Liu in the Imperial Harem

2020-03-25 09:59:05
Chapter 2
On the second night of May, I wore a black gauze with green skirt and sat in Yong'an Palace. I ate two dishes of desserts to relieve my nervousness, which made the eunuchs and maids in Yong'an Palace frightened, and then they took away the plates. I had nothing to do but start to doze off and suddenly heard a chuckle when I almost fall asleep, "Are you so sleepy?"

I looked back and understood everything at once: Consort Shu's anxiety when she sent me out of the palace; The Empress's coughing day after day; Noble Consort Chen's vicious words when she greeted the Empress in the morning. It is all because of him.

The Emperor is not old. His black robe with gold lines makes him look tall and slim, and he has charming eyes and eyebrows. Unexpectedly he is an extremely brave and handsome man.

He is probably the "Prince Charming" for most of the girls, I thought so while paying my respect to him.

He inquired me about my name, my age, my hobby at home and my situation in the palace for the past two months. Also he joked about whether I wanted more desserts... I didn't know why I just sat on his lap while talking, and then we went to bed. I did not know what happened, and just remembered that he coaxed me gently not to be afraid. I still remembered he licked the left desserts off the corner of my mouth and laughed, "This dessert is sweeter than usual."

For the first time in my life, I was so shy and helpless that my heartbeat accelerated.

When I woke up, he had already changed his clothes. Then he leaned forward to kiss my forehead, and said softly, "My dear, sleep a little longer and have some breakfast here before going back." 

I had breakfast and felt that it was not as good as in Yihua Palace. When I returned to Yihua Palace, I saw the blue-black swelling around Consort Shu's eyes, and apparently she stayed awake all night. She asked me a lot about last night before letting me catch up on my sleep. After waking up, the Emperor made an imperial order to promote me to be Jieyu with a title of "Wan". In the afternoon, Consort Shu said to me, "There are many talkative people in the Palace. I'm worried about you these two months! Now I can rest assured. You should live your life as usual. Take it easy, you have no choice but to serve him, because he is the Emperor... you are so young. It must be hard last night, what do you want to eat?" 

Before she finished, the eunuch of the Emperor came and sent an order, asking me to serve him tonight. As soon as the eunuch left, Consort Shu angrily cursed him as a beast. I originally intended to enjoy the delicious dishes of Consort Shu in the evening. But it is a dream now, my decent impression of the Emperor last night suddenly has gone away.

When I arrived at Yong'an Palace, the Emperor was writing, and he circled me in his arms. He wrote an classical poem from the former dynasty: 

"On a hobby-horse you came on the scene,

Around the well we played with mumes still green.

We lived, close neighbors on Riverside lane.

Carefree and innocent, we children twain.

I was forteen when I became your young bride,

I’d often turn my bashful face aside,

Hanging my head, I’d look towards the wall,

A thousand times I’d not answer your call.

I was fifteen when I composed my brows,

To fix my dust with yours were my dear vows..."

He stopped writing and asked me to write it. My handwriting was also praised by my grandfather, so I copied the poems he wrote down. 

The Emperor was very happy and praised me for my good handwriting. He also told me not to be so nervous that I couldn't even say a complete sentence. I thought for a long time and only said one word, "Yes." Out of no reason, the Emperor laughed louder than ever. We ate together, and actually he was feeding me. It was probably the greatest honor in the world, but I didn't like it. I couldn't enjoy the dishes here. Because I had to eat whatever he fed me. The foods prepared by Emperor's Diet Room in Yong'an Palace couldn't be compared with the dishes cooked by Consort Shu... The more I thought, the more aggrieved I felt. 

The Emperor probably liked me quite a bit, but I was a little afraid of him and also felt embarrassed. As soon as I lowered my head, he picked my chin up by his fingers, rubbed my lips and told me not to fear. 

I didn't remember when I slept but could remember that he kept laughing to see me cry. When I woke up, he was off the court. Sitting by my bed, he watched me with a smile, combed my hair and drew my eyebrows. During breakfast, he asked me, "Jiaojiao, I let you live in Changle Palace, do you like it? Changle Palace is close to Yong'an Palace, so you can come to Yong'an Palace anytime if you miss me."

The Emperor was so narcissistic. We only knew each other for two days. Why should I miss him? But I couldn't speak it out but just asked with my head down, "Can I choose not to go..."

I saw him smiling at me, so I said boldly, "I... I'm used to live in Yihua Palace. The Third Princess is very cute and I like her very much... I don't want to live alone... "

I became more and more scared while I was speaking in a lower and lower voice, fearing that he would be angry and let me move to another palace. Unconsciously, I almost cried, and the Emperor laughed even harder, "Oh, well, Jiaojiao doesn't want to move, then you don’t move, I will go to visit you more often."

