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Someone was drawing up the bed curtains. I opened my eyes, dazzled by the flickering candle flames. Little Li wore a cautious expression as he spoke in a low voice. “Master, it’s time to eat your meal.”
I lazily lifted my eyelids. The other half of the bed was already empty. “Where did his Majesty go?”
“He went to review memorials to the throne and told your servant to make sure you ate on time so you wouldn’t go hungry.”
“There’s no rush. Get some water, I want to wash up.” I draped myself in an outer robe, declining his offered hand to sit by the edge of the bed, frowning a bit as I adjusted to the soreness in my waist.
“Yes,” he answered, backing away a few steps to open a door and wave furiously outside.
It seemed like someone had been in wait long beforehand because a short while later, 18 eunuchs carried in tubs of hot water as they walked in. Court ladies also came in with clean sets of clothes to place behind the folding screens. When I wanted to get up, Little Li hastily came over to support me by the arm…
I glanced at him as I realized why he was so fixated on helping me. It felt like my bones were about to fall apart. My legs were like soft silken floss with no energy in them at all. I rested a hand on my sore waist as I took tiny steps towards the screen. A peek inside revealed that the pool was already hot with rising steam.
“That’s all, you’re all dismissed.” I gave a casual wave and shut out all the servants. Everything was nice in the imperial palace. It was a good place to enjoy a happy life of ease and comfort. If you wanted, you didn’t even need to expend effort to hold chopsticks during your meals. There would naturally be people that held tasty things to your mouth to eat.
Though a lazy person like me was happy with others dressing and feeding me, having them bathe me was something I was still unused to…
You could soak in a bath and wash yourself.
If there were multiple people standing behind you, waiting to strip you naked from your immaculate clothes before enthusiastically watching as you soaked in a tub…
That was definitely hardship.
I rested against the pool’s edge as the hot water soothed my tired body. A small, handleless cup of clear wine rested within arm’s reach. Its surface was as smooth as jade, and a lifelike, agile white dragon was carved against its side, cool to the touch.
This must belong to the emperor. Presumably, he liked to drink a bit while he bathed.
The servants hadn’t feared reprimanding when they carried over the custom to me. Right now, I was considered a figure who could dine and sleep with the Son of Heaven. In their eyes, I was probably suffused in imperial favor.
I laughed in spite of myself as I splashed water on my face.
Though I was immersed in the pool, my entire body still felt as sore as if a cart had ran over it. I gave a slight frown and groaned. The lights were always lit early in the palace, and the sun was just starting to set outside. Fiery red light shone against the paper windows. A hazy light appeared in the rooms to ignite a row of lamps, which shone against the folding screen and stirred its landscapes of mountains and water to life…gradually, the emperor’s face appeared in my mind.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, submerging myself below the surface. In the warm water, my body felt slightly more comfortable. I thought of the emperor’s lack of concubines in the past five years and the rumors of the male concubine in the Cold Palace, feeling that things were a bit strange.
The emperor seemed to be hiding something from me.
Forget it, I won’t dwell on it.
Leaning against the edge of the pool, I brushed aside my hair as I poured another cup from a flagon of wine. Looking at the fine stream of fragrant, sparkling clear liquid made me a little drunk before I’d even taken a sip. A marvelously intriguing scent tunneled its way past my nostrils, persistent and intense, but nothing like wine at all.
Something felt a little off.
I suddenly straightened up, splashing water everywhere. A small voice sounded from outside the door. “Is Master finished with washing? May your servant go and prepare dinner?”
This Little Li, he couldn’t have been bowing outdoors and listening for my movements the whole time, right?
My face fell and I replied unhappily, “How could I finish so quickly? Wait an hour more before calling for the food.”
The person outside thought for a while before speaking. “Master, do you need your servant to tell the court ladies to bring in more hot water?”
I clicked my tongue. He’d gotten more persistent since I had ignored him for so long. I prepared to pretend I was angry, before pausing. There was still that wonderful scent that made my tongue feel sweet. I was still unsteady on my legs, but I propped myself against the pool to hold myself up.
There was a small commotion outside. I heard Little Li gave a strange, stifled cry before his shadow against the windows tilted to one side, as if he’d toppled to the ground…
The fragrant scent grew stronger…
A figure flashed past the windows outside.
