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After being jolted on the road for a few days, I finally arrived outside the palace walls. The late night was illuminated by a chilly moon, and the high walls seemed to stifle me with an oppressive weight. My heart felt as if it was on tenterhooks. By my estimation, the walls were about three to four zhang high. Taking a deep breath, I peered upwards. It was a good thing I’d recovered most of my skills, or else I might’ve had trouble scaling this thing. After collecting my nerves, I tied the ends of my robes around my waist and flew into the air, leaping atop the palace walls with a single jump.
It was a bit humid, and occasionally the cry of birds rang through the air. There were no trees in this section of the court, so it was hard to walk along the walls beneath the moonlight. I laid low to wait for my chance until a young eunuch passed by, and struck him with a rock. He crumpled instantly, allowing me to steal his clothes. Assuming a timid posture, I kept walking along the palace walls, noting the gloomy silence. My memory of the grounds led me to the emperor’s quarters.
The north side was dark, illuminated at times by spots of lamplight from the people walking by. It sounded like there were quite a few guards on patrol, as if they were taking extra precautions. I immediately turned back to walk the other way, but their footsteps only grew closer. Not anyone could stroll around the emperor’s courtyard at night. Not to mention, my eunuch’s robes were rather ill-fitting, so a close examination would definitely ruin my disguise. I quickly leapt up into the eaves to lie low, hiding in the darkness.
“Who’s there?!” a voice demanded.
My expression darkened as I crept low over the roof tiles to take a peek. An eunuch was walking past with his hands behind his back, meeting the approaching patrol. Even though he didn’t speak, there was an impressive air about him.
The patrol raised his lantern to shine on the eunuch and quickly changed his expression into a smile. He bowed down and said, “So it was Head Eunuch Li.”
Head Eunuch Li….??
My thoughts flew into a trance. Although the lighting was dim, there was no way I’d mistake that voice and those features. This was Little Li. The same Little Li that used to serve me was now head of the eunuchs. The only difference now was that he didn’t shake in fear, and his clever smile had faded somewhat. What replaced it was a calm and steady mien as if he always used to be this way.
“The emperor has commanded more guards to be added for these recent days,” He seemed to tilt his mouth in my direction, almost as if he was smiling. “There are plenty of assassins that come by in autumn.”
This person was hiding words within his words.
I’d held my breath and lightened my steps, so it should be impossible to detect me. I used to think that after I’d been snatched away, he’d be the one punished since he was my personal servant. But now…
I couldn’t figure it out. But I did see a few more guards appear around the corner, including some archers… Sweat dripped down my brow. Looks like whisking the emperor out of the palace was going to be harder than I thought.
Che! I’ll think of another way.
With the impending wedding, security was tight in the still and gloomy palace, while celebrations were in order at the general’s house. The noises from outside and inside blended together with busy preparations everywhere. The end result was that I managed to sneak inside, and I couldn’t help but feel self-satisfied.
No wonder all the people outside were discussing what the general’s daughter looked like. Now that I’d seen her with my own eyes, she really was bright and beautiful. Her figure was soft and supple as well, like water…
Stooping on the roof, I brushed aside the broken fragments of tiles to take a closer peek. A gentle and graceful form sat upright with her back facing me as if she’d just finished taking a bath. There was a servant girl wrapping up her cascading hair in a towel to clean it off. “Young Miss, your servant will fetch some incense for you.”
A crystal clear voice rose in reply, sweet-sounding yet filled with an aristocratic air. “Tell the mama to come in. There are still some steps to tomorrow’s ceremony that I can’t remember, so I’d like to trouble her to repeat them for me.”
After answering in the affirmative, the servant closed the door and went out to give her orders. It wasn’t long before a woman of forty to fifty years old appeared to stand respectfully by the door. Meanwhile, the servant girl headed towards the south gates. I used my lightness technique to follow after her before knocking her out, taking her clothes, and changing my face to assume her identity.
