The sudden flash of light that ensued after an infinite darkness made Tang Zhuo Zhuo instinctively shut both of her eyes before gradually opening them.
An exquisite drape which hung down from the bed, entered her field of vision. Several Malus Spectabilis* with its jade leaves were embroidered onto it using thin, fine gold threads. At its top, pearls were sprinkled everywhere amongst other embroideries of Malus Spectabilis* – this time done with a silver thread. As she was trying to move her fingers, she heard a baby-ish voice – that could only come from an adolescent, murmur, in a deliberately low voice, seemingly trying to urge someone to do something.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo sat up from her sizable bed – carved specifically with cherry blossom woods, causing the fine cloud-patterned brocade which previously covered her body to slide down from her waist. She sized up her whole surrounding, getting more and more apprehensive with each look.
The incense burned inside the palace produced a familiar fruity scent that, when inhaled, caused a pleasantly sweet flavour to bloom at the tip of her tongue. This… This scent… Without a doubt, it didn’t exist within the Cold Palace.
Her movement seemed to have alerted the people outside, because not long after, light footsteps could be heard entering the room. The instant they saw Tang Zhuo Zhuo had woken up, her bedsheets were lifted hurriedly, and she was greeted by a delicate face, full of smiles, “My lady, you’ve woken up? Do you wish to rest for a little bit more?”
As soon as Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s gaze fell onto her face, she shrieked, “An Xia?!”
Maybe it’s due to her odd expression that An Xia worriedly replied, “This servant is here. My lady, do you wish for another person to help you wash and change your clothes?”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo felt something was amiss when she spoke. She undoubtedly had gone through three harsh years, during which her voice had taken a rough rasp, similar to that of a broken copper or decaying bones. Moreover, the An Xia who stood in front of her was still a youth, who was also still wearing a decent outfit worn usually in the palace.
She quickly maintained her composure and tried to quell down the surprise evident in her eyes. With a strained, and slightly nervous tone, she asked, “Where are we?”
“My lady, we’re in the Autumn Palace.”
For an instant, Tang Zhuo Zhuo unconsciously held her breath, thinking that she must have heard it wrongly. Her heart sank, and she was stunned as if a froth had bubbled out.
Looking at her stricken expression, An Xia was just about to question her mistress, before the incident of the fight between the lady and the crown prince flashed through her mind, making her heart ache for her.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo subconsciously kneaded her aching glabella with her hands, only noticing now how slender her fingers were – smooth and delicate, like a fine ice porcelain. An absurd idea sprang into her mind.
“What day is it today?” She asked, pursing her lips in a nervous manner.
An Xia placed a consoling hand on her, “It’s June 3rd in the 16th year of Qiong Yuan. My lady, are you not feeling well? Do you want this servant to call for the imperial physician?”
Her words stiffened Tang Zhuo Zhuo instantaneously. 16th year of Qiong yuan… It’s the first year of her marriage into the Eastern Palace with Huo Qiu. And on this day, June 3rd, she had a big fight with the esteemed Crown Prince, Huo Qiu, because of Wang Yi. Afterwards, they had another dispute during dinner which ended with him being extremely furious, and left her in no mood to see him. From that day onwards, out of petty, she didn’t speak to him for half a year.
But now that she had come back to this precarious moment of time…
Tang Zhuo Zhuo felt helpless for a moment. She turned her face towards An Xia and shook her head, “Step out for a while. I… This one wants to rest more.”
An Xia didn’t dare to be disobedient, so she had no choice but to put down the drapes before retreating outside to stand guard over her master.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo walked, and stepped in front of a bronze mirror studded with jade. The mirror that was polished to shine, was an item that was given into the palace from the Western Region. There were altogether three pieces in total – two of which resided in the palace, and one remaining here, at her Autumn Palace.
The person reflected in the mirror had loose long hair, akin to a waterfall, with a pair of apricot pupils that seemed to contain the constellation of the night sky. A piece of undergarment, adorned with silvery moonlight-coloured embroidery enveloped her body, serving to exude an extremely intelligent and noble aura. Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s hand caressed the white powder on her cheeks, and recalled the events of her past life while pursing her lips.
She went out of her bed, not knowing how long she had rested there, before proceeding to call out for someone- to which An Xia and An Zhi heeded. Both of them were servants from the Tang Residence who came with her when she entered the palace, and according to her past experiences, An Zhi was a very dishonest person.
Only several days had passed since she first entered the Cold Palace, yet An Zhi had already used the help of some silvers to go serve in the Side Palace instead. In the next few years, Tang Zhuo Zhuo never met her again.
A cool fragrance permeated through the inner halls of the palace, it was an ordinary scent, but one that eased a person’s heart from their troubles. Tang Zhuo Zhuo looked out of her nondescript window, viewing the dazzling sunlight outside.
Whilst An Xia served her midday meal, she noticed that her mistress hadn’t uttered a single word and was not as jovial as in her former days. This made her think that the quarrel with the crown prince had upsetted her heart, and in a hurry, she consoled, “My lady, His Highness greatly cares about you. Please don’t put those words that he said in a fit of anger into your heart.”
Recalling the antique that was smashed this morning, An Xia was afraid that her mistress would recall memories of Wang Yi again, and be enraged.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s gaze fell on An Xia’s face, she held it briefly before breaking out into soft laughter, “I understand.”
