On the day Zhuang Wanqing was buried in the tomb for imperial concubines, Zhuang Laoyan stood in Wangyue Pavilion, watching the funeral procession leave. The morning wind of spring gave people chills, causing even her heart to grow cold.
“Your Highness, we ought to return,” said Tingzhu, draping a cloak over Zhuang Laoyan’s shoulders. Then she looked at the funeral procession, which basically could not be seen anymore. “The imperial harem is like so. Those who are favored can bask in glory. Those who lose favor can be bullied by everyone. If you do not scheme against others today, others still would not let you go.”
Zhuang Laoyan turned around to descend the stairs, when all of a sudden, she caught sight of many horse-drawn carriages at the eastern door. She asked, “What are those carriages for?”
“Has Your Highness forgotten? Today is the day when the newcomers arrive. Those sitting in the carriages are all daughters of officials or daughters of families all around the country. If the emperor takes a fancy to any of them, then they can remain in the palace.” Tingzhu watched as many carriages went through the eastern doors. Behind the carriages, the sun slowly rose.
Although sunlight fell upon them, the scene did not hold any trace of liveliness.
Silent, Zhuang Laoyan took in this scene. Another group of women who lost their freedom. If they remained here, they would compete for the rest of their lives.
Seeing her master silent, Tingzhu thought Zhuang Laoyan was worried about the newcomers arriving, and couldn’t help but say, “Your Highness, there is no need to be concerned. Even if there are new people entering the palace, your position in His Majesty’s heart will never change. Anqing Palace’s Noble Consort Shu has always received the emperor’s favor. In these past years, many new people arrived at the palace, but never has anyone seen the emperor treat her a bit coldly.”
A smile spread across Zhuang Laoyan’s lips. “Where have your thoughts gone? I’m merely sighing with emotion.”
Sighing with emotion for what? Tingzhu could not wrap her head around it.
As she turned around to descend the stairs, Tingzhu heard her master say, ”Once spring ends, the beautiful flowers will wither. What a pity.”
In Luanhe Hall, twenty to thirty girls dressed to the nines stood. All of them were exceptional in appearance. They sized each other up and concealed their hostility. However, no one dared to be impudent in this stage. They lowered their heads wellbehavedly, waiting for the other imperial concubines to arrive.
For this kind of event, those who had reached the second rank must attend. Although these girls were in the prime of their youth, they still knew that they could not offend these high-ranking imperial concubines.
“Zhaorong Xu has arrived.”
The girls paid respects one after the other. Carefully sneaked a peek at this Zhaorong Xu. She was like a willow branch trembling in the wind. An unspeakable elegance and tastefulness.
Zhaorong Xu gazed at the girls standing there. A trace of arrogance appeared on her delicate features.
“Noble Consort Shu has arrived.”
Those present knew that Noble Consort Shu was extremely favored. Once they had seen her clearly, they could not help but feel inferior to her. Although this Noble Consort Shu did not dress luxurious to the max, her beauty shocked everyone; they could not help but want to avoid her.
“Xianrong Zhao has arrived!”
Once the crowd of girls heard this announcement, they once again carefully grew focused. Although this person’s rank wasn’t as high as Noble Consort Shu’s, after she had entered the palace for barely a year, she had risen in the ranks to a xianrong. Not only that, but she was highly favored by the emperor. Before they had entered the palace, their families had warned these girls in advance to not offend this person.
Once this Xianrong Zhao had arrived, the girls felt that although she wasn’t as prepossessing as Noble Consort Shu, she had her distinguishing features. In particular, the look of quick intelligence and soft refinement in her eyes, as well as her gentle aura.
“You young ladies need not be so ceremonious,” said Xianrong Zhao, her voice fresh and cool to the ears. From this, it was evident that there were more reasons why the emperor pampered her so much.
Zhuang Laoyan allowed those girls to size her up. After she and the other imperial concubines who had arrived before her paid respects to one another, she sat in a suitable seat. She noticed that Zhaorong Xu was sitting across from her, the latter akin to a willow branch trembling in the breeze. And she slowly, slowly averted her gaze.
