Merry Christmas (and Christmas Eve).
This chapter has been brought to you by me, vivie, and leecherleechleech.
Little bit of knowledge: Pear blossoms are white, Chinese apple (haitong) blossoms are red. A far more colloquial metaphor is “An old bull eating tender grass”. The phrase originates with a poet who teased his relatively old friend for taking a young concubine. The pear blossoms represent the white hair of the man, the red apple blossoms the young woman.
And now onto the story!
Chapter One Hundred and Twelve
The day of the Emperor’s birthday, all the attendants of the palace made themselves one hundred and twenty percent alert. No one dared to slip up. If they managed to mess up in front of their superior, even if they didn’t die, they would be torn off half a body of skin.
The palace maids and taijian under the supervision of the Department of Household Affairs perfectly arranged everything from clothing to food. Even the Luan He Hall itself was washed again and again. The white jade steps outside were wiped so clean that even a speck of dirt couldn’t be found.
“Today’s weather is really good,” A blue-clad taijian raised his head to look at the sun hanging in the sky, and in a lower voice, said to his partner beside him, “Hey, have you heard yet how beautiful the princess of Jing is? She’s planning to present a dance at the banquet.”
“There’s nothing strange,’ his partner used the cloth in his hand to carefully wipe the pillars of the corridor, “Just a princess from a minor country, is she worth you being so curious?”
“I think your brains are made out of a wood. A normal princess, why would she present a dance out of the blue in front of the Emperor?” The blue-robed taijian proclaimed hatefully, “That one’s thoughts aren’t simple.”
“Isn’t there still the Empress?” His partner bent to wash clean the rag in a basin, “Just a pellet sized country’s princess, there’s nothing to gape about.”
“No matter how good a woman is, they can’t compare to a new … …”
“Who is speaking nonsense?” A steward taijian wearing deep blue rippled robes walked over with a group of young taijian behind him. He pointed expressionlessly at the blue-robe taijian, “Drag him down, drag him down. Presuming to comment on his zhuzi, sparing his life will only make other people’s lives harder.”
Before the blue-robe taijian could beg for mercy, his mouth was stuffed and he was dragged down. His partner was already collapsed on the ground in fear.
“You at least know your bounds,” the taijian steward rubbed his hairless chin. He waved his hand, “Continue working. If I hear something I shouldn’t hear again, the one just now is the lesson. By that time, don’t blame me for not warning everyone.”
“What’s going on here?” Jin Zhan, wearing a water blue palace dress, saw a taijian being dragged from far away. When she neared, she found that the taijian and palace maids present all had abnormal expressions on their faces. She asked, “What did that taijian do just now?”
“Good day, Jin Zhan guniang,” When the steward taijian saw Jin Zhan, a smile instantly appeared on his face. He went forward to bow to Jin Zhan, “Does Jin Zhan guniang have something to order us to do?”
Jin Zhan saw the steward taijian wasn’t willing to speak on the taijian that had been dragged away and didn’t persist. She opened: “The Empress said, everyone has worked hard. After a little while, everyone can go to the kitchen to receive a bowl of lily porridge to warm up. The weather of the tenth month is cold at night.”
“Thanks to the Empress for her grace,” The steward taijian instantly gave a grateful expression. He made a full bow in the direction of the back end of Tian Qi Palace and then said a few more compliments regarding the Empress before stopping.
Jin Zhan didn’t stay for long. After some polite chit-chat with the steward taijian, she left.
The steward taijian watched her back and sighed. Right now, the Empress’s side was splendid. If he could join in on the Empress’ side, he wouldn’t still be a steward. It was a pity that the people surrounding the Empress were like a metal barrel. It was hard for an average person to even show their face in front of the Empress.
Others said that the Empress was kind and generous, but based on his experience of serving more than twenty years in the hougong, the Empress wasn’t a simple person. Earlier, when Chang De Gong Fu had fallen, her reputation hadn’t been affected but became even better. That wasn’t something that any woman could do.
Then there was the earlier matter of Han liangdi’s accidental death. Everyone knew that it was caused by the cooperation of Shu gui taifei and Ping cairen. The Empress was only washed of suspicion due to the heavy defenses of Tian Qi Palace.
But he felt that the matter wasn’t that simple. Many people in the hougong knew that the two Empress Dowagers and Shu gui taifei were at odds. After the new Emperor ascended the throne, Shu gui taifei’s people had been cleaned out. It wouldn’t have been easy to cooperate with Ping cairen.
Then, who was the person that made it easy for them to act together?
The steward taijian’s shoulders trembled. He didn’t dare to think further. As a tiny steward, he should obediently fulfill his duties. He already lost his manhood, he didn’t want to lose his life as well.
“Niangniang, do you think that this is appropriate?” Yu Zan and Yin Liu brought out the mirrors and let Qu Qing Ju gaze at her front and back. They asked cautiously, “Is there any place lacking?”
Qu Qing Ju’s index finger lightly swiped over the red flower on her forehead. She smiled, complimenting: “Very beautiful, Yu Zan’s skills are getting even better.”
Taking out a phoenix in flight buyao from her jewelry box to insert into her hair, Qu Qing Ju slowly stood: “The hour is late, let’s go to the main hall to meet the Emperor.”
After He Heng changed his robes, he heard that the servants report that the Empress had arrived. He didn’t hesitate and let the servants welcome the Empress in, himself standing in front of the large mirror for a crowd of palace maids and taijian to attire him.
“Greetings to Emperor,” Qu Qing Ju walked behind He Heng and examined him from top to bottom, “Handsome, with a natural character that all will sigh over. The ancients talked of a pear blossom that suppresses the apple blossoms[i], the Emperor is worthy of this line.”
