It was the Mid-Autumn Festival when Consort Xian who was still in charge of the harem affairs held a vivid and dramatic mid-autumn banquet. The court was discussing the selection of the Empress. Devoting herself to tending the harem, Consort Xian was qualified to be the Empress in every aspect. However, childlessness deprived her of the opportunity to be the Empress. To this point, I felt sorry for her.
The Emperor was enjoying the song and dance while most consorts was staring at him and I was eating grapefruit happily. Consort Shu was in a daze, while Consort Wen full of despair on her face with the Fifth Prince had got to sit beside Consort Chun with the Third Prince. All she conveyed all over her was “taking away the child”.
By the time I returned to my mind, the Emperor had already asked a dancer to come up. I glanced at her and found the face very familiar. The face, though charming, lacked a bit of disillusioned immortal temperament. Although she looked like the late Empress, I would never mistake her for the deceased Empress, because her temperament was totally different from that of the Empress.
On August 16th, there was one more Beauty in the imperial palace— Beauty Yao.
Consort Shu and Consort Wen broke several cups and scolded, “Bah! Old thing, it’s his freedom to like anyone. But why does he choose the word ‘Yao’ as her title? Who does he want to disgust?”
I also felt very disgusted. But I was really feeling nausea and vomited all over the floor. I was pregnant, the imperial physician told me.
After the news was disseminated, Consort Xian was the first to visit me, bringing me many things and telling me to nourish the fetus with great care. Consort Shu told me that Consort Xian was really virtuous and kind, taking happy events of the imperial house as her own happiness, loss of the imperial house as her own pain ever since in the Eastern Palace (where the crown prince usually lived). Consort Shu emphasized that Consort Xian was genuine and sincere with no hypocrisy and thought there must be something wrong with her.
The Emperor didn’t come to see me until ten days later. He was accompanying Beauty Yao, no, Shuyi Yao now, during the past ten days. From Beauty to Shuyi in just ten days, Shuyi Yao must be a legend in the harem.
At a dusk in late August, the Emperor finally came to Orchid Fragrance Pavilion. The two osmanthus trees outside the door emitted a charming sweet-scented fragrance in the autumn wind.
Seeing his coming, I saluted to him formally without looking up, “Wish you well, my Emperor.”
When he approached to hold my hand, I withdrew intentionally. With my head down, I invited him to sit down, served him tea and answered his questions all in a polite and formal manner. Finally, just as I expected, panic came upon his face. He held me closely and said trembly:
“Jiaojiao, Jiaojiao, don’t be mad at me. Don’t be mad at me. It is my fault. I didn’t come to see you these days. I promise, I will never do this again. I will never do this again...”
He spitted out these whispers in tremble. I knew every word he said was sincere. However, the more sincere it was, the more ridiculous it seemed to me. I leaned my head on his shoulder with tears dropping and clenched my teeth to prevent me from crying aloud. He held my face in his hands and soothed me gently with the repeated words, “Don’t cry, Jiaojiao.”
The next day, I was promoted as Noble Consort Wan and rewarded with Changle Palace to live.
Consort Shu came to help me pack up to move. When I was going to leave, glancing backward at the palace in which I lived for more than a year brought forth the feeling that I had lived here for many years.
It is true that entering the imperial palace is similar to falling into a deep sea.
I pulled the sleeves of Consort Shu, refusing to leave and the Third Princess pulled mine to make me stay. Looking at the scene, Consort Shu didn’t know whether to cry or laugh and said, “When a girl grows up, she has to live alone sooner or later, doesn’t she? Alright, I will go to see you every day.”
I asked, “Can you still make brewed quail eggs in wine for me?”
The third princess nodded after me, “Don’t forget my share.”
Consort Shu said nothing.
The Emperor took special care of my pregnancy, rewarding me with many things and distributing me a very capable senior servant in charge of things. Under the guidance of the servant, the whole Changle Palace was as closed as a metal pail, allowing for no neglects. Even so, Consort Shu was still worried about me.
She and Consort Wen took over everything in my daily life including what I eat and wear. Beauty Song and Baolin Wang learned a lesson from taking care of Zhaoyi Qing. They still didn’t get over the scare from Zhaoyi Qing’s dystocia and urged me to move around frequently every day.
