Concealed by Brocaded Cloud, Frost on the Roads

 
 
 
 

Concealed by Brocaded Cloud, Frost on the Roads Volume 1 Chapter 01


Happy Valentine!

This is the 1st chapter of Concealed by Brocaded Clouds, Frost on the Roads, also the last by me, the next chapter will be translated by Panda Girl, look forward for it!

This chapter was brought to you by me and Adnana.

Chapter 1: Through the Palace Gate, Deep Like the Sea

Sheng Jia, twentieth year, autumn.

Today was the fiftieth birthday of Emperor Jing Ren's consort, Empress Ruan. Three months ago, the court had issued an imperial edict to exempt this year's taxes throughout the country and also pardon some of the criminals. Even those guilty of a capital offense and who were waiting for the executions at autumn's end were to be dealt with leniency through lighter sentences such as banishment. General amnesty in the whole country, celebration everywhere—currently everyone was deeply grateful, praising the Emperor and the Empress ten thousand years, one thousand autumns.

ten thousand years, one thousand autumns: the literal translation for "wansui qianqiu," auspicious words expressing the hope for longevity; they also sometimes translate to "long live a thousand years."

In the imperial Prime Minister’s residence, Ruan Wu Shuang was right in the middle of being fussed over by her wet nurse, her personal servant girl, Mo Zhu, and other servants, being dressed with a layered dress of gauzy muslin. For the Empress' birthday celebration tonight, she had obtained permission to attend with her mother. This imperial favour was not one that a young lady of an ordinary official's household could enjoy. Even if it was the Empress' birthday, the ones who could attend, apart from the royal family, were just the first-grade high court officials' titled furen. Even the ones who were granted a title of second-grade official were not participating, let alone an ordinary unmarried young lady.

furen: married lady

But she was not an ordinary person, and therefore naturally could not be compared with them. Their Ruan clan, since the founding of the current dynasty, had followed Emperor Tai Zu to fight wars on all sides, achieving illustrious military exploits. After Tai Zu had ascended the throne, as reward of meritorious service, her ancestor was conferred the title Marquess of Wu Xuan. Until this generation, their clan still had the imperial favor. Thirty-five years ago, when she was only fifteen years old, her paternal aunt had been appointed to marry the sixth imperial son, who was presently Emperor Jing Ren. Twenty years later, Emperor Jing Ren had inherited the reign, and her aunt—as it should be by rights—became "mother of the world," the Empress.

Tai Zu: Great Ancestor (posthumous title, e.g. for the founder of a dynasty)

More than ten years later, their Ruan clan had become one of the very best clans—in the entire court from top to bottom, no one could rise above them. She grew up living in such a prestigious family, and because she was the daughter that Prime Minister Ruan had in his middle age, she was extremely doted upon. Moreover, she had only two elder brothers, yet it was very honorable and unusual that each of them, respectively, in Sheng Jia the fifth year and the eleventh year, had become fuma.

fuma: prince consort, husband of a princess, the emperor’s son-in-law.


During the Empress' birthday celebration that night, the Emperor, followed by the Empress, moved away from the palace courtyard, and immediately, the gongs and drums resounded in the entire hall. The ascending ceremony began, the music played, and at the top of the palace stairs there were displays of copper turtles, copper cranes, and three-legged copper furnaces burning with sandalwood pine branches, the smoke floating around. The Empress wore a glorious royal court dress, with joyful happiness plastered across her whole face, and sat together with the Emperor on the dragon chair. The imperial clansmen, alongside numerous civil and military officers—arranged by their rank—knelt down in the palace courtyard, and in accordance to the ritual’s music, kowtowed three times, shouted three times: the Emperor ten thousand years, the Empress one thousand autumns.

But Ruan Wu Shuang knew that her aunt was not as happy as the world thought. Empress Ruan, in thirty-five years with Emperor Jing Ren, had enjoyed the world’s riches and honors, but had not given birth to any prince, only two princesses. In the harem, even if you were the beauty among beauties, as well as much favoured, without an imperial son, this was equal to not having a secure life protection—the status might be in imminent danger at any time. Fortunately, the feeling between the Emperor and the Empress had always been very good, with mutual respect between spouses and very sincere loving affection. In the harem, there were some beautiful pin fei who could give birth to male offspring for the Emperor, therefore the Emperor did not mind. At least, that’s what the civil and military officials and the common people thought.

pin fei: imperial concubine

When Emperor Jing Ren was still in the Crown Prince position, there were already concubines Ou shi and Liu shi who respectively gave birth to a son. Afterwards, both concubines caught an illness one after another and passed away. So the then Crown Princess Ruan's heart felt pity, and she took care of both children and regarded them as her own. Now both sons had entirely grown up to adults, and their deep feelings with Empress Ruan were no different than with their own birth mother.

Shi: clan/maiden name; after marriage, the women are usually called by their surname instead of their forename.


It was now nighttime at the Imperial Garden feast.

