The Job of an Imperial Concubine - chapter 75
Hiding in her palace, Zhuang Laoyan rested on a chaise lounge. When she heard Tingzhu’s flustered voice, she opened her eyes. “What happened?”
“Your Highness, Her Majesty the empress’ steward eunuch has arrived. He said that Noble Lady Ye has passed away, and is here on command to summon you for a questioning.” Yunxi went forward and helped Zhuang Laoyan slip on her embroidered shoes. “According to the steward eunuch, His Majesty is currently at the empress’ residence.”
Noble Lady Ye was dead? They were summoning her for a questioning? Zhuang Laoyan furrowed her brows. Before Tingzhu could help her put on makeup, Zhuang Laoyan stopped her action. “Just this is fine.”
Yunxi noticed that her master was wearing the pearl-embedded white blouse with a wrap-around and pleated skirt she had worn for many times already. Although her hair was arranged in a Cross Lily bun, she only inserted a gold-plated butterfly hairpin and a golden butterfly jade dangling hair ornament. Such a sight appeared rather simple and neat.
Once she reached the outer drawing room, Zhuang Laoyan caught sight of the empress’ steward eunuch standing there. And she realized that she must have been implicated in this matter.
“This slave pays respects to Your Highness Xianrong Zhao.” Noticing her simple appearance, the steward eunuch knew she must have rushed here. “Her Majesty the empress has invited Your Highness Xianrong Zhao to Jingyang Palace for a chat. May Your Highness make haste.”
Although the steward eunuch was polite, his words still held the intention to rush her. Zhuang Laoyan was also too lazy to ask him what had happened. She boarded her sedan for Jingyang Palace.
Within Jingyang Palace, the emperor and empress sat on the left and right seats respectively. Since the start, the empress observed the emperor’s expression, intentionally or otherwise. And she noticed that it was as tranquil as usual. It did not carry even a trace of a desire to question Xianrong Zhao,
For some reason, the empress suddenly felt somewhat sympathetic toward her. The emperor had favored many women in the past. Zhuang Laoyan wasn’t the first, nor would she be the last. As such, at this moment, the emperor would by no means feel concern for her. And even more so, he would not spend effort for her.
“Xianrong Zhao has arrived.”
The empress raised her head and looked in the direction of the voice. And she saw Zhuang Laoyan in a plain appearance rushing into the room. Her footsteps were frenetic, making her appear as if she had never expected something to happen.
“This concubine greets the emperor and empress,” said Zhuang Laoyan after approaching them. Although she wasn’t sure what had occurred, judging by the steward eunuch’s serious expression, she could tell that the matter in the spotlight today would not be simple.
“Empress, you ask. We will sit at the side and listen.” Then he closed his eyes to rest.
After looking at the emperor, the empress turned to look at Zhuang Laoyan. She pointed to the tray a nearby eunuch was holding. “Xianrong Zhao, take a look at this. Do you recognize it?”
Zhuang Laoyan shifted her gaze to the tray. And she only saw a wrinkled cloth lying upon it. Painted on it were the tail feathers of a peacock. It resembled the ones from the peacock she had drawn that eloped with the celestial horse kite. But after a few more looks, she felt that there were a few differences.
No one would be unable to recognize the things they drew themselves. As such, one glance and Zhuang Laoyan could tell this peacock tail was copied from her kite’s. “Reporting to Your Majesty, this seems to be the tail feathers of a peacock painting.”
“However, this palace noticed that this peacock tail is very similar to the one you drew. When Noble Lady Ye’s corpse was discovered, this cloth was hidden in her breast pocket. Can you tell me why this is?” The empress took a sip of tea, waiting for Zhuang Laoyan’s explanation.
“Responding to Your Majesty, although this picture resembles the one this concubine drew, this concubine set free the kite later on. This concubine does not know where that kite went. Moreover, the painting on that piece of cloth was not drawn by me.” Zhuang Laoyan was baffled. Just relying on this piece of cloth was enough to dump a bucket of stool water on her. The empress was being too groundless with her claims.
