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The pale stone floors scattered with yellow tiles and the red walls covered with colorful, luxurious paintings combined with the solemn dignity of the palace to stifle me. I suddenly realized that everything here was unfamiliar.
Little Li supported my preoccupied self back to the main hall. I could see the cold and cheerless door from a long distance away, with no imperial carriage in sight. Not only did I let out a breath in relief, but I also gave the eunuch a look as I murmured, “You used the emperor to scare me off. If I’d known it’d be like this, I would’ve followed that Lord Hua straight back to the Cold Palace for some novel sights.”
This guy actually said that the emperor would get angry if he came back from official business to find me gone. The emperor had lots of work to do, there was no guarantee he’d come back here even when he finished.
I gave him a glance and poked him with my finger. Little Li smiled with me, and lowered his head to bow. I pulled up my robes and took one step into the doors before bumping into something warm. Yah…what was this? I felt around clumsily with my hands around his chest until he caught me.
Little Li had already been frightened to kneeling on the ground. “May the Emperor live 10,000 years, 10,000 of 10,000 years!”
Recently, all I’ve been doing is running into people I shouldn’t…
I raised my head to meet the fearfully terrorizing eyes of the man before me, uncertain of how I was feeling. Disturbed, anxious…they all came naturally. I started as I remembered I should greet him, but I couldn’t move when he was holding my hands.
“Where did you go?”
“My body felt sluggish after lying in bed all day, so I went to soak in some sunshine.”
His eyes seemed to hold some thoughts as his eyebrows furrowed. A hand rested on my elbow and pushed me to a corner against the walls as he looked me up and down with concentration. Head lowered, he came to stroke my hair before his lips quirked up. “You went to look for him, didn’t you…”
He seemed to be extremely angry, but was trying his best to hold it back, intentionally lowering his voice to a soft and gentle tone. I felt a bit uneasy and looked to the side, appealing to Little Li for help. Yet I discovered that the kneeling eunuch had long since disappeared.
“What are you thinking about instead of speaking?”
“I don’t know what I should say,” I replied honestly, looking at the emperor.
Who was the “him” he mentioned? There was plenty of idle gossip within the court, so I couldn’t bring up false charges against a person.
He gave a ridiculing smile. I frowned, feeling his hot gaze was examining me very closely. He didn’t say anything else, but his body relaxed a bit. Still, I felt that something was wrong…
My line of vision went past his shoulders to the room beyond…as it turned out, the room was filled with broken porcelain, as if it had just went through a “reign of terror.”
“What happened here?”
He was quiet for a long while before suddenly breaking into a smile.
“General Qi’s people were remonstrating about the empress selection issue again. Zhen was irritated and came to find you, but you weren’t here. After seeing how outdated and old the furnishings in your quarters were, I decided to break a few pieces.”
Of course the older the item, the more valuable it was. There was an eighty percent chance that this guy was too well-off and just felt snubbed. I stared at him with a grin, but he lowered his head and pulled me into an embrace, murmuring by my ear. “If you saw him, then it’s fine. Break off your thoughts earlier. In the future, even if you spend one-tenths of your thoughts on me, I’ll treat you well and take care of you for a lifetime.”
He gave up using “Zhen” again. I felt a little frustrated with my chin forced against his shoulder, and used a hand to lightly comfort him. His feelings were getting a little out of hand. The old eunuch by the gates had a good grasp of the situation, and made a few gestures towards the outside of the courtyard. Immediately, swarms of servants arrived and quickly picked up all the fragments from the floor.
As it turned out…it had been quiet outside not because the emperor hadn’t returned, but because he’d scared away the servants with his arrival. I sucked in a breath and blanked out for a while before touching him again. He didn’t react, but continued to hold me.
A fragrant aroma began to fill the rooms. His embrace had an indescribable tenderness, and the mood felt just right, but…
“What was that noise?” he lowered his head and gave me a hesitant glance. Eyes widened as he rested a hand on my abdomen. Just in time, my stomach gave another growl.
“You’re not young anymore, but why don’t you understand how to take care of yourself better?” his eyes were filled with concern and distress. “Have you eaten yet? You must be hungry.”
“Not too hungry.” When I recalled the words he said during his emotional fit, I’d feel plenty full. Exactly what kind of things were hidden in this person’s heart?
I sat down on the bed and kicked off my shoes, before realizing the emperor was here too… At the very least, I had an image to preserve, so I carefully arranged the shoes and sat ladylike on the bed. He gave a soft, but audible laugh. I didn’t pay it the slightest mind, but pulled up my sleeves to take a translucent pastry. Sniffing it a few times, I took a bite. It was sweet…but not too greasy.
