First Arc ー Chapter 5 (Part 2): Water Moon
“Consort, it’s raining and we didn’t bring an umbrella. Should we return to the carriage?”
“That’s right, Consort. It isn’t early anymore and we have come out for very long so we should also be returning to the palace. Besides, these apricot flowers haven’t even bloomed yet. Why don’t we wait until they have opened before we come to see again…”
The earnest voices that were advising her fell on deaf ears. The person who was advised withdrew her gaze from the two people in the pavilion. Then, she slowly turned around.
Under the dark purple cloak was a plain white face with no rosiness in her cheeks and also no expression.
Nonetheless, it was so beautiful that it shocked the world.
The beauty that shows disdain for the four nations drooped her eyelashes. Suddenly, she smiled. Along the edges of the cloak, the raindrops flowed down. ‘Pitter patter’. She started to walk and looked at the horse carriage at the side as if it did not exist. The two palace servants looked at each other helplessly and could only keep up with her.
They exited the Red Garden and headed in the west direction all the way. The buildings at both sides also changed from flourishing to shabby while the road became increasingly narrow and uneven. In the end, it was covered by sand, stones and weeds.
At this moment, as it was raining, it was full of mud.
The horse carriage followed until this place and could no longer drive ahead. The palace servants could not refrain from calling out, “Consort…”
“I want to be alone in silence. You all may wait here.” After she finished saying this sentence, she pulled her cloak tightly and walked into the small alley.
Huan Sha Alley at the southwest corner of the imperial capital was a well known rookery for the impoverished.
Here, there lived old people, women and children who were dressed in rags which could not cover their bodies. As there were no robust men in the prime of their lives, it appeared even poorer. Blocks of houses were squashed together like pigeon cages and the sordid floor was piled full of junk. The air was permeated with a rotten smell which was blended with various odor.
She walked past the rows of houses and finally stopped before the last one at the end of the alley. This house looked even more shabby than the one beside it. Even the walls were crooked. Looking at it, it would not hold on for long before it collapses. On the wooden door which was full of holes bore through by vermins, a grass rope was tied in a knot to serve as a door lock. As soon as she pulled lightly, the grass rope which had long withered snapped on its own.
Pushing open the door, it was a very dark and gloomy room inside. She could still see the walls grown full of moss and fungi such as mushroom. She walked over and wanted to open the window. In the end, even the whole window dropped with a ‘bang’. It fell onto the ground and shook up countless dust.
That was right. This was Huan Sha Alley while she was another Xi Shi* who grew up here and became a phoenix after flying out from this rookery.
*T/n: One of the Four Beauties of Ancient China. It can be an alternative name to describing a beauty.
The narrow humble room almost had no place to for one to place their feet. On the left was a very large wooden desk. Rolling pins were placed on the desk. Her Mother used to knead dough here. She would rise around midnight every day, day after day; At the foot of the wall on the right was piled up with many wine jars. Her Father often sat on the ground over there to drink wine and sang songs that she could not understand. Every time during then she would loathe her Father to the core but when he was not drinking wine, he would instead very gently help her Mother to draw her eyebrows, help her comb her plaits. Hence, at that time, she would forget his odiousness and feel that she loved him very much; There was still a bed and a cupboard left. In the cupboard was all their familial properties.
She went to open that cupboard which was already lacking one leg. There were a few clothes placed inside. The clothes were made of coarse fabric and had extremely crudely made lines. Then after that, she felt a mirror. The mirror was full of basic copper carbonate. She rose it to reflect herself a little yet the person inside was actually so unfamiliar.
This person…was it really her?
This person, why was the face so pale? Where did her eternally rosy and healthy complexion go to?
This person, once she smiled, the expression in her eyes would become very callous and her lips would be full of ridicule, making her appear so so mean. But she remembered that she originally smiled very nicely, very brilliantly, very naturally and unrestrainedly.
This person looked very young at first glance. She was merely seventeen years old and her looks were gorgeous and elegant. But on closer look, the tips of her brows and corners of her eyes were all so haggard and exhausted and was overflowing with the many vicissitudes of life.
This person…who was this person?
She hastily threw the mirror away, not daring to look at it again. She staggered as she retreated backwards, then she knocked onto the corner of the bed. Her whole body simply fell backwards with a ‘thud’ and laid down.
Dust flew everywhere. She started to cough and it was at that moment that she heard a sighing sound. It was very soft, very soft, but when it landed in her heart, it became very heavy, very heavy.
She immediately jumped up and looked towards the source of the sound and saw the him who was standing outside the window like that.
To be exact, it was the him who was standing outside the hole which already had no window.
It was still raining. The person had gotten an umbrella from somewhere and at this moment, he was holding the umbrella while standing outside the house and gazing at her quietly.
