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“This matter has long been settled. Official Sima, why mention it again?” Zhang Zhong Han said earnestly. “Would mentioning this old matter not cause the empress dowager grief?”
“It is late—this one bids farewell.” Zhang Zhong Han did not want to be pulled underwater by Sima Hong. Regardless of what the other thought, he planned to not participate to avoid getting into trouble.
Seeing Zhang Zhong Han’s hurrying figure, Sima Hong snorted. He turned and saw Li Guang Ji looking at him with a smile. He bowed and said, “Prime Minister Li.”
“Official Sima.” Li Guang Ji came in front of Sima Hong and said vaguely, “It’s now summer, and the weather changes. Official Sima, take care of your health.”
“Prime Minister Li, thank you for your concern,” Sima Hong said coolly. “Prime Minister Li also has to do the same.”
Li Guang Ji bowed to him. “Official Sima is right.”
The two were always harmonious on the surface but fighting each other inside. So they had nothing to say to each other. They exchanged a few polite words and went their own ways.
When Sima Hong came back to his home, he waved his hand at his son, daughter-in-law, and his grandson. He said tiredly, “Do not wait for me to eat at noon; I will be eating in the yard.”
“Yes.” Zheng shi saw that her father-in-law was not in a good mood and knew that he had recently been worried for Wei Ting’s matter. She bowed to Sima Hong, not daring to say anything extra.
Sima Hong glanced at Sima Xiang in the corner and left with a dark expression.
“Husband.” Zheng shi said to her husband, “Go and keep the old master company. Do not let him keep everything inside.”
Sima Zhi nodded. He turned to look at his son and daughter-in-law, whispering, “Thank you, Wife.”
Zheng shi smiled and neatened his clothing.
After doing all this, Zheng shi turned to her son and daughter-in-law. “You all go back to your yards. There is nothing here.”
Standing in the corner, Sima Xiang followed her cousin and his wife out of the main yard. Her cousin’s wife saw that her expression was not good and asked in concern, “Third Sister, you do not look well recently. Are you ill?”
“No matter.” Sima Xiang smiled and shook her head. She showed slight embarrassment. “It will be better in a few days.”
Her cousin’s wife thought that she was speaking of a woman’s days of the month so she nodded in understanding. “Then rest well, and do not get cold.”
“Yes.” Sima Xiang smiled in acknowledgement. After her cousin and his wife left, her smile fell off. She was not worried about Wei Ting, but about the disappearance of the Gaoluo prime minister.
She had just agreed on a plan with Qi Lian, and Qi Lian had returned to Gaoluo. How would something like this have happened? Now, she only hoped that Qi Lian had been killed by the Gaoluo. If… if he was captured by Great Feng, if His Majesty knew that she had secret interactions with an important official of Gaoluo, not only her head would fall off, but the entire Sima Family would be affected.
To her, the other people of the Sima Family were not especially important. But she knew, for a woman, how great the influence of her family was. So nothing could happen to the Sima Family. If the Sima Family fell, she was also finished.
Bao Mei, as a personal maid, knew her miss’ menstrual period had not come. Seeing her miss lie to the Eldest Young Mistress, Bao Mei was both puzzled and shocked. But she did not dare to ask, and only thought of how to help her Miss carry out the lie.
Sima Xiang thought for a long time after returning to her own yard. She planned to tell her aunt she agreed to the marriage proposal from the Qian Family.
But before she walked out of the little yard, she saw the steward come in with several matrons. The matrons were all dressed the same, in the robes of the palace. She looked in confusion at the steward, not knowing what was going on.
“This is Miss Sima?” The matron at the front glanced at Sima Xiang, and turned to speak to the steward, her attitude slightly proud.
“Yes.” The steward showed a few hints of fawning.
The matron examined Sima Xiang from head to toe. After confirming this was Sima Xiang, she nodded at the other matrons who had come with her. She said to Sima Xiang, “Miss Sima, you have been invited to the palace—please come with us.”
“Who has summoned me to the palace?” Sima Xiang felt slightly anxious and curtsied slightly to the matron. “Matron, please tell me.”
“It is not for us lowly people to speak the names of the important people of the palace.” The matron smiled insincerely. “Miss, when you enter the palace, you will know.”
Sima Xiang frowned. A matron of the palace dared to come and take someone from an aristocratic family without any scruples. This was really not giving the Sima Family face. She glanced at the steward who was standing with his head bowed and then in the direction of the main yard. Her heart jumped.
Had the old master and Aunt both agreed?
“It is this subject’s honor to be summoned to the palace,” Sima Xiang said with a smile. “Matron, please wait a moment for this subject to visit the family elders and then go to the palace with you.”
