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I raised my voice and called out, “Who’s outside?”
A lamp could be seen shining through the windows as someone coughed outside. Surprised, my eyes rose. I waited expectantly and a person dressed in eunuch’s robes walked inside, carrying a lamp. The light flickered against his face and made his expression somewhat unreal.
It was Little Li.
Curling my lips in disappointment, I turned to sit on the bed, ignoring its layer of dust. “What are you doing here?”
“So it turns out Master was here, your servant has been looking for you. Just then, I fainted away at the main hall before realizing an assassin was on the prowl…all the servants have been on the search. Luckily, a few eunuchs said they saw you walk this way. You must be hungry by now. Dinner’s ready so please follow me back, Master.”
I made a small noise but refused to speak. He stood still, silent as well.
After some time, I spoke again, though my voice was a little hoarse. “This…when did that Lord Hua move out of the palace? Don’t lie to me anymore, I’m talking about Fang Hua.”
He remained calm, though his hands involuntarily tightened. The fingers looked pale white beneath the lamplight, clearly betraying his anxiety. Surprised, I watched the lamp reflect off his face, which pulled itself into a reluctant smile. “Not long after the previous emperor passed again, or about half a month after Lord Fang was chased to the Cold Palace, he left this place. At that time, the current emperor had yet to take the throne.”
“Why didn’t I hear anyone mention this? The emperor didn’t say bring it up either,” I muttered to myself, eyebrows furrowed. He raised his head to look at me with trembling lips, a complicated expression on his face.
What was wrong?
“Are you hiding something from me?” my face stiffened.
He bowed forwards, head lowered as his hands grasped his robes. Finally, he couldn’t hold himself back and said in a low, extremely stealthy voice, “This isn’t something a servant like me should gossip about behind someone’s back. But it’s really uncomfortable to keep covering it up. Actually…” He frowned slightly, lifting his eyes to me. “In truth, not long after Master left the Cold Palace, Lord Hua began to pack his things and prepare to leave.”
What?! What did this have to do with me?
Wait…hold on…I seemed to have seized on something. My mind searched vainly in a blank space for something I couldn’t quite grasp. “You mean to say,” I clutched his hand, frowning as I spoke carefully. “I lived in the Cold Palace before?”
He pushed aside my hand in embarrassment, backing away a step. “Exactly so, right here.”
Was I a disfavored concubine as well?
He nodded and added another line, “At that time, Master and I both served Lord Hua.”
Ah, what balderdash…
It felt like a string had snapped inside my body, sending me all asunder. My mood sank with my drooping shoulders. Why didn’t I remember anything of this? I bent my head in a moment of silence. No, this was wrong…if I couldn’t remember anything, why would I remember this?
Little Li kept his head bowed but stole a glance at me. I held myself in check, calming my heart as I sat straighter and coughed. “Tell me about the details. If you make up any nonsense, I won’t forgive you.”
“Yes.” Even with his body bent, his words were very clear. “Your servant has always been with Lord Hua. Later on, Master was summoned from the Imperial Physicians’ courtyard to serve Lord Hua. Back then, you had a round face with small eyes, and weren’t very tall. You didn’t look like much either…”
“Stopstopstop, we won’t continue with that. Speak.”
He bowed again, eyes lowered as he continued. “But who knew that one night, his Majesty…no, he was still the crown prince then. His imperial highness, the crown prince and Lord Hua were enjoying drinking together. Later on, you got into an argument with the crown prince and started arguing in the courtyard. Then…the crown prince teared…”
He really matched his narrative, mimicking the crown prince’s actions by waving aside his sleeves…I ducked my head to the side to avoid the sweep. The candlelight on the table flickered incessantly beneath the wind of his sleeves.
I glared at him.
He hastily lowered his head, standing primly in place as he spoke docilely, “After the crown prince did that, your face mask fell, and then you ran away.”
He sure liked dwelling on trivial details. Why did I smell the hint of adultery in this story? Was this a complicated love triangle with me as the third wheel who ruined their relationship? I dawdled a bit before looking back, just in time to catch Little Li looking at me for any reaction. In response, I gave him a light kick and said icily, “I told you to tell me why Lord Hua left. Why did you bring the topic back to me again…keep going, don’t stop! If you spout any more drivel I’ll tear apart your lips.”
The lonely moon shed its light on him. This guy actually gave a mischievous laugh and shook his head. “The night after you left, the crown prince and Lord Hua shut themselves in a room. I don’t know what they talked about. The result…was that Lord Hua grew ill. The crown prince came to visit every day, but was always refused at the door by Lord Hua. A bit later, Lord Hua left behind a note and departed.”