The empress looked at Zhuang Laoyan but did not explain anything. She waved, and a palace maid was brought into the room. Zhuang Laoyan tilted her head to look at her. It seemed to be one of the palace maids that normally accompanied Noble Lady Ye.
“This slave, Bitan, pays respects to the emperor and empress, and greets Xianrong Zhao.”
“At this time, there’s no need to be a stickler for formalities. You have always served by Noble Lady Ye’s side. Tell us what happened while she was still alive.” The empress drank a sip of tea. Her tone had been tranquil, as if she weren’t talking about a deceased person, but something very ordinary.
“Reporting to Your Majesty the empress, a few days ago, this slave saw a kite in the courtyard, yet was unable to tell who it belonged to. Later on, Master said that those who could fly kites in the palace must be of high rank. And she told this slave to store it well.
Yesterday, a court eunuch from Xianrong Zhao’s palace came to ask if we found a peacock kite. Master had this slave get the kite. Who would have known that mice had bitten a few holes from it, so much so that the peacock’s tail had fallen off? At that time, the expression of Xianrong Zhao’s court eunuch had been poor. After saying a few words in a peculiar manner, he left without taking the kite with him.” The eyes of Bitan grew red. She kowtowed to the empress. “This slave never imagined that Master would die that night. Begging Your Majesty to investigate this matter and find justice for Master.”
The moment after Zhuang Laoyan had heard those words, she said, “Your Majesty the empress is wise. This concubine did not have anyone look for a kite yesterday. Furthermore… Furthermore the kite had already flown away. Why would this concubine still search for it? Even if this concubine wanted to, why did this concubine not search in any of the other palaces, but only Jingqiu Pavilion?”
“Doesn’t Your Highness Xianrong Zhao hate my master for causing your miscarriage? Otherwise, why does even Shangshi Bureau dock from our meals? Your Highness naturally wasn’t there to find your kite, but rather to make things difficult for Master.” Bitan glared hatefully at Zhuang Laoyan. “Last night, if it wasn’t for Master wanting to repair the kite, then how could she have suddenly been killed? If this matter has nothing to do with your honored self, then why did Master try her best to hide this piece of cloth?!”
Zhuang Laoyan had worked in public relations in her previous life, and naturally was skilled at reading people. The hatred this palace maid Bitan felt toward her was real. Then who did that servant, who had gone to Jingqiu Pavilion yesterday, belong to?
Apt to the occasion, Zhuang Laoyan’s face grew pale. “Although this palace hates Noble Lady Ye for causing my miscarriage, this palace absolutely would not do such a reckless thing. May Your Majesties the emperor and empress see clearly.”
“This is a he-said-she-said scenario. This palace cannot make a decision,” said the empress as she looked at Zhuang Laoyan. “However, you are a suspect. If this case really has nothing to do with you, you must give a proof that is believable.”
Zhuang Laoyan shifted her gaze to the emperor who was nodding off. She appeared deep in hesitation, before shaking her head in the end. “This concubine did not paint that painting. And this concubine did not send anyone yesterday to find that kite. Someone is framing me!”
Just when the empress was about to say that Zhuang Laoyan must have proof even if someone framed her, the emperor who had his eyes closed said, “Since Xianrong Zhao said she was framed, and this palace maid said Xianrong Zhao’s court eunuch had gone to her master’s residence for an inquiry,” Feng Jin knocked the back joint of his index finger onto the table, “bring all the eunuchs from her palace to the courtyard outside. Have this palace maid search for him.”
Since the emperor had said this, no one dared to hesitate at the moment. Shortly after, all of Xihe Palace’s eunuchs were brought to Jingyang Palace’s courtyard for Bitang to recognize.
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Bitang examined many of them yet was unable to find those two eunuchs from the past. At the end, she only said in a helpless manner that the two eunuchs weren’t among the crowd.
“Could it be that someone truly framed Xianrong Zhao?” asked the empress, the picture of shock.