Hence, the human society immediately reversed and the time instantly went back as if it had returned to four years ago and his appearance when she first met him. At that time, he was also like this, wearing spotlessly clean white clothes and bathing in the spring rain while holding a paper umbrella with a bamboo handle.
She still remembered that a stalk of red apricot flowers was drawn on that umbrella and it was as red as the fresh flowers she was carrying in her arms then.
“How much does this stalk of apricot flowers cost?”
The scene in her dream overlapped with her memories. So it turned out that such a long time had already passed but she had not forgotten it even by an iota.
“How come you came here?” She opened her mouth as if she was talking in her sleep.
Whereas that person stood outside the house and answered, “I saw a person who looked like you and I followed over. It’s you indeed.”
She opened her hazy eyes and every word was said very stiffly, “The apricot flowers didn’t bloom.”
A painful expression flashed across that person’s face as he sighed in a low voice. “That’s right, the apricot flowers didn’t bloom…”
Hence, the two people’s robes both trembled. It was unknown if what was trembling were the bodies or the hearts. She suddenly grabbed the window edge and reached out a hand to him as she said, “You, come in!”
That person gazed fixedly at her and shook his head.
“In that case, I’ll go out!” As she said, she lifted the hem of her skirt and prepared to jump out of the window.
Nevertheless, that person still shook his head.
That person smiled at her but the smile contained something very bitter and painful. “Don’t you know why? Xihe, you really don’t know why?”
It was as if she was given a timely warning to wake up. She suddenly remembered that her name was originally called ‘Xihe’. And who was Xihe? The current Nation Bi’s favored imperial consort and the future empress. Nevertheless, at this very moment, when she gazed at that man outside the window, her heart felt as if it was being pulled by a very blunt knife. Because it could not be cut off cleanly without hesitation, she suffered even more torment instead.
“Are you going to marry Jiang Chenyu?”
He lowered his head. His voice seemed as if it was from a very faraway place could not be heard clearly. “The marriage alliance between Ji and Jiang is beneficial for both clans. Furthermore…Xihe, the apricot flowers won’t be blooming, won’t ever be blooming again…”
“You lied to me!” She suddenly broke out in a violent rage and her facial features started to be distorted. “You lied to me, you lied to me, you lied to me! You said that you would marry me when I turn sixteen, but in the end, I entered the palace and became the emperor’s imperial consort! You said that you would bring me to admire the flowers when the apricot flowers bloom but it has changed to another person! And right now, you’re even going to marry another person…”
The voice was like it was sinking to the bottom of the water and changing shape when it surfaced from the water. She buried her own face and wept until she was choked with sobs. The enormous grievances came engulfing like the sea waves, causing the air to be robbed away in an instant until she could not breathe…
Xihe produced a sharp cry as she sat up once again from shock. She suddenly regained her consciousness. It was actually a Nanke dream*.
*T/n: Used to refer to an empty dream or illusory joy. The saying originated from a story a man dreaming that he enjoyed power and riches in a country but found out that the country was just an ant hole. I won’t go into the specifics here but I have added a link below depicts the short story:
The house was still that dilapidated house which leaned at an angle. She sat on the wooden bed covered with dust and looked at that beam above her head. She suddenly remembered that her Mother had hung herself to death with this beam.
That day, she went to buy flowers and came back. Just as she pushed the door, she saw two embroidered shoes swaying and swaying. On the shoes were even embroidered with her Mother’s favorite rolled up lotus. The shadow on the floor also moved to and fro and was dragged very long…
The rain outside became increasingly heavy. It came blowing in from the window’s hole and wetted out the floor. Hence, the air became permeated with a type of dense and depressing water vapour.
The sky was already completely dark.
A pair of arms seemed to extend from the beam and welcomed her extremely gently. “Come. Little darling, come to Mother here. Come…Come…”
That voice was so sweet and was like the most loving call within the idyllic scene of birds chirping and flowers emitting their fragrance. Blurriness emerged in her eyes and her body reached out a hand as if it had its own consciousness. She removed her waistband. That’s right. Then hang that waistband onto the beam. After that, tie a knot. Just like this, it was very good. The knot must be a little tighter. After that, stretch your head into it…
The arms were still receiving her in front of her which made her recall that when she was young and walking unsteadily as she learned to walk, her Mother would also call out to her step by step in front and encourage her to walk forward. As long as she did it according to her Mother’s words, then she would be very happy, then she would be very blissful and no longer be in this despair.
Wait for me, Mother, wait for me…
‘Bang’. The sound of the door opening shook the whole room until dust flew around again.
The arms suddenly vanished and the illusion before her eyes was instantly annihilated. Xihe realized that she was lying on the bed with her hands reaching out into the air and wanting to grab something but her two hands remain empty.
There was nothing that could be grabbed in front and even more so, there was no hope.
“I said before that I want to be alone in silence. Without my permission, you can’t come here to disturb.” She pulled down her face and turned her head to face the entrance, wanting to see which audacious servant dared to rouse her from her dream.
