The Job of an Imperial Concubine - chapter 74
No matter the reason the emperor visited Xihe Palace, Zhuang Laoyan dressed up the way she usually did. She would not put on any makeup, her hair would be smooth and carry a fragrance, and her clothes would be loose. After all, when the emperor visited an imperial concubine at night, it was either to chat with her or make love to her. It wasn’t to watch her remove her makeup, take off her hair accessories, and take off her clothes.
After all, it was better to take the emperor’s breath away with one’s beauty in broad daylight. “Nightly activities” were more suitable at night.
Once Feng Jing arrived at Xihe Palace, he wasn’t surprised to see Zhuang Laoyan at the front doors. He disembarked from his sedan and supported her to her feet. “The recent days make up the cold snap of the spring. Beloved Concubine should be more careful about your health.”
“This concubine has dressed very warmly. Your Majesty mustn’t worry.” Zhuang Laoyan rubbed the clasped hands of the emperor and her own with her free hand. “Why is Your Majesty’s hand this cold? This concubine has prepared hot soup. Your honored self should have some to warm the body.”
Feng Jin patted the back of Zhuang Laoyan’s hand with his own. “Don’t worry. We were merely blown by the wind a little.” Then he brought her inside.
Within Xihe Palace, there was no special scent of incense. There was merely the scent of grass. This was Zhuang Laoyan’s specialty. Whenever Feng Jin arrived at her residence, there was always a natural fragrance. For example, during June, there would be the smell of peaches; during July, there would be the smell of lotuses. August would carry the scent of mint. In any case, there were scents that caused people to feel comfortable both in their hearts and minds. Therefore, during the hottest point of last year, he preferred staying over at her place. When it was very hot, although other imperial concubines would have a lot of ice placed in their residences, who would want to smell that blend of incense that attacked the senses?
Personally placing a bowl of peanut, barley, and taro ball soup in front of the emperor, Zhuang Laoyan smiled as she said, “Your Majesty, this is something this concubine had the personal kitchen make by simmering. Have a taste.”
Within the celadon bowl was soup with a very strong fragrance. It gave Feng Jin, who had bore the cold wind on his way here, an appetite. He received a silver spoon from Zhuang Laoyan and took a sip. The soup seemed to warm him all the way to his stomach.
“Delicious. We haven’t experienced such a soup before. It seems the chef of your personal kitchen has some ability.” After taking a few more sips, Feng Jin set the bowl back down. Once he rinsed his mouth, he smiled as he looked at Zhuang Laoyan. “It looks like if We ever want to taste some gourmet food in the future, We should come to Beloved Concubine’s residence.”
“If Your Majesty likes this dessert, we can transfer this chef to the Imperial Kitchen.” Proud of herself, Zhuang Laoyan smiled. “However, this concubine was the one who taught them how to make this soup. Later on, if this concubine comes up with other recipes, this concubine will have someone teach this chef.”
“Since it’s you who came up with the recipe, what do We need this chef for? Having you is enough.” Feng Jing smiled. He noticed that she seemed emotionally moved, and stood to wrap a hand around her waist. “It’s getting late. Beloved Concubine and We should retire.”
Upon seeing this, the servants in attendance rushed forward to let down the curtains. Then they gave the emperor and Xianrong Zhao some privacy.
Gao Dezhong led a few palace maids and eunuchs outside the layers upon layers of curtains, waiting in silence should the masters have any command. Standing across from him were the two head palace maids of Xihe Palace. Smiling he said, “Just now, it seemed Xianrong Zhao’s hands were a bit red. Did Xianrong Zhao personally cook for His Majesty?”
“This…” Tingzhu was put on the spot. “Gao gongong, earlier, Her Highness instructed us slaves not to speak too much. May Gonggong not make things difficult for us.”