This servant girl’s face was very ordinary, so it was easy to copy. After straightening my clothes, I pulled out a pill and stuck it in her mouth before carrying her body to the ceiling to tie her to the rafters. She’d probably sleep for seven to eight days at this rate.
I followed the path back to her mistress’s room, taking time to regulate my breathing before entering the room and closing the door behind me. The mama was already teaching particulars to the Young Miss inside, but nodded as I entered. She continued in a low voice, “Someone from the palace came to tell my master that when mistress is ready to go, she can take the sedan chair to the palace. Plenty of servants came to serve you for the occasion, and the sedan chair itself is resplendent.”
“Why do we have to rush there overnight? Didn’t father say the court was coming to pick me up tomorrow morning?”
“I heard it was the emperor’s idea.”
That delicately pretty girl gave a small laugh before turning towards me. “Well, have you brought over the incense?”
“Yes, it’ll be ready in a minute.”
I turned to pinch out some incense from my sleeve and stuck it into an incense holder. A thread of light colored smoke wafted into the air as the curious mama walked over to fan the fumes. She was laughing as she spoke. “The things from the imperial palace are so nice. Even the scent of their incense is different.”
…something I made myself. It not only smelled nice, but had other uses as well. I hid my face to laugh secretly.
“It’s getting late. Be quick with your preparations. Don’t delay the mistress’ important affairs.”
“Yes.” I lifted the incense burner while carrying along a low table to set both behind the lady. As the fumes from the incense rose to slowly suffuse the room, I began to comb her hair. In the bronze mirror, the beauty closed her eyes as if enjoying the smell. The mama helped make up her face before smiling at the lady.
“When mistress is ready, give a call and your servant here will be outside to receive you.”
No one answered her. The mama couldn’t hold her smile indefinitely, so she quickly retreated and closed the door behind her. I leaned forward to peek at the reflection of the lady in the mirror. Her arched eyebrows were like willow leaves, relaxed from enjoying the incense. As I watched, they lifted up slightly to match her growing smile.
“Aiya…you’ve hurt me.”
“Your servant deserves death,” I hastily loosened my grip, but managed to drop the comb. She stared at the mirror, consoling herself by touching her hair while staring at me. “Little Cui, you weren’t this clumsy before. What’s wrong with you today?”
When the beauty got angry, her almond-shaped eyes widened and her smile turned cold. It was an unconscious action that betrayed her thoughts and belied her inherent grace, rather hard to imitate. I was long kneeling on the ground, working up a fluster.
“Young Miss is going to the palace to be the empress so your servant kept thinking of you. I’m afraid that I won’t get a chance to serve you anymore.”
This lady was born beautiful, but possessed a heroic tilt of the eyebrows seldom seen in other females. If it was her attending to matters of the inner court, she would probably become very adept. The emperor’s woman should be someone with a bit of daring, after all. So I thought to myself as I kept my head bowed, secretly groping about my sleeves. But she actually grabbed me and spoke, smiling.
“Look at you…I’ve already spoke with father to bring along a few servants. All the palace eunuchs are strange and stiff, and of course none of the court ladies are intimate as the ones from home.”
My entire face was filled with gratitude as I followed the tug of her arm to stand up. Then I spoke quietly. “Actually, you don’t need to inconvenience yourself like this. Young Miss won’t need to worry about what goes on in the palace, either.”
She looked at me in surprise.
I withdrew my hand from my sleeve and tossed stun powder all over her face. There was a simple smile on mine as I leisurely finished her off. “Because…”
“…I’m going to be the one entering court.”
Within the Palace.
“The auspicious hour’s arrived!” an eunuch’s voice cried from outside.
Within the chambers of the room, a woman gently raised her eyebrows, as calm and unhurried as before. The faint morning light shone against her body. Eyebrows like these…resembled gloomy willow leaves, and when they creased, betrayed the feelings of this otherwise joyful girl. She possessed a heroic tilt to her eyebrows seldom seem in other females. As she raised her sleeve, slender fingers came to caress her temples, the digits trembling slightly.
