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Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 2 Part 7)

Chapter 2: Noticing You Since That Time We Met

Part 7 – Directress of Style (司饰)

Translator: Nyamachi
Translation assistant: Petrified

English proofreaders: 247Reader 
& Nyamachi

It was the Dragon Boat Festival on May 5th, also known as the “Orchid Bath Festival”. [1]浴兰令节 (yù lán lìngjié) The Dragon Boat Festival occurs during midsummer, a season of frequent skin diseases, so the ancient Chinese people would take a medicinal bath filled with herbs. 浴兰/Orchid Bath or 浴兰汤/Orchid Soup referenced here is more of herbal concoction with a variety of plants that differs depending on the region. 令节 means an auspicious holiday. 

From May 1st until the day before the Dragon Boat Festival, one could buy peaches, willows, sunflowers, common cattail leaves, and Buddhist Chinese mugwort all over the streets of the Eastern Capital.

On the day of the Dragon Boat Festival everyone would decorate their doorways and make offerings to gods using glutinous rice balls, five-coloured soup dumplings, [2]五色水团 (wǔsè shuǐtuán) A type of glutinous rice soup dumpling dyed different colours using vegetables. Here is the recipe in Chinese with pictures. 水团 also means “water ball” and dragons are strongly associated with water in Chinese mythology. tea, and wine. They would also shape Chinese mugwort into the shape of humans or tigers and nail them on top of their doorways to calm evil spirits and expel evil intentions. Both nobles and commoners would hold feasts in celebration.

The same was true in the Palace. A mugwort doll or tiger hung in the doorway of every pavilion. The servants also collected Perilla mint, sweet flag, and papaya and sliced them until they were soft before pairing them together with aromatic herbs and bundling them inside a plum blossom red box.

These boxes were put together with all kinds of Chinese mugwort flowers, silver-patterned morning glories,[3]鼓儿花 probably refers to 鼓子花 (lit. drum flower) which is a type of morning glory. fancy paintings and fans, sweet-smelling candy, and glutinous rice balls.

With all of these items wrapped together, they could be classified as Godly offerings for the Dragon Boat Festival.

In addition to this, the Ministry of Internal Affairs also carved sweet flag and rice paper plants into the shape of deities driving away tigers and set them up throughout the Palace. They hung wreaths of sweet flag dyed in many colours everywhere and carved all kinds of insects, placing them on display surrounded by sunflowers, pomegranates, and mugwort leaves and flowers.

The multitude of colours on display was as colourful as the rainbow lanterns against the mountain landscape seen at last year’s Lantern Festival.

That day, the Interior Department was bustling with noise and excitement.

The eunuchs changed into their summer uniforms – gauze jackets with muslin robes. The Palace maids wore brightly coloured decorations that resembled flower crowns on their heads.

The servants travelled back and forth between the imperial gardens, halls, and pavilions. 

They carried bestowments from the Emperor and Empress to all the pavilions: slaughtered livestock, all kinds of colourful thread exclusively belonging to the Imperial Clan, and delicately and skillfully engraved gold flowers; silver pattern drums, sugar art, and finely wrapped rice dumplings; cylindrical tubes containing scriptures and talisman pouches formed with multi-coloured pearls, Imperial calligraphy works, fans painted with sunflowers and pomegranates, mugwort tigers, and bolts of muslin.

In the Imperial Garden, sunflowers and pomegranates competed for being the most colourful while jasmine and Chinese mugwort competed for the best fragrance.

Among the Imperial Clan members summoned into the palace, some played soccer or shot archery with willow branches. Female members of the Imperial Clan accompanied them to play pitch pot [4]投壶 (tóuhú) An ancient banquet game of throwing arrows into a pot. The winner was determined by the number of arrows thrown in and the loser was required to drink as punishment. nearby. It was a peaceful sight to behold.

This was the day that I met “Thirteenth Regiment” Zhao Zongshi for the first time. He was also a young man about fourteen or fifteen years old. He was mild-mannered, stoic, and somewhat shy. He didn’t say much as he conversed with his elders, and normally would speak up only when he was asked a question. 

He was also reserved in the Empress’ presence, appearing to be slightly afraid of her.

It was a little bit better when he met Zhao’rong Miao, since he had spent his childhood in the Palace and had always received her care. 

The Princess was very fond of him. The minute she saw him, she would repeatedly call out “Thirteenth Elder Brother” and rush over to chatter with him. 

He was also very glad to see the Princess, and when he spoke to her he seemed much more relaxed. 

Probably because “if you love someone, you love their bird,” Thirteenth Regiment was very friendly [to me] as he accompanied the Princess. 