A short while later, the rest of the imperial concubines arrived. The empress also came, rushing over as she used the hand of a palace maid for support. After that, they waited for the communal emperor to arrive. As for the emperor’s mother, the empress dowager, she said she had to sincerely pray to Buddha. That she had no mood to involve herself with the harem.
For the emperor to bring his wife and higher-ranked concubines to choose the lower-ranked concubines, such a scene would not be too harmonious. Zhuang Laoyan shot a glance at the tens of beautiful girls. And she did not know which of them could enter the battlefield of the imperial harem.
She pitied these beauties. These beauties all had high ambitions, taking seriously the poem “if you’re not a fish, how would you know how a fish’s happiness?”
“Just a while ago, this palace saw that many flowers in the imperial gardens have blossomed. They truly are beautiful, making one dizzy from the sight,” said the empress, looking at the girls. “It seems like it’ll be a great time to appreciate the flowers soon.”
“Your Majesty the empress is someone who truly loves flowers, and naturally would want to appreciate them,” said Noble Consort Shu with a smile. She did not glance at the crowd of girls. “This concubine is an honest and serious person, and only likes a few types of flowers. No matter how beautiful the other flowers bloom, in the concubine’s opinion, they are not beautiful.”
“Noble Consort Shu’s tendency to only love a few types of flowers is a good thing.” The empress smiled as she met gazes with her. “Tomorrow, this palace will host a flower appreciation banquet in the imperial garden. There, you can admire the flower you like so much.”
Zhuang Laoyan lowered her head, too tired to listen to the empress and Noble Consort Shu cross swords. Once in a while, she would look down at the various kinds of lovely girls, waiting for the emperor to select some, wrap them up, and take them away.
“His Majesty has arrived!”
The big boss was finally here. Zhuang Laoyan and the rest rose to their feet to perform a full ceremony of paying respects. They watched as the emperor passed by the crowd of beauties and sat down on the most important seat: a chair made from gold-threaded Phoebe zhenan wood with dragons carved into it.
“No need to be so ceremonious.” Feng Jin glanced at the girls standing below. Then he shifted his gaze to the seated imperial concubines. “Empress, have you found anyone suitable?”
“This concubine thinks each and every one of these girls are great. Nevertheless, it’s better if Your Majesty personally selects them,” said the empress; not a bit of fault could be found in her words.
Zhuang Laoyan glanced at the scummy-to-the-bone emperor. It was too heartbreaking to tell one’s wife to choose one’s concubine. To be the empress was difficult.
Since ancient times, who knew how many empresses broke in the hands of scummy emperors? Who knew how many women, who had shared life’s joys and sorrows with emperors who founded a dynasty, lost favor, and then lived the rest of their lives in solitude? And even had to, as an empress, compete with those younger imperial concubines?
Of course, Zhuang Laoyan felt she was among those who had to compete with the empress. This kind of situation where one must compete with another truly gave people no way out. However, no matter what, the emperor would be the one causing tragedy in the harem.
For women, a monster like an emperor for the most part was scummy. Strong vitality and powerful attacks. Truly difficult to win against.
As Zhuang Laoyan thought to herself, the emperor already started to select beauties. Every time a girl stepped forward, an eunuch would announce her age, name, and family background. Afterward, the emperor decided whether to allow her to stay or not.
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“Hua Hongxiu, seventeen years old, daughter of the Assistant Minister of Rites.”
“Official’s daughter, Hua Hongxiu, pays respects to the emperor. Long live Your Majesty. Pays respects to the empress. Long live the empress. Greets the imperial concubines.”
The so-called “beneath the spring moon came the song of a standing harp through the swaying green muslin curtains; as one read in the night, a beauty in red sleeves accompanied them.” As soon as Zhuang Laoyan had heard that name, she couldn’t help but look at the girl below. Which bad-hearted parents would name their own daughter this name, a name that seemed elegant on the surface yet in reality was frivolous?