In the garden, silks of five colours were tied up. It was decorated with all kinds of palace lanterns, a display of fireworks and lanterns. It couldn’t be said to be extravagantly luxurious, but it was rich and dignified. On the eastern side, Meng shu fei led the womenfolk of the palace court, and the eldest imperial son, Baili Hao Ting, led the various imperial sons and daughters. On the western side, in contrast, her father, Prime Minister Ruan, led numerous cabinet ministers, arranged according to their official rank, with their wife or child standing nearby as well. While Ruan Wu Shuang herself, due to special circumstance, under the Empress' order, had the right to stand with the imperial daughters at the end of the row. Although it was merely the rearmost position, it had attracted the envious gaze of many court-appointed officials and their wives and children.

shu fei: The Decent Consort, a rank for imperial concubines

The singing girls were playing fine and pleasant music, offering [the dance of all the stars cup themselves around the moon]. The dancers' posture and movements were graceful and gentle, otherworldly elegant. During the banquet, everyone saw the Emperor's mood was rather high. He proposed one toast after another, and enjoyed drinking without restraint.

Ruan Wu Shuang looked for an excuse to secretly withdraw from the banquet, made the maid appointed by her aunt leave, and followed the complicated winding corridor all the way until she finally reached the side of Tai Ye Lake.

Tai Ye Lake: an artificial lake in the Imperial City; the name honors two separate lakes Tai Ye constructed in the early imperial capital of Chang’an. The first was excavated by the Han emperor Wu in the 1st century BC as part of his Jianzhang Palace. The second was excavated by Emperor Taizong of the Tang beside his father’s Daming Palace.

Concealed by a cloud, a curved bright moon went through the deep sea of clouds. The moonlight was faint, concealed and hazy, holding dusky radiance, and gently cast the sprinkling light far and near, upon the various distant palaces. The glazed roof tiles, which overlapped like an unbroken chain of mountain peaks, reflected the beautiful and secluded faint light. From a distant place, the vague sound of the musical instruments from the banquet could be heard, ethereal and pleasant to listen to. But it also served even more as a contrast to the quietness of this place.

liuli-roof

glazed roof tiles

She bent down and lightly scooped water with cupped hands—it was refreshing, making her at ease. Today, after wearing a splendid attire the entire day, she also felt tired. In front of people, Ruan Wu Shuang always had to respond smoothly, to be gracious and act appropriately to the occasion. After all, she was the magnificent Prime Minister's daughter, who absolutely couldn't lose the Ruan clan's dignity. But secretly, she actually loathed this extremely troublesome attire. It would be good if this was her own residence. She would be able to brazenly loosen her hair bun right away, and appreciate the flowers under the moon.

After both of her elder brothers had become fuma, the Emperor bestowed them each a separate official residence. As a result, now the entire back courtyard of the Prime Minister's residence was her own to monopolise, with only the attending wet nurses, servant girls, and maids being allowed to enter. Even the protection guards were only allowed to enter daily at a fixed time for patrol. Thus Ruan Wu Shuang had always liked to loiter in the back courtyard's garden holding a book, playing barefooted with water, whispering to flowers.

Dearest Mother always made a fuss at her, and said that if someday she got married, how would she possibly get by. But Daddy still always let her do as she pleasedso long as she felt happy, that was enough. She naturally knew, her father and mother extremely loved her, so much that they couldn't bear to let her suffer even a little bit of grievance. All along, what she wanted to do, as long as it was still within reason, not too absurd, they always agreed. Such as the matter of her studying to learn to readat the beginning, Mother was always opposed to this, believing that a woman’s virtue was to have no talent. However, she did not comply, was determined to study, and Daddy then touched his beard, smiled and nodded.

Probably it was because Daddy allowed her from childhood to disguise herself in men's clothes to listen to Master's teaching along with her elder brothers, to the extent that now if there was something she wasn't obedient about, dearest Mother could only keep harping on about it to Daddy, saying it was all because of his pampering. And Daddy would always smile and answer, "There is only this one baby daughter, exactly born for us to pamper." Mother always clicked her tongue and gave Daddy a glance, but in those many glances actually there was very much approval.

It was also because her father and mother couldn't bear to let her suffer the slightest grievance that various people who had came to seek a marriage alliance were repeatedly sorted out, to the extent that she was now already seventeen years old but had still not yet married. It wasn't because there was a problem with her appearance. It was believed that originally, her aunt, namely the current Empress, precisely owing to that outstandingly beautiful appearance, splendidly ranked first in the capital city, and only because of that Emperor Gao Zong bestowed her in marriage to the then sixth imperial sonso Ruan Wu Shuang naturally was also unlikely to be inferior. Merely on her appearance today, it had already made everyone mesmerized. Although she didn't raise her head too often, she hadn't overlooked everyone's gaze.

"Young Lady Ruan, the Empress summoned you." A chamberlain's respectful voice was heard from behind.

"Lead the way." She tidied her clothes, gracefully turned her body around, and then followed the chamberlain.

