Tang Zhuo Zhuo saw the man, whose back was as straight as a bamboo, disappear into the night. At the same time, the inner strength she had at the palace hall also disappeared. Yet, while she felt her body weaken and sought a soft stool to sit on, she remained bright-eyed.
An Xia watched as the master left with a darkened countenance, though she hadn’t heard any commotion from within. However, seeing that Tang Zhuo Zhuo appeared neither indignant nor tearful, she relaxed a little. “My lady, would like to have some pastries?”
Tang Zhuozhuo propped her face upon her delicate hand with eyes fixed upon the luminous and bright Ye Ming Pearl* and shook her head. Her eyebrows were furrowed for a good while and it was unclear what she was recalling with a serious expression. “What happened to the painting?”
*夜明珠 is a legendary pearl often described in folklore and such. It is said to glow in the dark, hence the name that literally translates to ‘bright at night’.
An Xia was taken aback before she muttered her reply, “It is being kept at the bottom of a chest. My lady, you…”
She’s surely not going to take it out at this moment, right?
A haze flashed across Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s bright and beautiful apricot eyes, and she stood up abruptly. Looking upon the lit candles placed at the table, she said, “Bring it over.”
An Xia desired to advise her otherwise, but in seeing Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s poor complexion as well as considering her temperament, she could only sigh in her heart and went to fetch it.
The scroll painting was well kept without a hint of dust. Tang Zhuo Zhuo had cherished it tremendously. She pursed her lips as she placed the scroll on the red sandalwood desk and used an inkstone to press down on a corner. That corner was immediately stained black.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo gave it a brief initial glimpse before moving her gaze to the person painted upon it. The person depicted was smiling elegantly, a young master who was like fine jade. One can see, through the portrait, that he was a tall and stately* man.
*玉树临风- literally ‘jade tree overlooking the wind’. Basically, in a roundabout sense, it is describing a majestic image of a tree with the wind enhancing its beauty.
Wang Yi was born with such looks, with a pair of romantic eyes always brimming with a smile. Many a noble lady in the capitol fell for that pair of eyes like enslaved souls. Tang Zhuo Zhuo was no exception, for those features were his biggest advantage.
The bottom of the painting contained a single character as the signature and beneath the neat calligraphy was a small sketch of a single, vibrantly open peach blossom drawn by Tang Zhuo Zhuo.
Though she was born into a family of generals, she was immensely talented. Music, strategy games, literature, and the arts*- she excelled at them all. It was only that she never displayed them overtly**, so few people knew.
*琴棋书画- are known as the four noble accomplishments that all aristocrats are expected to be learned in (the guqin zither, weiqi- chinese chess, the classics, and traditional painting)
***显山露水- ‘on a prominent mountain, water flows exposed’ meaning where water flows on a noticeable mountain, it too, will be apparent. Here, the MC is not doing so.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s slender dainty fingers, which were like warm jade, brought her rouge coloured sleeves up to cover the eyes of the painted person. For the image of the same person from her previous life came to mind, except his expression revealed malevolence. Her eyes quickly turned cold.
She took the painting in hand and inspected it. After a while, she smiled and turned to the anxious An Xia who waited at her side. “My skills in painting are still satisfactory, no?”
The smile alighting on the corner of Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s mouth was akin to a feather, not even remotely reaching up to the eyes.
An Xia was quite fearful at this point, and said, “My lady, please let this servant return this painting to its place, lest His Highness the Crown Prince…”
She couldn’t speak further. By her fretful facial expression, Tang Zhuo Zhuo naturally knew exactly what she meant to say.
Huo Qiu’s feet hadn’t even left her front door for more than a moment and she was already taking out the painting, as if she was brazenly showing him discourtesy with ill will. Should her actions be brought to his ears by someone intentionally, then it would inevitably lead to another dispute between them.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo pursed her lips and rolled up the scroll in her hands. She beckoned to An Zhi, who had remained on silent standby throughout this, with a slight frown, “Go and bring over the brazier.”
An Zhi was momentarily stunned but nonetheless bowed deeply and left, leaving An Xia to ask with thinned lips, “What does my lady need the brazier for, since the weather has been unusually hot today?”
