In June, the Emperor took Shuyi Yao to the temporary imperial palace to prevent sunstroke.
It began with Shuyi Yao complaining to the Emperor that she had been to nowhere else ever since she entered the palace. Hearing that, the Emperor waved his big hands, deciding to take her to the temporary imperial palace outside the imperial capital to avoid summer heat. They totally forgot the fact that they had already gone hunting together last year.
After their leaving, the harem restored to its lethargic, comfortable and methodical life. I had no idea how many people in the palace hoped such life could be longer, even more longer.
The Fifth Prince began to utter after aged 1 year old. Beauty Song and Baolin Wang tried to teach him to call Consort Wen “mother imperial consort”, while Consort Wen fled in the indistinctly-spoken “mother imperial consort”, cultivating no maternal love towards him. However, to Beauty Song and Baolin Wang’s delight, Consort Wen made two small halter tops for the prince, one with lucky kids holding ornamental carp on the top, while the other with a lion rolling with a colorful ball. Seeing these tops, Beauty Song and Baolin Wang wept with joy, feeling the Fifth Prince be blessed by Heaven and his died mother, Zhaoyi Qing to become Consort Wen’s stepson.
I was going to give birth in April or May in terms of pregnancy. However, it was until June 15th that the amniotic fluid began to flow. The baby was in no hurry at all.
Details about my bearing were vague. The only thing I remembered was the great pain. In a trance, I recalled some words I said that day, “Emperor, can you come in to accompany me for a while when I am giving birth. I am a little scared...”
What did he say? Oh, he said, “... I will accompany you until the baby was born and I will accompany you day by day afterwards. Jiaojiao, don’t be afraid, Jiaojiao...”
There was no doubt that I didn’t have to be afraid, because Consort Shu, Consort Wen, Beauty Song and Wang Baolin, even Consort Xian were handling things related to my bearing outside... Ha, it is always difficult for a person to distinguish sincerity and hypocrisy.
Take my words that day for example. Was I able to make it clear whether the Emperor and I were sincere?
I gave birth to a pair of twins, a boy and a girl. The boy was bigger while the girl smaller. Holding a baby, Consort Shu whispered in my ear, “Little Liu’er, how lucky you are.”
When I woke up, the Emperor was sitting beside me holding my hand, unshaven and gaunt. Seeing me wake up, he didn’t dare to touch me with utmost care, “Jiaojiao, are you awake? Are you awake? Are you still feeling unwell?
Later, I knew I passed out for three days because of weakness and the Emperor, after hearing of my childbearing, hurried back from the temporary imperial palace overnight and looked after me for three nights .
It seemed that he was affectionate to me. Even so, I felt like laughing. What difference did that make? All in all, it could only be concluded in two words: too late.
The Emperor wholeheartedly accompanied me, combing my hair, feeding me the medicine and holding the babies in front of me to let me see them. During the day, he would go to the Imperial Study to handle national affairs. Sometimes, he even took the babies with him. Once, he, holding the sixth prince in his arms, discussed the flood in Jiangnan with a group of ministers. Whenever the baby cried, he dandled him for a while. He repeated the action again and again. The anecdote even became a wonder at that time.
He thought for a long time for the naming of the Sixth Prince and the Fourth Princess. Later, he named the prince Li Changsi and the princess Li Changyi.
The two names catered to my likeliness. Only Jiale was unhappy, because neither of the two babies were named after her. After discussing, we decided to call Jiajia as Changsi’s nickname and Lele as Changyi’s. In this way, Jiale was satisfied and even shared a bowl of Fish Maw and Ginseng Soup with me. Holding my neck, she said, “You have to love Jiale the most. You can not love my father. Only Jiale is your good friend!”
Appeals for electing the empress were getting even higher. Modest as my grandfather, I won high appeal due to my lineage, children and favor with the Emperor. Candidates included Consort Xian who has a distinguished family as well, Consort Chun and Consort De, who also have sons. For a while, the Imperial Palace was in turmoil. Once, when the Emperor washed feet for me, he asked, “Jiaojiao, how about you being my Empress?”
I said, “Brother Xiu, I don’t know how to be a qualified Empress...”
