swept over, filled with the overwhelming aura of an emperor. Even at this distance, it felt like I could hear those servants tremble, their teeth chattering as they prostrated on the ground, too fearful to even ask for mercy.
He gave a snort, and I felt a bit uneasy.
No matter how easygoing, this man was still the emperor. How could I show off so much and go against him? I tried to move the bedcovers aside, but was stopped by his hand.
“Silly.” The emperor didn’t avoid my gaze, but looked at me directly, calm and composed. His eyes were like a serene pond.
The gaze made me feel a bit timid. Had I thought wrongly?
Those two had clearly said that the emperor hadn’t gone to court for three days, and that he’d been by my side since the first day I arrived at the palace. So where had I been before that? If I’d just entered the palace, why would the emperor know so much about my habits and favorite things?
He sucked in a breath. “You only know how to go off into flights of fancy everyday.” Though his voice slowed, he really did start explaining things to me.
“…we met while I was still a crown prince in exile among the common people. After ascending the throne, I looked for you for a very long time.” He held me as he stroked my hair with soft touches. “That’s why we’re a couple.”
He’d stopped referring to himself as Zhen, and reverted back to the commonplace “I”. It made me feel…perplexed.
But his embrace really was very nice and warm. I could smell the faint scent of bamboo, one of my favorites, and that beating heart–was it for me? It was pounding so quickly, the vibrations feeling like they’d pass through my own skin.
“Shao’er, you actually ended up forgetting everything.”
My body relaxed as he held me, mouth smoothing into an expression of comfort. His head lowered to look at me, those clear, penetrating eyes like rays of moonlight. It was very peaceful around us.
Suddenly, a few court ladies entered in single file, holding something in their hands. Surprised, I straightened up, but he pressed me back down with a smile to lean in and speak. “You’ve slept for so long, you must be tired. I had someone prepare your favorite bath of medicinal herbs.”
I squinted at him. His bearing was exceptionally fine, smiling as he pointed at an area behind a folding screen.
What kind of joke is this? Take a bath?
Curses, a girl like me wasn’t going to sell her body and act like some lady from an entertainment house.
“Master, your servants will wait upon you,” Two or three court ladies came to take my hands and help me over. A soft laugh came from behind me.
“Take good care of her for Zhen, or else I’ll put you all on the spot.”
 Ambitabha (????) ?emituofo, Buddhist exclamation that means “may Buddha preserve us,” “Buddha be praised.”  kindly (??) ?heshan, a pun that doesn’t work quite well outside of Chinese. Heshan means to be “kind and gentle, genial,” but was also a the formal, traditional term for taking a meal.  chenqie (??) ?a personal pronoun for a lower-ranked female, equivalent to ‘your servant.’  qieshen (??) ?”concubine”, another form of self address/personal pronoun, formerly used by a wife when speaking to her husband.
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