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“Official Gu, please wait,” He Ming trotted forward and bowed to Gu Cun Jing.
“He Gonggong.” Gu Cun Jing stopped in his steps and raised his hands in a bow. “Is something the matter?” He had just finished his shift and was preparing to return home. He didn’t know why He Ming had stopped him.
“Apologies for the disturbance.” He MIng squeezed out a smile. “His Majesty is inviting you to Purple Imperial Hall for tea. Official, please do not refuse.” If this was anyone else, He Ming only had to say that His Majesty had summons, but this was the brother of the future empress and valued greatly by His Majesty. He had to be measured.
“So that’s why. Thank you, Gonggong for making the trip.” Gu Cun Jing smiled politely at He Ming and walked in the direction of Purple Imperial Hall.
Gu Cun Jing had a candid personality, but he was well-mannered and considerate. Even facing an eunuch official like He Ming, he would not posture like an aristocratic young master, and embarrass him.
As an eunuch serving the emperor personally, He Ming had seen all kinds of faces before. There were those polite on the surface and disdainful inside. There were those that tried to gain favor. There were also those that never looked properly at him from beginning to end. But these important people from the Gu Family never postured towards servants like him and made him feel at ease.
Minister Gu, Lady Gu, Heir Gu, Second Master Gu, and County Princess Changyan were people he had received in person. After meeting them, he understood why the Gu Family had managed to remain standing although they did not have many members.
Conducting themselves with integrity was a good advantage.
Entering Purple Imperial Hall, Gu Cun Jing was halfway through his bow to Jin Yang when he was called up. But he still persisted in finishing the greeting. “Your Majesty, you summoned this subject for…”
“Official Gu, please drink tea first.” Jin Yang had Gu Cun Jing sit, and then a palace servant served him tea. “Today, Official Gu has been summoned to chat about family matters.”
Gu Cun Jing put down the teacup he was served and said with a stern expression, “Your Majesty, please speak.”
“Official Gu, no need to be so serious. According to the common folk, you are my older brother-in-law, and family members do not have to be so strict.” Jin Yang coughed. “I just wanted to ask, has Jiu Jiu been well recently? Last time when she visited the palace, I saw she was much thinner. Has she been resting well?”
Gu Cun Jing laughed inside. My sister hasn’t married yet—don’t be in such a hurry to claim a relationship.
But he would only think those thoughts, and would never voice them.
“My sister has been well recently.” Gu Cun Jing lifted his head and saw His Majesty looking at him with a burning gaze. He added, “Maybe, because she is in a good mood, she has been eating more recently.”
Jin Yang immediately smiled and then said, “The vassal countries have given some fruit in tribute. If Brother-in-law doesn’t mind, please take some back to taste.”
Bai Xian walked in with a package of fruits, and stood behind Gu Cun Jing in a bow.
It was already winter, and fresh fruits and vegetables were not common. Gu Cun Jing was not stupid. He knew that Jiu Jiu liked eating fruits and vegetables. Now, His Majesty was having him bring these back. Having him take a taste was fake, gifting Jiu Jiu fruit was true.
His Majesty thinking of his sister was a good thing. Gu Cun Jing gave thanks, and returned to the Gu Family with a large bag of fruit. He went directly to the small courtyard his younger sister lived in.
“Second Brother, what are you doing?” Gu Ru Jiu saw Gu Cun Jing come in with a large cloth bag, and was puzzled by it.
“I have brought you something good to eat.” Gu Cun Jing put the bag on the table, and opened it. Inside were pears, oranges, longan, and two grapefruits.
“Where did you buy so many fruits from?” Gu Ru Jiu walked next to the table with shock. She picked up a longan. “These are still available in Jing?”
“I have come as a favor to someone.” Gu Cun Jing sat down on the stool. “The outside may not have such things, but one place does not lack them.”
“His Majesty had you bring them?” Gu Ru Jiu immediately understood. A few days ago, a vassal country had given tribute. There was precious gold, silver, and jewels along with two wagons of wild treasures and fruit. While most had been damaged during transport, there was a small portion preserved.
The imperial house had to reward people with these fruits, so there was really not much left for Jin Yang.
“I think that His Majesty knows you like fruits, so he had me bring these.” Gu Cun Jing took a sip of tea Qiu Luo handed over and said with a smile, “It is good that His Majesty had such intentions.”
Gu Ru Jiu reached out to touch the two big grapefruits and smiled.
The next day, Second Brother Gu bore the burden willingly and carried a small bag into the palace to see Jin Yang.
Jin Yang opened the small bag. Inside was a food box with four pastries inside. At the center of the pastry was a sour plum. In terms of appearance, it was average.