In the afternoon, he and several sons from the Imperial Clan played a game called “Strike the Ball.” 

After they counted heads, they were short a person so he looked over to the side at me where I was attending to them and invited: “Why don’t you come and play with us?”

I was somewhat terrified and said that I didn’t know how to play, but he didn’t mind at all and pulled me into the court, saying: “I’ll teach you.”

“Strike the Ball” had recently become popular in the capital. To play, you first needed to find an open space with bumps and divots and draw the lines of a court. The goal areas should be ten to a hundred feet apart, and you needed to dig a fixed amount into the ground to form a ball pit.

Competitors would take turns to strike an agate ball about the size of a chicken egg using a spoon-shaped wooden club from the top of the hill. The point was to hit the ball into the hole, and the person who achieved this with the least amount of strikes was the winner. [5]So basically, ancient Chinese golf!

In the beginning, I didn’t understand the technique. If I didn’t choose the wrong wooden club then I hit it at the wrong angle and hit the ball too close or too far, missing the hole. 

However, Thirteenth Regiment was very patient and slowly taught me. He even taught me how to hold the club until I gradually got the hang of it and was able to barely compete.

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That day, the Empress’ other adopted daughter was among the female imperial relatives. She was the great-granddaughter of the current dynasty’s famed general, Gao Qiong, and the Empress’ blood-related elder sister’s daughter, Gao Taotao. 

When Miss Gao was a child, she had been selected by the Empress to be brought into the Palace and was raised up together with Thirteenth Regiment. At the time everyone in the Palace addressed Thirteenth Regiment as “His Majesty’s Son” and addressed Miss Gao as “The Empress’ Daughter”. 

Since both of them were the same age and their personalities complimented each other, the Emperor and Empress had intended to match them together. The Emperor would even frequently point out Miss Gao and tease Thirteenth Regiment by saying: “Can the Empress’ Daughter be your bride?” 

Later on, Thirteenth Regiment returned to Runan Junwang’s territory after Prince Yu’s birth, and a short while later Miss Gao also left the Palace and returned home. Only after that did the Empress adopt Miss Fan. 

While Thirteenth Regiment and I were hitting the ball, Miss Gao and the Princess were sitting together watching from the side.

Miss Gao’s gaze rested on Thirteenth Regiment from start to finish and at times Thirteenth Regiment would also secretly steal a glance at her. 

Their gazes were seemingly drawn towards each other. They would also both quickly turn their heads to the side to avoid each other’s gaze as though they had been suddenly struck with lightning, their faces bright red and the corners of their lips slightly raised. 

Generally, the Emperor would not hold court during the Dragon Boat Festival. In the beginning, the Emperor had also been in the Back Garden chatting with the imperial relatives, but he had suddenly received a eunuch’s report that there were several Remonstrance Officials asking to see him with important matters to discuss. 

Although the Emperor was not very willing, after all was said and done, he still changed into his ochre and yellow dragon robe, donned a flat-tasselled head wrap, [6]幞头 (fùtóu) was a type of men’s headgear that gained popularity in the Song Dynasty. Typically they were made out of stiff black gauze and formed into hats with various shapes. Here is an image. The top left or top right styles would be my guess since the author used ‘平脚幞头’ which seems to combine two styles. I’ve only seen Emperors in dramas wear the spread-horned style like in this picture though. Here are articles if you want to know more: in Chinese | in English. tied on a red belt, and put on a well-tempered ring made of gold and jade. 

After he had finished dressing, he headed out to the Hall of Imparting Respect to receive them. 

A good while had passed since he had left but the Emperor was still yet to return. Gradually, the sky grew darker and it was almost time to begin the banquet.

The Empress called over several young imperial concubines and ordered them to wait in the Emperor’s bedchamber in the Hall of Tranquil Blessings. If they met His Majesty as he returned to change clothes, they were to promptly lead him to his seat in the Back Garden.

The Princess heard the Empress’ command and proceeded to ask permission to go to the Hall of Tranquil Blessings to wait for her father. The Empress agreed and permitted her to go together with the imperial concubines. I followed along behind the Princess. 

In the Hall of Tranquil Blessings, we waited a while before seeing His Majesty hurriedly return. His forehead was covered with beads of sweat.

He walked while ordering the Apprentice Eunuch: “Quickly go and invite Directress Li over.”

The Imperial Wardrobe Service was divided into four offices: the Jewellery Bureau, Clothing Bureau, Style Bureau, and Sceptre Bureau. Every Bureau was headed by two female officials as Directresses. 

Among the female officials who were in charge of the Style Bureau, there was one whose surname was Li. She was an expert in a massaging combing technique. Her looks were also considerably outstanding, and everyone called her “Madam Combing Lady”. She often combed His Majesty’s hair and was deeply trusted and favoured by the Emperor.