“Third Miss, Mistress said that the matters of the palace cannot be delayed.” The steward bowed to Sima Xiang. “The courtesies of home are not important.”
“I understand.” Sima Xiang smiled like usual, but her hands hidden in her sleeves were trembling.
The carriage that had come for Sima Xiang was grand, and there were guards opening the way. The carriage of a county mistress would not be any more than this.
“Miss, perhaps the emperor…” Bao Mei, who had followed Sima Xiang into the carriage, saw the refinement, and couldn’t help but say, “This carriage is so beautiful.”
Hearing Bao Mei’s words, Sima Xiang’s thoughts moved. She recalled His Majesty’s handsome face, and blushed slightly.
In the main room of the Sima Family, Zheng shi heard the report from the steward and said with a sigh, “I see.”
A few days ago, her daughter sent a message back for her to pay more attention to Sima Xiang. Then she became more wary of Sima Xiang. Just now, someone came from the palace, saying Sima Xiang may have committed a crime and had to go to the palace for interrogation. She agreed after a brief thought.
Now that she had calmed down, she felt some regret. If Sima Xiang really committed a great crime, what if she dragged down the Sima Family? If she had temporarily delayed so they could not take Sima Xiang away, maybe they would have had time to clean up. Now, they were in a reactive situation.
“Sister-in-law does not have to consider too much.” The second mistress of the Sima Family, Sun shi, sitting beside her said, “His Majesty is wise. He will not blame unrelated people.”
“I hope so.” Zheng shi rubbed her forehead. “I need someone to go to Third Brother-in-law. Xiang Girl was taken from my place, and I have to give him an explanation.”
She did not know what it was recently, but her days were getting worse.
Sun shi sneered inside at hearing this. Sima Yue did not have any attention to spare for his daughter. He was spending all day in the brothels and pleasure houses. She feared he had even forgotten his surname.
Knowing that Second Sister-in-law had a grudge against the third branch, Zheng shi could not easily mention the third branch to her and discussed something else.
While she did not want to admit it, the moment Sima Xiang was taken into the palace, she was secretly faintly relieved. Somehow, she could not like Sima Xiang.
The carriage moved the entire way without stopping. Hearing the hooves outside, Sima Xiang was curious. They had travelled so long and hadn’t yet reached the palace gates?
Suddenly, the carriage jumped. After a while, she detected the surroundings were much quieter. She wanted to lift the window curtain and look out, but was afraid of breaking a taboo and suppressed her impulse.
After going an unknown distance, the carriage stopped. She heard a thin eunuch voice from outside.
“Miss Sima, please come down from the carriage.”
Eunuch? Her heart moved. Had the emperor really…
Hands slightly trembling, she lifted the curtain and saw the handsome youth standing outside and the guards and eunuchs standing behind him.
She hurriedly got off the carriage and bowed gracefully to Jin Yang. “This subject greets Your Majesty—long live Your Majesty.”
Jin Yang looked at the woman curtsying to him under the eaves. She had a beautiful figure and pale skin. Because her head was bowed, she revealed her beautiful neck. This was a beauty that could move many men.
Jin Yang slowly turned his thumb ring and lifted his hand. The matrons originally standing behind Sima Xiang suddenly went forward, covering her mouth and grabbing her arms, pulling her into the slightly shabby palace hall beside her.
“Woo!” Sima Xiang’s eyes widened in terror. She struggled as she walked in Jin Yang’s direction. She saw the man standing there expressionlessly like a statue of ice, piercingly cold.
So she struggled even more. But the matrons holding her were so strong she could not break free even with all her strength.
Terror came at her like a tide. She had never been so afraid. Glory, riches, power—they all turned to nothing.
The open palace door was like the maw of the beast. The moment she was dragged in, she felt like her life was being devoured by this dark palace.
“Miss Sima, apologies.” The matrons pushed her into a cell and locked the door.
“What are you doing?” Sima Xiang leapt to the door, pulling the lock. The lock did not move at all but her hands reddened. “Let me out.”
“Miss Sima, it is better to be quieter after entering here.” He Ming walked to her door. “His Majesty likes quiet. If you continue to make noise, this one can only cut out your tongue.”
Sima Xiang stilled upon hearing this, looking with fear at He Ming. She said in a trembling voice, “I am a daughter of an aristocratic family. You cannot do this to me.”
This place was both humid and hot, and also had a musty odor. There were no windows, and it was suffocating.
He Ming showed a scornful smile and said in an odd tone, “This one has never seen a daughter of an aristocratic family who dares to act against her birth mother. Miss Sima has really widened this one’s horizons.”
“What nonsense are you saying?” Sima Xiang said angrily. “He Gonggong, even if you are a personal imperial attendant, you cannot accuse people so.”