I carefully traced my face while facing the mirror, gathering a bit of rouge on my index finger to apply to my lips. The color was a rich, festive red. Some time later, an unfamiliar face appeared in the yellow bronze of the mirror as I completed my preparations. As for the person slated to be empress, I’d hidden her under the bed in the general’s house. She was probably still out cold.
The incense was a good type that made people lower their guard. Smelling it for prolonged periods actually sapped one’s strength away until they were too weak to even call out for help. It was easy to imitate this lady’s bearing and copy her face. As for her voice, I just had to add in the soft syllables of southern girls and their way of speech. It was still extremely difficult to imitate her tone of speech exactly, but I had no way of knowing how familiar Han Zichuan was with this woman.
There was still some lingering fear when I thought back to how I’d hijacked the empress position from the general’s daughter. I’d just touched up the face mask when Little Li…no…I should call him Head Eunuch Li now. He seemed to charge in politely right on time before summoning a group of people to lead me to the sedan chair. Even afterwards, we didn’t leave immediately, but lingered for awhile. I only heard him exchange polite, mocking civilities with the general. And then…I vaguely recalled us leaving through the north gate.
“10,000 blessings for Your Highness,” a voice broke through my thoughts. I recovered my senses to see a court lady greeting me with handkerchief in hand.
I hadn’t even been conferred a title yet, but she still greeted me so naturally.
“The auspicious hour’s arrived, so your servant will help Your Highness change clothes.”
I gently rose from the chair, face expressionless as she washed and dressed me…as it turned out, the red ceremonial robes spread out before me was the exact same cut as the one I’d tried on before for the highest-ranking imperial concubine. Only the embroidery was different, with much more phoenixes and golden beaded dragons.
I couldn’t help but laugh derisively.
Exactly what was Han Zichuan thinking…
Originally I thought he had feelings for Fang Hua. Now that Fang Hua was dying, he hadn’t even bothered asking after him…and yet, he’d let Fang Hua live by himself all these years in his cold and empty house.
As for how he treated me, I used to think he loved me. But when I was stolen away from the palace, he could still live his life as before. It’s fine if he didn’t send anyone to look for me, but now he was suddenly anxious to marry this empress? How laughable.
One after another, the layers of clothing weighed upon me until it was hard to breathe. With the phoenix coronet on my head, even my scalp hurt. The woman in the mirror had white skin and bright red lips, emanating a jubilant aura from the hazy red reflection. But she wasn’t anyone I recognized.
Someone helped me up to the imperial phoenix carriage. That little eunuch was far more anxious than me, almost forcing me into the thing. How strange. It wasn’t like the general’s daughter had refused this marriage.
What was his problem…
My seat wobbled a bit, and I held onto something for support as we began to move. I moved the curtains aside to take a peek outside, seeing golden walls with red tiles, a wide and desolate lane, and a group of eunuchs following along, their steps light and quiet.
Deep into the palace we went.
When Fang Hua was living in the Cold Palace, he must have been so lonely. How could I have thought of leaving him behind back then? A peal of wind blew past the high walls, weighing my heart down in grief, So many chaotic scenes from the past rose in my mind…
“Your Highness,” someone said softly.
I didn’t reply.
“Esteemed Empress.” a steady, strong voice spoke, before someone gently pressed down on the hand holding the curtains open. My thoughts were dragged back, and I raised my eyes to see Head Eunuch Li’s half-smiling expression. “This is your happy day. After today, you’ll be the mistress of these six courtyards, so you mustn’t show such a face.”
His reminder was sound. I squinted at him before managing a smile.
After today, you won’t be able to find the emperor, either.
“Please lead the way.”
Various court ladies helped me out of the imperial carriage as I rested a hand on Head Eunuch Li’s offered sleeve. He walked in an extremely reverent and respectful manner with his head bowed. Seeing his sedate expression put my face into a trance.