The complicated winding road of the inner palace, although this was not her first time coming, she was still very unfamiliar with it, especially this cold, desolated corner. It could be assumed that he had been looking for her for some time.

She followed the chamberlain in a meandering course around several pavilions and kiosks, only then to finally arrive at a pavilion. She took a closer lookthis place was obviously not Aunt's residence Zhao Yang Hall.

Zhao Yang Hall: Originally built during the time of Emperor Wu of Han, Zhao Yang Hall became the residence of Empress Zhao Feiyan during the reign of Emperor Cheng of Han. Later in poems and dramas, Zhao Yang Hall was used as a general metaphor for the living quarters of the queen or favourite imperial consorts.

"The Empress ordered this slave to bring Young Lady to this place, asking Young Lady Ruan to wait a moment." This chamberlain really deserved to serve at Aunt's side. She was quite unfamiliar with his face, but he was extremely skilled in observing one's words and gestures. Her movement of slightly knitting her brow just a moment ago was already seen clearly by him, therefore just now he could give an explanation.

After he finished speaking, the chamberlain then bowed, retreated and went away. Because of the night, lanterns were already lit inside the pavilion, distinctly and dizzily illuminating. She went to take a look; there were no decorative items inside the building. Towards the door at the western wall, there was a long, narrow red sandalwood table, with a porcelain vase displayed on top of it. The vase was arranged with several flowers, probably Chinese flowering crabapple.

malus_spectabilis_in_the_jardin_des_plantes_paris_002

Chinese flowering crabapple (Malus spectabilis)

There was also a red sandalwood platform bed, along with a red sandalwood round table. On the round table there was a yellow poplar wood chessboard and a ceramic glaze incense burner. It seemed like this was usually used by the imperial concubines as a resting place.

liuli

ceramic glaze (liuli) incense burner

Ruan Wu Shuang slightly frowned, unsure about what her aunt's intention was by letting a person bring her to this place. Amidst her thoughts, she actually smelled a type of faint sweet fragrance.

She carefully took a look, then became speechless. As it turned out, the inside of the ceramic glaze incense burner emitted a slender thread of floating smoke, which gave off the scent of su he xiang. Yet slowly sniffing at it, she also thought it was not similar. Su he xiang was also usually available at home, the majority of it bestowed from the palace. But the fragrance was nice to smell yet was very distinctive. Gradually, her whole body was also becoming as light as a feather…

Su he xiang: styrax balsam; has a pleasant, sweet, balsamic, slightly spicy odor. Storax and its derivatives (resinoid, essential oil, absolute) are used as flavors, fragrances, and in pharmaceuticals.


Mo Zhu found that, ever since Young Lady had returned from the palace, she became a little different. What exactly was the difference? She also couldn't tell. Every day, the young lady had also been quiet, occasionally had liked to idly nest in the deepest part of the garden to read, or perhaps to stay at the pond soaking her feet.

Wet nurse Sun, who had seen that, had become anxiously worried right away, saying this wasn't in the least the manner of an unmarried daughter of a noble house. Yet in Mo Zhu's view, apart from this, the young lady also did not do any further acts to be terrified of. But now, she was always gazing motionless out the window, lost in thought, not even holding a book or wandering outside during the day anymore. Since coming back from the palace, whether it involved taking a bath or getting dressed, she was not permitted to attend Ruan Wu Shuang.

It had already been several days since coming back from the palace, and Ruan Wu Shuang was still in a state of shock. That day, she unexpectedly became unconscious. Later she suddenly awoke, only to find herself lying on the platform bed, unexpectedly with her clothes half-removed, extremely disheveled. She absentmindedly tried to support herself by holding onto the couch, slowly standing up. Her body was in indescribable pain which emanated from between her legs. Even if she wasn't married and did not understand the matter between men and women, she also understood something had happened to her own body.

How could this kind of thing have happened? Her complexion was pale, and she was on the verge of collapsing. She did not know how to tell her mother, and could only keep silent. It was all because she mischievously wanted to have a good time and slipped away by herself to go to a secluded place. Otherwise, it would be impossible for this sort of thing to happen. Moreover, the matters of the inner palace were always tangled and complicated. If a person was not careful, they might be involved in endless foul wind and bloody rain. Even if Father and Mother were told, if Aunt was made aware, in the end there also was also no method to investigate thoroughly—after all, it involved the innocence of the imperial Prime Minister's daughter. If this spread out, very likely she would become the biggest joke in the whole country, her father's lifelong clean reputation would be destroyed, the entire Ruan clan would be mocked by people for a lifetime! Thinking about this, she suddenly was hit with cold shivers.

foul wind and bloody rain (idiom): reign of terror, carnage

"Young Lady, Laoye and Furen invited you to the study." Mo Zhu had knocked on the door from outside.

Ruan Wu Shuang recovered her expression and spoke: "I will go over at once." She was looking at her own reflection in the peony-shaped copper mirror: the complexion was haggard and pale, the high spirit of the former days unknowingly had gone away somewhere. She sighed, took some rouge to smear on the face, also dabbed some mouth rouge—now, this looked slightly better.

