This chapter has been brought to you by me and Adnana.
As the mistress of the Sima Eldest Branch, Zheng shi would not easily attend a gathering in the capital. But if she left her home, she would be flawless from her hair to her feet. Even the pickiest person could not say anything bad about her.
A servant girl knelt on the ground and pressed her skirt down. The dark patterns rippled like waves, low-key and luxurious.
Sima Ling sat on the side, and looked at her mother surrounded by servant girls. She whispered, “Mother, Third Sister came to see me yesterday.”
“What does that family want now?” Zheng shi reached out and allowed a servant girl to put a bangle of a serpent with a bead in its mouth onto her wrist.
“Third Sister wants you to take her along to today’s banquet.” Sima Ling frowned. She was also conflicted by Third Cousin’s request.
“What kind of occasion is today? Does the third branch not know?” With such terrible relatives, no matter how good Zheng shi‘s upbringing was, she couldn’t help but feel discontent. “Today, Second Miss Gu will attend this tea party. What is the third branch attending for?”
Sima Ling remained silent.
“The absurd troubles they have created have shamed the Sima Family more than once. Now, they want to attend the tea party. What is their family thinking?” Zheng shi said coldly. “The third branch must avoid all gatherings that Second Miss Gu will be present at. Even if I do not mind, the host may not welcome us.”
“Third Aunt…” Sima Ling thought of the fierce and difficult third aunt. She frowned deeply. The third branch was becoming more senseless in their conduct, and she wanted to ignore them most of the time.
“You don’t have to pay attention to the third branch.” Zheng shi walked in front of Sima Ling and said in a calm voice, “The third branch is ugly in their conduct. You are going to be married in the first lunar month. Better to stay away from them.”
“This daughter understands.” Sima Ling knew that Mother would not take Sima Xiang to any of the more important gatherings in the capital after this.
She had not expected the empress seat to land on Gu Ru Jiu. So when she thought of the matters between the Sima third branch and the Gu Family, she was conflicted. Hearing her mother mention her marriage in the first lunar month, she showed slight embarrassment.
Her marriage with the young master of the Shen Family had been set two years ago. But the Shen Family’s elders had not yet moved into the capital, and Young Master Shen wanted to reside in the capital, so the marriage was set for the first month of next year.
“The Gu Family’s temper…” Zheng shi seemed both admiring and helpless. “Remember what happened at Taihe Palace during the empress dowager’s birthday?”
“Third Cousin being frightened by a wild cat?” Sima Ling asked.
“No.” Zheng shi shook her head. “The black cat in the carriage may have been a coincidence or man-made, but definitely not because of the Gu Family. The Gu Family is proud and wouldn’t use such tactics.
“I was speaking of Xiang Girl losing to Second Miss Gu in the horse race.” Zheng shi spread her white fingers and the servant girls dyed them bright red. “The Gu Family’s pride is there. If they don’t want you to get glory, they will use their strength and abilities to suppress you. This kind of family is usually kind in conduct, but if you offend them, they will crush you into the mud, and you will not be able to come back up.”
The third branch was muddling their way through the days in the capital. Sima Yue had lost his position. Even the old master had lost his virtuous reputation completely. The third branch was gradually becoming marginal in the capital.
The Gu Family was almost telling the capital clearly that the Gu Family disliked the Sima Third Branch. Originally, everyone had cared about the eldest branch and had a hint of politeness towards the third branch. But because of Sima Yue’s complaints after getting drunk, the politeness had been worn away.
Now, almost the entire capital knew that the third branch was ungrateful and did not remember the favors done to them. The eldest branch had been dragged down by the third branch.
When people gossipped about the third branch, it did not reflect well on the eldest branch either. But what the third branch had done was too shameful, so that the eldest branch could only protect themselves.
“I feel that Second Miss Gu… is a good person.” Sima Ling thought for a moment. “It is not appropriate for Third Aunt to curse the Gu Family all day.”