The girl kneeling below wore a pink blouse and wrap-around skirt. Her hair was arranged in a simple hanging bun. The black and fine hair hanging by her ears matched her tender skin. Although her small and exquisite face wasn’t one that could topple countries, it was still very pure and sweet.
“Your name is Hongxiu?” said Feng Jin, looking at that girl from above. “Is it the Hongxiu from ‘as one read in the night, a beauty in red sleeves accompanied them?’”
“Responding to Your Majesty, this official’s daughter is indeed that Hongxiu.” The girl looked up and smiled at the emperor. She seemed innocent and unaffected.
On a snowy night, one read banned books. A beauty in red sleeves accompanied them… Zhuang Laoyan gazed at that girl who smiled so innocently. Was this girl really that ignorant, or was she pretending to be naive?
Feng Jin nodded. Said dully, “Let her remain.”
At once, the eunuch by the side wrote down her name, before starting to call the next person.
However, the eunuch called over many girls yet did not see the emperor nod once. At this moment, the only girls that could remain were the Assistant Minister of Rites’ daughter, Hua Hongxiu, and the Imperial Academy’s Sacrificial Wine Specialist’s daughter, Yan Yuchan.
As the amount of girls rejected grew larger and larger, those who could remain were still only those two. The imperial concubines present had decent expressions. Until the last girl appeared.
“Ning Shengyu, eighteen years old, daughter of the Assistant Head of the Dali Temple.”
If Zhuang Laoyan had to describe this Ning Shengyu, she could only describe her as a peerless beauty. Not only could she topple nations with her appearance, she gave off the appearance of an immortal, untouched by the mortal realm. Those present could not compare with her in remarkableness.
Let’s not talk about the other imperial concubines. Even Noble Consort Shu’s expression proved dark. If such a beautiful woman entered the imperial harem, one would fear she would defeat all the imperial concubines.
Feng Jin stared at that girl named Ning Shengyu for a good while. Then he slowly said, “Let her stay.”
Zhuang Laoyan realized that although the emperor only looked at Ning Shengyu for a while, although his gaze expressed his surprise, it did not seem as though he took her for a fairy. The way this looked, this emperor wasn’t an emperor that would ruin his country due to a woman.
The empress glanced at Noble Consort Shu. “This young Miss Ning truly is exceptional in beauty.”
“Let’s just go with this.” With indifference, Feng Jin waved. “Just these three. Our harem is already very populated, and doesn’t need to add too many people.”
“This concubine knows Your Majesty is concerned about court matters, but it’s still necessary to watch out for one’s health,” said the empress.
“We know. Empress needs not worry about Us.” The emperor looked at the rest of the girls still standing below. “You’re dismissed. We ought to handle official business in Qinzheng Hall now.”
“Respectfully sending off Your Majesty.” The empress and the imperial concubines rose to their feet to salute him, watching as the emperor left in a grand manner.
Once she had stepped foot outside of Luanhe Hall, Zhuang Laoyan raised her head. Looked at the sunny and clear sky. Then she turned to Tingzhu, who was behind her, and said, “Today the weather is great. How about we set free a kite once we return to my palace?”
Tingzhu and Yunxi also checked the sky. Tingzhu said, “It truly is a good day to fly a kite.”
After Feng Jin finished going through the urgent proposals, he left Qinzheng Hall. All of a sudden, he lifted his head. And he saw a bright and colorful peacock kite in the sky. He squinted and looked at it for a moment. “Which palace is this kite flying from?”
“Responding to Your Majesty, in this slave’s opinion, it should be from Xihe Palace,” said Gao Dezhong, after looking up for a glance. “Today, the weather is great. It’s no wonder Xianrong Zhao feels like playing with a kite.”
“Since that’s the case, We will also take a look.” Feng Jin felt a bit interested. Just as he had taken a few steps, he saw the empress lead a crowd of palace maids and eunuchs in a winding path, approaching him. So he stopped in his tracks and waited for her.
“This concubine greets Your Majesty.” The empress went forward to salute.
“Does Empress have something to ask of Us?” Feng Jin glanced at her, before looking up at the floating kite.