The palace attendants in the room, upon hearing the Empress tease the Emperor, jumped in fright but didn’t dare to show any signs on their face.
“With a pearl on the side, I appear like dirt,” He Heng wasn’t angry hearing the words. Instead, he smiled and turned to look at Qu Qing Ju dressed in a vermilion floor length phoenix robe with wide sleeves, “With Qing Ju here, everything else in the world is nothing.”
The palace attendants quietly lowered their heads. So the Emperor and Empress were playing a game of ‘you-compliment-me, I-compliment-you’. As servants, they will act as though they were deaf.
The lights of Luan He Hall shone brightly. Those who were able to attend and sit in the hall, scornful all of them were full of joy, as though it was their birthday. He Yuan sat beneath He Ming, lazily swirling and concentrating on a finely crafted porcelain wine pot. He occasionally took a draw, a slightly sardonic smile on his face.
The people sitting here, how many of them were really happy due to the Emperor’s birthday? It was just a play that everyone knew of, but each person deceived themselves. If they couldn’t fake it to others, they still needed to fake it to themselves.
“The Emperor has arrived, the Empress has arrived.”
He turned to look and saw the Emperor and Empress holding hands as they walked in from the doorway. One wearing a black robe bordered in red, one wearing a vermilion floor length dress. The picture was beautiful. The hand he had on the wine cup slightly froze and then he stood with the others in kneeling to welcome the Emperor.
Seeing the vermilion dress slide across his eyes, he felt as though something was sliding across his heart, sour and difficult to bear, as though his breath was caught, the suffocation making his head ring.
“Everyone rise” He Heng and Qu Qing Ju held hands as they sat down on the wide two-person chair. With a slight smile, he said, “Just one of zhen’s birthdays. To trouble everyone here, zhen really feels grateful.”
Everyone hurriedly kowtowed and expressed that the Emperor was exaggerating. They really sincerely were happy for the Emperor and were loyal etc etc.
After the officials did the three bows and nine kowtows to congratulate He Heng on his birthday, He Heng bestowed the seats. Then it was the envoys from all the subordinate countries to enter the hall to offer their tributes.
Qu Qing ju noticed that there was great care in the order the subordinate countries came in. It seemed the earlier the envoys of the countries came in, the more they were favored by He Heng.
After seven or eight subordinate countries offered their gifts, Qu Qing Ju finally heard the name that she was interested in.
“The country of Jing’s Imperial Son Tu Er, and Princess Dai Rong for an audience!”
Qu Qing Ju looked with a smile towards the door and saw a male and female wearing clothing of a different culture come in. It seemed that both of them were very young. Two servants followed behind them.
“Tu Er and Dai Rong of the country of Jing congratulates His Majesty the Emperor. May you live a long life, and Da Long be prosperous and flourishing.” Dai Rong walked into the center of the hall and gave a local greeting with all her grace. Thinking that her Jing was the second last to enter the hall, she felt dissatisfied. Even a small country like Wei was put in front of her Jing country. The Rites’ officials of Da Long might be underestimating them too much.
Qian Chang Xin looked at the Emperor. Seeing the Emperor slightly raise his hand, he hollered: “Excused, rise!”
“Thanks to the honored His Majesty the Emperor and Empress.” Tu Er also made a bow and stood up together with his sister. He took advantage of his movement to quickly glance at the Empress. He saw a woman who was even younger than his meimei, wearing a grand robe brighter and redder than a fresh flower. This was the first time he saw a woman more suited than his meimei to wear a red dress.
“You two have come such a long distance. Zhen is very grateful to the two of you,” He Heng raised a hand, “Please sit.”
“The honored Your Majesty the Emperor is too polite. To be able to come celebrate your birthday, it is this one and meimei’s great fortune. This one’s mother has prepared a birthday gift for Your Majesty the Emperor and hopes that Your Majesty the Emperor will like it.” Tu Er turned to take the gift box from the hands of his servant behind him and raised it with both hands, “Please, honored Your Majesty the Emperor, take a look.”
Qian Chang Xin walked down the nine steps of stairs and took the gift box from Tu Er’s hands. He first quickly opened it to see if there was any poisonous gas or concealed weapons before bowing and presenting the box with both hands in front of He Heng.
He Heng took over the gift box. Inside there was a mutton-fat jade pendant carved into the shape of two lotus flowers on the same stalk. He closed the box, remarking: “The ruler of Jing has spent effort. Please sit.”
Tu Er couldn’t see any of He Heng’s emotions from his face and could only sit down with his sister. Because of the flutterings in his heart, he didn’t even notice what the country of Duo Han that came after them had sent.
Since there were birthday wishes from the envoys of subordinate countries, naturally there had to be dances that showed the prosperity of Da Long. Many of the envoys, when they saw the beautiful dances of Da Long’s dancers, forgot to even take up their chopsticks, their faces full of awe. It satisfied many of Da Long’s officials’ vanity.
Qu Qing Ju looked at He Heng beside him and found that his expression was extremely calm, as though the state of the envoys didn’t please him. She nodded inside. These envoys might belong to the subordinate countries, but they were all nobility from those countries. None of them would show such their inexperience just because of a dance.
It was deliberately pretending to act so ignorant to please the people of Da Long.
To be able to be an envoy, it required a thick skin.
“Your country’s dance moves one’s heart. This little woman wants to show everyone a dance from Jing. Will Your Majesty the Emperor allow it?”
Like this one, her skin wouldn’t be thin. Qu Qing Ju looked at the Hu Guo Princess dressed in red who had spoken and the smile on her face grew wider.