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Dowager Consort trembled, hiding behind Gu Ru Jiu and unresponsive to Dowager Consort Qian’s scolding. Her eyes were extremely wide, as though they were about to pop out the next moment.
“Not me, not me.” Dowager Consort Sun suddenly pointed at Dowager Consort Qian and screamed, “It’s you—you did it back then.”
After the lightning strike, a strong wind started, causing the leaves on the trees outside to rustle. Gu Ru Jiu freed her wrist from Dowager Consort Sun’s grip and turned to look at Dowager Consort Qian.
Dowager Consort Qian’s clothing was flapping in the wind, her hair pins swaying. Her lips were pressed tightly together, as though she was suppressing some emotion. But when Gu Ru Jiu looked over, her expression had gradually calmed.
“Your Majesty, Dowager Consort Sun had a nightmare, and her mind is muddled.” Dowager Consort Qian walked in front of Gu Ru Jiu and curtsied. Gu Ru Jiu returned the greeting and said, “This palace sees Dowager Consort Sun is not in a good state. Come, send for the palace physician.”
“Your Majesty.” Dowager Consort Qian looked at Gu Ru Jiu and said with a serious expression, “Dowager Consort Sun is speaking nonsense. If this spreads, I fear this will damage the reputation of the imperial family.”
“Dowager Consort Qian, do not worry. This will not spread.” Gu Ru Jiu’s gaze moved across everyone present in the hall. “If it spreads, everyone related to the matter will be sent to the Bureau of Punishment.”
The palace attendants didn’t dare to meet her gaze and all looked down.
“Send this palace’s orders. Dowager Consort Sun caught the cold during the night—have the Academy of Palace Physicians send someone to examine her as soon as possible.” Gu Ru Jiu finished making arrangements and had a palace maid be in charge of Dowager Consort Sun. Then she said to Dowager Consort Qian, “Dowager Consort Qian, how about we go somewhere else and talk? I fear there are too many people here, and it will not be good for Dowager Consort Sun’s health.”
Dowager Consort Qian looked at Dowager Consort Sun who was a bit abnormal and smiled insincerely. “Your Majesty is correct.”
She followed behind Gu Ru Jiu to a side hall of Jingan Palace. The hall was brightly lit and not as cold as usual.
Thinking of this, she looked at Gu Ru Jiu in front of her. With this empress who had the emperor’s sole favour, how would there be no fun? She laughed scornfully inside and sat under Gu Ru Jiu.
“Dowager Consort Qian.” Gu Ru Jiu smiled. “You haven’t slept yet so late?”
Dowager Consort Qian looked at Gu Ru Jiu whose hair was loose behind her back and touched the hairpins in her hair. She said with a smile, “When one gets old, their sleep is light and it’s hard to sleep if there is any noise.”
“This palace sees that Dowager Consort’s appearance is very young.” Gu Ru Jiu laughed softly. “How come you say you are old?”
“Women like us, even if not old in age, are old at heart.” Dowager Consort Qian grimaced after a moment. “I will not hide from Your Majesty. I have been in the palace for decades, and I was the same age as you are now when I entered—but was not as lucky as you. I never received the previous emperor’s favour. Before the night, I would always dress up solemnly and think, maybe the emperor will come see me at any time.”
At this point, Dowager Consort Qian shook her head, seeming to feel that it was meaningless to mention those past matters. “These past matters are just jokes when spoken of now. But after some habits have formed, they cannot be changed.”
Gu Ru Jiu was silent for a moment. She looked down at the teacup in her hand. “The past has already gone. Dowager Consort, do not worry too much about the past.”
Dowager Consort Qian laughed softly, seemingly in self-mockery and also mocking Gu Ru Jiu’s words.
Back then, she had been in love, but because the previous emperor thought her birthdate was compatible with his, he wanted her in the palace. Her parents, for the future of her brothers, ignored her pleas and sent her into the palace.
She received favor for more than half a year with no good news. The previous emperor grew tired of her and went to favor other consorts. She hated the previous emperor, hated her parents, but she had to use all means to keep being favored. She could even make herself confess love to the emperor in her dreams.
