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The folding screen wasn’t very wide, but I didn’t realize such a scene existed behind it. A simple and unsophisticated wooden bookshelf displayed a tracing of a landscape painting to accompany the screen, creating a cleverly sheltered space…
There was a pool emanating a fog that smelled like medicine. The scent was comfortable and refreshing here as I sank into the water. I could see the emperor sitting calmly on the bed beyond the screens, whose layers were as thin as cicada’s wings. He was holding a rolled-up object of some sort, reading it leisurely before raising his eyes to smile at me.
I nearly ducked my entire face underwater.
Steam rose up from around my body, turning the skin of my neck red. My head felt muddled as I perched by the edge of the pool. I say, it’s only been a few days since I’ve washed. Was I really that dirty?
I gave a bitter look to the court ladies scrubbing me up and down as if they were trying to give me a second skin. It’s not as if I was a corpse, this skin was still high quality…
One after the other, docile faces wore innocent, pitiful expressions as they knelt by the edge of the pool. I softened, but then…why did they scrub even harder than before? This level of torment was enough to break my poor waist.
My face turned wooden as I felt extremely tragic, casting a glance beyond the screens. I could see the vague form of the emperor leaning against the bed, leisurely flipping through a book without even lifting his head. “Why don’t I heard the sound of water? Use all your strength to scrub for Zhen.”
“Dont’don’tdon’t…” I hastily protested, pushing myself to the center of the pool. The figure beyond the screens moved slightly, and stopped turning the pages.
Softly, a voice laced with a smile drifted my way. “If their coarse movements are causing you pain, Zhen can take the trouble to replace them.”
He actually put aside the book and made his way to get off the bed. He was just waiting to say this line, right? I fell silent, tired from my outburst from before, and lowered my head with gritted teeth to endure the ministrations of the scrubbing court ladies. Their hands felt like a thousand knives, and I kept my silent disapproval obvious.
Suddenly, a disturbance sounded from outside.
“Your excellency, esteemed excellency, you can’t go in,” Though the young eunuch spoke softly, his voice was unusually clear in the quiet surroundings. I was astonished.
Something soft hit against some wooden boards and a door opened from the outside. The young eunuch kneeled on the ground, face pale as he clutched his stomach in silence. Sunlight framed a tall shadow that carried with him a strange, foreign scent of windswept sand and fresh blood. That man walked in with impatient steps. I could actually hear the sound of his sword scabbard clinking against his armor. Even weapons could be worn in the main hall, so close to the emperor?
There was the sound of someone kneeling on one knee.
“I received news that the emperor was attacked en route by assassins. Your servant is very much troubled at heart.”
“My beloved official has just returned from the frontier pass, and should rest for a few more days.” The emperor reached out a hand to help him up. “Zhen only met with a minor scare, there was nothing serious that happened.”
I couldn’t see very clearly through the hazy screen.
The two people went through the usual rites of ruler and vassal. Originally, it should be a pleasing sight, but why…did something feel off?
This general looked to be on in his years, hale and hearty with long experiences in the battlefields. His keen intuition noticed something was different right away as he looked in my direction. His face seemed to flash in surprise before his eyes sharpened, and an imposing manner followed his arched eyebrows.
This man could impertinently charge into the emperor’s sleeping quarters. He probably didn’t have too many scruples. I wasn’t nervous at all, but glared back at him. The emperor clapped him casually on the back to regain his attention, and the two talked softly for a while.
Soaking in a medicinal bath was good for health. Someone kept refilling the bath with hot water too, but…my skin had started to wrinkle from staying inside so long. How long were those two going to stay there?
“Your Majesty, regarding the matter of conferring the title of ‘Empress’ title on my daughter…”
Now I was curious. I hid in the pool and cocked my ear to listen.
“We can discuss this matter in the future,” the emperor’s face seemed a little unhappy, but it was gone in a moment. He added, “This morning I received reports regarding the situation at the border. Come with Zhen into the study.”
“At your Imperial Majesty’s command.” But that person only gave a shallow bow in response.
The emperor’s line of sight went past him to look at me, lips curving up into a gentle smile. As if…he was reassuring me. When the two of them walked past my screen, the general seemed to want to get a clearer picture.
“My beloved official,” the emperor wore a smile that wasn’t a smile as he quietly grabbed him by the arm. Tightening his grip, he dragged the old general off before the latter had a chance to look back.
I had the illusion that this general was a formidable figure. His eyes were so incisive and ruthless. And yet, was the emperor protecting me…?
Time enough to prepare a cup of tea passed by.
I finally crawl out from the steaming hot pool to get dressed and have my hair done. The court ladies waiting upon me made sure I was properly attired before I valiantly charged out the doors, only to be followed by a quick-witted eunuch.