Zheng shi heard this but didn’t speak. She reached out to caress the silk flower in her daughter’s hair. “All right, it’s about time to depart.”
This gathering was held by the wife of the heir to Commandery Prince Ping. Because the heiress consort was her sister-in-law, she was taking Sima Ling along with her.
In the future, when her daughter was married to the grandson of Grand Princess Deyi, she had to interact with these members of the imperial house.
This gathering would likely be in the garden of Commandery Prince Ping’s establishment. Commandery Prince Ping was an old man without much real power, but his days were comfortable, and the garden of his establishment was built with great care. The heir’s wife Sima shi set up the banquet in the garden, and it was slightly delicate and charming.
As the paternal family of the heiress consort, Zheng shi deliberately came to Commandery Prince Ping’s establishment early in order to help the heiress consort manage the servants.
With Zheng shis help, the heiress consort immediately relaxed greatly and had the leisure time to chat with Zheng shi.
“Sister-in-law, it is fortunate that you did not bring the miss from the third branch. Otherwise, it would really make it awkward for me.” When the heiress consort mentioned the third branch of the paternal family, she couldn’t help but frown.
“I know you are holding this banquet; I would not embarrass you.” Zheng shi smiled, and took a sip of the tea that her daughter handed her. Her gaze moved across the tables and chairs set up in the garden. “It does not appear there are many guests today.”
“Just the family sitting together—why invite so many people?” the heiress consort smiled and did not speak plainly.
Zheng shi understood. This banquet together was likely not a real gathering, but to express their attitude towards Miss Gu. Previously, Commandery Prince Ping had gone into the palace for the Sima Family to recommend the miss from the third branch to His Majesty. This wasn’t a major matter to speak of originally, but the bad thing was that the third branch and the Gu Family had grudges against each other. If Commandery Prince Ping’s actions reached the ears of Miss Gu, who knew what the Gu Family would think?
Commandery Prince Ping’s Establishment looked noble, but in reality, he was just an idle commandery prince without his own lands. He would not dare to offend the future empress. Considering the old commandery prince’s seniority, His Majesty would not do anything. But the old commandery prince was old. Could he protect his family for an entire lifetime?
After the old commandery prince passed away, how would his descendants maintain a foothold in the court?
Zheng shi knew of the twists and turns involved, but would not mention them, to avoid shaming her sister-in-law Also, if not for the Sima third branch, Sister-in-law’s entire family would not be in such difficulty.
Knowing that they could not continue on this topic, Zheng shi changed to speak of children, and praised Jin Xiang, saying he had become more motivated and was now carrying out duties for His Majesty.
“His Majesty is generous and is willing to let him learn from running errands.” Hearing her sister-in-law praise her son, the heiress consort’s smile grew larger. Inside, the worry she felt decreased.
In reality, when His Majesty had Xiang’er represent him to send the betrothal gifts to the Gu Family, the heiress consort had faintly felt that this was His Majesty’s warning to the commandery prince establishment.
After the sisters-in-law spoke for a while, the guests slowly arrived. Then Zheng shi discovered the guests were either members of the imperial family or people who were related by marriage with the imperial family. The other aristocratic families were not present. It did appear that her sister-in-law had not planned to invite a lot of people.
After about half of the guests arrived, everyone sat together to watch the play and chat. When the servant came to report that the Countess of Ningping and County Princess Changyan had arrived, the women present, regardless of what they were doing, all gave gentle smiles.
The heiress consort personally walked to the second gates to welcome Gu Ru Jiu and her mother, expressing great friendliness. Seeing Yang shi come in with Gu Ru Jiu, the heiress consort sighed in relief inside. If the Gu Family was willing to come with County Princess Changyan, this meant that they had thoughts of being somewhat close to the Commandery Prince Ping’s establishment.
“Greetings, Heiress Consort.” Gu Ru Jiu saw the heiress consort come out, and smiled as she curtsied to the her.