“You and I both serve masters. This gongong understands.” A sigh left Gao Dezhong’s lips. “His Majesty understands Her Highness’ intention.” It finally hit him that this Xianrong Zhao truly loved the emperor. Otherwise, why would she secretly make the soup but not tell the emperor she had?
After hearing his words, Yunxi bowed to Gao Dezhong. “Gongong is perceptive of even the finest detail. However, may Gongong keep this from His Majesty. This slave will thank Gonggong for the large favor here.”
Other masters would think of ways to show off in front of the emperor. But this Xianrong Zhao was afraid of letting the emperor learn about her love. Gao Dezhong noticed Yunxi’s worried appearance, and nodded to show his agreement. He wouldn’t take the initiative to talk about it, but whether the emperor would ask him was anyone’s guess.
As for the emperor, he visited the imperial harem many times. Zhuang Laoyan thought the emperor would merely chat with her under the blankets. Never had she imagined he would be in the mood, and greatly at that. After they made love, Zhaung Laoyan crawled on top of the emperor’s chest with her hair let down. She thought, who knows if the emperor would squish and hug me as we sleep tonight.
“Master, it’s getting late. Your honored self should go to bed.” Chenxi draped an outer robe over Noble Lady Ning’s shoulders. She saw Noble Lady Ning still stroking the zither the emperor had bestowed her, and said, “His Majesty went over to Xihe Palace today. He wouldn’t be coming here.”
“Yes, he is the emperor. The emperor of all the women in the imperial harem. He doesn’t only belong to me.” Noble Lady Ning smiled, bitter in its appearance. She rose to her feet and made her way next to the window. Gazed in the direction of Xihe Palace. “Originally, I was unwilling to enter the imperial palace. But the emperor’s tenderness and doting toward me made me forget this was the harem.”
“Master, you mustn’t think like this. His Majesty naturally treats you well. Cairen Hua and Cairen Yan, who entered the palace at the same time as you, still have not attended to the emperor.” Chenxi put away the zither. “After Master entered the palace, the emperor visited your honored self many times. Furthermore, he has rewarded you many things. And after you entered the palace, many rumors have sprung up about you. So how could the emperor continue to stay overnight here?”
“You don’t need to console me.” Noble Lady Ning smiled in an indifferent manner. “There are many women in the imperial harem. Wherever the emperor decides to go is right and proper. Not to mention, Xianrong Zhao was originally favored. It’s natural for the emperor to visit her.”
Recalling the short conversation in the imperial harem that she had with Xianrong Zhao, Noble Lady Ning no longer looked in Xihe Palace’s direction. Although Xianrong Zhao wasn’t multi-talented, due to her easy-going personality, the emperor favored her a lot.
Feng Jin woke up early in the morning. He had breakfast with Zhuang Laoyan, a rare occurrence. She held a bowl of pearl-polished non-glutinous rice congee. “Waking up early is truly peaceful.”
“With your lazy personality, you should wake up early more often to exercise.” Feng Jin picked up a slice of flaky pastry and placed it into Zhuang Laoyan’s bowl. “Don’t just stay in your palace every day. Walking more is good for your health.”
“This concubine has walked,” said Zhuang Laoyan. “Yesterday, this concubine encountered Her Highness Consort Ning and Noble Lady Ning in the imperial gardens. The crabapple blossoms Her Highness Consort Ning had painted were such a sight for the eyes.”
“Consort Ning’s skill in painting is unmatched in the harem. Noble Lady Ning…” Feng Jin furrowed his brows a hint. “Although Noble Lady Ning’s surname is Ning, her surname is an offense against Consort Ning’s title. Spread Our command: although Miss Ning Shengyu has a surname of Ning, because Consort Ning already has this word as her title, Miss Ning will be bestowed the title of ‘Qian.’”
Qian? Wasn’t this title a bit too shallow? Smiling, Zhuang Laoyan said, “Your Majesty, now that you said this, this concubine also feels that it was awkward to refer to both of them before. This way, it will be easier to differentiate the two.”
