I felt on the verge of falling apart.
None of the other rooms were to Han Zichuan’s satisfaction, so now he was using mine. I lingered for awhile in the courtyard before shrugging my shoulders, ignoring the resentful stares behind my back from his men as I headed to the main hall.
The door closed, and the air in the room turned icy.
All the residents of the household were already awaiting me inside as I gave them an embarrassed smile. Little Sixth suddenly rose to his feet, blowing away the heat from cup of tea before handing it to me. He even earnestly raised his sleeve to wipe away the cold sweat that had broken out across my forehead. Yet the more he rubbed, the more my throat felt blocked up.
This is what was called a guilty conscience.
First was in a chair at the head, holding the lid of his teacup as he sat deep in thought, in no rush to try his drink. Fifth sat the furthest away on the side, slumping in his chair as he hugged the broken flute. His eyes seemed filled with icy resentment before they swept my way.
“Master, are you cold?” “No, not cold.”
“Then is it too hot? Look at how much you’re sweating…” the Poison Prince sprawled casually over a chair, waving his garish purple sleeves. “Let’s fan our Master more, it’d be best if the wind whipped her to death.”
Did I provoke you or something? Offend you somehow?
Fourth was busy with something on the side, brushing the mole by his eye with a secret smile as he narrowed his eyes to glance over. He picked up a piece of paper that had been held together with plaster and handed it to First. That paper…it was so familiar. Wasn’t it the same one that Han Zichuan tore in half?
The game was up.
First put aside his tea and swept his gaze over the painting in his hands. Second couldn’t keep still, but stuck his hands in his sleeves as he stood behind him, speaking softly. “The mole looks like Little Fourth’s, the eyes like Little Fifth’s. The figure and bearing are even more enchanting than you, the eldest, while the expression is a bit like Little Third’s. Who exactly is in this picture?”
This painting had been splashed with wine into a spotty mess, but they could still distinguish these similarities…how impressive. I kept my head lowered and continued to pretend I was deaf. First slowly lowered the paper to the table. His movements were gentle, but the entire table had started to shudder…
“Who was it that came tonight?” his voice was cool and crystal clear.
I grew a little braver as I rose to meet his eyes. “Uh…you’re the one who received the guest, you don’t know who he is?”
“Don’t get smart with me. He was looking for you, not me, and I couldn’t ask him much under the circumstances.”
Oh…so you’re asking me instead.
As soon as he glared, I grew weak and bowed my head, adjusting a corner of my robes in an unnatural fashion. My answer came out like a mosquito speaking. “A personal enemy.”
“How big of a grudge do you have with him? As soon as the two of you met, there was holding and hugging.” I felt a chill as his hand slammed the table, freeing a layer of dust. A small section of the wood chipped and fell off. “You never told me your personal enemy was the current reigning emperor.” He was so angry, his whole body was trembling.
“Well, you never asked. Not to mention, this isn’t something all that great,” I shrugged my shoulders, picking up the fallen piece of wood and blowing on it a few times before pressing it back onto the table. From a distance it almos
He glared at me again.
I smiled. “Of course, if you want to go back on your promise now and scatter, you can still divide up the goods in this house. None of you will be shortchanged.”
The young Fourth Prince actually snorted, his mole attractive as ever. “The things in this house were all bought by First or myself. How could we let you take charge of handing them out?”
“Like hell we’ll split the goods,” the Poison Prince was unusually composed. He had held himself back before bursting out now.” An esteemed guy like me isn’t lacking for anything.”
“We’ve all been saying, we’ll go wherever you go.” Second stood before me, deftly clutching my sleeve to grasp my hand beneath the cloth. My heart softened.
First stood up, waving his sleeves as he issued some orders. “Little Second, Little Third. Guard the front and back doors and don’t let a certain person escape tonight.” He held his hands behind his back and leisurely strolled off, not even sparing me a glance.
“And also…” I spoke up again, even though my next words would ruin the atmosphere. There was no other way around it, though, I couldn’t figure it out myself. My voice lowered as I muttered, “Where do I sleep tonight?”
“Any one of you that dares to shelter and serve Master tonight will be dealt with family law,” First spoke in spite of his gloominess, before stepping out the door. Under the flickering lamplight, I watched him leave in a daze. By one side, Little Sixth tugged on my clothes until I regained my senses and smiled. Though he couldn’t speak, I could tell he was alarmed and very uneasy.
I reached out to caress his hair. “I’m not going anywhere. It’s all right… don’t worry about me.”
Since the emperor had caught me, there was nowhere to run. Five years of living in the jianghu had been rather lonely. Whenever I saw someone who resembled him, I would have an urge to bring him with me. Year after year, this went on until I took in more and more people. Han Zichuan wasn’t wrong. From the very beginning, I had no way to forget that person…
Being able to raise the young Princes by my side meant I could look at them everyday, and pretend I was back in my happy life at the house. Beautiful days would pass by my eyes as if Fang Hua was still by my side, looking after me, living a peaceful and comfortable life.
In this way, I convinced myself that I was living well, even if I was alone.
Too many things had happened tonight for me to go back to bed. Besides…there was no place for me to sleep. Every single one of them had cut me off, not even leaving me with spare covers as they walked off, yawning. The last one even shut the doors of the main hall behind me.
I sat on the stone steps to the hall for a long time, but couldn’t decide where to go. Technically, we had guest rooms in the residence, but they were only guest rooms in name. Nobody had disturbed me for years, so those few worn-out rooms had never been tidied up. The floorboards were all rotten, and we didn’t even have bedsheets. I couldn’t exactly go to sleep hugging a bundle of dry grass for warmth, that felt a bit too pathetic.
I rested a chin in my hands and knitted my eyebrows, thinking over First’s parting words. What did he say? Something about…‘any one of you that dares to shelter and serve Master tonight will be dealt with family law’?
I slapped my thigh. ‘Any one of you’ didn’t include himself. Like I said, his words were sharp as knives but he had a heart like tofu, so he definitely couldn’t bear to see me freeze. Visibly pleased, I groped past the doors in the darkness until I saw the only point of light coming from his chambers. Looks like he really wanted me to keep him company…why not tell me earlier?
I quietly pushed open the door. By the pale yellow lamplight, a person sat at his table, robes draped over his shoulders. He seemed to be studying something. That figure and the slope of his shoulders…I stood by the threshold, a little stunned.
He didn’t look back, but only said softly, “You were finally willing to come back…”
Hearing his voice, and the desolation in his tone, my mind seemed to burst inside, the events of the past and present mixing together. My eyes grew hot, and I rubbed them with my sleeves, walking over to embrace him. Tears poured from my eyes as I buried my face between his shoulders.
“Master?” First trembled as if frightened. It was his first time speaking so respectfully, as if he was at a loss.
“Call me Shao’er.”
He fell silent and stiffened, a bronze mirror reflecting a tender, indescribably sorrowful expression on his face. The loneliness emanating from his being was so much of the same, sinking into my bones and marrow. Yifu, I miss you very much. Why can’t I forget you even after all these years?
His voice was steady as he spoke, word for word: “Shao’er.”
My heart shook, and my arms held him with considerable strength. His warmth was unfamiliar and he lacked that nostalgic scent, but his figure and voice were identical. First turned around, but I awkwardly lowered my head and just held him tighter.
“Don’t move… Just let me hold you for awhile, even if it’s just a moment longer.”
First, I’m sorry.
This really was the last time. I had tried so hard to forget that person, but how could you forget a memory seeped into your very marrow? Perhaps something had injured my state of mind, because qi suddenly started churning wildly within my chest, causing me pain. I only kept holding on, forcing myself to ignore the chaos inside my body as I embraced his warmth.
“Shao’er,” he couldn’t discern my struggles, but only spoke softly. “What exactly is the relationship between you and that personal enemy of yours?”
“Are you jealous?”
He didn’t reply.
Very good, you knew how to be jealous. My good yifu would never be jealous on account of me.
He would only say, ‘Shao’er, let Zichuan have his way for a while.’
He would only say, ‘It’s Zichuan and I that are going, not you…we can’t bring you to the palace.’ In a flash, I held onto his shoulders, softly rubbing my cheek against his robes. “Tell me, yifu, should I enter the palace this time?”
He tugged my hand, brows knitted as he asked me, “Who exactly are you taking me for?” The papers on the table rustled, my painting among them an enchanting sight beneath the candlelight. “He, was he the reason you took us all in?”
My eyes widened, then curved into a smile. “If I say yes, would you accept it?”
He carefully studied me before listlessly releasing my hand, laughing in spite of himself. There was a sense of giving up in his tone, and a bit of loneliness. “Master, things that need to be resolved should still be resolved. Even if you stop thinking about it, some things can’t be forgotten as old dreams…”
“If he’s in the palace, then you should go.”
Early morning, when the skies were still dim.
A covered carriage was waiting by the front gates. Before it stood a middle aged man who looked to be a high-leveled expert that bowed politely as he spoke. “Fellow Princes, your servant is here on his master’s orders to receive the lady.”
The atmosphere around the breakfast table was oppressive. The Poison Prince, who had been silently eating his food, slapped his chopsticks on the table and grumbled, “Even if you guys don’t eat, our Master should. What’s the rush? Careful I don’t feed you poison.”
I took a bite of my meal.
“Little Third, don’t frighten him. Sixth, give Master more porridge.”
Ah… More food?
I timidly glanced at Little Fourth, who had given out the order. Ever since he had sat at the table, he’d only moved his mouth and not his bowl. At most he’d wave his chopsticks around with his head bowed, as if trying to do a divination. I quietly decided to keep eating.
“Master, eat more. I added special ingredients to this porridge and these side dishes,” Little Second added from the side. I did a spit-take, and he quickly rose to wipe the mess with his sleeves.
“Little Second, ah…you’ve been clean and honest for so long. Why did you copy Little Third at the crucial moment and add poison?”
He rolled his eyes, sitting next to me and squeezing out Little Sixth. Holding up the bowl, he fed me a big spoonful of porridge. “I did learn all my poison knowledge from you. But after you enter the palace, I won’t have a chance to take care of you anymore, so I added lots of antidotes to this porridge. It’ll give you immunity against temptation drugs, mosquito bites…”
I began to tremble. “These are all antidotes. It’s not like I’m poisoned, and they’ll lose effect after half a day anyways. You…”
“It’s still fine if it’s effective for half a day, Master…there are people as ferocious as wolves and tigers in the imperial court who have designs against all and any emperors. Come…have another spoonful.”
From the side, someone coughed. That high-leveled expert couldn’t take it anymore, and his face was starting to twitch…
“It’s getting late. Stop feeding her and just let her go.” First stood up with a long face, and fished out a package from his robes, tossing it into my lap. “These are all essential items we’ve prepared like clothing and daily articles. Don’t play around for too long and remember to come home once in a while.”
Come home… There was a certain charm to those two words that made me treasure them…especially since his voice sounded so much like Fang Hua’s. I gave a start as someone next pressed on my sleeves and looked up to see Little Fourth’s face.
“I’ve divined an inauspicious omen but I think you can handle it, so I won’t dissuade you.” Even as he spoke, the mole at the corner of his eye trembled, making him especially cute. “These are a few of the charms I draw on a daily basis, they might come in handy in an emergency.”
I took a glance and saw a thick stack of papers. Did he really draw this many on a daily basis? Why did some of the ink look half-wet, as if he’d drawn them recently?
“Then, I’m going.” Yet I couldn’t move. Someone was clutching at my robes.
Fifth, who had been silent all this time, held onto me with his head bowed, the broken flute still dangling by his waist. It seemed like he was about to cry. I lightly drew him into my arms and patted him, as if I was comforting a child.
“When I return, I’ll definitely heal your face.”
“It’s fine if you don’t, you…just have to come back.” The voice was extremely stiff.
“Only these blasted servants would be so ill-behaved. It’s easy to get hungry and nauseous on a bumpy, tilting carriage like that, so I’ve prepared some pastries and porridge. I’ve put them in this bamboo steamer so Master can eat them on the road.” Still the worrywart, Little Second had packed away the antidote-laced breakfast. I raised my arm and personally accepted the package.
With a bow, I left my life in this house behind, and stepped towards the carriage. After just one step, someone grabbed my collar and hauled me inside, nearly making me fall on my face. What the heck… Who else was in here?
I carefully guarded my basket of food that had nearly spilled over as I staggered to my feet. Someone actually grabbed the back of my collar, and a grip tightened around my waist before I was pulled back to sit on something warm. I shifted around a bit…
Actually, it felt pretty comfortable.
There was a light laugh, and a voice spoke intimately by my ear. “Don’t move around…I’m hungry, you know.”
I clutched the person’s robes as I twisted my neck to see a face wearing a wholly respectable expression. In the dim morning light, his pupils glittered like stars, and that mouth was curved in a smile full of profound meaning. Stunned, I blurted out the first thing that came to my mind. “You didn’t sleep in my room last night? What did you go do?”
Han Zichuan laughed, leaning against my ear as he hugged me, a hand reaching into my bamboo steamer basket to feel around. “What kind of food do you have here…”
There was plenty to eat. “Sweet jujube cakes, scallion rolls, mantou with candied dates, millet porridge…”
Wait, why was I telling him all this?
Without a hint of manners, he picked up a piece of meat wrapped in sticky rice and started chewing, every movement as graceful as an aristocrat. When he was finished, he even had the gall to add, “It doesn’t taste any worse than the palace food, though the flavor is a bit strange.”
Of course it was, there were things added in. You’d compare this with the palace in the same breath?
A whiff of this scent was enough to tell me it was a drug designed to eliminate and reduce the desires. I shifted in my seat again. “Move over, you’re crowding me.” Glancing at him, I carefully got off to sit by his side. Though his eyebrows furrowed, he didn’t say a word. Little Second had really thought things through. This drug was very clever.
“It’s a long trip from the palace here. You’re just running off and ignoring things back at court?”
“There’s not much happening at court. Taking you back is more important.”
Well, thank you. He actually considered me important. Now that I thought of it, something didn’t feel right.
“You’re in such a rush to bring me back to the palace this time. Don’t tell me something’s wrong with that person?”
“That person?” Han Zichuan’s lips curved into a disdainful smile. “You’re still worrying over him.” The air around us abruptly turned cold. He suddenly leaned over to speak in my ear, raising his voice.
“What is this?”
There was an open bundle before me, filled with a thick stack of glistening yellow charm papers and two or three pitch-black pills. Fourth had prepared the charms, but as for the pills…
Han Zichuan frowned. Reluctant to touch them with his hands, he wrapped the pills in a silk cloth and hid it in his robes. He cast me a suspicious glance as he spoke in a calm voice. “Zhen will hold these for you.”
He probably thought it was some type of nefarious poison. Truthfully speaking, I’d forgotten most of the formulas for my most terrifying ones. Besides, who would put poison into such large, unwieldy pills? It’d be too hard to dissolve them in water, and it wasn’t like you could feed your victims directly without them resisting. I smiled wryly and leaned against the window, my face turned away as I huddled up against the cushions. …who knew what Little Fourth saw in his divinations? He probably snuck in the pills here because he worried too much. It’d be best if I never had to use them.
Leaves and branches flitted past the carriage window, a little distracting. The interior of the carriage wasn’t very spacious, and I could hear someone paging through sheets of paper. Turning, I saw that Han Zichuan had let down the bamboo blinds to block out the light. Shadows fell across his upper robes, which were embroidered with layers of clouds and falling flowers. He was sitting cross-legged with his chest wide open, the contours and shape of his body an alluring sight. One hand propped up his head while the other flipped lazily through the stack of yellow charms. I lost interest and gave a yawn, and he smiled at me.
“Looking at you now, I can’t tell how you made such a mysterious name for yourself in the jianghu for the past five years.”
There’s plenty of things you can’t tell with a look…such as being blind to how much Fang Hua likes you while always thinking of me instead. I’m letting you do as you want, not because I fear you, but because of Fang Hua.
As the carriage rattled across the roads, Han Zichuan held onto the side of the carriage for balance and raised his eyebrows. His tone was remarkably sovereign-like as he spoke in annoyance. “Little Lin, slow down. Don’t fool around and jolt this carriage so much.”
“Sire, please hold onto your seat. “I’m afraid there’s an unexpected surprise up front.”
Han Zichuan gave a sound of ridicule and reached forward to open the curtains. “Looks like it’s another ambush. Just focus on charging through and defending this carriage, you don’t need to pay them any mind.”
Astonished, I looked as he lowered the bamboo blinds, the movement quick and graceful. There was a glimpse of the driver’s back, dressed in ordinary, coarse clothing as he sat at the reins to whip the horse. The guards that had been riding ahead of the carriage had all vanished, but there were sounds of combat coming from the woods.
Who had the gall to ambush the emperor’s carriage? Did they want to die? Han Zichuan smiled at me, sitting calmly by my side. He stroked my hand and gave it a pat. “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
Before he’d even finished speaking, there was a tearing noise. I squinted and grabbed Han Zichuan’s sleeve, pressing him against the seat. Something ripped, and an object burst through the bamboo blinds. Cold air rushed inside in the wake of an arrow that lodged itself into the woodwork.
A second later, and the arrow would’ve pierced through Han Zichuan’s back.
“Sire, are you all right?” the driver anxiously turned his head.
“Uninjured. We have to shake them off,” Han Zichuan’s face was ghastly pale as the carriage rattled even more severely. I prepared to go out but was dragged back to the seat and into his lap. Sounds of fighting rang out around us as I looked at his expression, still handsome and resolute. The eyebrows were imposing, and a fierce strand of killing intent shone in his eyes.
Was he trying to protect me? I turned my face away, suddenly finding the situation rather funny.
“Who dares to rob this carriage?” Our ride gave an obvious jolt as his heavy voice spoke. Amidst the sounds of fighting, the carriage shook heavily as it raced forward. Blood suddenly splashed against the bamboo blinds, staining a large section red. “Die!”
A man covered in wounds barged inside, body leaning against the walls. In his hands he held a sword, thrusting at us with a desperate air. Han Zichuan reacted swiftly and avoided the blow, catching the attacker’s sword arm as he blocked me from sight. His gaze was icy as he grit his teeth, as if having trouble holding him in place.
I took the chance to strike the attacker with my palm, causing him to stagger. He gave me a venomous glance and wiped his mouth with his sleeve, seemingly unhurt. Shocked, I looked at my hand. I’d used all of my force in that last attack. If this was the past, the force of the blow would’ve stunned him even if I missed. But now…not only was he unharmed, but the backlash had hit my internal energy, sending my body into chaos…
Couldn’t I even use the third tier of internal energy now?
“Shao’er, watch out!”
Han Zichuan’s shout brought me to my senses, just in time to see a sword headed my way. Curses, if I realized I’d lost my skills earlier, I wouldn’t have bothered showing off and getting involved. This guy could’ve stabbed whoever he wanted. I dodged left, then right, my agile movements constrained within the cramped space. A moment of inattention had me bumping against the edge of the seat, sending a wave of pain through my body. Ow. My hand groped around until it found a certain bundle.
In a moment of desperation, I pinched the bundle of charms between my fingers and waved it before my face. I didn’t even bother to look at it before chanting a fire incantation. The attacker raised his sword…
And I smiled calmly as I raised my sleeves, revealing the blazing charms. All of them shot towards his forehead as blazing streams of fire, the force strong enough to blast his body out of the carriage. The remnants of the flames formed a gigantic fire dragon that soared into the skies.
Lowering my head, I dusted off my robes. It looked like I had used too many charms. I held onto the carriage walls for support as I helped up a dumbfounded Han Zichuan, assisting him to his seat. Copying his pose from earlier, I patted his shoulders and said in a low voice, “Don’t worry, I’m here.”
He looked at me in surprise, and I smiled. Zichuan…
Did you really think I passed my days ignorantly these past few years? With so many Princes, of course I’d picked up a few of their tricks. After learning from Little Fourth, I didn’t need to collect firewood anymore. A single charm gave me enough fire to roast my sweet potatoes. It was also much more convenient. This time…since I used them all at once, there was no doubt the assassin was dead.
The wind blew in from the broken blinds as we rushed along, leaving the sounds of fighting far behind us in the woods. I sat thinking with my brows knitted. My technique had been effective, but it’d startled the horse…
Han Zichuan sat calmly on the seat, silent for a while before he looked over and spoke flatly, “Have you realized? Our driver Little Lin already died from falling off the horse.”
-o- Orginal and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 family law (家法) −jiafa, rules and punishments dealt out to family members by the head of a household, using involved corporal punishment like caning or flogging. Also a popular method for first wives and mother- in-laws to use against their new husband’s wife/daughter-in-law.
My brows furrowed, and I hastily opened the curtains to look outside, hands gripping the edge of the window. Fresh air mixed with hot, dense wind to assail my senses. My chest seethed, and a sense of disgust welled up within me. There was no one outside, and the quilt across the horse’s back was splattered with tiny spots of blood.
The carriage was shaking violently now, and all I could hear was the sound of wheels crushing past stones mixed amidst thunderous hoofbeats. The scenery flew past us, branches occasionally scrabbling nosily against our vehicle. Startled by the fire dragon, the horse had his head bowed as he ran for his life. It was clear to see that the shock had frightened him out of his senses.
Straight in front of us was the edge of a cliff…
I gritted my teeth and reached for the reins whipping wildly in the wind. Just as my fingers were about to touch them…the carriage gave a heavy lurch and tilted to the left. Something seemed to be breaking apart. My eyes widened.
Curses! Someone had even sabotaged our ride…
“Shao’er, I think something’s wrong with this carriage,” someone spoke from within.
“That’s right, it’s about to fall to pieces.” Without anyone to control him, the horse ran past a bend in the road and kept rushing forward, dragging the shuddering carriage behind him straight over the cliff’s edge…
I immediately turned towards the seated Han Zichuan and grabbed him by the arms. We burst through the carriage roof as I flew into the air, the wind whipping our robes.
“Where are we going?” Han Zichuan asked as I held him by the armpits, wind blowing his hair askew while he squinted at me. I ignored him, stepping lightly on air. He seemed as if he wanted to ask me more questions, but kept silent and held me tight instead.
This guy, he’s so heavy…
Actually, I’d already regretted the moment I flew out of the carriage with him, so much that my intestines might’ve turned black and green. I didn’t have much internal energy left, and here I was showing off. We hadn’t even reached the top of the cliff before I ran out of qi. My foot slipped a few paces as my heart sank. One hand hastily reached out and grabbed an outcropping rock on the cliff face while the other carried the weight of a second person…a glance downwards revealed the carriage at the bottom of the cliff, utterly destroyed.
Our combined weights made it feel like my fingers were breaking.
“Shao’er…” he looked at me with a gentle smile. “Why aren’t you letting me go?”
I choked on my silence as I held onto the rock in a death grip. Of course I wanted to let go, but for Fang Hua’s sake, I couldn’t just abandon you. The bottom of the cliff was a long ways down, but Han Zichuan kept smiling, though that smile…
…made me extremely uneasy. It was as if he’d come to some sort of decision. My heart felt heavy as I tightened my grip on him, speaking in a tight voice. “Don’t even think about moving around. I don’t have enough strength to fish you back up if you drop.”
He slowly smiled and reached out a hand to embrace me, those eyes shining like the light of shattered stars. Curses, I thought he was going to kill himself for my sake, but–hey, what’s he doing with his hands like that…I…I really don’t have any strength left!
My hand had stopped feeling sore and long turned numb, and blood was flowing down my wrist. The rock had cut into my flesh, but there was no pain as I raised my head, eyes searching. From here, I could see the light spi
In the end, I blacked out.
The last thing I remembered was Han Zichuan gathering me into his arms as the scenery rushed past us. So even I had met with a day where I fell off a cliff. Little Fourth was right, this journey had really lead to a hugely inauspicious event.
I didn’t know how much time had passed before a loud, shrill noise pierced through my muddled thoughts. My eyes opened weakly, but the sight I saw scared me to death. An abyss yawned before me and I instinctively backed away. Behind me was a dark cave, and around us were nothing but precipitous cliffs. Han Zichuan held me in a tight embrace.
One of his hands rested against my ear, the other holding an object that was expelling white smoke as it send a bright flare up into the pitch-black skies, illuminating it in a flash. It looked like some sort of signal. Since he had something like this, why not use it earlier, before we fell off the cliff…
Hold on, I’m not dead?
“Shao’er, I’m sorry…I woke you.” he used a hand to feel my forehead as he muttered to himself. “Your fever still hasn’t left you.” I wearily clutched his sleeves, my teeth gritted as I asked, “What exactly happened?”
“You fainted, probably from exhaustion. I happened to see a cave on the side of the cliff and brought you here just now.”
Good. Very good…very fortunate.
Dare I ask exactly how you had the luck to carry a person in a dead faint to this cave while we were falling?
“Actually, my martial arts skills aren’t bad.”
“What’s wrong? Do you feel unwell somewhere?”
I viciously used my sleeves to wipe my mouth and slowly closed my eyes. He’d enraged me enough to spit blood. This guy was perfectly capable of escaping from danger but decided to rely on me. Now look, we were both ruined and stuck in this dreary place.
Inside the cave, an icy wind blew past, making me shiver. I bent down into a crouch and tried to feel about me, but he looped me by the waist and forced me into his lap, looking about to laugh as he spoke in a serious tone. “You’ve been unconscious for half the day. Don’t move around, we should share body warmth since it’s cold at night.”
I fell silent, not because of what he said, but because I discovered I couldn’t call forth a trace of qi from within my body. Something was very wrong.
“Shao’er, why is your body so cold?” He seemed worried as he felt about me.
“Seems like I’m plaguing you with cares,” I pushed aside his hands and closed my eyes for a while, before quietly asking, “We’ve already been forced off a cliff. Have you figured out who was targeting you yet?”
He frowned, muttering to himself for a while before slowly replying.
“I’m sorry for dragging you into it.”
…I laughed bitterly.
As I suspected, this person wouldn’t drag me back to the palace without reason. If people could even hurt the emperor, who knew how Fang Hua had passed his days? I guessed the news of my disaster would’ve reached the young Princes by now. Things must be chaotic back at the house.
“Nothing will happen. Roughly around dawn, people will come to rescue us.”
I remained feebly in his embrace, staring at him with a half-smile. “Even on an inspection tour, the emperor has treacherous ministers planning his assassination? Looks like your rule hasn’t been all smooth and steady.”
He lifted his eyes to look at me, the expression as if to say, how did you know?
Of course I knew. My palm hadn’t harmed the assassin in the slightest. Even without adequate internal energy, the results shouldn’t have turned out like that. Thinking back, the feeling I had then…there was definitely armor hidden beneath his robes, and he looked like an experienced fighter. Maybe he was even the soldier of some general.
No one from the jianghu would dare to provoke me.
Right now, I was more worried about the Princes. They were famous figures in the jianghu, each one filled with determination to protect their Master. It was doubtful that they’d let matters rest if they couldn’t find me. I gave a vague glance at Han Zichuan’s calm expression, coupled with his leisurely posture, and thought it a bit odd. He didn’t seem a bit anxious. Did he mean to borrow the strength of the young Princes to kill rebellious, would-be assassins? A sudden burst of pain filled my chest, and I looked away, sucking in a deep breath. Calm…I had to stay calm.