Laoye: lord/ master 

copper-mirror

peony-shaped flower mirror


Father and Mother looked as usual. Seeing Ruan Wu Shuang come in, they ordered Mo Zhu to close the door. Ruan furen came over, holding her daughter's hand, carefully looked her over for a while, then said, "Today, you've dressed up a bit, and your complexion looks a little better. Unlike your complexion from a few days ago—I wanted to have the imperial physician come and take a look, but you did not agree. I became very worried. Now, to see you a bit better, I feel somewhat relieved."

Ruan Wu Shuang's heart was in sorrow and grief; thousands of words that she wanted to freely say were stuck in her throat. She only whispered a cry, "Mum," her heart really wishing she could reveal in full details the matter that had happened to her body. But turning around to see her father's already half greyed hair, she forcibly restrained herself.  

Ruan furen pulled her daughter to one side, faintly smiled and said, "Today, Father and Mother asked you to come over because there is an important matter to discuss with you." While speaking, Ruan furen also turned around to give a glance to Ruan Laoye. Ruan Wu Shuang was puzzled, looking at her mother.

Ruan furen then spoke in a lower voice: "Your aunt's inner palace retainer came to pass on some news, saying that the second imperial son fell in love at first sight with you on that day of the birthday feast and afterwards requested the Emperor, asking the Emperor to betroth you to him."

The second imperial son, Baili Hao Zhe, was actually the son that Liu shi gave birth to in what was at the time the Crown Prince's residence. That Liu shi was formerly a maid, and after she had given birth to a son, she was received as concubine. However, Liu shi must have had a meager good fortune—while her son was still an infant, she caught an illness and passed away. Baili Hao Zhe was subsequently brought up by Empress Ruan.

There were many people at that birthday feast. Moreover, as an unmarried daughter of a noble house, one must with the eyes to look at the nose, the nose to look at the heartRuan Wu Shuang also wasn't able to pay much attention. Now that she thought about it, there was still no impression. In contrast, the eldest imperial son, Baili Hao Ting, very refined and handsome, she still vaguely remembered a little.

the eyes to look at the nose, the nose to look at the heart: to bow due to shyness

In fact, when she had just reached marriageable age, Emperor Jing Ren intended to betroth her to his imperial son right away. Yet her parents couldn't bear for her to be trapped in the cage of the imperial household. It was vital to know, although presently Emperor Jing Ren's body was still regarded as healthy, he was already more than fifty years old. Many imperial sons had secretly gathered allies to form factions, secretly crossing the Wei River at Chencang. When striving for the throne, the winner would always be the king, while the losers probably couldn't even keep their corpses intact!

marriageable age: a girl’s fifteenth birthday

secretly crossing the Wei River at Chencang: idiom, refers to a stratagem used by Liu Bang in 206 BC against Xiang Yu of Chu. Fig. to feign one thing while doing another, to cheat under cover of a diversion.

The Ruan clan was already the most influential family in the imperial court, and there was only this darling daughter, therefore Prime Minister Ruan and his wife had continuously not consented to let their daughter join the imperial household. Another couple might yearn for this matter even in their dreams; the Ruan clan, on the contrary, avoided it as much as possible.

Mother tried to convey slowly, "In your aunt's opinion, this is rather difficult. Because the second imperial son stated the request in front of the full imperial court, civil and military, the Emperor basically has already permitted it. If you have a sweetheart, and really do not consent, your father is willing to enter the Emperor's palace to beseech the Emperor to revoke the decree." Asking the Emperor to revoke the decree, that was easy to say. It was important to know that a monarch does not go back on his word—once the emperor's golden mouth opened, it could not be altered.

Sweetheart: literally, the words used refer to one’s true love/ the person of one’s thoughts

Of course, as her age was past sixteen, she naturally hoped she could meet her true love— two people tying the marriage knot, to love each other and have perfect marital harmony. However, after enduring that incident in the imperial palace, she was afraid she had become unable to fulfill her wish. That's fine, her parents had raised her for so many years; this time, do not let them worry. Even if Father went to the palace to beseech the Emperor, very likely it would also be hard to have their wish granted. Father had already aged—how could she still be cruel enough to let him kneel in the Main Hall for a day under the sun, just for this unfilial daughter?

Ruan Wu Shuang had made up her mind and indifferently replied, "Mother, daughter doesn't have a sweetheart. Please order a person to go and give an answer to Aunt—say I agree to enter this marriage."

Ruan furen was startled for a moment. It was important to know that this darling daughter of hers had always loathed the most the matter when other people proposed, continuously proclaiming that she wanted to stay by her parents' side. Today, she surprisingly agreed readily, which was really unexpected.

