“What have you brought me here to see?” The Grand Empress Dowager looked around the courtyard in confusion. “Why are there so many people here?”
Noble Consort Yue hurriedly indicated for the Crown Prince to dismiss the crowd of guards in the courtyard, and then quickly stepped up and knelt on the floor in a bow. “Your servant consort greets the Grand Empress Dowager, my lady Empress. I had not noticed my ladies’ arrival; please forgive my discourtesy…”
Empress Yan didn’t wait for her to finish, but immediately asked coldly, “Is that Nihuang I see sitting over there? What happened to her?”
Noble Consort Yue saw from the corner of her eye that Prince Jing had gone over to Nihuang and gently helped her up. The Princess’ cheeks were flushed, and both her eyes were closed. There was no denying that something had happened, so she was forced to say, “The Princess was invited over to dine today, but I did not expect the wine to be too strong for her. Nihuang is drunk…”
“Princess Nihuang is a valiant hero among women; her wine tolerance is not weak. How could she become drunk so easily?”
“Your servant consort thought it was strange too.” There as a smile on Noble Consort Yue’s face. “Perhaps her mind has been disturbed these last few days over this issue of choosing a husband.”
“Then why was the courtyard full of guards? Are you telling me someone dared to misbehave in Zhaoren palace? Tell me, and I will be the judge of the situation for you.”
“Oh, the guards…” Noble Consort Yue chuckled gently. “The Crown Prince was having them demonstrate some sword training that they had mastered for me, almost like a dance.”
Empress Yan gazed at her steadily, and suddenly sneered, “Noble Consort Yue must be joking. You left a guest as honoured as Princess Nihuang drunk on the steps while you and your son stood around watching some sword demonstration… You may answer me with this story, but is this how you are going to answer His Majesty?”
“As for how to answer His Majesty, this is my own business; how could I dare to trouble my lady Empress on my account?” Noble Consort Yue gently retorted. Seeing his mother so unperturbed, the Crown Prince, who had been pale with fear, now walked over slowly to greet the Grand Empress Dowager.
The Grand Empress Dowager had been listening to the verbal sparring between the Empress and the noble consort with much interest, and now seeing the Crown Prince bow to her, immediately reached out a loving hand to caress his head. “Xuan’er, who are those two children over there? They are too far away, I can’t see clearly….”
“…uhh…” The Crown Prince stammered awkwardly, “That’s Jingyan…and Princess Nihuang….”
“Why don’t they come over here to Great Grandmother?”
“Don’t worry, Grand Empress.” Empress Yan’s tone was soft, but her words were like ice¹. “Nihuang is only drunk; she will wake sooner or later. And once she wakes, I will be certain to advise her never again to drink such strong wine ….”
Noble Consort Yue felt something clench in her chest, but she gritted her teeth and kept her face smooth. This was indeed the most difficult part of the whole situation. The attempted murder had been balanced by Prince Jing’s taking the Crown Prince hostage, and both parties had basically reached an agreement not to investigate each other further. Sima Lei had also left, and the Empress had not been able to find any evidence of the crime, so no matter what she said before the Emperor, in the end it would only be one set of words against another, and there were ways to deal with words. But the Princess’ mouth, now there was something that could not be stifled. Now her only hope was that the Princess’ pride would make her unwilling to make public such a disgraceful event, for fear of its damage to her stainless reputation.
Princess Jingning had by now run to Princess Nihuang’s side, and, worried by her flushed appearance, said quietly, “What happened? She’s in such a drunken state, let’s take her to my palace to rest for awhile.”
Prince Jing also felt that it would be more convenient for his sister to take care of the Princess, and so he nodded, ordered a soft palanquin to be brought, and with the Empress’ permission, left with Jingning to escort Nihuang away.