This Emperor is not that bad. 

When I returned to Yihua Palace, the Emperor's rewards also arrived, which filled my Orchid Fragrance Pavilion. Consort Shu was also very pleased to look at the gifts one by one with me and also advised me to decorate my room with all these gifts. 

On the fourth day of the fifth lunar month, the Emperor did not ask anyone to serve him and did not enter the harem but asked someone to send me a few dishes, which was a terrible comparison with a table of Consort Shu's dishes. She said to me that if I didn't eat the dishes bestowed by the Emperor, he would get angry after knowing it, I had to eat a few bites. As a result, I missed the last Braised pork ball in brown sauce and almost quarreled with the Third Princess. 

On the fifth day of the fifth lunar month, I wanted to go to see the Empress in Weiyang Palace early in the morning. I was so happy that I would meet my grandmother today! However, before I went out, the eunuch came to tell me to accompany the Emperor today. I was so angry and cursed how a disgusting man the Emperor is! Consort Shu laughed loudly when she heard it and promised me that she would tell my grandmother about my situation and let her rest assured. Then I went to Yong'an Palace with tears in my eyes.

The Emperor in a good mood today was painting in an azure robe. He pulled me into his arms before I greeted him, pointed at the painting and asked, "Jiaojiao, does it look like you?"

He painted the back of a girl in green dress who sat in front of the table. The books on her left hand almost fall off and she is dozing off with her head on the right hand. With green lights and crossed shadows, it is really quiet in the room. The painting was good, but it was hard to say whether it looked like me or not. After all, I could not see my own back. So I told him what I had thought honestly. The Emperor held me in his arms and burst out laughing. What was so funny? I really couldn't understand the Emperor's laughing point. 

After laughing, the Emperor found that my eyes were red, so he was not happy. He put me on his lap and asked me why I cried and if someone bullied me. How could I answer this question? I only took a glance at him and lowered my head, at the same time, I hoped him realize that I did not like coming to Yong'an Palace and let me go back. 

I didn't know what made the Emperor lead to misunderstandings. He chuckled and began to kiss my forehead. I was worried that he would mess up my makeup for meeting my grandmother! He kissed and coaxed, "Jiaojiao, it is my fault not to meet you yesterday. Are you sad about it? Jiaojiao, it’s my fault, I will spend more time with you, okay?"

It was not good at all! I hadn't been able to play on a swing with the Third Princess for three days! Poor little Jiale also tearfully accused me yesterday!

I thought for a long time and stammered, "Em... Emperor... you'd better treat every consort the same... "

Go find someone else! Noble Consort Chen loves you so much! But the Emperor misunderstood me once again, he hugged me tightly to his chest and patted me like a little doll, "Silly Jiaojiao, I understand everything." 

The Emperor accompanied me all day. He took me to the Imperial Garden for a walk, fed the fish with me, played the chess with me and then we sat together to write. After dinner, he asked me, "Can you play the Chinese Zither?” I said I am not good at it, then he asked me, "Can you play Phoenix Courtship?"

If a person couldn't even play Phoenix Courtship, she probably was embarrassed to say that she could play the Chinese Zither.

I played Phoenix Courtship for him, meanwhile, I recalled my excellent sisters. My two sisters prepared to enter the Palace since their childhood and their skills were much better than me. However, their wishes were in vain, but I had to be here to serve the Emperor accidentally. It was really a big joke. 

The Emperor listened to my melody and his eyes kept staring at me. When I finished, he said something and I pretended not to hear clearly, "Emperor?"

He smiled and carried me in his arms, "Jiaojiao, you played so well."

That night I cried myself to sleep again. Before I fell asleep, he coaxed me to say a lot of embarrassing words and kept asking me to call him "Brother Xiu", and he tortured me if I didn't call him like this. He helped to curl my hair behind my ears and hummed me to sleep. 

On the sixth day of the fifth lunar month, this was my first visit to Weiyang Palace after I served the Emperor. 

Before this, the Empress asked someone to send her words that I am very young and should have a good rest after serving the Emperor, so I don't need to greet her in the morning. This time she also sent the same words. But I really missed the Empress and wanted to meet her. I didn't want her to feel like I got the Emperor's favor for a few days and then did not respect her. I was not afraid that the Empress would punish me. She would definitely not do that. Actually, I was afraid to make her sad. 