But these sour plum pastries caused Jin Yang to laugh freely. He took one and took a taste. The pastry was soft and delicious, perfect in its sweetness and even his heart grew sweet and soft.
Seeing His Majesty put the pastry directly into his mouth, Gu Cun Jing was given a fright. Where was the taste-testing eunuch?
After Jin Yang finished the pastry the size of a baby’s fist, he said, “Thank you, Second Brother-in-law.”
“This subject doesn’t dare.” Gu Cun Jing was stunned by Jin Yang’s conduct. Even after he left Purple Imperial Hall, he still hadn’t recovered.
“Brother Gu, what is wrong with you?” Hu Yun Qi saw his expression wasn’t quite right and asked after avoiding other people.
Gu Cun Jing shook his head, and hung his blade at his waist. “Nothing.”
Seeing him not plan to speak, Hu Yun Qi did not ask again. He spoke of something else. “What did you hear when you came?”
Gu Cun Jing put his hand on the cold blade scabbard. The scabbard was carved with flying fish and lucky clouds. This was a weapon allowed to only the dragon guards. “You mean the matter of Commandant Cao.”
There were three hundred people in the Imperial Dragon Guards. Most of them were of noble birth and had extraordinary martial skill. Otherwise, they would not be able to shoulder the responsibility of protecting the emperor. All of the Dragon Guards were under the command of the Imperial Dragon commandants. Commandant Cao was the head of the Dragon Guards and had a third rank commandant position.
“His matter this time is considerable.” Hu Yun Qi looked around and whispered, “He likely won’t be able to keep his position.” The matter had not been publicized, so many people did not know. However, he coincidentally had learned about it.
The Cao Clan had been glorious for a while more than ten years ago and could be considered new nobility in court. But they declined in recent years, and barely maintained their honor as aristocrats due to Commandant Wei’s position in the palace. But Commandant Wei was not very smart. It would have been good to stay as a close attendant to the emperor. But he wanted to curry favor with the aristocratic families, and leaked the movements of the emperor. Wasn’t this seeking death?
As a dragon guard, the first duty was the personal safety of His Majesty. They could not leak any of the emperor’s movements. If they could not do that, then why be a dragon guard?
“He sought trouble for himself—no one could stop him.” Gu Cun Jing noticed someone coming and raised his voice. “I’ll go first; we are about to change shifts soon.”
Hu Yun Qi chuckled. If other people saw, they would only think that these were good friends chatting casually.
During dinner, Jin Yang ordered the imperial kitchens to prepare a vegetable porridge for him, and then ate the last three sour plum cakes.
When the eunuchs were cleaning the table, Jin Yang held the box containing the sour plums and then gave it to Bai Xian. “Put it away.”
Bai Xian held this food box not much bigger than his hand, and bowed as he left.
The box was ordinary except for the patterns on the box of flowers and branches twining together that were lingering and beautiful.
The private storeroom of the emperor was large, and ordinary people could not come close. Bai Xian, as a close personal eunuch, and the eunuch guarding the storeroom each had a key. If they were missing one of the keys and there were no personal orders from the emperor, no one could force open the door.
Entering the storeroom, Bai Xian glanced at the food box, thought for a moment, and placed it on the shelf in the left corner.
This shelf was large, and held many neatly placed valuable or ordinary items, including a badly embroidered pouch that was white from being washed.
The eunuch holding the lamp glanced at the items on the shelf and was puzzled. Why did His Majesty and Bai Gonggong treat these inexpensive things like treasures? Any item in this room was worth more than this poplar wood food box.
While curious, he didn’t dare to talk. After seeing Bai Xian away, he murmured to himself, “The thoughts of important people are really strange.”
The days passed in Jin Yang’s anticipation. He occasionally had to debate with officials about the scale of the empress-welcoming ceremony, so his days were full and busy.
After a fortnight, he investigated Commandant Cao, relieved him of all duties, and then promoted Gu Cun Jing to commandant, as head of the Imperial Dragon Guards.
The change in positions attracted attention, but no one jumped to say anything. Since His Majesty was going to marry a daughter of the Gu Family, he naturally had to give her paternal family some grace. For example, Minister Gu’s marquis title would likely become a ducal title when his daughter became the empress.
The titles of the Feng Dynasty could be inherited with downgrades. So both the new nobility and the old nobility placed great importance on the titles. Some new nobility bled and cried in hopes of getting a title.
This was why that emperor of the Feng Dynasty centuries ago was cunning. He rearranged the aristocratic family genealogies, so the titles could be inherited with downgrades. Each matter appeared to be well-arranged, but all these matters had one goal behind them—centralizing power and weakening the influence of the aristocratic families.
You want the imperial house to award titles? All right, you first have to make the emperor happy. Over time, invisibly, this increased the influence of the imperial house.
