When the cup of pure, sweet wine arrived before Princess Nihuang, she accepted it without any hesitation, and lifted her head to smile at the one toasting her.
Noble Consort Yue withdrew her hand, meticulously manicured fingers lingering in the air a moment before returning to her side. As she stepped back, her elegant purple phoenix robes swayed gently around her beautiful figure, and a hint of fragrance hovered in the air after her. She too was from Yunnan, had left her native land to enter the palace thirty five years ago, and had not returned home once. As she discussed their home land with Nihuang, her eyes seemed to fill, as if the long years of a young girl’s memories had descended upon her again.
Because of the grief of her remembrance, Princess Nihuang relaxed the tight guard she had been keeping up in the Empress’ palace.
“The gulls return every year to the Jade Lake, and the scenery has not changed very much, except that willows have been planted along the shore, which has added a gentle beauty. The Jade Pavilion my lady spoke of is still there, but the small resting place was lost in a fire, and has already been reconstructed at another site.” Nihuang lifted the cup to her lips but didn’t drink, only slightly wet her lips, before continuing, “As for the high monk of divination my lady mentioned, I have never met him there.”
“They are likely destined meetings. This high monk truly has the gift of divination. Were he here, we would be able to ask about the Princess’ marriage prospects.” Noble Consort Yue spoke indifferently, but when she saw the Princess’ cup grow still in her hands, she did not continue her persuasion, but smiled sweetly and drained her own cup. In the past, she had been one of the greatest beauties of the radiant Inner Palace, and with her elegant attire and exquisitely made up appearance, her smile had the ability to topple countries and kingdoms. But the faint wrinkles creeping along the corners of her eyes were carved by time itself, and against time, none could hope to win.
“If my lady misses our home land so much, why not ask His Majesty for permission to visit once more?”
“I cannot compare to my lady Empress, whose home is Jinling¹. The journey from the capital to Yunnan must pass through remote areas, and only if traveled with companions would there be any hope of returning for a visit. If I were to ask for permission to travel alone, I fear it would not be permitted. But as for the future….” At this point, Noble Consort Yue suddenly realized the impropriety of her words and hurriedly closed her mouth.
Princess Nihuang understood, and pretended not to take notice, but let the words pass by unheeded. As a Noble Consort, it would not be possible to leave the Inner Palace to travel over land and water for a visit home, but in the future, if the Crown Prince ascended to the throne, then travelling on an inspection tour as the Empress Dowager would not be difficult to arrange. But such a future was founded on the passing of the old emperor, and was thus certainly not something to be carelessly spoken.
However, even if the words weren’t spoken plainly, as the Crown Prince’s birth mother, she would eventually arrive at such a future, barring any unforeseen circumstances. But the truth was that no one could guess how the winds and fortunes of the royal family would blow, and whether any such unforeseen circumstances would take place was impossible to predict.
At least, the existence of Prince Yu, Xiao Jinghuan, was currently the thorn in the side of this pair of mother and son.
Prince Yu’s birth mother was of lowly ranking and had succumbed to an early death, and his own birth ranking fell after the Crown Prince’s, so by rights he had no right to the fight for the crown. But he was raised in the Empress’ palace, where he was noticed and adopted by the childless Empress. And although his Imperial uncle² had long since adopted the leisurely life of a Daoist monk, the disciples and supporters of Old Master Yan still formed a great portion of the base of the Empress’ power. In addition, Prince Yu was naturally clever with an elegant air, and was highly adept at pleasing the Emperor, gaining much favor, and being obviously superior to the other princes, had emerged as a direct opponent of the Crown Prince.
Having been immersed in the Inner Palace for all these years, this lady who had been made a noble consort by her radiant beauty was perfectly clear: the days of stability, relaxation, and riches were yet far away.
“Nihuang, how long can you stay in the capital this time? I always hope to have people from our home land like you around, to come visit often….”
“Recently, the Southern border has been peaceful, and since Qing di³ has received the Emperor’s approval, I have been much more at ease. I will probably stay another month or two.”
