The palace maid, Fu Chun, brought tea and set it on the flower table by Zong Yue’s side.
Zong Yue held it up, brushed the tea froth with the cup’s lid, and sipped a mouthful.
“Thank you for the tea, Empress Mother.”
“Thanks for what? When you were young, you were always running around Kunning Palace. Now that you’ve grown, you’ve become quite distant from Empress Mother.”
Zong Yue sat upright with his head half-hung, intently eyeing the teacup in his hand, reticent as usual.
The Empress peered at him with a smile and said amiably, “The years are unforgiving. You were such a lively child, but now, the older you get, the more indifferent your temperament is. But you’ve grown up, so you naturally can’t be as you were when you were young. Otherwise, it will make outsiders laugh.”
“Very well. Empress Mother won’t talk about you anymore. It’s been two years since Qiao-shi’s passing, and a while ago, your imperial father told me that he wanted to choose for you a new princess consort. Are you interested in anyone?”
“Subject-son has no plans to remarry for the time being.”
One could detect a bit of doting between the Empress’ brows, but in spite of this, she lamented, “Don’t you listen to those people’s nonsense. Qiao-shi and Liu-shi died because they had no good fortune. How could others say that you’re incapable of keeping a wife? The imperial family’s good fortune, not everyone can afford it.”
“Fine, Empress Mother will cease prattling on about your heartbreaking affairs. Let’s talk about proper business.” The Empress gazed at the Crown Prince, who could barely contain his calm, and expressed with a degree of exasperation, “You also know that your imperial brother, sitting on the position of the crown prince, has become the target of a multitude of arrows.1 Rumors such as the miscarriage in his rear court and his lenient governance over his family have sprouted. Those people took advantage of today’s incident and even claimed that your imperial brother had angered the gods. Now, your imperial brother sits where the wind and waves are the fiercest. Your imperial father’s attitude towards this matter is unclear, and the crown prince is anxious to inquire from you. He wants to know, has His Majesty mentioned your imperial brother? One only hopes that His Majesty will pay no mind to such slander. Otherwise, your imperial brother……”
Towards the end, the Empress expelled a heavy sigh.
The Crown Prince pitched at the side, “Old Three, what did Imperial Father summon you for?”
“This——” Zong Yue studied the teacup, dallied for a bit, and lay it on the flower table.
“Old Three, speak clearly. Since when did you start stuttering like some sissy?!”
The Empress had also shed off all airs and swaggered over, eagerly eyeing on.
Zong Yue’s expression imperceptibly faltered. “Subject-brother has received a secret decree.”
The Crown Prince sprung up with a sudden burst of ire, “What else can’t you say in front of this humble one2?!”
The Empress admonished, “Crown Prince, what are you forcing Prince Wei to do? The recepient of the secret decree is a subject, and thus must devote himself to the monarch.”
The mother and son pair, one whose face flushed with fury, and the other murky with chagrin, bored their inquisitive eyes on Zong Yue.
He sighed wearily and said, “Much really cannot be said, but it has little to do with Imperial Brother. Imperial Father asked me to go to Yangzhou to carry out a task.”
“Yangzhou?” The Crown Prince’s pupils constricted, and he exchanged glances with the Empress.
“Is there anything else besides Yangzhou?” The Empress asked.
“Does it have anything to do with Zhou Guang Rui’s case?” Unlike the Empress, the Crown Prince spared no effort skirting around the issue.
Zong Yue stood up. “Imperial brother, if you are willing to listen to subject-brother, bear these in mind: don’t ask anything, don’t do anything, and just stay in peace. In fact, subject-brother was disinclined to come here, but came anyway for fear of breaking Empress Mother’s heart.”
The Crown Prince was still mulling over the undercurrent behind Zong Yue’s words, but Zong Yue had already brisked out.
“Empress Mother, what did he mean by that?”
The Empress’ gaze pierced onto Zong Yue’s distant back as she upheld her silence.
“It literally is as said. Don’t say anything, don’t do anything, and stay in peace at the east palace. Prince Wei was right. We were too impatient to invite him to Kunning Palace. Now that the focus of attention is on us, this event might fall on other people’s ears, or even reach your imperial father’s place.”
“Can the two be related?”
The Empress looked at the Crown Prince, slightly hating iron for not becoming steel. Usually, the Crown Prince’s conduct was not so wayward. One feared that the recent ordeal threw him in disarray.
“Do you think that Zhou Guang Rui sat in the position of Liang Huai salt distribution commissioner for no reason? He had died so quickly, yet was still accused of such a crime. Do you think your imperial father will have no idea? He only restrains his emotions, refusing to show anything on the surface. New problems keep cropping up, so Liang Huai can’t fall further into chaos. This time, sending Prince Wei to Yangzhou to carry out a task was to warn us; to warn everyone.”