He Ming saw her expression filling with anger, as though she had been wronged, and shook his head emotionally. “Miss Sima, if you had put your attention on the orthodox paths, you would have been one to do big things.” Vicious enough, decisive enough, but she used her viciousness on her relatives.
Sima Xiang bowed her head and did not speak. She did not know how much He Ming knew, or rather, how much the emperor knew.
“Miss Sima, no need to argue these things in front of me. His Majesty knows what is right or wrong. Someone even helped you find the embroidered slippers you threw into the well. Miss Sima, do you want to see?” He Ming chuckled. “But there is blood on there, and they do not look as bright as they used to.”
“Not me!” Sima Xiang gritted her teeth. “When I went, my mother had already killed herself.”
“This one already said that Miss Sima does not have to explain to me. This one is not interested in your conduct.” He Ming’s smile faded and he grew serious. “But this one has to care about you working with external enemies to harm the empress.”
“I do not understand He Gonggong‘s words.” Sima Xiang suddenly looked up behind He Ming, her eyes growing bright.
He Ming turned back and saw His Majesty coming in. He bowed and moved to the side. With the other eunuchs, he helped set up a table and bench for Jin Yang, and even presented hot tea.
Sima Xiang’s heated eyes suddenly grew dim. She leaned against the door and slowly slid to kneel on the ground. “This subject Sima Xiang greets Your Majesty.”
Jin Yang held a scented bag to his nose. There was a “good fortune” character embroidered on the bag. The embroidery was not very good, but the mint scent was very refreshing.
He Ming immediately recognized this was the scented bag that Her Majesty the empress had embroidered for His Majesty a few days ago when her interests had come. She had taken a whole month to make this small bag. But His Majesty wore it every day like it was a rare thing. He would also frequently smell it. Someone not in the know would think that His Majesty had a strange sense of beauty.
Jin Yang glanced at the kneeling Sima Xiang. He did not call her up. He shoved the scented bag back into his chest pocket and said to He Ming, “What did the Sima Family say?”
“Your Majesty, the Sima Family said that Third Miss Sima is ill and cannot see guests,” He Ming whispered. “Official Sima also wanted to come into the palace to beg for forgiveness, but this servant stopped him.”
“Yes”—Jin Yang nodded—”they still know good and bad.”
Sima Hong was ambitious but would not do something like selling out the country. So after knowing that Sima Xiang was in cahoots with Qi Lian, if He Ming had not been quick, he would have knelt in front of He Ming.
The Sima Family had continued for centuries. While each generation had incompetents and wastrels, they were never traitors of the country. They would not sell out the country. No matter how they fought inside the country, that was a matter for themselves. Colluding with a foreign enemy trespassed on the bottom line of the Sima Clan.
Because of this, Sima Hong had agreed for the emperor to take Sima Xiang away and even felt grateful to Jin Yang. If the matter was made public, regardless of whether the first branch would be affected, the Sima Family would lose all their face, and no longer be able to maintain their glory as a first-class aristocratic family.
He Ming smiled and acknowledged with a nod. When he turned to look at Sima Xiang, it was like he was seeing a dead person.
Sima Xiang finally understood that she had been abandoned by the family. She was imprisoned by the emperor in this dark prison, but in everyone else’s eyes, she was recovering from a serious illness at home.
After thinking through this, she laughed hoarsely until she cried. Then she said to the emperor, “Your Majesty, such good moves. You have a weakness to hold above the Sima Family, and you had them also accept your great grace. As expected of the Son of Heaven. You were born with more cunning than others.”
Even if her matter was publicized, the emperor could not have overturned the entire Sima Family and may have caused them to rebound. This was better. He had the Sima Family’s weak spot. He could slowly consume the Sima Family’s power until they became a toothless tiger, and in the end, a dog that could only wave its tail towards the imperial family.
But even so, at least the Sima Family’s reputation of centuries would be preserved. If the descendants of the Sima Family were good, they would also be valued by the imperial family and leave their names behind in history. Only she would become the sacrifice. Even if she died, it would be in obscurity.
Jin Yang frowned. He did not plan to argue with Sima Xiang. So he stood up impatiently, planning to leave.
“I really regret that I was soft-hearted for a moment in the past, and did not let Gu Ru Jiu also die on the racecourse!” Sima Xiang sneered. “If not for her, I would not have made wrong steps, one by one, to today.”
Jin Yang stopped and turned back to the woman in the cell. He said coldly, “You chose to walk each step. What does that have to do with others?”
“Ha.” Knowing that she had no hope of rescue, Sima Xiang’s fury surpassed her terror. She looked at the lofty emperor who had stopped walking because she mentioned Gu Ru Jiu. Jealousy burned in her heart like a wildfire. “Back then, if the young master from the Li Family had not kept her there talking for a while, delaying my plan, she would not be here today.”