The Empress knew that this matter would achieve a greater result if handled by Nihuang rather than by herself, and so didn’t press the matter, but simply escorted the Grand Empress Dowager into the main hall of Zhaoren palace, idly chatting and laughing. Noble Consort Yue was forced to keep them company instead of rushing first to the Emperor with her side of the story, and also was left with no chance to further collude with the Crown Prince. Seeing the forced smiles of both mother and son, the Empress felt a deep satisfaction.
Once Princess Nihuang had been carried to Princess Jingning’s Yinxiao Pavilion in her palace, Prince Jing immediately summoned a number of imperial physicians. After seeing their patient, they all concluded that the Princess was only suffering from a rapid pulse and shallow breath, with an impaired blood flow², but that there was no serious obstruction and no danger to her life. Prince Jing was thus relieved, and was just gathering his strength to help dissolve the obstructions by pressing her acupuncture points, when the Princess suddenly opened her eyes and shook her head at him, so he stopped, and instructed his sister to look after her well before he left the hall to sit quietly on the long bench in the courtyard, both waiting and standing guard.
Around an hour later, Princess Jingning ran out and panted, “Yan³ ge, jiejie just opened her eyes and asked for you.”
Prince Jing stood up hurriedly and walked quickly into the hall to see Nihuang indeed looking much improved, finally let out a sigh of relief, and came forward to perform acupuncture for her.
The Princess sat up slowly, her eyes cool as frost, seeming to be deep in thought, and then raised her head to look Prince Jing in the eye, saying softly, “Thank you.”
Prince Jing only nodded slightly and didn’t answer. Instead, it was Princess Jingning who asked with concern, “Nihuang jiejie, how much did you drink to become this drunk? Just now, I shook you for a long time, but you didn’t seem to notice me….”
“I’m alright now.” Nihuang reached out to brush Jingning’s cheek lightly, then put on her shoes and stood up.
“Where is jiejie going?”
“To see His Majesty.”
Prince Jing was startled, and asked quietly, “Has the Princess already decided?”
“In truth, this is not anything shameful,” Nihuang’s smile was cold as ice. “Perhaps the noble consort hopes that I will hide my anger and my tongue to cover up such a humiliation. If so, she has judged Nihuang wrongly. To say nothing of the fact that she failed, even if she had succeeded, if she thinks I would submit docilely to her because of that, then she must be dreaming. It is utterly impossible.”
“His Majesty should be in Yangju Hall. Since the Princess has decided, then I will escort you there.” Prince Jing spoke calmly, without adding any other comment.
“There’s no need to trouble yourself. I’m really….”
“This is not Yunnan. It is better to be cautious.”
Nihuang understood his good intentions, and didn’t continue to decline, but nodded in assent. Princess Jingning looked from one to the other and finally couldn’t stand it. “What are you talking about? I don’t understand.”
“I’ll explain later.” Nihuang smiled at her. “I’m not in a good mood right now, and I don’t want to say any more before going to see His Majesty. Jingning, forgive me.”
“Why is jiejie is being so polite…” Jingning was a bit embarrassed. “Then, shall I accompany the two of you?”
“No,” Prince Jing responded immediately. “You should not get involved with this kind of situation. Wait here, and don’t go around listening to nonsense, understand?” Jingning wasn’t so innocent that she truly understood nothing. Seeing their somber expressions, and thinking about everything that she had seen that day, she knew the situation wasn’t anything simple, and didn’t ask any further, only nodding obediently.
After leaving Yinxiao Pavilion, the two walked along in silence, seeming not to see the palace servants bowing on either side, until they reached Yangju Hall, where they stopped to be announced.
On hearing that these two were seeking audience, the Emperor was a little shocked, and hurriedly allowed them to enter. He took in the Princess’ expression at a glance, and a suspicion arose in his heart. As soon as they had made their bows, he immediately asked, “Nihuang, what is it? Who has upset you?”
Nihuang knelt down in a bow, and raised her head to speak. “Pray His Majesty judge for Nihuang.”
“Aiya, rise, quickly rise, tell us what’s wrong….”