She suddenly thought back to half a year ago, at the Great Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of the capital city. While offering an incense stick, they came across the dwelling of the Chan Buddhist abbot who was meditating to cultivate. That abbot just met face-to-face with Wu Shuang, then immediately laughed and congratulated Ruan furen, saying that Young Lady Ruan's facial features were distinguished, rarely seen in the world. Then he made Wu Shuang seek an inscribed bamboo stick, and thus a single inscribed bamboo stick was drawn out. The abbot even personally interpreted the inscribed bamboo stick for Wu Shuang, said that within half a year there would be the happy occasion of a red luan, would encounter a husband; afterwards, riches and honour, glory and splendor, were to be enjoyed endlessly.

Chan Buddhism: Chan is a school of Mahāyāna Buddhism combined with Taoism. It developed in China from the 6th century CE onwards, becoming dominant during the Tang and Song dynasties. After the Yuan, Chan more or less fused with Pure Land Buddhism. For a more detailed explanation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chan_Buddhism

luan: mythical bird related to phoenix; luan feng (luan and phoenix): husband and wife.


Three days later, Emperor Jing Ren's imperial edict arrived. Prime Minister Ruan had been in the mansion's hall arranging the incense burner table. The whole family knelt to listen to the imperial edict: "The Emperor, who governs with the Mandate of Heaven, declares: Prime Minister Ruan's fortunate, esteemed daughter Ruan Wu Shuang, well educated, good-looking and intelligent, today shall be betrothed to the second imperial son, Baili Hao Ze, as his wife. By the Emperor himself…"

Prime Minister Ruan performed a big rite of kneel three times and kowtow nine times, as a grateful gesture for receiving the imperial edict. The chamberlain Chai gonggong repeatedly congratulated Prime Minister Ruan: "Lord Prime Minister, congratulations, congratulations! Three imperial in-laws in one family, it has rarely been seen since ancient times!" And again he turned around to face Ruan furen and Wu Shuang to congratulate: "Ruan furen, rejoice! Young Lady Ruan, no, no, second Imperial Consort, rejoice!" Prime Minister Ruan glanced at the steward of the household nearby, Quan Fu, who now hurriedly handed down silver one by one to everyone who had come from the palace.

Gonggong: way to refer to a palace/court eunuch (taijian)

Prime Minister Ruan was laughing and said, "The benevolence from the Emperor is vast and mighty! Asking Chai gonggong to go inside to have tea and refreshment. Please!"

Ruan Wu Shuang was supported by Mo Zhu to stand up, while sunshine illuminated everything outside the hall, where it was sunny and cloudless. She lifted her head, staring in the far distance—the road ahead was vast and unknown. She, after all had been said and done, had still entered the imperial house!


Ruan furen was leading the people in the house,  occupied with preparing the dowry. Although there were already two sons who had married, in the end it was still the first time marrying off a daughter, so she was quite anxious over various trivial matters. Being very busy, Ruan furen still couldn't conceal her constant joy at marrying off her daughter. Busy as she was, she also did not forget to cheerfully give a few nagging words: "The Emperor decreed the marriage to take place one month later; there's absolutely not enough time to prepare. If only there were three months, it would be good!"

Actually, even if Ruan furen was given a year of time to prepare, it might still be too short. After all, Wu Shuang was her favourite, and if possible, she wanted to keep her longer, one more day after another. Although Wu Shuang would not reside in the palace after being married—a separate residence had been bestowed—in the end, she was still coming out from her maiden chambers, and they could no longer be happily close by each other like before.


The wedding day was set for a month later, on the eighth day of the tenth month of the lunar year; an auspicious day, suitable for marriage.

The wedding ceremony would be presided over personally by the Emperor and the Empress. Red fabric was laid on top of each item in the palace, red lanterns were hung at both the palace gate and the door of the palace hall, and the word "happiness" was pasted on top of the palace gate in scarlet letters. Second imperial son Baili Hao Zhe wore a crimson official robe embroidered with gold and rode a tall, fine horse, leading twenty imperial family clansmen and forty protection guards sent ahead as honour guard to escort the bride. At 11am-1pm, Ruan Wu Shuang would be welcomed into the Palace. First it was necessary to go to the palace hall and perform a rite at the ancestral shrine, then to complete the whole ceremony there was still the rite of sharing the nuptial cup in the official residence.

There was a great number of inner palace customs. Even though Empress-Aunt had sent an expert to give Ruan Wu Shuang guidance before the marriage, she had been absent-minded and thus hadn't properly learned. Her crimson ceremonial robe had layer upon layer embroidered with gold flowers. The extravagantly elaborate hair ornaments, although their craftsmanship was superb, they pressed down so hard she was unable to breathe. After a long time even her neck began to stiffen.

She was being guided back and forth by an imperial maid to give salutations one after another. Through the red silk veil covering her head, she could barely see the silhouette of Baili Hao Zhe beside her. Actually nothing could be seen; the only thing she saw clearly was merely his pair of black boots, embroidered with a four-clawed gold python, really vivid and lifelike, and his footsteps, which seemed to cruise high in the clouds.

