This chapter has been brought to you by me and Adnana.
“Uncle, do you feel better?” Sima Bao walked to the bed and looked at the haggard Sima Hong, his eyes filled with worry and concern. Because his parents had died early, he had grown up in the first branch. To him, Sima Hong was like a father. Now, seeing Sima Hong dying on the bed, his eyes could not help but turn red.
“When people grow old, this day will come sooner or later.” Sima Hong coughed. He leaned back in bed and said, “You are around here all day. Do not delay your work.”
“Uncle, do not worry; this nephew is fine.” Sima Bao tucked in Sima Hong’s blanket and then talked about interesting things with his uncle. He was too embarrassed to say to his uncle that, because of the Sima Family losing power, his job in the Ministry of Works had become one of idleness without any real power. If he said this, it would just worsen the condition of his uncle who was already ill.
“Oh.” Sima Hong sighed. He took the tea that a servant girl brought over, and drained it. “The emperor has a hard heart. When you work, be careful and do not cause trouble.”
“Yes,” Sima Bao respectfully answered. Then he helped Sima Hong lie down. “Uncle, rest more. Do not worry about these things.”
Sima Hong looked out the window. “What time is it now?”
“It is already nine,” Sima Bao answered.
“Is there court today?” Sima Hong suddenly asked. “It is almost the emperor’s birthday?”
“Yesterday, there was a small court session.” Sima Bao saw that Sima Hong’s eyes were closed, and spoke quieter. “It will be the emperor’s birthday in three days.”
After saying this, he saw that Sima Hong did not react at all, his pale face lifeless. He could not help but put a finger under the other’s nose. After confirming that the other was still breathing, he sighed in relief, and softly walked out.
“Second Younger Brother.” Sima Zhi saw Sima Bao come out and asked in a whisper, “Is my father sleeping?”
Sima Bao nodded, and then said, “Uncle does not look good. What did the palace physicians say?”
“What else can they say—just that he is weak and needs quiet rest.” When Sima Zhi mentioned the palace physicians, he was full of anger. “They are all useless. Seeing the Sima Family lose power, they do less for us.” Even if the Sima Family was in momentary decline right now, they were still a first-rank aristocratic family. Were these people allowed to slight them?
“Didn’t His Majesty send an imperial physician a few days ago? Those people did not say anything?” Sima Bao frowned. “These people all move with the wind.”
“Those imperial physicians are capable, but they can only treat the symptoms, and not the cause.” Sima Zhi could not discuss the people the emperor had sent, and changed the topic. “Just now, a servant girl passed me a letter saying that Grand Princess Deyi is ill.”
“Let her be ill.” Sima Bao did not have many good feelings about Grand Princess Deyi. He said in a cool tone, “If she is ill, it saves trouble.”
If his elder cousin’s daughter was not married to the grandson of the grand princess, his words would be worse.
Sima Zhi did not argue with him, just saying, “I had my wife send some gifts over. We will not meddle in anything else.”
The Sima Family appeared to have lost power. But Prince Rui was making moves in the shadows, and the present emperor was young and promising. He rejoiced inside. Right now, retreating and not being a part of what was happening was a good thing for the Sima Family.
“Since this is the case, then I will arrange it.” Sima Bao sighed. “It is late; I should go to the ministry. Uncle is not in high spirits. Elder Brother, have the servants be more careful.”
“I know—you go.” Sima Zhi nodded. He was quite sad.
Sima Bao saw him like this, and reached to pat his shoulders. He could not say more, and left the courtyard with a sigh.
Leaving the compound, Sima Bao found that there were many homes on the street that had hung up red lanterns with the character for longevity. Many vendors were using the emperor’s birthday and created many handcrafts. They could gain favor with the emperor, and also make silver. It was killing two birds with one stone.
The present emperor was much more open-minded than the previous one, and more popular. Otherwise, the capital would not have such prosperity right now. Even if the people had tried to deal with it, they would not have done it so willingly.
The Ministry of Works did not have high status among the six ministries. He did not have very good relationships with his colleagues. Ever since his uncle retired, while his colleagues looked normal, they had distanced themselves greatly from him, and did not like to call him for private gatherings.
When he thought of this, he could not help but smile bitterly. Who in the court did not know the emperor’s birth mother was his sister? Who in court did not know that His Majesty had a hard life in Prince Cheng’s establishment in his childhood, and he, this maternal uncle, did not help?
He had not heard how badly people spoke of him behind his back, but he could guess.