But only she knew how much she was disgusted by that man. When she dreamed at night, she would wet her pillows.
They all said the noble misses had it good in the capital, but no matter how good, how noble, they could not compare to the noble sons. For example, she ate and dressed well from birth, but in the face of her brothers’ interests, she could only be the sacrifice.
“So I say Your Majesty is a fortunate person.” Dowager Consort Qian looked with burning eyes at Gu Ru Jiu. “Your Majesty has a better life than us.”
This us, did not include just her—there was Dowager Consort Sun, the empress dowager, and even the women whose faces the previous emperor had not even seen.
Gu Ru Jiu felt her heart was blocked. She took a sip of tea and changed the topic. “Dowager Consort Qian, do you know who the ‘she’ Dowager Consort Sun speaks of is?”
Dowager Consort Qian looked down and said docilely, “Your Majesty, forgive me—I do not know what dreams Dowager Consort Sun has. So I do not know who ‘she’ is.”
“So that’s the case. I assumed that Dowager Consort Qian knew,” Gu Ru Jiu said with a smile. “This palace heard that Consort Lin was once the most beautiful in the world, her dancing stunning. Was Consort Lin as beautiful as they say?”
Hearing the word “Consort Lin”, Dowager Consort Qian’s expression did not change, but Gu Ru Jiu noticed that her hand, hidden in the sleeve, seemed to move.
“Your Majesty has no need to mention this criminal consort. If not for her back then, the empress dowager wouldn’t have suffered the pain of losing a child.” Dowager Consort Qian’s tone was cold. “It would be best if Your Majesty did not mention this person in the future.”
“The past had gone—why can’t it be mentioned?” Empress Dowager Zhou walked in from outside and glanced at Dowager Consort Qian. “Back then, when this Grieving One was in the midst of pain at losing a child, when I heard Consort Lin was the culprit, the previous emperor had already decreed death to Consort Lin. This Grieving One did not even have time to ask her a few questions.”
“Empress Dowager.” Dowager Consort Qian stood up when she saw Empress Dowager Zhou. She bowed respectfully towards the empress dowager.
Gu Ru Jiu stood up and helped Empress Dowager Zhou sit where she was sitting. Then she sat down next to the empress dowager. “Mother-Empress, the rain is so heavy outside—how is it that you came?”
“I heard something happened to Sun shi and came to look.” Empress Dowager Zhou sighed at her. “We are all old people of the palace. I do not sleep well even in my palace.”
“I thought wrong.” Gu Ru Jiu smiled and handed a cup of tea to Empress Dowager Zhou. “I have sent someone to get the palace physician—do not worry.”
“I am not worried about how you do things.” Empress Dowager Zhou smiled and then turned to see Dowager Consort Qian still standing. “Qian shi, you sit down too.”
“Thank you, Empress Dowager.” Dowager Consort Qian glanced at the affectionate actions between the empress dowager and empress, and sat down.
“This Grieving One has given the matters of the palace to the empress to manage and no longer has to worry. You, as elders, have to help the empress,” Empress Dowager Zhou said with a smile. “Otherwise, if the empress comes to me to complain, I will not spare you.”
“I do not dare, I do not dare.” Dowager Consort Qian smiled. Inside, she was stunned. The empress dowager was warning them? Or implying to them, no matter what the empress does, the empress dowager would not interfere?
Thinking of how the empress had previously mentioned sending her and Dowager Consort Sun to Lin’an Palace, Dowager Consort Qian felt cold.
The empress dowager did not want to conflict with the emperor, and liked the empress greatly. So even if she only gave the power over the inner palace to the empress, she likely gave all of it. She had long seen the tactics of Empress Dowager Zhou over the years. If the empress had the support of the empress dowager, wasn’t this inner palace all in her palm?
“The empress is able and smart, and manages the inner palace well. Us ordinary people cannot bear the burden.” Dowager Consort Qian curtsied to the empress dowager and Gu Ru Jiu.
Hearing Dowager Consort Qian say something akin to “admitting defeat,” Gu Ru Jiu did not show anything, just smiled and nodded.