After the marriage was granted, she also tried repeatedly to recall his appearance, yet that day in the palace, she only gave a quick glance. Besides, there was a large number of people, so she hadn't paid much attention. Therefore, from the beginning, she didn't have any impression of him. Now, he was standing beside her, quite near, close enough that she could perceive the scent of his body.

She had always been mild-tempered; toward the so-called glory, splendor, wealth, and rank, she was also somewhat indifferent. Perhaps because since she was small she grew amid riches and honour, surrounded by glory and splendor, she was used to this, and then also became indifferent. Only the expense for food and clothes was a lot better in comparison to the ordinary people, that's all, yet it was still the same as having three meals and a roof over your head. Because of her status, even if Ruan Wu Shuang were married to an ordinary man, she could also have a smooth and abundant existence all her life. Therefore before, she had never thought to marry into the imperial family, because she was born amid riches and honour, and from when she was small had also heard too many stories of the imperial family, heard too many of their secrets. Entering through the palace gate was even deeper than the sea.

However, no matter how indifferent and calm, at this moment she was still somewhat restless. To depart from her familiar home, to leave her parents whom she had loved deeply these past ten years and more, to be in an unfamiliar room with the "happiness" word pasted all over, she would still be really nervous, unable to predict what could possibly happen later. In addition, that one night in the imperial palace was always disturbing her, like a vicious tumor on her body that could not be gotten rid of.

The room was extremely quiet. There were lanterns of vermillion-coloured muslin in the corners of the room, as well as dragon and phoenix red candles on top of the round table in the middle of the room, lighting the room as if it was daytime. Both of her hands twisting her bridal veil, Ruan Wu Shuang lightly shouted, "Wet nurse!"

Wet nurse Sun, who was originally standing in the room, responded at once, and swinging her hand toward the maids who were standing in a row, she said, "All of you go! Mo Lan, Mo Zhu, you keep watch at the door." Mo Lan, Mo Zhu, and several maids sounded an answer, and moved back to retreat with light footsteps, heading toward the door.

Wet nurse Sun once again carefully looked around, leaned her body over, moved closer and whispered beside Ruan Wu Shuang's ear, "Young Lady, the thing has been prepared."

Ruan Wu Shuang lifted the crimson veil, the apricot yellow tassels at the corners of the veil slightly trembling, lifted her eyes, gave a nod to the wet nurse, extremely slow and sluggish and said, "Regarding this matter, do not let anybody else know!

Wet nurse Sun hurriedly kneeled down with a "plop," genuinely anxious and frightened. "Young Lady, rest assured. This kind of matter, even if somebody were to stick a knife to my neck, I definitely wouldn't divulge even a single word!" If this matter were to come out, she was afraid that the first head to drop off would be that of wet nurse Sun herself—how could she joke with her own life?

Yesterday evening, Young Lady had ordered her to go into the room to attend her during her bath. Originally, this was a matter for the inner servant girls, but since Young Lady had ordered, she could only comply. She attended Young Lady to remove her clothes piece by piece. From head to toe, her skin was smooth and fair, particularly lovely. She thought to herself, after marriage, when her young lady finally met the second imperial son, she didn't know how delighted he will be.

Wet nurse Sun carefully sprinkled the thin and soft petals of bright yellow osmanthus flowers inside the piping hot wooden tub; for a moment, the room was dense with steam and heavily scented fragrance. Young Lady's arms were placed on the wooden tub, snow-white like a jade, without a single blemish. Suddenly, the osmanthus flower petal on Ruan Wu Shuang's hand slipped, floating down like a raindrop, to fall down on top of the thick carpet. The wet nurse was shocked, unable to close her mouth. The shougong sha? How could the shougong sha have disappeared?

Shougong sha: sand gecko; it is a bright red eye-catching point on the arm, regarded as proof/validation of a woman's chastity in ancient Chinese culture. It was said that, once the woman had intercourse with a man, it would immediately disappear.

Ruan Wu Shuang did not turn her head, only kept scooping up water to wet her shoulder, and said with a low voice, "Wet nurse, you now ought to know what my purpose is for asking you to come in?" A girl losing her chastity before marriageit might be assumed that since ancient times, she, Ruan Wu Shuang couldn't be the first one. Even if she didn't want to admit it no matter what, the shougong sha on the arm couldn't lie. However, there were still one or two methods to cover up this kind of matter.

Wet nurse Sun, as if only just awakening from a dream, spoke with a trembling voice: "Young Lady…"

Ruan Wu Shuang sighed and said, "I believe that wet nurse can surely find a method to let me cross the sea by a trick on the wedding night with the second imperial son." Wet nurse's face went deathly pale, and she said, "Young Lady, if it were to be found out, this is a very big crime of deceiving the monarch… Then, Laoye and Furen…"

to cross the sea by a trick (idiom): to achieve one’s aim by underhanded means

Ruan Wu Shuang was silent for a moment and then said, "I naturally know. Therefore right now, regardless of the method, I will try it all. Wet nurse, in this house, apart from you, there is no one who can help me now!"

