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He had lived for over two decades, and only on this day did he learn that there could be a sentence in this world – just a few words – that was enough to cut one up inside.
Scared stiff, he thought to himself in fear: was this written for me?
He was like someone who had nearly frozen to death in a land of winter, and right when he was on the verge of giving up hope, he suddenly saw a spot of light. It didn’t matter if it was a mirage or fireless glow; both were similar to grabbing onto a final life-saving strand of spider silk.
The handwriting’s original form had been blurred, giving it no characteristics to speak of. Even so, he still stared unwavering at those five words, gaze burning, as if he was going to burn a hole through that white silk. Were Fu Shen present, he would probably be able to recognize that this crazed energy of his was practically a carbon copy of the withdrawal symptoms he’d had in back in Kuangfeng City.
The fallnight white cravings had long since been dissipated, but the cravings of the heart that Fu Shen fostered seemed to be getting heavier by the day.
Chilling wind invaded his bones, and over time, his boiling-over mood was returned to tranquility from the caress of the cold breeze. Yan Xiaohan let out a long exhale, tensed shoulders suddenly relaxing. His figure swayed as a result, and he nearly collapsed, soft-legged, to the ground. He hurriedly supported himself against the wall to stand steady, only to abruptly realize that there was actually sweat on his back on this frigid day.
He folded the silk up carefully and stowed it away. Seeming to have absorbed a bit of strength and warmth from the item, he slowly walked towards the direction of his residence.
In the blink of an eye, New Years came around.
Due to the chaotic fighting that sprang up in every direction last year, the present government situation being in turmoil, and the nation facing calamity, all celebrations and ceremonies in the palace this year were simple. The Changzhi Emperor prayed and sacrificed to the Heavens, then decreed that Jiangnan was exempted from annual crop taxes, granting amnesty to the realm. On the sixth of January, Dame of Glowing Looks, Lady Xue, was pregnant; this would be the first child welcomed into the palace in the new Dynasty and year, a very lucky presage. The Emperor was over the moon, and he promoted Lady Xue to Virtuous Concubine, also bestowing generous rewards to her father, brothers, and family.
Upon hearing this news, Yan Xiaohan didn’t feel too at ease, so he sought out an imperial eunuch serving at the Empress’s side to question in private. He was presently the Commander of the Imperial Guard in name, but in reality, because the Emperor had no one to use, there was no Greater Eunuch overseeing his firm of internal attendants, and external matters still had to go according to Yan Xiaohan’s orders. He was pretty much a big steward in the Emperor’s backyard, who then had to steward the workers and steward the servants and maids. He was unhappy and unwilling about it, but there was nothing to be done.
When the capital was captured, Prince Consort Fu Ling took her still-swaddled infant and fled to Jiangnan under the protection of the Prince Estate’s hired guards and the Duke of Ying’s Estate, arriving there scared, but unharmed. At the outset of the Changzhi Emperor ascending the throne, she was then crowned as Empress. The married couple originally had very deep affection for each other, but in the beginning construction of the new Dynasty, the Emperor accepted several affluent families’ daughters as concubines in order to win over Jiangnan’s gentry. The formerly deserted harem quickly turned into a battlefield where unseen blades were brandished. The Empress was soft on the outside but hard on the inside, and was not an expert at fighting over someone. After receiving the cold shoulder several times, the royal pair gradually came to drift somewhat apart.
Yan Xiaohan hadn’t paid mind to the squabbling in the harem at first, but near the end of last year, the Empress-born Princess of Gao Yang suddenly broke out in hives and fever. The symptoms were potentially deadly, and she narrowly didn’t pull through, the Empress falling seriously ill herself for this reason. He kept this in mind after hearing about it, then had people do a secret investigation; a maid from the Empress’s palace was sussed out to have been passing along information to another palace’s concubine on the sly. Under interrogation via torture, the maid confessed that she had once wiped the Princess’s hand with a rag brought in from outside the palace, and her statement was then submitted for imperial review. The Emperor’s royal countenance was infuriated, but he ended up gently letting it go, merely having that concubine enter the Cold Palace and be done with it.
