A Precious Pearl in the Imperial City

Chapter 1 - Jiuzhu

Seeing off the official from the Ministry of Rites who’d delivered the edict, the Ming family’s mood was extremely heavy.

Ming Jingzhou clasped the decree, both hands trembling slightly. It was as if that wasn’t an imperial edict embroidered with golden dragons and auspicious clouds, but a thousand jin* hammer.

*斤 - a catty, equal to around 500 g

“Third Uncle.” Ming Cunfu was afraid that Ming Jingzhou couldn’t catch his breath and would crumple into a faint. He hurriedly got up to support him.

It should be a good thing for his younger cousin* to be linked by marriage with the imperial family. But thinking of the person Jiuzhu was espousing, the word “congratulations” could not leave his mouth.

*堂妹 - younger female patrilineal cousin

In the capital city, who didn’t know that His Majesty favored Noble Consort Su and excessively doted on Chen wang*, who was born from Noble Consort Su.

*王 - lit. king; a title often to given to the Emperor's sons

When Chen wang was not yet fifteen, he was conferred the title of wang together with the eldest prince who was older by five years. Nowadays he was fully twenty years old, his official residence outside of the palace resplendently built in jade and gold. However, he was frequently kept behind in the palace by His Majesty, and the other princes and princesses all avoided him like the tip of a spear.

There was a rumor in the imperial court that Chen wang was the hidden Crown Prince. If it weren’t for Noble Consort Su’s humble family background, and the fact that Chen wang was neither the legitimate nor the eldest prince, His Majesty would have sealed him as the heir to the throne early on. But aside from the pretty face gifted by Noble Consort Su, there was nothing about him that was worthy of praise. Many of the imperial court’s officials were united in opposition to his succession.

Jiuzhu knelt on the ground. She looked at her father’s mournful face, and then at her disconsolate cousin. Lifting her skirts to stand up, she very carefully walked to Ming Jingzhou’s side and took a hold of the imperial edict to look over.

“The edict says that Chen wang possesses innate talent and unvarnished beauty, is well-favored and studious. These are all good words.” Rolling the imperial edict back up to stuff into Ming Jingzhou’s hands, Jiuzhu gently patted his wrist. “Daddy doesn’t need to be so sad.”

Seeing his daughter’s sweetly tender and naive face, Ming Jingzhou’s voice trembled. “West market’s Grandma Wang even boasts when selling melons, not to mention…”

Not to mention when His Majesty is getting a wife for his own son.

Ming Cunfu coughed drily, reminding his family’s Third Uncle to not utter words that offended the imperial family. “Meimei*, Third Uncle and elder brother are like this because we can’t bear for you to marry out.”

*妹妹 - younger sister, little sister

Back when their lineage lost power in court and was banished to a bitter and cold land, in order to protect his newly-born little cousin, Third Uncle entrusted her to the clan elders. Later on the current Emperor ascended the throne and his father, Second Uncle and Third Uncle were reinstated and returned to the capital to hold office.

Officials in the capital weren’t allowed to leave the city without an imperial order, but Third Uncle dispatched people numerous times to the clan’s homeland in Lingzhou to fetch his younger cousin. At first, the clan elders always refused to let them do so with the excuse that his little sister’s body was weak and not suited to travel.

But his Third Uncle and Third Aunt truly longed for their child. After his younger cousin had been nursed for a year, they spent a large sum of money to hire an accompanying physician, and only then were they able to bring back his younger cousin who was already six years old.

“Younger cousin” had just been brought home when Third Aunt began to sense that something wasn’t right. Although the little girl’s eyebrows bore some resemblance to her and Third Uncle, she suspected that this child was not her flesh and blood.

Later on they investigated and discovered that not long after their family’s three brothers were exiled, the clansmen, not daring to raise Jiuzhu for fear of offending the officials in power, abandoned her in the wilderness.

The name Jiuzhu* signified that her parents treated her like jade, like pearl. But those heartless clansmen actually discarded their family’s precious pearl like that.

*玖珠 - the first character means "black jade" and the second is "pearl"

Third Uncle and Third Aunt were heartbroken upon learning the truth. They immediately sent that fake younger cousin back to Lingzhou, and moreover opened the ancestral hall to remove themselves from the clan and henceforth establish their own family.

His father and Second Uncle came from the same bloodline as Third Uncle. After being sent to a bitterly cold exile, they relied on each other even more, sharing joys and sorrows together. Naturally they also couldn’t stomach this offense, and together with Third Uncle’s family struck themselves off the clan register.  From then on, the three families had nothing to do with the Ming clan from Lingzhou.

Jiuzhu had been found by him and his lackey several months earlier in a tiny and dilapidated temple in Lingzhou. The temple’s walls were mottled, the tiles broken and the windows rotted, so wretched that even mice weren’t willing to enter.

His already sixteen years old younger cousin was holding a big steamed bun, nibbling it with a face full of contentment. Upon seeing him, she quickly hid the bun behind her back and opened her mouth to say: “Does gongzi* want to offer incense or divine your fortune? Our temple’s deity is especially effective.”

