Emperor's Conquest Chapter 3
1.3 Trials and Tribulations
Five days after my birthday, Brother took me to a review of the army1.
Father often said, daughters of the Wang family far surpassed any boy.
But that iron-blooded, golden-speared world in the end belonged to men. A world far distant from the rouge and powder and soft concerns of women.
A blue-blooded daughter of the aristocracy only ever needed to hide under the shelter of her father, her brother, her husband. To us, battles and wars were but far-fetched stories out of legend. So I had not overly much interest in the army review — and yet, I also could not suppress my curiosity.
Mother always said, it was not a good thing for a girl to be too curious — but I couldn’t help myself.
Figures of legend, stories of legend, were always so captivating.
What drew my curiosity, was one person.
This person’s name, I really had heard too many times. Some people said he was a god. Other people said he was a demon.
Every time Aunt, Father, or Brother mentioned this person’s name, their tone always became grave.
Even Zi Tan’s attitude became complicated in a way I could not understand, when he mentioned this name.
He said, the Heavens sent this person to the country as a blessing, but perhaps to the people as a suffering.
More than a month ago, news of victory had arrived. The empire’s punitive expedition to the south had been a huge triumph.
The army had in the span of only nine months launched a campaign against the barbarian tribes2 of the southern border. With overpowering force, they had subdued the twenty-seven southern tribes and expanded the empire’s territory some six-hundred miles further south. The renown of the empire’s military prowess expanded even further than that. With the southern retreat now blocked, fear struck the hearts of those traitors still in rebellion and they were forced to withdraw into their strongholds.
When the reports arrived, the spirits of everyone at court lifted and the entire capital rejoiced. Only Father seemed to have long anticipated this outcome. He merely smiled a little, and there was in his expression a thread of worry. But I did not understand what he was anxious about.
Some days after that, the army began their withdrawal from the border and prepared to return to the capital in triumph.
The Emperor commanded the Crown Prince to lead the court officials out of the city walls to welcome the army’s return.
The blood of the barbarian tribes of the south had washed bright the general’s armor. The general’s long sword had swept through the borderland, and now once again shone upon the capital. He was the only non-imperial feudal prince3in the empire. Through outstanding military service, he had brought the empire under control. He held in his command a massive military force, and people called him both god and demon — the Yu Zhang Prince, Xiao Qi4.
From the imperial court to the marketplace, there was not a person who did not know the Yu Zhang Prince’s mighty name.
— Born to a common family in Huzhou5, at sixteen he entered the military, at eighteen he was promoted to staff officer, entered into the service of the Jing Yuan General, and went north on a punitive expedition against the Göktürks. In a battle north of the Yellow River, at the head of a hundred armored cavalry, he set a brilliant scheme, flanking the enemy and attacking them from behind. By himself, he killed more than a hundred enemies, the corpses stacking up like a mountain. Sustaining twenty-one heavy wounds, he yet survived. The Göktürks, suffering heavy losses, next met the main army attacking from the front, and were routed, retreating a thousand miles. The provinces of Shuozhou and Hezhou6, occupied for many years by the Göktürks, were recovered, and moreover, in the same stroke, the empire gained control of the six hundred miles of fertile land north of the Yellow River.
Xiao Qi had made a name for himself by this one battle. From a lowly staff officer, he was jump-promoted to deputy general of the vanguard, and received the Jing Yuan General’s high regard. In the three years Xiao Qi was posted to defend the northern border, he repelled the Göktürks more than a hundred times. He beheaded thirty-two of the Göktürks’ generals, and even the Göktürk king’s beloved son died under Xiao Qi’s hands. These were critical blows to the Göktürks. Xiao Qi’s reputation for fighting prowess spread far and wide over the northern deserts. He was granted the title of the Ning Shuo General; the people knew him as the “Heavenly General7“.
In the fourth year of the Yongxi era, the governor of Yunnan, colluding with the Baidi and Xirong tribes8, rebelled against the empire and declared himself king. The Ning Shuo General Xiao Qi was sent west by imperial decree to put down the insurrection. Cutting off the enemy vanguard in the Luo Lang mountain pass, he detoured through Guizhou, cut his way through the mountains, caught the enemy off guard, and directly attacked their center. The rebels along the way surrendered, but the barbarian tribes continued their resistance and refused to submit. In a wrath, Xiao Qi massacred the city9, slaughtering every barbarian family, destroying the Baidi and Xirong tribes. With Yunnan restored to the empire, he beheaded the thirteen leaders of the rebel army and displayed their heads in public. Then Xiao Qi pressed home the attack and pursued the retreating enemy. In the next two years, he laid waste to the entire southwestern border. On account of this military achievement, he was given command of a million troops and horses, and granted the title of the Zhen Guo General10.