Only from that point on did Yan Xiaohan learn of what the Empress’s life was like in the palace. Though the Duke of Ying, Fu Tingyi, had also fled to Jiangnan, he had always been one to place himself above worldly affairs, and could only be regarded as ‘better than nothing’. Fu Ling didn’t have a powerful enough maiden home, and as the master of the harem, she naturally became the target of every concubine’s eager provocation.
It didn’t take long for that one concubine to hang herself in the Cold Palace for no discernible reason. After this, Yan Xiaohan would spend a little time every month asking after how the Empress was doing. He didn’t painstakingly hide this from people at all, nor did he even take offense when others questioned it; Fu Shen and he were a legitimate family, so him supporting the man’s little sister was genuinely a logical given.
Needless to say, on the basis of just this one action, Fu Ling’s days in the harem were instantly eased.
Lady Xue’s father was one of the four Jiangnan academics who participated in discussion at the Hall of Prolonged Honor, and she was also the most favored of the all the concubines. There was not yet a son of the first wife in the palace, and Lady Xue was now pregnant; if it was a daughter, that’d be fine, but if an eldest son happened to be born, that would not be any sort of good news for the old officials of the Yuantai Court. Yan Xiaohan questioned the eunuch, listening to him explain that the Empress was simply displeased, and then didn’t have any other plans, his inclination to nip things in the bud for her also extinguished. All he did was have the servants add a bit more caution, and to not factor into the calculations of machinating people.
However, the ways of the world were difficult to predict, in the end. On the twelfth of February, during the Flower Festival, a clamor suddenly arose in the palace. Virtuous Concubine Xue had reportedly collided with someone in the garden and unfortunately miscarried, the child unable to be saved. The one who collided with her was a cleaning maid from the Empress’s palace. She didn’t say a word at her trial, but she did turn towards the Empress and prostrate herself, then rammed her head into a pillar in the hall soon after, dying on the spot.
The Empress was unable to defend herself for this no matter how she spoke. The Emperor was enraged, but he cared about their feelings as husband and wife regardless. He didn’t punish her harshly, only placing her on house arrest for a month so she could close up her palace in self-reflection. The affairs of the six palaces were temporarily allocated to Concubine Jing as a stand-in.
Concubine Jing was a figurine made of dough; she didn’t come of a high background, and had been relying on Lady Xue’s help from very early on.
The Changzhi Emperor might not have been aware that there was an extremely high probability that the Empress had been framed by someone, but he didn’t really need the truth. Behind Lady Xue stood Jiangnan’s higher-class – half the sky of the new Dynasty – and he was still counting on those people to serve him. The Fu family behind the Empress, on the other hand, was already an empty shell. Comparing both sides, it was immediately evident which one was weak and which was strong. For the sake of the situation at large, he could only choose to give the Empress up as sacrifice.
Yet he had forgotten that there was still a “Fu” in the Court that wasn’t surnamed Fu.
On the fourteenth of February, the second day of the Empress’s house arrest, the still-recovering Virtuous Concubine Xue was dragged from her bedroom and into the Cold Palace. This section of the courtyard was shabby and unfrequented. Someone had stuffed up her mouth with a handkerchief, her pinned-up hair in disarray, and she whimpered and struggled as two strong imperial eunuchs tossed her into an empty room.
This was the place where the concubine who harmed the Princess had resided, and after her death, the maids and eunuchs avoided it out of bad luck, not stepping foot in it easily. No one had cleaned it for a few months; spiderwebs were everywhere, and the courtyard was covered in moss. Concubine Xue was thrown onto the freezing, filthy floor, her jade-like skin and delicate frame suddenly chafing against a layer of grime. What a sorry sight.
She was a highly-treasured Young Miss who had been greatly coddled in her household; when had she ever suffered this sort of maltreatment before? Currently frightened and fearful with no way to call for help, she couldn’t help but cry.
In her indistinct field of view, it appeared that someone had blocked off the light from outside. The sound of light yet steady footsteps came from far away, then got close, and a short moment later, a pair of black boots stopped before her eyes. A low, magnetic male voice sounded over her head. “Is this her?”
A eunuch who captured her had a vicious mug, but he was especially respectful towards this man. “To answer Sir, this is indeed Lady Xue.”