After a while, the palace physician finished taking Dowager Consort Sun’s pulse and came to report to the trio.
“Your Majesties, Dowager Consort—Dowager Consort Sun has caught a cold, and was frightened by the thunder.” The palace physician hated his bad luck to encounter such matters during his shift.
No matter if Dowager Consort Sun said there was a ghost or that she did not do it, since the empress said she caught a cold, then Dowager Consort Sun could only have caught a cold. He would not say anything that shouldn’t be said.
“Thank you, Palace Physician,” Gu Ru Jiu said, “Someone see Palace Physician out.”
The palace physician bowed to the room before turning and retreating.
“Bai Gonggong, please stay—stay.” The palace physician bowed to Bai Xian. “This lowly official can return by myself.” He glanced at the heavy rain. He did not dare to have this personal attendant to the Son of Heaven get caught in the rain.
“Then take care.” Bai Xian bowed to the palace physician. “Official, you are a smart person—you will have a smooth career, prosperous and benefiting your descendants.”
Hearing the word “descendants,” the palace physician’s back stiffened. He bowed again to Bai Xian. “Thank you, Bai Gonggong, for your words. This official will remember.”
“Yes.” Bai Xian nodded in satisfaction and watched the palace physician leave under the care of a junior eunuch before he returned to the hall.
When Gu Ru Jiu stepped into Dowager Consort Sun’s residential hall again, she saw the other had drunk medicine and gone to bed. However, the other’s face was still pale and she did not seem to be having a good sleep. She ordered the people of Jingan Palace to serve well and then left the room.
“Since Dowager Consort Sun is fine, then this Grieving One will return.” Empress Dowager Zhou patted Gu Ru Jiu’s hand before boarding the carriage. “You go and rest early. It’s past three now.”
“Mother-Empress.” Gu Ru Jiu leaned into her ear and whispered, “At worst I will just get up late in the morning.”
“Oh, you.” Empress Dowager Zhou tapped her forehead. “It is fortunate you are this Grieving One’s daughter-in-law. If you had met an evil mother-in-law, you would have suffered.”
Gu Ru Jiu said with a smile, “So someone like me was created by a mother-in-law like you.”
“If it were just me, you wouldn’t be like this.” The empress dowager boarded the carriage with a smile. She turned and said to Gu Ru Jiu, “Return soon.”
To keep the emperor from waiting for a long time.
With Dowager Consort Qian present, Empress Dowager Zhou did not say this. But she was certain that, with Jiu Jiu absent, the emperor would not be sleeping.
“Your Majesty and the empress dowager have a really good relationship,” Dowager Consort Qian said after the empress dowager had left. “Your Majesty is really fortunate.”
“I accept the dowager consort’s words.” Gu Ru Jiu stood under the eaves and saw the rain had lightened. “This palace should return.”
“Farewell, Your Majesty.” Dowager Consort Qian politely curtsied.
Gu Ru Jiu returned the bow and then got into the carriage with Qiu Luo’s help. When the carriage was turning around, she lifted the window curtain and saw Dowager Consort Qian standing there expressionlessly like a well-made puppet, refined and lifeless.
Jingan Palace became quiet again. On the bed, Dowager Consort Sun suddenly opened her eyes. She glanced at the top of the silk coverlet, turned around and then fell into a deep sleep.
“He Ming, has the empress returned?” Jin Yang heard noise outside, sat up on the bed and asked He Ming who was standing guard.
“Your Majesty, it was just the imperial guard patrol just now. The empress has not returned,” He Ming said in a whisper.
Jin Yang lay back down inside the blanket. Sensing the blanket was not properly covering him, he pulled the blanket up to his chin and dazed out staring at the canopy.
After about an hour, noise came from outside. He sat up again. Before he could call He Ming, he saw Gu Ru Jiu walk in.
Jin Yang looked dazedly. Suddenly, a wind rose. Her long hair moved with the wind, the strands mixing with her dress, unspeakably charming.