“Master, his Majesty said that you’ve yet to recover and to not recklessly wander about. The wind is fierce outside and you might catch a chill.”
The wind is fierce…catch a chill?
I raised a sleeve to shade my eyes as I looked up towards the warm sunshine.
“Even with strong sunlight, there’s no guarantee that it isn’t windy either. See here…” the young eunuch raised his hand and earnestly pointed in one direction. Oh, well what do you know? The leaves on those little trees really were rocking and swaying.
I narrowed my eyes and looked at him. “You, what’s your name?”
“Good…very good, not bad.” I stared at him and added silently that I’d remember this guy. He could even say a dead camel was a live horse, what a damnable gift, what a talented guy.
“What are you holding in your hands?”
“To answer Master, these are robes.”
…looking at the style of these robes, it was definitely tailored for a man. They were snow-white but rather old, as if they’d been worn for a long time. The emperor wouldn’t wear clothes like these. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“The laundry rooms delivered the wrong set, these are clothes for the disfavored lord in the Cold Palace.”
I nodded at him, before brushing my hands against the robes. Little Li’s expression seemed fretful as he remained standing, head bowed in respectful deference.
Un, the material beneath my fingers was cold and slippery as water. Even though it was a bit old, the quality was still remarkably good. If even the Cold Palace clothes could be sent to the laundry rooms for laundering, the person there couldn’t be too much out of favor.
I thought a bit before rolling up my sleeves and clapped him repeatedly on the shoulder. He trembled before steadying himself beneath my blows, head still bowed.
“Take me to stroll around for a while for exercise.”
He hesitated a second before steeling himself to agree.
The air outside was very fresh. I stretched my arms beneath the fine, sunny day, but my mood seemed a little worse than it was at the beginning. My eyes couldn’t help but glance towards Little Li and the robes in his hands. After walking a few more steps, I thoughtfully looked back. “Little Li, who was it that barged into the emperor’s sleeping quarters just now? Why would they talking about conferring a title for an empress?”
“General Qi rendered great services for the previous emperor in expanding territories. He is one of the dynasty’s important founding figures who holds vast military strength. Since his Majesty’s ascended the throne, he has neither appointed an empress nor helped produce any sons, so petitions to the court have earnestly requested his Majesty to accept General Qi’s daughter…”
Little Li stole a glance at me and trailed off, head bowed as he painstakingly folded and refolded the robes.
Eh, it was pretty understandable.
General Qi didn’t seem like a person who would be content doing his duties. By acting in this way, the emperor could incur good will with him while preserving the security of his throne. It wasn’t a bad idea. I drew into thought as I rested a hand on his shoulder for support. We hadn’t taken more than a few more steps before I suddenly stopped.
Wind billowed the robes draped over his arms, imbibed with a distinctive scent of something like medicine…but also like bamboo. A nostalgic feeling rose up within my heart.
“What’s the deal with what you just said? There are only eunuchs and court ladies in the inner court. Are you telling me that there’s an un-castrated male, too? Could he be the emperor’s inner attendant?”
No, he shouldn’t be in the Cold Palace if that was the case.
Little Li kept his head lowered and answered me with silence. I began to have doubts, looking around me as my suspicions grew. I took another step, and stopped. “Little Li, where did you take me for our stroll?”
This place looked like the quarters of the imperial harem…
But it felt like it was missing something.
My eyes travelled over to a pond filled with beautiful red lotuses before I asked him under my breath, “Where do the other concubines live? We’ve walked for so long, but all I’ve seen are lotus ponds, willow trees, or plants and flowers.”
He didn’t utter a word. Yet though his head was bowed, those eyes kept roving back and forth, filled with secret intelligence. He was probably thinking of what to say. My hand moved on his shoulder and pinched him.
His eyebrows bunched together, but he didn’t dare to cry out.
“To…answer Master, his Majesty hasn’t been interested in women during the past few years, so he never accepted any concubines.”
Not interested in women?!
Impossible. Such an amorous, licentious man. I’d remember how he’d kept by my side during my illness, hands feeling here and there. They’d never stopped moving for a second.
Hey, don’t stop talking if I haven’t interrupted you. I signaled him to go on with my eyes. He actually muttered and hummed forever before refusing to speak another word.
I laughed. “You’re a devoted and loyal servant, you know when to keep your mouth shut. Good, very good!” A tolerant smile appeared on my features, but my force on his shoulder didn’t lessen.
There were plenty of ways to pinch a person…
One was the martial pinch, where a finger held onto a section of skin while the wrist twisted to add pressure. The other was the scholarly pinch, more refined in comparison. The thumb and index fingers trapped a length of skin between them and gently pressed down, overwhelming the opponent.
A refined, delicate lady like myself would of course have to use orchid hands when I employed my pinching method.