In the seventh year of the Yongxi era, the barbarian tribes of the south again encroached on the border. The Yu Zhang Prince, who had only just pacified the southwest, once again led his troops and headed south. Encountering floods and devastating pestilence, he arduously guarded the southern border, forcing back the enemy. When flood waters destroyed the roads, cutting off his supply chain, leaving him without supplies and vulnerable to the enemy, still Xiao Qi pressed on. He forced his way across Lancang River and drove the southern barbarians back eight hundred miles, rendering them powerless to invade north once more.
This year, Xiao Qi by virtue of his exceptional service and achievement was elevated to the title of the Yu Zhang Prince, becoming the only non-imperial feudal prince in the empire.
In the eighth year of the Yongxi era, after resting his troops in Yunnan for half a year, the great general Yu Zhang Prince once more headed south to do battle against the southern barbarians. In only nine months’ time, he defeated them utterly, forcing all twenty-seven of the southern tribes to surrender.
In these ten full years, the Yu Zhang Prince had led the army on campaigns all over the empire, in a great effort to deliver the country from its desperate situation, to support the Emperor in resolving our great national calamity. Truly, he could be considered the backbone of the imperial court, the pillar of the country.
Now that the great army was returning to the capital, everyone’s spirits were elated. The Emperor had at first intended to personally welcome the returning army outside the city. However, in ill health, he could only command to the Crown Prince to go in his place, leading the court officials out of the city walls to welcome and reward the three armies.
Again and again, I heard Father and Brother discussing the hostilities on the front; again and again, those hair-raising stories of the battlefield shocked me.
Those three words “Yu Zhang Prince” were like a spell, always making me think of battlefield slaughter, of victory and death.
When I could finally see for myself this person of legend, could finally look with my own eyes that invincible army of legend — for some reason, I instead started to feel a sense of foreboding.
An army a hundred thousand strong could not all enter the city. The Yu Zhang Prince only brought with him three thousand armored cavalrymen. And yet, it was still sufficient to shock the entire capital city.
By the hundreds and thousands, people crowded both sides of the main avenue to the city entrance. The crowd was impenetrable. Every building with a view of the city entrance was jam-packed. Brother had early on reserved an entire floor at the Yao Guang Pavilion. It was the highest pavilion near the Chengtian Gates, and afforded me a clear, lofty view of the grand entrance of the army.
At noon, the golden drums beating, the rites and music rising like bird cries — the Crown Prince in court robes of ocher yellow, escorted by a hundred court officials, ascended the high platform.
From a far distance, everyone appeared as faint blurs, their faces indistinct. Only by the color of their dress could I guess that the one standing to the left of the Crown Prince, wearing court robes of vermilion, had to be Daddy. I pulled at Brother’s sleeve. Affecting sweetness, I inquired, “Honorable young master, when will you wear those court robes and jade belt, and stand in front of a hundred court officials, and make something of yourself?”
Brother glared at me, “You little brat, when did you learn sarcasm?”
I turned a laughing look on him, and was just on the point of further mockery, when from the distance rose a low somber bugle cry. The city gates slowly opened.
It seemed as if in an instant, the entire capital city settled into quiet solemnity.
The dazzlingly bright noon suddenly darkened, and even in the air there seemed a sudden chill.
In a split second, there appear before me what looked like an infinite tide of black iron, twinkling in the sunshine with a sort of metallic cold light.
A large black standard, golden edged, fluttered high in the wind. On it was impressively embroidered, in silver thread, the character “Xiao”.
The armored cavalry, in their black helmets and iron armor, were split into nine files, and stood in precise formation. At their head, a person in heavy armor, a sword at his side, a plume of white tassel on his helmet, sat erect on a horse. The horse was entirely the color of ink, and it too wore armor — a battle horse. The person sat very straight, as straight as a sword. He rode at the front, and behind him followed those nine files of armored cavalry, in precise order. Even their footfalls were in measure. The sound of their boots hitting the ground seemed to reverberate all about Chaoyang Gate.