“Chenjun hasn’t slept yet?” Gu Ru Jiu walked to sit by the bed, and pulled the hair away from Jin Yang’s cheek. She bent and kissed his face. “Wait for me to change.”
Jin Yang reached out to touch where he had been kissed and lay back, moving out of the warm place he had been on and waiting for Gu Ru Jiu to lie there.
She took off her damp outer robe and even changed her inner robes before going back to the dragon bed. She sighed comfortably at the warm bed.
“What happened with Dowager Consort Sun?” Jin Yang pulled her into his arms and yawned, closing his eyes.
“What else—they have ghosts in their hearts,” Gu Ru Jiu said tiredly against Jin Yang’s chest. “Or they are pretending to have ghosts.”
Hearing the tiredness in her words, Jin Yang patted her back. “Go to sleep. We can talk tomorrow.”
“Yes.” Gu Ru Jiu responded vaguely. After a while, Jin Yang heard long breathing coming from his arms.
Reaching out to carefully press the blanket against her back, Jin Yang closed his eyes and fell asleep.
When the dawn was just starting, He Ming woke up. After washing, he led the eunuchs into the outer rooms of Purple Imperial Hall. Hearing the noise from inside, he led people in.
When he entered the inner room, he saw the emperor climbing out of bed barefoot and crouching. Seeing them come in, the emperor did not care about his image, putting a finger to his lips and making a move for them to be quiet.
He Ming hurriedly indicated to the eunuchs for them to be quiet. Then he saw the emperor put down the bed curtains to hide the empress’ sleeping visage.
The emperor carefully washed up like a thief, put on his socks and then carried his shoes out of the room before putting them on.
“Tell Purple Imperial Hall’s servants to be careful and not disturb the empress’ rest.” Jin Yang blinked his dry eyes and said to He Ming. “You stay and serve.”
“Yes.” He Ming bowed and slowly stood up only after the emperor had gotten into the emperor’s carriage and left.
His apprentice, He Fu, got close to him and whispered, “Master, His Majesty is so good to Her Majesty. Even the common husband and wives cannot compare to how His Majesty treats Her Majesty.”
“Shut up—who gave you the courage to discuss Their Majesties? Do you not want to live?!” He Ming scolded angrily. “Go and receive five blows. Don’t say this master did not teach you. Eunuchs in the palace must have a closed mouth and loyalty. If you cannot do that, then don’t be my apprentice.”
“This apprentice forgot momentarily. Master, don’t be mad.” He Fu broke out in a cold sweat. Without needing He Ming to urge him, he went to the Bureau of Punishment.
He Ming looked at the other servants and lowered his voice. “All of you, be careful. If you disturb the empress, you don’t have to serve in Purple Imperial Hall ever again.”
The palace attendants bowed silently, not daring to make a sound.
Seeing this, He Ming nodded in satisfaction and strode out of the hall. He stood on the jade steps and watched the sun rise from the east. Inside, he thought of the things Qi Lian had said in the secret prison.
Did the emperor treat the empress with true feelings or false ones?
If a person could act to this degree, even falsehood became truth?
He Ming thought of how the empress smiled and talked with the emperor. He could not help but shake his head. So what if it was sincere or not? Those were not things that he, an eunuch, should consider.
In the Yang Ducal Establishment, Mistress Yang flipped through a book of misses in the capital. When she reached the end, she sighed, and said to her younger sister-in-law, “The girls in here are all good, and I don’t know whom to propose marriage to.”
Mistress Hu said with a smile, “It should be up to the children. This is someone they will live a lifetime with. If he isn’t happy, won’t they become a resentful couple in the end?”
“I know this, but…” Mistress Yang sighed and forced a smile. “Chui Wen has not been very good lately and won’t read these books of names.”
She knew her child liked the second Miss Gu, but a marriage was about fate. How could it be forced? Also, Miss Gu had become the empress and supposedly was greatly loved by His Majesty. The Yang Family didn’t dare to mention Miss Gu, or even think about her.
Mistress Hu knew why Mistress Yang was worried, but the matter concerned the empress and so she could only pretend to be ignorant. “Chui Wen is still young. It will be fine once he has a girl he likes.”