“I heard you went to the Cold Palace?”
I choked like a coward.
The news here travelled way too fast…did he go discuss official business, or tail me instead?
“Didn’t manage to make it. I didn’t know it was the Cold Palace, only thought that the spot behind the lotus pond had to be a good place. After listening to Little Li, I decided not to go.”
He nodded, and suddenly said, “Don’t believe the hearsay in the palace.”
What rumors…? The ones about the emperor liking men? Though I didn’t have the guts to ask him directly. I gave him a quiet glance…
He seemed to be deep in thought, eyes furrowed in vexation until he seemed to notice me. Indifferent, he didn’t avoid my gaze but met it straight on. The light shone clearly on his features, which were extremely heroic and somewhat noble. It was a rather young face, but long infused with the spirit of a sovereign. Perhaps he seemed unapproachable to other people, but he was always temperate and calm with me.
Would this person…raise male concubines? It was hard to understand him.
He suddenly crept closer, a hand circling around my waist as he glanced at me before speaking softly. “After thinking to myself, I’ve concluded that some things between us have to be done. Thereafter, I won’t worry even if you see other people, because it won’t be worth any foolish fancies.”
I was stunned.
Do what? What did he want to accomplish?
His hand touched my face as his gaze turned ambiguous before resting on my lips. Fingers slipped down and past my chin as he leaned over; perhaps the skin was too slippery, because he didn’t get a grip. Seeing his face get closer and closer, I shrank back until I was against the wall, avoiding his hands. I gave a dubious look towards this opportunistic man. Who was it that said, ‘being close to the emperor is like being close to a tiger?’
I thought this emperor had a fair disposition. At the very least, the space between his eyebrows were smooth, and he had a soft gaze. If there was something to help me overlook the feeling of goosebumps on my skin…then I’d feel a bit better.
“Look at how scared you are…Zhen isn’t some sort of ferocious bird or wild beast,” he said, stroking my face.
You’re wilder than either of them. I gave a shiver, and meekly protested in silence.
“Forget it, I won’t tease you.” he smiled as he clapped his hands.
A group of court ladies slowly streamed in from outside, their steps exceptionally light. Every one of them was holding something in her hands, but they were too far away for me to see clearly.
“I can draw up the official documents tomorrow,” he conveniently drew closer to speak, laughing. “The imperial palace rushed to make some clothing to wear for the grand ceremony. It was a little hasty, but you should try them on and see if they fit.”
A young eunuch wordlessly walked before me, kneeling while he slowly opened a wooden box. I quickly shielded my eyes with my hands…squinting as I peered over. I could only see a lifelike phoenix coronet, glistening and glittering yellow.
This was too much, right?
I took a deep breath.
Before I’d recovered, a circle of court ladies helped me off the bed and someone said in a low voice, “Master, please change clothes. This was carefully selected by his Majesty and only finished after multiple alterations.”
I felt a little dazed.
Did the emperor need to personally concern himself with such things? He only smiled harmoniously, the lamplight making him eminently handsome and filling his face with warmth. I stood blankly for a second, glancing at the servants’ deferential forms as they held various items above their heads.
A slim and graceful red robe was spread out before the bed. There was also a thicker outer robe made of some unknown material that made the embroidered gold dragons seem especially solemn. I could estimate that there were seven or eight layers of robes without even counting the beautiful collection of jade ornaments and gold hairpins.
The sight stupefied me.
These things were far from the rank of a paltry concubine, but nearly on par with the empress herself…the robes were quality robes and the gold was quality gold…so dazzling that my eyes were seeing afterimages. He leaned against the bed, comfortably observing my expression with a hand propped beneath his head, playing with his ring. A gaze like that made my back turn numb.
Perhaps they’d caught the emperor’s hint, but a few court ladies surrounded me and opened up my arms, preparing to take off my outer robes.
“There’s no need to trouble you, I’ll do it myself,” I declined.
“How could we tire out the imperial concubine? Zhen should take charge of such a thankless job,” a voice as warm and mellow as wine came from behind me, carrying it with the hints of a smile.
Someone hooked around the edge of my collar and tugged. The sash that was wound tightly around my waist loosened as he took off a large portion of my outer robes. He drew closer and pulled me into his embrace, a finger resting on my remaining white inner robes as he smiled. “Usually, Zhen has others serving him. How about I serve you today and help you with your clothes?”