“Though Zhen ascended the throne as the emperor, military power has always been beyond my grasp. There are plenty of people who wish to rebel as well.” he swept his gaze over me, finally deigning to explain. Even the emperor’s carriage had been sabotaged, these ambitious rebels were really too bold.
I slowly struggled free and grabbed the front of his jacket, sullen. “And you’re just letting them conspire against you like this?!”
“Shao’er, are you showing concern for me.” he peered at me tenderly, the question turning into a statement of certainty on his lips. I gave him a stunned looked before turning away, paralyzed with rage.
The current officials actually dared to send assassins after the emperor on his inspection tour. Such an open, brazen display of actions was not only crude and rash, but stupid. They seemed to have no thought for the consequences, perhaps because Han Zichuan had forced them to this point.
I should have realized it earlier…the person before me now had killed his own father while he was still a crown prince. He wasn’t a leader you could provoke easily. Though, if it was just his internal affairs, why drag an innocent person like me into the mess? Wasn’t this unfair? Unjust?
Meanwhile, he kept staring and smiling at me, heart filled with happiness as he held me in his lap and took a breath. “Are you worrying about me again? When you told me to not let go no matter what at the cliff, I knew…even if everyone in the world was plotting against me, you wouldn’t. My Shao’er is still the same as before…”
If I could turn back time, I’d drop you without hesitation. He held my face in his hands as he looked me up and down, eyebrows furrowed. “What’s wrong with your face, it’s so pale. Did you suffer some internal injuries?”
This guy, I was ready to sling him over my shoulder and throw him off the cliff. He only just realized I had internal injuries. Isn’t this a bit too slow?
“If you hold me any tighter, I’ll die faster.” I stared straight at him, forcing out my words.
He nestled closer in embarrassment, the hands around my waist neither loosening nor tightening. After a while, they rested over my shoulders as he came to a decision, “Zhen has methods. Zhen will treat your injuries for you.”
I gave a start.
When he used the word “Zhen,” I had a premonition.
“No…” No need.
But the hands on my shoulders were like iron. I was seized with panic as he turned over and pressed me beneath him. As soon as I prepared to use my internal energy, he spoke. “If you don’t want to die early, then stop fiddling around with your internal energy.”
Hey, why did his lines sound so familiar? He…h-h-he, why was he copying me?
I grew blank. He gave me a slow, careful look while I docilely stayed on the ground. His words were right. I’d felt that something was wrong with my internal energy as soon as we fell off the cliff, but what treatment was he thinking of using? Even as I stared at him, he remained calm, circulating his own qi as he touched me with his palm. Burning qistreamed through my robes to enter me, pure and vigorous, but it only made my head feel numb. If I knew he was going to channel true qi inside me, I wouldn’t have listened to him.
Pah, what a lousy idea.
I resisted the tumultuous sensations within my chest with difficulty, suppressing and rejecting the stream of true qi as I turned over and pushed him aside. He seemed at a loss as he tried to move over and pull at me. “What happened, did I do it incorrectly?”
“That’s right. That’s very right…”
If he gave me any more true qi, it’d damage my internal organs and cause my body to burst. He eased me into his embrace and curved his eyes into a smile, hands resting on my shoulders to repeat the process. I couldn’t bear it anymore and leaned forward, spitting up a mouthful of blood.
“Shao’er, what’s happened to you..?” his voice shook, severely disturbed.
I pulled my mouth into a grin. “Nothing. Just let me sleep for awhile and stop fussing over me. My cultivation way is different from the rest, wavering between yang and yin. I can’t endure the usual…”
He couldn’t nod his head fast enough as he mutely held me in his arms. The wind was very strong by the cliffside that night, but he leaned his head against the crags, stubbornly holding on to me. A chilly moon hung against the horizon, and the gale billowed out our sleeves.
“Zichuan, did you know beforehand that someone would attack the carriage?”
He used a bit of strength to rest me between his knees, stroking my hair as he answered. “I’m not an Immortal, how would I know these things?” He closed his eyes as if preparing to doze. I smiled in response. That’s true…he wasn’t an Immortal.
At the very least, an Immortal wouldn’t tell lies. Despite his warmth, I couldn’t fall asleep. Both my heart and my body felt extremely uncomfortable. Second had spoken correctly. From the start, I shouldn’t have cultivated the Carefree Recollection. My true qi had suffered damage and now my own internal energy was attacking me. It wasn’t something a human could bear, and an extremely difficult trial to surmount. My eyes remained open while my thoughts drifted, until enough time passed for his breaths to turn low and even.
“…Zichuan.” He remained unresponsive.
I shifted a bit, only hesitating briefly before rolling up my sleeves and digging through his robes. It was easy to fish out the bundle of silk from inside. Opening it up, I found the pills he had hidden away from me…as well as a single paper charm. Smiling softly, I smoothed out the crumpled charm before folding it into a paper crane. Then I put it in my lap and stroked it, watching the passing wind make its wings tremble. My other hand held the pill to my nose for an experimental sniff.
Should I or shouldn’t I take it?
Second said eating it would not only suppress, but dissolve the rest of the internal energy in my body. Even if I didn’t eat it, my internal energy had already been heavily depleted. Now it was even rising up and attacking me, making me doubtful whether I’d live to see the sun tomorrow. My heart was doing flip-flops, and I felt extremely tired.
But if I ate it, then wouldn’t that mean…?
My smile was bitter. Preserving my life was more important. I hadn’t even seen Fang Hua yet, so how could I shut my eyes and pass away so easily?
I placed it in my mouth. The slightly acrid flavor of the drug spread out across my tongue. I cradled the paper crane in my hands and dug up the remaining traces of my memory to wave my fingers, casting an incantation. The paper crane started moving its wings, and suddenly flew off to disappear into the horizon…while I leaned against the rocks and smiled.
Little one, take this message to my Princes. Tell them not to worry, and if I fall into Han Zichuan’s hands, don’t get drawn into the struggles of the imperial court.
I sat leaning across the crags, slowly closing my eyes as dawn broke out in the east. Gradually, the sun rose to illuminate the dewdrops, heralding a new day…
I don’t know how long I remained unconscious, or when it was that someone carried me out of the cave. Exhaustion had overtaken my body as if I would die at any moment. Beneath me, soft silken bedcovers slipped and slid like water as they jolted incessantly. Dimly, I could hear a voice murmuring by my ear.
“After we enter the palace, Zhen won’t let anything hurt you…”
That person must have been bending over me, because his breathing was very near…
There was a soft laugh, the breath unbelievably ticklish. A warm hand rested on my head, the dexterous fingers softly stroking my hair. Before I even opened my eyes, I could smell the scent of rain-kissed bamboo. This was exactly like the scent from my childhood home. There used to be someone who extremely liked that smell. Back then, Han Zichuan used to say it was dull that everything smelled like bamboo, but I liked it immensely because it cleared the heart and refreshed the body.
I felt very tired, wavering between sleeping and alertness. My head felt rather muddled, and every time I tried to think, it was like grasping at strands of silk that escaped from my fingers. In the darkness, a figure dressed in white appeared before me, clear yet indistinct as he floated farther and farther away. The pain this sight caused me was tremendous. No…
I suddenly opened my eyes.
“What is it?” someone asked in a steady voice.
I blinked once, not knowing what was the matter. I only knew I was uncomfortable but not the reason why…and my head…my head felt like it was on the verge of exploding. The light was very dim, and the room was unfamiliar…it was very spacious, and couldn’t be called a room, but a grand hall.
A faint scent of bamboo drifted through the air, restful and calm. I was lying on something soft, breathing heavily as I stared at the ceiling. Beyond the layers of flickering candlelight and embroidered lotuses on muslin gaze, I could vaguely see the forms of auspicious flying dragons. The curtains around my bed seemed like they were going to bury me alive, and I felt a sudden rush of panic…
Was this the imperial palace? Why was I here?
I was utterly confused, my hands groping about and crumpling the brocade covers…my limbs felt numb as if every inch was being gnawed on by ants, and complete fatigue had overtaken my body, making it hard to use any strength.
“Shao’er? What’s wrong with you, don’t scare me.”
Someone was holding my face and patting it. His actions seemed to be conflicted, afraid to use too little force to wake me, or too much force to hurt me. Those pretty eyebrows were all knotted up, yet it did nothing to mar the heroic beauty of his face.
Ah, that’s right…I closed my eyes and dimly thought for a bit. He’s Han Zichuan, the current reigning emperor.
“Someone, go call the imperial physician. You’re all more useless than the dead.”
My chest felt stuffy, and it felt like a cloud of true qi was rising up from my abdomen. Shoot…of all the times for a flare-up, it had to happen now. My vision turned black, and I lost awareness for a while.
When I recovered my senses, I felt a hand checking my pulse. One of my arms was resting on a pillow, and the air was very cold. I twitched my finger a few times before I regained some feeling. Who knew how long that person had been examining me? I only felt that his whole body was shaking, as if he feared this cold even more than I did. Or not…perhaps he was shaking from fear.
My illness couldn’t be counted as an illness, but a result of my cultivation.
Add that to the fact that I’d incurred internal injuries, then the pill I’d eaten must have yet to take effect, or else I wouldn’t have remembered this much. I next felt someone scooping me up into their arms, their movements exceptionally gentle. He blew on a cup of water for a long while before handing it over to me. I had no strength to take it, nor did I want to drink.
I only stared at the cup, which seemed determined to stay until I accepted it. Very reluctantly, I scooted over and took a shallow sip. It was cool and refreshing, and the cold slipped into my stomach to suppress the churning currents of nameless qi inside. This water was probably dosed with some medicines for focus and calming qi, so I lowered my head and drank some more.
The person holding me seemed to relax and exhale as he watched. He placed the drink aside and wrapped his arms around me, chin resting on my shoulders as he looked at me with a vastly complicated expression. It was hard for me to take it all in, so I forced a weak smile. “Imperial Physician, what’s the meaning behind this illness? Why did she suddenly become like this?”
“To reply your Majesty,” the old voice that spoke was so respectful, he was one note away from bowing on the floor. He didn’t even dare to lift his head. “This, this…”
After all that time, he still didn’t know what to call me by. This imperial physician wasn’t even worth half of Nongyu’s intelligent or eloquence. Though…who exactly was Nongyu…? I searched for awhile, using all my strength to think before I dimly recalled a face.
My head hurt…
I gave a soft groan. The hand around my waist tightened, as if troubled by my noise, and I shifted my body. Right, the emperor was holding me in his arms. I came to the palace this time because…
I tried to remember, but it only made me tired and uncomfortable. The currents of qi still trapped in my chest were still fighting each other, twisting and turning left and right to give me no peace.
“Are you going to say it or not?” There was a pah! and the sound of something shattering.
“To reply your Majesty, the lady possesses an extremely abnormal pulse. Your servant has never encountered such a condition, but it seems that she’s suffered severe internal injuries. Her true qi is leaking from her body, making her pulse fluctuate between moments of yang strength and yin weakness. In one moment, she possesses internal energy; in the next, it is gone. Your servant is really unsure of what to do beyond writing a few prescriptions to bolster the body and adjust her breathing. The rest will require a few more days of observation before medicine can be given.”
What ‘qi is leaking’ nonsense? I’m suppressing internal energy so it won’t flare up and attack me and you dare to randomly prescribe me medicine? Wait until I’m better, if I see you’ve messed me up anywhere…I’ll cripple you. How dare this guy try to show his skills before an expert, my medical knowledge…
Do I know medicine?
How irritating, it felt like more of my memories…were slowly slipping away, no matter how I try to hold on…
An angry voice spoke a few words above my head, his chest heaving with the effort. I couldn’t even rest against him quietly, but shook in the wake of his movements. So uncomfortable…
My mind was in disarray. Why were they so noisy? I fumbled about until I found the source of the voice and found a hand, soft and warm like a cocoon. I tugged it to the side of my head, my eyebrows pressed together. He seemed to recover some tact as deft fingers massaged my temples with soft strokes. “What are you all standing around in a daze for? Hurry up and bring over the medicine.”
A pungent smell assailed my nostrils.
I didn’t know what it was, but unconsciously, I knew that I didn’t want to drink it. My face turned away as I buried myself in his chest. There was a tight laugh, mixed with notes of doting and helplessness. He said a few more things that I couldn’t hear, and pushed against my shoulders a few times. I didn’t want to acknowledge him. A pair of hands slipped past my face and brought something warm to my lips.
I wanted to dodge, but someone pinched my nose. I was already feeling congested with a headache…
Sullenly, I opened my mouth to breathe as a spoonful of something was slipped inside. Before I could spit it out, the warm liquid slid down my throat, and I half choked. I was too surprised to even open my eyes. I could only feel a churning in my stomach as I clutched the front of his robes, feeling the bitter taste in my mouth shifting flavors as something else surged upwards…I couldn’t hold it back, and raised my head to spit it out.
The air was suddenly filled with a strange, raw smell…
I narrowed my eyes and studied the man before me. Both his robes and face were flecked with red, and his eyes were exceptionally bright as he looked at me, disturbed and terrified. Looks like I’d frightened him.
I’d spat out blood.
I just knew I couldn’t take the prescription from that muddlehead doctor…why did you feed me anyways?
Great… Just great.
I closed my eyes with a frown, holding his robes in a posture of grievous discontent…and lost consciousness again. The funny thing was, I remembered First’s words to me before my eyes shut. He said that practicing this form of cultivation would bring me trouble sooner or later. The Carefree Recollection seemed like warm water, but was actually a raging flame that forced the internal energy to alternate between periods of gentle calm and ferocious activity. If the practitioner incurred heavy internal injuries, then when the gentle cycle ended, the vicious qi would claim their life…
To remember without sorrow, the Carefree Recollection.
It mixed the cultivator’s internal energy with their memories, imbibing the strength of one with the other. If all the internal energy dissipated, then all the memories would follow, leaving everything a blank slate.
But what choice did I have? I couldn’t just stand by while Han Zichuan was in danger, even if saving him hurt me. First probably expected this when he packed the qi dispersing pills in my things. Though…I never expected that I’d have to use them so soon.
No matter what, I had to stay alive until I saw Fang Hua. It’s fine if I lose my memories. As long as I can see him once, as long as he still remembers me, then I’ll be content.
What kind of scene would play out the next time we met?
Maybe I’d stop grieving. Maybe I could smile at him without misgivings and say softly, ‘This young lord is exceedingly handsome. Where are you from? Where do you live?’
Even though my mind was dazed and confused, I managed a tired smile.
A rustling noise of something like silk reached my ears, making me feel unbearably itchy. It sounded like some people were purposely speaking in whispers in a great hall.
“Where is the emperor?” “He went to court.”
“Amitabha, he’s been absent for three days, and now he’s finally going. That’s right…has the person inside awakened yet? Can I take a look? I heard this Master has an impressive background. The emperor’s been by her side since the first day she arrived.”
“Why should I, isn’t she dead asleep? Even the imperial physician said it’s not likely she’ll wake up again.” The voice drew closer and closer as it spoke. There was the sound of someone lifting a sleeve and drawing aside what sounded like cloth. Though my eyes were closed, I could still feel my surroundings grow brighter, and a soft breeze blow in…the air grew fresh and unhindered.
It felt like coming back from the dead…though my hands felt weak as ever.
Where was I…?
“I told you not to move the curtain, she’s very delicate and fragile… don’t give her a chill. There were a lot of imperial physicians executed recently. If you act without any propriety, be careful it’s not our heads that roll next time.”
There was a pained cry as someone dragged the figure away by his ear while he pleaded for mercy. Abruptly, the light dimmed into the dreary atmosphere of the dead.
No, I don’t want this…
Don’t…don’t take away my light. My heart wailed mournfully as my hand reached towards the silk curtains, twisting them aside as I straightened up.
I opened my eyes.
Subconsciously, I craned my head and felt at the offensive material of the curtain. A ray of light pierced through to shine on my fingers, lifeless and pallid to an offensive point.
It suddenly became quiet outside.
Those two people seemed thoroughly frightened, trembling as they watched me shaking to open the bed curtains. After being used to the dark for so long, this sudden light was unbearable and I squinted for quite a while, my mind buzzing until I recovered. I gave them a gentle smile. The two exchanged glances with ashen faces before prostrating themselves on the ground. With their identical ash blue robes and horse-hoof sleeves, they were probably young eunuchs.
“We’ve disturbed Master’s peace and quiet, please punish us, Master.” the steadier of the two eunuchs spoke as he knocked their head repeatedly against the ground.
Just hearing this sound was insufferable. Did he think his head was cast from copper? I clicked my tongue, looking away when I saw a hint of red. What peace and quiet? Pah, I’m not dead yet. “You’re making my eyes hurt moving up and down like that, so get up.” I waved my hand and tried to rise, but felt strange when my hands touched the bedding. The material was exquisite, thick and soft. It was embroidered with beautiful clouds and dragons, but I didn’t recall it being so tasteful. In my house…
Huh? How come I couldn’t remember a thing?
I blinked a few times, staring at the equally curious pair of eunuchs, and asked them, “Where am I?”
“To reply Master, this is his majesty’s sleeping chambers.”
The emperor’s sleeping chambers, then. What?!
My breath caught, and I wanted to get off the bed that instant, but my body was simply too weak. I paused to rest for a while before setting my toes on the floor, but it felt like I was standing on cotto
“Master, if you want anything, just tell us. Please don’t get off the bed yourself,” the cleverer of the two eunuchs spoke as he examined my complexion, gently pulling me back as he waved a hand behind him. “What are you dawdling for, go call his majesty and tell him Master’s awakened.”
Call his majesty? Don’t…
I…I-I’m afraid…afraid of strangers.
How did I end up on the imperial dragon bed? What happened here, and why couldn’t I remember anything? I furiously slapped my head, scaring the person next to me. He wanted to stop me, yet didn’t dare, hands hovering beneath mine.
Was he waiting to catch something, or what?
It couldn’t be that he was waiting to collect the hairs that fell off my head after I beat myself up?
“Master, are you feeling unwell anywhere?”
A little…let me think.
I raised my head as someone inserted a soft cushion behind my back to make me comfortable. My body shifted a few times before I spoke, “I have no energy in my body, find myself short of breath when speaking, and my stomach’s burning with pain. Oh…hey, uh, Little Second, take my pulse for me.”
“To reply Master, your servant’s name isn’t Little Second,” he bowed in extreme respect, reaching out with his hands to tuck me in.
I was at a loss.
“Is that so…I just blurted out whatever was on my mind, my memory’s not so clear.”
“Master, you’re probably confused because you’re hungry. You’ve been unconscious for three days, but we’ve only dared to give you some soup. Please close your eyes and rest for a while, I’ll instruct the imperial kitchen to prepare some food right away.” Still bowing, he carefully backed away and left.
Curses, no wonder I was so hungry. I was even experiencing double vision, so I thought I had bad eyesight… I gave a ridiculing laugh and closed my eyes. —
Soft footsteps pattered towards me, so light I wouldn’t have heard them if I wasn’t paying attention. I lifted my eyes to see a small wooden serving table set on the bed, followed by various fragrant, delicious dishes. There was someone standing against the light in the doorframe, quietly watching the young eunuchs entering in single file.
The delicious aroma enticed me to crack my eyes open.
“Come, Master. Please try this warm porridge first.” the same eunuch from before spoke, and I hnn’d in agreement. My energy was just about gone, and it felt extremely comfortable to lean against a soft cushion, half- awake as I opened my mouth and waited to be fed…
But a long time passed without me getting any food.
I frowned, and just when I was about to open my eyes, I felt a space on the bed next to me sink down. Someone drew near me, and a smooth, warm object brushed against my lips while the person blew against its surface.
I sipped a tiny mouthful.
The porridge was thick and glutinous, carrying with it a faint fragrance. The level of saltiness was just right, and it was easy to swallow once I had it in my mouth. The taste lingered by my teeth for a long time afterward. I wanted to eat more, but that person didn’t move, mystifying me.
I lazily opened my eyes and saw that the person holding the bowl and spoon before me wasn’t a eunuch.
Why did I know?
He clearly had a Adam’s apple and traces of stubble by his chin, though it was a bit wan. Firm eyebrows framed a pair of tender eyes, making him hard to describe…at any rate, he was an outstandingly handsome man.
He fed me another spoonful. I didn’t swallow, but couldn’t help but dodge to one side.
He raised his eyebrows, and the eunuchs around his prostrated their shaking bodies to the floor in dreadful fear. The man’s lips turned up, his smile warm and intimate as he softly urged, “Drink it, it’ll bolster your body.”
The tone was light but carried an unmistakable force. Very few people could turn a simple suggestion into something that sounded like a threat, but he was one of them. I was a little dazed. My eyes fixed on him and his hand, still holding the spoon. The color of his sleeves was a bold yellow, embroidered with flying dragons in gold thread.
I blinked, moving my gaze downwards before I realized he was dressed in yellow from head to toe.
I was lying on the dragon bed, being personally fed porridge by the emperor?!
T-t-this…what was going on?
“What’s wrong? This expression…you look like I’m feeding you arsenic.” his face turned wooden and his eyebrows arched, though there was still laughter in his eyes. “It’s going to turn cold, you should drink it up before it does.”
I braced myself and took the bowl from his hands, hesitating slightly before draining the contents in one gulp. The man seemed as if he’d seen something unexpected, looking at me as if floored. He turned his head aside and muttered to himself, “What’s the matter, she really drank what I gave her…”
Did I do something wrong?
He was the emperor. Even if he gave me arsenic, I’d have no choice but to drink it, right? I used my sleeve to wipe my mouth and stole a glance at him. His smile seemed full of meaning as he looked at me in silence, turning my entire body cold. I lowered my eyes and crawled out from the covers until I was kneeling on the bed. After that bout of illness, my movements were still natural and spontaneous, clean and complete. “Your Majesty, I can’t remember anything, nor do I know how I ended up lying here…anyways, if it’s taking responsibility or rebuking, come at me outright. You don’t need this policy of comforting me first and punishing me later, I don’t even know what I did.”
Why would I be lying on this bed? What kind of status did I have? I couldn’t remember anything.
“Shao’er, what’s happened to you?”
A pair of hands rested on my shoulders, shifting me slightly. The fabric draped around me like a cocoon, similar to the feeling I’d gotten from my dreams these past days. I could remember these large palms stroking my forehead and my face, over and over again.
His voice was a little hoarse as he spoke. “Why does it seem like you’ve become a completely different person after waking up?”
I looked at him in astonishment. It seemed like…this person had no intentions to hurt me. Could it be that I misunderstood? He propped himself against the bed to lean over and study me with unblinking eyes that hid a smile.
“You don’t remember what you came to the palace for?”
I was ignorant. So I hadn’t always been part of the imperial court?
“Think a bit, besides me…was there anyone else you wanted to see?”
his voice was calm and filled with warmth.
I looked at him, sensing that he was truly trying to guide me along. Within the court, women dreamed of seeing the emperor everyday. Could there be anyone else? Was it possible that this person discovered me in an affair and wanted to surprise me with his knowledge? But that’s not right. If I had been discovered, could I still sit so harmlessly on the dragon bed and get personal treatment from the emperor?
What a tangled mess…
“If you can’t remember, there’s no need to waste your efforts,” A pair of hands brushed my forehead, smoothing it out. His mood seemed to have lightened as he raised his voice. “Someone call the imperial physician.”
Some old guy turned up.
I’d never seen him before, but I hadn’t crossed paths with many people. As to the people and furnishings in this great hall, I had no impressions of them in my memories. Numbly, I watched as he examined my pulse, pinching the area as he kept muttering to himself. Then he reverently prostrated himself on the ground and said a whole bunch of stuff, but it was more or less that my vital energy passageways were obstructed, and there was qi in my heart; my body was feeble, I lacked adequate qi and blood… finally he cast an uncertain glance at me and added that all of these had temporarily caused my amnesia.
I think this guy was just spouting off a load of bull. It was complete nonsense.
Though I had no proof…
The emperor’s eyes had never left my face, as if trying to find clues in my expression. I straightened my clothes and sat properly before staring back, but he broke the gaze to ask the imperial physician, “When will she be cured?”
“The body can be nursed to health, but…there’s no telling when her memory will recover. Your servant cannot help your majesty resolve this difficulty and deserves to die.” The white-haired old man knocked his head against the floor, body shivering. But the emperor was in excellent spirits as he waved his hand. “Someone, take him to fill out the prescription. Reward him with two hundred taels of gold.”
I was shocked speechless. He was so liberal with his money.
It didn’t take long before someone carried in a bowl of liquid medicine. I gave a sniff and sneered. This was a harmless prescription that couldn’t hurt the body. Its ingredients were all precious, expensive medicines that would neither alleviate my illnesses nor cure me completely.
Huh, how did one whiff send a whole list of ingredient names tumbling into my head…? I crinkled my brows and stared at the bowl of black- colored soup. I was very familiar with its makeup…
“What is it, is there anything wrong?” On the side, the emperor drew closer, sitting personally by the edge of the bed with a hand on my leg. I felt a bit repulsed, but…since I was lying on his bed, I let it pass.
“Definitely wrong,” I nodded, looking straight at him. “From the time since I’ve woke, it’s been nothing but soups and liquids. I’m…hungry.”
He gave a sudden laugh at my unexpected answer.
“The dishes are all on the table, it’s not as if you’re not allowed to eat.
Unless…you still want me to feed you?”
Che, this person, the Son of Heaven, was so imposing. Even with him just sitting there, I didn’t dare to eat first.
“And I thought your personality changed. Your old habit of criticizing others is still the same.” The emperor’s voice carried an unmistakable cheer and warmth as he picked up a pair of jade chopsticks.
A court lady on the side immediately stepped forward with a curtesy.
“Your servant shall serve you.”
He handed the chopsticks over and pointed at various dishes: ‘Oh, bring her some fish in bamboo shoots, also some slow-cooked chicken with lily bulbs…right, that section of leg there is her favorite.‘
I was completely tongue-tied. Looking at the tasty dishes that were brought before my lips, I had to swallow my drool. The emperor gave me a “kindly” look with raised eyebrows, as if to tell me he’d feed me personally if I didn’t eat. The jade chopsticks came through to offer me a piece of chicken wrapped around a white bamboo shoot glistening with oil. It looked delicious. I obediently took a bite and chewed it.
It was so good that my eyes squeezed shut…I felt like I could even eat my tongue. Not a bit greasy, but tasty and refreshing. The flavor levels were just right. How long had it been since I tasted something like this…?
Afterwards, the other dishes served my way all turned out to be things I liked to eat. With my appetite whetted, I actually ate two bowls of rice. The emperor seemed to be hungry too, and drank a bowl of porridge to accompany me. It was very odd. He was so familiar with my likes and favorites. I blew on a hot cup of tea in my hands and carefully took a sip. How invigorating.