“Subject-son will order people to check if there are any trails left unconcealed.” Saying this, the Crown Prince charged towards the door’s direction, but the Empress barked at him to stop.
“You’ve already been told what not to say and what not to do. Are this palace’s3 words just wind past your ears?!”
Not expecting the Empress to lose her temper, the Crown Prince absently stared at her.
Dejected, the Empress sighed and rubbed her temples. “Your imperial father withheld his rage because Liang Huai had not fallen in complete disorder. As long as Liang Huai remains as is, he will not turn over old accounts. Immediately head back to the east palace and shut your doors to reflect on your misdeeds. You are not allowed to leave the east palace without this palace’s permission.”
“But Empress Mother, what about Yangzhou?”
“We’re not the only ones involved in Liang Huai; there are others as well. Sending Prince Wei to Yangzhou signifies your imperial father’s concern for the crown prince’s face and his bond with this palace. Have you forgotten that Prince Wei was raised in Kunning Palace? Have you forgotten whose person Consort Li is?”
Ah, yes. Seriously speaking, the Empress’ Chen family sent Consort Li to the palace to serve the Empress, wherein Consort Li would also reap her share of imperial favor. During Empress Chen’s pregnancy, to solidify her footing, she had her serve the Jianping Emperor.
Consort Li’s performance exceeded her expectiations. She had gotten pregnant with the third prince, but at the same time, Empress Chen’s second son died prematurely. The Empress was heartbroken to the core, and the Jianping Emperor’s heart so ached for his wife that he chucked Third Prince Yue to Kunning Palace for her to raise. At that time, Consort Li was not yet Consort Li, but was a mere noble lady. She had later on advanced to the consort’s seat, and her son was now conferred the Prince of First Rank title, all owing to them both at the central palace.
Therefore, the Jianping Emperor’s motives were very clear. Despite his recent discontent towards the Crown Prince, he was still leaning towards the central palace.
“But Empress Mother, aren’t you afraid that Old Three might have thoughts he shouldn’t have? He hasn’t been too close to the central palace in the recent years.”
The Empress glanced at her son. “As long as Consort Li is here, what are you afraid of? Don’t fault Empress Mother for reproving you, but stop putting your energy into suspicion and jealousy. If Prince Wei is still as close to the central palace as he was back then, he won’t be able to do this task today.”
A monarch’s thoughts were deeper and far more calculating than the average person could perceive. The Empress and the Jianping Emperor had been married for decades, but she could only penetrate a bit of his skin, while the Crown Prince couldn’t even scratch that layer of skin.
This time, the Crown Prince greatly displeased the Empress, but nothing could be done about it.
Notwithstanding her disappointment, she could only sit idly by. She only had that one solitary son and was unable to birth a second one. She was left without a choice but to safeguard all she had.
That aside, on the other end, Zong Yue strode out of Kunning Palace and made a beeline for Xianfu Palace.
This was also the residence of one of the four consorts, Consort Li.
Seeing Zong Yue step in from outside, the high palace maid, Qian Ru, ardently welcomed him.
“Have met Your Highness.”
“Where is Consort Mother?”
Qian Ru’s gaze flickered, not daring to meet Zong Yue’s eyes. “Her Royal Highness is worshipping Buddha in the Prayer Hall. Your Highness, please take a seat. This servant will go and invite Her Royal Highness.”
Zong Yue’s brows knitted ever so subtly, and then he occupied a seat.
Shortly after, a beauty in a palace robe sashayed out from the bead curtain. Upon the sight of her delicate and dainty demeanor, very much embodying the grace of a ‘startled swan,’ and upon a closer look at her face, one would find it impossible to guess her age. To say she was in her teens was still fairly believable. To say she was in her twenties, even more so. Her brows and eyes gave away her docility, especially with her lonely and tender constitution, lucid and elegant as a lotus.
She was slightly out of breath, obviously hastening to get here. After perching herself on the main seat, the palace maid served tea. She drank it and evened out her breathing before softly asking, “How come imperial son has the time to visit Xianfu Palace today?”
“Imperial Father has given a task. Subject-son is leaving the capital and the return date is uncertain, so thus came to bid Consort Mother farewell.”
“His Majesty has given you a task?” Delight was evident in Consort Li’s brows and eyes, and she went on, “After pleading His Majesty for so long, none of it was in vain. Since His Majesty has given you a task, you should do it well for His Majesty. Don’t be concerned about your consort mother. Consort mother is doing quite well in the palace.”