“Good girl, no need for such courtesy.” The heiress consort tilted her body slightly, as though she accidentally avoided this greeting. Then she went forward and gripped Gu Ru Jiu’s hands. She examined the other with a smile and said to Yang shi, “Long time no see, even more beautiful.” Gu Ru Jiu was only a minor county princess right now, and she would be too fawning if she returned the greeting. But if she directly accepted the other’s greeting, that would not be good. This was the future empress. So pretending to accidentally dodge the greeting was most appropriate. This way, people wouldn’t feel the Commandery Prince Ping Establishment was trying to curry favor with the future empress, but they would not offend the future empress either.
Yang shi said a few humble words, and then returned praise for the heiress consort’s son and daughter. After they showed their friendliness, the heiress consort pulled Gu Ru Jiu into the garden.
Just as Gu Ru Jiu stepped into the garden, everyone else in the garden stood up to welcome her. While they verbally greeted Yang shi first, everyone knew that the noblest person was the young girl the heiress consort was leading by the hand.
The nobility cared about their face in their conduct. Even if they wanted to gain favour with someone, they were not willing to bootlick.
But this was also good. At least, no one was embarrassed. Until the day that Gu Ru Jiu entered the palace, she was still County Princess Changyan. So at the gathering, she acted with the attitude of a junior, without anything wrong in her deportment. Even a person as picky as Zheng shi had to sincerely praise her.
After the meal started at noon, the people seated deliberately observed Gu Ru Jiu’s dining manners. They nodded inside. The Gu Family’s upbringing was extraordinary.
After eating, they performed minor tasks like rinsing their mouths, washing their hands, and wiping their hands. But there was much to speak of in these matters.
What angle looked good when one covered their mouths when rinsing? Would the hand look good and make splashes when washing? Did one have an elegant posture when wiping hands? These were all things that the aristocratic families cared about, and what people used to judge whether an aristocratic miss had good deportment.
Gu Ru Jiu knew that each of her words and actions would be endlessly magnified by the women present. But the more this was so, the more natural she acted, as though she didn’t know how much attention she attracted by attending the banquet today.
After wiping her hands and putting down the handkerchief, Gu Ru Jiu smiled slightly at the servant girl holding the tray. The servant girl curtsied to her and then left with a bowed head.
Commandery Princess Consort Kang was the most senior woman in the imperial family other than Grand Princess Deyi. She, who came from an aristocratic family, finished watching Gu Ru Jiu’s flowing movements and nodded inside.
Elegant movements, relaxed and calm; good aura, good upbringing.
After the banquet ended, Gu Ru Jiu followed behind Yang shi and bid farewell to the hosts. The heiress consort smiled as she saw mother and daughter off at the second gates. Then she had her personal servant girl help the pair onto the sedan. She waited until the sedans disappeared behind the corner before she turned and walked back.
She rejoiced greatly at her decision today. This future empress did not say an extra word or walk an extra step, but her intuition told her this young girl would be great in the future.
Thinking of the troubling third branch of her paternal family, her face darkened slightly. She found Zheng shi who had not yet left. “Eldest Sister-in-law, have the third branch stay away from the Gu Family in the future, and do not rashly offend them.”
Zheng shi saw her sister-in-law’s serious expression, put down the teacup and said, “Sister-in-law, why do you say this?”
The heiress consort smiled. “I do not fear you will laugh at me. I just feel this Miss Gu is extraordinary.”
Zheng shi heard this, smiled and acknowledged it. While she felt that Miss Gu was very good, she did not think her as powerful as her sister-in-law said. Her sister-in-law seemed to have become somewhat anxious after marrying into the commandery prince establishment for a dozen years.
Gu Ru Jiu’s sedan stopped behind the main gates of the commandery prince establishment. She got off, holding Qiu Luo’s hand, and then sat into the carriage.
The carriage did not stop and headed straight into the Gu Family. Mother and daughter returned to the inner courtyard. Yang shi took off her hairpins and said to her daughter behind her, “Jiu Jiu, what do you feel is different about today’s gathering?”