The man made a low sound of affirmation, then passed in front of her. Someone had cleaned off the table and chairs in the hall for him beforehand; with a lift of the corner of his embroidered, deep red robes, he pulled out an imperial-master chair and sat down in front of her. “Help her up, and take that cloth out of her mouth,” he instructed his subordinate.
The handkerchief pulled out of her mouth, she repeatedly panted from her tears, barely managing to get up amidst the pain. When she got a clear view of the person sitting upright before her, she involuntarily paused and stared.
The men she had seen before were finite, but each one was young and distinguished, their looks uncommon. This man, however, was the most stunningly handsome one she had seen since she was little ’til now.
His appearance was peaceful, and even when not smiling, it had a sort of gentle, easygoing overtone. Noticing that Lady Xue’s mind had wandered as she gazed at him, the corners of his eyes slightly curved. “Do you know who I am?” he asked.
Lady Xue realized in a flash that she had lost her manners, and quickly hung her head. “I… I don’t,” she mumbled.
“This official’s surname is Yan, acting under orders to lead the Imperial Guard. I have something of a friendship with your father, High Official Xue.”
The three words “Yan” and “Imperial Guard” were like a bucket of ice water dumped right on her head. A chill swiftly permeated within her heart, and only two words remained in her mind: I’m finished.
Following the Princess’s near-death happenstance last year, most of the concubines in the harem had moderated themselves a tad. They had a bit more reverence towards the Empress — it wasn’t that they respected her, but rather that they feared the one that was supporting her behind the scenes, and had also put that concubine who had plotted against the Princess’s life to death.
The Son of Heaven’s close servant and trusted confidant, Commander of the Imperial Guard, one of the ministers of the Hall of Prolonged Honor: Yan Xiaohan.
During the Yuantai Dynasty, the Flying Dragon Guard had run amok with no fear, had the authority to overturn all levels of society, and caused people’s complexions to change from hearing their name. This man was their boss, and it was said that his behavior was bizarre, his methods were savage, and had framed who knew how many loyalists, yet he had stood tall without diminishing from start to finish, even remaining of important use to the Changzhi Emperor in the new Dynasty.
Her shock from the beauty dissolved, leaving only alarm. Lady Xue scrambled backwards to avoid him. “What are you going to do?” she trembled out.
“Mistress Concubine,” he countered heedlessly, “do you not have some of idea of what I’m doing and why?”
“I don’t!” She barely feigned calmness, stiff-lipped as she put on a tough facade. “For an outside official to personally barge into these forbidden grounds is a crime punishable by death. Are you not afraid of the Emperor looking into how you dared to act against me?”
“This official was ordered to guard the forbidden grounds. I naturally cannot sit back and watch you vicious, venom-hearted women dupe your own monarch. This is therefore something falling within my duty, and belonging to my responsibility. It appears that you ought to have heard of me, Mistress, and since you know who I am, it should be clear that let alone you, but even your father will be accordingly arrested with no error for this.”
Lady Xue’s voice shook. “You… I am the Emperor’s Consort, you’re not qualified to persecute me… I want to see the Emperor!”
It was as if he had heard some kind of joke. “I called you a Mistress, and you’re still actually regarding yourself as one?” he mocked.
Though he smiled, an intent to kill suffused his eyes. “Framing the Empress, plotting against the life of the imperial successor; are you under the impression that you’ll still be able to walk away from this palace’s doors today?” he asked icily.
“You’re the Empress’s ally – why are you helping her?” Lady Xue was finally scared to tears by him, and she shouted things out randomly. “What she gave you, I can give you all of it, too! You—”
“It’s because her surname is Fu,” Yan Xiaohan very lightly cut her off. “You framed her on the Flower Festival, which meets up with a violation of my own taboo. That’s courting death.”
The Flower Festival? What does this have to do with that?
Lady Xue’s face was blank from puzzlement. Of the imperial eunuchs standing idly at attendance to his side, one had come from the North, and following the line of thought “Flower Festival” brought, he promptly came to understand: woah, isn’t that the exact day this Sir married the Marquis of Jing Ning last year?
Marquis Fu’s current whereabouts were unknown, and the Empress was his only full little sister. It’s no wonder Sir Yan was angered like this. Lady Xue was seriously unlucky to have fallen into his hands.