Nihuang knelt unmoving, but fixed her eyes on the Emperor and said, “Noble Consort Yue summoned me to Zhaoren palace today under the guise of reminiscing about our home land, but served tainted wine that disturbed my mind and spirit. The Crown Prince seized the opportunity to bring Sima Lei into the Inner Palace to initiate inappropriate behaviour, in order to force me to wed. I pray His Majesty investigate these events, and give justice to Nihuang.”
Her words were deceptively simple and clear, without any suggestion of argument, and thus were all the more horrifying. The Emperor, shaking with fury, shouted in one breath, “Call for the noble consort and the Crown Prince! Bring them immediately to Yangju Hall!”
This order was carried out remarkably quickly, and soon, not only had those who were suppose to arrive, arrived, some who weren’t supposed to come had also arrived. Aside from the summoned Noble Consort Yue and Crown Prince, the Empress and Prince Yu had also appeared together.
“Consort Yue! Crown Prince! Do you confess to your crime?!” The Emperor shouted out in fury before they had even finished making their bows.
Noble Consort Yue’s face showed amazement, and she said fearfully, “Your servant consort does not know what has angered Your Majesty; pray Your Majesty explain.”
“You still feign ignorance?” The Emperor struck the table with his hand. “What did you do to Nihuang today? Tell us!”
“Princess Nihuang?” Noble Consort Yue’s face showed even more astonishment. “I invited her to dine today, and the Princess couldn’t stand the strength of the wine and slowly became drunk. The Crown Prince and I were just caring for her when the Empress suddenly arrived with the Grand Empress Dowager, and ordered Princess Jingning to take the Princess away to rest…. As for what happened afterwards, your servant does not know. Perhaps the Princess feels neglected because my hospitality was not adequate?”
Seeing her dodge the blame so neatly, Princess Nihuang couldn’t help laughing coldly. “Your wine must be very strong indeed; why, only one cup was enough to render me unconscious. Does such a wine exist? Not to mention as soon as I drank this cup, the Crown Prince brought in Sima Lei. Was that a coincidence too?”
“That wine was the Seven Mile Fragrance gifted by His Majesty. Although it is quite strong, only the Princess has said that drinking it made her unconscious. His Majesty can search your servant’s palace; there is certainly no other wine. And I fear the Princess must have already been drunk, because it was only the Crown Prince who entered. Where did Sima Lei come from? His Majesty has only to find anyone in Zhaoren palace, and ask if there was a second person who saw Sima Lei there.”
Princess Nihuang raised an eyebrow and said furiously, “Everyone in Zhaoren palace is yours. If you deny it, who would dare contradict you?”
Noble Consort Yue didn’t confront her directly, but continued to speak facing the Emperor. “Although everyone in Zhaoren palace is under your servant, everyone under your servant is Your Majesty’s servant. Under an imperial order, who would dare to lie to His Majesty?”
Seeing her deft maneuvering and irrefutable words, the Empress couldn’t contain her anger, and scolded, “You truly have an eloquent tongue. You dare to act but you don’t dare to admit to your actions? But no matter how you dodge, you cannot hide the truth. Are you claiming that the Princess is framing you without reason?”
Noble Consort Yue said calmly, “I also don’t understand why the Princess would make up such a story without any reason, just as I don’t understand why my lady Empress immediately believed the Princess without any evidence, and refuses to believe me….”
Empress Yan felt a chill in her heart, and suddenly understood what she had done wrong.
She should have been a bystander from beginning to end, and not spoken up.
If this was Nihuang’s accusation against the noble consort, the Emperor would not believe that Nihuang had any other motive, or that she would use her reputation to frame the noble consort. But once she herself entered into the conflict to protect Nihuang, then suddenly, it became an argument between the two palaces, which was certain to raise the doubts of the easily suspicious Emperor.