What kind of service was this? He’d mixed up the differences between “stripping” and “taking off” one’s clothes.
I looked down at the finger currently digging its way into my inner robes.
“This doesn’t need to be taken off if I’m trying on the outer robes.”
“…true.” he gave an embarrassed smile and withdrew his reckless wolf claws. I covered myself up with the inner robes. It was a little chilly with the wind blowing, though the scent of incense was strong as ever indoors. The court ladies looked like they wanted to laugh, but held it in as they surged over, taking off the rest of my outer robes. The bright red robes were spread out and brought over…catching the light, it seemed to reflect dark red threads within the cloth.
I was a bit out of it as the hustle and bustle continued. The only thing I noticed was his exceptionally delighted expression.
In that moment of inattention, a smooth but slightly chilly fabric passed over my fingers. When I came back to my senses, they’d already dressed me up. Surrounded by the bright red, my pale-skinned face seemed to reflect some of its jubilant cheer.
And then came another layer.
They turned me back and forth as they piled countless layers on me. These clothes looked fairly light, but their combined weight was enough to make it difficult to breathe and even move around in. Such a gorgeous set of robes. Pretty as they were…was I really expected to wear them when my title was conferred on me?
My heart sank, and my scalp seemed to turn numb.
Standing before a bronze mirror, dressed resplendently with my hair hanging loosely about me, I looked nothing like the usual. Instead, there was a fatal attractiveness about the golden robes and scarlet red fabric lining my throat. The corners of my eyes rose slightly, and even my pupils seem to shine with a softer, more graceful light.
I supported myself against the table and took a deep breath.
With a wave of a hand, an eunuch followed me with head bowed, raising a trousseau filled with glittering head ornaments and hairpins.
“Master, your required accessories.”
Tch, a joke…it’s not like they were conferring the title on me today. I’m not going through with that kind of suffering. How many jin were those things?
Though they did look expensive and refined…
I circled around the box a few times, bending down to stare at that exquisite phoenix coronet. If I could, I’d pick it up and bite it with my teeth. It was probably pure gold. Turning towards the emperor, I spoke. “Your Majesty, does everyone have to wear these when they’re conferred a title? It’s so heavy.”
I dragged my tediously long robes behind me as I approached him. Maybe I was tired, because I stepped on the hem of my clothes on the way and felt a little cold…
When I looked down, I realized someone had taken off my shoes without me noticing. In the chaos, I hadn’t noticed a thing until now. I stepped onto a mat placed on the ground, feeling my cold toes grow a little numb.
“The rest of you are all dismissed.” The emperor, who had been sitting with amusement on a soft cushion all this time, finally spoke. The retreating steps were so soft, there was barely any sound until the doors to the room shut, startling me.
The atmosphere immediately became extremely strange as the lights in the room dimmed. The golden lotus incense burners emanated thin trails of smoke that rose in the air, no longer buffeted by the breeze. Their ambiguous scent hovered in the air.
He slowly got off the bed and walked towards me, resting his hand on my shoulder. Before I could react, he’d lifted me up into his arms. Smiling, his gaze was firm as he took me to the bed and placed my stiff body there. I furrowed my eyebrows, but before I could curl up, his hand crept into my robes and found my feet, placing them on his legs. Those large, cocoon-like hands held my feet until they turned warm and numb to the point that my toes wanted to curl up.
He asked with a light smile, “Are you warm?”
Not just warm, but super comfortable. I was almost on the verge of crooning.
My entire body was warm, yet he didn’t stop. Head lowered, he took the time to play around with my toes. It was very strange…even doing things such as this, he didn’t lose a bit of a monarch’s natural poise or bearing. A sentence suddenly appeared in my mind: if the first place a man touches is your feet and he treats it like a treasured jewel, then he’ll truly love you.
Or in other words…he’d be a considerate husband.
But I couldn’t remember where I’d heard these words from, no matter how I tried.
My hair…and my ears both itched. I recovered my senses as my lips grew warm from his kiss. A figure pressed down against me, pressing me to the bed. Though the light was behind him, I could still make out his gentle face. I was a little dazed as I sputtered.
“Y-y-you…what are you doing!?”
 reign of terror (腥风血雨) －xingfeng xueyu, literally “foul wind and a rain of blood.”  phoenix coronet (凤冠) －fengguan, crown worn by an empress or imperial concubine, also used formerly as a bride’s headdress. Very heavy!
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