Following Yan Xiaohan’s arrival at Jiangnan, he had less work to do of sending people off to the Western Heaven, but on the occasion he was set to task, he seemed increasingly disagreeable and malicious. This type of venting didn’t have any use, really; it was just that his sore spot had been prodded, and with his own hurt, criminals shouldn’t even be thinking of getting off easy.
An imperial eunuch offered a section of white silk up to her with both hands. “If you please, Mistress,” he stated softly.
She looked at Yan Xiaohan, not daring to believe this, her eye sockets wanting to split open. The man didn’t look at her, though, and stared at a group of white flowers outside the window, whatever he was thinking unknowable.
Seeing that she was dumbstruck and not moving, the eunuch spoke up with deliberately ambiguous wording. “If the Mistress persists on being unwilling to do this herself, then this slave will be forced to start your journey for you.”
Yan Xiaohan turned his head around at this moment, voice indifferently. “I’ve heard that you come from a good background, have read books fervently since your youth, and can sing and dance. A face-reader claimed that you had a valuable horoscope and were bound to get a fine husband.” Talking up to here, he couldn’t hold himself back, and let a cold huff out of his nose as he grinned sarcastically. “Jinling City is filled with all sorts of these rumors. Perhaps you also believed them, Mistress, and took yourself to be the next Wei Zifu. This piece of silk is already saving you enough face.”
He supported himself on the chair’s armrests and stood up, fixing his gaze upon her from a place up on high. “You had best have a bit of self-awareness, Mistress. If you can’t tell right from wrong, this official will have you become the next Madam Qi,” he said, eerily.
In a split second, Lady Xue felt like she was being stared at by a venomous snake, her hairs standing on end. She had crude knowledge of literature and had studied history books; she understood Yan Xiaohan’s threat instantly. She knew well that it would be impossible to escape this misfortune, and she was going to die, without a doubt.
Gaozu of Han’s favorite concubine was Madam Qi, and she had given birth to Liu Ruyi. He received sacred favor, and on several instances, he almost supplanted the Crown Prince Liu Ying. On Gaozu’s death, Liu Ruyi was summoned into the palace by Empress Lü and assassinated via poison. His mother had her limbs chopped off, eyes gouged out, and ears cut off, was rendered mute by drinking a poison, and forced to reside in the latrine, labelled as a “human swine”.*
Between a Virtuous Concubine and the Empress, there was not just the struggle of the harem, but the struggle of the future heir apparent, and the calm crossing of swords amongst the Jiangnan upstarts and old officials of the North.
Yan Xiaohan left with a brush of his sleeves.
On February fourteenth in the first year of Changzhi, Concubine Xue contracted postpartum madness, her mental state deranged, and she hung herself in the Cold Palace.
On that very night, the stars in the heavens scattered like snow. Everlasting Autumn Palace hastily called for an imperial doctor to come take a pulse, and he diagnosed that the Empress, Lady Fu, was pregnant. There was not a one, on any level of society, that didn’t believe this to be a good omen.
The translator says: Poor Sister Fu, her husband ain’t shit. 😦
昭仪 – zhaoyi, lit. “bright features”, one of nine ranks of concubine. Exactly which rank it is depends on the Dynasty, but I’m guessing it’s not very high here.
 淑妃 – shufei, already translated literally. Its rank also depends on the Dynasty, but it’s generally 3rd or 4th.
 A generic term for the palace that concubines get banished to for falling too far out of favor, committing a crime, belonging to a different Emperor, etc. While Cold Palaces are referenced a lot in literature and buildings with this exact purpose did exist, it’s up in the air whether any of them were ever literally called ‘The Cold Palace’.
 静妃 – jingfei, lit. “consort of calmness”. I’m not altogether sure how to translate this, as unlike the other two terms, it doesn’t seem to be a rank, and Jing is definitely not a surname. Calling her the Tranquil Concubine or something sounds weird, so I’m going to leave it.
 长秋 – changqiu, translated literally. This was the traditional palace of an Empress.
*This is a true story (if possibly exaggerated, as history can be), as well as a horrific and depressing one. Take a look at Empress Lü’s wiki article if you’re not faint of heart.