Surprised, I gingerly crawled my way out, grabbing something to dry myself off before pulling down the thin robes resting on the folding screen. Thinking a bit, I grabbed another layer and draped it over my shoulders, afraid that the wind tonight would be too strong for my body. Ducking down to hide, I raised my head and gave a sudden gasp.
From a chink in the door, I could see a thin, misty smoke floating inside the room. My eyes widened as I used my robes to block my nose. Suddenly, a cry rang out outdoors.
“Who’s that sneaking around!”
“Capture the assassin…”
The shadows of people fighting reflected against the windows, and the sounds of conflict and clashing went on unceasingly. The doors shuddered from the impact as I remained stunned.
I didn’t even have time to fix my hair as I snuck to the back door. Suddenly, an arrow whizzed by, narrowly missing my ear to bury itself in the wall by my side, tail feathers quivering. I almost jumped in fright, hastily pulling open the door to let myself out.
All right, this definitely counted as alarmingly dangerous.
Assassins could even penetrate the heavily guarded premises of the main hall…weirdly enough, the servants hadn’t even sensed that something had gone wrong. A cool wind brushed past, making me squint my eyes and sway on my feet. My half-wet hair made my scalp turn numb. From a distance, I could see the chaos happening about the main hall. There were numerous guards running about. I wasn’t sure what to do at the moment as I hid my hands in my sleeves to walk off, head lowered.
My steps came to a sudden halt as I knitted my eyebrows to sniff my robes. It was still full of that strange scent. Was it meant to drug a person?
But why were there no effects when I breathed it in? Instead, I felt…more and more clearheaded. My suspicions began to grow. This scent…I lowered my head to sniff it again. Just when I was working things out, the sound of coughing startled me. A few young eunuchs passed by my side, hurrying along with heads bowed though they couldn’t resist casting curious looks my way. I followed their gazes to look at myself, the wind billowing through my robes.
The sight was a little depressing.
I’d never expect I would narrowly escape an assassin by climbing out of a bath. Of course my clothes were disordered, what was there to look at? Most likely, no one could tell I was the emperor’s imperial concubine now.
I gave them a fierce look before adjusting the sash at my waist and straightening out my clothes. After calming myself down, my thoughts drew back to survey my surroundings. Where exactly had I ended up at?
There was no one else around, only that pond teeming with red lotuses. The wind had blown off most of their petals, which looked like seeping blood against the light of the setting sun. There was a narrow path that led to who-knows-where, looking exceptionally quiet and secluded. A face suddenly appeared in my mind, with ordinary features yet a delicate air. My heart chilled as I unconsciously clutched my robes.
The Cold Palace was directly ahead of me. Since I’d walked this far, I might as well go and take a look.
Fortunately, all the guards had rushed to the main hall to catch the assassin, so there were less on watch here. Looking around, the place seemed a bit desolate. The little path I followed was covered in withered yellow leaves. It felt a little unreal as I stepped across them with my feet, leaves crinkling. In the distance, I could hear the sound of children’s voices as they played.
Surprised, I walked forwards, brushing aside the tree branches in my way.
Oh, there really were two children outside the residence, squatting in the dirt to play with something. Their faces were very pretty, and they looked a bit like each other. Both were dressed in brightly colored, fine-quality silks, the quality far too good for any children of the Cold Palace. Their hands were filthy, and the edges of their robes were covered in dust.
The person looking after them was obviously surprised, but took no action to obstruct me. Neither of the children were afraid of strangers. They gave me a glance and went back to playing. It seemed they were making little figures out of mud.
Why were these two children playing in front of the Cold Palace?
I watched them as I walked along, having no desire to disturb such a quiet, happy picture. Circling past them, I stood before the tightly shut gates, looking up before placing my hand on the doors badly in need of repair. There was a moment of indecision as my heart quivered and grew uneasy…
The door was a little damp, and its red lacquer paint had begun to fade. Its tactile sensation was startlingly real against my skin. With a light push, the slightly rotten gates opened. A gust of wind blew out, spraying my face with sand. I rubbed my eyes with my sleeves as they teared up and made it hard to see.