*公子 - an honorific for a son of an official or a noble

Ming Cunfu looked at the portrait of the deity on the sacrificial altar, which had already gathered dust. He truly couldn’t see where its efficacy lay.

But afterwards, he still really hoped that the temple was effective. After all, the two female Daoists said that he had the blessing of the Wen Qu star*. In the future he would pluck a branch of osmanthus from the Toad Palace**, encounter noble persons of high rank, and enjoy a smooth official’s career.

*文曲星 - one of the 28 stars of traditional Chinese astronomy and astrology; the fourth star in the Big Dipper. The Wen Qu star governs literary destiny.
**蟾宫折桂 - an idiom signifying success in the imperial examination

Scholars ah, who didn’t want to succeed in the imperial exam.

It absolutely must be effective!

“Sixth Brother Fu.” Jiuzhu pulled Ming Cunfu’s sleeve. “What are you thinking about?”

Ming Cunfu returned to his senses. Before he could open his mouth, however, there came the sound of harried footsteps from outside.

“Mother has come back?” Jiuzhu quickly stepped towards the doorway, just in time to run into Shen shi* who was coming their way.

*氏 - maiden name

Shen shi’s countenance, which initially bore traces of anxiety, softened the moment she caught sight of Jiuzhu. “Jiuzhu, why are you standing at the door? The wind is cold in late autumn, don’t let it sting your face.”

Jiuzhu detected the scent of incense wafting from Shen shi’s body. She reached out a hand to support Shen shi’s crooked arm as they walked inside the room. “Don’t worry, Mother, the skin on my face is thick so the wind can’t blow through it.”

The two of them had not been together for long but they were already very close. Perhaps this was the invisible bond between mother and daughter.

Shen shi had just sat down when she ordered the servants to bring Jiuzhu some tonic soup. Gazing at her daughter’s little face, her eyes brimmed with distress.

There’s a type of thinness that’s called “mother feels you are very thin.”

These past ten or so years, the Jiuzhu in her imagination had experienced all sorts of suffering, to the extent that when she saw those unfortunate souls in the operas, she couldn’t help but think: what would she do if her own daughter was living such a miserable existence?  

So now when Jiuzhu stood in front of her, alive and fair, she formed a habit of occasionally stuffing her daughter with food. It was as if she wanted to take these full fifteen years’ worth of maternal love; knead, simmer and grind it into the finest powder; and wrap it around her child so she knew that she’d always loved her, missed her, had never abandoned her.

Fortunately, Shen shi loved to stuff food and Jiuzhu loved to eat it. This cornucopia of maternal love all smoothly went into Jiuzhu’s stomach.

“Just now the gatekeepers said that people from the Ministry of Rites came to deliver an edict.” Shen shi lightly stroked her sleeves. Inside the pocket was a protective talisman she’d besought for her daughter.

“Just now the Ministry of Rites relayed a decree. His Majesty, acting as Chen wang’s matchmaker, wishes to wed Jiuzhu and make her Chen wangfei*.”

*王妃 - the consort of a wang

“Which wang?”

“Chen...wang.”

“Which fei?”

“Chen wangfei.”

Ming Cunfu, afraid that his Third Aunt would sicken from anger, hurriedly added one word: “Principal fei.”

The room promptly fell silent. A good while later, Shen shi furiously shoved the half-uncovered protective talisman back inside.

What crummy deities, they couldn’t even protect her daughter, what’s the use of worshipping them!

The more she thought about it, the angrier she grew. She rose up intending to go out.

“Wife, calm down, calm down!” Ming Jingzhou hastily got up and grabbed her sleeve. “Whatever you want to say, let’s discuss it slowly behind closed doors.”

Don’t go barging at the palace gates, you’ll lose your head!

Jiuzhu regarded her two parents who were tugging and pulling at each other. Cupping her face, she asked doubtfully: “Is Chen wang no good?”

Ming Jingzhou and Shen shi’s heads uniformly swiveled toward their daughter. Their eyes held the grief and indignation of someone whose rare treasure had been dug out and stolen away by bandits.

“Let’s sit down and talk it over slowly.” Lingzhou people spoke with a soft and tender voice. Jiuzhu grew up in a Daoist temple in Lingzhou and very rarely came into contact with outsiders, and so was even more lovable and naive. This one phrase was like that of a spoiled child. Hearing it, the hearts of this husband and wife pair melted into a ball.

“Chen wang this person….” Ming Jingzhou wanted to speak but stopped, his mouth opened and closed. A long time later he heaved a sigh: “As father, I will enter the palace and entreat His Majesty to withdraw this command.”

“Is he hideously ugly?” Seeing that her father didn’t even want to mention Chen wang, there surfaced inside Jiuzhu's mind the image of a bear-legged wolf ape with a green face and tusked fangs.

Bending her head to stroke her own slender and white wrist, Jiuzhu instantly felt that the tonic soup served by the maids was no longer fragrant.

“Not exactly ugly, but Chen wang this person…” Ming Jingzhou momentarily fell silent. “It’s hard to explain in a few words.”