“Your Majesty…” I lifted my eyes to look at him. “I heard I’ve just entered the palace recently. Exactly what kind of person am I?”
He seemed a bit blank, and looked at me with a strange expression.
Before his gaze, I replaced the teacup back on the table.
What a joke. If I didn’t ask, wouldn’t I be an idiot? I’d slept enough and ate enough, it was time for proper matters.
He propped himself up against the bed and scooted over, voice exceptionally mild. “You’re already on Zhen’s bed, who else could you be?”
“A woman,” I replied.
“Yes,” he raised his eyes and gave me a meaningful smile, taking the chance to tuck me in as he spoke slowly. “It’s a long story, but suffice to say, you’re Zhen’s empress.” I did a spit-take.
It was my turn to be agape. I stared blankly at him, but he just lowered his head to grasp my hand, a small smile playing about his lips. The imposing aura of an emperor had disappeared to be replaced with an easy, intimate air. It was difficult to meet his gaze, which gave me an indescribable feeling…I hastily averted my eyes.
This was the dragon bed. I frowned slightly…
It was absolutely true that I woke up on here. Even if I was a mere concubine in the imperial harem, this was an exceptional favor. Inwardly, I puzzled things out as I lowered my head to touch the silks.
But I was his woman?
His face didn’t seemed to be lying, and his tone was fair and reasonable. Still, it felt…this wasn’t the case, though I couldn’t figure out which part was off. His intimacy felt a little foreign to me. Hey, I say…where’s he touching with those hands? I carefully withdrew my leg and hid it securely beneath the covers.
Inside the huge room, the flames were dazzling. At some point in time, the servants had all disappeared, leaving just the two of us. The atmosphere was a bit strange. His eyes were very bright. I could tell from his expression that he wasn’t angry at my sudden show of disrespect, but gave him an uncertain glance. Though we hadn’t interacted much, I was pretty certain he wouldn’t try to trick me. Moreover, he couldn’t even bear to hurt me while I was severely ill…that thought made me release a breath and feel more relieved.
I curled up within the boundaries of my bedding. Even though I’d just woken up, I still felt sleepy. Eating a full meal really…made it hard to keep my eyes open. I propped up my body and reclined against the headboard, thoughts tangled as I spoke. “Why did I suddenly get so ill? Has my body always been so weak?” He gave me a stiff look, hands stroking my hair as if he held tender feelings that were difficult to express. There was a distressed look in his eyes as he heaved a sigh and drew me into his arms, speaking in a low voice. “This was allZhen’s fault. Those people…Zhen won’t forgive them.”
His gaze was as calm as ice, seven parts fierce and three parts sharp.
My eyebrows pressed together as I huddled into that warmth. My body that had been braced taut like a spring eventually learned to relax. It looked like things weren’t all that peaceful in the court, there were still premeditated murder plots floating about. If the victim was a favorite concubine, then there were probably no shortage of threats.
Curses…so much for freedom and leisure.
I tightened my grip minutely on his cuffs and asked, “As your majesty’s woman, which level of the imperial harem would chenqie belong to?”
I couldn’t stay on the dragon bed for the rest of my life, right? Once I’d rested enough, I’d have to return to wherever I came from so the other women wouldn’t resent me. Otherwise, as an imperial concubine, I’d have to spend the night engaging in the merry, amorous passions of a man and woman. Even if I shrank in a corner to study pornography books, that wouldn’t be an excuse.
He seemed surprised. “Giving you status is easy enough. How about guifei, the highest ranking imperial concubine?” The emperor held my hand, stroking it a few times as he leaned back and said, “Bestowing the title is a little troublesome since the imperial palace relies on different sources of power for influence. But it’s not impossible.”
This guy, were all emperors so easygoing?
But that couldn’t be right. My head felt a bit dizzy, and I muddled around in the dark until I felt a strand of thought leading me to a door… Let me think a bit.
“Qieshen has been lying on the emperor’s bed for two or three days and am your majesty’s empress. But I didn’t have any official status until now?” I lifted my eyes, muttering indecisively as I felt the robes beneath my hands. The material was satiny soft, the Son of Heaven really wore things 1,000 times, 10,000 times better than ordinary people. I raised my head to look at him, my smile somewhat chilly. “Just entering the palace for a few days and getting ill can earn a place as the emperor’s highest rank imperial concubine?”
Was that his meaning?
Our eyes met, and his mouth seemed to tremble, though the rest of his face didn’t move. His eyes gleamed as he looked at me with a smile that wasn’t a smile, asking lightly, “Who told you these things?”
My eyes drifted into the distance until they settled on somewhere outside the rooms, where the the two little eunuchs were kneeling on the ground. His electric gaze swept over, filled with the overwhelming aura of an emperor. Even at this distance, it felt like I could hear those servants tremble, their teeth chattering as they prostrated on the ground, too fearful to even ask for mercy.
He gave a snort, and I felt a bit uneasy.
No matter how easygoing, this man was still the emperor. How could I show off so much and go against him? I tried to move the bedcovers aside, but was stopped by his hand.
“Silly.” The emperor didn’t avoid my gaze, but looked at me directly, calm and composed. His eyes were like a serene pond.
The gaze made me feel a bit timid. Had I thought wrongly?
Those two had clearly said that the emperor hadn’t gone to court for three days, and that he’d been by my side since the first day I arrived at the palace. So where had I been before that? If I’d just entered the palace, why would the emperor know so much about my habits and favorite things?
He sucked in a breath. “You only know how to go off into flights of fancy everyday.” Though his voice slowed, he really did start explaining things to me.
“…we met while I was still a crown prince in exile among the common people. After ascending the throne, I looked for you for a very long time.” He held me as he stroked my hair with soft touches. “That’s why we’re a couple.”
He’d stopped referring to himself as Zhen, and reverted back to the commonplace “I”. It made me feel…perplexed.
But his embrace really was very nice and warm. I could smell the faint scent of bamboo, one of my favorites, and that beating heart–was it for me? It was pounding so quickly, the vibrations feeling like they’d pass through my own skin.
“Shao’er, you actually ended up forgetting everything.”
My body relaxed as he held me, mouth smoothing into an expression of comfort. His head lowered to look at me, those clear, penetrating eyes like rays of moonlight. It was very peaceful around us.
Suddenly, a few court ladies entered in single file, holding something in their hands. Surprised, I straightened up, but he pressed me back down with a smile to lean in and speak. “You’ve slept for so long, you must be tired. I had someone prepare your favorite bath of medicinal herbs.”
I squinted at him. His bearing was exceptionally fine, smiling as he pointed at an area behind a folding screen.
What kind of joke is this? Take a bath? Here?! Curses, a girl like me wasn’t going to sell her body and act like some lady from an entertainment house.
“Master, your servants will wait upon you,” Two or three court ladies came to take my hands and help me over. A soft laugh came from behind me.
“Take good care of her for Zhen, or else I’ll put you all on the spot.”
The folding screen wasn’t very wide, but I didn’t realize such a scene existed behind it. A simple and unsophisticated wooden bookshelf displayed a tracing of a landscape painting to accompany the screen, creating a cleverly sheltered space…
There was a pool emanating a fog that smelled like medicine. The scent was comfortable and refreshing here as I sank into the water. I could see the emperor sitting calmly on the bed beyond the screens, whose layers were as thin as cicada’s wings. He was holding a rolled-up object of some sort, reading it leisurely before raising his eyes to smile at me.
I nearly ducked my entire face underwater.
Steam rose up from around my body, turning the skin of my neck red. My head felt muddled as I perched by the edge of the pool. I say, it’s only been a few days since I’ve washed. Was I really that dirty?
I gave a bitter look to the court ladies scrubbing me up and down as if they were trying to give me a second skin. It’s not as if I was a corpse, this skin was still high quality…
One after the other, docile faces wore innocent, pitiful expressions as they knelt by the edge of the pool. I softened, but then…why did they scrub even harder than before? This level of torment was enough to break my poor waist.
My face turned wooden as I felt extremely tragic, casting a glance beyond the screens. I could see the vague form of the emperor leaning against the bed, leisurely flipping through a book without even lifting his head. “Why don’t I heard the sound of water? Use all your strength to scrub for Zhen.”
“Dont’don’tdon’t…” I hastily protested, pushing myself to the center of the pool. The figure beyond the screens moved slightly, and stopped turning the pages.
Softly, a voice laced with a smile drifted my way. “If their coarse movements are causing you pain, Zhen can take the trouble to replace them.”
He actually put aside the book and made his way to get off the bed. He was just waiting to say this line, right? I fell silent, tired from my outburst from before, and lowered my head with gritted teeth to endure the ministrations of the scrubbing court ladies. Their hands felt like a thousand knives, and I kept my silent disapproval obvious.
Suddenly, a disturbance sounded from outside.
“Your excellency, esteemed excellency, you can’t go in,” Though the young eunuch spoke softly, his voice was unusually clear in the quiet surroundings. I was astonished.
Something soft hit against some wooden boards and a door opened from the outside. The young eunuch kneeled on the ground, face pale as he clutched his stomach in silence. Sunlight framed a tall shadow that carried with him a strange, foreign scent of windswept sand and fresh blood. That man walked in with impatient steps. I could actually hear the sound of his sword scabbard clinking against his armor. Even weapons could be worn in the main hall, so close to the emperor?
There was the sound of someone kneeling on one knee.
“I received news that the emperor was attacked en route by assassins.
Your servant is very much troubled at heart.” “My beloved official has just returned from the frontier pass, and should rest for a few more days.” The emperor reached out a hand to help him up. “Zhen only met with a minor scare, there was nothing serious that happened.”
I couldn’t see very clearly through the hazy screen.
The two people went through the usual rites of ruler and vassal.
Originally, it should be a pleasing sight, but why…did something feel off?
This general looked to be on in his
This man could impertinently charge into the emperor’s sleeping quarters. He probably didn’t have too many scruples. I wasn’t nervous at all, but glared back at him. The emperor clapped him casually on the back to regain his attention, and the two talked softly for a while.
Soaking in a medicinal bath was good for health. Someone kept refilling the bath with hot water too, but…my skin had started to wrinkle from staying inside so long. How long were those two going to stay there?
“Your Majesty, regarding the matter of conferring the title of ‘Empress’ title on my daughter…”
Now I was curious. I hid in the pool and cocked my ear to listen.
“We can discuss this matter in the future,” the emperor’s face seemed a little unhappy, but it was gone in a moment. He added, “This morning I received reports regarding the situation at the border. Come with Zhen into the study.”
“At your Imperial Majesty’s command.” But that person only gave a shallow bow in response.
The emperor’s line of sight went past him to look at me, lips curving up into a gentle smile. As if…he was reassuring me. When the two of them walked past my screen, the general seemed to want to get a clearer picture. “My beloved official,” the emperor wore a smile that wasn’t a smile as he quietly grabbed him by the arm. Tightening his grip, he dragged the old general off before the latter had a chance to look back.
I had the illusion that this general was a formidable figure. His eyes were so incisive and ruthless. And yet, was the emperor protecting me…?
Time enough to prepare a cup of time passed by.
I finally crawl out from the steaming hot pool to get dressed and have my hair done. The court ladies waiting upon me made sure I was properly attired before I valiantly charged out the doors, only to be followed by a quick-witted eunuch.
“Master, his Majesty said that you’ve yet to recover and to not recklessly wander about. The wind is fierce outside and you might catch a chill.”
The wind is fierce…catch a chill?
I raised a sleeve to shade my eyes as I looked up towards the warm sunshine.
“Even with strong sunlight, there’s no guarantee that it isn’t windy either. See here…” the young eunuch raised his hand and earnestly pointed in one direction. Oh, well what do you know? The leaves on those little trees really were rocking and swaying.
I narrowed my eyes and looked at him. “You, what’s your name?” “Little Li.”
“Good…very good, not bad.” I stared at him and added silently that I’d remember this guy. He could even say a dead camel was a live horse, what a damnable gift, what a talented guy. “What are you holding in your hands?” “To answer Master, these are robes.”
…looking at the style of these robes, it was definitely tailored for a man. They were snow-white but rather old, as if they’d been worn for a long time. The emperor wouldn’t wear clothes like these. I narrowed my eyes at him.
“The laundry rooms delivered the wrong set, these are clothes for the disfavored lord in the Cold Palace.”
Cold Palace?! Disfavored lord…?
I nodded at him, before brushing my hands against the robes. Little Li’s expression seemed fretful as he remained standing, head bowed in respectful deference.
Un, the material beneath my fingers was cold and slippery as water. Even though it was a bit old, the quality was still remarkably good. If even the Cold Palace clothes could be sent to the laundry rooms for laundering, the person there couldn’t be too much out of favor.
I thought a bit before rolling up my sleeves and clapped him repeatedly on the shoulder. He trembled before steadying himself beneath my blows, head still bowed.
“Take me to stroll around for a while for exercise.”
He hesitated a second before steeling himself to agree.
The air outside was very fresh. I stretched my arms beneath the fine, sunny day, but my mood seemed a little worse than it was at the beginning. My eyes couldn’t help but glance towards Little Li and the robes in his hands. After walking a few more steps, I thoughtfully looked back. “Little Li, who was it that barged into the emperor’s sleeping quarters just now? Why would they talking about conferring a title for an empress?”
“General Qi rendered great services for the previous emperor in expanding territories. He is one of the dynasty’s important founding figures who holds vast military strength. Since his Majesty’s ascended the throne, he has neither appointed an empress nor helped produce any sons, so petitions to the court have earnestly requested his Majesty to accept General Qi’s daughter…”
Little Li stole a glance at me and trailed off, head bowed as he painstakingly folded and refolded the robes.
Eh, it was pretty understandable.
General Qi didn’t seem like a person who would be content doing his duties. By acting in this way, the emperor could incur good will with him while preserving the security of his throne. It wasn’t a bad idea. I drew into thought as I rested a hand on his shoulder for support. We hadn’t taken more than a few more steps before I suddenly stopped.
Wind billowed the robes draped over his arms, imbibed with a distinctive scent of something like medicine…but also like bamboo. A nostalgic feeling rose up within my heart.
“What’s the deal with what you just said? There are only eunuchs and court ladies in the inner court. Are you telling me that there’s an un- castrated male, too? Could he be the emperor’s inner attendant?”
No, he shouldn’t be in the Cold Palace if that was the case.
Little Li kept his head lowered and answered me with silence. I began to have doubts, looking around me as my suspicions grew. I took another step, and stopped. “Little Li, where did you take me for our stroll?”
This place looked like the quarters of the imperial harem… But it felt like it was missing something. My eyes travelled over to a pond filled with beautiful red lotuses before I asked him under my breath, “Where do the other concubines live? We’ve walked for so long, but all I’ve seen are lotus ponds, willow trees, or plants and flowers.”
He didn’t utter a word. Yet though his head was bowed, those eyes kept roving back and forth, filled with secret intelligence. He was probably thinking of what to say. My hand moved on his shoulder and pinched him.
His eyebrows bunched together, but he didn’t dare to cry out.
“To…answer Master, his Majesty hasn’t been interested in women during the past few years, so he never accepted any concubines.”
Not interested in women?!
Impossible. Such an amorous, licentious man. I’d remember how he’d kept by my side during my illness, hands feeling here and there. They’d never stopped moving for a second.
Hey, don’t stop talking if I haven’t interrupted you. I signaled him to go on with my eyes. He actually muttered and hummed forever before refusing to speak another word.
I laughed. “You’re a devoted and loyal servant, you know when to keep your mouth shut. Good, very good!” A tolerant smile appeared on my features, but my force on his shoulder didn’t lessen.
There were plenty of ways to pinch a person…
One was the martial pinch, where a finger held onto a section of skin while the wrist twisted to add pressure. The other was the scholarly pinch, more refined in comparison. The thumb and index fingers trapped a length of skin between them and gently pressed down, overwhelming the opponent. A refined, delicate lady like myself would of course have to use orchid hands when I employed my pinching method.
“Yeowowow…your servant will talk…isn’t choosing to speak enough?!” He couldn’t avoid me this time as his complexion turned deathly pale, face crumpled up like the wrinkled folds of a meat bun.
Speaking of meat burns, they were one of my favorite foods. I don’t know if the imperial kitchens knew how to make them, but I liked to eat the ones with meat and Chinese cabbage filling. I came back to my senses in time to hear Little Li speaking.
“…so in all these five years, the emperor’s never appointed anyone as a concubine, but court ladies have entered the imperial palace as usual.” he lifted his gaze when he finished the summary, and shut his mouth again.
I didn’t hear the beginning.
Never mind, since I’d heard the conclusion, I wouldn’t look into the reasons. My eyes scanned our surroundings as I slightly raised my eyebrows. On the west side, there was an eunuch who looked away as he pretended to busy himself with a mat by the pond. I had to look a long while before I spotted a lotus seedpod in his hand. By the white jade railings, a group of court ladies quickly lowered their heads as they hurried along, too fearful to look at me again. I turned and saw a wet nurse leading along two nobly dressed children, half-pulling and half-dragging them as she urged them along, glancing back at me with every three steps.
I was wondering why they were looking at me like some sort of new playtoy.
As it turned out, I was a special case in all of these five years. The emperor said he’d confer upon me the title of…highest ranking imperial concubine.
Just a smidgen below the empress. I was the only imperial concubine within the palace. As my thoughts reached this point, I raised my head and pointed ahead with a handkerchief to say softly, “Take me strolling for a while longer.” Then I walked on with small, delicate steps, spirited and full of mettle.
Exactly like…a turtledove with a phoenix feather stuck in her tail。
“Master, it’s getting late. If his Majesty can’t find you, he’ll put the blame on me.”
“Coming out for a walk refreshes the body. When we return I’ll explain things so he doesn’t penalize you.” The area behind the lotus pond was quiet and secluded. I didn’t know what kind of place it was so I wanted to have a look…
A body stepped forward to block me, scraping and bowing as the figure spoke in a voice so anxious it sounded like he was about to cry. “You’ve just recovered not long ago, why not continue your stroll tomorrow?”
I ignored him and stepped to the left. In a flash, he’d blocked me again. I stepped to the right…and met with the same result. Smiling, I asked him directly, “What’s up ahead?”
“To reply Master, it’s the Cold Palace. You’re going to be conferred a title in a few days, so you definitely shouldn’t visit such an unlucky place.”
The rumored Cold Palace where someone once hung themselves with a white sash and died? Where you could sometimes still hear the sound of crying at night, and where strange shadows flitted through the halls?
Interesting. I had difficulty controlling myself as I grabbed Little Li’s sleeve and hauled him after me. I took a detour around the lotus pond and brushed aside some branches before speaking in an extremely secretive tone. “You have to take me there for a look to expand my horizons. I’ll bear the responsibility on his Majesty’s side.”
His legs were already shaking as he shrank back, too afraid to remove my hand as his face fell into a fluster. There was an awkward look in his eyes as he stuttered out, “Master, this task isn’t….i-i-isn’t good, the emperor had instructions not to let you come to places like these, or else he’d break your servant’s…”
“Aiya, you’re such a coward,” I waved my hand and pointed at a random spot. “There isn’t even anyone here. If you won’t talk, I won’t either, and nobody will know.”
Hm, something doesn’t feel right.
It felt like I was touching something…my finger used some more strength and poked around, feeling something soft and springy as I sensed a person behind me. The young eunuch was shocked as well, unable to speak as he looked behind me. My arm turned stiff as I fell silent, unsure of whether I should withdraw my finger first, or turn around. I stood in that awkward position, unmoving for a while until a voice sounded out behind me.
“For how long will this young Miss continue to poke me?”
“Excuse me for my impropriety.”
“It’s not a problem,” There was a hint of a smile in those words.
I lowered my head and pulled Little Li along, preparing to leave. But that person blocked my way. I saw a pair of black shoes and some rather worn robes, devoid of any accessories. It was extremely simple and unadorned, a rare sight for those dressed within the palace. I turned away, but he blocked me again.
His figure looked delicate and weak, but he carried an imposing manner.
Little Li seemed to be stupefied. I grew unhappy.
“What do you want to do?”
He laughed, speaking in a cheerful, blunt manner. “Young Miss, you’ve misunderstood. This humble one doesn’t want to do anything but reclaim his clothes.”
I took a look and saw him pointing at the old robes in Little Li’s arms. For a while I didn’t react, thinking things over before I slowly looked up at him…shocked. This was the disfavored lord from the Cold Palace?!
He had a very common-looking face, probably considered good-looking, and a pair of delicate, pretty eyebrows. He lacked a certain charm, though the air about him wasn’t bad…
He took the robes and gave me a slow smile. “Many thanks.”
When those ordinary features broke into a smile, they had an indescribable, lingering appeal, making his face radiant. Though, he’d probably look even better if he had a mole by one eye. I stood there blankly while he touched the robes in his hands as if holding a priceless treasure. Then he turned and left us.
Little Li stammered a parting line, “Lord…Lord Hua, take care.”
He waved his hand in admonition as he nodded, but didn’t turn back before disappearing into the trees. His figure wasn’t bad…
Though it felt like something wasn’t right. There was too much of a disparity to the person in my imagination. This guy was Lord Hua?
An oppressive pain appeared in my head, and an image flashed of a person dressed in white, lofty and unyielding as his robes billowed about. That forehead…ought to be filled with gloominess. In my impression, a man worthy of the‘Lord Hua’ title was a person of 10,000 expressions, not…
“Master, what’s wrong?”
I supported myself on Little Li’s shoulder, a hand pressing against my forehead with eyes closed. I tried thinking back but couldn’t remember a thing. Just now, that sudden feeling in my heart had been bitter and resigned, but the figure that had appeared in my mind had vanished without a trace.
I had a tangled look in my eyes as I gazed into the distance, asking in a low voice. “That person was really Lord Hua?”
“Tell me frankly,” I looked doubtfully in the direction of the man who had already left. My hand had a death grip on Little Li’s robes, and my voice wavered. “Aren’t the residents of the Cold Palace under house arrest? How could he walk around like that?”
Little Li tilted his head. I had no idea what he was thinking about as he studied my face before speaking. “Lord Hua is different from other people.”
Were those robes really his?
When he walked past me just then, I’d only smelled the faint scent of the palace incense, a far cry from the hints of medicine and bamboo that had lingered on the old robes in his hands… I withdrew my gaze and gave a sigh, touching where the robes had rested on Little Li’s arms, stroking it as I asked again, “What kind of people live in the Cold Palace? Is it desolate and bleak?” “Bleak? That’s the most bustling place in the palace. Historically, disfavored concubines and male concubines all live inside.”
Could you live so thoughtlessly? This… Wait, that wasn’t the point.
“Male concubines?” I paused to recover my breath, asking hesitantly,
“You’re saying they’re men…these male concubines?”
He had a completely normal expression on his face. “That’s right. The person just then was one of them.”
I almost couldn’t accept the idea. My body swayed, but fortunately he was there to support me.
“Master, what is the matter?”
“Support me, I want to go back and rest.” I was out of breath.
The sunlight wavered on our way back, and my heart fluttered with it. I kept going and over over his words in my head. Unable to reconcile myself with the facts, I turned to ask him again. “This male concubine you mentioned, does he belong to the late emperor?”
“Which one?” he blinked, as if he didn’t know who I meant. It took awhile before he spoke again with an obviously guilty conscience. “…Lord Hua? Oh, Master’s asking about the one that walked away before.”
I gave him a silent look, gaze complicated as I did my best to stem a raging tide.
“He’s not,” he replied quickly, “When the emperor was still a crown prince, he brought him in from the outside. This happened five years ago.” I sucked in a breath. Did he have something against me? He kept hiding things I wanted to hear and telling me things I didn’t want to know. My chest felt oppressive, and a sad mournfulness seemed to be spreading within my heart. This wasn’t to my taste at all.
It didn’t seem right. Could it be that this body really did hold feelings for the current emperor, so my heart reacted when I realized he was raising male concubines…?
“Tell me more about that male concubine.”
“Rumors say he has brilliant medical skills. He was brought in to save the previous emperor, but got into awkward straits with his Majesty. Since then, he’s always lived in the Cold Palace. The emperor was loath to part with him, so he’d visit the Cold Palace every few days…later on…he forgot about him.”
My heart gave a violent throb. “Stop talking.” I covered my face and took an oppressive breath.
That’s it, then.
It’s fine if my heart was just pounding, but why was it twisted in pain? Like a knife had forcibly cut it open, aching beyond aching, making it impossible to control my grief.
What was going on with me?
The pale stone floors scattered with yellow tiles and the red walls covered with colorful, luxurious paintings combined with the solemn dignity of the palace to stifle me. I suddenly realized that everything here was unfamiliar.
Little Li supported my preoccupied self back to the main hall. I could see the cold and cheerless door from a long distance away, with no imperial carriage in sight. Not only did I let out a breath in relief, but I also gave the eunuch a look as I murmured, “You used the emperor to scare me off. If I’d known it’d be like this, I would’ve followed that Lord Hua straight back to the Cold Palace for some novel sights.”
This guy actually said that the emperor would get angry if he came back from official business to find me gone. The emperor had lots of work to do, there was no guarantee he’d come back here even when he finished.
I gave him a glance and poked him with my finger. Little Li smiled with me, and lowered his head to bow. I pulled up my robes and took one step into the doors before bumping into something warm. Yah…what was this? I felt around clumsily with my hands around his chest until he caught me.
Little Li had already been frightened to kneeling on the ground. “May the Emperor live 10,000 years, 10,000 of 10,000 years!”
Recently, all I’ve been doing is running into people I shouldn’t… —
I raised my head to meet the fearfully terrorizing eyes of the man before me, uncertain of how I was feeling. Disturbed, anxious…they all came naturally. I started as I remembered I should greet him, but I couldn’t move when he was holding my hands.
“Where did you go?”
“My body felt sluggish after lying in bed all day, so I went to soak in some sunshine.”
His eyes seemed to hold some thoughts as his eyebrows furrowed. A hand rested on my elbow and pushed me to a corner against the walls as he looked me up and down with concentration. Head lowered, he came to stroke my hair before his lips quirked up. “You went to look for him, didn’t you…”
He seemed to be extremely angry, but was trying his best to hold it back, intentionally lowering his voice to a soft and gentle tone. I felt a bit uneasy and looked to the side, appealing to Little Li for help. Yet I discovered that the kneeling eunuch had long since disappeared.
“What are you thinking about instead of speaking?”
“I don’t know what I should say,” I replied honestly, looking at the emperor.
Who was the “him” he mentioned? There was plenty of idle gossip within the court, so I couldn’t bring up false charges against a person.
He gave a ridiculing smile. I frowned, feeling his hot gaze was examining me very closely. He didn’t say anything else, but his body relaxed a bit. Still, I felt that something was wrong…
My line of vision went past his shoulders to the room beyond…as it turned out, the room was filled with broken porcelain, as if it had just went through a “reign of terror.” “What happened here?”
He was quiet for a long while before suddenly breaking into a smile.