Gu Ru Jiu thought. “Those ladies conceal their gazes towards me even more, but pay more attention than in the past.”
“When you become the empress, more people will pay attention to you, even more in secret.” Yang shi took off her bracelets and put them into a box. “They will revere you and flatter you, even trying to curry favour with you. They will say the things you want to hear the most, do the things you want, and try to gain favor without sparing any effort. They will not be as subtle and hidden as the ladies today, because some people have no pride or dignity in the face of power. If you are able to give them what they want, they will be willing to be your dog.”
They had raised their daughter too well, so well she almost had no opportunities of interacting with these despicable people. She worried that her daughter would be used to the aristocratic family conduct, and be fooled by villains in the palace to do things she should not do.
Gu Ru Jiu listened quietly to Yang shi‘s teachings.
“In the face of life and self-interest, etiquette is the most useless thing.” Yang shi walked in front of her daughter and emphasized her words.” Child, after you enter the palace, you have to remember my words. I will only say this to you once.”
Gu Ru Jiu looked up and saw the complicated light in Yang shi‘s eyes.
“Do not easily trust anyone—remember, anyone.”
Gu Ru Jiu’s heart trembled. She grabbed Yang shi‘s hand. “Even you… as well?”
“No person will remain unchanged. Tempted by great power, no one can guarantee they will not forget their hearts.” Yang shi poked Gu Ru Jiu’s forehead. “Use your heart to see all matters, and do not be rashly angered. Anger makes people easily lose their intelligence. Villains like to make you angry first, so you will then lose your measure in your conduct.”
After saying all this, Yang shi reached out to touch her head. “Mother knows that you are a smart child.”
Feeling the warmth coming from her head, Gu Ru Jiu pressed her lips together and didn’t speak.
Ever since winter started, the capital had grown increasingly cold by the day. Gu Ru Jiu, due to her special status, did not attend ordinary gatherings. But even so, there were praises of her conduct, her talent and beauty. Even her horsemanship became extraordinary in the mouths of other people. The reason being she had once raced in Taihe Palace and won.
Under the praises of the noblewomen, Gu Ru Jiu appeared to be destined to be the future empress, and her union with the emperor to be one of great auspiciousness. It felt like if they married, the Feng Dynasty would grow prosperous and strong.
While Gu Ru Jiu was at home learning different techniques for the palace, Princess Consort Cheng had sent a note to the Gu Family, but Yang shi had found a reason to refuse. But Yang shi‘s refusal did not affect Princess Consort Cheng’s enthusiasm. A fortnight later, she used the excuse of admiring the plums to invite the women of the Gu Family.
Looking through the invitations in her hand, Yang shi looked at her daughter-in-law Hu shi. “This Princess Consort Cheng is clever, but has not used it appropriately.” Now she was in a panic. What was she thinking before this?
The second princess consort did not treat well the child left behind by the previous consort. If she merely was colder towards him, other people would feel it was normal and not say anything. But she neglected him, and allowed her children to bully him and the servants to slight him. That was the eldest legitimate son of the prince establishment, not a pet.
Now, the eldest legitimate son had the good fortune of becoming emperor. What was the use in being afraid now? What was the use in finding the Gu Family? Did she think that the Gu Family would speak on her behalf?
In plain terms, which mother-in-law would like outsiders that bullied her son-in-law?
“She may be grasping at straws.” Hu shi took a sip of tea.” Pity that while she feels some alertness, her children do not pay much attention to their conduct. She has put down her face to search and plan, but it is useless.”
“Will we go just because she invites us?” Gu Ru Jiu’s tone was not good. “If I were them, I would stay docile. Why run out, to get into the emperor’s eyes?”
Thinking of how Jin Yang, the prince’s legitimate and eldest son, was bullied by his stepmother and his younger siblings in childhood, Gu Ru Jiu did not feel good at all.
You bullied him when you wanted to. Now that he has become the emperor, you regret it and you want forgiveness? You have such a big face you don’t fear falling to the ground?