“Leaving so soon?” Noble Consort Yue looked shocked. “After choosing a husband, the wedding must be planned.”
Nihuang smiled faintly and didn’t protest, only saying, “If one is chosen, then I will think about it.”
“The Princess is no ordinary young lady. The splendors of the capital hold no attraction for you; rather, the grasslands and vast jungles of the South are more suited to your disposition.”
On hearing this, Nihuang couldn’t help smiling. “Although my lady has been in the capital for such a long time, you still have a bit of the temperament of a Yunnan lady.”
“Who has not once possessed the high spirits of youth? But after all these years in the palace, it has all been eroded away.” Noble Consort Yue shook her head and sighed. “Like today – I would like nothing more than to reminisce about our home land with the Princess, but…even if I said that was my only intention, I fear the Princess would not believe me?”
Princess Nihuang stared at her for a long moment, then answered simply, “No.”
“Then I will come to the point.” Noble Consort Yue took on a solemn air, her tone growing serious. “The noble son Sima Lei, one of the finalists of the competition and hand-picked by the Crown Prince, is skilled in both literary and martial pursuits, as well as talented and virtuous. Although his martial arts cannot be compared to the Princess’, you are an expert in this area, so what need have you for a top martial fighter as a husband? I can guarantee, this Sima Lei would be a very good match for you. And anyway you and I share a home land, and the Crown Prince has always greatly respected you. At this time, please do support the Crown Prince, Princess.”
Princess Nihuang waited quietly for her to finish, then said with a smile, “The Crown Prince is the heir apparent. The Mu House of Yunnan will serve the Crown Prince in the future after he takes the throne with as much loyalty as it serves His Majesty now; my lady does not need to worry about this. As for choosing a husband, His Majesty has already set the rules of the competition, and as the noble son Sima Lei is so accomplished, what is there to worry about?”
On hearing this reply, which was neither positive nor negative, Noble Consort Yue only wrinkled her brow, and laughed ruefully. “I knew all along I would receive an answer of this sort, but I still had to ask. This is really our Yunnan temperament – I suppose it cannot be changed. Alright, as the Princess has answered so candidly, how can I keep forcing the topic? Allow me to lift this cup in a toast of apology. If the Princess will forgive my presumptuousness, then please accept this toast, and in the future when you and I meet again, we will certainly only speak of the scenes of the past, and not bring up these courtly concerns.”
Noble Consort Yue lifted her cup behind her sleeve and drained it. Nihuang couldn’t persist in refusing to drink, and although this was still palace grounds, it wasn’t the Empress’ ZhengyangPalace. She stared at the small cup, then slowly drank it down.
Seeing the wine disappear down her throat, a look of grief unexpectedly flickered across Noble Consort Yue’s eyes, but the determination set in her brows did not falter. She delicately sliced the tangerine before her, her movements smooth and steady as she peeled away the skin and offered one to Princess Nihuang.
“Is this a tangerine from our home land?” Nihuang tasted the fruit in astonishment.
“Yes. Tangerines have no legs, yet they are able to travel to the capital. I, on the other hand, have legs, but cannot step into the places of the past….” Noble Consort Yue’s expression was mournful, as if she was remembering her home, but also as if she was having other thoughts.
“My lady does not…” Nihuang was about to speak, when a palace servant girl appeared to report, “My lady consort, the Crown Prince and the noble son of Sima request an audience.”
“Oh, what a coincidence,” Noble Consort Yue pressed a hand to her mouth, smiling. “I had forgotten that I had asked him to bring the noble son of Sima over to see me. Since the Princess is here already, you wouldn’t mind coming to see him, would you?”
Princess Nihuang felt doubt stirring in her heart, but couldn’t think of any way they could act against her, and as she was thinking, the Crown Prince had already entered smiling with a tall, handsome, splendidly-dressed gentleman in tow, and ordered Sima Lei to greet the Princess with a bow.
After these many days of tournament and the banquet in Wuying Hall, this was certainly not the first time Princess Nihuang had seen Sima Lei. But in contrast to the previous meetings, as the man drew near this time and met her eye, she suddenly felt her heart lurch.