After the birth of babies, he would not let me call him Emperor but “Brother Xiu”. Disgusted as I was, I had to obey him to call him “Brother Xiu”. Out of joy, he held me to turn around.
“It’s easy to be the Empress. Nothing will change except that Jiaojiao has to move to Weiyang Palace to live. Hmm. Don’t be afraid.”
Leaning in his arms, I poked his hands with a finger without saying yes or no. Interested by my poking, he tickled me under my armpits. Due to itch which I could never withhold, I struggled in his arms giggling. He also smiled happily, repeating to call me, “Jiaojiao... Jiaojiao...”
The selection of the Empress was still not settled. Who knew what he really thought, although he said he wanted to select me. While calculating, Consort Shu shook her head and said to me:
“Consort De is impossible, considering her undistinguished family with her father only a fourth-rank official and her inability. Whether she can be promoted is in doubt. Consort Chun has an eminent father, who is Nanyang marquis and Consort Xian has the Grand General in back... No, Consort Xian has no opportunity, otherwise the Emperor would allow her to adopt the Fifth Prince. Oh, there is Wen Yuanyuna as well, who also has a son. However, in case the Emperor was insane, he would never select her. In this way, consorts left are you, Consort De and Consort Chun. Although the Emperor fears of powerful exterior relatives, he never wants a waning one... Therefore, you are the most suitable, with both prince and princess, a distinguished but not too powerful family, as Taifu Jiang was elderly. Your father and uncle, though capable, were just third-rank officials, requiring a period to become powerful...”
Consort Wen disagreed with her, “The thinking of the old thing is so abnormal. Who knows what he is thinking. Besides, you can’t forget that Nanyang marquis, Consort Shu’s father, is the close uncle of the Emperor. Without him and the elderly prime minister Shen, how could the Emperor whose mother died earlier enter the Eastern Palace and then become the Emperor. The Empress Dowager Renhe could have tortured him to death. After his accession, the prime minister Shen was forced to leave, while Nanyang marquis went through it safely and lived a comfortable life these years as well as Consort Chun. Who knows whether he actually trusts Nanyang marquis the most and keeps him to pave the way for Consort Chun to become the Empress.”
Her analysis seemed plausible with reasons, evidence and great confidence, as if what she was talking was not affairs of state but basic theories of embroider. At the end, she held us in her arms and said, “The son of Consort Chun is the first prince! The first prince! Consider that, is it possible that Consort Chun is the true love of the Emperor and we are all spare tires!”
I was frightened by her words due to limited horizon. Consort Shu twitched her mouth, “... Have you read scripts for story-telling recently?”
Consort Wen said, “Yes. That’s exactly what I read in a script, the one Beauty Song wrote by herself. What’s wrong?”
?! Beauty Song is able to write scripts for story-telling?! How many talents there are in the harem!
Consort Wen still wanted to discuss with us the election of the Empress, while Consort Shu and I were only interested in things related to the script. She argued with us for a while but finally gave in to the Button Soup made by Consort Shu regardless of her dignity. Our argument must be the largest wave in the election of the Empress in the harem.
The selection of the Empress was not settled until the end of the year. The Emperor might be quite annoyed for every time when he came to Changle Palace, he wore a worried brown and told me not to worry. I was ashamed to tell him that recently we were absorbed in Beauty Song’s script, listening to the Emperor in her script being deceived, beaten and cheated on and enjoyed ourselves.
The New Year was bustling. Shuyi Yao didn’t dance this year, because she was pregnant. Sitting beside me, the Emperor kissed my temple from time to time, while at the same time he frequently glanced at Shuyi Yao. His behavior made me worry about him being schizophrenic. As the Emperor neither left earlier nor did anyone else, we didn’t have the opportunity to talk about homelands and families freely or toast the banquet, which was really disappointing. At the end of the banquet, I even heard a young servant murmur, “So boring this year. It’s a rare opportunity to see all consorts. I also have several jokes to share with Noble Consort. She will certainly like these jokes...”