Consort Shu wore a lilac-colored classical palace costume, which made her bright eyebrows faint. I also wore ordinary clothes and she was whispering along the way, "Hold your temper and don't answer anything. Just take Noble Consort Chen's words as a fart in public." Noble Consort Chen's fart was smelly and long. Since I entered Weiyang Palace, she started to abuse me by ostensibly pointing to someone else. After a few words, she abused me directly. I sat next to Zhaoyi Wen and bowed my head like a quail. Shuyi Zheng, the most beloved in the past, was enemy to Consort Chen. But today, they scolded me all the time in perfect harmony. 

I lowered my head, and only said one word "I am listening to Niangniang's teachings" and then kept silent. Noble Consort Chen couldn't control herself but slam the table and despise me for shamelessly seduce...

Before she finished, the Empress interrupted her. This was the first time for me to see the Empress get angry.  She put away her tender and soft look, straightened her face and stood upright. She made the people in the room silent with a glance, "It has been four years since Noble Consort entered the palace, why are you still so disrespectful?"

The Empress always had smiles in her eyes. No matter how much trouble Noble Consort Chen made, she just scolded her like an innocent child. But now she seemed to change another pair of eyes. Her eyes were as cold as the thousands of years of ice on the top of the mountain. Without any words, Noble Consort Chen was shocked and shut up. 

Maybe the Empress hadn't scolded anyone like this for a long time, and the whole Weiyang Palace was silent.  The Empress raised her head slightly, looked around and smiled gently, "Jieyu Wan has served the Emperor hard, give her a reward!"

Maybe Noble Consort Chen hadn't been embarrassed like this since entering the palace. She came to her sense after a long time and opened her mouth twice without saying anything. Her eyes were red for her embarrassment and she fixedly stared at the Empress in the center. The Empress sat still and looked at her coldly. 

It was a piece of the imperial edict that broke the confrontation. The Emperor promoted my status and appointed me as Xiuyi Wan. Noble Consort Chen finally couldn't help but break an emerald bracelet and covered her mouth with a sobbing sound. She left without greeting the Empress. It was a pity for such a bracelet... If she didn't want it, just give it to me! I felt sorry for the bracelet!

I stayed in Weiyang Palace with Consort Shu and Zhaoyi Wen. The Empress's gentle eyes came back again and she comforted me tenderly. She told me not to be afraid and also asked me if the Emperor treated me well? Did I like the Emperor? I should be not too nervous to serve the Emperor, just keep behave myself...

I fell on the Empress's lap and said quietly, "Niangniang, the Emperor asked me to play Phoenix Courtship for him", the Empress fondled my forehead and said, "Then Liu'er should play well." 

I also said that the Emperor wrote the classical poem: We lived, close neighbors on Riverside lane. Carefree and innocent, we children twain..

The Empress was silent for a long time and only said one word, "Liu'er, you are such a good girl." 

I waited for the Empress to say something more and really hoped she could say something, but she just patted me and asked me to eat jujube cake. As I ate, I thought about what the Empress looked like before. She was so beautiful and simply elegant. She was standing in front of me but I somehow couldn't see her clearly. I suddenly remembered two poems what my grandmother taught me, "Plain as snow on the hill, clear as moon among the clouds." I tried to imagine that she was eating pastries like me with dregs in the corner of her mouth. I wanted to kill myself before that picture appeared in my mind. We stayed in Weiyang Palace that day for a long time and listened to the memory of the Empress, Consort Shu and Zhaoyi Wen. The three of them were old friends when they were in the Eastern Palace. They talked about the Liangdi Xu who once got the Emperor's favor at that time and died in the Cold Palace a year ago. Now in the palace, in addition to the two of them, there were Consort Xian and Consort Chun who gave birth to the Third Prince in poor health and lived in a secluded life. Zhaoyi Wen said that Noble Consort Chen, Shuyi Zheng and she were all selected by the first Imperial Consort Selection. That year, there were twenty-eight people came into the palace together while now there are only nineteen left, of whom there were a dozen in the past three years seldom see the Emperor...

In the end, Consort Shu said to me with sorrow, "Liu'er, don't be afraid, we will always protect you-- as long as you stay rational and don't fall in love with him." Zhaoyi Wen also said, "Liu'er, men always say that women can only rely on men and women love to embarrass other women. If you believe such stupid words, you deserve to be deceived by a man."

I nodded tamely while the Empress whimpered on Consort Shu's shoulder. Even though I saw tears slipping slowly on her thin cheeks, I didn't want to ask why she cried. 

Notes:

1.Wan: to describe woman as gentle, beautiful and refined.