It most certainly was. On any given day in June, one would be covered entirely in sweat as if one had just been fished out of water. Even when sleeping during the night, it was necessary to place several basins full of ice chips to lower the sweltering heat in the chambers.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo lowered her eyes. She didn’t feel hot, but her heated palms were certainly covered in layers of dampness.
Soon enough, two maidservants brought in a brazier with a well lit fire. It didn’t take long after setting it down that the hungry flames bursting from the brazier caused the room temperature to quickly rise.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo took a few steps forward and threw the scroll painting in her hands straight into the blazing brazier. It immediately burned a hole the size of a bowl right through the paper. She remained motionless for an indecipherable mien and it was a while before she huffed and slackened her body.
An Xia stared open-mouthed in bewilderment. She had almost instinctively exclaimed in disbelief and only managed to halt it with a quick hand to muffle her mouth; she could only silently digest her dismay in her heart. Even the perpetually taciturn An Zhi, who often concealed her thoughts, could not hide her momentarily astounded face.
Tang Zhuozhuo headed over to the desk and retrieved a handkerchief to clean her hands with, and said with a smile, “Have you all become silly fools? Are you not going to take away the brazier?”
It was only then the dumbfounded maids reacted and quickly took it away. Meanwhile, An Xia stepped up to Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s side and began to knead her shoulders with care. “My lady has come around to an understanding; you should have done this long ago.”
It is a fact that the imperial family is unlike any other place. One single misstep* meant suffering heavy criticism. This was doubly so for someone as precious in status as the Crown Princess, whose position demanded having not even the slightest taint.
**行差踏错- the idiom literally translates ‘to walk an inferior path, take an erroneous step’
Tang Zhuo Zhuo looked on blankly for a moment, the glazed look in her eyes reflecting softly against the night light. She then closed her eyes and exhaled under her breath. When An Xia next looked upon her again, she found that while the dark shadowed over half her face, the piercing cold expression remained clear.
Indeed, this should have been done a long time ago.
Meanwhile, within the main palace chambers, an entirely different scene was unfolding.
Huo Qiu, with a brush made of wolf fur in hand, was writing with speedy precision while his other hand rested behind his back. His hair flowed down like cascading silk. His headpiece which was placed to the side of his work desk, reflected the candlelight.
Zhang Desheng entered with caution, a cup of hot tea in hand. His short and chubby stature made his movement resemble that of a trundling winter melon. He carefully observed Huo Qiu’s facial expression while his heart incessantly groaned of hardship.
They clearly just had an uproarious dispute this morning, so why is the Crown Princess still making a racket over that hateful nuisance of a general?
The master already experiences a sickness affecting his head. He is normally fine, but the moment his mood severely fluctuates, he would suffer severe headaches for the rest of the night. He stubbornly refuses to call for a doctor; it was clear he had been holding a grudge still.
Upon thinking of the news that just arrived from that place, he couldn’t help but sigh deeply inside his heart once more.
Zhang Desheng kept a smile layered on his face as he moved to serve the delicate cup of fragrant tea in his hand. “Your Highness, please drink some hot tea.”
Huo Qiu turned a deaf ear to him, not even bothering to give it a glance.
Zhang Desheng wiped his brow with a corner of his light gray sleeve. The words sat at the tip of his tongue ceased to move further; the sight of this was comical.
Huo Qiu became impatient. While his hand unceasingly continued to work, he gave a bland, passing glance. His voice held immeasurable indifference. “What?”
“Your Highness, someone just came in to report that the Crown Princess brought out that scroll painting again.”
Huo Qiu paused his hand, the middle finger pressed down on the brush shaft so hard it turned white. In a moment’s notice, his eyes held a darkness in them as deep as the bottomless cold waters.
A long, heavy stroke of ink marred the paper surface and when Huo Qiu looked at it again, his work became entirely ruined. He set down his brush atop the inkstone and brushed over the blight lightly with the tips of his slender fingers. His headache was worsening.
Huo Qiu, since young, had been a calm and self-sufficient person. The only things he didn’t have were things he didn’t want. Yet, when he now had the world in his pocket, he encountered such a person as Tang Zhuo Zhuo.
Unfulfilled longing. Truly, it was an unfulfilled longing!
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