Chapter 3: The Riddle of the Empress Dowager
When the carriage came through the palace gates, a guard came forward for an inspection. But Gu Ru Jiu did not get off the carriage and rode all the way in.
The wheels rumbled as they rolled along the stone slabs. Gu Ru Jiu lifted a corner of the window covering and only saw the guards beside the carriage and the tall red walls.
Putting down the curtain, she touched her arm and tried to make her expression seem more at ease.
The Feng Dynasty’s imperial palace was not small. On the way, even through the curtains, Gu Ru Jiu could hear the footsteps of the imperial guards passing by and the clanging of their weapons and armour colliding.
This atmosphere caused her to sense the rigidity of the imperial palace and have a deeper understanding of power.
The carriage moved through the palace for about half an hour. She seemed to hear the sound of clapping ahead and the carriage stopped.
The two matrons who were welcoming Gu Ru Jiu into the palace had not expected they would encounter the imperial procession. They should move aside, but there was only a long alley here without any place to move. They could only stop at the side to show their respect to the emperor.
While the emperor did not hold real power, no matter what, the other was the emperor. Even though they were matrons close to the empress dowager, in front of the emperor, they were just palace attendants.
The matron standing close to the carriage walked to the carriage window and whispered, “Miss Gu, the imperial procession is coming.”
Gu Ru Jiu heard this and knew that the matron was reminding her to welcome the procession. So she lifted the curtain and stepped down from the carriage holding the matron’s hand.
“Bai Xian, what is happening ahead?” Jin Yang detected the imperial procession slowing down. He coughed lowly and then reached out to brush aside the curtain obscuring his view. He saw a young girl, dressed in a watery indigo dress with a crescent cape, slowly descend from a county mistress regulation carriage. Because of the distance and the other’s bowed head, he only saw the other’s black hair.
As his carriage came close, he couldn’t help but take another look at this young girl. The black hair hanging by her cheek contrasted against the whiteness of her skin. Even the plain silver hairpins in her hair appeared exceptionally pretty.
Seeing this young girl’s daintiness, Jin Yang suppressed the itchiness in his throat. He covered his mouth with a handkerchief and pushed down the urge to cough.
He felt if he coughed out loud, he might give the young girl a fright.
As the imperial procession passed the carriage, he couldn’t help but look at the young girl standing with a bowed head. The cold wind blew up the corners of her robe and her cape. He couldn’t help but say, “The early spring is cold. Miss, you do not have to be so polite. Go back into the carriage.”
After he said this, he saw the young girl move slightly. He saw her white and small chin, her moist lips and her lightly pink cheeks.
She looked like a healthy girl. This was good.
A small smile appeared on Jin Yang’s face. He slowly put down the curtain.
Hearing the sound of the imperial procession leaving, Gu Ru Jiu lifted her head and looked in that direction.
The matrons helped her back into the carriage. As the curtain was let down, she finally had the time to think what kind of person the new emperor was. A child not yet thirteen understood to be concerned for others. She just didn’t know if this was true compassion or a performance for other people.
The carriage advanced for another half hour before stopping at a distance from Kangquan Palace.
Kangquan Palace was the residential palace of Empress Dowager Zhou. Other women, to show their respect to Empress Dowager Zhou, would not ride carriages or sedans directly to the gates of the palace. Gu Ru Jiu noticed that there were more palace attendants here than at the palaces she passed, and their actions and speech were more careful. There were no palace attendants that would stand around at a distance to watch her. Anyone who encountered her face-on would bow and move back to show respect or avoid her. There was no one who lacked a sense of propriety.
Kangquan Palace was the residence of successive generations of empress dowagers, so it was especially calm and elegant. This was the first time Gu Ru Jiu stepped into a place like this. The matrons and palace maids leading the way had smiles on their faces, but that could not disguise the specialness of this place.
In her imagination, Empress Dowager Zhou would be a person with great presence even if she was not especially beautiful. But the first moment she saw the other, she upended her original thoughts.
“Jiu Jiu is here?” Empress Dowager Zhou had originally been sitting properly on a chair. Seeing Gu Ru Jiu enter, she gave a smile. When she saw Gu Ru Jiu’s features, her attitude became even warmer. Before Gu Ru Jiu could finish making her curtsy, she smiled and led Gu Ru Jiu by the hand to sit down next to her. “We are family members and do not have to be so polite. You can call me Aunt in private.”
Gu Ru Jiu sensed Empress Dowager Zhou kept staring at her face, and was puzzled. But she still sweetly called “Aunt.” Based on their familial relationship, the empress dowager was her first-cousin once removed and not ‘paternal aunt’, but who would correct that at this time?
“Good, good, good.” Empress Dowager had the palace attendant deliver tea, fruits and pastries. She kept a hold on Gu Ru Jiu’s hand. “When you were a month old, I was not in good health and didn’t have a chance to go out of the palace to see you. In the blink of an eye, you have grown so big.”
Gu Ru Jiu had heard her mother mention, two days before her birth, Empress Dowager Zhou’s little princess had passed away. The princess had only lived a few months more than the little imperial son. Empress Dowager Zhou’s health hadn’t recovered in the next few years of recuperation. After that, she did not interact much with her paternal family.
