The carriage was comfortable and luxurious; even the cushions were embroidered in intricate sprays of flowers and dark patterns. Jiuzhu extended a hand to stroke it. The sensation was soft like clouds, like smoke.
She lifted a corner of the window curtain, and the flourishing and bustling capital city appeared before her eyes.
From far away came the clatter of horse hooves. The closer it got to the carriage, the slower the hoofbeats became. It ought to be someone on horseback who’d reined in the animal.
“Whose carriage is that in front?”
“Answering wangye*, it seems to be Mingyue Palace’s people.”
*王爷 - term of address for a wang
Jiuzhu’s hearing had been good since she was young. She stretched her head out to peep at the person who’d spoken.
The brocade-robed man atop the horse raised his eyes, meeting her line of sight.
Jiuzhu gave him a subtle nod. Releasing the curtain and sitting back, she didn’t forget to touch the phoenix tail hairpin at her temples.
She was relieved -- the golden hairpin was still there. It really was too valuable.
When they arrived at the palace gates, the imperial guards, learning that the person inside was the future Chen wangfei, directly let them pass without even inspecting the carriage.
After traversing another road, Jiuzhu dismounted the carriage. The people from Mingyue Palace had prepared a palanquin for her.
Almost no court official’s daughter would dare to ride a palanquin in the palace, but Jiuzhu had just returned to the capital. At home people cherished her like a once lost and now recovered treasure. They’d never brought her out in front of some distinguished personage to be wronged, so she naturally didn’t understand this.
Seeing that the niangniang inside the palace had prepared a sedan chair for her, she obediently sat down and even complimented the beauty of the flowers carved on the wooden armrest.
The female official smiled good-naturedly: “Niangniang also likes this decorative design, she says that this type of flower is lively and vivid and makes anyone who sees it joyful.”
Jiuzhu thought in her heart, niangniang was worthy of being His Majesty’s favorite Noble Consort, even her aesthetic tastes were so outstanding.
Her aesthetics were as great as niangniang’s, proof that she was also someone of refined tastes.
Originally there was still a trace of apprehension in her heart, but now she straightened out her back and was awash with unbounded self-confidence.
In the Ming family residence, Chunfen was endlessly concerned for the Young Miss who’d already entered the palace.
“Madam, Young Miss doesn’t understand the rules and customs inside the palace, what are we going to do if she provokes Noble Consort niangniang’s displeasure?”
“Don’t panic.” Shen shi flipped through the residence’s storehouse accounts. “Jiuzhu is my and my husband's only daughter. If she really does something inappropriate, the palace will just turn a blind eye. If the Noble Consort is not happy, then just let her be.”
That would actually be quite good. If both sides were fed up, perhaps there was still some leeway to redeem this marriage issue.
In Mingyue Palace, the censers were faintly emitting smoke. Noble Consort Su languidly reclined on a soft chair carved with arabesque patterns. She stared at the doorway expressionlessly, her thoughts unknown.
When footsteps began pattering outside, she sat up and lightly caressed the jade bracelet on her wrist.
“Niangniang, Miss Ming has arrived.”
Noble Consort Su raised her eyelids and regarded the young girl who’d come in. With just one glance, she found it hard to shift her line of sight away.
Amongst the women of the world, there was a kind of beauty that was most difficult to come by. This kind of beauty could give rise to tender affection in men’s hearts, but could also make women feel it was charming.
Unexpectedly, an old-fashioned and inflexible civil official like Ming Jingzhou actually possessed this rare sort of daughter.
“Chennu* respectfully greets Noble Consort niangniang.” With her first clear glimpse of Noble Consort Su’s visage, Jiuzhu’s smiling eyes curved into two crescent moons.
*臣女 - lit. your servant girl; a form of self-address used by a subject when speaking to a ruler, or, in this case, an imperial consort
She’d seen this niangniang before.
“No need to be overly courteous, sit down and chat.” Noble Consort Su motioned to a female official to help Jiuzhu up. When Jiuzhu had taken a seat, she asked: “I heard that your health was poor in childhood so you were brought up in a Daoist temple. Have you grown accustomed to the capital city now that you’ve returned?”
This was only the version that the Ming family told to outsiders. However, the current Emperor was aware of the actual facts. At that time, it was for His Majesty’s sake that the three brothers of the Ming family were exiled to a bitter cold place. This matter was thus completely covered up from beginning to end and aside from the present Emperor and the Ming family’s own people, no one knew of it.
“It’s all very well.” Jiuzhu thought for a bit. “Mother and Father treat me like a precious pearl, Uncle and Aunt also often care for me…”
Speaking of the various things that happened after returning to the capital city, Jiuzhu’s eyes were filled with happiness. “Only…”
Her eyes dimmed: “I miss the two shifus a little bit.”