An appropriate response was given, but who would know if she would actually heed to those words.
At this moment of time, An Xia still acted like how she did in her previous life. Often, she gave countless advice due to the discord and constant fights between her and Huo Qiu. Contrary to expectations, it didn’t solve anything, only causing her to feel berated, and further incited her anger. Thus through the course of time, An Xia stopped saying anything altogether.
Compared to An Xia, An Zhi was much more obedient. She did exactly what her mistress said, and didn’t speak more than what was required. She knew very well that too many words would make her master find more faults in her, so she preferred to play safe.
This time, she didn’t dare to trust An Zhi enough to put her in an important position by her side.
The tip of her nose turned sour when she thought of that particular month when she accompanied Emperor Chong Jian in her previous life. She remembered the look in Wang Yi’s face when he heard the news of her death – how full of hatred it had been. Unfeelingly, at the agarwood bed located outside, she slept.
When she opened her eyes again, the sky was painted with an extensively black colour. The night was infinitely shrouded with stillness that completely enveloped the Imperial Palace, and the darkness was like a ferocious demon that concealed itself somewhere nearby.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was helped back into the inner hall. She used her handkerchief to wipe away the corner of her eyes, her body feeling a little bit drained. An Xia, who just helped her change into her clothing, suggested, “My Lady, you need to eat your meals.”
Looking at the large array of food arranged on the table, Tang Zhuo Zhuo sat with an air of resignation on the plush stool, but made no move to pick her chopsticks up.
The palace maids that waited upon her saw the colour of her face as Tang Zhuo Zhuo was thinking on how this specific day played out in her past life. Huo Qiu had come to visit her to tell her that Wang Yi wished to marry Marquis Ningyuan’s second daughter.
How could she believe that?
A single word didn’t pass from her lips.
Soon after, he flew into a furious rage, becoming utterly disappointed in her. From that day onwards, her standing as the crown prince’s concubine ceased to exist. Just like this, the empress seat beside him was left empty for her when he later ascended to the throne.
Such thoughts triggered Tang Zhuo Zhuo to purse her lips, the expression in her eyes turning miserable.
At this moment, there was a sudden commotion outside. Upon reaching the inner hall, only the steady and undisturbed footsteps of a man were heard. Through a priceless curtain, Tang Zhuo Zhuo caught sight of a man’s bright yellow official robe and shining white jade plate on his waist.
Even across such a large distance, Tang Zhuo Zhuo could seemingly smell the light peppermint leaves’ scent coming off him. It was cool and refreshing like a chilly moon.
The palace maids and eunuchs knelt on the ground. Though she hadn’t fully recovered, she too voluntarily knelt, “This concubine greets Your Highness.”
What a lovely and sweet voice! The swaying of the soft candlelight revealed her delicately inclined face, invoking a feeling as if one was enveloped around warm soft feathers. She had completely changed, no longer spouting an immoderate and arrogant front like those in her former days. Huo Qiu paused in the middle of his steps, the large palm that naturally hung on the side of his clothes tightened, and then without batting an eyelid, loosened quietly.
Huo Qiu’s pupils are deep and secluded, inside of which hid a tempest of surging feelings, akin to a hurricane or thunderstorm. He briefly fixed his eyes on her, before moving back nonchalantly, and coldly said, “Rise.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo caught on to the chilliness of his words, terrifying her poor heart. She hurriedly gathered her composure and rose up.
Huo Qiu’s penetrating gaze settled on her body, and to the table full of food, “Are you having your meal?”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo followed his gaze, looking at the steam curling upwards from the dishes, forming a white fog that obscured Huo Qiu’s facial features.
“The meal has just been served, and I haven’t picked my chopsticks up. Your Highness, do you want to join me?”
In the face of her magnamious gaze, Huo Qiu grew dumbfounded. He promptly looked away and pursed his lips.
Zhang Desheng, who had been following behind him, saw the expression on his master’s face, and hurriedly smiled, “My Lady, His Royal Highness just came from the study…”
It implied that he wanted to stay there and have a meal.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s palms were getting damp with perspiration. She instructed the servants to get another set of bowls and chopsticks. The men’s presence there was overbearing, she turned her head towards An Xia and said, “Please ask the kitchen to cook a few more dishes that His Highness likes.”
Huo Qiu paused in the middle of his motion of picking the food up with the chopstick, a surprised look flashed across his eyes for a split second, before he reverted back to his chilly and unfriendly demeanour.
They paid close attention to the food, not a word was passed between them, and thus the meal was eaten in total silence. Tang Zhuo Zhuo used to dine on the leftover dishes in the Cold Palace, whose bitter taste still lingered in her mouth now. Hence, when she tasted the variety of scrumptious dishes, that looked appetizing and smelt mouthwatering, for the first time, her eyes brightened.
She was originally a gluttonous and greedy person.
Huo Qiu used a handkerchief to wipe his hand after he finished his meal, his gaze unconsciously fell onto the woman sitting not too far away from him.
Her movements were delicate when she ate. Her cherry lips are stained with a little soup, giving it a pink hue and making it extremely juicy. Her small knuckles were holding the white jade spoon, and she sipped it one little sip at a time. Huo Qiu caught the soft smile radiating out of her expression.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo naturally felt the man’s scorching gaze, and felt a little helpless.
Hold on… How should she explain the things that happened this morning?
The future Chong Jian Emperor was not an easy man to fool.