Receiving His Majesty’s summons, Directress Li rushed over to help him part and comb his hair. The imperial concubines waited in an orderly manner as they took turns attending to him. The Princess was also among them as she observed from the side.

In the meantime, the Princess asked the Emperor: “Daddy, why are you combing your hair right now?”

The Emperor sighed heavily and replied: “Up until a moment ago several Remonstrance Officials were vigorously giving me a sermon. I wanted to leave early, so I smiled and told them: ‘Zhen understands your intentions, so let’s discuss this again after the festival.’ 

“I didn’t expect that, just as I had turned around, an official would pull on my sleeve before I could even take a step and entreat: ‘Your Majesty must finish listening to the advice of us officials…’ 

“I wanted to pull my sleeve away, but he still hadn’t relinquished his grip, so I was forced to sit back down and listen to them until they were finished. Among them, there just had to be one person whose body odour was very foul as it’s very hot nowadays… The stench assailed my nostrils until my head hurt, my ears became hot, and my scalp felt numb. That’s why I need to comb my hair so that I can be more alert.”

Hearing this, all the imperial concubines laughed heartily, asking one after another: “Then why did they raise their protests? What did they talk about that went on so long that they weren’t finished speaking even after half a day had passed?”

The Emperor didn’t reply and only said: “It wasn’t really that important. There’s no need for you to know.”

One concubine had sharp eyes and noticed that there was a memorial hidden in the Emperor’s sleeve. Taking advantage of the fact that he was unsuspecting, she swiftly fished it out and smiled, joking: “What they talked about must be written here! Why doesn’t Your Majesty bestow it to us so we can see?”

The rest of the ladies also clamoured forward, their boisterous laughter bursting forth as they each tried to be the first one to see the object hidden in the Emperor’s sleeve.

At first, the Emperor wanted to stop them, but unfortunately Directress Li was still combing his hair. With his hair still in Directress Li’s hands, it wasn’t convenient for him to move about, so he could only shake his head and sigh. 

The ladies vied with each other, but no one could take the lead.

Finally, the one who managed to extract the memorial from the Emperor’s sleeve exclaimed loudly: “Enough, enough! Stop fighting over it! Let’s ask the Princess to read it aloud to us and everyone can listen together.”

Everyone felt that this idea wasn’t bad, so they handed the memorial to the Princess.

The Princess took the memorial and scanned its contents before she began to read aloud: “‘This subject has heard that your Majesty has issued an Imperial Edict due to the frequency of natural disasters, and requests to offer this one’s honest opinion…’”

His Majesty forced a smile and said: “They said that this year’s rain has caused disasters, and recently there have also been earthquakes in the country, which is said to be a punishment from the heavens for the soaring amount of yin energy… Skip to the last few lines.”

The Princess nodded, skipped the middle contents, and read the most important sentences near the end: “‘The Palace Quarters are filled with many imperial women. Are there not an excessive amount who are only imprisoned within the Palace? This humble official hopes that the Emperor can select any useless personnel and release them from the confines of the Palace to reduce the changes caused by flourishing yin energy.’”   

When these words were spoken the imperial concubines in the hall were lost for words. It was clear that they had never anticipated that the matter the Imperial Censorate wanted to discuss would have anything to do with them. 

Anxiety and fright floated in their eyes as they sent furtive looks at the Emperor, trying to measure his thoughts, for fear that any inappropriate actions on their part would cause them to be reduced to the so-called “useless personnel” mentioned in the memorial. 

However, the Emperor also remained silent and offered no words to console them. 

The Princess’ eyes glanced between her father and the imperial concubines, seeming slightly curious and confused. Her expression as she thought in earnest made her appear rather adorable. 

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In a flash, the sound of light laughter cut through the silence: “If His Majesty expelled these officials who only speak nonsense, wouldn’t your honoured self’s ears be more at peace?”

The one who uttered these words was Directress Li. 

Under the astonished gazes of the other women, she freely coiled His Majesty’s long hair and gently continued: “Nowadays among the wealthy who have money to spare, all want to bring home more concubines. Even if the Emperor has a few concubines, how could those officials be allowed to speak nonsense? Among both the military and civil officials within the two-government system, [7]两府两制 (liǎngfǔ liǎngzhì) refers to the two-government system which made up the central government in the Song Dynasty. There were two governmental bodies of power, the Imperial Secretariat and the Privy Council, separating the civil officials from the military officials. This was used as an important measure to weaken the Prime Minister’s power and strengthen the power of the Emperor. every family has female singers, dancers, and entertainers. The officials are still not content, and more often than not they continue to buy more. [8]In ancient China, singers, dancers, entertainers and the like would usually be or be associated with prostitutes. They would have a life contract that interested patrons would need to pay off to the owner of the establishment in order to ‘free’ them. His Majesty only has one or two others, yet they say that the yin energy is overflowing and must be reduced! On the contrary, yielding would only make this group of people even more wanton and dissolute!”