The rites and music concluded. The white-tasseled general on the black horse reined in his horse. His right hand raised a little, and the files behind him came to an immediate stop.
That person rode forward by himself. Some thirty yards from the raised platform, he stopped and dismounted. He took off his sword and scabbard, handing them to a rites official, and then step by step slowly ascended the raised platform.
Brother’s voice sounded from behind, tightly, “That’s Xiao Qi.”
That person was such a distance from us, distant enough that I could not clearly see his face. Yet, only gazing at him, from such a distance, was sufficient to give me a sense of pressure, of suffocation11.
He stopped three steps in front of the Crown Prince. He lowered his head slightly, bent one knee, and knelt down.
The Crown Prince unfurled the yellow silk of the imperial decree, and read aloud the Emperor’s reward of the army.
From this distance, I could not hear the Crown Prince clearly. But I saw that pitch black armor, that snow white plume in the high noon sunshine, dazzlingly bright, shining coldly.
When the Crown Prince finished reading the imperial edict, it was passed to Xiao Qi, who with both hands received the yellow silk scroll. Then he rose, turned to the soldiers in front of the platform, and standing there in all his towering majesty, he raised the edict in both hands.
–Long live the Emperor!
That voice: forceful, stern, dignified, powerful. Even I, from the distance of the pavilion, could faintly hear him.
In an instant, those three thousand black-armored cavalrymen uniformly sounded out three sky-shattering “Long live the Emperor!” The earth trembled, the walls shook; that cheer resounded throughout the capital.
Everything else must pale in comparison to that vigorous shout. Even the imperial family and its glittering insignia were cast into the shade.
The imperial guards in close attendance, in their golden-helmets and silver-armor, with their bright swords at their sides — even they could not compare to these three thousand. In front of these three thousand, with their black armor still dusty from travel — the imperial guards seemed no more than wooden puppets on a stage, pretty and useless.
These three thousand had returned from bloody battlefields ten thousand miles away. They had used the enemy’s fresh blood to shine their war armor.
Those swords were enemy-killing swords; those spears were enemy-killing spears; those men were enemy-killing men.
That aura of death12: only those who had shed blood in war, who had fought on a hundred battlefields, who had calmly faced life and death — only they had such ice cold and weighty presence.
That person of legend, as if he had waded out of a pool of Asura’s blood, now stood there in front of everyone, high on that raised platform, looking down on those assembled, stern and awful as a god13.
A sense of suffocation — only to realize with a start, I had forgotten to breathe. The palms of my hands were sweaty.
I never knew, in this world, there could be this kind of a person.
I was used to the splendid might of the imperial family: such that, even in front of the Emperor, I had never suffered even half a second of dread or fright.
Yet at this moment, even separated this far a distance, I did not dare to look straight at that person.
On that person blazed a sort of swift and fierce radiance — one could not conceal anything from it.
Brother also seemed affected, uncharacteristically saying nothing. Silently, he gazed at the scene before us, but the grip he had on his teacup was very tight, the knuckles of his fingers faintly white.
I pressed my lips together. There was an indescribable difference in my heart, like listlessness but also like wild jumping — I had never felt like this before.
The army review finished, I took the carriage back to the manor, pensive and silent the entire way.
In front of the manor, a maid lifted the hanging screen of the carriage, but I did not see Brother standing in front of the carriage as he normally did, handed extended to receive me.
Surprised, I leaned over to look, and saw Brother still astride his horse, the reins of the pearl-encrusted bridle in one hand, stroking the neck of his white horse with the other, as if lost in thought.
“Young master sir, we’ve arrived!” I walked over to his horse, and mimicking a maidservant, smilingly made him a curtsy.
Brother came back to himself, and shot me a look askance, but then sighed. He threw his white jade and silver shark-hide whip to an attendant and jumped off his horse.
Just as we entered the front hall, we met Mother, dressed in court robes and her hair combed high, trailing Aunt Xu and maidservants, as if she were preparing to go out.
“Mama, where are you off to?” Smiling, I wound an arm through Mother’s.
“You are just in time — the empress sent summons. It’s been two days since you’ve visited your aunt, you might as well come along.” Mother tucked back a stray thread of hair for me. Then she smiled at Brother, “How was the army review? Was it interesting?”