A decade had passed. Gu Ru Jiu looked at the gentle woman in front of her, and could not imagine how she had managed to live through the gloomiest of times to become the most noble woman in the Feng Dynasty.
“Mother mentioned to me that you sent over the longevity lock I wore when I was young,” Gu Ru Jiu said with a smile. “You also sent over many good things. But I was young then, and didn’t know to thank you.”
“You were so young then, and you never had a chance to visit the palace before this. How could you have thanked me?” Empress Dowager Zhou smiled and pushed a plate of thousand-layer cake in front of Gu Ru Jiu. She said in a soft voice, “I heard your father mention you like to eat thousand-layer cake. I had the imperial kitchen make this for you. See if it is to your taste.”
There was a pile of delicate pastries in the middle of a rippled plate. While these were thousand-layer cakes, each one was just the size of a thumbnail and looked adorable.
She used a silver toothpick to put one into her mouth. It was not as good as those from her family’s chefs. Gu Ru Jiu saw the anticipation in the empress dowager’s smile. She swallowed the pastry, took a drink of tea and said, “Slightly too greasy.”
As expected, the empress dowager was not displeased at her words. She nodded and said, “Just as I expected. In terms of thousand-layer cake, your family’s chefs are the best. Back when I was still unmarried, I once went to your family’s mansion. I do not remember anything else but that the thousand-layer cake melted immediately in my mouth and left fragrance behind.”
“It really was so delicious?” Gu Ru Jiu’s eyes widened. She was curious and also slightly regretful. “The pastry chef now is that chef’s disciple. I had no opportunity to taste it.”
Empress Dowager Zhou saw her wide eyes. She itched inside, wanting to reach out and squeeze the other’s cheeks. Fortunately, she remembered her status and did not make inappropriate actions.
The two spoke for a while. Empress Dowager Zhou had Gu Ru Jiu write a poem for her. She sighed after seeing it. “Skilled disciples come from famed teachers. You are young, but your calligraphy has some of your father’s style already.”
“Aunt, thank you for the compliment.” Gu Ru Jiu smiled, her eyes curving. She revealed two faint dimples. Empress Dowager Zhou saw them and her impulse to pinch those cheeks rose again.
No matter what, Empress Dowager Zhou was exceptionally happy. When Gu Ru Jiu had entered, she had felt exceptionally good towards this child. When she saw the girl’s features and the dimples, her heart softened.
She lived in the palace but she had seen many young girls. Gu Ru Jiu was not the most beautiful, but the most obedient and likable. She was like the freshest of peaches that made people feel she was especially sweet even from afar.
But no matter how much Empress Dowager Zhou liked Gu Ru Jiu, she could not have a child of a court official stay overnight in the palace. So when Gu Ru Jiu was leaving, she held Gu Ru Jiu’s hand and said, “The emperor is usually busy and I have no other children. If you are free, come to the palace to visit. Child, you and I have karma. I feel like you are like my child.”
Gu Ru Jiu gave a bashful smile to Empress Dowager Zhou when she heard this, as though she was embarrassed. When her gaze landed on the back of Empress Dowager Zhou’s hand, she saw while the hand was white, it was not as soft and smooth as that of a young girl.
In this visit to the imperial palace, Gu Ru Jiu only sat for half a day in the empress dowager’s Kangquan Palace and did not see any other person other than coincidentally encountering the young emperor’s imperial procession.
Even as she was sitting on the carriage to return to the mansion, she did not know the empress dowager’s intentions. It did not seem like the other wanted to deliberately try to recruit the Gu Family. No one would use a visit with a ten-year-old girl to pull a court official to their side. That was too unreliable.
But from Empress Dowager Zhou’s attitude, she did not appear to have any misgivings about the Gu Family. If the empress dowager was really discontented with her family, the empress dowager would not have had her father be an imperial teacher, and allowed a county mistress regulation carriage to transport her to and from the palace.
Could it really be that the empress dowager was curious about this niece she had never seen before? So she was summoned, and found pleasing, and was being treated like an adorable pet?
Thinking of the carriage behind her filled with things, Gu Ru Jiu irresponsibly wiped her face. Whatever, she would give this complicated matter to her parents.
In reality, Gu Chang Ling and his wife were also puzzled when they saw Gu Ru Jiu come back with a big carriage of rewards. Had their daughter gone and ransacked Kangquan Palace to bring back so many good items of the empress dowager?
Wasn’t that gold and jade layered hairpin one of the tribute items from a small country? Why would it appear in this pile of gifts?
And that galaxy crystal lantern. They heard, in the past, one of the noble consorts had liked it greatly but the previous emperor had given it to Empress Dowager Zhou. Why would it appear here?
“Daughter, what did you do to the empress dowager after entering the palace?” Gu Chang Ling looked suspiciously at Gu Ru Jiu as though he was seeing a miracle.
Gu Ru Jiu: …
Could she be blamed for the empress dowager shoving things onto her?
Translator Ramblings: I feel like the empress dowager is in her late thirties or even younger, so lots of maternal feeling going on here.