Not long after, the emperor’s verbal decree spread to the imperial harem. For a moment, the imperial concubines were unsure whether the emperor favored or did not care about that Miss Ning. If one said he did not care about her, he flipped her name tag many times. If one said he did care about her, then why would he use this reason, that Miss Ning’s surname was an offense to Consort Ning’s title, to bestow her the title of Qian?
“Noble Lady Qian?” Once the empress had heard the emperor’s decree, she smiled. “The scenery of the southern buildings is as beautiful as ever. One must not hate for no reason. A beauty leans against a fence as she plays a flute. Among the sound of plum blossoms tumbling to the ground tonight, resentment against difficulties. Indeed, it’s a decent title.”
“Why did the emperor suddenly think about changing her title?” asked Diancui with hesitation. “Your Majesty, the emperor stayed over at Xihe Palace last night. Then would this have something to do with Xianrong Zhao?”
“Whether or not it has anything to do with her, the emperor has already issued the decree. We only need to correct our way of addressing Noble Lady Qian,” said the empress, her smile never changing. However, her gaze seemed somewhat cold.
Whether or not this was the product of Zhuang Laoyan’s doing, the fact that the emperor would still remember her while doting on Noble Lady Qian made Zhuang Laoyan’s position in his heart evident. However, even if the emperor favored her more than he favored Noble Consort Shu, it wouldn’t be a bad thing. At the very least, Zhuang Laoyan wouldn’t scheme as much as the other party.
After Ning Shengyu received the decree, she stood at a loss. What did it mean by her surname acting as an offense to Consort Ning’s title? She did not have a special title when she had first entered the palace, so used her surname as one. Yet this could be considered an offense?
“Master…” Chenxi looked at her in worry.
“It’s fine.” Ning Shengyu looked down. “In this imperial harem, isn’t a special title proof of the emperor’s favor?”
However, this title wasn’t very good. The Qian character was akin to a joke.
Every woman of the harem admired Zhuang Laoyan’s great method. This move both expressed goodwill toward Consort Ning and warned the newly-arrived Miss Ning.
As everyone sighed with emotion regarding Zhuang Laoyan’s favor, something happened in the harem again: Noble Lady Ye’s corpse was found in the dried up well of Jingqui Pavilion. The dried up well was not deep, and the height would not kill someone should they fall in. As such, the emperor was furious and ordered for an investigation.
“Your Majesties the emperor and empress, this slave found this within the lapel of Noble Lady Ye’s breast pocket. It seems Noble Lady Ye took advantage of the murderer’s inattention to leave behind some evidence,” said an eunuch of the Department of the Palace, presenting a piece of damaged silk fabric.
The empress looked at the item on the tray. It was clear that a peacock tail was drawn on the silk fabric. Apparently, Noble Lady Ye had rushed to tear a small piece and hid it in her breast pocket.
Feng Jin, who was drinking tea with the empress, also took a look. The tips of his brows furrowed a hint.
“Your Majesty the empress, this slave thinks the peacock tail feathers of this fabric seems similar to the one on the kite Her Highness Xianrong Zhao was flying before.” Heyu frowned as she took more looks at the piece of silk fabric on the tray. “Perhaps this slave is mistaken.”
“No matter what, this case must be carefully investigated.” The empress turned her head toward the emperor. “Your Majesty, what does your honored self think…?” She knew that Zhuang Laoyan was favored. On the day Xianrong Zhao had flown a kite, the emperor was with her. As such, only after the emperor opened his mouth would she feel relieved in having people investigate her.
“Since Xianrong Zhao is involved in this case, then have her come for a questioning.” Feng Jin set down his teacup. “We also want to get to the bottom of this.”
The empress nodded toward the head eunuch, and he retreated in silence.
Expressionless, Feng Jin’s gaze fell upon a blue and white porcelain teacup. He did not appear as if he discovered that a favored imperial concubine had murdered someone.