Helplessly looking on as this pair of bright and shining eyes darkened, Noble Consort Su couldn’t help but start considering ways to retrieve those two shifus and allow them to see for themselves how dejected they’d made this little girl.
“If you miss them, bengong* will help you bring them into the capital.”
*本宫 - lit. this palace; a form of self-address used by Empresses and imperial consorts
“Thank you niangniang, but they prefer to reside in Lingzhou.”
In fact, the two shifus’ actual words were: the people of the capital are full of troubles and ire and care not for life.
Jiuzhu naturally wouldn’t say that the two shifus disdained the capital’s fengshui as unfit for raising humans. A quick-witted girl like her knew what she should and should not say: “The shifus are both people devoted to the Dao, chennu is unwilling to impose.”
“Lingzhou…” Noble Consort Su recalled that a few years ago she’d accompanied the Emperor on a trip to this place. The mountains and waters there were picturesque, and the river in the morning was always submersed in clouds and mist. “Indeed a pretty good place.”
“Niangniang.” Jiuzhu regarded Noble Consort Su with curiosity. “Chennu heard that there’s a rare painting here, don’t know if I could have the privilege of viewing it once?”
At this age she still didn’t know what a rare painting looked like. Jiuzhu felt some anticipation in her heart.
Noble Consort Su’s hands paused while lifting a teacup. Appreciating art was just a pretext for inviting the person into the palace, who would actually believe it?
Of all the court’s noble women, who wasn’t aware that she had no interest in poetry or lyrics, calligraphy or painting?
Observing Jiuzhu’s wholly expectant eyes, she slowly turned her head to glance at her personal palace maid. “Go to bengong’s personal treasury and take out the famous painting.”
Two incense sticks later, the palace maid brought back the picture scroll, unfurling it with the greatest care before Jiuzhu.
Jiuzhu attentively stared at the image, striving hard to admire this famous painting’s magical points.
What was up with this thing?
Sure, plum blossoms bloomed in the dead of winter, but why were there also butterflies flying around?
How come a kitten was sleeping on the snow on such a chilly day – weren’t cats afraid of the cold?
But this was a famous painting. A famous painting couldn’t be wrong. It must be her inability to appreciate this painting that was wrong.
Jiuzhu looked at the painting, then covertly peeked at Noble Consort niangniang who was appreciating art alongside her. She deliberated over what to say so as to not lose face in front of such a beautiful niangniang.
“This cat is quite cute, very nimble.” Jiuzhu braced herself and started talking.
“Indeed.” Noble Consort Su leaned in for a closer look. “The eyes are also drawn very round.”
The female official carefully scrutinized the painting. Those round black spots were not eyes, but hairballs on the cat’s face.
“The plum blossoms are also drawn very well. To be able to attract butterflies on such a cold winter day, you can tell that the artist is bold with his brush.”
“En, you are right. Those bamboo shoots underneath the plum tree are also drawn very well. They look very fresh and tender; the taste must be pretty good.”
“And there’s this snow.” Hearing Noble Consort niangniang endorsing her statements, Jiuzhu suddenly saw the light. So this was the natural gift the legends spoke of. Even though she knew nothing at all about this painting, she could still capture its essence in one sentence.
This showed what?
It showed that she was a rarely seen genius in the field of painting.
“What about the snow?” Noble Consort Su inquisitively inquired.
“The proverb says that timely snow promises a good harvest.” Jiuzhu confidently stated: “This painting clearly illustrates that the coming year will definitely have good omens. Niangniang is truly as beautiful and kindhearted as a fairy. Even the paintings you collect foretell next year’s beautiful scenery.”
Noble Consort Su laughed gently. “What fairy, Miss Ming is joking.”
The civil officials in court all loved to call her a demoness consort in private. This was her first time being admired as a beautiful and kindhearted fairy by someone.
“Niangniang, chennu is not joking.” Jiuzhu earnestly repeated herself: “Niangniang is a good person like a fairy, and your child is also a celestial.”
“He’s already so big, is it fitting to call him a celestial?” Noble Consort Su laughed again, gazing softly at Jiuzhu. “I heard that your personal name is Jiuzhu, how about I call you Jiuzhu?”
“As it pleases niangniang.” Jiuzhu nodded: “Chennu is fine with anything.”
“This word zhu* is good.” Noble Consort Su pulled Jiuzhu’s hand and sat down. “It has good fortune. Presumably your parents love you like a pearl and regard you like jade, and so picked this name for you.”