“Yeowowow…your servant will talk…isn’t choosing to speak enough?!” He couldn’t avoid me this time as his complexion turned deathly pale, face crumpled up like the wrinkled folds of a meat bun.
Speaking of meat burns, they were one of my favorite foods. I don’t know if the imperial kitchens knew how to make them, but I liked to eat the ones with meat and Chinese cabbage filling. I came back to my senses in time to hear Little Li speaking.
“…so in all these five years, the emperor’s never appointed anyone as a concubine, but court ladies have entered the imperial palace as usual.” he lifted his gaze when he finished the summary, and shut his mouth again.
I didn’t hear the beginning.
Never mind, since I’d heard the conclusion, I wouldn’t look into the reasons. My eyes scanned our surroundings as I slightly raised my eyebrows. On the west side, there was an eunuch who looked away as he pretended to busy himself with a mat by the pond. I had to look a long while before I spotted a lotus seedpod in his hand. By the white jade railings, a group of court ladies quickly lowered their heads as they hurried along, too fearful to look at me again. I turned and saw a wet nurse leading along two nobly dressed children, half-pulling and half-dragging them as she urged them along, glancing back at me with every three steps.
I was wondering why they were looking at me like some sort of new playtoy.
As it turned out, I was a special case in all of these five years. The emperor said he’d confer upon me the title of…highest ranking imperial concubine.
Just a smidgen below the empress.
I was the only imperial concubine within the palace. As my thoughts reached this point, I raised my head and pointed ahead with a handkerchief to say softly, “Take me strolling for a while longer.” Then I walked on with small, delicate steps, spirited and full of mettle.
Exactly like…a turtledove with a phoenix feather stuck in her tail?
“Master, it’s getting late. If his Majesty can’t find you, he’ll put the blame on me.”
“Coming out for a walk refreshes the body. When we return I’ll explain things so he doesn’t penalize you.” The area behind the lotus pond was quiet and secluded. I didn’t know what kind of place it was so I wanted to have a look…
A body stepped forward to block me, scraping and bowing as the figure spoke in a voice so anxious it sounded like he was about to cry. “You’ve just recovered not long ago, why not continue your stroll tomorrow?”
I ignored him and stepped to the left. In a flash, he’d blocked me again. I stepped to the right…and met with the same result. Smiling, I asked him directly, “What’s up ahead?”
“To reply Master, it’s the Cold Palace. You’re going to be conferred a title in a few days, so you definitely shouldn’t visit such an unlucky place.”
The rumored Cold Palace where someone once hung themselves with a white sash and died? Where you could sometimes still hear the sound of crying at night, and where strange shadows flitted through the halls?
I had difficulty controlling myself as I grabbed Little Li’s sleeve and hauled him after me. I took a detour around the lotus pond and brushed aside some branches before speaking in an extremely secretive tone. “You have to take me there for a look to expand my horizons. I’ll bear the responsibility on his Majesty’s side.”
His legs were already shaking as he shrank back, too afraid to remove my hand as his face fell into a fluster. There was an awkward look in his eyes as he stuttered out, “Master, this task isn’t….i-i-isn’t good, the emperor had instructions not to let you come to places like these, or else he’d break your servant’s…”
“Aiya, you’re such a coward,” I waved my hand and pointed at a random spot. “There isn’t even anyone here. If you won’t talk, I won’t either, and nobody will know.”
Hm, something doesn’t feel right.
It felt like I was touching something…my finger used some more strength and poked around, feeling something soft and springy as I sensed a person behind me. The young eunuch was shocked as well, unable to speak as he looked behind me. My arm turned stiff as I fell silent, unsure of whether I should withdraw my finger first, or turn around. I stood in that awkward position, unmoving for a while until a voice sounded out behind me.
“For how long will this young Miss continue to poke me?”
“Excuse me for my impropriety.”
“It’s not a problem,” There was a hint of a smile in those words.
I lowered my head and pulled Little Li along, preparing to leave. But that person blocked my way. I saw a pair of black shoes and some rather worn robes, devoid of any accessories. It was extremely simple and unadorned, a rare sight for those dressed within the palace.
I turned away, but he blocked me again.
His figure looked delicate and weak, but he carried an imposing manner. Little Li seemed to be stupefied. I grew unhappy.
“What do you want to do?”
He laughed, speaking in a cheerful, blunt manner. “Young Miss, you’ve misunderstood. This humble one doesn’t want to do anything but reclaim his clothes.”
I took a look and saw him pointing at the old robes in Little Li’s arms. For a while I didn’t react, thinking things over before I slowly looked up at him…shocked. This was the disfavored lord from the Cold Palace?!
He had a very common-looking face, probably considered good-looking, and a pair of delicate, pretty eyebrows. He lacked a certain charm, though the air about him wasn’t bad…
He took the robes and gave me a slow smile. “Many thanks.”