Little Li, when I was taken from the Long Spring Courtyard, you must have expended quite an effort to find me.
From serving Fang Hua in the same courtyard, to serving me afterwards, and then becoming the head of all the eunuchs to serve the emperor himself, he’d risen quite a few levels. I lightly pressed on his sleeve, my fingers tightening their grip. He looked at me in astonishment before lowering his head again, not quite understanding.
I wouldn’t bring things out in the open. I still had plenty of time to ask Han Zichuan himself. The person standing firmly atop the great hall would probably give me all the answers I need.
“You Highness, take deep breaths. Don’t be nervous,” Head Eunuch Li said softly as he drew closer.
Nervous? My body was shaking from agitation. I gave a small smile and restrained my fluctuating heart.
“You’ll arrive after turning left. Since it’s your wedding day, eunuchs like us are not allowed to help you. Please take care, Your Highness,” Little Li bent forwards as he spoke, before backing up a few steps. Then he stood at a distance not too far away to watch me. I couldn’t tell what kind of expression he was wearing, but it made me think.
With my bearing upright, I gently raised my head, straightened my back, and kept walking. Around the bend was light and then…the sound of music. There was a red carpet embroidered with golden phoenixes, and everything was quiet beyond the musical instruments. After an inner attendant came to follow me, I bent my head slightly to lift up my robes and took the first steps onto the stone stairs. There was the sound of constrained breathing all around me, and the entire scene was solemn and dignified.
The figure atop the stone steps gradually came into focus. Han Zichuan slowly turned around to look at me, his body perfectly straight…the smile on his face was one I was intimately familiar with, filled with the imposing manner of a monarch and the subtle variations of his mood. And yet his smile didn’t reach his eyes.
Thinking back to everything he’d done for me on the dragon bed, and everything he hid from me behind those bed-curtains, beneath those panting breaths, I felt beside myself with rage. Raising my head high, I fixed my stare on him. The set of his lips and the indifference in his eyes were enough to make the palms of my hands hurt.
Han Zichuan, so what if you’re the reigning emperor? You still can’t cover Heaven with just your hands. I, Shao Hua, will definitely make you pay back everything you’ve taken.
He gave me a vigilant look, but I’d long erased traces of killing intent from my face. His gaze then slipped casually from my face as he joined hands with me to complete the ancient greetings passed down from the imperial house. That tall form enveloped me completely. When I raised my head to look at him, I could still see his resolute, handsome face through the strings of pearls dangling from my phoenix coronet. His face was expressionless and held no joy whatsoever; in fact, he even seemed impatient.
This was the person that Fang Hua couldn’t forget even if he died. The same one he wished to send his body to.
This was the person who could save Fang Hua…my most precious person in the world.
I forced myself to resist the constant urge to choke him. There were so many high level experts in the palace that I couldn’t be sure of escaping with him from here. As long as I could hold out until nighttime… I restrained much of my killing intent and took a deep breath, willing my eyebrows to settle into a placid expression. Maybe my nerves were too wound up, but no one ever told me this crappy ceremony had to last the entire day. I had to go from one place to the next, and once I got there I had to bow and kowtow and bow again. I wasn’t even thinking about these things because my travels in the previous days had given me no time to rest. Now I was thoroughly overcome with weariness, enough to feel drowsy.
These stupid rites turned out to last from early morning to dusk. Afterwards we went to the main hall and received the obeisance of all the civil and military officials. Someone supported me as I walked. Originally I was meant to sit by the emperor’s side, but I was too tired to care and settled into the nearest chair to rest. As soon as my body relaxed, my feet turned into jelly and I lurched to one side, falling to the ground. My butt hit against the carved golden chair with a painful smash.
The emperor gave me an astonished glance, eyes unusually intent. The corners of his lips seemed to be resisting the urge to laugh. Only then did I decide to sit up straighter, expression incredibly stiff. I squinted below me, where an official in charge of the rites was reading loudly from a book…it sounded a bit like classical Chinese but I had no idea what he was saying beyond the buzzing noise of ten thousand mosquitos by my ear. Listening to him made me impatient.