“You vicious whore. What grudge did you have with the empress back then that you schemed against her like that?!” He Ming cursed. “You are a snake, and you blame others for being better than you. Where is the reason?”
“Reason?” Sima Xiang looked at He Ming with wide eyes, like she was looking at a fool. “There is no reason in the world. I come from an aristocratic family. They all say I am beautiful and talented, but what is the use? In the eyes of my parents, I am something to be sacrificed in marriage for my family at any moment. My older brother has the same parents, but he is their treasure, and I am expendable. Do you say this is fair?
“If I am not vicious and treat myself better, who will be good to me, and think on my behalf?” Sima Xiang gave a small smile. “Did Sima Li and Li Chu Rou not have good lives? Didn’t they also die at my hands? So rather than speaking reason, it is better to rely on one’s tactics.”
He Ming felt cold. A person who could attack their own family—even he could not rival this degree of viciousness. No matter how many thoughts he had, and how ruthless his means, he still had a warmth towards his parents and brothers.
“We are both aristocratic family daughters, but why does Gu Ru Jiu get to live more comfortably than me?” Sima Xiang’s jealousy grew more obvious on her face. “Seeing her smile so innocently like she has no worries—do you know how uncomfortable I felt?
“What does she have that you all treat her differently?” Sima Xiang suddenly looked at Jin Yang. “I am more beautiful and talented than her. Why do you all like her?”
She screamed this, her face twisted with jealousy and viciousness.
“Is it enough that in Zhen‘s eyes, Jiu Jiu is more beautiful than any other woman in the world.” Jin Yang’s gaze landed on her face. “You cannot compare to her in anything.
“At least, she will not want someone else’s life just because they live better than her.”
“That’s because she has never lived my kind of life.” Sima Xiang sneered. “If she had lived like me, she likely wouldn’t have been better off.”
Jin Yang frowned, and said after a beat, “It is an insult to Zhen‘s empress to compare her to you.” Then, he turned around and left without another look.
Sima Xiang seemed to be struck by lightning. She looked dazedly at the emperor’s back. Something inside her shouted—this was not fair, this was not fair!
If she could live in an environment like Gu Ru Jiu, she would be as innocent and carefree. Wasn’t this all that she wanted?
After the emperor left, He Ming said to the nearby eunuch in disgust, “Record everything Miss Sima does and says, then send it to Sima Hong and Sima Peng. Let them see the upbringing of Miss Sima.”
Sima Xiang leaned against the cell door and snorted upon hearing this. “I am going to die. Why would I fear what people think of me?”
“Miss Sima overthinks.” He Ming smiled insincerely. “You may not die. How can you easily speak of life and death in a prosperous time like this?”
How could a person like her die so easily?
“Miss Sima’s mind is not clear. Reward her ten blows with the whip to help her wake up.” He Ming jerked the corners of his lips. “Miss Sima, remember not to mention the empress’ name next time. Do not forget the difference in status and break the rules.”
Difference in status? Sima Xiang looked hatefully at He Ming. What greeted her was a bone-wrenching whipping.
The old master of the Sima third branch vomited blood and fainted upon reading the letter. The third branch’s servants searched for Sima Yue all over, and then finally found him drunk in a pleasure house.
By the time Sima Yue sobered up, Sima Peng had already regained consciousness. He was being guarded by members of the first and second branches.
Seeing his son enter, Sima Peng panted as he had the servants leave. Then he took out the letter from the palace, and looked at Bao Mei who had also been sent back with the letter. He said to his son, “Read this letter.”
Sima Yue saw the first and second branch had ugly expressions, especially Second Sister-in-law who had red eyes and looked at him like he was her enemy. So he anxiously took the letter from his father.
Before finishing the letter, he knelt in front of Sima Peng’s bed, crying. “Father, this son has not taught this daughter well to create such calamity.”
Sun shi could not resist any longer. She grabbed Sima Yue and started to beat him. Upon seeing his wife like this, Sima Bao sat there motionlessly with red eyes. He allowed his wife to beat and curse his cousin.
“All right.” Sima Hong trembled as he stood up. He pointed at Sima Yue who was kneeling on the ground. “Do not disturb your third uncle’s rest. We will speak of matters tomorrow.” Then he sighed. “I am old, I should retire.”
“Father!” Sima Zhi supported Sima Hong, his eyes red. A man in his forties, he was crying hard.
The entire room sank into mourning.
In Purple Imperial Hall, Gu Ru Jiu came close to Jin Yang. Before she spoke, her expression darkened.
“Why does Your Majesty have a female fragrance?”
This fragrance was one that only aristocratic family daughters could afford to use.
Translator Ramblings: So much plot development in this chapter.