Regardless of how much effort successive generations of emperors used to realize these strategies, at least now, it appeared those past strategies had been useful.
Gu Cun Jing had managed to become a third rank commandant from an ordinary dragon guard in a few short years. This promotion speed, to some people, was enviable. Once there was envy, there would be gossip.
Nepotism, climbing using a woman etc. There were not many who spoke behind people’s backs, but the words were ugly.
If this was someone with a strong temper, they likely would be extremely discontent. But to Gu Cun Jing, these rumors were nothing.
Originally, Gu Ru Jiu had worried he would be affected, but he was more relaxed than Gu Ru Jiu.
“Those people gossiping behind my back are not truly expressing disdain towards this matter. They are jealous other people can get what they cannot, so they pretend to be above it all, so people will pay attention to them.” Gu Cun Jing shook his head and said proudly, “People are not calling me mediocre, so why should I argue with them?”
In other words, these people made their presence felt through dismissing others, but in reality, their jealousy was leaking out.
Gu Ru Jiu’s words were all blocked. She peeled an orange and put it into Gu Cun Jing’s hand. “Yes, yes, yes, you make sense.”
“But Younger Sister, do not let the gossip influence your mood.” Gu Cun Jing threw an orange slice into his mouth. It was so sour he almost cried. “Younger Sister, where did you get this?”
“From the ones in my backyard.” Gu Ru Jiu wiped away the orange juice and said with a smile, “Is it delicious?”
If one said these were delicious, they would lack a conscience.
“Were the oranges you sent to the palace last and this year these ones?” Gu Cun Jing glared with wide eyes at Gu Ru Jiu. He had seen His Majesty eat the entire orange then. If every orange was this sour, how much perseverance did His Majesty have to swallow them?
“I picked the ones at the ends of the branches to send into the palace. They shouldn’t be this sour.” Gu Ru Jiu rolled an orange on the table. “A lot of the picked oranges went bad. It was hard to preserve these. Do not look down on them for not being sweet enough.”
Gu Cun Jing put the remainder of his orange onto the table, and took two large swallows of tea. He said seriously, “Younger Sister, I feel His Majesty is one in ten thousand. It’s good to marry him.”
Being able to eat such a sour orange—it must be true love.
Gu Ru Jiu heard this and laughed, her eyes gentle.
Time slowly passed until it was the end of the year. The officials of court started to put away their brushes. New Year’s goods filled the streets of the capital, and filled the great streets and small alleys with the presence of the New Year.
The Gu Family’s New Years were exceptionally busy. The gifts they received were several times more than in past years. Some of those who did not have enough status to enter the Gu Family gates tried all kinds of ways to shove in gifts, seeking some sense of existence with the Gu Family.
In the past at this time of year, Gu Ru Jiu would follow Yang shi to different families to visit. But this year, other than to her maternal grandparents, she did not go anywhere.
Gu Ru Jiu’s maternal family, the Yang Clan, was like the Gu Family. They had been a prosperous clan in another place before moving to the capital.
Her grandparents were both gentle old people, and had not changed their attitudes due to Gu Ru Jiu being about to become the empress. Her two aunts became more restrained, but their concern towards her was still sincere. She and her cousins had not grown distant either.
Because Yang Wen Ji and Hu Xi had confirmed their engagement, Gu Ru Jiu congratulated him and caused Yang Wen Ji to flush.
Madam Yang saw the juniors were still very close and said with a smile to Yang shi, “Jiu Jiu looks more steady than in the past.”
Looking at her daughter who was talking with her nephews and nieces, Yang shi sighed, “If she was still like before, I would really be worried.”
“I think you are good, but you like to worry too much. The decades haven’t changed that.” Mistress Yang understood her daughter very well. “The children and grandchildren have their own fortune. Has she ever made trouble for you over these years?”
Yang shi stilled upon hearing this. Jiu Jiu had been likable, adorable, obedient, and understanding from her birth. Both she and her husband loved their daughter greatly, and wanted nothing bad to touch her. But just like her mother said, while Jiu Jiu was naive, she had never caused trouble for her family.
Seeing the dazed look on her daughter’s face, Mistress Yang smiled. “So don’t worry—this child is more intelligent than you imagine. Rather than worry needlessly, you should think about the future.”
Yang shi knew what her mother worried about and said, “The family has talked. After Jiu Jiu becomes the empress, my husband will quit the position of minister.”
“Yes, that’s good.” Madam Yang thought for a moment and nodded. “Even if he has withdrawn, Zhi Yu and Cun Jing are accomplished. Advance by retreat is the path to long prosperity.”
If Gu Zhi Yu and Gu Cun Jing were wastrels, the Gu family may not have dared to make such a decision. But the two brothers were both capable people. Gu Chang Ling’s action was slightly risky, but in the long run, it was all benefit and no harm.