After he finished reading, there was an uproarious cry of, “May the emperor live 10,000 of 10,000s of 10,000s of years, may the empress live 10,000 of 10,000s, of 10,000 years.”
Someone came to help me up again, so I slowly swayed my way out. It was only after I raised my head that I realized the light was getting dim. The skies above the high walls were a misty, agitated gray. I couldn’t help but feel pressured and uneasy.
The imperial carriage was waiting outside, flanked by rows of kneeling servants. Their gray-blue robes weren’t the type to attract much attention and their bowed heads only painted a picture of pious devotion. A cluster of people surrounded the emperor as he walked over. I was supported by a group of court ladies, but stopped part way to see where my own carriage had gone off to. In response, the imperial carriage stopped right before me, his seated form blocking out the rest of the setting sun. A shadow fell over me as I saw a mix of gleaming colors, a red rope tying a piece of uncut jade at his waist, and a robe embroidered with gold dragons dazzling my eyes while he held out his hand.
I stood dumbly for awhile before unconsciously raising my hand to take his…so we could ride together. The carriage was lifted back up, but the ride this time was much more comfortable, only jolting us slightly. Though the inside was spacious enough for one person, we were almost touching shoulder-to-shoulder with two.
The distant palace walls flashed past as we sat in silence. He held my hand tightly, eyes looking forward as he stroked me gently with his fingers. I knitted my brows and turned away, feeling disgusted but unable to express myself. The flurried tightness in my chest changed to a deep sorrow.
Even after living together for so many years, I’d been unable to see through him.
After we alighted from the carriage, a mama supported me into the main hall and helped me change clothes with no expression. The emperor didn’t follow, as was custom. These were things people had told me again and again while I was preparing to assume the role of highest ranking imperial concubine. From this hall to that hall you had to change to so-and-so clothes, walk so-and-so many steps, kowtow a certain way, and then change into another set of robes…I never imagined that conferring a title on an empress would be even more complicated. I’d been cleansing my body from morning ‘til now until I was completely numb…forget about hiding poisons in my clothing, with all the wardrobe changes I had hiding anything would be impossible.
Seeing the court ladies shake out the robes they taken off me, stare at the ground, then carefully fold then again, I couldn’t help a soft smile. As soon as I predicted that they’d check for everything, I’d left behind my assortment of tiny pill bottles. With my current level of martial prowess, there was no need to use those things, anyways.
The court ladies knelt on the ground around me in a circle, taking off my jewelry with deft movements while I remained silent. With drooping eyes, I quietly wore the clothes they offered–this time robes as white as snow made of some fluttering fabric that was surprisingly warm against the skin. I couldn’t help but relax my brows to heave a comfortable sigh. Soft notes of music drifted in from outside, along with the sound of someone singing–a little annoying.
The doors were pushed open.
A group of people entered to leave food and (of course) wine around the room. I looked away and walked towards the bed, before giving them an icy glance and straightening my clothes to sit properly on the bed.
Today was my wedding day.
Yet it was to the reigning emperor Han Zichuan. If my groom was yifu, then how would I feel instead…
I don’t think I’d be so indifferent.
Who knew how Fang Hua was doing now, back at home? If he knows that I’ve left…would he worry about me?
The lighting in the room was very warm. There were human-shaped figures moving outside the paper-covered windows, and the bowing, scraping servants made sure to keep their footsteps extremely light as they walked unhurriedly with bodies bent. My vision wavered for a bit before resting blankly on my knee, my hand tightly gripping the fabric until my fingers hurt. Fang Hua, you have to hold on. I’ll definitely risk my life to bring Han Zichuan back to you…
The door gave an oppressive creak.
“You’re all dismissed,” a cool and bright voice spoke.
I saw a robe appear before my eyes with the hues of the crescent moon. The fabric appeared extremely soft. He bent over to sit by my side, while I pretended to be coy and shifted away.
