First Arc ー Chapter 3 (Part 4): Battle Begins
Jiang Huayue was stupefied and awkwardly said as it was difficult to deal with, “Princess, you know that His Majesty avoids this as a taboo greatly……”
“But Imperial Elder Brother is not around now, isn’t he? Before Imperial Elder Brother left the capital, he handed the imperial harem to Noble Lady to manage it temporarily. The matters in this imperial harem are decided by you. I’m begging you, let me see Imperial Elder Sister-in-law. Even if she’s not my Imperial Elder Sister-in-law, she’s also my Elder Cousin Sister! Zhao Luan said in a sobbing tone, “Noble Lady, I know that you’re usually the most pure, kind and regards relationships importantly. On the account that Elder Cousin Sister also treated you quite well in the past, please just let me see her! Something so huge happened to her family, even Elder Cousin Brother has been decapitated by Imperial Elder Brother and in addition she’s living alone in that sort of place. I’m really afraid that she may meet with some unforeseen incident. How can I justify myself to Aunt’s spirit in heaven? Noble Lady, Noble Lady……”
Jiang Huayue inwardly thought, ‘Aren’t you posing a tough question for me? If I really let you go to Qian Xi Palace to see Xue Ming, when His Majesty becomes aware of it later, won’t even I have to be reproached together? No, at sensitive moments like this, I can’t make a mistake at each and every step. This head, I definitely can’t nod.’ She was about to refuse when Jiang Chenyu suddenly pressed her hand down and opened her mouth to say, “Elder Sister, on the account that Princess and the Empress are close sisters, just let her go take a look.”
Jiang Huayue was stupefied again. ‘Why was even Chenyu also joining in the fun and adding trouble to this?’
Jiang Chenyu flashed a smile at her. “If you’re worried, then go along with Princess. According to reason, you should also go take a look.” As she spoke, she turned towards Zhao Luan to say, “But Princess, you can go, but you have to go secretly.”
Zhao Luan said anxiously, “I’ll listen to you two elder sisters for everything!”
“Then that’s good. Go changed into palace maid clothes and prepare a a little food. We’ll go see the Empress together.”
Zhao Luan was overjoyed at the unexpectedly good news and promptly went to prepare in excitement. As soon as she was out of Jia Ning Palace, Jiang Huayue said anxiously, “You’re insane, how can you promise her for this kind of matter?”
“Rest assured, Elder Sister. His Majesty won’t blame.”
“How do you know that His Majesty won’t blame? Towards the Xue Clan right now he’s actually……”
Jiang Chenyu interrupted her gently. “The Xue Clan is the Xue Clan, the Empress is the Empress. His Majesty distinguishes them clearly.”
Jiang Huayue tried her best to let herself calm down and said, “What do you mean by this?”
“Think about it. His Majesty even had Xue Su’s head chopped off so simply. It can be seen that he already doesn’t spare a shred of feelings and consideration for the Xue Family at all. Since it’s like this, then why did he only banish the Empress into Qian Xi’s palace yet didn’t bestow her death with a cup of poison wine or a strip of white silk?”
“You think that His Majesty thinks of the old affection with Xue Ming? That’s impossible. The world knows that he has always been cold to Xue Ming so where is there any mutual affection to talk about?”
Jiang Chenyu shook her head. “I’m just afraid that the everyone in the world has been mistaken. When His Majesty married the Empress, he was only thirteen years old. Back then, the late emperor solely favored Crown Prince Quan and the way he treated him was a far cry from being considered as favor. As Xue Huai and the Wang Clan were sworn enemies and since the Wang Clan had already stood on the side of the Crown Prince, he naturally wanted to support another one. Hence, Xue Huai picked His Majesty and had his daughter marry him. That is also to say that for His Majesty, Xue Ming is actually the biggest turning point in this life.”
Jiang Huayue said puzzledly, “What does this have to do with old affection?”
“Ever since he married Xue Ming, His Majesty obtained the help of the two families, Xue and Ji, ultimately attaining the position of emperor. However, in the process of obtaining the throne, the Xue Family grew powerful day by day that even His Majesty could no longer control in the end. When his conflict with Xue Huai deepened with each passing day, Xue Ming became his protective umbrella and can also be said to be the alleviation zone for this conflict. Such an important girl, do you really think that His Majesty would not even have a bit of feelings towards her?” When Jiang Chenyu said until here, she smiled indifferently and there was another profound meaning in her eyes. “If I didn’t guess incorrectly, I think that His Majesty actually likes Xue Ming a lot, but with his self-esteem as an emperor as well as his ambitions for power, it caused him to have no choice but to be cold to her and sedulously maintain a certain distance. It’s because he knows that he would eventually eliminate the Xue Family. If he loved that woman too much and became hesitant and soft-hearted when the time came, it would definitely ruin important matters. However, he was ultimately still soft-hearted and lenient. He killed Xue Su, killed all the people in the Xue Family, but left only Xue Ming alive.”
Hearing that Zhao Yin liked Xue Ming, a very subtle feeling flowed past Jiang Huayue’s heart. She said in a displeased manner, “This is only your conjecture. How the truth is, we can’t be sure.”
Jiang Chenyu smiled again. “If Elder Sister doesn’t believe, then let’s go to the cold palace together. Chenyu assures that if you go to the cold palace to see the Empress, even if His Majesty is aware of it, he will also pretend to not know and won’t blame you.”
Not believing was not believing, but since the words have already been said, Jiang Huayue could also just drop the subject. When Zhao Luan had changed and brought a food basket over, the three of them dismissed the palace servants and went out together. Only after walking for the time needed for half a meal did they arrive at Qian Xi Palace.