I hid a smile. Mother still treated us like small children, as if Brother were a kid clamoring to go watch a parade for the excitement.
“The Yu Zhang Prince has very impressive military bearing, uncommonly dignified.” Brother however did not smile as he looked at Mother. Feelingly, he said, “I am ashamed. I have only realized today what a real man is.”
Mother startled. Her brows furrowed. “This child. What nonsense! Soldiers hacking away at each other, fighting and killing — what good is there to that?”
Brother bowed his head and did not reply. Though he often argued with Father, but in front of Mother, he never spoke half a sentence in disagreement.
“With your rank and status, how can you be compared to those low people?” Mother’s tone was low and soft, but her expression was severe.
She most disliked those soldier from poor, common families. Listening to Brother’s comments today, she could not help feel annoyed.
Seeing Mother’s displeasure, I hurriedly smiled, “Brother was only joking. Mama, don’t heed him. Let’s go, Aunt’s probably grown impatient waiting for us!”
Then, without allowing further discussion, I drew Mother away. As we left, I glanced back and winked at Brother14.
Surprisingly, Aunt called Mother into her inner chambers to have a private talk behind closed doors, but would not let me in.
As if I was going to wait for them! So I headed to the Eastern Palace to find Wan Ru15.
What I had seen of Xiao Qi with my own eyes, I relayed to Wan Ru in vivid detail. She and the several concubines also present were rendered dumbstruck.
“I heard that the Yu Zhang Prince has killed thousands upon thousands of people16,” Concubine Wei pressed a hand to her chest, her expression full of abhorrence and fear.
Next to her, someone added, “How could it only be that much? I fear the number is too high to be counted. I’ve heard that he even likes to drink human blood!”
I felt a slight annoyance. Just as I was about to refute her, however, Wan Ru shook her head, “How can such marketplace rumors be believed? If it were really so, wouldn’t you be describing a demon, rather than a man?”
Concubine Wei laughed derisively, “Someone who’s slaughtered so many people that his hands reek of blood, someone who’s turned his back on all that is true and good, what difference is there from a demon?”
I did not like this Concubine Wei, who relying on the Crown Prince’s favor, dared to be so openly rude in front of Wan Ru. With a cold look, I said, “How do you understand ‘true and good’? At present, fire beacons lit in all four directions, the entire world thrown into the confusion of war, do you suppose just calling on ‘truth and goodness’ can push back our enemies? Do you suppose honesty and kindness will pacify the invading aggressors into laying down their arms?”
Concubine Wei’s powdered face grew red. “Your Highness’s meaning, then, is that slaughter is true and good?”
I raised an eyebrow, and laughed, “In the midst of war, what use for truth and goodness? Even if he slaughters, the Yu Zhang Prince does so for the country and for the people. He is the pillar of this country; what he does is in service of the state — how can you defame such a hero? If the general had not stained the borderlands in blood, do you think you and I could here and now enjoy such peace?”
Aunt’s graceful and serene voice suddenly sounded from outside the hall.
Everyone hurriedly rose to greet her.
Wan Ru retreated to one side, to receive Aunt into the hall.
Aunt had only brought two palace maids in attendance. Seeing that Mother had not come along, I peered around outside — but Aunt said blandly, “There’s no need to look. I’ve already sent the Princess home17.”
Stunned, I looked at Aunt, for a moment unsure of the situation.
Aunt sat down in the presiding seat18, and swept a glance over the women present. Without expression, she said, “And what is the Crown Princess busying over?”
Wan Ru, with her head bowed and eyes lowered, answered, “Your Majesty, the princess and I were sampling tea and chatting19.”
Aunt smiled, which entirely failed to reach her eyes. “What interesting things were you chatting about? Come, let us hear it.”
“We20 were only listening to the princess … ” Wan Ru said unthinkingly. Was she actually going to answer truthfully!
I hurriedly interrupted, “They were listening to me evaluate this year’s new tea. Aunt, come try this new tribute of silver needle tea21, it’s better than previous years’ varieties!”
I took the teacup from a serving maid, and personally offered it to Aunt.
Aunt raised her brows and shot me a glance, then turned to Wan Ru. “Allowing palace womenfolk to discuss court affairs, is this the custom of the Eastern Palace22?”