Not only was he not ugly, he had the kind of face that attracted young maidens. But as a man, as a prince, it was not enough to just have a pretty face.

Tossing out the ferocious-looking figure in her head, Jiuzhu peered at Ming Jingzhou with glimmering eyes. “Father, in that case let’s slowly discuss it.”

“Chen wang’s birth mother Noble Consort Su was born to a family of merchants. Since entering the palace, she alone has received His Majesty’s grace and favor. Over the years, for Noble Consort Su’s sake, His Majesty has transgressed the rules to make him wang. Even his title is a head above the other princes'.”

Chen*, the highest point, the idea being the place where heaven and earth converged. An extraordinary meaning. What monarch would choose such a title for their young son?

*宸 - also means imperial palace, throne, Emperor

“There’s no Empress in the palace. What does it matter if His Majesty likes a particular niangniang*?” Jiuzhu didn’t think it was so difficult to explain.

*娘娘 - an honorific to refer to or address the Empress or an imperial concubine

“You don’t understand.” He was a civil official. The grievances and animosity between the Chen mother and son and the civil officials were enough to fill up ten books, and each one would sell like hotcakes in the bookshops.  

Ming Jingzhou tidied up his official’s robes. “Let your mother and elder cousin chat with you, your father will enter the palace to see His Majesty.”

The daughter he’d found and brought back with such difficulty, who was so adorable, so innocent and naive, how could she be wedded to someone like Chen wang!

“Father…” Jiuzhu reached out a hand to stop him, but her father’s back was too resolute and she could only brush the corner of his sleeve.

“Don’t stop him.” Shen shi blocked her. “Let him try, at least…”

At least his heart will feel a bit better.

“Drink the tonic.” Recalling that the soup brought by the maids still hadn’t entered her daughter’s stomach, Shen shi eked out a smile and held the soup up to her face.

No man could obstruct her desire to raise her daughter.

“Madam.” A servant trotted over to the door to pass along a message. “Someone from Mingyue* Palace said that Noble Consort Su has obtained a renowned master’s painting and invites Young Miss into the palace to appreciate art.”

*明月 - bright moon

Appreciating art this sort of thing, since when did it have any association with Noble Consort Su?

Shen shi held the soup steady with both hands and smiled faintly at Jiuzhu. “Drink slowly, no rush. When you’re finished, let someone help you to freshen up.”

Finishing the soup in a few mouthfuls, Jiuzhu got up and went to the rear court. She could indistinctly see from afar the household’s managing momo* leading a middle-aged woman dressed in a purple outer robe in her direction.

*嬷嬷 - form of address for an elderly woman

“That must be your noble house’s treasured daughter.” Mingyue Palace’s female official* halted her steps and gazed at the distant figure, nodding and smiling at her guide. “Although I cannot see her features, I know with just a glance that your noble house’s daughter is an extraordinary beauty.”

*女官 - female officials or court ladies who were appointed to perform specific tasks in the management of the imperial palace

“Ah ah, gugu* flatters her unduly.”

*姑姑 - aunt (not blood-related)

The managing momo thought in her heart, you should take it down a notch, we’re so far away that it’d be a feat if you could differentiate male from female.

She’d seen many in-laws who praised the bride up to the heavens before the marriage, and picked on her incessantly after the marriage.

This female official wanted to extol their family’s Young Miss?

Clearly they’d taken a fancy to Young Miss’s status as a civil official’s daughter!

The hearts of people in the palace were all dirty.

“Chunfen, this phoenix tail hairpin is really heavy.” Jiuzhu touched the golden hairpin at her temples, very nervous that it would slip off. It was made out of pure gold silk; with one look you could tell it was very costly.  

The dangling pearl flashed and swayed beside her temples, making that small face even more tender and lovely in contrast.

Being watched by those limpid eyes, exactly like those of a newborn puppy, Chunfen’s heart felt limp and numb. She swiftly averted her sight. “Young Miss, you must dress well to enter the palace to see Noble Consort niangniang.”

Putting down the jade comb, she was careless and set it on the edge of the dressing table. Seeing that it was about to fall down, she hadn’t even made a sound before the Young Miss snatched up the jade comb and replaced it on the tabletop.

“Young Miss.” A maid outside reminded them in a small voice: “The carriage from the palace has already been prepared.”

Jiuzhu confidently stepped into the carriage bound for the palace. Once in a while she would also paint in the Daoist temple, but because the two shifus* were awfully poor, she was frugal with pen, ink and paper.

*师父 - master; a respectful term of address

However, both shifus praised her for having some level of mastery with respect to painting. So appreciating art this sort of thing should not pose a problem for her.

“Madam.” Catching sight of Shen shi’s grave mien, the trusted attendant supporting her said comfortingly: “Young Miss is your and Sir’s blood. She must certainly be very talented in painting.”

Shen shi: “.....”

They were done for.


T/L Note: Picked up my first project! The first chapter of this novel has already been translated by Jellylynn (read it here), but I decided to start from the beginning to keep the terminology consistent. No set update schedule yet, but the next chapter should be out soon. Hope you all enjoy!

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