“General Qi’s people were remonstrating about the empress selection issue again. Zhen was irritated and came to find you, but you weren’t here. After seeing how outdated and old the furnishings in your quarters were, I decided to break a few pieces.”
Of course the older the item, the more valuable it was. There was an eighty percent chance that this guy was too well-off and just felt snubbed. I stared at him with a gri
He gave up using “Zhen” again. I felt a little frustrated with my chin forced against his shoulder, and used a hand to lightly comfort him. His feelings were getting a little out of hand. The old eunuch by the gates had a good grasp of the situation, and made a few gestures towards the outside of the courtyard. Immediately, swarms of servants arrived and quickly picked up all the fragments from the floor.
As it turned out…it had been quiet outside not because the emperor hadn’t returned, but because he’d scared away the servants with his arrival. I sucked in a breath and blanked out for a while before touching him again. He didn’t react, but continued to hold me.
A fragrant aroma began to fill the rooms. His embrace had an indescribable tenderness, and the mood felt just right, but…
“What was that noise?” he lowered his head and gave me a hesitant glance. Eyes widened as he rested a hand on my abdomen. Just in time, my stomach gave another growl.
“You’re not young anymore, but why don’t you understand how to take care of yourself better?” his eyes were filled with concern and distress. “Have you eaten yet? You must be hungry.” “Not too hungry.” When I recalled the words he said during his emotional fit, I’d feel plenty full. Exactly what kind of things were hidden in this person’s heart?
I sat down on the bed and kicked off my shoes, before realizing the emperor was here too… At the very least, I had an image to preserve, so I carefully arranged the shoes and sat ladylike on the bed. He gave a soft, but audible laugh. I didn’t pay it the slightest mind, but pulled up my sleeves to take a translucent pastry. Sniffing it a few times, I took a bite. It was sweet…but not too greasy.
“I heard you went to the Cold Palace?”
I choked like a coward.
The news here travelled way too fast…did he go discuss official business, or tail me instead?
“Didn’t manage to make it. I didn’t know it was the Cold Palace, only thought that the spot behind the lotus pond had to be a good place. After listening to Little Li, I decided not to go.”
He nodded, and suddenly said, “Don’t believe the hearsay in the palace.”
What rumors…? The ones about the emperor liking men? Though I didn’t have the guts to ask him directly. I gave him a quiet glance…
He seemed to be deep in thought, eyes furrowed in vexation until he seemed to notice me. Indifferent, he didn’t avoid my gaze but met it straight on. The light shone clearly on his features, which were extremely heroic and somewhat noble. It was a rather young face, but long infused with the spirit of a sovereign. Perhaps he seemed unapproachable to other people, but he was always temperate and calm with me. Would this person…raise male concubines? It was hard to understand him.
He suddenly crept closer, a hand circling around my waist as he glanced at me before speaking softly. “After thinking to myself, I’ve concluded that some things between us have to be done. Thereafter, I won’t worry even if you see other people, because it won’t be worth any foolish fancies.”
I was stunned.
Do what? What did he want to accomplish?
His hand touched my face as his gaze turned ambiguous before resting on my lips. Fingers slipped down and past my chin as he leaned over; perhaps the skin was too slippery, because he didn’t get a grip. Seeing his face get closer and closer, I shrank back until I was against the wall, avoiding his hands. I gave a dubious look towards this opportunistic man. Who was it that said, ‘being close to the emperor is like being close to a tiger?’
I thought this emperor had a fair disposition. At the very least, the space between his eyebrows were smooth, and he had a soft gaze. If there was something to help me overlook the feeling of goosebumps on my skin… then I’d feel a bit better.
“Look at how scared you are…Zhen isn’t some sort of ferocious bird or wild beast,” he said, stroking my face.
You’re wilder than either of them. I gave a shiver, and meekly protested in silence.
“Forget it, I won’t tease you.” he smiled as he clapped his hands.
A group of court ladies slowly streamed in from outside, their steps exceptionally light. Every one of them was holding something in her hands, but they were too far away for me to see clearly. “I can draw up the official documents tomorrow,” he conveniently drew closer to speak, laughing. “The imperial palace rushed to make some clothing to wear for the grand ceremony. It was a little hasty, but you should try them on and see if they fit.”
A young eunuch wordlessly walked before me, kneeling while he slowly opened a wooden box. I quickly shielded my eyes with my hands… squinting as I peered over. I could only see a lifelike phoenix coronet, glistening and glittering yellow.
This was too much, right? I took a deep breath.
Before I’d recovered, a circle of court ladies helped me off the bed and someone said in a low voice, “Master, please change clothes. This was carefully selected by his Majesty and only finished after multiple altercations.”
I felt a little dazed.
Did the emperor need to personally concern himself with such things? He only smiled harmoniously, the lamplight making him eminently handsome and filling his face with warmth. I stood blankly for a second, glancing at the servants’ deferential forms as they held various items above their heads.
A slim and graceful red robe was spread out before the bed. There was also a thicker outer robe made of some unknown material that made the embroidered gold dragons seem especially solemn. I could estimate that there were seven or eight layers of robes without even counting the beautiful collection of jade ornaments and gold hairpins.
The sight stupefied me.
These things were far from the rank of a paltry concubine, but nearly on par with the empress herself…the robes were quality robes and the gold was quality gold…so dazzling that my eyes were seeing afterimages. He leaned against the bed, comfortably observing my expression with a hand propped beneath his head, playing with his ring. A gaze like that made my back turn numb.
Perhaps they’d caught the emperor’s hint, but a few court ladies surrounded me and opened up my arms, preparing to take off my outer robes.
“There’s no need to trouble you, I’ll do it myself,” I declined.
“How could we tire out the imperial concubine? Zhen should take charge of such a thankless job,” a voice as warm and mellow as wine came from behind me, carrying it with the hints of a smile.
Someone hooked around the edge of my collar and tugged. The sash that was wound tightly around my waist loosened as he took off a large portion of my outer robes. He drew closer and pulled me into his embrace, a finger resting on my remaining white inner robes as he smiled. “Usually, Zhen has others serving him. How about I serve you today and help you with your clothes?”
What kind of service was this? He’d mixed up the differences between
“stripping” and “taking off” one’s clothes.
“Your Majesty…” “Un?”
I looked down at the finger currently digging its way into my inner robes.
“This doesn’t need to be taken off if I’m trying on the outer robes.” “…true.” he gave an embarrassed smile and withdrew his reckless wolf
claws. I covered myself up with the inner robes. It was a little chilly with the wind blowing, though the scent of incense was strong as ever indoors. The court ladies looked like they wanted to laugh, but held it in as they surged over, taking off the rest of my outer robes. The bright red robes were spread out and brought over…catching the light, it seemed to reflect dark red threads within the cloth.
I was a bit out of it as the hustle and bustle continued. The only thing I noticed was his exceptionally delighted expression.
In that moment of inattention, a smooth but slightly chilly fabric passed over my fingers. When I came back to my senses, they’d already dressed me up. Surrounded by the bright red, my pale-skinned face seemed to reflect some of its jubilant cheer.
And then came another layer.
They turned me back and forth as they piled countless layers on me. These clothes looked fairly light, but their combined weight was enough to make it difficult to breathe and even move around in. Such a gorgeous set of robes. Pretty as they were…was I really expected to wear them when my title was conferred on me?
My heart sank, and my scalp seemed to turn numb.
Standing before a bronze mirror, dressed resplendently with my hair hanging loosely about me, I looked nothing like the usual. Instead, there was a fatal attractiveness about the golden robes and scarlet red fabric lining my throat. The corners of my eyes rose slightly, and even my pupils seem to shine with a softer, more graceful light.
I supported myself against the table and took a deep breath.
With a wave of a hand, an eunuch followed me with head bowed, raising a trousseau filled with glittering head ornaments and hairpins.
“Master, your required accessories.” Tch, a joke…it’s not like they were conferring the title on me today. I’m not going through with that kind of suffering. How many jin were those things?
Though they did look expensive and refined…
I circled around the box a few times, bending down to stare at that exquisite phoenix coronet. If I could, I’d pick it up and bite it with my teeth. It was probably pure gold. Turning towards the emperor, I spoke. “Your Majesty, does everyone have to wear these when they’re conferred a title? It’s so heavy.”
I dragged my tediously long robes behind me as I approached him. Maybe I was tired, because I stepped on the hem of my clothes on the way and felt a little cold…
When I looked down, I realized someone had taken off my shoes without me noticing. In the chaos, I hadn’t noticed a thing until now. I stepped onto a mat placed on the ground, feeling my cold toes grow a little numb.
“The rest of you are all dismissed.” The emperor, who had been sitting with amusement on a soft cushion all this time, finally spoke. The retreating steps were so soft, there was barely any sound until the doors to the room shut, startling me.
The atmosphere immediately became extremely strange as the lights in the room dimmed. The golden lotus incense burners emanated thin trails of smoke that rose in the air, no longer buffeted by the breeze. Their ambiguous scent hovered in the air.
He slowly got off the bed and walked towards me, resting his hand on my shoulder. Before I could react, he’d lifted me up into his arms. Smiling, his gaze was firm as he took me to the bed and placed my stiff body there. I furrowed my eyebrows, but before I could curl up, his hand crept into my robes and found my feet, placing them on his legs. Those large, cocoon-like hands held my feet until they turned warm and numb to the point that my toes wanted to curl up. He asked with a light smile, “Are you warm?”
Not just warm, but super comfortable. I was almost on the verge of crooning.
My entire body was warm, yet he didn’t stop. Head lowered, he took the time to play around with my toes. It was very strange…even doing things such as this, he didn’t lose a bit of a monarch’s natural poise or bearing. A sentence suddenly appeared in my mind: if the first place a man touches is your feet and he treats it like a treasured jewel, then he’ll truly love you.
Or in other words…he’d be a considerate husband.
But I couldn’t remember where I’d heard these words from, no matter how I tried.
My hair…and my ears both itched. I recovered my senses as my lips grew warm from his kiss. A figure pressed down against me, pressing me to the bed. Though the light was behind him, I could still make out his gentle face. I was a little dazed as I sputtered.
“Y-y-you…what are you doing!?”
 reign of terror (腥⻛⾎⾬) −xingfeng xueyu, literally “foul wind and a rain of blood.”  phoenix coronet (凤冠) −fengguan, crown worn by an empress or imperial concubine, also used formerly as a bride’s headdress. Very heavy!
The corners of his lips twitched up into something like a smile. “You’re already Zhen’s woman, what else could Zhen do?”
Ahhhh, but didn’t I lose my memories? He lowered the bed curtains around us. I couldn’t resign myself to sitting on the bed, but reached out to jerk the bed curtains aside, only to hear him say, “It’s chaotic in the outside world, so Zhen will protect you.”
Before I could recover from my surprise, he’d already caught my hand. His other hand brushed open my outer robes to dig inside until they felt my shoulder bones, bringing with it a surprising chill. His large hands were like cocoons, and wherever he touched, my skin seem to turn numb and heat up…
“Zhen knows why he doesn’t like this outfit,” he bent over, his heavy voice mixing with his breaths by my side. His lips parted to close around my ears as he hummed, and my mind seemed to burst. It was soft and warm, and the tactile impressions left by his sucking felt like tiny ants itching across my skin.
“It’s too much trouble to take off, which Zhen dislikes.”
This was brazenly taking liberties. I felt unusually indignant and terribly shy, but there was no place to hide. I could only say without any hint of force, “Let go already.”
The effect was just a little shy of an ant snorting.
“Zhen won’t let go. You should know…” There was a faint hint of a smile in his words as he regarded me warmly, long fingers brushing against my cheeks. “My thoughts of you grow deeper day after day.”
I was a little dumbfounded. He smiled and held me tighter.
The bed curtains were all down and the light was hazy. It was a little hard to breathe with him crushing me. I could faintly hear the sound of his pendants moving, as if he was taking off his robes. My mind was in a heavy daze when I raised my head to grab the curtains…at least to get a breath of fresh air.
He bent over and tightly gripped my wrist, not letting me go. His expression was filled with the energy of an easy victory, the aura very much like an emperor…but to use it here… This person, how could he do such a thing?
He raised so many male concubines in the palace without accepting a single female. He should like men, so he shouldn’t be able to act like this with me. Yet the truth was far from reality.
“What are you thinking about…why don’t you speak?” his hands dug in my robes and held me, fingers lightly rubbing against my skin. “…is it ticklish? Don’t hide away…”
Tears, why was he so interested in women? Can anyone tell me the reason? I took a breath and covered myself, turning my head away while I shot him a hazy look. I felt extremely puzzled and wronged.
His face was half wreathed in light, half in shadow, making his features hard to discern. I could only see the area from his nose to his chin, clean and resolute like a proper man, making it hard for people to look away. His hand was pressed on my shoulders.
“Right now, your heart has no one else in it but me.” When he spoke to himself, I could tell…that something was putting him ill at ease.
He slowly lowered his body, the remaining materials of his clothing tickling my skin. Against my exposed back, he left a trail of increasing frentic kisses that were somehow filled with sorrow. When he released my hand, I took the chance to grab the bed crtains.
The dim lighting seemed to daze and confuse me.
His messy hair draped down as he reached out to hold me, the light casting his shadow in sharp relief against the curtains. An arm wrapped around my belly and waist as he slowly tightened his grip to embrace me. In the dark, I could feel his finger brushing across my forehead and face…the movements soft and gentle, but without any warmth. He said, ‘Shao’er, you’re still as beautiful as before…no, even more beautiful.’
He said, ‘You’re Zhen’s woman.’
His words left me at a loss…and I forgot to resist, as if everything happening was a natural course of events. Those familiar, warm lips pressed against mine. He had the kind of sweeping forehead to drive a person to depravity, and the singular scent of a man as he embraced me intimately, and yet at this moment…
He lowered his head and spoke in a low voice, “What are you secretly giggling about?”
“Don’t you like men?”
Abruptly, he raised his head, eyes widening minutely as they stared at me with a handsome yet gentle gaze. From that…I realized I was wrong. It was too late to crawl away now, tears…
Chaos fell upon the darkness.
When I came to my senses, I was directly in contact with his slender yet sturdy bare waist. He held onto my head, staring at me like he was going to ravage me, that innate air of sovereignty now incredibly potent. My body softened like a puddle of water, but I still tried to crawl and resist.
He bent my knee and held onto my thigh, gentle caressing it to turn them soft and powerless. Then he grabbed my shoulders and shifted my body over. With a hand on my head he looked at me, getting an eyeful.
Longing shone from his eyes.
“Shao’er…” he called out gently with warm breaths against my ear, thin lips touching my breasts, a little scalding. It was as if he wanted to suck me into his body. Suddenly, I couldn’t hold back a moan. He bent forward to embrace me tightly in his arms, and that hot, hard rod squeezed into that soft and tender point between my thighs. I could sense a searing heat that made me feel incredibly helpless. His head moved closer and gently sniffed my neck. He seemed to be saying something, but I couldn’t hear it clearly.
He moved his waist forward a little more, and I felt as though my body was being pulled apart. This feeling of slowly being filled could even be called…too painful. Having difficulty enduring, I tightly gripped onto the bedsheets.
Fortunately, he quickly dodged before I bit him. He looked to be enduring patiently and there was a layer of sweat on his resolute face, yet he didn’t forget to stroke my hair with his hand and wipe away my sweat. Right as I relaxed, he held onto my body from both sides and fiercely thrust into me without any hesitation. My twisted face could be described as pained.
Hesitating, he gazed at me in astonishment before the look in his eyes became joy, then amazement.
Was anything wrong? Yet I was so dazed I couldn’t figure out what it was. I wasn’t used to the sudden, severe pain that had suddenly appeared. He held me tightly and spoke in a cold voice without warmth, “I won’t lose you again…”
Although the tone was flat, I knew…his heart was flustered and trembling. My blankness deepened as my mind grew empty. Within the dim bed curtains, all I remembered was his nimble fingers. I’d neglected any other matters of importance.
His body rocked slightly as he inched forwards, as if wanting to bury himself in my deepest parts…until we became one. My body followed that rough, coarse sensation until his movements swept me away wave after wave, releasing a surge of intoxicating torrents.
The colorful flowers on the bed curtains seemed to deepen… My eyes opened wide, and I felt a little lost. He was slow and steady one moment, fierce and furious the next. The torment he caused me made it hard to breathe. His own breaths made me feel dizzy. My train of thoughts grew more and more distant until they blurred. I could only recall the last thing he said…
Now there won’t be anyone to contend with me. You belong to me, and me alone.
With this, the things that were supposed to happened had occurred. The ambiguous odors of the aftermath lingered within the bed curtains long after it was over. I opened my eyes and looked up towards the hazy yellow curtains. The light that shone through blended together the flowers on the fabric, while the air was still filled with that ambiguous scent.
I shifted a bit, but his hand on my waist prevented me from getting up. Instead, he turned over and held me in place with his body, childishly burying his face between my shoulder blades. I gave him a lazy glance. He tilted his head to look at my body, not a hint of drowsiness in his eyes.
I couldn’t bear it anymore and tugged on the bedcovers, turning over my body to look at him. “Didn’t you say…that I was your woman long ago…?”
So then why was there blood on the sheets? My fingers found the spot and brushed over it.
He kept me company with his smile and scooped me into an embrace, a bright voice speaking clearly into my ear. It sounded like he was in excellent spirits. “How did I know that you were only playing house with your little friends?”
The gladness in his voice was all too evident, and his smile was boundlessly gentle and soft. His gaze on me only increased in feelings and affection. But…why didn’t I understand? What ‘little friends?’
“It’s getting late, don’t go off into flights of fancy. Sleep.” He helped to tuck me in.
How could I sleep?
As the saying goes, a ruler doesn’t joke around with his remarks. But I had no way to understand most of what he said, nor could I tell the truth from the lies, even if I guessed. I turned my head to look at him, that eminently handsome face illuminated by the dim, hazy light. Despite everything…maybe he truly loved me. He always treated me well, and his movements and expressions shouldn’t be fake. But still, what was the story behind the male concubine in the Cold Palace…?
He grasped the hand I’d rested on his forehead, speaking lightly. “Actually, I should have told you earlier. After the previous emperor died, General Qi assumed control of the military powers and gained great influence in the court. But he was still unsatisfied and tried every way possible to send woman into the imperial harem. If his daughter can become the empress, then he’ll feel like he has nothing to fear before Zhen.
…these years, Zhen’s beat him at his own game by liking men and raising male concubines, but I didn’t expect that old thing to…”
These were all affairs of the court, so why was he telling me?
He stopped, gentle eyes trailing down to see my damp hair with a small smile. He drew my chin closer with a shady look and dropped me a kiss. “Now that he knows of your existence, I doubt he’ll leave the matter at that… Stay carefully by my side and don’t go anywhere, all right…?”
By now, I was really getting sleepy and lifted my eyes with effort. He smiled lightly and held me tight, before attacking my drowsy self. But truthfully speaking, it really was nice and warm when he held me…
Even though everything was soft and sweet, why…did I still feel this was all very strange…?
Someone was drawing up the bed curtains. I opened my eyes, dazzled by the flickering candle flames. Little Li wore a cautious expression as he spoke in a low voice. “Master, it’s time to eat your meal.”
I lazily lifted my eyelids. The other half of the bed was already empty. “Where did his Majesty go?”
“He went to review memorials to the throne and told your servant to make sure you ate on time so you wouldn’t go hungry.”
“There’s no rush. Get some water, I want to wash up.” I draped myself in an outer robe, declining his offered hand to sit by the edge of the bed, frowning a bit as I adjusted to the soreness in my waist.
“Yes,” he answered, backing away a few steps to open a door and wave furiously outside.
It seemed like someone had been in wait long beforehand because a short while later, 18 eunuchs carried in tubs of hot water as they walked in. Court ladies also came in with clean sets of clothes to place behind the folding screens. When I wanted to get up, Little Li hastily came over to support me by the arm…
I glanced at him as I realized why he was so fixated on helping me. It felt like my bones were about to fall apart. My legs were like soft silken floss with no energy in them at all. I rested a hand on my sore waist as I took tiny steps towards the screen. A peek inside revealed that the pool was already hot with rising steam. “That’s all, you’re all dismissed.” I gave a casual wave and shut out all the servants. Everything was nice in the imperial palace. It was a good place to enjoy a happy life of ease and comfort. If you wanted, you didn’t even need to expend effort to hold chopsticks during your meals. There would naturally be people that held tasty things to your mouth to eat.
Though a lazy person like me was happy with others dressing and feeding me, having them bathe me was something I was still unused to…
You could soak in a bath and wash yourself.
If there were multiple people standing behind you, waiting to strip you naked from your immaculate clothes before enthusiastically watching as you soaked in a tub…
That was definitely hardship.
I rested against the pool’s edge as the hot water soothed my tired body. A small, handleless cup of clear wine rested within arm’s reach. Its surface was as smooth as jade, and a lifelike, agile white dragon was carved against its side, cool to the touch.
This must belong to the emperor. Presumably, he liked to drink a bit while he bathed.
The servants hadn’t feared reprimanding when they carried over the custom to me. Right now, I was considered a figure who could dine and sleep with the Son of Heaven. In their eyes, I was probably suffused in imperial favor.
I laughed in spite of myself as I splashed water on my face.
Though I was immersed in the pool, my entire body still felt as sore as if a cart had ran over it. I gave a slight frown and groaned. The lights were always lit early in the palace, and the sun was just starting to set outside. Fiery red light shone against the paper windows. A hazy light appeared in the rooms to ignite a row of lamps, which shone against the folding screen and stirred its landscapes of mountains and water to life…gradually, the emperor’s face appeared in my mind.
I took a deep breath and closed my eyes, submerging myself below the surface. In the warm water, my body felt slightly more comfortable. I thought of the emperor’s lack of concubines in the past five years and the rumors of the male concubine in the Cold Palace, feeling that things were a bit strange.
The emperor seemed to be hiding something from me. Forget it, I w
Leaning against the edge of the pool, I brushed aside my hair as I poured another cup from a flagon of wine. Looking at the fine stream of fragrant, sparkling clear liquid made me a little drunk before I’d even taken a sip. A marvelously intriguing scent tunneled its way past my nostrils, persistent and intense, but nothing like wine at all.
Something felt a little off.
I suddenly straightened up, splashing water everywhere. A small voice sounded from outside the door. “Is Master finished with washing? May your servant go and prepare dinner?”
This Little Li, he couldn’t have been bowing outdoors and listening for my movements the whole time, right?
My face fell and I replied unhappily, “How could I finish so quickly?
Wait an hour more before calling for the food.”
The person outside thought for a while before speaking. “Master, do you need your servant to tell the court ladies to bring in more hot water?”
I clicked my tongue. He’d gotten more persistent since I had ignored him for so long. I prepared to pretend I was angry, before pausing. There was still that wonderful scent that made my tongue feel sweet. I was still unsteady on my legs, but I propped myself against the pool to hold myself up.
There was a small commotion outside. I heard Little Li gave a strange, stifled cry before his shadow against the windows tilted to one side, as if he’d toppled to the ground…
The fragrant scent grew stronger…
A figure flashed past the windows outside.
Surprised, I gingerly crawled my way out, grabbing something to dry myself off before pulling down the thin robes resting on the folding screen. Thinking a bit, I grabbed another layer and draped it over my shoulders, afraid that the wind tonight would be too strong for my body. Ducking down to hide, I raised my head and gave a sudden gasp.
From a chink in the door, I could see a thin, misty smoke floating inside the room. My eyes widened as I used my robes to block my nose. Suddenly, a cry rang out outdoors.
“Who’s that sneaking around!” “Capture the assassin…”
The shadows of people fighting reflected against the windows, and the sounds of conflict and clashing went on unceasingly. The doors shuddered from the impact as I remained stunned.
I didn’t even have time to fix my hair as I snuck to the back door. Suddenly, an arrow whizzed by, narrowly missing my ear to bury itself in the wall by my side, tail feathers quivering. I almost jumped in fright, hastily pulling open the door to let myself out.
All right, this definitely counted as alarmingly dangerous.
— Assassins could even penetrate the heavily guarded premises of the main hall…weirdly enough, the servants hadn’t even sensed that something had gone wrong. A cool wind brushed past, making me squint my eyes and sway on my feet. My half-wet hair made my scalp turn numb. From a distance, I could see the chaos happening about the main hall. There were numerous guards running about. I wasn’t sure what to do at the moment as I hid my hands in my sleeves to walk off, head lowered.
My steps came to a sudden halt as I knitted my eyebrows to sniff my robes. It was still full of that strange scent. Was it meant to drug a person?
But why were there no effects when I breathed it in? Instead, I felt… more and more clearheaded. My suspicions began to grow. This scent…I lowered my head to sniff it again. Just when I was working things out, the sound of coughing startled me. A few young eunuchs passed by my side, hurrying along with heads bowed though they couldn’t resist casting curious looks my way. I followed their gazes to look at myself, the wind billowing through my robes.
The sight was a little depressing.
I’d never expect I would narrowly escape an assassin by climbing out of a bath. Of course my clothes were disordered, what was there to look at? Most likely, no one could tell I was the emperor’s imperial concubine now.
I gave them a fierce look before adjusting the sash at my waist and straightening out my clothes. After calming myself down, my thoughts drew back to survey my surroundings. Where exactly had I ended up at?
There was no one else around, only that pond teeming with red lotuses. The wind had blown off most of their petals, which looked like seeping blood against the light of the setting sun. There was a narrow path that led to who-knows-where, looking exceptionally quiet and secluded. A face suddenly appeared in my mind, with ordinary features yet a delicate air. My heart chilled as I unconsciously clutched my robes.
The Cold Palace was directly ahead of me. Since I’d walked this far, I might as well go and take a look. Fortunately, all the guards had rushed to the main hall to catch the assassin, so there were less on watch here. Looking around, the place seemed a bit desolate. The little path I followed was covered in withered yellow leaves. It felt a little unreal as I stepped across them with my feet, leaves crinkling. In the distance, I could hear the sound of children’s voices as they played.
Surprised, I walked forwards, brushing aside the tree branches in my way.
Oh, there really were two children outside the residence, squatting in the dirt to play with something. Their faces were very pretty, and they looked a bit like each other. Both were dressed in brightly colored, fine-quality silks, the quality far too good for any children of the Cold Palace. Their hands were filthy, and the edges of their robes were covered in dust.
The person looking after them was obviously surprised, but took no action to obstruct me. Neither of the children were afraid of strangers. They gave me a glance and went back to playing. It seemed they were making little figures out of mud.
Why were these two children playing in front of the Cold Palace?
I watched them as I walked along, having no desire to disturb such a quiet, happy picture. Circling past them, I stood before the tightly shut gates, looking up before placing my hand on the doors badly in need of repair. There was a moment of indecision as my heart quivered and grew uneasy…
The door was a little damp, and its red lacquer paint had begun to fade. Its tactile sensation was startlingly real against my skin. With a light push, the slightly rotten gates opened. A gust of wind blew out, spraying my face with sand. I rubbed my eyes with my sleeves as they teared up and made it hard to see.