Now it was one day later, and Ruan Wu Shuang's wedding night had arrived. The room became awfully quiet; only occasionally, there would be a bursting sound from the candle flame, the softly crackling sound echoing in this quiet room, yet people could hear it especially clearly. Wet nurse Sun once again looked around very carefully, then handed over an extremely small porcelain bottle and spoke in an extremely low voice: "This is fresh blood from a fowl. So long as after the matter… First hide it beside the pillow."

Ruan Wu Shuang received it dazedly. The porcelain surface was refreshingly ice-cold, without a trace of warmth, yet she held it as if it was a hot iron, as if at any time it could cause a burning injury.

It was unknown how much time had passed, when there was a burst of sound, of footsteps sound coming from the garden. The wet nurse leaned down beside Ruan Wu Shuang's ear and whispered, "It should be the second imperial son arriving!"

She hadn't yet finished speaking, only to hear a burst of sound from the servant girls outside making a salutation: "Second imperial son!"

Next there was the "banging" sound of the door being opened, the sound of footsteps coming closer and closer. Ruan Wu Shuang tightly pinched the bridal veil.

The wet nurse's voice was heard: "Second Imperial Son!"

A deep and low voice instructed, "All of you, withdraw!"

The atmosphere inside got all the more quiet, so much so that Ruan Wu Shuang thought she could hear her the sound of her own breathing. Suddenly, it became bright before her eyes, and as the covering red veil was lifted from her head, a slightly intoxicated face suddenly appeared in front of her. Starry eyes and distinctive eyebrows, straight and impressive looking. Undeniably, his appearance was extremely handsome. Unlike the eldest imperial son, Baili Hao Ting's cultured and refined appearance, yet still having a kind of lofty quality.

She merely took a quick look and hurriedly lowered her eyes, allowing the long, tapering eyelashes to cast down faint shadows on the skin that was as snow-white as jade. She heard his light laugh, then he pulled her wrist to get up, slowly passing through the inner room's muslin curtains, and finally in the outside room. Red "happiness" candles, red tablecloths, red curtains, red carpetseverything that entered the eyes was red, seeming to make the room full of joy.

The cups of wine for the wedding rite were placed neatly on the round table, along with some festive objects according to the occasion. He pulled her to sit down, then picked up the wine pot, poured the wine into both of the cups, picked up a cup and handed it over.

The wine was the first-rate tribute wine, flowing along the throat like a thin string, gliding down. She was not good at drinking wine; just a cup, and immediately after, her face seemed to flush red. In his eyes, it looked like cotton rose hibiscus in full bloom, splendidly radiant.

Beyond the transparent soft muslin veil, her exquisite snow-white body was tossed about in happiness on top of the crimson satin quilt embroidered with a dragon and phoenix, in contrast with the red background just like delicate white night-blooming cereus in full bloom. For a long time after, Ruan Wu Shuang slowly moved her limp, aching and powerless body, deliberately moving to touch him. He was also in a dream, looking at ease, as if languid after eating till full.

cereus

white night-blooming cereus

When she woke up once again, the clear light of dawn already illuminated the room, passing through layer upon layer of muslin curtains, leisurely lighting up the place. She lightly shifted her body; her whole body was in discomfort. She seemed to think it a bit peculiar; turning her head, she unexpectedly caught sight of him still on the bed, just lazily watching her, the black pupils of his eyes glistening with light. Her face rapidly became red, then once again was tranquil and calm, yet the bashfulness of a bride still inevitably rushed forth.

Baili Hao Zhe saw her curling up her white, tender body in embarrassment, and a kind of wonderful and familiar parched heat swept through him. He extended his hand, wrapping her in his embracewherever his hand touched her, the skin was very smooth. Already unable to bear it, he leaned over her body. His scorching breath came down on her, as if wanting to heat up her ice-cold skin, like heating up an iron.

She lightly refused, saying in a low voice, "Wang ye, it's already dawn…" But very soon was easily engulfed in his movement…

Wang (ye): prince

Wet nurse Sun along with numerous servant girls stood distantly down the corridor; in the autumn season, it was quite comfortable. Several night-blooming flowers in the garden had just unfolded at the branches, the petals slightly trembling. Thus, the moist air was carrying a kind of fragrant and sweet smell. She raised her head once to look at the time of day indicated by the color of the sky, vaguely heard some noise from within the room, yet the masters hadn't called, and she didn't dare to enter without permission. Because of the matter in her mind, she was inevitably somewhat restless.

After a very long time, she only heard a "creaking" sound; the door opened, and the second imperial son Baili Hao Zhe, neatly dressed, came out with a refreshing appearance. Wet nurse Sun's hanging heart was finally unburdened. Slowly sighing in relief, she once again hastened to make a salutation according to the customs.

She pushed through the door and went in, passing through layer upon layer of hanging muslin curtains, just to see Young Lady still wrapped in a quilt, lying down. She took light steps, was about to withdraw. Just to see that Ruan Wu Shuang turned her body and called, "Wet Nurse, help me get up."