“My mistake23!” Ashen-faced, Wan Ru immediately knelt down. Behind her, the concubines hurried to kneel as well.
“It was because I spoke too much! The mistake was mine. Aunt, punish me instead24.” I was also about to kneel, but Aunt prevented me with a sweep of her arm.
I took the chance and grasped Aunt’s hand, tearfully beseeching at her, “Aunt…”
Aunt met my gaze, and seemed shaken, her expression unusual; the next moment, she turned her head and would not look at me.
“Let it be. You all may withdraw. In the future, the Crown Princess must practice more strict restraint, and not repeat the fault.” Aunt’s expression was heavy and melancholy.
Wan Ru led the concubines in paying their respects and withdrew. In the empty hall, there remained only Aunt and me.
“Aunt, are you angry with me … ” I looked shyly at Aunt.
Aunt did not say anything, only stared straight at me. That strange look began to terrify me.
“I keep thinking you are still a child, but somehow you’ve already grown up to be such a beauty.” The corners of Aunt’s mouth turned up in a somewhat forced smile. Her tone was soft and gentle. It was obviously a compliment, but hearing it for some reason made me uneasy.
Not waiting for my response, Aunt said with another smile, “Has Zi Tan sent word recently?”
Hearing Zi Tan’s name, my face grew hot, and my heart apprehensive. I could only shake my head, afraid to tell Aunt the truth.
Aunt looked at me a while longer, her gaze deep, but also as if there were some unhappiness distracting her. “A girl’s feelings … Aunt understands them too. Zi Tan is a very good child. But, Ah Wu … ” She seemed to want to say something, but then hesitated; for a moment, she looked inexpressibly sad. She closed her eyes and did not speak.
These years, I had received Aunt’s stern looks and chastisements innumerable times. Yet, not once had I been as frightened as now.
Never before had Aunt worn such an expression when speaking to me, so suppressed, as if something ominous pressed on her heart.
I bit my lip hard. I really wanted to turn and flee, and not listen to her anymore.
But Aunt suddenly said, "From when you were a child, has anyone ever wronged you, or anything caused you grief?"
I stilled. To speak of wrongs and grievances … inside this imperial palace, who could wrong me, or what thing could cause me grief - naturally, only Zi Tan's leaving. But how could I say such a thing to Aunt?
"It doesn't seem so … does Brother's bullying count?" I forced out a smile, feigning lightness at Aunt.
Aunt's smile dimmed. Her gaze was shadowed and complicated; mixed in with affection was also a strain of pain. "Though you've grown up so much, but - what true grievance is, you do not know yet."
In a daze, I stared at Aunt, speechless.
Aunt lowered her eyes and by painstaking effort, managed a smile. "When I was young, like you I too knew nothing of worries25. Family and relatives spoiled me, shielded me from the rest of the world … but, in the end, there comes a day when we have to undertake the fate meant for us. We cannot forever remain under the protection of family!"
Under Aunt's oppressive gaze, I was frightened silent. My heart grew tighter with every beat.
Aunt looked straight at me, her voice entirely cold. "If there comes a day, when you must suffer an enormous grievance, and renounce that which you dearly cherish, to go do something you despise, and even pay an enormous cost - Ah Wu, would you be willing?"
My heart gave a start and my fingertips grew cold. Innumerable thoughts flickered through my mind like flashes of lightning, and yet my head was all a mess, muddled and confused.
"Answer me." Aunt did not allow my hesitation.
I bit my lip, and raised my eyes to meet hers: "That depends, on what it would be for, and whether it would be more important than my dearly cherished thing."
Aunt's gaze was deep and cold like water. "Everyone's cherished things are different. What is important? What is most worthy?"
Her gaze lingered on me for a long time, as if seeing through me to some far distant past. "I too had a dearly cherished thing. It was once my life's greatest joy and deepest sorrow … but that joy and that sorrow, were only my own personal joy and sorrow. In comparison to that, there was something else much deeper and heavier, something I could not escape nor give up - the family's glory and duty!"
"The family's glory and duty …" It felt like I had been struck with a tremendous weight.
There was a faint sheen in Aunt's eyes, a glistening like tears, but she remained incomparably firm and decisive.