— The inside of the Cold Palace was deserted and desolate, many of the rooms sealed. All the other halls in the palace had long lit their lamps but there was only darkness here, with no sign of life…
It had a nice name, this Cold Palace…but really, it was just a broken- down house.
“Is there anyone here?” I called from the door. Nobody answered.
Unable to wait any longer, I lifted my robes and boldly stepped inside. The courtyard only had one stone table without any chairs. The space inside was small and unadorned, but well-kept, unlike the leaf-strewn path outside. The flagstones on the ground were old and neither had much moss on them, nor were they too damp.
Just that…with things so dim, I was starting to miss the lantern that Little Li always carried with him. Though it was only lit with a candle of red wax and looked like a ghost light wavering in the night, it could still banish a section of darkness and help me see the dim shapes in the distance more clearly.
Speaking of which, why weren’t there any lights here? Even if the Cold Palace wasn’t paid much silver, they’d still get candles.
Weird, didn’t anyone live here?
Just as I thought this, I caught sight of a human-shaped figure flashing by out of the corners of my eyes. When I turned around to look, it was gone. Alarmed, I broke out into a cold sweat. Standing in place, I shrank my head back and dug into my sleeves, hesitating for a long while before looking outside the gates. The children who were playing there had disappeared, as if the voices I’d heard before were all an illusion.
Then…could they be ghosts? I could only feel the scalp on my head turning numb as my icy hands while cold sweat broke out over my body. Little Li said a male concubine lived in the Cold Palace, but why did I feel that this place lacked signs of life? There was something indescribably strange about it all…
While I was considering when to leave, I heard a vague noise. My body stiffened as I held my breath to listen. There was no mistake…the sound came from the room furthest away from me, where the door was unlocked. This is the Cold Palace, where Lord Hua was supposed to live.
I didn’t know why, but from the first time I heard his name to all the times afterward, when people mentioned details about him, my heart would tighten to a taut string, as if about to snap. Disturbed, restless–I’d never been troubled like this before.
Did his relationship with the emperor cause me to feel this way? Was it just because of the emperor, though?
I really couldn’t tell. Perhaps, I’d need to ask him for the details before I could reach a conclusion. I held back for a bit before the curiosity was too strong to resist. More soft noises came from the room, making my heart itch.
Damn it! If I was going to die, I might as well die from fright, not by being stifled! At least I would pass away understanding everything.
I hunched down as I approached that door, preparing to spy through the crack in the doors. A cold wind blew out, turning my scalp numb…I squinted before I could see anything. It was very dim inside the room, but there really was someone inside, fair and graceful…actually, I could even call them lithe and elegant.
What was that sticking out of their head? It looked like a flower hairpin. A female?
A female was in this room? Wasn’t it a male concubine that lived here?!
I was angry. Why was I angry? I didn’t know either, but I pushed open the door, frightening the person inside. The faint scent of mold came to greet me, and the ancient floorboards groaned beneath my feet. Surprised, I began to grow apprehensive.
…this, did it count as invading personal quarters?
In the dim lightning, everything was absolute silent. I could see a shadowy form back away a few steps, her back to me as she dug in her sleeves for a long while, as if searching for something…there was a sharp scraping noise, and light illuminated the room.
Under the hazy light, I stood dumbfounded. She leaned over to pick up the lamp and peered at me. Its dim yellow glow lit up the entire room as well as my features. I was a little timid, uncertain of whether I should hide my face. I tried to turn my head away as much as possible, taking the chance to inspect the room. The objects were set up orderly as if purposely arranged, but there was no sign that anyone lived here. Everything was covered in a thin layer of dust. The weather had turned colder, but the covers on the bed were thin and poor, and carried the odor of damp.
“Are you the imperial concubine that Big Brother Emperor’s going to confer a title on?” a timid female voice asked.
I roused myself, unable to resist looking up at the rafters. There were quite a few remnants of white knotted silks there.
She asked me again.
I gave an ‘un’ in affirmation before withdrawing my gaze to her face.
Maybe the lamplight was to blame, but there wasn’t a single hint of blood in her youthful face. Her complexion was extremely pale, but she had beautiful eyebrows that had rose slightly. If she knitted those brows, she would probably look fierce, but an attractive girl like her seemed so vulnerable and weak. She was dressed ornately, and though the hairpin in her head was nothing compared to my phoenix coronet, it was still noble and precious.
She smiled a bit and said lightly, “Perhaps you don’t recognize me.” A hand rose to rest on her temples, the wrist as white as jade. “My name is Xuan’er. I’m Big Brother Emperor’s little sister.”
I’d never heard him mention it…
What was she doing at the Cold Palace?
I glanced outside. Out of all the rooms in the Cold Palace, only this one was lit and had the signs of human habitation. Everywhere else was pitch- black. Odd, it really was grotesquely odd.
“Where’s the man who lives in the Cold Palace? Why isn’t there any sign of him?” I asked rashly.
She seemed flabbergasted as she looked at me, eyes gleaming like a trough full of water as she pondered for a bit. “Are you talking about the Lord Hua who used to live here?”
Used to live?
“Where did he move to?”
She smiled softly. “If you’re talking about Lord Fang Hua, then he lived here for awhile five years ago. Afterwards, he took his leave and left the imperial palace.”
What?! Left the palace…? But what about the one I met recently? “Last time the laundry rooms mixed up his robes and he came to personally retrieve them. How could he have left for five years already?” I was doubtful.
“How could that fake compare to one-tenth of Fang Hua’s looks?” she lowered her head, using a sleeve to brush away the dirt on the table. Her words were slow and drawn out. “You should know, all the male concubines that Big Brother Emperor takes in are named Lord Hua.”
I was stunned.
There was no way to avoid it, this revelation was too earth-shaking. A strange feeling rose in my heart…something I couldn’t describe clearly…at the very least, it was very tangled.
She looked at me once more, mouth stuck between a smile and a line as she spoke. “Fang Hua is unique and resembles a jade Immortal. No matter how many others try to imitate that air, they still fall short of him. But nobody foresaw that he’d get sick not long after living in the Cold Palace.
Few people paid him any attention, so it was only me who always gave him flowers to eat. Ever since Big Brother Emperor banished him to the Cold Palace, I’d liked coming over to visit…
He’s a very good-natured, gentle person, even if he never talked much. After his illness, he spoke less and less. That’s right…sometimes when he was feeling better, Lord Fang Hua would call me Little Huang.”
She lowered her head and fiddled with her hands, face holding a quiet happiness like a woman recalling the joys of her youth.
Wait…she said the man was named Fang Hua. My head turned numb.
This name was very familiar.
“What’s wrong?” she looked at me, deeply concerned. I smiled with difficulty, my head heavy and dizzy. Every single one of her words rang with truth in my ears.
“There was a period of time when I asked Big Brother Emperor to let me move in with Lord Hua, but he refused. Afterwards, Lord Hua disappeared from the palace.” her smile turned sad, and I had the sudden feeling she shouldn’t be smiling like that. It seemed inconsistent with her image. Instead, she should…
She should what?
I was blank until an image appeared in my mind of a self-important brat, whose face was enough to make a person gnash their teeth. In the end, I wanted to say something else, but something threw himself against her and hugged her by the legs.
“E niang, I’m hungry.” It was a very young voice.
There was a figure outside holding onto a second little child, whose beautiful eyes looked my way with a smile.
“It’s getting late, I should leave.” the pretty woman gave me a smile, and walked out the gates holding the little child by the hand. She’d left the candle for me, using the moonlight to guide her way…
I suddenly noticed that her robes, despite being of gorgeous make, looked a bit shabby beneath the moonlight, though it should’ve been barely used.
Even the emperor’s little sister lived such a hard life?
I exhaled, holding the candle in its lamp as I inspected this so-called Cold Palace. This was probably the place where her Fang Hua had lived. Besides a single bed, the room contained a table and two or three chairs. Although they were simple and unadorned, they made me feel at ease.
A jar on the table caught my attention. Testing its weight in my hand, I found it very light. A glance inside revealed some traces left behind by tea as well as a lingering scent of fresh flowers. Its owner must have been exceedingly elegant and refined.
Just as I was spacing out, a tiny noise sounded from outside the window.
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
I raised my voice and called out, “Who’s outside?”
A lamp could be seen shining through the windows as someone coughed outside. Surprised, my eyes rose. I waited expectantly and a person dressed in eunuch’s robes walked inside, carrying a lamp. The light flickered against his face and made his expression somewhat unreal.
It was Little Li.
Curling my lips in disappointment, I turned to sit on the bed, ignoring its layer of dust. “What are you doing here?”
“So it turns out Master was here, your servant has been looking for you. Just then, I fainted away at the main hall before realizing an assassin was on the prowl…all the servants have been on the search. Luckily, a few eunuchs said they saw you walk this way. You must be hungry by now. Dinner’s ready so please follow me back, Master.”
I made a small noise but refused to speak. He stood still, silent as well. After some time, I spoke again, though my voice was a little hoarse.
“This…when did that Lord Hua move out of the palace? Don’t lie to me anymore, I’m talking about Fang Hua.”
He remained calm, though his hands involuntarily tightened. The fingers looked pale white beneath the lamplight, clearly betraying his anxiety. Surprised, I watched the lamp reflect off his face, which pulled itself into a reluctant smile. “Not long after the previous emperor passed again, or about half a month after Lord Fang was chased to the Cold Palace, he left this place. At that time, the current emperor had yet to take the throne.”
“Why didn’t I hear anyone mention this? The emperor didn’t say bring it up either,” I muttered to myself, eyebrows furrowed. He raised his head to look at me with trembling lips, a complicated expression on his face.
What was wrong?
“Are you hiding something from me?” my face stiffened.
He bowed forwards, head lowered as his hands grasped his robes. Finally, he couldn’t hold himself back and said in a low, extremely stealthy voice, “This isn’t something a servant like me should gossip about behind someone’s back. But it’s really uncomfortable to keep covering it up. Actually…” He frowned slightly, lifting his eyes to me. “In truth, not long after Master left the Cold Palace, Lord Hua began to pack his things and prepare to leave.”
What?! What did this have to do with me?
Wait…hold on…I seemed to have seized on something. My mind searched vainly in a blank space for something I couldn’t quite grasp. “You mean to say,” I clutched his hand, frowning as I spoke carefully. “I lived in the Cold Palace before?”
He pushed aside my hand in embarrassment, backing away a step.
“Exactly so, right here.”
Was I a disfavored concubine as well?
He nodded and added another line, “At that time, Master and I both served Lord Hua.”
Ah, what balderdash…
It felt like a string had snapped inside my body, sending me all asunder. My mood sank with my drooping shoulders. Why didn’t I remember anything of this? I bent my head in a moment of silence. No, this was wrong…if I couldn’t remember anything, why would I remember this?
Little Li kept his head bowed but stole a glance at me. I held myself in check, calming my heart as I sat straighter and coughed. “Tell me about the details. If you make up any nonsense, I won’t forgive you.”
“Yes.” Even with his body bent, his words were very clear. “Your servant has always been with Lord Hua. Later on, Master was summoned from the Imperial Physicians’ courtyard t
“Stopstopstop, we won’t continue with that. Speak.”
He bowed again, eyes lowered as he continued. “But who knew that one night, his Majesty…no, he was still the crown prince then. His imperial highness, the crown prince and Lord Hua were enjoying drinking together. Later on, you got into an argument with the crown prince and started arguing in the courtyard. Then…the crown prince teared…”
He really matched his narrative, mimicking the crown prince’s actions by waving aside his sleeves…I ducked my head to the side to avoid the sweep. The candlelight on the table flickered incessantly beneath the wind of his sleeves.
I glared at him.
He hastily lowered his head, standing primly in place as he spoke docilely, “After the crown prince did that, your face mask fell, and then you ran away.”
He sure liked dwelling on trivial details. Why did I smell the hint of adultery in this story? Was this a complicated love triangle with me as the third wheel who ruined their relationship? I dawdled a bit before looking back, just in time to catch Little Li looking at me for any reaction. In response, I gave him a light kick and said icily, “I told you to tell me why Lord Hua left. Why did you bring the topic back to me again…keep going, don’t stop! If you spout any more drivel I’ll tear apart your lips.”
The lonely moon shed its light on him. This guy actually gave a mischievous laugh and shook his head. “The night after you left, the crown prince and Lord Hua shut themselves in a room. I don’t know what they talked about. The result…was that Lord Hua grew ill. The crown prince came to visit every day, but was always refused at the door by Lord Hua. A bit later, Lord Hua left behind a note and departed.”
So afterwards, the emperor refused to take any concubines for five years. The story of Lord Hua leaving the palace was rarely mentioned as well. Thinking back…the words that the emperor had told me, as well as his expression, was like remembering old time’s sake for him.
Is it possible that I was the one who stuck herself in and ruined a happy family? The idea was shocking. I took a ferocious breath of cold air to recover.
“Master, what’s wrong?” Little Li quickly came to support my arm.
“Nothing serious,” I turned away, speaking quietly. “The things you’ve told me tonight, don’t tell anyone else. Don’t even mention it to the emperor.” I couldn’t let him remember his old flame or these past events…
“Your servant understands,” Little Li seemed to relax from his tension. “Lord Hua has always been a good person. Your servant can tell he always treated you very well, so it’s no wonder you’re asking about him. And so…I didn’t control my words.” His eyes looked at mine. “A good person like that…you shouldn’t forget him.”
My heart suddenly shrank back and started to beat wildly.
What had happened to me? How could one little line send my heart pounding? Was a guilty conscience haunting me? I had been a disdainful, vile character, yet forgotten everything. Then I’d greedily accepted all the pleasures of my present life…
How criminal, how evil.
Little Li seemed to be sizing me up as I stared at him head-on and spoke frankly. “All the things you’ve said, I can’t really remember them anymore. But since he’s treated me so well, I’ll definitely burn a stick of incense for him to Buddha before I eat and sleep, and pray for his blessings.”
Little Li gave me a significant look.
I didn’t have time to ponder it deeply, but propped myself up. My stomach began to grumble, and I gave it a glance, rubbing it with my hands. Little Li had excellent foresight as he said, “Master, it’s getting late. Shall we go back? It’s already past dinnertime, if we drag it out any longer it’ll be midnight snacktime instead.”
“All right, let’s go.”
He actually reached out a hand to bar my wall. “You’re going to be conferred a title soon. Many eyes will be on you…it’s not good for you to leave the Cold Palace so directly, I’ll call over a sedan chair for you.”
Didn’t I walk over here? It was so dark at night, who could see the path clearly? His face remained adamant.
“Forget it, forget it. Hurry and go, I’ll wait.”
“Yes!” he kneeled on the ground. I waved a hand as if chasing away a fly. He trailed a wisp of smoke behind him as he ran off with the lantern. The room immediately dimmed, and shadows fell across the walls oppressively. I felt a bit bored and glanced at the lamp on the table…huh, the candle was almost finished, the melted wax like red years. If I’d realized it earlier, I should have kept Little Li’s lantern instead.
I looked about me until I found a stick of bamboo to suppress the candle flame slightly so the light would last until Little Li returned. But the weak flame trembled before the night wind on the verge of being extinguished.
I raised my sleeves to shut the tattered window that had blown open and couldn’t resist turning to smile towards the candlestick holder. “Esteemed little ancestor, you better not go out.” With the chill wind blowing through the Cold Palace like this, I’d really feel frightened if there wasn’t any light…so the candle definitely couldn’t go out. Definitely not. I muttered the words to myself until I was on the verge of praying to the Bodhisattva.
It seemed to fit the mood.
Suddenly, there was a soft pah, and the candle died out. I stood stunned.
Abruptly, everything sank into darkness except for the moonlight from the window. Faintly, I could hear the sound of footsteps behind me. It turned my scalp numb, and I blurted out, “Little Li, is that you?” That person didn’t reply. My brows furrowed, and I tightened my grip against the window frame, preparing to turn around. “Only you would be so unruly. Don’t scare me…”
Before I could finish, a sharp pain hit my back from a tiny rock, sealing my internal passageways. Immediately, a pair of hands rested on my shoulders. My heart sank and before I could scream, someone muffled me with their hands…a strong but unfamiliar person.
Curses, who was this?
My body was held in place as a burlap sack covered me…in the darkness, I could only feel my body being lifted up, as if carried on someone’s shoulders. So uncomfortable, I couldn’t even breathe…only panic. Who was this?
Who was kidnapping me? I tried to protest, but only made muffled noises. The effects weren’t very clear…at the very least, no one paid me any attention. He walked quickly but with light steps, his sturdy body strengthened from martial arts practice. I don’t know which path he picked, but we didn’t meet any guards the entire time.
I hadn’t made any enemies since entering the court, but why were assassins capturing me? Aiya, my poor, bullied waist…wait, could this be one of General Qi’s men? That’s not right, his men would kill me directly, not carry me around like this. Was it an enemy from outside the court…but I couldn’t remember a thing…
I wanted to cry, but I had no tears to shed.
My body was thrown aside somewhere–but lightly, so there wasn’t any pain. Hearing the sound of hoofbeats, I guessed we’d left the palace gates. Then came a bumpy ride that jolted my insides into queasy colors…that person rested a hand on my body, as if afraid I’d be thrown off. I gasped for breath from inside the burlap bag, but a strange smell penetrated my nostrils, making me frown as I sniffed it…
Curses, this was a top-notch, unparalleled type of knockout incense! You’re really ruthless…
It had five times as much potency as the incense at the bathing pool. Curses! This guy must have spent a lot of money, these things cost tons of silver. As a result, my head lolled to one side and I dutifully fainted away.
Actually, my dear kidnapper might not have realized that these things were only half as effective on my body. Though I couldn’t open my eyes and had no energy, my mind was very clear. I could feel the pain in my body caused by the jolting ride and hear the hoofbeats of the galloping horse. Ours was a very long journey. I didn’t know where he was taking me. Though I had a sudden attack of sadness, most of me felt happy. Actually, I hadn’t been very happy these few days. After waking up in the palace and realizing my memories were gone, I’d been living very cautiously and trying to adapt myself to the emperor’s everything.
The emperor said I was an imperial concubine, but I…
Each and every moment, I tried my best to embrace this role. The emperor that everyone revered and admired gave me his sole affections, yet my heart felt absolutely empty. I didn’t know what it was that I really wanted.
The burlap sack had long been removed from my body to be replaced with a high-quality cloud-pattern brocade. This man seemed to have no intentions of harming me. I hadn’t slept well for a long time, but this time I had a dream. It was both bitter and sweet, yet filled with a pain that tore at my heart…it felt so real that I thought I’d die from the pain.
But as to what exactly happened…I couldn’t remember a thing. I was just happy that the painful dream wasn’t real, yet also regretful. At the very least…I was missing something very important from my life, something that couldn’t return once it was lost.
A drop of ice-cold something fell on my face. My eyelashes trembled as I frowned and opened my eyes. My face was damp, and my eyes felt wet. I carelessly wiped away the warm liquid with my sleeves, my heart strangely bitter. Was this a raindrop, or a teardrop…?
Right now, my body was devoid of energy, sore and numb as well as pained…I’d been paralyzed for too long so my bloodflow was a bit sluggish, and even lifting a hand took supreme effort.
Argh, to hell with it! I looked around me and realized the place was desolate and uninhabited. I was in the middle of a bamboo forest, lying on the damp ground. I felt…a bit uncomfortable. Why was I lying here alone?
Where did the assassin go? So irresponsible…
With a pa-ta, something else splashed on my face. Raising my face, I saw…the verdant leaves of the bamboo covered with dewdrops at their tips. Another droplet slipped past my collar, the cold enough to make me tremble…but it’d cleared my mind as well.
My feelings were dejected and hard to explain.
How unlucky, I couldn’t even force out enough strength to prop myself up, so I’d have to endure the onslaught from the dripping dewdrops. … speaking of which, why would that assassin abandon me here? He hadn’t hurt me or left any marks on my body, but took advantage of my unconsciousness to hustle away. What was the meaning of this?
I weakly crawled forward a bit before I heard the sound of beating wings. The emerald green leaves surged like a wave as a thing rustling sound came from one side. My eyes grew wide. Within the dark green depths of the bamboo stalk was a white-robed silhouette, his steps distinct and clear upon the dry leaves. When he brushed aside some leaves, I saw a tall figure holding a qin appear before me. The sunlight shining on his form made his long black hair beautiful, and his face had a mild, gentle expression.
I was gobsmacked, and my heart beat wildly. His face and figure filled my vision–those white robes like snow, and that teardrop-shaped mole by the corner of his eye that made him seem like he was weeping. The moment he saw me, he froze in place, not moving a muscle. Though the distance between us was still far, I could clearly see that the serenity of his face had been broken. The qin in his hands fell to the ground…and its strings thrummed.
At that moment, I finally recalled the thing I had forgotten in my dream… It was a pair of eyes that bore the weight of thousands of 10,000 years of worry, filled with yearning as they looked at me, just like this moment… why did it feel so real?
A warmth crept up from my stomach, uncomfortable and sore, and an unknown gathering of true qi started churning in my dantian region. I wanted to suppressed its wild circulation, and stretched out my hand towards that Immortal to beg for help. But my throat felt blocked, and before I could open my mouth, a pain in my chest turned my vision blurry…then black.
This time, I had fainted for real.
My world was pitch-black.
Silence surrounded me, broken by the occasional breeze whistling past.
The noises made by the bamboo screens were also pleasing to the ear…
My mind was a mess, and I wanted to open my eyes but lacked the strength. The numbness in my back felt like countless ants crawling past my body. It felt as if I was slowly coming back to life, and only now did I realize I was lying on something very hard, not a cushioned bed but a bamboo plank one.
There was no scent of incense in the room, but something pure and fresh. The sweet and pleasant scent of bamboo couldn’t help but relax me. Abruptly, the sound of a bird pecking grains came from a corner, jarring in contrast with the wind-swept bamboo curtains and the poetic charm of the current situation. I frowned a little.
…where was I?
“…Shào’er, you have to eat more.”
A male voice spoke, warm and soft, with a lightness that rose above the dust of this world.
My foggy mind was completely blank, but my stomach reverted back to its state in the bamboo woods, when I’d first set eyes on him. The stunning figure of the white-robed man was enough to make my heart palpitate. I suppressed my thoughts and was met with a remarkable silence. In the corner, there was the sound of porcelain, and the heightened noise of the bird pecking at its grain grew in enthusiasm.
A light laugh rose in the air before fading as someone placed a porcelain plate on the ground. That man’s voice softened, and seemed to turn more lonely. “Look at you. You don’t learn good habits from other people, but got into the habit of being lazy and enjoying food instead…”
I really wanted to open my eyes, but had no energy. But right at this moment, a pair of hands came down to gently arrange my covers. I could only remain in my nest of a bed as I continued listening. Time seemed to have stopped, leaving nothing but the sound of the wind…
He seemed to stay at the foot of my bed for a long time, almost enough for me to forget he was there until he spoke. “Shào’er, when do you think she’ll wake up?”
I had a guess that Shào’er was the name of his bird. How could animals talk with humans? Of course, nobody answered him. Abruptly, a soft, wing- like object swept across my face, swishing until my cheeks felt numb. I couldn’t decide whether the sensation was itchy or painful.
It seemed to be the bird. Pah, it had no manners. I gave a small frown.
“Shào’er, don’t cause trouble.” There was the sound of rustling clothes, followed by footsteps. It was abruptly followed by muffled coughing above me, as if the person was trying hard to hold it in.
“Yifu, yifu wear more clothes when the weather’s cold.”
Yifu? There was actually someone raising a parrot who called him his foster father? What an eccentric. He didn’t speak, but his breath drew closer and closer to me before I felt him lifting my head. A stream of cool spring water flowed into my mouth, and I unconsciously demanded for more. Something’s not right, what’s this soft and warm feeling? What was he using to feed me? Was it…mouth to mouth?!
No way. Before I could react, he carefully laid me back onto the bed, where I lay in shock…
“Shào’er said it right. The weather’s getting colder.” he murmured to himself. I could hear him taking a seat and breathing lightly. “The weary bird longed for its nest and finally came home.” As he finished speaking, a pair of hands came to rest on my bed and properly tuck me in.
Though my eyes were closed, I couldn’t help but wonder why his words made me feel so grieved and pained. I tried hard to open my eyes, sensing him gazing at me for a long time. Then he lay by me fully dressed, almost breathing on my face. It was warm, and took a while before his breaths slowed…the sensation was itchy enough to provoke a person. His voice drew closer and closer, but he only kept repeating the same lines by my ear.
“To be able to come back…that is good…” My finger twitched and tightened around the covers. His body smelled so fragrant, not vulgar at all, but…well, in any case it was hard to describe. It smelled like fresh bamboo mixed with flowers…refreshing and cool, but also very familiar. My head lowered for another sniff, and the scent entered my lungs. A buzzing drone sounded in my brain. When the emperor was first attending to me on the bed, I’d smelled this scent as well. Whenever I was nervous, I’d only need to sniff him to relax, and have the illusion that I was safe…
My body fell slack, and I felt a bit weary. To be nestled up to him was very comfortable. I don’t know how much time passed before I fell asleep.
When I regained consciousness, I was nearly choking. A warm liquid was dripping from my mouth, but the rim of a bowl was still stuck fast to my lips. Someone supported my back, his other hand by my waist. Even with eyes closed, I knew…this position was being used by him to force feed me a medicinal mixture. A strange flavor was present in my mouth… subconsciously, I wanted to refuse. But at least he was feeding me normally this time instead of using his mouth.
“Be good,” a man’s voice spoke by my side, the soft but strong tones mixed with an indescribable sense of care and warmth. “You’ll get better if you drink this.”
His voice had the steadying effect of calming me down, and his scent smelled very nice. I felt as if I was being lulled to sleep, my whole body relaxing. He gave a light laugh and carefully set me back onto the bed, but seemed to have no intentions of leaving. I could feel his gaze resting on my face, as if finding it hard to express his feelings. It was that kind of warmth.
I suddenly felt a little helpless.
“This child is even skinnier than before,” those hands stroked my face, even the words were soft-hearted and tangled.
The medicine seemed to have taken effect, because my entire body grew warm. My scalp turned numb as the strange sensation spread throughout my body. After a bout of itchy soreness, my strength seemed to slowly revive. The different feelings in my heart made me want to open my eyes…
The person I saw in the bamboo woods had been very beautiful, his movements unhurried and his heart filled with good intentions. It was rare for him to know the medical arts as well.
More importantly…the beautiful person was touching me. I couldn’t help drawing my mouth into a line that grew longer and flatter. Suddenly, the parrot gave a cry that almost sounded like laughter, startling me.
“Yifuyifu…” Beating wings accompanied the bird’s queer voice, which was grating to the ears. “Don’t disturb her.”
