Translation and edits: Marchmallow
The Cold Palace.
Autumn in the Great Lü Dynasty was extremely cold. Unlike the piercing, bitter wind of winter, there was a sense of desolation as autumnal winds swept away fallen leaves, and the sound of its wailing left the heart very uncomfortable.
Today was a gloomy and cold day. The cold palace was especially desolate and sombre. Except for a few dead trees in front of the door rustling in the wind, not even a crow would fly here.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was lying on the worn out bed and looking out the window for a short moment when she coughed violently. An Xia, who had just gone out to fetch her some water, heard her cough and immediately scurried back inside. Seeing her appearance, she couldn’t help but be somewhat apprehensive.
The woman lying on the bed of sturdy, wooden planks was as pale as paper. Her already thin face was surprisingly no bigger than the palm of a hand and her scattered long hair was draped over her shoulders from behind her head. Nonetheless, her eyes had a hint of softness to it that hadn’t been there before.
An Xia hurriedly handed over a handkerchief, her entire face laden with worry.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s stomach felt painful and numb in turns like the tumultuous seas and rivers*. When her breathing finally calmed down, she removed the handkerchief and found that what had originally been washed pristine white was stained with a pool of black blood and had even clumps of clotted blood.
* 翻江倒海: lit. overturning seas and rivers (idiom); fig. overwhelming; earth-shattering; in a spectacular mess
An Xia immediately covered her mouth and expelled a mournful whimper. She sat paralyzed in front of Tang Zhuo Zhuo. After receiving the handkerchief from her hand, she piteously implored, “Your Highness, you’re already sick like this- please go back and make amends with His Majesty. This servant is begging you.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo, who listened to her words with eyes akin to clear water, fluctuated not the least bit. However, she did have to labour to lift her thin and withered arm to gently brush An Xia’s head, and slowly said, “These years, cough, you’ve suffered in following me.”
An Xia squeezed the piece of handkerchief so hard that her hands turned white. She wiped away her tears and shook her head. “Your Highness treats this servant very well. This servant has not suffered.”
After speaking, she hurriedly went out to wash the handkerchief, and then brought in a basin of water. “Your Highness, please rinse your mouth.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s mouth tugged at the corners; she nodded her head slightly and smiled.
Dark clouds soon shrouded the sky against the backdrop of the cold palace, and it seemed like a storm was approaching. Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s complexion looked somewhat pained, and the clammy aching in her bones began to trouble her again. The lustrous black hair on her temples were damp from her silent endurance and even every breath hurt from immense pain.
“An Xia, don’t keep busy and talk to me for a while.” Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s voice was a little weak, but An Xia obediently moved a small stool with half a leg missing and kept watch at Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s bedside.
Thinking of the sound of thunder outside, Tang Zhuo Zhuo glanced toward it and pointed to the bare tree outside the window. “I still remember when I just arrived here, this jujube tree grew very well, but it has become like this now.”
Seasons passed with the shifting stars*. A lot of things have truly changed in three years’ time.
*斗转星移: the stars change in positions. — change of the seasons; passing of (hours of) night
An Xia sighed with emotion at her words, “This servant remembers that Your Highness had even brought along this servant to fetch jujubes once. They were pleasantly sweet and crisp.”
The light in Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s eyes dimmed. She had only just entered the cold palace at that time. She did not have the temperament of a master who’d settle down peaceably and she often tried to find joy amidst adversity and suffering. But as the time she stayed there became longer, her deep-seated restlessness and agitation all accumulated till it was as if she had become a different person.
She was born to a privileged status. As soon as she reached marriageable age, the late emperor had conferred a marriage between her and the crown prince, now the Chongjian Emperor. After the death of the former emperor, she became the mistress of the inner palace and the mother of the nation. Needless to say, her status was dignified.
Despite this noble identity, she was still sent to the cold palace.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was lost in thought as she twirled up a lock of long hair by her ear with a bashful smile. “I don’t even know how he is faring.”
The sound of that long, melancholic sigh carried an array of emotions, yet it made An Xia lower her eyes with pursed lips.
She naturally knew the ‘he’ Tang Zhuo Zhuo was referring to. It was actually because of this very person, the young general of the royal family, that Her Highness quarrelled with His Majesty and was subsequently sent to the cold palace.
What was most detestable was the fact that the young general knew Her Highness’ thoughts, yet kept inciting her; despite knowing she was a married woman, kept misleading Her Highness to make foolish decisions. It was truly despicable.
It was no wonder that His Majesty cast him to a far remote region to guard graves. Serves him right!
Through the night as the torrential storm came down in sheets of rain, the quilt covering Tang Zhuo Zhuo was damp and threadbare. Additionally, raindrops fell onto Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s face and hair.