“I hope so.” Mistress Yang grimaced. If she had known back then this would happen, she wouldn’t have asked her sister-in-law to help her propose to the Gu Family. If not for this matter, then Chui Wen wouldn’t have had such delusions.
As the two sisters-in-law were talking, Yang Chui Wen walked in. Mistress Hu saw her nephew seemed thinner but in good spirits.
“Greetings, Mother, Aunt.” Yang Chui Wen bowed to the pair after entering.
“Chui Wen, come sit.” Mistress Yang had Yang Chui Wen sit down and then said, “I was just discussing your marriage with your aunt…”
“Mother, this son is preparing for the Spring Imperial Examinations next year and is of no mind to consider this matter.” Yang Chui Wen bowed to Mistress Yang. “I hope Mother can forgive this son.”
“Chui Wen, this is not a matter of my forgiveness, but of the imperial family,” Mistress Yang said helplessly. “If you do not marry, our marriage proposal to the Gu Family will become a thorn in the emperor’s heart. Your talents are unlimited and you have ambitions. Do not let this matter affect your future.”
Mistress Yang knew that the imperial family knew the Yang Family had proposed marriage to the Gu Family. Otherwise, the emperor wouldn’t have had her sister-in-law act as the matchmaker.
Yang Chui Wen sat silently after listening to Mistress Yang speak.
Seeing him like this, Mistress Yang was both anxious and angry. She turned to Mistress Hu and hoped the other could help her.
“Cui Wen, Aunt will say a few words to you—do not find your aunt too meddlesome.” Mistress Hu felt very sorry for her nephew. Seeing him sitting like this, she could not just sit by. She started talking at a look from Mistress Yang. “The door is shut today, so I do not fear other people hearing. You and that one only met a few times. Why did you remember her?”
“Aunt.” Yang Chui Wen smiled bitterly. “Not just a few times. I could see her at many of the past gatherings in the capital.”
“You!” Mistress Hu looked in shock at him. A moment later, she said, “Why is it like this?”
“She is so beautiful when she smiles. Whenever I saw her two faint dimples, my troubles would go away.” Yang Chui Wen bowed his head and smiled bitterly. “Starting when she was thirteen, I thought about how to marry her, how to be good to her, how to interact with her so she could live comfortably.”
“But why didn’t you speak earlier?” Mistress Hu looked at her nephew. “If you spoke up earlier, maybe… maybe…”
Maybe something. Mistress Hu did not continue.
“Back then, the Gu Family loved their daughter and refused even the Li Family. How could I speak?” Yang Chui Wen’s bitter expression grew. “Back then I thought, maybe when Miss Gu grew up a bit, the Gu Family would be willing to let her marry.”
But they had no fate. He feared that now, she did not even remember his name.
He felt some regret. After the empress dowager’s birthday, when the caravan was leaving Taihe Palace, if he had stayed by Miss Gu’s carriage, maybe his delusion would have come true.
But how could he have known?
Now, she was empress, and he was about to become a court official. No matter what thoughts he had, he could only hide them deep inside.
Seeing the worry and anxiousness in his mother’s eyes, Yang Chui Wen stood up and said to Mistress Yang, “Mother, do not worry. This son knows what to do; you don’t have to worry.”
His gaze landed on the book of names in Mistress Yang’s hand. After a moment of silence, he said, “Mother, please spend some effort on this son’s marriage.”
Seeing him having finally thought it through, Mistress Yang beamed with happiness and nodded repeatedly.
Yang Chui Wen curled his lips and smiled. He sat quietly on the chair and dazed out staring at the flowers in the yard with a teacup in hand.
Summer had come. Even the morning sun was so bright.
Mistress Hu looked at her sister-in-law and then at her calm nephew. She opened her mouth and then this turned into a sigh.
Regardless of whether Chui Wen truly had thought it through or was doing this to reassure his parents, this matter could only be like this.
The past could not be chased after. This was enough.
Translator Ramblings: There is no secondary male protagonist in this story. Yang Chui Wen is more like passersby.