I wanted to hold her hand and shout “Come on. Tell me the jokes. I want to listen” but was taken away by the Emperor. This year, the Emperor’s behavior was very uncommon, inviting me and Shuyi Yao at the same time to watch the fireworks. Glancing at each other in confusion, we saw the same doubts in each other’s eyes: why are you here? Why am I here?
If we say two people enjoying fireworks together is cozy, then three together is a disaster. During the half of the fireworks, Shuyi Yao began to flirt with the Emperor and he, in return, made out with her. The fireworks were so beautiful, but I was the only one among us to appreciate that. It was absolutely a reckless waste of grain. At the end of the fireworks, Shuyi Yao was still leaning in the arms of the Emperor. I saluted formally to him and went back to Changle Palace.
The Emperor was such kind of a man that would leave when you needed him and wanted to stay when you didn’t need him anymore. No wonder Consort Shu and Consort Wen always spoke ill of him behind his back. The minute I lay on the bed after getting changed, he came over. I pretended to be sleeping. Then he changed his clothes by himself and crawled into bed, repeating, “Jiaojiao, why didn’t you wait for me? Are you angry? Jiaojiao, don’t be mad at me.” I was annoyed by his bothering and said casually, “Let me have a nice sleep, Your Majesty. Once I wake up, I will not be mad anymore.”
The next day when we were awake, he turned me over and kissed me on the mouth, “Jiaojiao, you said you would not be mad anymore after you wake up.”
That made me feel like to laugh out. However, I just returned his kiss on his mouth and said, “Hmm. Not mad anymore”.
For a while he was stunned. After he returned to his mind, he held me to turn around out of fantasy. Holding me in his arms with his eyes looking at me into the eye, he asked, “You say, Jiaojiao, you say you are not angry anymore!”
I replied, “Hmm.”
He smiled as ignorant as a child. I stretched my hand to touch his temple for the first time. Twelve years older than me, he was just 29 years old after the new year. However, there were already several strands of white hair on his head.
He is pathetic. I said to myself, he is detestable but pathetic.
He spent a cozy and happy Spring Festival with me and our children. He also painted a picture for us, in which I was holding a child with her head on my shoulder picking flowers back towards us, while the other child leaned on the table gazing at me.
Before he had the opportunity to ask whether I like the panting or not, he was asked to pay a visit to Shuyi Yao because of her stomachache. As soon as he left, I ordered a servant to invite Consort Shu and Consort Wen together with their children to come over to play. There was some progress made in Beauty Song’s script. She wrote several more chapters. While we were listening to the story, we snacked on sunflower seeds, leaving the floor full of shells of sunflower seeds all over.
As the new year began, the palace began to recruit new Beauties. Before the recruitment, the Emperor conferred on me the step-empress.
In the third year of my entering the palace, I was conferred on the step-empress. The coronation ceremony was grand and complicated, making me tired and unhappy. However, I was pleased to move to Weiyang Palace from Changle Palace with the children. I even didn’t change the furniture of Weiyang Palace, because I really liked and missed the late empress. I didn’t want to change the palace she had lived, lest she could not identify it if one day she came to visit me with her children.
I said the above words to Consort Shu. She asked me whether I was scared? I said there was nothing to be afraid, because I sincerely wished that she could reunite with her children in the heaven and could come to see me and my children. She would pray for us. Considering her gentleness, her soul must be the most gentle as well.
1. The Emperor named the Sixth Prince Li Changsi (李长思in Chinese) and the Fourth Princess Li Changyi (李长忆in Chinese): the Emperor might be inspired by the poem “Autumn Wind Tune” (秋风词in Chinese) written by Li Bai. The following is the whole poem and the translated version of Hsing Chou:
Autumn Wind Tune
Autumn wind is fresh,
Autumn moon is bright,
Falling leaves gathered and scattered,
Trembling crows perched and startled.
Don’t know when we will meet and be intimate again?
Tonight at this moment I won’t be able to express my feelings!
If you entered my deep mood of longing,
You would understand my suffering for yearning.
Long yearning recalls long memories,
Short yearning has no end.
If I knew my thought of you would be like this so tangled,
Wouldn’t it be better we had never acquainted.
2. The first prince: who is very precious, only second to the crown prince in the Imperial Palace.