“Your Majesty the empress, even if those eunuchs aren’t here, perhaps Xianrong Zhao had used eunuchs from other places.” Bitan kowtowed heavily toward the emperor and empress. So much so that blood started to flow from her forehead. “Her Highness Xianrong Zhao has always been favored by His Majesty. There are many servants in the imperial harem that want to curry favor with her. This slave doesn’t know why someone would look for that kite. But if it wasn’t Xianrong Zhao who harmed my master, then why did my master hide that piece of the kite before her death?”
“Noble Consort Shu has arrived. Noble Consort Xian has arrived. Consort Ning has arrived.”
Once Feng Jin heard the eunuchs announce, he opened his eyes and looked at the empress. “Why have they come?”
“Responding to Your Majesty, this concubine thought since these three assist in the management of the harem, and since this case is important, having more people would lead to more ideas.” A smile graced her lips.
Feng Jin did not respond. Seeing the three women enter the room, he merely relieved them from paying respects in an indifferent manner. Afterward, he continued to watch the scene before him without a word.
“Your Majesty, this case is of great importance. For the time being, we are still unclear. How about we slowly and thoroughly investigate?” said Noble Consort Xian. “We cannot allow Xianrong Zhao to take the blame of the murderer in vain, nor can we allow Noble Lady Ye to die in vain.”
“Your Majesty, Noble Consort Xian is right. What does your honored self think…?” asked the empress as she faced the emperor, waiting for his response.
“We’ve said it early on that this matter will be up to Empress to manage.” Feng Jin glanced at the empress. Then he glanced at the pale Zhuang Laoyan standing in the center of the room. “However, this matter must be thoroughly investigated.”
The empress curtsied toward the emperor. “Because Xianrong Zhao cannot prove she has nothing to do with this case, and because there is no evidence pointing to her being involved, then Xianrong Zhao will not be allowed to attend the emperor before the investigation is finished.” She turned to the other three. “What do you all think?”
“Since Your Majesty the empress has said this, this concubine naturally has no complaints.” Noble Consort Shu turned to Zhuang Laoyan. “Ever since Noble Lady Ye had harmed Xianrong Zhao, her complexion has not been well. It’s better to rest and recuperate.”
Why emphasize that Noble Lady Ye had caused her miscarriage? Zhuang Laoyan dropped her head. Wasn’t this clearly saying that she hated Noble Lady Ye to the core, and as such killed in secret?
In silence, Feng Jin gazed at the empress and the other three imperial concubines. Following that, he shifted his gaze to Zhuang Laoyan. In the end, he looked at her red and swollen hands.
“It’s good for Xianrong Zhao to rest a little. When We see your condition, Our heart breaks.” Feng Jin rose to his feet. “We will return. Empress, you must get to the bottom of this case.”
All of a sudden, the empress’ heart pounded. Then she curtsied as she watched the emperor leave. Just what did the emperor’s words mean?
Zhuang Laoyan stepped foot outside of Jingyang Palace. Then she sat on her sedan and lifted her head, gazing at the dark blue sky. Who was framing her? Did this person do this because they thought she cherished the kites she had let loose with the emperor?
Unfortunately, that person certainly did not know what the emperor had said as they set free those kites. As someone who loved the emperor in secret, she would of course wish the celestial horse and peacock to be free together. Why would she pick them up later?
With the emperor present, she could not repeat the words he had said back then. As such, Zhuang Laoyan had not mentioned it. But what did the emperor’s silence mean? She did not believe that the emperor forgot the circumstances at that time, so what did his silence mean?
Noticing Zhuang Laoyan with her head lowered and silent, Yunxi could only say, “Your Highness, do not worry. Before His Majesty left, he consoled your honored self. He definitely believes you.”
“I know.” A sigh left Zhuang Laoyan’s lips. “However, someone has framed me for Noble Lady Ye’s murder. How would the empress dowager see this?”
Unconsciously, she looked at the other palaces near the path. Just who was framing her?
From the case in Taoyu Pavilion, to the case at the lotus pond, and finally to the case now, it had always been someone framing her. In this imperial harem, who hated her the most?