“I’ve known you for so long, but I didn’t realize you had this kind of expression,” Han Zichuan scooted over, his scent cool and refreshing. He didn’t smell like wine, but his words sounded almost drunk with the way he was taking liberties.
He placed a hand on my knee to grasp my own, before slowly tightening his grip. I grew motionless, looking up to meet his eyes and joyful smile. The door behind him slowly closed…and a strange feeling rose up to my heart.
“Your Majesty, I…” He used a hand to stop my lips, slender fingers emanating the scent of the chilly air outside. It was an unfamiliar smell.
“You don’t have to say too much. I’ve tired you out today,” Han Zichuan’s face was filled with apology as he raised a hand to my head to remove the heavy phoenix coronet. Immediately, my dark hair poured down to pool around my shoulders. The gaze in his eye grew dim as he used one hand to brace himself against the bed while drawing closer. “Zhen has been waiting for this day for a long time.”
I felt a sense of fear. His sudden advances made it difficult for me to dodge him. The words he’d spoken were steady yet filled with some sort of deep meaning as he hands settled to rub at my temples. His eyes roved from my lips to my nose, my forehead, my eyes…as if he was stuck to my face. “Comfortable?”
What… Did it matter if it was comfy or not, why did he sound so erotic when he spoke?
He finally stopped his hands when he moved again, this time to examine me carefully with a lowered head. His voice was tender as he spoke. “Zhen asked you if rubbing your head was comfortable for you. Where did aifei’s thoughts wander off to?”
“Your Majesty is treating qieshen very well,” I said vaguely, my face expressionless as I affected being bashful again.
His smile was warm as he turned around to pour some wine. The hazy yellow lamplight shone on his form and made the scene especially tender in the sweet, soft atmosphere. Still, the sight offended me. Han Zichuan, how should I disparage you? You’re actually treating a general’s daughter this way…why can’t you just treat me or Fang Hua with the same warmth? Even if it’s just a tiny bit kinder…
…it looks like our years of living together still couldn’t compare with this general’s daughter.
I gave him a searching look as I loosened the hand gripping a handkerchief. His body was lithe and slender, his every moment like that of a monarch. I steeled myself before slowly getting off the bed, rolling up my sleeves as I circulated my qi and prepared for a surprise attack….
“Come, drink a cup with Zhen,” he said, suddenly turning around. I quickly withdrew my hand, feeling a bit irritated. He raised an eyebrow and half-smiled as he looked at me. “Why did the empress leave the bed? If you’re tired, you should sit for awhile longer.” A jade cup was handed my way, but I kept my distance and refused to take it. He didn’t seem to mind, but gave a good-natured laugh before leaning over to whisper in my ear.
“We’re already husband and wife, yet Shao’er, you’re still so reserved.” He looked at me quietly as he smiled, the pupils of his eyes indescribably deep.
I was astonished. This person…since when had he discovered I wasn’t the general’s daughter? Since when did he notice something abnormal about me…?
While I was gaping, there was no time to react as he grabbed my arm and calmly enveloped me in his form. Hidden within that warmth and those dark eyes was a secret affection so deep that it threatened to dissolve me in its intensity. He kept smiling serenely, but kissed me softly on the lips when he noticed I was still in shock.
“Zhen knows…you hated parting with Zhen, so you’d come back eventually.”
 zhang (丈) －Chinese unit of measurement. 1 zhang = 3.33meters, so three to four zhang means walls at least 12 meters high.
 mama (嬷嬷) – not a mother, but a term for an elderly servant, usually a wet nurse.
 Xiao Cui (小翠) – literally “Little Jade,” the nickname of the servant girl.
 Zhen (朕) – equivalent to the royal We, a personal pronoun for the emperor to refer to himself
 aifei (爱妃) – beloved concubine, imperial concubine, form of address for a wife.
 qieshen (妾身) – self-referential pronoun for a concubine/wife.
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