She closed her eyes and held her breath, calming her mind, and then Nihuang felt acutely the danger that now lay before her. At first she had been a bit overconfident, believing that her skills in martial arts protected her against attacks no matter how strong, but she had not realized that the other party did not need strength at all, but rather had only to target and distract her mind and spirit. Because she could not control the consequences of these happenings, without evidence, the entire event would descend into hearsay, and then not even the Emperor might believe that someone could have forced her into acting against her will. Thus, the most important thing now was to leave this place as soon as possible.
“My lady, Nihuang has suddenly remembered an urgent task elsewhere. I will first take my leave.” After this hurried statement, Princess Nihuang turned to leave.
“Princess…” Sima Lei started to reach for her, then halted with his hand half-raised and turned to look at the Crown Prince, who was glaring at him meaningfully. He gritted his teeth, plucked up his courage, and grabbed Princess Nihuang by the arm.
“How dare you!” Nihuang turned and gathered her inner energy, preparing to shove off the hand on her arm, but as their eyes met, her mind once again became distracted and dazed, and the scalding hand on her arm seemed to glow with warmth, the kind of warmth she longed for every time she stood alone on the frozen battlefield, frost and wind whipping all around her.
“Sima, the Princess seems tired. Why don’t you take her away for a rest…” Noble Consort Yue’s voice drifted over from a distance, cool as shade.
The Crown Prince took a few steps back, watching as Sima Lei held the Princess tightly by the waist, watching as a conflicted turmoil of pain and tenderness flitted across the beautiful face. Perhaps his heart was a little disturbed, as he turned his face away.
Suddenly, shouts and sounds of conflict rose up from outside.
Noble Consort Yue stood up abruptly, and climbed the steps for a clearer view. She was able to see a figure rapidly approaching, shoving aside all who tried to block his path and leaving behind a pitiful mess of entangled limbs. Not only could no one stop him, he actually dodged aside and charged straight for Sima Lei.
Although Prince Jing rarely showed his skills, his martial arts were certainly not as rough as might be imagined by those who had never experienced battle personally. Sima Lei was already feeling guilty, and didn’t quite dare raise a hand against a prince, and anyway his martial arts weren’t very strong in the first place, and so he hurriedly backed away, and was forced to retreat quite a distance.
“Jingyan! You are truly daring! How dare you enter my Zhaoren Palace without permission?” Noble Consort Yue was by now sure that Prince Jing had come alone, and immediately came forward in a fury. “Injuring people left and right – are you trying to start a rebellion?”
Prince Jing took in the scene at a glance and noticed the Princess’ clouded gaze and swaying figure, and although he did not know what exactly had happened, he understood enough. Thoroughly disgusted with Noble Consort Yue’s actions, he didn’t even want to bother arguing with her, but simply went over to the Princess, pressed hard against several of her vital meridian points4, and lifted her over his shoulder.
The Crown Prince, filled with fear and fury, shouted for his men to surround Xiao Jingyan, forming two circles around him, the inner bearing swords and the outer holding bows and arrows.
“Jingyan, you dare to trespass into Mother’s palace to kidnap the Princess! How fortunate that I am here to protect her! Put down the Princess right now, and for the sake of the ties of our blood, I will not report you to Father Emperor…”
Xiao Jingyan gave him a cold look, then ignored him and continued striding forward. The guards surrounding him helplessly moved with him, sending questioning glances at the Crown Prince.
Xiao Jingxuan5 was trapped between a rock and a hard place. This brother of his was a veteran of many battles, and couldn’t be stopped by normal shows of power like these. But to shoot a prince to death within the Zhaoren palace was also no small sin, not to mention the Princess Nihuang he was carrying on his back – were they to shoot her too? But if they didn’t stop him and let him charge his way out, the situation would become messy all the same. Left without a foolproof solution, he helplessly turned his gaze to his mother.
Noble Consort Yue’s radiant red lips pursed, and she spoke one word through her gritted teeth, “Fire.”