One could not buy future knowledge. He regretted it, but he could only swallow it.
“Official Sima.” His colleagues greeted him, but they left after the greeting, as though staying to talk would give them the plague.
He felt frustrated inside. He lasted until it was time to get off work. Sima Bao was not willing to stay a moment longer. He hurried back to the Sima Residence. When he entered the courtyard, he received news. Their family had received an invitation from the palace.
He took the invitation with trembling hands. Sima Bao looked a bit excited.
He had a spot at His Majesty’s birthday ceremony. This was a joyful surprise.
Sun shi saw him like this, and walked to his side, taking off his outer robe to let him breathe. “There are only a few days until His Majesty’s birthday. We have to prepare carefully.”
“Wife is right.” Sima Bao nodded. Then he walked next to the table, and started to write what they had to pay attention to as he discussed some points with his wife such as what to wear to the palace.
He was as excited as a child who got his beloved toy.
Sun shi saw her husband like this, and was both heart-sore and sad. She could only keep him company.
This was just the emperor’s birthday, but there was a lot involved. There were so many nobles in the capital, but the number that could attend the banquet was limited. There was much going on in terms of who could and could not go.
There was also whose family’s wine to use, whose family’s utensils to use, and which troupe would be so lucky as to enter the palace. All these made for a lot of gossip.
The palace had their own music department, but for such a big occasion, just having the people from the music department was too dull. The birthday banquet should be lively. So it was a normal thing to get some reliable troupes from among the people.
It was not possible for things like an assassin to disguise themselves and get in. First, the artists that could enter the palace all had some fame. Most of them were in the same circle, so if an unfamiliar face appeared, if the people around were not blind, they would discover it.
Also, people who could enter the palace would have their lives investigated up and down. It was not possible to take someone else’s spot unless the people who came in with them wanted to be executed as well.
“Your Majesty, this is the list of artists that the Department of Household Affairs selected from among the people. Do you want to see if it is suitable?” Bai Xian placed a list in Gu Ru Jiu’s hands and then said, “These people have already been arranged to live in the palace, and they are heavily guarded. The servants have already seen their performances, and before the banquet, there will be a few more rounds of selection.”
Gu Ru Jiu looked over carefully, and found that these were the more famous artists. There were some she had heard of, and some that had once performed at the Gu Family. She nodded and said, “There are many guests coming this time. Nothing must go wrong.”
“Your Majesty, do not worry. The departments will all be strict. No problem will occur.” Bai Xian thought for a moment, and then said, “I heard that there is a dancer from outside that has come to the palace. She is stunningly beautiful, and many young masters have fallen in love with her. They say if she just appears on the stage, a thick layer of money, gold, and jade will cover the stage. Many other dancers admire her.”
“You speak of this person?” Gu Ru Jiu pointed at the name “Fu Yao” on the list and said with a smile, “The name like the person—from a glance, this is a great beauty.”
Bai Xian said with a smile, “Your Majesty is right.” Without a surname, and carrying an air of brothel. Wasn’t it a good name?
“Who is a great beauty?” Jin Yang came in and saw Gu Ru Jiu holding a list. He said with a smile, “Did you see a beauty today?”
“Am I not looking at one?” Gu Ru Jiu glanced at him, and then pointed at the list. She handed it to him. “The beauty is on there.”
“Is the beauty not in my eyes?” Jin Yang placed the list to the side, looked at Gu Ru Jiu and said, “There is no woman more attractive to me than the beauty I see.”
Gu Ru Jiu saw herself mirrored in his eyes, and reached out to squeeze his cheek. “Silver-tongued.”
“I am sincere. How come Jiu Jiu does not believe me?” Jin Yang smiled and leaned his chest against her. “If you do not believe, listen.”
Bai Xian silently took the list that the emperor had thrown to the side and left the room. When he went into the courtyard, he saw that the sun made his shadow long. He could not help but feel that he seemed a bit lonely.
“Bai Gonggong, the people from outside the palace have been arranged to stay in Yueyang Palace. Do you want to go see?” An eunuch from the Department of Household Affairs saw Bai Xian and came over with a smile. “We will be reassured with you having a look.”
Knowing that these people feared the arrangements did not suit the will of the masters so they pulled him along, Bai Xian raised his chin and lazily said, “Then I will go see.”
If something actually happened, it was no use even if they pulled him in.
