A few days passed and Huo Qiu became increasingly busy so that Tang Zhuo Zhuo no longer saw even a shadow of him.
One day at noon, Tang Zhuo Zhuo was reclining on the ivory laden arhat* bed to take a nap, when An Xia lifted the pearl curtain to enter. She approached her and softly whispered, “My lady, Zhong Liangdi** came over.”
*罗汉- not to be confused with luohan fruit (monkfruit), this refers to luóhàn sōng, a type of coniferous pine.The wood is known to be water and termite resistant, therefore, quite popular for furniture production especially during the Ming Dynasty.
**T/L Note: As the chapter title suggests, the two characters mean ‘concubine’. But I’m going to keep this romanization for the sake of clarity, since even concubines have different ranks. This will most likely show in later chapters. Better safe than sorry!
Tang Zhuo Zhuo slowly opened her eyes, which were filled with a frosty quality, and looked towards An Zhi, who was standing as straight as a pen nearby. She slowly opened her mouth and spoke, “Go and invite her in.”
Saying this, she sat up halfway, causing the light pink, silk brocade quilt to slide past her slender curves and pool at her waist. Her palm-sized face showed a lackadaisical expression.
Zhong Yuxi. She was the only person who had managed to climb up to the concubine position in her previous life. She instigated neither disputes nor fights, and embodied the temperament of a celestial being; she also had a docile personality. The Zhong family was influential and powerful, and Huo Qiu held Zhong Yuxi’s elder brother in high regard. He steadily climbed up the ranks until he became a pivotal figure in the imperial court, while she adapted to the Inner Palace like fish to water.
It could be said that she was an amiable person, but not one person in the entire palace knew the true nature of the closed-off Yili Palace. During her previous life, she even dared sneak into the Cold Palace a total of three times to seek her for a ‘heart-to-heart talk’. She repeatedly informed her that Wang Yi’s feelings for her had not changed, making her think that her daily sufferings were worth enduring.
It was truly a deep scheme.
It was unclear what came to Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s mind as her lovable apricot eyes hid her intent to smile deep in its depths. She was too lazy to fully rise, only propping her body up slightly with her thin wrist as she heard the faint sound of footsteps travel in from the outside.
“This concubine greets Her Highness.” As soon as Zhong Yuxi entered and saw her state of appearance, she paused with a momentary frown before relaxing her brows, offering a smile that embodied the graceful celestials.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo nonchalantly waved a hand, “Rise.”
As she had drastically changed today, Zhong Yuxi couldn’t recover her wits immediately. However, she was no ordinary person. She still managed to accept the fragrant tea An Zhi offered her with graceful smoothness, before taking a seat on a cushioned stool.
“Zhong Liangdi found some free time today to come sit in Yiqiu Palace?”, Tang Zhuo Zhuo casually asked. This made Zhong Yuxi stiffen her body, however, after a short deliberation, she replied, “It is only natural that this concubine needs to come and pay her respects when there is time available.”
“Not to conceal this from Your Highness but this concubine did, in fact, come today with a request.” Zhong Yuxi bit lightly on her lower lip and with two teardrops trailing down her cheeks, she placed down her cup of hot tea to kneel on the chilly ground.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo had a straightforward temperament. She had always disliked being disturbed by outsiders and preferred to cut to the chase without preamble*; even the tact of slowly entering into the main topic was disregarded.
***开门见山- ‘open the doors to the view of mountains’, meaning what you see is what you get.
When An Zhi saw this, she hurriedly said, “Lady Liangdi, what is this? Quickly rise up.”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo’s gaze became stern at once as she sat up further with a subtle expression.
She had yet to forget that in her previous life, An Zhi had so resented the misery of the Cold Palace that she paid silver coins to leave the place before the third day was even over. The place she turned to was none other than Zhong Yuxi’s Yili Palace and in fact, even became the closely trusted first-class maidservant.
If it was said that Zhong Yuxi had a big heart without harboring ill will as she used those around her, no one would believe it.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo, in thinking this, slowly closed her eyes as her facial expression became chilly.
An Zhi could no longer be used.
Even An Xia, who had been on the side and ready to help lift her up, had a darkened expression. She secretly rebuked An Zhi for not knowing her place and being thoughtless.
Zhong Yuxi evaded An Zhi’s hand without a sound and stubbornly remained on her knees. At this time, Tang Zhuo Zhuo realized that her usually shy, timid, and delicate face was pale white, as if it held no trace of blood. Even the clothes on her body were a homely white.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo turned to observe the silver bell she was carrying in her own hands, extending it out to move it to and fro. She laughed softly at the crisp and delicate sound of the bell’s jingling before she lifted her eyes. “What is Liangdi saying; what is this request that you would need to come and ask it of me?”
Her enquiry was full of interest, yet when it passed through Zhong Yuxi’s ears, it became one full of impatience and ridicule. Zhong Yuxi, who was used to being the superior one, bit her lip.
If it weren’t for her elder brother’s incident for which even His Highness might come to resent her by extension as well, would she even have a reason to degrade herself, to come and seek the help of an East Palace consort who did not even follow the ways of womanly virtue?
For a personage like His Highness, how is she even comparable to Tang Zhuo Zhuo, a woman who held another man in her heart?
But upon thinking back, she had already opened her mouth to make her case. So with her raven black hair concealing her expression, she spoke with a quiet and light voice. “A while ago, this concubine’s elder brother dared to cause a mess and caught His Highness’ ire. This concubine has, for the past few days, intended to pay penance to His Highness for the crime, yet I have been unable to meet His Highness…”
“Zhong Liangdi, your elder brother’s incident is a political affair; the Inner Palace cannot interfere with such. Do you desire to ask me, who is innocent, to take the blame?”
Tang Zhuo Zhuo cut her short impatiently. Upon hearing her, it quickly came to mind what Zhong Yuxi’s elder brother did that caused Huo Qiu to explode in furious anger.
The Zhong family had sent their daughter into the East Palace and so naturally, they would come to rely on Huo Qiu. However, despite the brimming talent Zhong Yuxi’s elder brother had, he was also scatterbrained in character and unsure of himself in his early years; he cornered his main wife to death because he recklessly tried to bring a courtesan into his household. This subsequently became his achilles heel that the Sixth Prince and his faction held onto with a vice-like grip. The already offended Qiongyuan Emperor turned furious then, and thus demoted Zhong Yu several ranks in succession before transferring him out of the capital.
It was because of this incident that the Tonglin Infantry was handed over to someone else and nine out of ten carefully planned schemes were ruined. It was no wonder Huo Qiu refused to see even one person for the last few days; he was most likely enraged at the moment.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo pursed her lips as she heard Zhong Yuxi’s doleful voice say, “Your Highness, please abate your anger. This… this concubine only hopes to meet His Highness just once.”
From Zhong Yuxi’s perspective, since Tang Zhuo Zhuo did not care for Huo Qiu, it wouldn’t matter to her if she put in a few good words for Zhong Yuxi to flatter him.
Tang Zhuo Zhuo was fast becoming impatient to the point where even her words held no courtesy. “If you desire an audience with His Highness, then go do so yourself. Should His Highness not want to see you, what can I possibly do?”
Whenever Huo Qiu’s expression became sour, it would become incomparably frightening no matter the person. Just the thought of it left Tang Zhuo Zhuo with chills.
If she had not discovered how thick skinned Zhong Yuxi was, she would have been used as cannon fodder. The moment she agrees to her request would, at minimum, be when another quarrel with Huo Qiu aroses. Surely, this Zhong Yuxi was a delicate and tender looking flower who knew her way around words.
The members of the Zhong family were truly crafty.