She supported Ruan Wu Shuang to get up. In the wake of her movement, the soft crimson satin quilt embroidered with dragon and phoenix double happiness slid from her body to her waist—the delicate skin on her whole body was sparkling and translucent as snow, yet presently it was full of marks, like pink petals. Mo Zhu had already taken a dark red woven silk garment and came over. It was a light and soft gauze dress, its long and wide sleeve like waves on both sides, winding and crossing.

On the dragon and phoenix happiness bed behind (them), there were red specks on the exquisite and expensive white silk satin, like Chinese flowering crabapple after the rain, scattered about. Currently, the sunshine had came through the windows with fretwork patterns, molted accordingly; some might be deep or shallow, dense or diluted, bright and dark varying.


Three days later, the first return of the bride to her parental home, to visit her parents.

Baili Hao Zhe personally lifted the curtain's palanquin, helping Ruan Wu Shuang go down from the palanquin. He entered the residence, and after having refreshments, was immediately dragged by Father and both elder brothers into the study. Ruan furen then pulled her daughter's hand, looking left and right, just not willing to let go. Ruan Wu Shuang wore a purple red dress embroidered with gold flowers, a soft muslin coat of similar colour, and the jet-black hair was pinned in a bun with a gold buyao, the pearl tassels of the hairpin swaying beautifully along with her movement.

Ruan furen sighed and said, "Only three days not seeing you, you seem to have grown up. Now that you've married, you must be sensible. Definitely cannot act willfully and make a scene like when you were with Father and Mother." This kind of instruction had been spoken no less than dozens of times already, yet Ruan Wu Shuang still obediently complied.

Formerly at the residence, she was relying on Father and Mother's doting, could do as she pleased according to her temper. Yet in the future days, no matter how hard it was, she had to deal on her own. Since ancient times, being a daughter-in-law is hard, and being a royal daughter-in-law is even harder. Fortunately, the biggest hurdle had already passed. Considering her royal husband's behaviour in the past three days, he should not have discovered that matter.

Just before leaving, Father had called her to the study. She pushed the door open and entered. Father was standing beside the window, looking lost in thought. Although she hadn't seen his facial expression, she still sensed a kind of indescribable sadness that arose. She quietly went in and called, "Father!"

Prime Minister Ruan turned around. As a middle-aged man, his head had now already filled with gray hair. He stroked his daughter's hair, sighed and said, "Shuang'er, Father never thought that you will marry into the imperial family. But now you're already trapped there—there is already no way out. I had also refused the eldest imperial son's secret inquiry of a marriage proposal. Nevertheless, I still don't know… is this good fortune or calamity? It's but a hidden curse." Her mind understood thoroughly, didn't have to be told, calmly listening to Father's following speech.

er: child

"You have grown up in a lady's private chambers and never paid attention to the palace, the matters within the royal court. But now, Father has to try to roughly explain to you, also make you properly understand about your royal husband and his plight."

"Since last summer, the Emperor's health already hasn't appeared to be good. Also, previously he had thought about naming a successor many times, but naming a successor is something that is vital in the major issue of our dynasty's long-term peace and stability. The court officials' opinions have always varied, so the successor hasn't been decided even now."

"Since ancient time, the successor is chosen from the di line. However, because your aunt did not give birth to an imperial son, this matter can be ignored. When choosing the successor, no matter how you order it, the successor should be the eldest imperial son. But the second imperial son's literary and military strategies are the more superior. In addition, the fourth imperial son's mother is the Emperor's favourite shu fei; her position in the imperial harem is second only to the Empress. That is why until now, the matter of choosing a successor has stayed unresolved."

di: born of the official wife, not of a concubine

"Originally, our Ruan clan has been against involvement in this matter concerning the successor. Although both eldest imperial son and second imperial son are raised up personally by your aunt, the current empress—on one hand after all are not her own flesh and blood, yet both are of equal importance. This sort of matter of establishing the heir always involved the rise and fall of the entire clan! Shouldn't be rashly stepped into! Our Ruan clan over these past dozens of years has received much benevolence from the emperor, is also already at the top of riches and honour. Father has also understood this point all along, therefore has always watched from the sideline, not getting involved at all."

"But now, our Ruan clan has ridden a tiger, and it’s hard to get off. Wanting to not get involved is also impossible. Today I chatted briefly with the second imperial son. Although he hasn't clearly spoken of it, with his great ambition and great goals, he will absolutely not be content with a small position of a prince. His aspiration is the whole country! Daughter, oh daughter, I don't know whether this is your fortune or your misfortune?"

if you ride a tiger, it’s hard to get off (idiom); fig. impossible to stop halfway

Because of her marriage, the whole Ruan clan was in the second imperial son's faction—even if they wanted to not get involved, outsiders also wouldn't believe. The so-called 'be bound together for good or ill,' it was exactly this principle, unchanging since times immemorial!