When those ordinary features broke into a smile, they had an indescribable, lingering appeal, making his face radiant. Though, he’d probably look even better if he had a mole by one eye. I stood there blankly while he touched the robes in his hands as if holding a priceless treasure. Then he turned and left us.
Little Li stammered a parting line, “Lord…Lord Hua, take care.”
He waved his hand in admonition as he nodded, but didn’t turn back before disappearing into the trees. His figure wasn’t bad…
Though it felt like something wasn’t right. There was too much of a disparity to the person in my imagination. This guy was Lord Hua?
An oppressive pain appeared in my head, and an image flashed of a person dressed in white, lofty and unyielding as his robes billowed about. That forehead…ought to be filled with gloominess. In my impression, a man worthy of the ‘Lord Hua’ title was a person of 10,000 expressions, not…
“Master, what’s wrong?”
I supported myself on Little Li’s shoulder, a hand pressing against my forehead with eyes closed. I tried thinking back but couldn’t remember a thing. Just now, that sudden feeling in my heart had been bitter and resigned, but the figure that had appeared in my mind had vanished without a trace.
I had a tangled look in my eyes as I gazed into the distance, asking in a low voice. “That person was really Lord Hua?”
“Tell me frankly,” I looked doubtfully in the direction of the man who had already left. My hand had a death grip on Little Li’s robes, and my voice wavered. “Aren’t the residents of the Cold Palace under house arrest? How could he walk around like that?”
Little Li tilted his head. I had no idea what he was thinking about as he studied my face before speaking. “Lord Hua is different from other people.”
Were those robes really his?
When he walked past me just then, I’d only smelled the faint scent of the palace incense, a far cry from the hints of medicine and bamboo that had lingered on the old robes in his hands… I withdrew my gaze and gave a sigh, touching where the robes had rested on Little Li’s arms, stroking it as I asked again, “What kind of people live in the Cold Palace? Is it desolate and bleak?”
“Bleak? That’s the most bustling place in the palace. Historically, disfavored concubines and male concubines all live inside.”
Could you live so thoughtlessly? This…
Wait, that wasn’t the point.
“Male concubines?” I paused to recover my breath, asking hesitantly, “You’re saying they’re men…these male concubines?”
He had a completely normal expression on his face. “That’s right. The person just then was one of them.”
I almost couldn’t accept the idea. My body swayed, but fortunately he was there to support me.
“Master, what is the matter?”
“Support me, I want to go back and rest.” I was out of breath.
The sunlight wavered on our way back, and my heart fluttered with it. I kept going and over over his words in my head. Unable to reconcile myself with the facts, I turned to ask him again. “This male concubine you mentioned, does he belong to the late emperor?”
“Which one?” he blinked, as if he didn’t know who I meant. It took awhile before he spoke again with an obviously guilty conscience. “…Lord Hua? Oh, Master’s asking about the one that walked away before.”
I gave him a silent look, gaze complicated as I did my best to stem a raging tide.
“He’s not,” he replied quickly, “When the emperor was still a crown prince, he brought him in from the outside. This happened five years ago.”
I sucked in a breath. Did he have something against me? He kept hiding things I wanted to hear and telling me things I didn’t want to know. My chest felt oppressive, and a sad mournfulness seemed to be spreading within my heart. This wasn’t to my taste at all.
It didn’t seem right. Could it be that this body really did hold feelings for the current emperor, so my heart reacted when I realized he was raising male concubines…?
“Tell me more about that male concubine.”
“Rumors say he has brilliant medical skills. He was brought in to save the previous emperor, but got into awkward straits with his Majesty. Since then, he’s always lived in the Cold Palace. The emperor was loath to part with him, so he’d visit the Cold Palace every few days…later on…he forgot about him.”
My heart gave a violent throb. “Stop talking.” I covered my face and took an oppressive breath.
That’s it, then.
It’s fine if my heart was just pounding, but why was it twisted in pain? Like a knife had forcibly cut it open, aching beyond aching, making it impossible to control my grief.
What was going on with me?
 at your Imperial Majesty’s command (??) ?zunzhi, what officials/laypersons/etc. say in response to an imperial edict, or commands by the emperor himself. Rather formal and important-sounding. >:)
 say a dead camel was a live horse (???????????) ?siluotuo douneng shuocheng huomaer, basically he can make one thing sound like another.
 General Qi (???) – Qi jiangjun, the surname here could mean “relative,” “sorrow/woe”, or “an axe-like weapon used in ancient China.”
 orchid hands (???) ?lanhuazhi, a common hand gesture found on ladies in traditional Chinese paintings or classical Chinese dance, in which the user extends the fingers of her hand like the petals of a flower. Suggests gracefulness and delicacy.
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