Noble Consort Yue, seeing the Emperor beginning to frown in thought, continued gently, “And I would like to ask my lady Empress to bear witness, after the Princess became drunk, and my lady Empress entered the courtyard of the Zhaoren palace so suddenly with the Grand Empress Dowager, did my lady see anyone mistreating the Princess? And although it would not be proper to disturb the Grand Empress Dowager in her old age, Princess Jingning was there as well. Your Majesty can ask her whether she saw anyone mistreating the Princess.”
Nihuang had not expected this noble consort to be so nimble with her tongue. Rage rose within her and she burst out, “That’s because they came just in time, and you could not carry out the rest of your malicious plan….”
Noble Consort Yue turned and met that blazing glare unflinchingly, saying peacefully, “If the Princess persists in believing that I harbour such malicious intent, then I will not continue arguing. The Princess has chosen my lady Empress and Prince Yu rather than me and the Crown Prince; this must be due to some moral deficit on our part, and we do not dare harbour any resentment towards her. But I must ask the Princess: if, as you say, you fell into my trap, then have you been harmed? And if I had really laboured to create such a malicious plot, then why would my lady Empress have entered at just the right moment to rescue you?”
The Emperor’s brow furrowed, and he glanced at the Empress and Prince Yu out of the corner of his eye, as if shaken by these words.
Princess Nihuang felt her hands grow cold with fury. Thousands of enemy soldiers met on the battlefield could not infuriate her as bitterly as this palace consort. She was just about to curse in rage and leave, when a steady voice spoke from beside her: “Father, your son can bear witness, when I entered Zhaoren palace, Sima Lei was indeed beside the Princess, and was certainly behaving with impropriety.”
Noble Consort Yue’s whole body trembled as she turned, incredulous, to glare at Xiao Jingyan.
“I saw that the situation was desperate, and had to break courtesy in order to bring out the Princess.” Prince Jing ignored her, and continued with composure. “In order to stop me, the noble consort and the Crown Prince actually ordered their guards to fire on us. I had no choice but to take the Crown Prince hostage for protection, in order to preserve my life, and to delay until the Grand Empress Dowager arrived. I know that raising a blade against the Crown Prince is no small crime, but I will not allow the truth to remain hidden from my Father Emperor only to avoid punishment for myself. Pray my Father Emperor consider, if not to hide their guilt and sins, why would the Crown Prince have wanted to silence me by killing me?”
Even the Empress and Prince Yu were not aware of these events, and everyone was shocked for a moment. Noble Consort Yue had never expected Xiao Jingyan to have this kind of boldness, and was stunned into silence, her face pale as snow.
“Consort Yue! Did such a thing happen?” The Emperor’s fury was frightening to behold.
Noble Consort Yue bit her lip, raised her head, and said, “Since my lady Empress, the Princess, and Prince Jing have all condemned me by their words, I dare not argue any further, and dare not ask for any evidence. I only pray Your Majesty to judge with his wisdom, and if His Majesty also believes that I have committed this crime, then we, mother and son, will confess, and never dare to harbour any further resentment.”
Faced with her show of submission, the Emperor hesitated. If he didn’t believe the claim, he would face the accusations of everyone present. But if he believed it, he couldn’t help thinking that they were acting too much in unison. As he hesitated, his thoughts warring in his mind, a eunuch’s voice called from outside the hall: “Your Majesty, Commander Meng requests an audience.”
The Emperor was currently dealing with an issue of this importance; he didn’t want to be disturbed, and so waved an arm and said, “We will see him later.”
The eunuch bowed and retired, but reappeared a moment later to say, “Your Majesty, Commander Meng has ordered your servant to convey a message. He says he has apprehended an intruder, one Sima Lei, outside the Zhaoren palace, and awaits Your Majesty’s further instruction.”
¹fun game: count how many times ‘ice’ or ‘cold’ has been mentioned in the last two chapters (I’ve been translating these phrases literally). It’s almost like we’re being hit over the head with a certain image here….
²Chinese medicine terms that I have no idea how to translate
³from his given name, Xiao Jingyan