In October, the Emperor took Shuyi Yao to go hunting. It was certainly great glory as she was the only one consort being taken. Once they left, the harem became a horse without bridle. Consort Shu cooked by herself and drank to the morning with Consort Wen. Drunk, hand in hand, they came to Changle Palace. One taught me to embroider in person and the other talked about taking me to the west of Liaozhou with a finger curled underneath my chin. I pouted and wept because of anger as I missed the occasion to drink all night due to pregnancy, rendering the whole Changle Palace in chaos. They had no choice but tried to pacify me. Finally, Consort Wen forced me to accept a embroider stretch with 12-colored embroider lines. Consort Shu promised me to take me to the west of Liaozhou to compete with her in horse riding. They also promised to allow me scold them when they were sober. Given all that, I eventually calmed down.
After I became the Noble Consort, top in the four consorts, it became inappropriate for Consort Xian to continue managing the harem affairs. That is why as soon as I moved into Changle Palace, Consort Shu came humbly and modestly to talk about giving the token to me. That really bothered me, making me even want to hit the wall, because I had no interest in taking charge of messy affairs at all. To persuade Consort Xian to continue managing those tiresome affairs, I flattered her for a long time, saying her management is number one in the whole harem and no one can compare with her. Touched by my words, she burst into tears out of gratitude and said that she would try her best to manage the harem to ensure nothing goes wrong to live up to my trust...
At that point we realized that Consort Shu loves cooking, Wen loves embroidering, while Consort Xian... loves housekeeping?!
No wonder she was so respectful to the former Empress and was as sorrowful as us when she passed away so that she cried at the top of her lungs. Was all that for being well understood and treated?!
When the Emperor was absent, I nourished the fetus at ease with Consort Shu making various nutritious food for me and Consort Wen making clothes for me and the expectant child, including clothes for both boys and girls. Beauty Song and Baolin Wang transcribed a roll of Buddhist scriptures every day to pry for my child, while the Third Princess was, uh, busy in naming the child, such as Li Jiayan and Li Xile. All in all, the name of the child must have one word in common with hers.
Consort Xian managed various affairs in the harem and by the way cared whether there was enough pen and ink for the Third Prince to study, whether the Fourth Prince and the Fifth Prince had enough milk to drink... Every two days she would come over to report to me and showed care about my body. In a word, she was busy but happy as well.
Consort Xian told me in secret that it would be a good thing if the Emperor kept playing outside and never came back.
However, the Emperor finally came back and brought me back two little rabbits, which reminded me of the late two rabbits he gave me before that were threw onto the stone by Noble Consort Chen at that time and died in front of me. Ironically, she became a nun in Fulong Temple, while I became a noble consort.
The Emperor asked me to hold a rabbit to portray a picture for me. The girl in the picture with her head down was stroking the rabbit. The hair before her profile made it difficult for me to see her face clearly. The only thing I could feel was that she was really gentle.
The lady in the picture didn’t look like me at all. Touching the rabbit, I thought that Taro Rabbit was so delicious but I couldn’t eat due to pregnancy. Cry, cry, cry. Where did the gentle expression come from?
The Emperor held my hand and asked, “Jiaojiao, is she like you? Hmm?” Holding my hand, he wrote a poem on the picture:
To fix my dust with yours were my dear vows.
While smiling, I thought to myself, detestable as the Emperor was, he was somewhat pathetic.
The New Year this time was quite lively because Consort Xian prepared everything properly. However, Shuyi Yao proposed to dance for us, which made everyone gaze at one another— being at a loss what to do. Under the management of the late Empress and Consort Xian, consorts only by doing what they had to do could receive due treatment without taking great pains. As the Emperor somewhat took every consort into account, even those junior consorts lived comfortably, consorts therefore had no intense motive for fighting for the affections of the Emperor, leaving all senior consorts still alive most Buddha-like with a casual and calm mindset. The whole harem hadn’t seen such occasion where a consort obviously used her ingenuity to win the Emperor’s favor for a long time. Everyone was stunned by the scene.
Did the harem become so cruel for survival that we had to prepare a show for every single festival?!