So afterwards, the emperor refused to take any concubines for five years. The story of Lord Hua leaving the palace was rarely mentioned as well. Thinking back…the words that the emperor had told me, as well as his expression, was like remembering old time’s sake for him.
Is it possible that I was the one who stuck herself in and ruined a happy family? The idea was shocking. I took a ferocious breath of cold air to recover.
“Master, what’s wrong?” Little Li quickly came to support my arm.
“Nothing serious,” I turned away, speaking quietly. “The things you’ve told me tonight, don’t tell anyone else. Don’t even mention it to the emperor.” I couldn’t let him remember his old flame or these past events…
“Your servant understands,” Little Li seemed to relax from his tension. “Lord Hua has always been a good person. Your servant can tell he always treated you very well, so it’s no wonder you’re asking about him. And so…I didn’t control my words.” His eyes looked at mine. “A good person like that…you shouldn’t forget him.”
My heart suddenly shrank back and started to beat wildly.
What had happened to me? How could one little line send my heart pounding?
Was a guilty conscience haunting me? I had been a disdainful, vile character, yet forgotten everything. Then I’d greedily accepted all the pleasures of my present life…
How criminal, how evil.
Little Li seemed to be sizing me up as I stared at him head-on and spoke frankly. “All the things you’ve said, I can’t really remember them anymore. But since he’s treated me so well, I’ll definitely burn a stick of incense for him to Buddha before I eat and sleep, and pray for his blessings.”
Little Li gave me a significant look.
I didn’t have time to ponder it deeply, but propped myself up. My stomach began to grumble, and I gave it a glance, rubbing it with my hands. Little Li had excellent foresight as he said, “Master, it’s getting late. Shall we go back? It’s already past dinnertime, if we drag it out any longer it’ll be midnight snacktime instead.”
“All right, let’s go.”
He actually reached out a hand to bar my wall. “You’re going to be conferred a title soon. Many eyes will be on you…it’s not good for you to leave the Cold Palace so directly, I’ll call over a sedan chair for you.”
Didn’t I walk over here? It was so dark at night, who could see the path clearly? His face remained adamant.
“Forget it, forget it. Hurry and go, I’ll wait.”
“Yes!” he kneeled on the ground. I waved a hand as if chasing away a fly. He trailed a wisp of smoke behind him as he ran off with the lantern. The room immediately dimmed, and shadows fell across the walls oppressively. I felt a bit bored and glanced at the lamp on the table…huh, the candle was almost finished, the melted wax like red years.
If I’d realized it earlier, I should have kept Little Li’s lantern instead.
I looked about me until I found a stick of bamboo to suppress the candle flame slightly so the light would last until Little Li returned. But the weak flame trembled before the night wind on the verge of being extinguished.
I raised my sleeves to shut the tattered window that had blown open and couldn’t resist turning to smile towards the candlestick holder. “Esteemed little ancestor, you better not go out.” With the chill wind blowing through the Cold Palace like this, I’d really feel frightened if there wasn’t any light…so the candle definitely couldn’t go out. Definitely not. I muttered the words to myself until I was on the verge of praying to the Bodhisattva.
It seemed to fit the mood.
Suddenly, there was a soft pah, and the candle died out.
I stood stunned.
Abruptly, everything sank into darkness except for the moonlight from the window. Faintly, I could hear the sound of footsteps behind me. It turned my scalp numb, and I blurted out, “Little Li, is that you?” That person didn’t reply. My brows furrowed, and I tightened my grip against the window frame, preparing to turn around. “Only you would be so unruly. Don’t scare me…”
Before I could finish, a sharp pain hit my back from a tiny rock, sealing my internal passageways. Immediately, a pair of hands rested on my shoulders. My heart sank and before I could scream, someone muffled me with their hands…a strong but unfamiliar person.
Curses, who was this?
My body was held in place as a burlap sack covered me…in the darkness, I could only feel my body being lifted up, as if carried on someone’s shoulders. So uncomfortable, I couldn’t even breathe…only panic.
Who was this?
Who was kidnapping me? I tried to protest, but only made muffled noises. The effects weren’t very clear…at the very least, no one paid me any attention. He walked quickly but with light steps, his sturdy body strengthened from martial arts practice. I don’t know which path he picked, but we didn’t meet any guards the entire time.
I hadn’t made any enemies since entering the court, but why were assassins capturing me? Aiya, my poor, bullied waist…wait, could this be one of General Qi’s men? That’s not right, his men would kill me directly, not carry me around like this. Was it an enemy from outside the court…but I couldn’t remember a thing…
I wanted to cry, but I had no tears to shed.