Zong Yue cast a complex glance at Consort Li, noticing her faintly rosy cheeks and her irregular breathing as she spoke. It was apparent that Qian Ru had lied about her praying to Buddha.
Praying was perhaps false, and doing exercises was the truth.
From when Zong Yue was young, he would always encounter instances where Consort Li inexplicably disappeared for an indefinite period of time. It was only later on did he gradually learn that, in order to maintain imperial favor, Consort Li never abandoned her exercises. The source of such exercises had something to do with her background.
Before she had entered the palace, Consort Li was a thin horse4 from Yangzhou.
The Chen family had scoured the entire Yangzhou to procure a first-rate thin horse, thus discovering her. She was later given a new shell by the Chen family and sent to the palace under the guise of serving the Empress. In reality, it was to reinforce the Empress’ imperial favor.
Yangzhou’s thin horses were renowned all over the country because they had an innate uniqueness. Apart from their superior art and charm, they were also privy to secret techniques unknown to outsiders, which were important means for them to ensnare the hearts of men.
This skill, Consort Li had been practicing for decades, such that even after giving birth to Prince Wei and having been ranked the fourth consort, she never once fell behind.
In fact, none of her efforts were for naught. Her time in the palace couldn’t be considered short. For over twenty years, the concubine with the most unwavering favor was still Consort Li. Even if the Jianping Emperor had other younger and more beautiful concubines, he never failed to grace Xianfu Palace a visit a few times a month.
“Consort Mother is no longer young. The imperial physician had said that your stomach problems have worsened, so there’s no longer a need for you to starve yourself and go on a diet.”
Consort Li paid him no heed. “Imperial son need not worry. Consort Mother is accustomed to eating less. Besides, my stomach ailment has nothing to do with my diet.”
“Since Consort Mother won’t listen, then just take it as if subject-son said nothing. Subject-son still has things to do and will leave the palace first.”
After waiting for Zong Yue to leave, Qian Ru gently and cautiously said, “Your Highness, why anger His Highness again? What His Highness said is right. You are no longer young and your health is getting poorer. Now that His Highness is a titled prince, even if Your Highness stops being favored, your position in the palace will remain stable.”
“What do you know?” Consort Li, who had always been soft-spoken, suddenly raised her pitch, “What do you know?!”
“Your Highness!” Qian Ru was so frightened that she knelt down.
Consort Li adjusted her breathing and gently said, “Among the four consorts, I come from the lowest birth. Perhaps others respect me as a highness, but I’ve never once forgotten my roots. My appearance and skill are all I have and nothing else. And Zong Yue, compared to other princes, his mother’s family has absolutely no power. Only I am such a mother. It doesn’t matter whether he can understand or not. I just want to do what I should do.”
“No. There’s also Her Royal Highness, the Empress. She has always valued His Highness and never fails to look after His Highness. Besides, His Highness and the Crown Prince have a close bond, so it’s unlikely that he will be treated poorly in the future.”
“Her?” Consort Li’s voice wavered, the connotation behind her tone quite indiscernible, “Count on Her Royal Highness, the Empress? To her, I’m still Noble Lady Li, and my son is still at the crown prince’s beck and call……”
Her soft voice dwindling, Consort Li stood up. “Let’s go back to the quiescent chamber.”5
Consort Li has her own story entitled 《媵宠》, known as ‘Ying Chong’ on Novel Updates and translates to ‘Pampered/Favored Concubine.’ In there, she’s reborn after her lifetime in this book and relives her life with the Jianping Emperor as a young couple, so it’s basically a separate timeline. You guys can check it out on Novel Updates. You will find my extremely long review there lol.
Also, the plot is thickening.
1 众矢之的: lit. target of a multitude of arrows (idiom); the butt of public criticism; attacked on all sides
2 孤 (gū): lit. lone, solitary; this is how the crown prince addresses himself. Might be because he’s the only one among the rest (of his brothers) in that position.
3 本宫 (běn gōng): lit. this palace; illeism for high-ranking imperial consorts when they speak to those below them. It’s more like saying she has her own palace, since some concubines of lower rank share a residence with those of similar standing.
4 瘦马 (shòu mǎ): lit. thin horse. A term used to denote girls reared specifically for the purpose of supplying Yangzhou’s market in concubines.
5 静室 (jìng shì): lit. quiet room, quiescent chamber. As per zdic: “The housing in the monastery/temple; a room of where a scholar resides to devote oneself to spiritual development; a room where one can devote oneself to perfecting one’s art of craft.” Presumably the room where she does her exercises.