After Shuyi Yao in thin gauze clothing finished her dancing named Flying to the Moon, the Emperor held her in his arms and left together, leaving the rest consorts look at me in eager. I glanced at Consort Xian, Consort De and Consort Shu, only to find them in confusion. Having no other choices, I cleared my throat, pretending to be calm and said, “The Emperor must be worried about Shuyi Yao’s warmth. In such a cold day, she danced regardless of her health. I am also concerned about her health, least she suffers from scapulohumeral periarthritis with aging. It’s a good thing to put on more clothes. Have you all worn warm clothes?”
Still in confusion, they all answered that they dressed warmly.
Then I said, “It’s not a easy thing for Consort Xian to arrange such a grand New Year’s Eve banquet. Considering there is nothing urgent to do, let’s continue to enjoy the banquet. Ah, you can leave if you have things to handle. If not, you can continue eating here.”
Hearing my words, consort was so touched by my understanding that she burst in to tears. Consort De who was in a good relationship with her also said, “Noble Consort is certainly the example of beauty and morality”.
Everyone enjoyed themselves in the banquet. Due to the Emperor’s absence, I urged them to help themselves at ease. Finally, the banquet became a kind of forum where everyone recalled and shared the local customs of their homelands with others while eating and drinking. At the end, everyone joined me in a toast before leaving. Everyone had a great time. From then on, whenever everyone talked of Noble Consort Wan, they would say she is as kind and unassuming as the late Empress.
The Emperor kept Shuyi Yao in Yongan Palace with him till the 15th day of the 1st month in the Lunar New Year. It originally didn’t matter that Shuyi Yao was in favor with the Emperor. However, since she was in high favor with the Emperor, she began to show off everywhere and find fault with other consorts and even bullied them. Once, when Beauty Song and Baolin Wang came from Jinxia Palace to visit me, they came across Shuyi Yao and were made to knee down for half an hour until Consort Wen came and rescued them. To make things worse, Shuyi Yao went to complain to the Emperor, resulting in the punishment of deduction of salaries of all the three consorts in Jinxia Palace.
I had no idea what the late Empress would do in such situation if she had been alive. As for me, I chose to play the song Phoenix Courtship while being served by the senior servant he rewarded me with. She served me very thoughtfully, considering that I seldom ordered her to serve me.
When the Emperor came to see me, he worn a look of shame. There was no need to throw a tantrum. The only thing I needed to do was to smile, salute, and answer in a cold manner. That would certainly drive him crazy. He held me in his arms, trying to pacify me with good words. This time, I chose to ignore him and engrossed in playing the song. After the song, he held me closely in his arms and said, “Jiaojiao, I beg you. Please smile. You make me panic.”
I dodged him, refusing to look at him and asked, “Emperor, can you come in to accompany me for a while when I am giving birth. I am a little scared... Zhaoyi Qing...”
He was finally frightened out, “Don’t think about Zhaoyi Qing! I will accompany you till the baby is born and I will accompany you day by day afterwards. Jiaojiao, don’t be afraid, Jiaojiao...”
He began to come to accompany me every day. I had to admit that as long as he wants, he could be the most gentle husband in the world.
Shuyi Yao came to ask the Emperor to accompany her several times. However, I was not afraid, because I didn’t want the Emperor to accompany me every day. The only thing I wanted to do was when Shuyi Yao overdid, I played the song Phoenix Courtship in the palace with the service of the senior servant whom he rewarded me with and stood against the wind for a while. Standing too long may be harmful to the baby. Normally, the Emperor would come to see me with rewards the next day.
When I talked of that, Consort Shu spat, “Bah, I even feel tired for him.”
Just now, Consort Wen fed me a piece of Mapo Tofu (sauteed tofu in hot and spicy sauce) and Consort Su fed me a spoon of Deep-fried Peanuts Pickled in Vinegar. I had no idea what was going on. Who knew what it was in my womb since I loved both sour and spicy food after my pregnancy.
Consort Shu told me not to think too much and to nourish the fetus with utmost care until I gave birth to the baby safely.
Consort Wen told me that they were all fine and all they wished was my safety.
I replied, “OK.”