*珠 - second character of Jiuzhu's name means pearl
The civil officials in the capital always loved to appear cultured. When choosing names for their families’ children, they were fond of quoting the classics and eschewed the least bit of tackiness.
A name like Jiuzhu was elegant but common, alluding to the joy and hope the parents felt for the arrival of this child.
“Niangniang is amazing.” Jiuzhu gazed admiringly at Noble Consort Su. From a mere name, niangniang could perceive how much her parents cherished her.
The shifus said that when they picked her up in the desolate wilderness, her swaddling clothes were stitched together by a hundred hands. The cloth was good in some places and bad in others, but it was sewn together extremely meticulously.
They often told her that her parents had awaited her birth, but fate loved to play tricks and separated her from her parents.
At that time the court surged like a gathering storm. Because of the conflict among the imperial princes, countless officials and generals were implicated in conspiracies and plots. Some families were ruined and scattered, others were torn apart, and still others were executed and had their property confiscated. No kin was spared.
The shifus had tender hearts. Not hearing of any announcement or notice seeking a missing baby girl in the city, they took her in.
Sewn inside her swaddling clothes were her Eight Characters*. The shifus said to her: “Your parents likely entrusted you to others in a moment of desperation and prepared this especially out of fear that they would not remember your name and birthdate.”
*生辰八字 - in four pairs, indicates the year, month, day and hour of a person's birth, each pair consisting of one Heavenly Stem and one Earthly Branch; formerly used for astrological purposes
So she’d known from a young age that she was brought into this world by love, and was not a superfluous person.
Inside the imperial study, Ming Jingzhou stood respectfully. Even though His Majesty was gazing at him with a particularly amiable look today, this did not put him in a good frame of mind.
“Ah, Official Ming.” The Emperor lengthened his voice. “You are the backbone of the court. The children you’ve raised are also youthful and eminently talented. I am convinced that your daughter is as impressive as you and your esteemed wife.”
“Your Majesty, my humble daughter grew up in the mountains and fields. She is unknowing of etiquette and is not qualified to be a bride of the imperial house.”
“What a coincidence, my family’s xiaowu* is also a free and unrestrained person who does not stand on ceremony.” The Emperor’s smile became even more evident. “It can be seen that they are a perfect match.”
*小五 - lit. little five; indicates that Chen wang is the fifth prince
Ming Jingzhou: “....”
Wasn’t this a curse? Who was a perfect match with Chen wang?
“Official Ming need not be modest, zhen’s* mind is set on your family’s daughter becoming zhen’s daughter-in-law.” Emperor Longfeng put down the imperial brush, walked to Ming Jingzhou, and gently patted his shoulder. “If you continue being so self-deprecating, zhen will start to think that you look down on our Yun family’s bloodlines.”
*朕 - archaic form of I used by the sovereign
“This small official* dares not.” Ming Jingzhou stooped little by little into a bow, his complexion deathly pale.
*微臣 - lit. this small official, this humble servant
Emperor Lonfeng laughed loudly. “Zhen is only joking with you, Beloved Official* need not be anxious. You and I are kinsmen by marriage, there’s no need to be so reserved in private.”
*爱卿 – form of address used by the Emperor for his ministers and high officials
In his heart, Ming Jingzhou wanted to give greetings to the Yun imperial family’s eighteen generations of forefathers, but his mouth did not dare.
Knowing that to keep speaking would only rile the Emperor, Ming Jingzhou could only opt to withdraw.
After ordering a eunuch to personally escort Ming Jingzhou out of the palace, Emperor Longfeng tilted his head to ask a nearby eunuch: “Just now Mingyue Palace sent someone over?”
“Answering Your Majesty, a moment ago Noble Consort niangniang sent someone to borrow a painting from Your Majesty. Seeing that Your Majesty was discussing official business with Sir Ming right then, this slave took the initiative to select a painting for niangniang.”
Emperor Longfeng was not at all offended, but rather deeply moved. It seemed that his beloved consort was very satisfied with this marriage. In order to establish harmonious relations with their future daughter-in-law, she even chose of her own accord to behold art and calligraphy.
“Which painting did you pick?”
“The work of the previous dynasty’s great master, Absurd Play of Four Seasons."
“En.” Emperor Longfeng nodded with satisfaction. This painting was meant to ridicule those artists who were ignorant of the changing of the seasons when drawing. The objects in the painting were all mixed up, the meaning plain and simple. It was an odd and amusing picture, and was very appropriate for beginners to view.
T/L Note: I love the interactions between "master artist" Jiuzhu and Noble Consort Su :D
Next chapter will take a bit longer.