The man’s hands shrank back, but his kind and gentle touch seemed to linger on my skin. I felt a little disappointed. Still, after a while, he added a serious reply, “Shào’er, you’ve disturbed her too.” As a result, things ran counter to what I wanted. That guy hadn’t said anything and had learned to be a quiet man of few words. But his bird was more meddlesome than any women of dubious character. After being rebuked, its temper grew extraordinary. Luckily, no one had taught it how to curse, so he could only rebel with his actions instead of clumsy words. Its fine little talons beat out a rhythm as it walked over my chest.
I grew fearful…
You guys were two of a kind, both noisy birds. Who could tell me why the argument between the Master and his doted favorite needed to drag me in as well? This rotten bird, it was bullying me since I couldn’t move right now, right?
…still stepping on me. I’m already flat enough there…I cry… When I was on the verge of protesting, a warm hand scooped me into an embrace.
“Shào’er, stop getting into mischief. You’ll crush her.” Surprised, I didn’t resist but happily bore with his hold. He seemed to have chased away the pet with his sleeves. The weight on my chest lightened, and I finally took a breath, but stiffened in the middle of my exhale.
That person was protecting me as if I was his young, showing me the utmost solicitude as he caressed me. His movements were accurate and certain. I did my best to ignore him, enduring to my limit. Perhaps our positions were to blame, but strands of his hair landed on my face, extremely uncomfortable and ticklish.
It was very warm inside his embrace, up to the point that I felt like crying.
A long breath followed as I stubbornly pretended to be asleep, resting my face in the front of his robes. The material wasn’t very good, and the coarse threads against my face felt uncomfortable. Speaking of which, those slippery, jade-like hands of his were even better preserved than a woman’s. Those long and slender fingers lingered on my face, stimulating me and my closed eyes. Come on, then…touch me some more, don’t be so polite. My eyes narrowed as I hummed in rapture…
Suddenly, a sharp string of pain shot up my back. I hurriedly freed the hand resting by his waist, feeling panicky and pained…and almost fell to the ground before he caught me as I rolled. Much to my surprise, my eyes abruptly flew open, and I saw the face that had made my breathing so difficult. He was elegant and mild, with long eyebrows over eyes that were hard to meet. There was an indescribable feeling when I saw his face, and the teardrop-shaped move by the corner of one eye…was alluring and enchanting.
My heart pounded as I grasped the robes before my chest, flabbergasted. I was afraid to get closer to him because I worried my heart wouldn’t be able to bear it, and explode. This made me uneasy…there were too many nameless feelings flooding through me now. What was wrong with this body? My mouth opened a few times, the voice hoarse and sandy as if on the verge of being lost. “Let…me go.”
He wrinkled his brows as he heard this, and relaxed his grip. Without him, my body suddenly slid down until my head knocked hard against the bed.
I supported my body as I rubbed my head. It really hurt.
“Serves you right serves you right,” The mung-bean eyed parrot started getting lively.
“I was saying, you should’ve woken up long already,” that beautiful man didn’t say much, but kept his mouth flat, as if he was laughing. The parrot jumped back and forth on his shoulders, flapping its wings as it pecked at its feathers, an emerald-green butt turned towards me.
I resisted the urge to pull out his feathers and lay back down, my heart filled with violent turbulence…I couldn’t even speak. I kept feeling that this doted favorite was a little superfluous. “You cultivated a strange martial arts, but your state of mind shouldn’t have changed too much,” he said lightly, sitting on the bed. His eyes were on the hand supporting my body rather than looking at me. Afterward, he sighed as if coming to a decision, grasping my hand to check my pulse. “These years you’ve weakened your body, so you’ll need to take more tonics to bolster your health.”
I looked at him, blinking in hesitation before asking a classic question.
“Why am I here and who are you?”
His smile was gentle as he gave me a deep look, face as calm as water while he replied. “I am Fang Hua.”
This young master’s name was so eminent. It really was as they say, the name matched the person…I spaced out for a while, openly admiring his handsome face. I was always happy to strike up a conversation with beautiful men. Catching his hand, I asked another question. “Was it you who captured me to this place?”
“I don’t know why you’d be here. I wanted to ask you…” he lowered his head to peer at my wolf’s claws, a little surprised, but didn’t avoid me. Instead, he gave me an elegant look, holding a smile. “I’m afraid that you might have forgotten completely about everything.” Though the words were light and his face was serene, the feeling I felt was that there were many things left unsaid.
Beautiful men were just like so.
Something surged in my chest , but I didn’t have time to consider the meaning of his words. I only gave him an enthusiastic look with my eyes.
“Rest a bit, I’ll come check on you again later.” he pulled up the covers and covered my body, but after he tucked me in…I withdrew my head to carefully peer at him. Drooping eyelashes, an astonishing dark red mole by the corner of one eye. He was clearly a handsome man, cold as the splendor of the moon but filled with an illusion that suggested someone lonely and laden with grief…
He softly shut the door from outside.
I remained dazedly pondering over the events that had just happened, hands clutched tight around the same fragrant bedcovers. My eyes narrowed as I sucked in a deep breath, sniffing a few more times before I realized something…
What did he say his name was?! AhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhFang Hua…. Stupefication.
No wonder I thought he seemed so grieved. The third-wheel mistress in his relationship had ended up right at his doorstep…why wouldn’t he be depressed? Curses! That despicable kidnapper had tossed me by his house.
Blunt! Real blunt!
It had to be the work of an arch-enemy. I probably owed them too much silver from before, so now they were humiliating me. How was I going to get along with the emperor’s male concubine?
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 Shào-er ( 少⼉) −this is a different word and pronunciation from Shao’er ( 勺 ⼉ ), which uses the second tone sháo. You can listen to shào‘er vs. sháo’er with the links. 少 means “small, little, young,” while 少⼉ together could also mean “child.” This is also different from the
pseudonym Shao’er used on Nongyu in chapter 20, which was Shào Yu (邵
The door was still swinging lightly on its hinges, but the person was gone. I remained dazed for a while before looking down and viciously pinched myself. The pain was tremendous…
There was no mistake. That Immortal-like being really existed, and his name was Fang Hua.
Now that I was more clear-headed, my first thing upon becoming alert was to feel my own body. I slipped beneath the covers and looked left and right, even opening up my robes for inspection. Tsk, my body didn’t feel pained, itchy, or sore…
Some assassin had sneak-attacked me in the palace, then did a poor job of carrying me out and jolting me all this way. Yet I didn’t even have any bruises. Did someone give me medicine already, or was I innately blessed with a sturdy body? Or perhaps the assassin had no intentions of harming me at all and took measures to protect me…
But why did he leave me outside Fang Hua’s house?
It was really weird. I stuck my head out of the covers and took a long breath. The room was very quiet, and that lousy bird had flew away as well. I stayed on the bed and straightened out my messy robes, looking around the room. There were bamboo curtains, a landscape painting on a wall, accented with straight and forceful written words that gave it a certain charm. It seems like the owner of the house had made it himself with bamboo, and the feeling against my hands was…very agreeable. The workmanship was meticulous as well.
Rubbing my eyes, I casually put on my shoes and sat on a chair, pouring myself a cup of water to drink. It was cool and refreshing spring water that carried a hint of sweetness. This cup was made from a thick bamboo tube, extremely smooth to the touch. Someone had faintly carved ‘Fang Hua’ into the surface, and my lips puckered at the sight. Resting my head on my hands, I stuck my legs up in the air and dangled in my chair, eyes spinning.
Everything here was good, but it lacked food.
This Fang Hua, an Immortal-like man who looked as beautiful as a flower, wasn’t planning to starve me, right?
I pouted, hands over my empty stomach as I shifted to the door and pulled it open with both hands. Glittering sunlight shone down in its radiance to saturate my entire body. It was extremely warm and bright enough to make it difficult to open my eyes. Soft rustling accompanied a sudden burst of cool wind.
It carried with it the sound of a child’s voice.
I shook my head to clear my eyes, but the walkway before me was empty. Still, I hadn’t walked more than a few steps before my feet started to pivot, and my head grew dizzy. I supported myself with the wall to try and invigorate myself, eyes narrowing as a few figures appeared on the walkway and grew clearer.
A preteen youth had two cooked eggs stuffed in his shirt, rubbing his hands as he blew on them. “Come help take these off me.”
The other walked leisurely in front of him, not even bothering to look back. “How come?”
“Because I cooked the eggs, started the fire, and hid the evidence from your yifu. You want to eat them just like this?” “Of course not,” the thinner and more emaciated of the two stopped, pausing before speaking valiantly. “You have to peel the skin off for me before I eat it.”
“Y…y-you, don’t be too over the top.” the egg-holder was angry enough to rush up, his face delicate and pretty, exactly like a younger copy of the current emperor.
“You cooked the stolen eggs and lit the fire, so the blame is still on you…” the other gave him a habitually leisurely glance, a toothy smile lighting up that filthy, dark face.
“I’ll peel it, I’ll peel it. Isn’t that enough?” the little emperor was completely dejected. When he got no reaction from pulling the other’s sleeve, he set his heart and stomped the ground. “At the worst, I’ll give them both to you.”
“Peel,” the infuriating voice drifted over.
The other obediently lowered his head and peeled as told. One ate the eggs in satisfaction while the other wore a long face, but a smile tugged at his lips as if he took pleasure in it.
I gave a snort, feeling as if I’d seen this familiar scene somewhere before. Yet in the space of a blink, the air around me flashed, and the two youths disappeared from the walkway. My mind suddenly buzzed, and I hastily walked to where they’d been before. When I looked down, there wasn’t even the trace of eggshells from before.
Did I started hallucinating from hunger?
The wind blew gently, rustling the bamboo forest. I wandered about in a circle before raising a fist to pound my head. How evil. Looks like I was really starving to the limit. Now the most pressing matter was to fill my stomach.
I sucked in a breath, slowing turning around to look at the different rooms. I remained still for a while before intuition had me pushing open a certain door and peeking inside. Hey, what do you know…I guessed right.
I’m crying, crying tears of joy.
Slipping into the kitchen, I lifted the lid of a cooking pot to reveal… nothing. My hand felt inside. Not only was there no oil, but even a layer of dust had settled on my hands. My eyebrows quivered, and I squatted down to take a look.
Great, there wasn’t even a fire for the stove.
Cruelty even extended this far… That Immortal-like man, was he really planning to starve me to death? I’d always been a person who loved to eat, and I ate a lot. In the palace, I’d never had to suffer this way. If I had a choice of dying, I’d never choose to starve to death.
Time was pressing as I searched the entire room for food, even opening up the cabinets in my hunt. Besides two or three broken bowls with missing pieces, there was nothing inside. What did Fang Hua usually eat? Tears…
My footsteps kept walking until I paused to look around suspiciously. Raising my head, my nose sniffed the air until it caught the miraculous scent of something delicious. Holding back my drool, I couldn’t help but involuntarily follow the scent, turning left around a corner before I bumped into a tall figure standing before a building.
He seemed to have been waiting for me, and caught me as we bumped. This time, I lifted my head to give him a smile that wasn’t quite a smile, a chill creeping up my back as my scalp turned numb.
This man’s face was enough to bring calamity to the country and its people with his beauty. Add that to the mole by his eye and he was even more seductive. If he didn’t smile, he was like an Immortal, but one smile could cause more evil than an evildoer.
“Have you seen enough?” One of his hands held my waist in an embrace as his eyebrows raised slightly, before he lowered his head to muffle another cough. …that expression, what was he embarrassed about?
I opened my eyes wide to blatantly stare at him before realizing our current situation was inappropriate. Slowly, I cupped my hands in a greeting. “Just now I’ve offended you.” I backed away quite a few steps, but couldn’t help shooting him a glance again.
He gave a start before his eyes curved into crescents. Both eyes and eyebrows seemed to suggest he was smiling.
Only after I backed away did my mind clear up. The one who’d held me in the arms and madly ate tofu behind my back, why was I…
Fang Hua lowered his head to smile and caught me in place. Time seemed to stop. He didn’t speak, nor did I have anything to say. I gave him a dull look, but it wasn’t until my line of sight drifted down that I noticed something in his hand…a bowl resting in his palm.
To tell you the truth, his looks were more outstanding than mine. His upper robes were violet and very elegant. Even if he was holding a paltry bowl, a beautiful person would always have the grace of a beautiful person. The hand holding the bowl had long, tapered fingers like uncut jade that looked even fairer and more clear against the porcelain.
I raised my head and sniffed. What was he holding in his hand?
Fang Hua looked at me with a smile, body shifting to leave open a space. Conveniently enough, it gave me unimpeded vision to a table in an inner room filled with warm dishes and white rice. My grateful amazement came from being unexpectedly rescued from a desperate situation. After that flash of joy, reason came in to hold back my impulses, and I gave him a doubtful look before shrinking back like a defensive hedgehog.
It was very simple… This person held a strange attitude towards me. He didn’t treat me coldly, or frown and scowl while singularly facing his rival in love. Instead, he was kind and genial. This room was even stranger. At times, unreal images would spring from within, and my eyes rested on that steaming hot bowl after I couldn’t take it anymore…
I swallowed. So fragrant…it whetted my appetite even more than the imperial kitchens, but there was no promise he didn’t add something inside.
You should be guarded in the outside world.
“I haven’t cooked in a while, so I don’t know if it’s to your tastes,” he said simply, rolling back his sleeves to offer me the bowl in his hand. I had no way to retreat, but fell on my butt on the threshold of the door, the pain jarring. A smile split his features, making me even more nervous.
Even the curve of his lips was strange.
“You’re always muddle-headed like this.” He supported me to my feet, helping me lean against the door while bending down to wipe away the dust that had settled onto my person. My eyebrows arched up high.
W…w-what was he doing, I’m afraid…
He hadn’t tied up his hair, and the strands fell like a waterfall across his shoulders. A few threads of sunlight broke through the windows to shone on him. They actually favored such a cold and cheerless person. Flustered, I shifted my eyes until they rested on the food at the table.
If I remembered correctly, when I snuck into the kitchen the pots and bowls were all covered in dust. That state of affairs was so wretched that I didn’t have the heart to look anymore. The cold stove didn’t seem to have a fire in it before, or any signs of being used to cook things. Then…where did these dishes come from?
Was it possible that this man knew sorcery?! “What’s wrong? Your face is so pale, do you feel unwell somewhere?” He showed such care towards me. When he raised his hand, he didn’t forget how he’d dusted me off with his sleeves, and touched the bowl again.
It gave me a chill…
“Did you cook all these personally in the kitchens?” “Exactly so.”
I raised my head, peering at his benevolent expression, the smile like someone preparing to help the needy and deliver all creatures from torment. I thought it was very suspicious. Was this person here to give me an upset stomach with his food sorcery, or trying to poison me with secret pills?
Someone who was unaccountably solicitous usually hid evil intentions.
As a result, I circled around him to assess and appraise him anew. I wasn’t close with him and upon investigation into the past…Little Li said I’d always served close by his side. While he was in the Cold Palace, I’d stolen away the emperor and caused a bit of drama before dumping him and slipping away. No one had ever made any inquiries despite his long stay in the Cold Palace. More or less, I was probably to blame.
He ought to despise me, but now he stood before me with chopsticks and bowl in hand, seemingly at a loss. I decide to wait and see. This Lord Hua, ever since I woke up…he’d acted unnaturally odd. As for the food he’d cooked personally…should or shouldn’t I eat it?
Kindness deserved a serious investigation.
Actually, I had a personality that like gentleness and feared severity. To put it in vulgar terms, I was base and cheap. When I wasn’t hungry, or when I was hungry but afraid to eat, these two types of people had two completely different ways of dealing with me.
If it was the emperor, he’d pretend not to hear all my rejections and feed me from the bowl. The more I refused, the happier he’d be to feed me. Afterward, he’d hold me in his arms and stroke here and there until I was free from worries and only half as angry. This was akin to hitting me with an impressive stick first, then making a show of conciliation to bring things under control, very similar to how he’d wrangle control with his vassals.
But the Fang Hua before me was much softer. He’d set the bowl of rice aside and sat down to look at me before walking off. Somehow he returned with a big bowl of braised meat, feeling greatly pleased as he held it towards me. When I didn’t take it, he turned back to wash the chopsticks with boiling water before silently setting everything before me.
I gave it a look. It smelled completely delicious, and was even meat… No matter how I tried to contain myself, it was hard to fight my appetite.
Immediately, I went into a rapture and stopped worrying about too many things. Like a self-important elder, I rolled up my sleeves and impatiently picked up a mouthful. Before I stuffed it into my mouth, the last thread of rational thought woke me up. I raised my eyebrows and peered at him, before putting my piece in his plate.
…remained leaning over from there, concentrated on looking at me. I motioned him to eat it.
He remained as before.
I say…if he didn’t eat it, how could I dare to?
Thus, I set down the chopsticks and copied the emperor, waving my hand indifferently like telling Little Li to take the food away. This wasn’t the palace, so of course there was no Little Li. Neither could I pretend to be indifferent because I really was very hungry.
As a result, Fang Hua was stupefied. I felt dejected. After a long while, I huddled up on the chair and hugged my legs while he stared at me and I stared at the rich, oily meat. Purify one’s heart and reduce the desires. Protect against desire, protect against desire…
He seemed extremely unconvinced as he glanced at me. “Not eating?”
I shook my head.
He gave a doubtful interjection before standing up wordlessly, not giving me a glance before carrying away the meat and dumping it into the bamboo forest. I could only look dully towards his back.
While I was hanging my head to fantasize about creating more red braised pork, Fang Hua turned back from the forest and carefully withdrew an oil-paper package wrapped around a savory baked sweet potato.
After handing it over, he created some distance between us, lying on a chair as he rested a chin on his arms with a smile and raised eyebrows. This expression would become one of my favorites in the future, but to a person with no memories, it was only extremely horrifying.
Thus, I carefully pinched off a piece of sweet potato and held it by his mouth. His brows pressed until they were almost touching, expression intent of fearfully avoiding the morsel. I think anyone who saw his reaction would fear whatever food he offered…
As a result, I stayed hungry for an entire day despite the sight of food.
What’s the concept of starving for an entire day? It was using a large ladle of cold well water to fill the burning pain in your stomach until it stopped hurting. Even walking felt more like floating, and the inside of the stomach sloshed with water.
Meanwhile, Fang Hua had disappeared to who-knows-where. I felt my stomach as I wobbled to the outhouse. After squatting down…I couldn’t get back up. This feeling was familiar: sore thighs, sharp pain in the stomach. My brows furrowed as I glanced down. Then my hand felt there, and great… A handful of blood.
I stared before looking towards my trouser pocket, hey… Who helped me put a layer of cloth there?
There was no one else in this house but me, Fang Hua, and a lousy bird. He really had the heart of a Bodhisattva who found pleasure in helping others.
…looks like he’d seen through me.
I dizzily lifted my pants, head lowered as I used the door to support me and walk out. After figuring out what was the matter, my body felt a lot better. A glance around revealed no water in sight, so I could only wipe my hand on my robes before accidentally spotting a stunned Fang Hua looking at me from below a tree.
I instantly grew vigilant, body straightening like a ramrod as my legs clamped together. With these excellent guarding preparations, I finally propped my hand against the tree and played the part of a profound thinker, eyebrows knitted. “Do you need anything?”
I lifted my eyes to look. He seemed constrained and took a while before fishing out a proper cloth pad from behind his back, fingers shaking as he held it in his hands. I gave a careless look and said simply, “What’s this thing?”
“I guessed that you’d need this, so I prepared it for you.”
I nodded and he happily handed it over, but I didn’t take it. Instead, I casually took his robes to wipe my hands. He shook, but endured it without avoiding me… Heaven knew what he was thinking, chances are he probably wanted to castrate me. My blood had dirtied his violet robes, yet he still looked at me with the same sincere expression as before. I gave him a frank look in return, not speaking.
The base of his ears slowly grew red as he spoke. “I made a record that it’d come today, but I didn’t expect to pick you up from my doorstep, or that you’d even return…so I didn’t have time to prepare anything.”
That’s right, my period had come.
But how would he know? Not to mention, this record of his had other miscellaneous things, he sure had free time…wait, it couldn’t have been that while I was in the palace…sweats, this previous Master of mine sure was intimate, he even took the trouble to track little things like this for his servants.
“I learned how to tie these things so they won’t fall off, I can help you.”
I pushed away his hands. “No need.”
Seeing his desolate expression, my heart felt a little strange, so I added another line. “Much thanks.”
He didn’t speak, and I walked off. I didn’t stop until I was far away, but couldn’t stop from looking behind me. A long way off, his form stood slim and graceful beneath the tree. The expression on his face…
How to say it, it was indescribable. More miserable than simple loneliness, and somewhat out of sorts. Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
I’d never seen anyone with an expression like that. For a moment I was alarmed, clutching my chest as I gently sucked in a breath. All I wanted to do was to leave him quickly, the farther the better…but the yearning gaze in his eyes was like a curse before my gaze. Though the distance between us was large, I could still faintly discern his words as they drifted towards my ears.
【 I can’t get back the life from those first days. I’ve already missed my opportunity. Why is it that even now, I’m never given a chance? 】
I stared blankly before raising my hands to cover my ears. What was the matter, was I so hungry that I was hearing things now? Flabbergasted, I looked at him. He was clearly a long way off, and his lips hadn’t even moved, but his voice had clearly sounded next to my ears, heartbroken and depressing…
The grief in my heart was followed by a numbness in my limbs that filled the air. The scene before me seemed to shift, and I closed my eyes. When I opened them again, another wave of dizziness hit me. My body couldn’t hold out and my legs gave way before me. I fell to the ground, hand trying to reach for something but finding nothing to hold onto. Haziness filled my vision as I saw his panicked yet helpless expression.
Very good, even a cold and cheerless person like him had moments of unrest within his heart, very good…
As it turned out, the feeling of hunger could cause a person to faint.
Before my eyes, everything grew dark. —
A fragrant aroma greeted me as I regained consciousness. It was already evening in the skies as I lay on the bed feeling nothing but hunger. My whole body was curled up, lightly sniffing the aromatic bedcovers. Already at my limits, I lifted up the fabric and started chewing.
The door to the room suddenly opened as Fang Hua helplessly appeared by my side, holding a bowl as he looked at me. His face carried an exhausted melancholy that had pervaded his mind and body. Looking as cold as snow, he crouched by my side as if begging, a hand extending a spoon my way.
I blanked out, a corner of the covers still in my mouth.
He seemed stunned as well, but didn’t laugh, only quietly tugged the object out of my mouth. A hand smoothed out the fabric, still damp with my saliva, the fingers slim and pretty. But nothing could smooth out the worried cramping of his brows…
“Foolish, how could you be afraid of eating the things I’ve made? Are you worried I added things inside? How could I poison you?” He picked up the spoon again and got a bit of rice. Seeing I had no response, he grew troubled. Head lowered, he gently blew across the spoon, complexion paler but still wearing a smile. “Be good…eat a little.”
I stared blankly at him.
“If you won’t eat, I can make other things,” he said in disappointment. But I grabbed him in response, hand knocking against the bowl of rice. It smelled delicious…
Atop the white rice grains lay an entire fish, its body covered in a dense and creamy sauce. The meat and blood had been cooked until tender and soft, and small bits of scallion were scattered on top.
There was clearly tasty meat here, so why did he first scoop a spoonful of rice? Also, what kind of person ate fish with a spoon? My heart had softened long before, but I still wanted to nitpick. I gave a slow push, one hand rubbing the knee of his robes as I glanced at his bowl with a soft reply. “The dishes from the imperial palace are much tastier.”
I hmphed through my nose, unwillingly seizing the bowl from his hands before wolfing the contents down.
He smiled. Embarrassed, I
As a result, he did as asked and sucked on a few mouthfuls. I picked up some more, and he ate as before in silence. But those elegant brows slowly wrinkled, and that face grew deathly pale. Rising to his feet, he covered his face with his sleeves before running outdoors and throwing up.
Shocked, I turned over my stained and oily hands, not sure whether or not I should wipe them. He actually turned back and gave me a serene smile, saying weakly, “Please don’t mind me, I’m just not used to or enjoy eating such strong foods. There’s definitely no poison…urk…”
Facing this, I was speechless.
I lowered my head to study the fish. It was full of thorns and looked rather ugly, but the taste was fresh and tender…with food here, I didn’t have to drink well water anymore…it really was a joyous occasion. While I was settling into my happiness, Fang Hua was experiencing exceptional sorrow.
This was how the day passed. Fang Hua didn’t ask about my name or my origins, or why I’d be in front of his house, as if I’d fallen prey to a plot. He seemed completely indifferent yet well acquainted with everything about me, taking the trouble to try hard and look after me. This feeling was very bizarre. At morning the next day, I carried a bamboo rocking chair to the walkway and sat down with my hands behind my head, eyes closed, enjoying the wind as it rustled past bamboo leaves, carefree and relaxed.
Perhaps it was because my eyes were shut so all I could see was darkness, but my hearing was unusually sharp. There was a melody floating within this breeze…that qin sound was melodious as water-splashed jade, particularly pleasant to the ear like sounds of nature.
It was also very familiar…
Lying on the deck chair, head pillowed on my hands, I listened closely with my eyes shut for a while with my finger tapping out a rhythm…before I couldn’t resisting humming along. It seemed as if every beat and tone in this song had been carved deeply into my heart, like it used to be a part of myself.
My eyes flew open, pupils crystal clear as I went to search for the song…
Yet suddenly, I sensed someone staring at my back with rapt attention. Alarmed, I turned around. The wind kept blowing through the sea of bamboo, their leaves caught in a prolonged heave and surge. Vaguely, I could see a small pavilion within the forest. A pale violet silhouette was sitting upright, wearing long robes with wide sleeves as he played the qin.
The first rays of the morning sun shed their radiance in torrents upon the earth…his body seemed covered with a layer of golden light, fingers alit with a gentle light.
What a scene.
I lifted my robes and bent forwards to run over, pushing aside the irksome bamboo to spy on him. His head was lowered as he played with single-hearted devotion, a small pot heating slowly by his side. Slow trails of light smoke, infused with the faint scent of medicine, floated up into the air. Those calm and collected features coupled with those smiling eyes to join an upturned mouth as he waved a hand. Abruptly, the music changed. Though the melody remained the same, the key was a bit odd. My eyebrows minutely furrowed, caught in a moment of stupefaction as I gathered my robes and sleeves to stare at Fang Hua playing theqin. I took a step forward and bent over to press his hands in place.
He smiled at me as if he long anticipated that I’d come, gracefully stilling his fingers before making a gesture of invitation. “Then, please grant me your instruction.”
I wasn’t polite at all, but sat down to sit next to Fang Hua, raising my eyebrows at him. Stretching out my arms, I dangled my sleeves a few times to expose my hands, bowing my head to assume a yielding manner before imposingly resting my fingers over the strings.
Eh, how do I play this?
Squinting slightly, I tried to remember.
My fingers suddenly turned nimble as they began to move. The parrot on his shoulder gave me a look full of curiosity before hurriedly leaving him for a corner, eyes whirling as he stared at me.
I pretended not to notice.
He looked at me very quietly, loose hair drifting lightly by his jacket. A few fragrant strands floated to my cheek…an indescribable aroma that was identical to the one from his body, like the scent of flowers mixed with bamboo, as well as the faint smell of medicine.