The towering trees which reached high up to the sky were desolate, their leaves all fallen off. The weeds in front of the corridor had all turned into a withered and yellow color due to the frigid winter days. It was a scene of barrenness and overgrown with underbrush.
Two lanterns hung high up to the carved beams. One had already been blown out by the wind while another had one of its strings broken and dangled there askew. As soon as it was blown by the wind, it swayed to and fro and also seemed like it would fall off anytime.
When Zhao Luan saw these circumstances, the rim of her eyes turned red. It was very secluded inside the courtyard. There was only the sound of the wooden fish*, each and every sound, emitting from within the room monotonously, clearly and melodiously. She promptly sped up her footsteps, pushed open the room door which vermilion paint had peeled off and called out, “Elder Cousin Sister……Elder Cousin Sister……”
*T/n: A wooden percussion instrument. It’s often used by Buddhist monks or nuns to beat rhythm when chanting scriptures
An example below:
A lone lantern dimly illuminated everything within the room. Xue Ming who sat beside the lantern was devoting herself to Buddhism, her head lowered and eyes closed as if she was very calm and without worldly passions like a monk. She actually did not have a single reaction to them barging in.
Zhao Luan placed the food basket onto the table and went to grasp her hands. “Elder Cousin Sister, I have come to see you.”
Xue Ming continued to strike the wooden fish and did not respond.
Zhao Luan’s tears fell down at once. “Elder Cousin Sister, I know that you have suffered. This place is so cold, yet you’re wearing so little, your hands are so cold……I have brought your favorite Osmanthus Lotus Root Soup and Pine Nut Fragrant Cake**. Do you still remember, I always cried when I was young and once I cried, you would use these food to coax me……Elder Cousin Sister, say something, don’t ignore Zhao Luan. Zhao Luan knows that Imperial Elder Brother let you down, but please don’t resent me along with him, Elder Cousin Sister……” As she spoke, she hugged her neck and burst into tears as she bawled.
*T/n: There seems to be a few versions but I’ll just show one example
**T/n: This seems to be the best I can find:
Jiang Chenyu thought at one side, ‘Although this princess is pampered and wilful, it’s rare that she is pure and has the genuine feelings of a newborn baby. It may be assumed that she’s also the person who most doesn’t know how to put on a show in this imperial palace, but it could be precisely due to this rare sincerity that it’s even more moving.’
As expected, although Xue Ming still did not speak, her gaze flickered and also became more sorrowful.
“Elder Cousin Sister, Zhao Luan is insignificant and my words do not carry much weight and I can’t even help you a little. I can only secretly come to see you and bring a little food for you. If you have anything you want to eat and use, then tell me, I’ll bring all of them over for you the next time I come.” Zhao Luan wiped her tears and turned her head to say, “Oh yes, there’s also Noble Lady Jiang. If not for her, I also wouldn’t have been able to come here. Elder Cousin Sister, say something, I’m begging you……”
Xue Ming’s gaze shifted onto Jiang Huayue’s face. She seemed to have thought of something as her expression suddenly warmed up but quickly became downcast again. Jiang Chenyu took in this series of subtle expressions and stepped forward to say, “Empress, a person’s words carry little weight but three people can make a tiger. If you still have any other wish, say it out for us to listen. If it’s something we can help with, I think that Elder Sister and Princess will definitely help out.”
Jiang Huayue was stupefied and inwardly thought, ‘You still dare to add trouble for me?’ At the other side, Zhao Luan had already promptly nodded her head to say, “That’s right. Elder Cousin Sister, what wish do you have? Ah Luan and Noble Lady will definitely devise all possible ways to help you accomplish it!”
Xue Ming’s hand stopped and stared at that wooden fish in a daze as if she had gone silly. Zhao Luan was still going to speak when Jiang Chenyu pulled her hand and signalled her to not make a sound because at this moment, a vigorous mental struggle was certainly ongoing in her heart. Success or failure was simply dependent on her moment of decision. If other people were to speak superfluously, she was afraid that it may result in a counter-effect instead.
A very long period of time passed like this. Suddenly, Xue Ming laughed bitterly. Afterwards, she shook her head and went to strike her wooden fish once again. Jiang Chenyu’s heart silently said ‘no good’ in her heart. The Empress still had not crossed over that threshold after all. It looked like she had no choice but to give her a push. Immediately, she went two steps forward and pressed down on Xue Ming’s hand. “Empress!”
Xue Ming raised her head a little sluggishly and looked at her. She did not make any sound and also did not lose her temper. On her peaceful face, there was a look of apathy as if her heart had utterly dissipated like dead ashes.
Jiang Chenyu said, “Empress is living in seclusion in the inner palace so you can naturally no longer pay attention to any worldly affairs of the outer world and devote your feelings to Buddhism but do you know that a bloody disaster has already arisen outside and your clan members are suffering from this catastrophe? Can you really bear to abandon and disregard them?”
Xue Ming muttered, “I’m a person who has been deposed. What can I do even if I can’t bear to? You all should go and don’t come again in the future.”
Jiang Chenyu stared at her and said, “How do you know you can’t when you haven’t tried? Can you absolve yourself of the crime and guilt just by saying that you have the desire but no power to help? Now that you are folding your hands and keeping yourself out of the matter, have you ever thought that hundred years later when you journey to the underworld*, how are you going to meet those 137 clan members of yours as well your countless ancestors?”
*T/n: Yellow Springs, the Chinese underworld
Xue Ming trembled severely.