Yueyang Palace was the place where the female candidates lived temporarily when they entered the palace. The biggest trait of the palace was that it had many rooms and was remote, far from the three main palaces. Even if the people inside were rehearsing their songs and dancing, they would not disturb the important people of the palace. And if someone had evil intentions, with the strict guard of the palace, these people would be shot full of arrows before they even took a step out.
When Bai Xian arrived, he heard the sounds of different instruments mixed together. Even the most wonderful sound could become demonic like this.
The steward from the Department of Household Affairs saw Bai Xian frown and had the young eunuch who was guarding the door go in and have those people stop.
When the noise stopped, Bai Xian finally stepped into the palace. Behind the gates, there was a wide courtyard. The artists that had entered the palace were all standing there, and bowed their heads when they saw him enter.
These folk artists were somewhat important outside, but in front of Bai Xian, this eunuch that personally served the emperor, they were just lowly untouchables. Bai Xian scanned the faces, and did not see a very beautiful woman. He turned to the steward and said, “These are the folk artists invited?”
The steward nodded, and said to them, “This is the imperial steward Bai Gonggong. Quick, make your greetings.”
These folk artists knew before that Bai Gonggong had status, because the steward who they usually looked up to was like a grandson in front of Bai Gonggong. Hearing the steward say that this person was the imperial steward eunuch, they were shocked, lowered their heads, and bowed.
Their bows were uneven, and their postures not very good. Bai Xian said, “Have people teach them. If they lose their manners in front of the important people, being reprimanded is nothing—they may lose their lives.”
“Yes, yes, yes, you are right.” The steward nodded and remembered this.
At this time, there was the sound of running coming from behind him. A girl of sixteen dressed in pink clothes ran over. Because she was running so fast, some of her hair pins even dropped to the ground as she got close.
Bai Xian saw this girl’s skin was very good, and her appearance stunning. Even the miss from the third Sima branch could not compare. He guessed that this girl was the Miss Fu Yao from the rumors.
He glanced without changing expression at the hair pins that had dropped on the ground, and at the pins that were still in her hair. He said coolly, “The palace has strict rules. There are rules about what to eat, what to wear, what to say. If someone breaks the rules, they will be sent out of the palace.”
Fu Yao knew the eunuch was speaking of her. She peeked up at this eunuch—he had a dignified presence—and then she lowered her head.
She touched the twisted gold bracelet on her wrist. She blushed, and then pulled her sleeve down to hide the bracelet.
“All right, I have seen them. They are just lacking some manners. I am not skilled in music and dance, so I cannot say much.” Bai Xian looked around as he spoke. Seeing them look down, he glanced away in satisfaction. “But there is one thing. Do not displease the emperor and empress. Otherwise, I will not be able to help you then.”
The steward repeatedly agreed, sent Bai Xian out of Yueyang Palace, and then wiped his sweat as he returned. The first thing he did was make Fu Yao change her attire.
The other dancers saw this and gloated. So what if Fu Yao was adulated by the noble young masters outside? In the palace, she could not do as she wished again.
Seeing Fu Yao take off her hair pins and put on a normal dress, one dancer said sneeringly, “You dare to dress up in the palace. I wonder who you want to enchant.”
“Who else?” Another dancer was not interested. “She has great aims.”
The other people laughed as well. They were all dancers who could enter the palace. If they were not outstanding in appearance, they were skilled in dance. While they had once dreamed that some noble would fall in love with them and marry them, they knew that they, who were of low birth, were just playthings in the eyes of the aristocratic families. They wouldn’t be taken as concubines, much less married as wives.
Now, Fu Yao, because of her youth, beauty, and her being pursued by some of the capital wastrels, had gotten to the point where she did not know who she was. They felt amused and sad for her. Who among them had not had such thoughts?
The dancers were not in the mood to laugh at Fu Yao after thinking about it. They looked at each other, found this dull, and returned to their rooms.
Fu Yao did not care how the other dancers thought of her. In her view, it was normal for the other dancers to not like her.
“Aren’t they just jealous that I am beautiful?” She returned to her room and looked at herself in the mirror. She took out lip rouge to apply to her lips, so her lips looked more wet and attractive.
Beauty was her ultimate weapon.
The dancer staying in the same room as her urged in a whisper, “Fu Yao, this is the palace. You…”
“Up to now, no man has not been in a daze after seeing me.” Fu Yao looked at her, and smiled. “The emperor is also a man.”
“There are no buts. There were dancers in the world who became empresses. Could I not even be a consort?” Fu Yao said, full of confidence. “You know, His Majesty has no other women in the palace other than the empress.”