I couldn’t help but lose my concentration. Yet even though I was thinking of something else with my thoughts floating in the wind, my fingers never stopped plucking at the strings. The melody flowed out like spring water, jubilant and cheerful, but the music was laden with grief. What was going on? There was too much I didn’t understand about the memories of this body. The more I played this song, the more I hurt…
Lowering my voice to suppress my unease, I lightly replied, “I think it should be played this way.”
“Is that so.” He smiled, eyes soft and gentle. He’d gotten very close to me…no, it should be that I’d unconsciously drew closer to him until my breaths were against his hair. My heart was pounding as I peered at him. His gaze seemed to look at me with profound meaning. I followed it to examine myself, where I’d pressed against his waist to take advantage of the qin.
Heart thumping wildly, I quickly withdrew my hands, saying in a low voice, “I’m sorry, I’ve been excessive.”
He only smiled without speaking and scooted over.
Panicked, I quickly stood up but didn’t get my bearings. My body fell backwards onto something soft as he held me and drew closer. Assuming the posture of plucking a string, he spoke a string of words that sounded like streaming water by my ear. “I learned this song by ear. Then, I happened to meet you by accident…I just wanted to change the heavy sorrow that used to be part of this melody.”
I looked at him, astonished and unconvinced. “Who wrote this song?”
He touched the qin, looking a bit lonely. “There was a person named Zang, styled Hua, who used to play this song every time he appeared in the jianghu. I’ve only heard it once before.”
He looked at me and laughed, but didn’t answer. Only a fingertip hooked around a string as he raised his hand, playing with a lonely expression.
“I ask the world how many sorrows it held
A single evening brought autumn to the 8,000 year jade Why not wander instead to distant lands Reckless and unbridled in the jianghu Until this life ends?
The idler drinks a flask of wine alone Leaving behind vast sorrows and joys.”
He slowly looked at me and spoke the last two lines very quietly, almost too softly to hear.
“…youth is free, but spring is hard to find.”
The medicine must have finished boiling by now, because the steam had rose to rattle the cover, momentarily breaking my concentration. I stared at his face as his words passed by my ears like wind. I wasn’t sure why, but my gaze kept drifting to the mole by the corner of his eye. Right now, my heart was aching, and I softened with the wish to reach over and…stroke it.
Was it imagination, or did the color of this teardrop mole look darker than yesterday?
Suddenly, the parrot on the side began to make a racket. “Hothothothot.”
I quickly retracted my rebellious hand, supporting my hands against the table as I looked over. Green Feathers was currently flapping and flying above the lid of the medicine pot, comical and cute. I couldn’t help but laugh, looking up to see Fang Hua’s gentle gaze before hastily avoiding his eyes. My hands randomly reached for the qin as I thought of something to say.
“Youth is free, but spring is hard to find…these lyrics are very particular.”
“Do you like the changes I made?” I gave him a flabbergasted look, but still he smiled wordlessly, and the expression in his eyes was something I didn’t understand. For a while, neither of us spoke. It was very quiet in the pavilion.
A helpless laugh suddenly burst out from beside me. Fang Hua poured himself a cup of tea, staring at it as he drank. It was a long time before he asked, “Have you lived well these past years?”
I blinked, looking around before realizing he was directing the question to me. Did a mistress deserve to be asked whether she was living well?! This guy, what was he thinking…
He raised his head to look at me, eyes clear yet hard to fathom. I could only say docilely, “I went through a major illness and forget everything from before my life in the palace.”
“I know this, but did Zichuan bully you in those days?”
He could actually use the emperor’s taboo name.
I had difficulty pulling my face into a forced smile. “His majesty was very considerate of my needs and didn’t put on any airs. Everything I ate and used were all good things…” I surveyed our surroundings, raising a finger to emphasize my point. “Everyday, I used pillows of cloud-pattern brocade and slept on a soft bed. There were delicacies and fine food that I didn’t even know the names of, and a carriage was always on call outside the grand hall.”
He gave a dim smile. “Is that so.”
“Of course! Didn’t Lord Hua come from there too? You should naturally know how good the palace is.”
Against his tenacious brow, those delicate eyebrows knitted together in an expression that caused the viewer distress. His reply was light and petulant. “My impression was of empty rooms, hard chairs, and cold tea. The conversations were superficial and the servants chilly-faced. I thought this place would be better than the palace, but I didn’t expect him to treat you so well.”
He must be talking about the Cold Palace…
Such an unearthly, scholarly air on such an Immortal-like figure, but why had he ended up in the Cold Palace? And the emperor could bear to let him suffer like so? He looked at me, eyes filled with something I didn’t understand…
I seized up as I realized everything was caused by me.
“You’re very close with him, aren’t you? Do you like him?” he asked, voice clear and bright. Unexpectedly, I felt as if I was dreaming, everything was so unreal.
I thought about the night I’d served the emperor in bed, and my face turned red. Though I looked away hastily, I somehow caught a glance of Fang Hua’s hand tightly gripping his robes, his fingers completely white. I gave an astonished look towards his face. His expression was very calm. He only looked at me gently, as if he very much wanted to know.
“I don’t know…whether or not I like him. But the emperor really does treat me well. He knows my preferences and favorite foods, and always dotes on me.”
“Is that so…”
The wind rustled past the bamboo leaves. Fang Hua looked to be emotionally moved.
I slowly continued. “He’s an excellent ruler and a good husband.” After the breeze passed, a few strands of hair ended up on my face, covering up my expression as I lowered my eyes for a smile. As before, I spoke without any regard to Fang Hua’s feelings. “After you left, his Majesty didn’t take in any imperial concubines. Today is the ninth day of the tenth month, does Lord Hua know what day it is?” There was only silence and the sound of the wind. The bamboo grove had lost itself to a wild and never-ending dance.
“What day is it today…” Within his smooth tone, there was a barely perceptible shift in his mood.
“Originally, it was going to be the ceremony for conferring my title, if I hadn’t been snatched out of the palace beforehand.”
I propped myself on my hands, turning slowly to look at him. Though it was only a glimpse, my heart abruptly started pounding in shock. I couldn’t move my gaze away. Somehow, sometime, he’d stood up, the wind whipping past his thin violet robes. A cold, mournful smile and an anxious, sorrowful expression rested on his brows. Those eyes were like cold moonlight, desolate and sad as they looked out into the distance.
“It really is unfair, having you here by my side to suffer,” he said helplessly, his steady voice carrying an echo of disorder within, as if he was trying hard to suppress something. “I think if Zichuan knew you were missing, he’d definitely come look for you.”
I was at a loss for words. Actually, I just wanted to try him, but he really was sad. What was the past between Fang Hua and Zichuan? Why was it that whenever I saw his expression, I’d end up like this…
Feelings surged in my heart, pain rushing from its depths. I made a supreme effort to prop myself against the table, but lost my strength to stand, kneeling instead. My nose lingered on the dense smell of medicinal plants as my hand quietly pressed on the front of my robes, against my chest.
It really hurt…
The faint pain in my heart had grown increasingly intense, as if trying to steal my breath away. I wrinkled my brows, extremely uneasy. I forced myself to endure the churning qi and the sharp pain that accompanied it, hearing the sound of wind and footsteps with my ears. Abruptly, a pair of hands came to support me. I could feel someone pulling my up and raised my head to see Fang Hua’s eyes, as clear as autumn waters. His gaze was focused, and a hand reached out to take my pulse. I gave a start, feeling his warmth by my hand. But as soon as I remembered the rumors of the palace…
I hastily pushed him away. “It’s fine, I’m okay.”
His body looked extremely delicate, and I nearly pushed him into the medicine pot and its decoction. I didn’t anticipate this and gave an embarrassed arm to help him up. Yet he only turned away, resuming his normal expression, albeit with a hint of chilliness. I quickly withdrew my hand.
“You…” he held onto to a chair as he sat down, both helpless and a little angry. “You’re still like those days in the palace, always picking the perfect time to ask me infuriating questions.”
When he looked at me like that, my wits suddenly returned. This was bad, I’d provoked him on his turf. The palace rumors said he was highly skilled in the medical arts and had somehow even caused the death of the previous emperor. It was because of this that he was chased to the Cold Palace…would I, too…
I lowered my head and felt my neck, shivering with fear.
He didn’t speak, but poured another cup of tea, that pitch-black hair following his movements to cascade down his shoulders. Even a lifetime wouldn’t be enough to divulge his mood at that moment, his hands slightly shaking. The water flowed to a trickle, the cup full. He spoke after a while of silence.
“Maybe you’ve forgotten. At that time, you were extremely unruly, changing your looks to become a young male servant at my side. You hovered about me doing this and that and I always had to deal with the aftermath.”
Ah…really? I scratched my head. “But why do I miss those days?” Distraught, a faint hint of grief was on his features as he smiled, a very gratified smile.
It stirred the heartstrings.
“Lord Hua,” I knitted my brows, hands on the table as I deliberated my questions. “Were we master and servant? What exactly happened back then?”
Why would I leave the court? How did he quietly slip out of the Cold Palace, and why didn’t the emperor look for imperial concubines for five years…? That night, what happened between them?
He looked at me, holding my hand with a soft smile. “Forget about it, it’s fine as long as you’ve lived well.” Those last words ended with a sigh that dissolved into the air, leaving an agreeable aftertaste as he pondered. “What’s past is past, why bother remembering?”
I looked at him face-on, expressionless.
What was this? Why did I feel like crying when I saw his tranquil, simple expression? Why did I feel unwilling to resign myself to his words? He spoke no more, lightly massaging my hands in his palms with a smile on his lips. He lowered his face to peer at me. “…it’s very cold.”
I already thought it was a bit chilly. Without daring to look at him, I quickly withdrew my hand and squatted down by the medicine pot, borrowing the warmth of its fire as the scent of medicine filled my nostrils. I was befuddled as I asked him, “Is this the medicine you usually drink?”
It was almost completely boiled dry. A glance inside showed me a small black object.
“Don’t touch, I’ll do it.” He hurriedly rose with support from the table, walking to the medicine pot and squatting down. There was a bowl in his hands, which he used to pour in some brown water. I felt it was unnecessary, but hastily stepped aside, looking at his back, bewildered. Seeing him stooping on the ground like that, I felt my heart suddenly ache. A beautiful person like this shouldn’t do such things… His back looked very lonely.
I couldn’t help, so I circled him a few times before sitting down again. I peeled a few nuts and tossed them at the parrot to peck, but my thoughts weren’t there at all. A slow glance saw him using his sleeve to hold a small bowl as he walked over. His expression was peaceful, though his steps were a bit fast. The hot bowl of steaming brown water was placed before me before he swiftly withdrew his hands.
I squinted at him, but his face was expressionless. His looks were outstanding as he folded his hands behind his back, a chilly voice saying indifferently, “This is medicine for you to drink.”
I wasn’t sick, so why did I need to take medicine? He raised his eyebrows, but kept his good temper.
“You must have lingering feelings for the emperor,” I said, my words sudden and astonishing.
He didn’t react.
I smiled until I felt I was overflowing with panic.
If it wasn’t for this relationship and its ambiguous connections, why would anyone entrap me…and toss me on his doorstep? I bet he was a formidable person. Now that he was in this awkward position, he could still take such good care of the emperor’s imperial concubine. If that wasn’t kindness from the bottom of the heart, it had to be some kind of trick.
There was nothing wrong, yet he wanted me to take medicine.
Seeing that I wasn’t moving, he opened his lips slightly. “Your internal energy…”
“Not drinking.” I turned my face away. “As you wish. I have no ability to interfere,” he turned and called out gently, “Shào‘er, let’s go.”
“Yifuyifu…wait for me…yifu…” the parrot flapped its wings as it landed on his shoulders. He gave a beautiful smile as he ignored me, extending a hand to copy my way of teasing the parrot as he left…
I stood stunned. For a second, I’d misheard his Shào‘er as Shao’er. Leaning against the pavilion, I looked in his direction. Within the depths of the bamboo forest, a smear of violet moved spryly in the breeze. I could faintly see him swiftly move the hand at his side to his front, head lowered as he desperately blew at the air.
I suddenly thought it was bizarre, raising my head to study his silhouette as my hand groped for that bowl of medicine. One touch…and I withdrew again. Curses, it wasn’t just hot, but beyond scalding. No wonder he’d walked so fast.
My lips drew into a smile.
This person appeared to be calm and unperturbed, but it was all just an act. For whom did he go to such lengths to preserve his image…? I breathed lightly as I saw his form disappear into the forest, leaving only me in the pavilion. Staring at that bowl of steaming brown water, my eyebrows furrowed and I gave an experimental sniff. It was very fragrant…
It smelled like medicinal plants, but was still strange, as if he’d added lots of things I didn’t know…how queer, this bowl of stuff had no medicine I was familiar with, and the liquid was a limpid, amber-hued brown…I sloshed it around and found no dregs of medicine inside.
What did he give me to eat? Just then, he’d mentioned internal energy? I didn’t cultivate. Even if I did, that was a thing of the past, so what if I recovered it? I hadn’t offended anyone at court, yet I still met with misfortune. There were always people thinking of ways to harm me. As for him…there were too many thoughts that I couldn’t penetrate. Compared to the possibility of being killed, there was the groundless possibility of regaining martial arts skills. I tilted my head, staring at the bowl. My hand brushed against the qin on the table with flowing fingers… drawing across the strings to hear its crisp notes. Extending my hand, I held the bowl of medicine..and dumped it onto the bamboo.
I’d rather not drink unfamiliar things. This was a basic survival principle. The emperor had taught me from the start but unfortunately, I hadn’t taken it to heart.
Right now, the only person I could depend on was myself.
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 youth is free, but spring is hard to find (芳华尽放，韶华难求) − fanghua jinfang, shaohua nanqiu, another hidden meaning, Fang Hua = “youth”, Shao Hua = “glorious springtime”. When the song is sung with these words in mind, outsiders won’t assume these are people’s names, not simple nouns.
 taboo name ( 名讳) −minghui, it was forbidden to speak, write, or give the names of exalted persons in ancient China.
The morning of a certain day.
I was lying in my room, limbs spread out before turning over to rub against the bamboo pillow, feeling pretty comfortable.
Suddenly, something pushed against the door from outside. The door caught on its bolt and refused to open. I gave a start as my ears rose to listen. From the space between door and doorframe I could hear the sound of rustling clothing. That person stood quietly outside for a bit, seemingly fixing their belt, before a soft and tired voice called out, “Is the one inside awake?”
“Not awake,” I covered my head and replied.
He sounded like he was smiling. “The food’s been left by the door.” Afterwards he hesitated, as if speaking to himself. “Someone not awake can still reply so smoothly, now that’s strange.”
Are you complaining?
“About that…” he wanted to say, but stopped. There was only the sound of his footsteps by the door.
It was pestering me beyond endurance.
I knitted my brows, straightening up as I rubbed my eyes. “Hurry up if you’ve got something to say…” I didn’t hear the anticipated reply, but a light cough, sudden and unexpected in the deserted courtyard. It seemed he’d already walked far away… This person was so weird.
I struggled inwardly before dropping my shoulders to lift aside the bedcovers. My eyelashes drooped while my eyes opened, and I lowered my head to grope beneath the bed for my shoes. After putting them on, I opened the door and was hit with a blast of air that made me shiver. My eyes were as sleepy as slits as I squatted dazedly by the door. I was too lazy to even look for my food, choosing instead to grope around until I my fingers felt a plate. Then I carried it into my room and placed it on the table.
I yawned and went back beneath the covers before falling asleep.
Afterwards, I felt something was off. My ears were pressed against the pillow, but there was a fine noise being carried my way. My eyebrows furrowed as I tried to figure it out. It sounded like someone happily pecking at grain. My head turned and I clutched my pillow to look…
As I waited for my blurry vision to clear, I saw a green parrot perched gingerly on the side of a bowl atop the wooden table, burying his head to a merry feast.
This lousy bird, how did it get into my room? Wait, let me think. When Fang Hua delivered breakfast this morning, I carried it inside as usual before sleeping. Could it be…
I rubbed my face with the covers, getting rid of crust from my eyes to sit up and stick my neck over. Huh…looks like I really did forget to close the door. Fang Hua was a good person but too hardworking. He was more timely than the wet nurses at the palace. Before daybreak, he’d finish preparing the food regardless of whether other people or animals were still sleeping. That should be amended.
I yawned again, giving a big lazy stretch. Then I draped my robes over myself and took a look. The food on the table was still warm…there were thick slices of red braised pork, slick with oil, and a small bowl of diced chicken with corn. A single parrot feather floated atop a large bowl of soup.
That little fellow stretched his wings with his back to me, blocking my view completely as he buried his head in the food.
Wait a second…
Was this bird food? It was obvious that it wasn’t. Then whose was it eating…acting so shifty-eyed like that.
I tightened the belt around my waist, body swaying as I sat by the table to grab a pair of chopsticks. A single hand wave was enough to brush him onto the table. “Get lo
The parrot seemed stunned, then utterly discomfited.
I ignored him, lifting the bowl of red braised pork and stuffing it into my mouth…
It stretched out its wings, perching on the bowl of soup as it swooped at me, scattering feathers everywhere as it cried shrilly, “Hooligan.”
I sucked up the last traces of oil before shooting him a glance and saying simply, “I am.”
It seemed to be a sharp and clever animal who understood me, because it suddenly turned sullen. Those small mung-bean eyes gave a devious glance at the kernels of corn in the diced chicken bowl.
Oi, this was a new dish that I hadn’t tried before. I moved aside my sleeves and placed a hand on my waist, grinning as I lifted the dish towards me. The parrot grew indignant as it stuck a claw out to step on the edge of the bowl.
“You want to eat?” It didn’t reply.
“This is…diced chicken!” I picked a piece up with my chopsticks, holding it in front of him. “Thousands of years ago, you two were the same kind, but you’re still so greedy. If you really want to eat it, it’s just a domestic animal. Take it and go far.”
It rose up, so angry that its feathers were standing on end. I silently ignored him and wiped my mouth with my robes,curses, to fall so low that I was fighting over food with livestock…thinking back, the palace had everything…tears…
For the sake of a single bowl, we glared at each other. I sighed with feeling as I finished, calmly continuing to finish up the table before me like an autumn wind sweeping everything before it. A head animal was still an animal, and no match for a human, much less a high-quality hooligan like me. Under its hostile gaze, I lifted my eyebrows, dizzy with my success. Before his face, I chomped loudly on the corn, then picked up pieces of chicken to chew. I didn’t spare the parrot a glance as I turned to scoop up some rice.
Suddenly, a piece of bird poop went flying through the air to land in my bowl…now that was what you called eye-catching… I lifted my expressionless face to look at the chief culprit. It joyfully flapped its wings, looking delighted–no, looking very delighted.
I was smiling too, lifting my index finger to wave it back and forth. The smile disappeared as I swooped and caught it, intended to pluck its feathers out.
“Yifuyifuyifuyifu,” its sharp little mouth cried out in a hurry, as it used all its strength to resist. It hurt when I got pecked, and its glossy feathers thrashed wildly beneath my hands. Its body was extremely smooth and slippery, and a swoop of its feathers had it staggering into flight before it added under its breath, “Curses!”
It had perfectly mimicked my voice when it learned this word. I laughed aloud. The table had long turned into a mess, food and soup splattered on the ground. A dark shadow fell from skies and a pair of wings struck me behind my head, before the parrot flew towards the exit. I didn’t even have time to react before I hear a voice from outside the door.
“I’m telling I’m telling I’m telling…”
This little animal.
If he wanted to tattle to Fang Hua, see if I didn’t pluck out all his feathers. I pulled up my robes and broke into a chase. But there was already no sign of the person…ah, I mean the bird.
It was already late autumn.
Though the wind was extremely cool, it still felt warm when the sun shone on me. A bamboo pavilion had been erected over a pond, accented with white muslin veils. Vaguely, one could make could a figure dressed in a moon-white robe inside, neither real nor unreal. Astonished, I went to take a look.
He sat on the ground in a thin layer of robes, looking over a few pots as if spacing out. There were many flowers by his side, their fragrance carried by the breath of the wind.
“You woke up?” he asked me.
“Un,” I replied vaguely, looking around me. I didn’t see anything, so I drew closer to crouch by his side. “What are you doing?”
Truthfully speaking, a person like me didn’t have any hobbies beyond minding other people’s business.
He lifted his eyes to peer at me. Beneath the folds of his white robes, I could see the tail of that parrot hiding behind his body. He only smiled, just looking. He seemed so cold that I started to have a guilty conscience. I wondered whether the intelligence and eloquence of this bird had already blabbed out everything to Fang Hua. Forcing a smile, I backed away and prepared to make a stealthy escape.
And yet, he chose this moment to open his mouth, eyes staring intently at me as he spoke like a lonely gentleman of a good family. “I want to brew some wine, but I don’t know how.”
If you didn’t know how to brew, would I know instead?! I was still an amnesiac.
I lifted my eyes to look at the skies, but couldn’t resist looking back to him again.he was dressed very simply, but the first rays of the sun that shone on his face outlined his jaw, forehead, and eyebrows, making it a bewitching sight. You could even say it was completely picturesque, like jade so fine it approached the appearance of snow. His charm stopped me and my timidity in its tracks.
I shook my head.
“To want to brew wine…hehe, Lord Hua’s tastes are elegant and refined, however…” I pointed with my finger as I glanced uncertainly at his side. “This is the first time I’ve heard of putting flowers in wine.”
He lowered his head, holding back a smile. The curve of his eyebrows seemed to suggest a flirtatious air.
“Y-you drank alcohol?” I scooted over suspiciously.
“Just a taste,” he smiled gently, expression as mild as always. Yet that elegant profile held a different charm than usual.
That…’just a taste.’ I looked over and discovered a large jug of wine by his side, the top off and the contents completely empty. Right now he was leaning against the ground, looking at me as he pointed at the empty wine jug. “There used to be a person who could brew delicious wine every time. But I’ve wasted all the jugs…”
“I had a passing whim to drink again, I can’t capture the same flavor when I’m brewing, even though I was the one who taught her how to make it in the first place. Now I keep thinking that I’m missing something.”
I crouched there as I listened, unsure of how to reply. His hands rested on mine, the mole beneath his eye dark red.
“Can I entreat you…to brew together with me?”
“What entreating?” I rolled up my sleeves. “I’ll just go ahead and help you.”
I took the chance to glance at the parrot burrowing into Fang Hua’s robes and bared my teeth in a show of strength. Since I was helping its master, its tattling wouldn’t have much effect on him.
Fang Hua stared at me in a daze. He was very attractive. Blood rushed upwards as I lowered my head, focusing on grinding, picking, and laying out the flowers to dry. He stayed silently by my side, not speaking. Occasionally, I’d look his way and catch his gaze on me every time.
Strangely enough, an odd feeling rose in my chest. It almost resembled fermenting wine, slowly growing sweeter and more mellow. Time flew by like water until the evening sun cast its oblique rays upon us. He quietly watched me as I foolishly continued to work, wasting half my day by his side. My legs had long turned numb by the time the wine jug was full. Taking advantage of my work, he grabbed a small dish with his long, slender fingers and ladled out some wine. Giving me a broad smile, he lowered his head to taste a sip.
“How is it?” After working for most of the day, I was using my sleeves to wipe my face. “It’s been a long time since I’ve tasted this flavor.” “Really.” I took a sip from his plate.
This flavor was very queer…it was obviously astringent and not tasty at all, extremely clashing for the taste buds. I choked and started to cough uncontrollably, ladling up a large spoonful of water to rinse my mouth.
The liquid that had just been brewed in the jug tasted like nothing except flowers. There wasn’t a hint of alcohol, yet he raised it to his lips and drank greedily…as if it was excellent wine.
This person was pretty weird, enjoying himself like this so much…
I stared at him while he was totally unawares. After a while, it seemed he’d been reckless enough. His body relaxed and sluggishly collapsed in my lap. I stiffened in response, my scalp turning numb as my face grew hot in surprise. “Aiya, what are you doing…a man and woman…” Shouldn’t be so intimate together.
My voice gradually faded out.
He raised his head to look at me, not knowing where to point with his hand holding the jug. He ended up hugging the container to his chest instead. Even his gaze seemed intoxicated, and my attempts at persuasion gave up to let him do as he wanted…
He didn’t seem to have any alcohol tolerance at all.
“What exactly is romantic love in this world…?” A soft voice asked searchingly.
Yeah, what exactly was it? My heart echoed his question.
His hand clutched at the front of my clothing as he scooted closer. That tipsy gaze turned towards me as he spokely indistinctly. “How far have you and Zichuan gone? Have you tasted the flavor of romantic love?” I lowered my head to look at him, probably wearing a strange expression on my face. This guy…what exactly did he want to hear? When I didn’t reply for a long time, he drew closer, making me topple backwards from the weight. In the end, he ended up lying on top of me. He seemed to regard me with a disdainful glance that almost seemed a bit cold…and yet, it was a distressful look as well.
Why did he always make my heart pound and ache?
“He’s my husband,” I forgot to dodge the question and replied honestly.
“The two of us are blood relations.” “Teach me. I can do it too…”
He flipped over, hand resting around my neck. His cheeks were as red as peach blossoms, and his eyes seemed to shine with a light that was both intoxicated and stupefied beneath his slender eyebrows. He was looking at me with an expression of suffering…
My chest felt stifled as it strove to beat out of my chest. I hastily pushed him aside and got to my feet in a panic, back facing him as my heart pounded like thunder until it was hard to breathe.
There was a laugh, but it sounded immeasurably lonely.
Astonished, I turned my head. He was half-lying on the ground, head propped in his hands with effort. Soft light illuminated his features and his beautiful expression of longing as he gave a self-ridiculing laugh. “Look at me…” Fang Hua kept laughing until his body trembled, before finally hiding his face away. His voice was low as he spoke. “It seems that we’ve only met recently. Yifu shouldn’t scare you like this…”
He was drunk, so I couldn’t tell whether he was laughing or crying. At the very least, he was still clutching the wine jug to his chest, and that laugh was cold enough to chill the liver. For a long time afterwards, I remembered the words he spoke. He said, in the lonely dusks to come, only that jug of wine could be warmed…
I didn’t understand him then. By the time I did, it was too late.
-o- Original and most updated translations are from volaretranslations.
 blood relations (肌肤之亲) −jifu zhiqin, basically bonded by blood, or family.
“Boooring.” I held a book between my fingers, heaving a sigh as I leaned on my chin, spacing out. My eyes stared at the lamp light as one hand waved the flame back and forth. The window was shut tight, leaving only the sound of waving bamboo like the sea.
This uninhabited junk of a place had no place for strolls or anywhere to go. I could endure that, I could even deal with the lack of music, but there ought to be other diversions….curses, there was nothing on the bookshelves but medical texts, not even one of those popular pornography books.