The inside of the Cold Palace was deserted and desolate, many of the rooms sealed. All the other halls in the palace had long lit their lamps but there was only darkness here, with no sign of life…
It had a nice name, this Cold Palace…but really, it was just a broken-down house.
“Is there anyone here?” I called from the door.
Unable to wait any longer, I lifted my robes and boldly stepped inside. The courtyard only had one stone table without any chairs. The space inside was small and unadorned, but well-kept, unlike the leaf-strewn path outside. The flagstones on the ground were old and neither had much moss on them, nor were they too damp.
Just that…with things so dim, I was starting to miss the lantern that Little Li always carried with him. Though it was only lit with a candle of red wax and looked like a ghost light wavering in the night, it could still banish a section of darkness and help me see the dim shapes in the distance more clearly.
Speaking of which, why weren’t there any lights here? Even if the Cold Palace wasn’t paid much silver, they’d still get candles.
Weird, didn’t anyone live here?
Just as I thought this, I caught sight of a human-shaped figure flashing by out of the corners of my eyes. When I turned around to look, it was gone. Alarmed, I broke out into a cold sweat. Standing in place, I shrank my head back and dug into my sleeves, hesitating for a long while before looking outside the gates. The children who were playing there had disappeared, as if the voices I’d heard before were all an illusion.
Then…could they be ghosts?
I could only feel the scalp on my head turning numb as my icy hands while cold sweat broke out over my body. Little Li said a male concubine lived in the Cold Palace, but why did I feel that this place lacked signs of life? There was something indescribably strange about it all…
While I was considering when to leave, I heard a vague noise. My body stiffened as I held my breath to listen. There was no mistake…the sound came from the room furthest away from me, where the door was unlocked. This is the Cold Palace, where Lord Hua was supposed to live.
I didn’t know why, but from the first time I heard his name to all the times afterward, when people mentioned details about him, my heart would tighten to a taut string, as if about to snap. Disturbed, restless–I’d never been troubled like this before.
Did his relationship with the emperor cause me to feel this way?
Was it just because of the emperor, though?
I really couldn’t tell. Perhaps, I’d need to ask him for the details before I could reach a conclusion. I held back for a bit before the curiosity was too strong to resist. More soft noises came from the room, making my heart itch.
Damn it! If I was going to die, I might as well die from fright, not by being stifled! At least I would pass away understanding everything.
I hunched down as I approached that door, preparing to spy through the crack in the doors. A cold wind blew out, turning my scalp numb…I squinted before I could see anything. It was very dim inside the room, but there really was someone inside, fair and graceful…actually, I could even call them lithe and elegant.
What was that sticking out of their head? It looked like a flower hairpin.
A female was in this room?
Wasn’t it a male concubine that lived here?!
I was angry. Why was I angry? I didn’t know either, but I pushed open the door, frightening the person inside. The faint scent of mold came to greet me, and the ancient floorboards groaned beneath my feet. Surprised, I began to grow apprehensive.
…this, did it count as invading personal quarters?
In the dim lightning, everything was absolute silent. I could see a shadowy form back away a few steps, her back to me as she dug in her sleeves for a long while, as if searching for something…there was a sharp scraping noise, and light illuminated the room.
Under the hazy light, I stood dumbfounded. She leaned over to pick up the lamp and peered at me. Its dim yellow glow lit up the entire room as well as my features. I was a little timid, uncertain of whether I should hide my face. I tried to turn my head away as much as possible, taking the chance to inspect the room. The objects were set up orderly as if purposely arranged, but there was no sign that anyone lived here. Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust. The weather had turned colder, but the covers on the bed were thin and poor, and carried the odor of damp.
“Are you the imperial concubine that Big Brother Emperor’s going to confer a title on?” a timid female voice asked.
I roused myself, unable to resist looking up at the rafters. There were quite a few remnants of white knotted silks there.
She asked me again.
I gave an ‘un’ in affirmation before withdrawing my gaze to her face.
Maybe the lamplight was to blame, but there wasn’t a single hint of blood in her youthful face. Her complexion was extremely pale, but she had beautiful eyebrows that had rose slightly. If she knitted those brows, she would probably look fierce, but an attractive girl like her seemed so vulnerable and weak. She was dressed ornately, and though the hairpin in her head was nothing compared to my phoenix coronet, it was still noble and precious.