“That is because His Majesty and the empress have a good relationship. Why should you meddle in it?” The dancer did not agree. “If you anger the empress, is it worth the loss?”
“There are no cats who do not like to eat fish, and no man who does not like to cheat.” Fu Yao lined her eyebrows. “If I catch His Majesty’s heart, what can the empress do even if she is discontent?”
The other dancer was speechless. A moment later, she said, “You have not even met His Majesty yet. Do not think of these things.” Then she wrapped herself in her blanket and went to sleep.
The two of them had opposing viewpoints, so they could not continue to talk.
Fu Yao turned to look at the hump on the bed, and snorted in disdain. How could these women understand her thoughts. Would a sparrow know the resolve of a swan?
In the fifth year, sixth month, and twenty-eighth day of Delong, the Delong Emperor’s first birthday after his marriage finally arrived within the anticipation of many people.
The sky had not yet turned light, but the officials and nobility who could attend the banquet had risen, and then gone into their carriages, dressed grandly.
The sounds of carriages on the streets did not stop. Some of the more curious people looked out their windows and saw the passing carriages. There were vermillion roofs, blue roofs, and black ones. Regardless of the color, these carriages were all very fine.
Some of the children who liked to watch hid behind the windows and looked in envy at these carriages. Then they innocently asked their parents who these carriages belonged to.
“These several carriages are from Duke Gu’s family. Do you see how the carriages in front have moved aside?”
“These are the Li Family carriages. Their carriages look so delicate.”
“There is the character for Rui on that carriage. Maybe it is Prince Rui’s carriage?”
Prince Rui’s and Prince Zhong’s carriages left their residences almost at the same time, and stopped at the corner together. The two were both hereditary princes. In terms of status, Prince Zhong had more weight. But speaking in terms of blood relation, Prince Rui was the uncle of the present emperor, and closer to the emperor.
So it was a mystery whose carriage should pass first and whose second.
Just as Prince Rui was going to speak and have his carriage driver let Prince Zhong’s family go first, the carriage driver of Prince Zhong squeezed past them, and went ahead of them.
The two sons of Prince Rui saw Prince Zhong so arrogant, and went white in anger. Back when the empress dowager had been picking her adoptive son, they had also come to the capital. But in the end, the empress dowager had chosen Jin Yang whom no one had raised, and put them, the heirs and young masters that had been educated, to the side.
If one of them had been the emperor, Prince Zhong would not be as arrogant as right now.
“Too much,” the eldest son of Prince Rui said, gripping his reins so tightly his joints turned white. “Just because Father-Prince is…”
He paused. He did not dare to say the next words. Because Father-Prince was born crippled, he was disliked by the imperial grandfather. He lost the throne, and even his lands were not as rich as Prince Cheng’s. He was a son. If he said such a thing in his anger, wouldn’t he be unfilial?
The second son of Prince Rui knew what his older brother wanted to say. He glanced at his brother, then at the quiet carriage. He lowered his voice and said, “Let him go. The more arrogant he is, the more displeased with him His Majesty will be.”
When the carriage passed by the Vermillion Bird Gates, the imperial guards were more strict in their inspection than in the past. After their search, they bowed. “Your Highness Prince Rui, please.”
“Thank you.” Prince Rui smiled warmly, and slowly put down the carriage curtain. In the eyes of others, his action won him a lot of good feeling. They praised Prince Rui for being reasonable and elegant.
In Purple Imperial Hall, Gu Ru Jiu was arranging Jin Yang’s clothing for him with her own hands. Because this was not a court session, Jin Yang was wearing a brocade robe embroidered with dragon patterns, and not the real dragon robe.
Neatening his clothing, Gu Ru Jiu touched the warm jade she had given him. She smiled, and kept on organizing his clothing.
Jin Yang looked down at the incense pouch hanging there. After a few looks, he took it down, and then put on the mint pouch that Gu Ru Jiu had given him. “The other pouches do not smell as good as this one.”
The mint pouch was made from the best cloth; the only bad thing about it was the craftsmanship. Gu Ru Jiu looked with disdain at the clouds on the pouch which were like steamed buns, and could not help but say, “Do not wear it today. Others will laugh.”
“Isn’t this very good?” Jin Yang carefully touched the surface of the incense pouch. “This is good. The others are too tacky.”
Gu Ru Jiu glanced at the novel incense pouches on the tray, and then at the ugly pouch that she had made. She could not help but think, because it was so ugly it was creative, and the other beautiful pouches appeared tacky instead?