Rain was leaking into the cold palace- she’d met with such misfortune and suffering more than once- but besides woefully enduring it, there was no other way about it.
Except for this time, a rancid, sweet smell rushed up from Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s throat. Her fingers weakly twitched and with nary a sound and her eyes steadily darkened.
Within Ganqing palace, the Chongjian Emperor had just paused his writing brush. The censer burning with pine rosin from the Western regions filled the chamber with a fragrant smell that soothed and cleared the mind. He was reclining against the spacious red sandalwood chair and in hearing the pitter pattering of the rain outside, he asked apathetically, “Is it raining outside?”
The Grand Steward, who had followed him all these years, was adept at interpreting his complexion and replied with a quiet affirmation.
Emperor Chongjian’s knuckled hand pressed lightly against his temple. Zhang Desheng hastily tiptoed over to him to massage his shoulders upon seeing the fatigue mixed within the cold rigidity between his eyebrows, and asked a probing question. “Your Majesty is concerned for Her Highness?”
Emperor Chongjian’s slender, long fingers halted. The meaning behind the frigidity in his voice was more piercing than even the rain outside. “You’ve become increasingly audacious as of late.”
Zhang Desheng inhaled sharply. He slapped himself in the face and lowered his head, not daring to say another word.
His Majesty had an unyielding disposition to begin with. To bring up ‘that person’ from the cold palace again, his mood will turn furious no matter the initial amiability. It simply couldn’t be mentioned.
Looking out to the unrelenting downpour, Zhang Desheng decided he’d have to ask servants from the Internal Affairs office to send some things over at a later time. After all, despite being sent to the cold palace in the physical sense, Her Highness still held the master’s seat within the central palace.
So long as His Majesty has yet to pass an abolishment edict, that position will remain in Her Most Honourable Highness’ possession.
Zhang Desheng had served by Emperor Chongjian’s side since young, yet it had become increasingly difficult to fathom his emperor’s thoughts.
If His Majesty was concerned for the sake of that person, he was deliberately refusing to admit it. If it was said that he had not a trace of affection left, yet he would rather head to the cold palace in the dead of night to sit at the courtyard wall night after night.
But on the other hand, when thinking of that person within the cold palace, whose heart was still turned fully towards another man, he couldn’t help but remain as silent as a cicada in chilly weather.
It was at that moment, faint noise traveled in from the outside, which was occasionally intermingled with sounds of mourning.
Emperor Chongjian suddenly opened his eyes and irritation welled up from the depths of his heart. “Go outside to see.”
Zhang Desheng naturally felt the impatience within his words and left for the outer chamber in a flurry.
“What is the matter? To dare and make a ruckus before the emperor, you don’t want your lives anymore, surely?”
He rebuked them with a sharp tone and only then did the two people cease their dispute.
One person was a maidservant of Yili palace’s Concubine Zhong, Su Er. She held a food box in her hands. Zhang Desheng took one look and immediately understood, surmising that she had been ordered to deliver pastries to His Majesty.
The other person was dressed in a homely, simple fashion- a thin outer coat that was soaked through from rain and with hair still dripping water. She cut a sorry figure with her poor state and did not speak. She just knelt there unmoving, with her face heavy with lifeless gloom. Surely, she was An Xia.
Su Er gave An Xia a look of disdain before exchanging it quickly with a smile. “Grand Steward Zhang, Her Highness bid me to deliver some pastries she personally made for His Majesty.”
Zhang Desheng, with a single look, directed a young eunuch behind him to quickly retrieve it, whose peculiar smile held deep meaning. “This lowly one will deliver it to His Majesty.”
Su Er only turned to leave then, umbrella in hand.
Zhang Desheng sighed and assisted the still-kneeling An Xia to her feet. “Those from Yili palace have always been this temperamental. Did you come with any instructions from Her Highness?”
His attitude towards An Xia remained genial. When all was said and done, they both had a long history as people who once hailed from the Crown Prince’s residence. Additionally, Tang Zhuo Zhuo had once bestowed him with grace. If anything else, he at least should extend this much respect.
Seeing An Xia remain silent with pursed lips, Zhang Desheng had to take the initiative to speak. “At this point today, I’m afraid you won’t be able to enter for an audience. Should there be any requests or instructions from Her Highness, I can convey them to His Majesty.”
An Xia’s voice was extremely low, to the point it could even blend well into the sound of pattering rain outside.
“Her Highness has gone.” She struggled to speak with tears flowing unceasingly. “The rain was leaking into the room just now so I went with a lamp to check on Her Highness, only to find…”
The dense, fine lines upon Zhang Desheng’s face shook and was barely keeping hold of the horsetail duster in his hands. Unable to comprehend much more, he held onto An Xia as they slowly knelt on the chamber floor.