She smiled a bit and said lightly, “Perhaps you don’t recognize me.” A hand rose to rest on her temples, the wrist as white as jade. “My name is Xuan’er. I’m Big Brother Emperor’s little sister.”
I’d never heard him mention it…
What was she doing at the Cold Palace?
I glanced outside. Out of all the rooms in the Cold Palace, only this one was lit and had the signs of human habitation. Everywhere else was pitch-black. Odd, it really was grotesquely odd.
“Where’s the man who lives in the Cold Palace? Why isn’t there any sign of him?” I asked rashly.
She seemed flabbergasted as she looked at me, eyes gleaming like a trough full of water as she pondered for a bit. “Are you talking about the Lord Hua who used to live here?”
Used to live?
“Where did he move to?”
She smiled softly. “If you’re talking about Lord Fang Hua, then he lived here for awhile five years ago. Afterwards, he took his leave and left the imperial palace.”
What?! Left the palace…? But what about the one I met recently?
“Last time the laundry rooms mixed up his robes and he came to personally retrieve them. How could he have left for five years already?” I was doubtful.
“How could that fake compare to one-tenth of Fang Hua’s looks?” she lowered her head, using a sleeve to brush away the dirt on the table. Her words were slow and drawn out. “You should know, all the male concubines that Big Brother Emperor takes in are named Lord Hua.”
I was stunned.
There was no way to avoid it, this revelation was too earth-shaking. A strange feeling rose in my heart…something I couldn’t describe clearly…at the very least, it was very tangled.
She looked at me once more, mouth stuck between a smile and a line as she spoke. “Fang Hua is unique and resembles a jade Immortal. No matter how many others try to imitate that air, they still fall short of him. But nobody foresaw that he’d get sick not long after living in the Cold Palace.
Few people paid him any attention, so it was only me who always gave him flowers to eat. Ever since Big Brother Emperor banished him to the Cold Palace, I’d liked coming over to visit…
He’s a very good-natured, gentle person, even if he never talked much. After his illness, he spoke less and less. That’s right…sometimes when he was feeling better, Lord Fang Hua would call me Little Huang.”
She lowered her head and fiddled with her hands, face holding a quiet happiness like a woman recalling the joys of her youth.
Wait…she said the man was named Fang Hua.
My head turned numb.
This name was very familiar.
“What’s wrong?” she looked at me, deeply concerned. I smiled with difficulty, my head heavy and dizzy. Every single one of her words rang with truth in my ears.
“There was a period of time when I asked Big Brother Emperor to let me move in with Lord Hua, but he refused. Afterwards, Lord Hua disappeared from the palace.” her smile turned sad, and I had the sudden feeling she shouldn’t be smiling like that. It seemed inconsistent with her image. Instead, she should…
She should what?
I was blank until an image appeared in my mind of a self-important brat, whose face was enough to make a person gnash their teeth. In the end, I wanted to say something else, but something threw himself against her and hugged her by the legs.
“E niang, I’m hungry.” It was a very young voice.
There was a figure outside holding onto a second little child, whose beautiful eyes looked my way with a smile.
“It’s getting late, I should leave.” the pretty woman gave me a smile, and walked out the gates holding the little child by the hand. She’d left the candle for me, using the moonlight to guide her way…
I suddenly noticed that her robes, despite being of gorgeous make, looked a bit shabby beneath the moonlight, though it should’ve been barely used.
Even the emperor’s little sister lived such a hard life?
I exhaled, holding the candle in its lamp as I inspected this so-called Cold Palace. This was probably the place where her Fang Hua had lived. Besides a single bed, the room contained a table and two or three chairs. Although they were simple and unadorned, they made me feel at ease.
A jar on the table caught my attention. Testing its weight in my hand, I found it very light. A glance inside revealed some traces left behind by tea as well as a lingering scent of fresh flowers. Its owner must have been exceedingly elegant and refined.
Just as I was spacing out, a tiny noise sounded from outside the window.
 Little Huang (小黄) －xiaohuang, also known as Xuan’er (璇儿), made her first appearance in Chapter 30: A Clingy Servant, and was also mentioned indirectly as an aside in chapter 34.  e niang (额娘) －a formal, fancy way of saying mother, mom, etc.
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