"Back then, there was a temporary peace in the war. At court, the factions were all striving for power. None of the four great families would relent. My older brother by merit of being the top gifted scholar26 married your mother, the Jin Ming Princess, a great honor to the family. My younger sister was betrothed to the militarily-powerful Qing Yang Prince. And I had to become the Crown Princess, and in the future control the Six Palaces, to ensure that the Wang family's authority at court could overwhelm the encroaching Xie family, and thereby secure the Wang family's position, and bring glory and splendor to our relatives!"
I had never known buried beneath Father and Mother's beautiful marriage, Aunt's motherhood of the whole world27, was actually concealed such a deep sorrow.
In an instant, the world seemed to dim. That jade-like dream of a world seemed to lose all its color, and revealed suddenly the ashes underneath.
For the first time in fifteen years, there appeared in my perfect colored-glass fairyland a crack.
I did not dare to hear anymore, to think anymore.
But once colored-glass had one crack, it would continue to fracture, until the whole thing shattered.
Aunt stood, and approached me, her eyes fixed on me and her voice resounding —
“From the day we were born, we have been surrounded by a halo, and we have grown up amidst incomparably glory. In this world, other than the imperial princesses, the most esteemed and honorable are the daughters of the Wang family. But you were born into this; perhaps you have not been aware of it. I entered the palace at eighteen, and since then, I have seen inside and outside the palace who knows how many sufferings and cruel fates. Do you know, those low-born, undistinguished women, without family or clan to support them — do you know how low and miserable their lives are in the palace? Their lives could not be compared to even the ants’! No matter how renowned a family, once they have lost power and influence, then they will have been reduced to no better than commoners … ”
Aunt gripped my shoulder, and said distinctly, “The rank and status we are so proud of, our beauty, our talent … every single one has been bestowed to us by family. Without this family, I and you and even later generations — would all of us have absolutely nothing. As we enjoy this honor, so we must assume the same duty.”
1 – “review of the army” – the actual phrase 犒军/kaojun means something like “presentation of reward to the army”: 犒 = “reward with presents of food, drink, etc” and 军 = “military”. For Ah Wu, she is essentially going to spectate a parade, so I have translated it as an army review
2 – “barbarians” – non-Chinese were historically all considered barbarians.
3 – “non-imperial feudal prince” – the phrase 异姓藩王/yixingfanwang can be broken down to (1) 异姓/yixing meaning “different surname”: that is, he is not a member of the imperial family; and (2) 藩王/fanwang: meaning a prince who holds his own land, either a fiefdom or a vassal state. Non-imperial princes who become 藩王/fanwang pretty much all do so through outstanding military service.
4 – “the Yu Zhang Prince, Xiao Qi” – Xiao Qi (萧綦), out of our three main characters, has maybe the most obscure character in his name, haha. 綦/qi means either “superlative” or a dark gray color.
5 – “Huzhou” – not sure where this refers to. It’s written as 扈州, which may be a typo for 湖州
7 – “Ning Shuo general … Heavenly General” – I have not been translating title names, mostly because they don’t add much to the story; they function basically as proper nouns. 宁朔将军/ningshuojiangjun/Ning Shuo General means something like “General who pacified the north”. His other appellation 天将军/tianjiangjun has 天/tian as the descriptor: it might mean “day”, “sky”, or “heaven”; you might also translate this as “General from the heavens” or “godlike general”. It’s exactly the sort of grand nickname a people might give their hero.
9 – “massacred the city” – the capital of Yunnan province is now known as Kunming, but the city was previously also called Yunnan. Presumably referring to this city. The phrase used here 屠城/tucheng means “massacre all residents of a conquered city”: but it does not seem like Xiao Qi slaughtered everyone. Since Yunnan is close to the border, probably there were non-Han people living in the city and these were the residents Xiao Qi killed. The phrase used 灭族/miezu means “to extinguish the entire family” and refers to an ancient Chinese punishment: possibly implying that these people, by dint of their non-Han blood, were guilty of a crime, ie rebellion. (Most likely they weren’t, but Ah Wu is narrating, and you can almost hear the stars in her eyes.)
10 – “the Zhen Guo General” – he is now 镇国大将军/zhenguodajiangjun, ie “the great general who subdued/calmed the whole country”. 大将军/dajiangjun, literally “big general”, is a higher rank; some dictionaries give it as “generalissimo” or “commander-in-chief”, but I don’t know enough about ancient Chinese army chain of command to know if these terms are correct. Since some real life historical 大将军/dajiangjun (e.g. Sima Yi) are still only translated as “General”, I have gone with that.