Hu shi saw her younger sister-in-law have a bad expression and knew she did not like Princess Consort Cheng and her family. She said, “Princess Consort Cheng and her children were used to being flattered in Jin Prefecture, and think that the capital is like that. Jumping up and down like this is just making a joke of themselves to others.”
Even though Second Sister-in-law was saying so, Gu Ru Jiu still felt that Princess Consort Cheng and her family were eyesores.
When Princess Consort Cheng received the reply from the Gu Family, she still felt a little hope. When she opened and read the reply, her face darkened immediately. After being refused twice in a fortnight by the Gu Family, Princess Consort Cheng was slightly irritated even though she was asking help from the Gu Family.
Her three children saw her expression and cursed the Gu Family on behalf of Princess Consort Cheng.
“All right.” Princess Consort Cheng slapped the Gu Family’s reply onto the table, and took a few deep breaths. “Since the Gu Family has no time, then never mind. We will find another opportunity to invite them in the future.”
“Their family just produced an empress—where did they get their arrogance?” Jin Shu Yi said discontentedly. “What is so great about being an empress? Who knows if His Majesty is voluntarily marrying her? Or is it because of the empress dowager?”
“Regardless of the reason, she is the future empress,” Princess Consort Cheng said tiredly. “It’s almost the new year. The three of you, don’t go out and stay at home to learn etiquette.”
Jin Shu Yi snorted and didn’t speak. In Jin Prefecture, who dared to make her, a commandery princess, learn etiquette? Now that she was in the capital, she could not do this, she could not go there—what was the point?
“If you had not bullied the present emperor in the past, you would not have to learn the etiquette.” Princess Consort Cheng’s face darkened and she said, “Since you have offended him, then you have to pick up your etiquette.”
“If you had stopped us back then, we would not have continued to bully him,” Jin Shu Yi argued in a whisper. “You cannot blame everything on us.”
Princess Consort Cheng’s face turned white in anger. She said, “If you continue to talk back, then you may not go out!” Then she ignored her daughter’s expression and left the room.
For Jin Yang who was now emperor, how worried and afraid Princess Consort Cheng and her family were, was not important to him. He was discussing with the Ministry of Rites the details of the specifications and proceedings for the empress welcoming ceremony.
The Ministry of Rites thought that they could just arrange based on the previous empress welcoming ceremonies. But after Jin Yang read the proceedings that the Ministry of Rites produced, he was dissatisfied.
“Since this is Zhen‘s empress, then Zhen should welcome her in person. What is the meaning in having another member of the imperial family welcome her?”
“Your Majesty, you are the son of heaven and of high status. How can you act like an ordinary man? You cannot do this.”
“Based on Officials’ meaning, Zhen is the son of heaven and of high status. Then the empress has the fate of a phoenix. If someone else welcomes her in the ceremony, would that not show disrespect towards the empress?”
The officials from the Ministry of Rites were speechless upon hearing this. No matter how noble the empress, it was because of the status of the emperor. The two could not be compared.
“Zhen thinks since the empress is the wife of the emperor, the noblest of women in the world, other than Zhen, no one else matches the nobility of the empress.” Jin Yang closed the proceedings in his hands and said, “Officials, go and think how the proceedings should be arranged if Zhen is going in person.”
Seeing His Majesty persisting in the tradition of the groom welcoming the bride, the Ministry of Rites officials could only compromise. In any case, it wasn’t as though there was no precedent for an emperor welcoming an empress. In the past, there had been an emperor writing a decree that he would never have a consort, and when he was with the empress, they would ride in the same carriage.
So the Ministry of Rites officials, after seeing the odd behaviours of all kinds of emperors in history, had great tolerance. As long as the emperor was willing and was not making some mistake in principles, the Ministry of Rites was not willing to be at odds with His Majesty.
The emperor and empress being in harmony was a good thing. Why should they be against it?
Translator Ramblings: Closer and closer …