The candle flame gave a sputter, sending the odor of hot wax into the air. I withdrew my hand from the heat, tossing aside the book in my hands as I swept the tabletop of peanut shells. My brows furrowed as I banged the table angrily and stood up.
“Ahhhhhhhhhh, I can’t live like this anymore!”
A spark of something called ‘discontentment’ burned in my chest. Lofty and unyielding, I waved aside my sleeves and strode out the doors. By the time I reached the back corridors, half of my arrogant bluster vanished when I realized no one was in the courtyard. Besides the sound of wind through the bamboo, there was nothing else. Even the usually noisy parrot stared at me dispiritedly from a branch…his eyes gleaming. A thrill of horror ran through me as I backed up three steps. The despicable bird was looking at me like I was a thief. A wild wind swept through the withered branches as girl and bird stared face-to-face in a silent battle.
“Hungry. Food, food,” The parrot’s claws stepped on the branches as it leapt a few times, retracting its gaze in a show of conciliation while it lowered its head to peck at its feathers, as if blinding searching for bugs to eat.
Ever since the day Fang Hua randomly took me in, he’d given me a giant pile of candles, each brand new and wrapped in white paper packaging. But he…rarely used them. Sometimes, he’d stand outside my room to take advantage of the light. After I’d shut him out, he’d use the moonlight as a guide to walk back, his retreating figure ever desolate and lonely…
I stamped my feet a few times until I warmed up, thinking hard. It’d be good to take the chance and convince him not to be so economical. When I returned to the palace, I’ll get the emperor to give him some silver. With the nights so dark, how was a person to pass their days?
I earnestly nodded to myself before rushing back into the room, crunching my way past peanut shells. Squatting on my heels, I crawled under my bed until I found a candle and proudly patted it a few times. Then I walked to Fang Hua’s door by moonlight and lightly knocked a few times.
“Are you asleep?”
There was the faint sound of a bed creaking, followed by the rustling noise of someone putting on their clothes.
“I’ll open the door shortly.”
“How about you keep lying down, I’ll let myself in,” I replied carelessly, taking a hairpin out of my hair to insert between a crack in the door. I jiggled it up and down a few times before pushing it open. The moment I raised my eyes, I saw a figure still in shock. “That…” he seemed to be smiling, before leisurely adding, “So it’s true that no manner of door can stop you, no matter how good the quality.”
“Heh, heheheh,” I smirked, laughing until I suddenly stopped. My expression shifted, and I stared astonished at my nimble hands. What had happened…when did I become a thief? The movements were so clean and easy, smooth and dextrous. How strange. A soft cough sounded from the darkness. I knitted my brows and gro
“Are you feeling unwell? There’s nothing urgent about your health, right.”
There was silence for quite a while.
“Aiyo!” A weird cry fell from my lips.
He hurriedly spoke, “It’s dark here, be careful where you walk…” “I hit a chair.”
He seemed to be laughing lightly.
My hands fumbled their way along the table as I cried, doing my best to open my eyes wide. I still couldn’t see a thing with everything so gloomy.
“Why not light a lamp?” “…”
Where’s the flint?”
He hmm’d for a long time, as if thinking it over.
I gave up on relying on him but felt everything in the dark until my hand came in contact with a wooden cupboard in a corner. Its surface was hard and slippery, and a spark lit in my brain as I felt along the wood until I forced open a door. Reaching in, I touched a small object that should’ve been flint. My face lit up in joy as I grabbed the candle from my robes and ignited the tip. Turning around, I saw the waiting Fang Hua looking at me with rapt attention. The expression in his eyes was like someone using every second of his remaining life to look at me, as if missing a glance would be missing a view. As if he couldn’t get enough of me, even if he stared for an entire lifetime…
I stood stunned until a scalding hot sensation hit my arm. I nearly knocked over the candle as I placed it on the table, head lowered to readjust my sleeves after the accidental drop of wax.
Sheesh, it was embarrassing to have him stare when it was just the two of us in a room.
The sound of coughing traveled over. When I looked up again, Fang Hua was calmly reclining on his side, his expression a little tired. Was what I saw before an apparition? Shaking my head to cover my awkward face, I took the chance to look around.
The room was simple and unadorned, but tasteful. Besides a bed, the only thing that caught my eye was a dressing table. On it were a bronze mirror and a smooth, glossy wooden comb. It was curved like a crescent moon, and most of the red lacquer had faded. Various other items and things were scattered about a small makeup box, a thin collection that seemed to indicate the owner’s decline in wealth.
Why were there female items in this room?
Fang Hua’s hair hung loosely about him as he covered his mouth with his sleeve to stifle the sound of coughing. I withdrew my gaze to rush to the table, pouring a cup of water before handing it over. His ashen face looked sickly with that light smile as he accepted my cup with both hands. Those ice cold fingers held my own and gave me an unexpected feeling of alarm.
I withdrew my hands, splattering quite a bit of water on his robes. His expression turned dejected.
“Why are you so cold?” “It’s of no consequence. The weather’s chilly, so I feel a bit cold.” He looked up at me with a smile.
I felt a little shamefaced as I changed the topic. “Are you the only one living here?”
“There was once another person who lived with me for ten years,” his tone was light as a warm smile crept on his features, as if he was losing himself to memories. The hazy yellow light shrouded him in a gentle, mild glow, showing a tender expression on such a calm and collected face. My heart stirred slightly, and I sat next to him on the bed.
Quietly, I asked, “Was it the emperor?”
His reaction was like someone woken from a dream, and his face turned complicated as he looked at me. Lowering his head, Fang Hua coughed a few times before taking some deep breaths. Slowly, he spoke. “He’s lived here as well, when he was younger.”
“What was he like back then? Did he always make serious faces?”
He laughed a few times, raising a hand to pat my sleeves before pressing down. “He wasn’t like this in the past. At that time, compared to you…” His words stopped as he turned away, pulling at the bedcovers. Desolation filled his eyes when he spoke again. “Compared to anyone, he was much more well-behaved. Actually, the one who always kicked up a row was my foster son. Zichuan was very frightened of him and didn’t dare to talk back. He used to serve him tea and pour him water like he was treating an esteemed elder.” There was a soft smile on his face, as if he couldn’t free himself from reminscencing about former days. That was a story only between himself and Han Zichuan.
Meanwhile, I was only a bystander from beginning to end, listening to him talk.
“With three people living here, it must have been lively,” I looked around with a grin. “What did the emperor like to eat when he was little? Which room did he sleep in?” The hand on my sleeve tightened. His fingers were long and skinny enough to highlight the bones, so it hurt when he gripped me. Aiya, I wanted to draw back but I couldn’t move. Instead, I gave him a surprised look as he slowly smiled back, though it made him look particularly miserable when he gazed at me.
He said, “Let’s not talk about him, all right…?” It sounded like he was begging me, a bit. At that instant, my heart felt like something had suddenly rammed into it.
“I…I’m….sorry…” I was a bit depressed.
You and him are already separated, I shouldn’t keep bringing up your past with him and making you speak of sad things.
Yet he only wore a gentle smile as he patted me, expression relaxed. The look in his eyes was warm enough to melt an entire river of ice. This was a well-bred, warm and cultured man. Why couldn’t such a perfect person find his own true love…
“That’s right…” After staring blankly for a while, I hastily helped to tuck him under the covers. “You’re sick, so why isn’t there any sign of your foster son?”
“He won’t come.” “Why?”
“Early on, he went to make a living wandering the jianghu and made companions out of his Seven Princes. Why would he come back to this old place?” So speaking, he gave me a deep look.
“That’s an outrage! How can a person act that way. A father for a day means a father for a lifetime!”
“He has his own affairs. How could I have control over him?”
“Don’t let that fellow off so easily. If I were you, I’d tie him up and bring him back to kneel before the memorial tablet of his ancestors. Then I’d starve him for eight or ten days without food.”
He laughed out loud, gazing at me warmly. “Then I’ll do as you say in the future.”
I was still lost in my own thoughts…
No wonder. I’d been here for a while, but there was nobody in these rooms except for him. An entire day would pass with nothing but the parrot crying out by itself. So it turned out that he had such an unfilial son. But… why did his smile turn me cold and flustered?
I must be getting the wrong impressions…
Suddenly, the wind blew open the windows. I got up to close them, but the gale filled the room, chilling my body and making me shiver. I couldn’t take it and sneezed multiple times.
What an evil wind…
So frigid, almost enough to make me cry.
Fang Hua’s gaze was fixed on me as he rose up, about to get out of bed. Just as he lifted a corner of the corners, I sat down and pressed against the bedding. “Hey, what do you want to do?”
He focused on looking at me, eyes filled with enough warmth to drown a person as he lay back down, smiling affably. I grew a little apprehensive as I gave him a doubtful look. But he continued to wave a friendly hand my way. “Come here…”
There was a trick. For him to be so agreeable without reason, there was definitely something afoot. My neck shrank back as I recoiled, preparing to slip away. Yet he rose up to grab me from behind. I panicked as my heart started beating wildly. Laughing aloud, his hands moved from my waist to my fingers, lifting up my hands. With his body pressed against mine, he gesticulated a few times, head tilted to the side as he gave me a friendly look. “You’ve been negligent while attending to me. The weather’s so cold and yet you’re wearing so little. There should be clothes for you in this room.”
I felt a little muddle-headed as he maintained his advantageous position, feeling a bit left in the dark. He was very quiet as he watched my expressions, not revealing anything as he carefully touched my hands, before meekly resting his own on my shoulders. “Look at you, your body’s turned so cold.
His hands were clearly colder than mine. I lifted my eyes to glance at him. Did he always lie with such a straight face?
I really couldn’t keep myself from asking as I turned towards him. “How long are you planning to hold me?”
“I…” he seemed to release me reluctantly. “I measured you a bit, it should just fit. The length of the robes should be just right, you wait…” And he lifted the covers.
But I pressed them back in place.
Fang Hua was so close to me. With his long eyelashes, he looked towards my hands in surprise before smiling. He didn’t struggle, reject, or try to throw me off, but adopted a conniving expression on his face. Did this guy’s illness fry his brains? If he had clothes, he should’ve mentioned them earlier. Did he really have to stick so close and take my measurements. I could just try on the clothes to see if they fit.
Seeing him trying to move again, I held him in place and spoke. “Your body’s not well, so keep still for me.”
His complexion wasn’t good as his chest rose and fell. Unable to hold it in, he turned to cover his face with his sleeves and coughed again, speaking intermittently. “I want to get some clothes for you to keep out the chill. The nights are cold…and the mornings are chilly, why not…let me prepare some thicker cotton quilts for you.”
“Are you done yet? Lie down…” I glared at him, but my voice softened.
“Where did you put the robes? Don’t get off the bed, I’ll get them myself.”
His eyes curved into a smile as he held me with a cold hand, the fingertips tickling my skin. “It’s in the third compartment over there, just take a few sets…they’re all new, so pick what you like.”
I suppressed a noise.
After opening the cabinet, I finally understood what he meant by ‘pick what you like’.
Two or three partitions in the entire cabinet were filled with clothing. There were plain white robes, blue-green robes, simple and elegant robes or gaudy, flowery ones…every one was folded up neatly. The third level was a bit older than the rest, and the size was a bit off. Mixed up with the bunch was even a set of woman’s clothes…
Why would there be women’s clothing here?! Shocked, I touched the robes.
“I wanted to find you some clothes in the morning, but ended up lying here for half the day because of weariness.” He looked at me with a remorseful face.
My hand drew back as I looked for other robes, replying carelessly, “It’s no matter.”
Why would he treat me so well? This was going beyond the boundaries of friendship. Fang Hua’s voice drifted over from behind me. “Have you finished choosing?” “No.” I said in a low voice, hand exploring the second level of robes. The clothing all felt new, and the sizes were obviously much bigger than the previous level. I shook open some robes and compared them to my body… oh, too small.The colors of the robes weren’t half bad, just that the pattern…
Un, these were all male robes, like those for a young man.
“The clothes at the bottom all have smaller measurements. The first compartment has clothes that were all newly made a few days ago.”
“Whose clothes are these?”
They didn’t look like Fang Hua’s because they’d be too small on them. I measured a few of the top level robes and found them my perfect size. However, the measurements for these thick piles of clothing seemed to get larger and larger. Yet none of them had an owner, but all of them were new, how strange.
“It’s my disciple’s,” he said in a low voice.
“This one as well?” I pinched out a robe and shook it out. It was very beautiful, and seemed to be made for a teenage girl. The fabric emanated a sweet-smelling fragrance.
He seemed to be smiling. “That’s right.”
Those two words dismissed me…as if he didn’t want to discuss the matter any more.
“What a waste, making all these clothes with no one to wear them,” I casually draped one over my shoulders, head lowered to tie the sash.
He gave a leisurely reply. “These were all prepared by me over the years for that unworthy child of mine. Although he’s left me for many years, I still make a few sets for him every year out of habit. He used to always blame me for buying clothes that were too big for him. Now that they fit him, he’s not by my side anymore.” I stood there dumbly, hands stiffening as I stopped moving.
“I used to imagine what he’d be like after he grew up.” The pale yellow light shone on his figure, gentle and mild. He patiently endured another round of coughing on the bed as he smoothed out his brow, an exhausted expression on his face. “I’m really sorry, I’m telling you things you don’t want to hear.”
I sprawled across his bed and burst out laughing as I tucked him in, speaking lightly, “You’re tired. Sleep early.”
In the stillness of the night, the moonlight shone down softly.
Fang Hua sat on the bed, the moon illuminating his figure in an extremely touching manner. It was a long while before he turned over and said one more thing. “…I wanted him to stay longer by my side, but why didn’t he understand?”
A long, long time afterwards, I would always remember this line.
He told me, “Actually, it’s not that I didn’t want to spend the family silver. And when I made the robes bigger than usual, it wasn’t because I wanted him to wear it in until they were old. In fact…I just wanted him to stay awhile longer by my side because I didn’t have much time.”
He slowly smiled at me, a simple but elegant smile.
When his eyebrows suddenly knitted together, they were like the misty depths of a rain shower in a landscape painting, filled with anxious worry that embellished the red teardrop mole by his eye.
I had a dream.
In the dream, there was a person who kept calling me Shao’er in a voice choked with sobs, his voice both captivating and heartbroken.
When I abruptly opened my eyes, my blurry vision cleared to see the same familiar roof beams and its scattering of dust. With effort, I propped myself up and looked around. I realized I didn’t know when someone had returned me to my own room.
The sunlight outside was pleasantly warm, and the table by the window had two or three robes on top, neatly folded and clean…a few threads of light scattered across its surface, making the moon-white material seem like it was wearing a plate of gold.
I was clearly at Fang Hua’s place last night, so when was I carried back here?
Rubbing my eyes, I realized my mind felt woozy and my head hurt. There was the taste of medicine in my throat. I grabbed my neck with my hands, smacking my lips as I tasted something astringent and raw…and nearly threw up when I bent over.
What was the matter? I didn’t remember drinking water or anything else last night in Fang Hua’s room.
I tried to move the covers and get off the bed, but didn’t expect a wave of darkness to swim before my eyes. My head felt faint and I saw stars, while my feet were completely listless. I managed to drape my clothes over my shoulders with difficulty, closing my eyes with knitted brows as I held onto the edge of the bed. Just when I decided to try taking a step, a warm sensation spread from my depths of my brain to fill my entire head, stopping me in place. My whole body felt off but I couldn’t describe the sensation beyond my sore, burningly numb hands. As I started to recover bit by bit, my hands tightened around the bed.
A mass of white smoke billowed out. The places where I’d touched with my hands were extremely hot. Looking down, I could see the marks of my fingers against the bed, the five digits making a deep depression in the wood. It didn’t seem like it could be hand-carved, because no human could have such high-level sculpting skills. The marks left by the impression were even smooth to the touch.
I was suitably shocked as I raised my hand for a look, then glanced back at the impression in the wood. They were exactly the same mold, how strange… Suspicious, I blew a puff of air into the center of my palm before pressing it against the edge of the bed again. This time, I used all of my strength.
The anticipated earth-shaking bang never came, but a depressed cry came from my mouth. I grabbed my hand and stomped my foot…
It hurt! A large portion of my hand had turned red and numb, but there was no reaction from the wood…
I looked at the imprints of my five fingers on the bed, then my injured hand, feeling in low spirits. Did I imagine it all…? As if I’d cultivate some miraculous abilities overnight!
Pah, how annoying.
I draped my clothes over my shoulders like a ruffian before putting on my shoes and flinging open the door. After excitedly stepping out, I realized that I had absolutely nothing to do. This godforsaken place had no signs of people or birds around. Dejected, I sat beneath the eaves with my hands on my knees. The courtyard was filled with the fragrance of bamboo, the jade- green leaves rustling in the breeze, yet filled with a tranquil elegance…
This was a nice place, and the air was fresh. But it’d been awhile since I had been snatched out of the palace, so the emperor should be worried. Moreover, since I’d disappeared for so long, the court must be in an uproar. Who knew if Little Li would be punished for losing me?
Fang Hua once said it was rare to see humans here. You might spot a single person i
I pinched off a piece of grass to put in my mouth, hands slipping into my sleeves as I stood up and looked around hopefully. I dove into the bamboo groves and brushed aside the plants as I meandered slowly along…
Rays of sunlight streamed down from the tops. I raised my head and walked around in a circle. Besides bamboo, there was nothing but more bamboo around here and the occasional sound of rustling leaves… wait, rustling?
My scalp turned numb. I don’t know if my own imagination was to blame, but it felt like my feet had grown heavier. Stunned in place, I glanced downwards and saw a light green snake pressing on my foot, slowly sliding its slippery length across me…
I stood dumbfounded as a chill crept up my back. My feet were stock still, but my body couldn’t help shaking and my legs felt like jelly. The damp yellow mud beneath my shoes felt very slippery, and I lost my balance to stagger backwards before flipping over and rolling down a hill…
Curses, where did this slope show up from?
I only saw my vision blur as I rolled like a burst of autumn wind scattering the fallen leaves. I don’t know how many circles I did, only that I was very dizzy. A hot qi rose from my chest to warm my entire body before I violently ran into something. But I didn’t feel any pain. The little pebbles on the slope, along with the fallen leaves, threw themselves against my face as I kept tumbling downwards. I turned aside and spat, covering half my face with my sleeves. Something cold and smooth by my back had stopped my progress. Using my courage, I groped backwards with my hand before looking to see a section of bamboo growing from the side of the hill…
Good thing it’d grown here, or things would’ve turned black if I kept tumbling down. The Heavens really were merciful, I knew I wasn’t destined to die in the prime of my life…
Wiping away my sweat, I used the bamboo to help my shaking self to my feet. My robes were filthy, and some parts had been torn open by the fall. You could faintly see traces of my inner robe from the outside. I massaged my waist, catching my breath while I held onto the bamboo for support. The hot qi that had been concentrated in my chest before slowly receded away…
Speaking of which, this was weird. I’d fallen down from so high, but not only were my bones fine, I also felt no pain on my body. Taking a breath, I experimentally moved my arms and legs. Right now, everything felt extremely comfortable.
…too bad about my clothes, though.
I lifted up my robes, looking around in bewilderment. There was no time to consider the details because something caught my attention as soon as I lifted my eyes. A disorderly copse of trees stood before me. Within the luxuriant branches and foliage, there were still places with withered leaves. The whole thing looked as if they were planted by hand. Whoever did it must have been in a rush, and didn’t take care to maintain the plants. Curious, I reached out with my hands and made an opening in the trees until I saw a small path. It seemed to lead to the foot of the hill…
Weird, didn’t Fang Hua said there wasn’t a way down the mountain? Unless he was lying? Whatever the case, I smelled the hint of a conspiracy…
— Recalling Fang Hua’s former words, I couldn’t help but feel my heart sink. Things felt off. There were only the two of us living at his house. All the empty spaces in front of the residence had been overtaken by medicinal plants. He didn’t seem to be growing any vegetables or raising livestock behind the house. I’d been here for half a month and wasted quite a bit of food since then. These days, if it wasn’t grains, then it was meat and fish being offered to me everyday. If the facts were really as they said–that someone would only come by the mountain every few months–then wouldn’t I have starved to death by half a month?
I never expected that such an Immortal-like person could lie so easily, without even blinking. What was his purpose in keeping me here…? The more I thought, the more I felt things were off. I suddenly turned around and hastily climbed up the slope. I walked until I entered my room and closed the door.
It wasn’t advisable to linger…
Taking a deep breath, I sprawled beneath the bed to fish out a piece of gunny cloth. Cementing my heart, I turned my face away to pinch a corner of the smelly cloth, shaking it out before spreading it open. Turning around, I found a few robes from the wardrobe and dug out two mantou halves hidden in a pillow that I muffled in a cloth.
These days, you could never forget to pack food…if there was more time, I wanted to get some meat from the steamer in the kitchen to sandwich between my mantou, because it’d be delicious to eat on the road. I’d starved so much when the kidnapper had taken me here. That crafty scoundrel was only concerned about eating his own mantouinstead of whether or not I’d starve to death. Being knocked out didn’t mean I couldn’t eat…
So thinking, my pleased face quickly turned sober. Exactly who had taken me from the imperial court? Why would they risk themselves doing such a thing? If they wanted to harm me, they didn’t have to go to so much trouble and expense. So many people died yearly in the palace, so why not stab me a few times while I was unconscious and throw my body in a well? Originally, I thought my adversary wanted to use Fang Hua to get rid of me, but Fang Hua hadn’t created any difficulties for me despite my old affair with the emperor. Instead, he treated me very well. His morals were top-notch and his temper was excellent. There was no sign that he planned to hurt me. Not only did he leave me alone, but these days I was even the one bullying him. When I realized he had no intentions to harm me, I gave up the idea of slipping away so quickly. Besides, he told me there was no way off the mountain. Rather than rashly set off by myself, it’d be better to quietly wait for the emperor to rescue me. But now things didn’t seem so simple.
From the path I discovered today, I could tell…that Fang Hua was lying. Some villain in the court had thought of a way to bring me to Fang Hua’s doorstep. Now he was using a thousand different ways to trick me and keep me from going to the palace. Could it be that Fang Hua was in cahoots with that villain? But…that didn’t seem likely, he just didn’t look like that kind of person.
Aiya, so tiresome. I scratched my head, brows furrowed in serious thought. The most important thing now was…
To get out.
I tied a knot in my cloth bundle and placed it under my arm before pushing open the door. My thoughts were in disorder, making it impossible for me to conjecture anything.
…it’d be better to get the facts once I returned to the palace.
I entered the forest anew like a hapless housefly jostling her way blindly through until I grew confused…how was I supposed to take this path…? I’d been in such a rush, I forgot to leave marks on the road for myself.
Was it this way…? Or was it that way…? “Aish, I’ll just walk as I please,” I moved my bag to my shoulders, face a mix of high aspirations and unflinching determination in the face of death. “The cart will find its way round the hill when it gets there.”
I brushed aside the irritating tree branches and looked upon the widened expanse before me…unfortunately, the added view also came with one extra person…
A cluster of white pear blossoms bloomed splendidly before me. Beyond the pear tree was a wooden table where a person stood with brush in hand, bending over a painting. His dark robes made his face especially jade-like, and those fair, white hands were arranged in a beautiful posture. He raised his head to look at me with gentle eyes.
It was Fang Hua…
Seized with shock, I could only stand unmoving as he looked at me. W- w-was his illness better? He was coughing all last night, but now he was dressed so thinly outdoors. How could he have the spare time to paint?
I was surprised. But I stuck fast in place, unwilling and unable to move. While I frowned, his line of sight slowly moved on to rest on the bag by my shoulders, seemingly lost in thought. His staring made my scalp turn numb as I dejectedly lowered my head. Seeing that there was no way out, I hoisted my bag up and prepared to turn back.
“Why do you always want to leave me?” A cool but tender voice accosted me from behind. It made my heart tremble to hear it and my feet turned into lead, unable to take another step. I turned around to face him, seeing his still form looking at me from a distance. His robes fluttered in the breeze, plain and unadorned as ever. Pear blossom petals drifted in the air to rest on his shoulders, and his face was filled with a grief that made my heart ache.
“Where do you want to go?” he kept asking, though in a much softer voice. I gave a derisive smile, shaking my head in embarrassment. “I’ve troubled you for so long, so…”
“Don’t try to stall me with words again,” he cut me off, a firm tone in his voice. “These past years, you’ve all left me one by one…”
He was fixated on me, smiling despite the anguish in his brows. “You should know, I don’t have much time left with you all.”
Something tightened in my heart. He knew this much about himself…a man like this, why didn’t anyone want him? It must be lonely to stay at this big house by himself. My voice grew hoarse, but before I could reply, he spoke to me in an injured tone.
“You can actually bearing ruining the clothes I gave to you. Look at this, it’s all in tatters.”
Hey, you try falling down the side of a mountain.
“You want to leave me, even if it means climbing your way through the mess of branches?”
So it turned out that mass of tree branches was really planted there on purpose. Speechless, I gave him a resentful glare. It looked like he wanted to say some more, but his mouth didn’t move. With a pale face, his expression stilled to one of desolation. It made my soften to see him. Originally, I wanted to ask him why he blocked the path with those trees or something about his evil intentions.
Instead, what came out was, “Have you taken your medicine yet?”
After his usual silence, he spoke again. “I’m going to die anyways. It doesn’t matter whether it happens sooner or later. What’s the point of taking medicine when you’re just one person here?”
His words made my heart tremble. This person, he could play the qin and drink and paint and live merrily, so why did he keep cursing himself to die? Though, his expression really did look lonely. He sadly shook his head when I offered to support him, and sat down on the ground in low spirits. Those smooth black strands of hair rested across his shoulders, dark against his white upper robes. He used a sleeve to cover his mouth, chest heaving in a fit of violent coughing.
“Forget it.” I was thoroughly defeated by him. After hesitating for quite a gave, my conscience gave in and I unloaded my bag. “I’ll wait until you get better. Don’t keep saying that you’ll die so soon.”
“So you’re not leaving?”
Leaving…how could I not want to leave?
I glanced at him again, sitting quietly on the ground with a melancholy expression that made my heart quiver…the words rose to my lips and did a circle.
“Leaving. I’ll leave after you’re well.”
His eyes curved into a smile. I foolishly smiled along before I came to my senses. Did I just agree to…stay…here?
Look at my good-for-nothing senses. Vexed, I shook my head. But seeing him smile so happily, I couldn’t help but feel the corners of my own mouth rise up. The issue of leaving of house thus ended here.
It was only later on that I realized…he was smiling so happily because he knew he wouldn’t get better, but I’d agreed to spend the rest of his life with him, even if it wasn’t much. Thus, I began my promised undertaking, serving him tea and pouring him water like an old mother or a servant. As to the emperor, I always wanted to pass him a message using a messenger of some kind. But every time I lifted my brush, I wouldn’t know what to write…somehow, I didn’t want him to know I was here with Fang Hua. I tossed and turned the idea in my mind for half a day before deciding to tell him myself afterwards. I’d take care of Fang Hua first. In such a way, I resolved the problem laying on my heart.