11 – “of pressure, of suffocation” – a way of illustrating Xiao Qi’s “heavy aura”, or what in English might be termed “having presence”. He is an overpowering person.
12 – “aura of death” – here 杀气/shaqi can broken down to 杀/sha = “kill”, “murder”, etc and 气/qi=”air”,”manner”; you could understand it as “killing intent”, maybe. A sort of acknowledgement that these are seasoned soldiers.
13 – “awful” – in the Old Testament sense, “awe-inpiring”, causing one to be full of awe.
14 – “winked” – the word used here does not differentiate between ‘blink’ or ‘wink’. I have gone with “wink” here, since it has more “in cahoots with” connotation than “blink” does, but you can understand it as either.
15 – “Eastern Palace/Wan Ru” – while the names of residences of the rest of the imperial family change, the Eastern Palace is always the residence of the crown prince. Throughout this chapter, Ah Wu refers to Wan Ru as 宛如姐姐/wanrujiejie/Wan Ru-older sister, quite an intimate address.
16 – “thousands upon thousands” – this phrase can also be translated as “over ten thousand” or “innumerable”. This estimate of his supposed death count is a little vague, haha.
17 – “I’ve already sent the Princess home” – the Empress uses 本宫/bengong to refer to herself and 长公主/zhanggongzhu to refer to Ah Wu’s mother, not a very intimate way of speaking. zhanggongzhu is Ah Wu’s mother’s rank — the oldest/highest of the gongzhu/princesses. bengong can be broken down to 本/ben = “this/oneself/current” and 宫/gong=”imperial palace”, a sort of metonymy to refer to the totality of herself/her authority/her rank as Empress by referring to the literal “seat” of her power. It’s a self-reference that does forces on the listener an understanding of her power and position; but it’s also fairly standard in formal situations, where intimacy is improper.
18 – “the presiding seat” – it does not seem like they are seated at a table, but nonetheless the seats are arranged in a way that there will be host seat / seat of honor / ranking seat, which presumably Wan Ru gives up and naturally the Empress takes.
19 – “Your Majesty, the princess and I …” – specifically, Wan Ru says, “回禀母后，臣媳正与郡主…”, which more literally might be translated as, “Replying to Mother Empress, your servant daughter-in-law and the princess … ” where princess refers to junzhu Ah Wu. The “回禀…/Replying to …” is a standard phrase when answering a superior: the rest of the sentence follows this tone — deferential, but distant. Clearly, Wan Ru is not on intimate terms with her mother-in-law. Compare with Ah Wu, who speaks to the Empress much more casually.
20 – “Come, let us hear it/We were…” – again, the Empress refers to herself as 本宫/bengong which I’ve translated as the royal 'we'. Wan Ru answers with 臣媳等/chenxideng, which literally means something like “your servant daughter-in-laws” — referring to herself and the other concubines.
21 – “silver needle tea”
22 – “is this the custom of the Eastern Palace” – in theory, women were supposed to stay aloof from politics and affairs of state, so the Empress is rebuking Wan Ru (the ranking lady of the Eastern Palace) for not properly managing the behavior of the women of the Eastern Palace.
23 – “My mistake” – specifically, Wan Ru says, “臣媳知罪”, literally, “Your servant daughter-in-law knows guilt”. 知罪/zhizui is a standard phrase to acknowledge one’s wrongdoing, something like “I see the error of my ways”.
24 – “the mistake was mine. Aunt punish me instead” – Ah Wu actually uses the third person “Ah Wu” instead of the first person “I” in this sentence, because the use of personal pronouns can be considered casual but also disrespectful. She literally says, “the fault lies with Ah Wu; Aunt, please set the punishment” - but since the effect is overly cutesy in English, I have gone with a more natural speech pattern.
25 - "When I was young …" - when talking to Ah Wu in private, the Empress uses "I"/"you" first/second person pronouns, much more informal and intimate in tone.
26 - "top gifted scholar" - probably implying that her father had placed first in the imperial examinations back in the day.
27 - "motherhood of the entire world" - basically, her position as Empress, and the Empress is considered mother to the whole world. But worded nicer, to sound more dear and less authoritative