Outside the door, the white clothes were like frost.
Xihe blinked her eyes, then blinked her eyes. She thought, ‘So it turns out that I’m still dreaming. In that case, I shall continue sleeping.’
She turned her head back and shut her eyes but in the next moment, she gave a jolt of surprise and looked at the person outside the door with a face full of astonishment. She said in a quivering voice, “It’s…you…”
That person stood at a place one metre* away from the door and was not holding an umbrella. Hence, the fine rain spread over his whole body. His robes and hair were all dampened but he did not appear to be a sorry figure in the least. When looking at him, he was still an elegant and fine gentleman in this turbid world.
*T/n: Three Chinese feet
He slowly lifted the hem of his white robes and knelt on the ground as he opened his mouth to say, “The sky is already dark. Ying deferentially asks Consort to return to the palace.”
Ji, Ji Ying.
So it was really him. So this time, she was no longer dreaming.
Xihe looked at him, then looked at the beam at the top of the house. When she thought of the fantasy land of death just now which was indescribably wonderful, she started to sneer in her heart. ‘Mother, it was you just now right? You wanted to bring me away, am I right? Because the human world is too painful, that’s why you also wanted to bring me away, am I right? HoweverーI am not you.’
‘When faced with sufferings, you only cried, only endured. When you couldn’t continue to endure, you then fled and chose the most most irresponsible suicide.’
‘I won’t want to be a good-for-nothing like you. I won’t want to die off that timidly and with no dignity.’
‘I won’t die.’
‘Even if when I was fourteen years old, I saw Mother’s corpse hanging from the beam after I came back from buying flowers; Even if when I was fifteen years old, I was sold to a human trafficker by Father after he was drunk; Even if when I was sixteen years old, I suffered from the emperor’s copulation until it was so painful that I didn’t want to live; Even if right now, my old lover is going to marry another person as his wife…I won’t seek death.’
‘Not only that, I will also live. I will exhaust all methods to live wantonly and ostentatiously.’
‘Life is originally fleeting. Therefore, it should even more so be fresh and beautiful like a flower.’
‘That year, when I was sixteen years old, the apricot flowers didn’t bloom. This year’s apricot flowers also won’t be blooming. But, as long as I’m living and live long enough. There will eventually be one year when I can wait until they bloom.’
Xihe rose and got out of bed. She patted off the dust on her and tidied up her dishevelled hair, then wrapped herself tightly in the cloak before walking out. When she was passing by Ji Ying, she smiled as she said, “Marquis Qi Ao is really loyal to His Majesty, sacrificing your Elder Sister and giving up your lover. It would be better if you be more straightforward and might as well offer your fiancée”
Without waiting for him to have any reaction, she quickly walked out of the small alley. Looking at the dim candlelight emitted from within the low houses at the side of the road, her smile turned faint bit by bit while her gaze turned more profound bit by bit.
At the entrance of the alley, the horse carriage from the palace was indeed still waiting. The two palace servants were carrying umbrellas as they stood beside the carriage. When they saw her, they all heaved a huge sigh of relief.
Xihe climbed the carriage and turned her head back to ask, “Was it you all who notified Marquis Qi Ao?”
The palace servant answered while restless with anxiety, “Because Consort went in for so long and still hadn’t come out. We were afraid that something had happened and we coincidentally saw Lord Marquis’ horse carriage pass by, therefore we entrusted him to go in to ask for Consort…” The voice became lower and lower and the terrified expression became increasingly strong.
“You did well.” The curtains were let down immediately and hid both Xihe’s smile and the sharpness in her eyes from view.
The fourth year of Nation Bi, the year of the rabbit, the first day of the fourth month of the thirty fifth year of the sixty year cycle, the twelfth, the Emperor speaks: Exclaim! Praising that Right Prime Minister, Jiang Zhong’s third daughter, hails from a noble family, has come of age as the epitome of women, respectful and educated, her execution and bearing are of morals. She receives the honor for marriage, moreover, there is a close relation with auspiciousness from casting lots. She will be conferred as Pure Consort and an auspicious time will be selected for her to enter the palace. Carrying exemplary conduct, brilliant and with lofty morals, she is respectfully offered a bestowment of a title from the Emperor.
*T/n: Please note that the above paragraph was in classical Chinese which means that I have no idea what it means at all but I have tried to at least make it more readable?? To sum it up, it’s an imperial edict decreeing that she is conferred as Pure Consort and is enter the palace at a suitable time.
If you have noticed, I have been naming the titles of the chapters in two words which is what the original novel does although it can be quite hard in English and some definition may be lost.
Anyway, I’m here to explain the titles for Chapter 4 and 5.
*T/n: When put together, they actually mean flowers in a river and the moon reflected in the water, a four-word phrase in Chinese used to describe an unrealistic rosy view or an illusionary scene.