“Responding to Your Majesty, this concubine is curious about those three girls who just entered the imperial palace. What positions does Your Majesty want to confer them?” The empress looked in the direction of the emperor’s gaze. And she just caught sight of that beautiful peacock kite.
“What’s to be asked about that? They have just entered the palace. Yan Yuchan and Hua Hongxiu will be given the ranks of cairen. Ning Shengyu’s appearance is impressive, and she shall be conferred the rank of noble lady.” Feng Jin looked away from the kite. “If Empress has no other business here, than you may leave.”
The empress’ smile stiffened. After she saluted the emperor, she retreated without a word. Once she had walked far enough that the emperor could no longer see her, the empress lifted her head again to look at the kite. Expressionless, she asked, “Which palace is that from?”
“Your Majesty, this slave thinks it’s from Xihe Palace,” said Heyu, tone carrying ridicule. “Xianrong Zhao is truly in a good mood.” What’s she playing with a kite for at this time? Whether she was actually happy or putting on an act was anyone’s guess.
The empress looked at the peacock swaying in the sky. Gaze complicated. “In this imperial harem, who could be in a good mood?”
After Feng Jin arrived at Xihe Palace, he was just approaching the back garden when he heard Zhuang Laoyan’s laughter. And he grew even more happy and relaxed.
“Your Highness, let looser your string. The wind’s strong right now. Careful not to let the string snap.”
“Don’t worry, don’t worry. I know how to do this. Ah! Tingzhu, your little swallow hasn’t reached the sky yet!”
Listening to this young lady’s loveable and silly conversation, Feng Jin suddenly remembered that Xianrong Zhao was also still eighteen years old, in a naïve age.
He continued to walk toward the back garden. And he merely saw that her hair was somewhat in disarray. The rosy-cheeked Zhuang Laoyan knelt on the grass, sun shining on her face, bright to the point of dazzling.
So… the new imperial concubines have arrived! Place your bets what will happen to them xd
Also, it wasn’t until NOW that I realized I wrote the wrong date last chapter on when the next chapter would arrive. Sorry for scaring you guys and making you think you’d need to wait 2 weeks LOL.
For those of you still interested in advanced chapters please read this post carefully! There are only two advanced chapters left this month, so if you pledge a tier that gives 3+ chapters, you are basically my suga daddi.
Next regular release: Saturday October 24, 2020 at 12 PM EST.
If you enjoyed this chapter, please leave a like or a comment below, or rate and add this novel on your reading list on NU.
Also, the eighth chapter of The Times Spent in Pretense is out! You can read it here.
- willow branch trembling in the wind: looked delicate and inspire pity from the hearts of others
- select some, wrap them up, and take them away: written in a way where it sounds like the emperor is just ordering takeout
- gold-threaded Phoebe zhenan wood: 楠木 Nánmù. From Wikipedia–In the past, wood from this tree, referred to as nanmu in China was so valuable that only royal families could afford their use.
- Hongxiu: meaning red sleeves
- frivolous: Frivolous because the poem has a beauty accompanying a male as he read at night. In ancient china, the sexes were separated, so the only reason this beauty is next to him is either she’s his wife/concubine (which doesn’t seem like it) or a maid (which also doesn’t seem like it since they cannot wear red.) So it narrows down to a yaojin or a supernatural being, or the man’s fantasy.
- Imperial Academy’s Sacrificial Wine Specialist: 国子监祭酒. Guózǐjiān sometimes translated as the Imperial Academy or Imperial College. From Wikipedia– the national central institution of higher learning in Chinese dynasties after the Sui. It was the highest institution of academic research and learning in China’s traditional educational system, with the function of administration of education. The job of Sacrificial Wine Specialist was to pour wine during sacrifices during ancient China.
- Dali Temple: 大理寺. Highest judiciary branch in imperial China, in charge of sentencing people and prison time.
- Qinzheng Hall: 勤政殿. This is probably the place the emperor works on official business alone, and Qiangzheng Palace (乾正宫) is where he sleeps.