My body was thrown aside somewhere–but lightly, so there wasn’t any pain. Hearing the sound of hoofbeats, I guessed we’d left the palace gates. Then came a bumpy ride that jolted my insides into queasy colors…that person rested a hand on my body, as if afraid I’d be thrown off. I gasped for breath from inside the burlap bag, but a strange smell penetrated my nostrils, making me frown as I sniffed it…
Curses, this was a top-notch, unparalleled type of knockout incense!
You’re really ruthless…
It had five times as much potency as the incense at the bathing pool. Curses! This guy must have spent a lot of money, these things cost tons of silver. As a result, my head lolled to one side and I dutifully fainted away.
Actually, my dear kidnapper might not have realized that these things were only half as effective on my body. Though I couldn’t open my eyes and had no energy, my mind was very clear. I could feel the pain in my body caused by the jolting ride and hear the hoofbeats of the galloping horse.
Ours was a very long journey. I didn’t know where he was taking me. Though I had a sudden attack of sadness, most of me felt happy. Actually, I hadn’t been very happy these few days. After waking up in the palace and realizing my memories were gone, I’d been living very cautiously and trying to adapt myself to the emperor’s everything.
The emperor said I was an imperial concubine, but I…
Each and every moment, I tried my best to embrace this role. The emperor that everyone revered and admired gave me his sole affections, yet my heart felt absolutely empty. I didn’t know what it was that I really wanted.
The burlap sack had long been removed from my body to be replaced with a high-quality cloud-pattern brocade. This man seemed to have no intentions of harming me. I hadn’t slept well for a long time, but this time I had a dream. It was both bitter and sweet, yet filled with a pain that tore at my heart…it felt so real that I thought I’d die from the pain.
But as to what exactly happened…I couldn’t remember a thing. I was just happy that the painful dream wasn’t real, yet also regretful. At the very least…I was missing something very important from my life, something that couldn’t return once it was lost.
A drop of ice-cold something fell on my face. My eyelashes trembled as I frowned and opened my eyes. My face was damp, and my eyes felt wet. I carelessly wiped away the warm liquid with my sleeves, my heart strangely bitter. Was this a raindrop, or a teardrop…?
Right now, my body was devoid of energy, sore and numb as well as pained…I’d been paralyzed for too long so my bloodflow was a bit sluggish, and even lifting a hand took supreme effort.
Argh, to hell with it!
I looked around me and realized the place was desolate and uninhabited. I was in the middle of a bamboo forest, lying on the damp ground. I felt…a bit uncomfortable. Why was I lying here alone?
Where did the assassin go? So irresponsible…
With a pa-ta, something else splashed on my face. Raising my face, I saw…the verdant leaves of the bamboo covered with dewdrops at their tips. Another droplet slipped past my collar, the cold enough to make me tremble…but it’d cleared my mind as well.
My feelings were dejected and hard to explain.
How unlucky, I couldn’t even force out enough strength to prop myself up, so I’d have to endure the onslaught from the dripping dewdrops. …speaking of which, why would that assassin abandon me here? He hadn’t hurt me or left any marks on my body, but took advantage of my unconsciousness to hustle away. What was the meaning of this?
I weakly crawled forward a bit before I heard the sound of beating wings. The emerald green leaves surged like a wave as a thing rustling sound came from one side. My eyes grew wide. Within the dark green depths of the bamboo stalk was a white-robed silhouette, his steps distinct and clear upon the dry leaves. When he brushed aside some leaves, I saw a tall figure holding a qin appear before me. The sunlight shining on his form made his long black hair beautiful, and his face had a mild, gentle expression.
I was gobsmacked, and my heart beat wildly. His face and figure filled my vision–those white robes like snow, and that teardrop-shaped mole by the corner of his eye that made him seem like he was weeping. The moment he saw me, he froze in place, not moving a muscle. Though the distance between us was still far, I could clearly see that the serenity of his face had been broken. The qin in his hands fell to the ground…and its strings thrummed.
At that moment, I finally recalled the thing I had forgotten in my dream…
It was a pair of eyes that bore the weight of thousands of 10,000 years of worry, filled with yearning as they looked at me, just like this moment…why did it feel so real?
A warmth crept up from my stomach, uncomfortable and sore, and an unknown gathering of true qi started churning in my dantian region. I wanted to suppressed its wild circulation, and stretched out my hand towards that Immortal to beg for help. But my throat felt blocked, and before I could open my mouth, a pain in my chest turned my vision blurry…then black.
This time, I had fainted for real.Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
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