2.Jiaojiao: the Emperor affectionately calls Jiang Yinliu.

3.On a hobby-horse you came on the scene... : this sentence is from the poem Ballad of a Merchant’s Wife (Chang Gan Xing in Chinese) written by Li Bai which described the psychological process of a girl who fell in love with his husband only after they got married. The following is the Chinese version written by Li Bai and the translated version by Xu Yuanchong:

长干行

Ballad of a Merchant’s Wife 

妾发初覆额,折花门前剧。

My forehead covered by my hair cut straight,

I played with flowers pluck’d before the gate.

郎骑竹马来,绕床弄青梅。

On a hobby-horse you came on the scene,

Around the well we played with mumes still green.

同居长干里,两小无嫌猜。

We lived, close neighbors on Riverside lane.

Carefree and innocent, we children twain.

十四为君妇,羞颜未尝开。

I was fourteen when I became your young bride,

I’d often turn my bashful face aside, 

低头向暗壁,千唤不一回。

Hanging my head, I’d look towards the wall,

A thousand times I’d not answer your call. 

十五始展眉,愿同尘与灰。

I was fifteen when I composed my brows,

To fix my dust with yours were my dear vows. 

常存抱柱信,岂上望夫台!

Rather than break faith, you declared you’d die.

Who knew I’d live alone in a tower high?

十六君远行,瞿塘滟预堆。

I was sixteen when you went far away,

Passing Three Canyons studded with rocks gray, 

五月不可触,猿鸣天上哀。

Where ships were wrecked when spring blood ran high,

Where gibbon’s wails seemed coming from the sky. 

门前迟行迹,一一生绿苔。

Green moss now overgrows before our door,

Your footprints, hidden, can be seen no more. 

苔深不能扫,落叶秋风早。

Moss can’t be swept away: so thick it grows,

And leaves fall early when the west wind blows. 

八月蝴蝶来,双飞西园草。

The yellow butterflies in autumn pass

two by two o’er our western-garden grass. 

感此伤妾心,坐愁红颜老。

The sight would break my heart, and I’m afraid,

Sitting alone, my rosy cheeks would fade.

早晚下三巴,预将书报家。

Sooner or later, you’ll leave the western land.

Do not forget to let me know beforehand. 

相迎不道远,直至长风沙。

I’ll walk to meet you and not call it far

To go to Long Wind Sands or where you are.

4.Chinese Zither: A seven-stringed plucked instrument.

5.Phoenix Courtship: Feng Qiu Huang in Chinese. A Chinese Zither Song which described the love story between Sima Xiangru and Zhuo Wenjun. The following is the Chinese version written by Sima Xiangru and the translated version by Kim posted on Chinese website Zhihu:

凤求凰

Phoenix Courtship

有一美人兮,见之不忘。

A sight on beauty causes insomnia.

一日不见兮,思之如狂。

A day in separation makes mania.

凤飞翱翔兮,四海求凰。

Roving’n roaming I look for the figure.

无奈佳人兮,不在东墙。

Over here’n there chances seem no bigger.

将琴代语兮,聊写衷肠。

Tunes I played and tenderness I displayed.

何日见许兮,慰我彷徨。

Never accepted as I requested.

愿言配德兮,携手相将。

To hold your heart in arms is what I wish.

不得於飞兮,使我沦亡。

Yet the attempts in vain let me perish.

6.Plain as snow on the hill, Clear as moon among the clouds: this sentence is from the poem To a Faithless Husband (Bai Tou Yin in Chinese) written by Zhuo Wenjun. The following is the Chinese and English version:

白头吟

To a Faithless Husband

皑如山上雪,

皎若云间月。

Plain as snow on the hill,

Clear as moon among the clouds.

闻君有两意,

故来相决绝。

Is your change of heart, they tell me; 

And so I've come to bid you good-bye.

今日斗酒会,

明旦沟水头。

Today we've drunk a measure of wine,

Tomorrow we must part by the canal.

躞蹀御沟止,

沟水东西流。

I shall walk beside the royal canal,

Whose waters flow east and are gone.

凄凄复凄凄,

嫁娶不须啼。

And wonder if my grief will ever end,

No girl need cry when she's married.

愿得一心人,

白头不相离。

If her husband is a single-hearted man,

Who will not leave her till her hair is white.

竹竿何袅袅,

鱼尾何蓰蓰。

Pliant the bamboo fishing rod,

Wet, wet, the tail of the fish.

男儿重意气,

何用钱刀为。

A man who valued constancy,

Would set no store by money!

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