“Fire!” Noble Consort Yue’s voice was low, her tone severe. “At the very least, the dead cannot speak, and only then would we have the chance to speak!”
The Crown Prince shivered, then stepped forward and cried in a loud voice, “Prince Jing has trespassed into the palace, attempted to assassinate my Mother Consort, and harmed the Princess! Shoot to kill!”
The guards hesitated for a moment, but as the Crown Prince was their master, they strung their bows and instantly, the arrows fell like rain.
Prince Jing lunged forward and flipped a guard over as he grabbed the guard’s only sword, and then, with the light dancing off his sword like snow, he fended off the first wave of arrows. In the brief interlude that followed, he fought his way to the steps and laid the Princess down on the floor before knocking aside the second wave of arrows. Suddenly, he tumbled through the air, feinting left and right, and scattered the archers’ formation. The swordsmen were also not his match, and in the confusion of the fight, only saw a figure flying through the air. The dazed Crown Prince abruptly felt a touch of ice kiss his neck, and found that a cold blade had been pressed against his neck, icy cold against his skin.
“Stop!” Prince Jing’s voice was not loud, but the entire hall had frozen in response.
Noble Consort Yue was trembling all over, and spoke through teeth gritted in fury. “Xiao Jingyan, you dare…”
“Killing a commander amongst his soldiers is something I do often6.” Prince Jing smiled coldly, his tone like ice. “His Highness the Crown Prince was standing a bit too close to me.”
“Jingyan! What are you trying to do?” The Crown Prince’s voice was shaking.
“Bring the Princess over to me, then let the two of us leave the palace.”
Noble Consort Yue’s eyes were cold as frost. She scoffed and said, “And if I say no? Would you really dare to kill the Crown Prince?”
“Is my lady consort using the Crown Prince to gamble with me?” Xiao Jingyan’s voice held not a shred of warmth, and the Crown Prince’s heart raced, and he couldn’t help letting out a cry, “Mother!”
Noble Consort Yue’s face was icy to behold, but her chest was heaving, showing that she was in furious thought. Just as her brows furrowed and she opened her mouth to speak, an urgent shout was heard from the palace’s outer gates: “Announcing the Grand Empress Dowager!”
Noble Consort Yue’s heart froze, and a sense of hopelessness threatened to overwhelm her. But she closed her eyes briefly, and then rapidly came to a decision. Her first words were directed in a rush towards Sima Lei. “Leave the palace by the back doors immediately, and remember, you have not stepped half a foot into Zhaoren palace today!”
Sima Lei froze for a second and looked around blankly before shaking himself and rushing away towards the back door.
“Jingyan,” Noble Consort Yue hurriedly descended the stairs, speaking rapidly. “Listen – the Crown Prince didn’t shoot at you today, and you didn’t put a sword to his neck, understood?”
Prince Jing’s eyes were drawn. He didn’t answer.
“Raising your sword against the Crown Prince and shooting at a prince are both things the Emperor would not want to hear about. I do not wish for the two of you to fall to the same end. As for the other things, let us each fend for ourselves, and we will let the Emperor be the judge.” Noble Consort Yue smiled coolly. “You are an intelligent person; you should know that this is an arrangement that benefits you. Why not take it?”
Prince Jing’s face did not change, but the sword in his grip slowly eased away from the Crown Prince’s neck, and dropped lightly to the ground.
The aged figure of the Grand Empress Dowager appeared now at the Moon Door of the palace’s inner gates, and standing beside her was not only a very confused Princess Jingning, but also another woman, dressed in a royal yellow robe with a grand air and beautiful face.
This was the mistress of Zhengyang palace – the current Empress.
²Marquis Yan, being the brother of Empress Yan, holds the title ‘Imperial Uncle’ (where the word uncle refers specifically to the older brother of one’s mother – because the Empress is the ‘Imperial Mother’ of the royal princes)
³di means ‘little brother’; referring to Mu Qing
4i.e. acupuncture points
5the Crown Prince
6…Yeah, I don’t really get it either. I think it’s a reference to his battle experience? Someone feel free to explain this further lol.