It was not good for the empress’ family to be too prominent.
Yang shi smiled upon hearing this and turned to look towards her daughter. Only new nobility and wealthy tycoons would live gilded days once they got a bit of power.
The year end passed and the men of the Gu Family became busy again as court started.
At the end of the first month, the legitimate daughter of the Sima Eldest Branch was married, the groom being the eldest legitimate grandson of Grand Princess Deyi, Shen Qing He.
The dowry of Miss Sima could be said to be an outstanding ten miles of dowry. When the first box was being carried through the gates of the Shen Family, parts of the dowry were still waiting in the Sima Family. The people watching all tsked in wonder and said that the marriage of the empress would be just so.
Shen Qing He was handsome, and had an extraordinary presence. People who knew Sima Ling would feel that he and Sima Ling were a match made in heaven.
Sima Xiang stood in the courtyard of the Sima Eldest branch. She watched the extraordinary Young Master Shen compose several Bride Urging Poems before Younger Male Cousin finally opened the doors and carried her elder female cousin out on his back. She felt a bit of envy and also slightly heartsore.
Since the moment Sima Ling was carried out of the courtyard, the sound of firecrackers did not stop. Everyone had smiles on their faces. Red paper covered the ground, showing that the owner’s family was having a big and happy occasion.
Sima Xiang followed the other guests watching the spectacle out of the inner courtyard. She watched her female cousin sit in the sedan. Young Master Shen turned back several times to look at the wedding sedan with gentle eyes.
Amid the popping firecrackers, the sedan was sent off. Sima Xiang stood at the gates, watching the surrounding people run around, and suddenly felt as though she was cut off from this scene. She was the only one locked in this square inch of space, a lightless space, without any hope of getting out.
She watched the dowry boxes get carried out from the gates one by one. She suddenly thought, with this grand scene of her female cousin’s marriage, would Gu Ru Jiu, as the future empress, be able to rival this?
A month was not a long time, but also not a short one. At least, to Gu Ru Jiu, a month passed in the blink of an eye. When she was woken up by the servant girls before the sun came up that day, her mind still hadn’t understood.
When the ultra-rank palace attendant presented the wedding robe embroidered with phoenix patterns in front of her, she opened wide her bleary eyes.
Today was her wedding day.
Then she bathed and changed clothes. The empress’ wedding robes were exceptionally detailed, a layer after another, each one exquisite, and worn together, not heavy on the body at all.
Her hair was put up, and then decorated with fake hair secured by hairpins. When Gu Ru Jiu put on the tasseled golden crown with a flying phoenix holding a pearl in its beak, she felt her head was heavier. When she looked at herself in the mirror, she was dazed.
Was this woman exuding nobility her?
Qiankun Palace was covered in red silk. Even Purple Imperial Hall had large “Joy” characters hung up. Every single item or color that may have misfortune was put away without exception.
Originally, the wedding chamber should have been located in the empress’ residence, the Luanhe Palace. But Jin Yang felt that husband and wife were one. For the first three days after the bride married, she should live in her husband’s rooms. Because there was no precedent for this course of action, he and the people of the Ministry of Rites argued for several days before the wedding chamber was finally set up in Purple Imperial Hall.
As the groom, Jin Yang did not sleep well that night. He woke up several times during the night, hating the night for being long and hating his inability to go welcome his bride earlier.
He finally managed to make it until sunrise. He had servants help him bathe and put on the groom robes embroidered with dragons.
“Why isn’t it time yet?” Jin Yang paced inside the hall. “If late, will we miss the auspicious time?”
“Your Majesty, do not worry. Water has been used to clean the streets today, and unrelated people are not allowed on the streets. You will not miss the time.” Hu Yun Qi raised his folded hands and said, “It is still early. Her Majesty the empress must still be dressing up. If you go too early, this will bother the Gu Family.”
Hearing the words “Her Majesty the empress,” his restlessness eased slightly. He said, “You are right, Zhen‘s thinking was inappropriate.”
Hu Yun Qi said with a smile, “This subject understands your thoughts. The night before this subject’s wedding, this subject couldn’t sleep due to excitement and thought the night passed too slowly. If not for my family members, this subject would have run to get the bride at first light in the morning.”
Jin Yang nodded. “Yes, the night is too long.”
With Hu Yun Qi keeping him company and talking, Jin Yang calmed down for a while. Yet when the Ministry of Rites officials outside said that he could leave, Hu Yun Qi saw a blur. He turned to look, but the emperor had already darted out.
Didn’t they say that His Majesty was sickly of health? He wasn’t slow at all.
Translator Ramblings: They are almost married!