Emperor Chongjian seemingly sensed something and his eyes, sharp like an eagle’s, fell upon An Xia. From the depths of his cold unyielding heart, an uneasy sense of foreboding arose.
When Tang Zhuo Zhuo regained awareness again, she could do nothing but stare blankly from above at her own corpse lying prone upon the hard, planked bed. Her face was white akin to a female ghost with lips already a shade of purple. Not to mention the bed covered in blood stains; she herself found this hard to look on any longer.
This… has my soul left the body?
Tang Zhuo Zhuo looked at herself, who was now empty of vitality, with rueful eyes.
The women of the cold palace, despite retaining the title and status of empress, are more often than not buried hastily to conclude things.
As she was having such thoughts, a figure in glorious yellow swept into the dilapidated room like the wind, with eyes immediately fixed upon the now voiceless her. Following close behind were An Xia and Zhang Desheng, who stumbled in.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s eyes widened, not expecting that Emperor Chongjian would come to visit a place like the cold palace.
Despite three years of separation, Emperor Chongjiang’s grim expression was unchanged just like the memories of old. Just that this time, there was a redness about the eyes and those strong palms were now clenched tightly into fists.
The bright yellow of the dragon robe was altogether drenched in the rancid rain and became quite wrinkled. Tang Zhuo Zhuo instinctually began to trail after him from behind, half unable to stop herself from doing so.
A crowd of people knelt in and around the place, even including some well-informed concubines- all of whom were on their knees out in the rain with sad expressions. Tang Zhuo Zhuo listened to this wholly unperturbed.
Her eyes were solely focused on Emperor Chongjian as he washed and cleaned her cold corpse, even the black blood staining the corner of her mouth he didn’t ignore. He wore a fearsome expression and yet his actions were equivalent to taking care of the world’s precious treasures.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo felt a lump in her throat.
“We had cast Wang Yi out to guard graves and three years ago he took for himself a wife. Yet, you refuse to believe in me.”
These were the first few words Tang Zhuo Zhuo heard from Emperor Chongjian. Those words were like a strong wind gust, destroying what she believed to be a fluke that layered upon her heart.
*She thought the emperor’s actions were a fluke, a rare whim, but his words refuted her belief.
“I’ve steadfastly waited for your return. Who knew that of all the places to die, you would rather choose to die in the cold palace.”
The man’s low, deep voice was mixed together with a rare fragility and at the same time, seemed to carry a sort of inexplicable indulgence.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo had never seen such a side of Emperor Chongjian. He had always been a sovereign who was decisive when executing his actions. Aside from his frigid and furious countenances, she had never once seen him wear any other expression. Now she got to see them under such a circumstance of all things.
Her spirit wandered about for a month’s time, drifted until she reached the desolate concubine mausoleums far out in Jiangyuan, saw Wang Yi who cursed her under his breath, and observed the dozens of other concubines residing in his household.
From within a deadened heart of ashes came a revelation that only took a few days worth of effort. The miserable three years of cold palace life she had yet to reconcile herself to, was now being thoroughly crushed to cinder. Upon looking back, she even saw a laughingstock in herself.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo returned to the imperial palace and drifted into Ganqing palace. She saw the dispirited face of the man she had never cared for, saw the scroll portrait he had painted, heard him whisper ‘Jiao Jiao’ uneasily in his dreams.
That’s right, back during the days prior to their falling out, he often liked to refer to her as ‘Jiao Jiao’ with a gentle whisper during their intimate moments.
She gradually became weaker, to the point that she couldn’t even wander to nearby places; she could only stay within Ganqing palace to look upon Emperor Chongjian. When he approved the erected memorial, he had gone up to look at it. His calligraphy was the most beautiful. It was unfortunate she never understood her own role and priorities.
Upon the last day, Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s form became wane and transparent. She felt regretful at this time and finally understood the reason behind the unusual phenomenon of her spirit leaving the body.
The heavens must have found watching this unbearable: that she, who had enjoyed the height of glory, fell to the deepest, desolate places because she failed at discerning people.
On that night, a much thinner Emperor Chongjian gazed at the portrait laid out on his desk with his hands resting at his back and his thoroughly piercing, aliquant demeanor softened.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo floated to his side and smelled the deep, refreshing scent of mint. Emperor Chongjian caressed the person painted on the portrait and finally opened his mouth. “Jiao Jiao, hold on till after a hundred years when I reunite with you in burial, how about it?”
“I wonder if you’ll lose your temper again then.”
The man’s helpless voice reached Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s ears and gave her a sudden bout of strength. She reached out to brush against the palm of his warm hand. Then in the span of a moment, her gaze drastically dimmed.