All the concubines probably wanted to agree with her words, but they knew that the Emperor had always treated the Remonstrance Officials well. Directress Li’s words just now had directly called them out, hence the ladies didn’t dare to speak rashly. Each and every one of them carefully observed His Majesty’s expression.

His Majesty adjusted his posture, and his gaze fell on the mirror in front of him as he looked indifferently at Directress Li. His eyes wavered incessantly and it was difficult to tell what he was thinking. This lasted up until his hair was finished being combed. 

From beginning to end, he didn’t say a single word.

Directress Li sensed that something was off. She fetched his cloth wrap and helped His Majesty put it on. As she stood behind him, her phoenix eyes lazily cast glances towards His Majesty’s just and handsome face in the mirror before asking again: “Does your Majesty really intend to act according to their words?”

The Emperor said: “These are words from the Imperial Censorate. How could one dare not follow?”

Directress Li chuckled again, absent-mindedly tying up her equipment with one hand while saying: “If Your Majesty really intends to reduce the number of people in the Palace, please let this servant be the first.”

Obviously she didn’t want to leave the Palace, but spoke like this, deliberately insulting the Imperial Censorate’s comments, only because she was confident in the favour she received from the Emperor.

The Emperor heard what she said and suddenly stood up.

With a cold expression, he commanded: “Directress, please collect the imperial registers from all offices and bring them to the Back Garden.” 

Having said this, he flicked his sleeves and entered the inner chamber to change. The remaining imperial concubines looked at each other in dismay. 

Once everyone arrived in the Back Garden, the Empress ordered for the banquet to start, but the Emperor motioned for the banquet to be temporarily delayed. 

First, he made all the Directresses in the Department of Internal Affairs present the imperial registry for their office and personally made some notes with his imperial brush, drawing checkmarks. 

After a long time, he issued an imperial edict: “Starting with the Directress of Style from the Li Clan, the thirty people [whose names are marked here] will be released from the Palace.”

Since the imperial decree had been issued, the Empress invited the Emperor to take his seat once more, but the Emperor did not agree and merely asked: “Have they left the Palace yet?”

The Empress sighed and turned to order Ren Shouzhong to immediately send those thirty people out of the Palace. Only once the servant from the Office of the Inner Eastern Gate returned to the banquet and reported that every single one of the women had left the Palace did the Emperor take his seat and begin his meal. 

With such a sudden turn of events, the chatter amongst those that attended the banquet was somewhat sluggish and no one dared to ask anything more.

Facing the crowd of imperial relatives and noble guests, the Emperor only revealed a thin smile. As he greeted the honoured high-ranked guests and conversed with the younger relatives, the Empress also guided the conversation from the side and the atmosphere livened up. 

During this time, the Empress ordered servants to present gifts in addition to the predetermined amount and bestow them to all the guests. Included among these were a few pearls offered as tribute by foreign merchants from Guang Prefecture who had not been appointed as officials. 

They were completely white with a glossy lustre, and shaped in perfect spheres. Each pearl’s size was different according to rank, gradually increasing in size, but the interior of the pearls were uniform. 

Everyone exclaimed in admiration, and a few imperial concubines couldn’t help but pick up a pearl to admire it in detail, looking at it lovingly.

Beautiful Lady Zhang was in a complicated mood. After weakly resting in her pavilion for a dozen or more days, she had forced herself to attend this evening. 

She looked pale, with a wasted complexion, and had trembled the whole way to the banquet, looking like a sickly beauty. 

Now, however, as she looked at the pearl, her gaze, originally as stagnant as still water, showed ripples as it lingered on it and she lightly walked over with gentle lotus steps. [9]莲步 (liánbù) refers to a beautiful woman’s footsteps.

Upon seeing how the pearls brightened her sallow complexion, the Emperor felt somewhat  disheartened and declared on the spot: “Bestow these pearls to Beautiful Lady Zhang.”

When the music ended and the banquet closed, the imperial clan members left, leaving only the Princess and a few close imperial concubines present. 

The Empress asked His Majesty: “Your Majesty is fond of Madam Combing Lady, yet why did your honoured self put her at the top of the list and send her out of the Palace?”

The Emperor replied: “That person urged me to refuse the Remonstrance Officers. How would it be proper to keep her by my side?”

The Empress calmly smiled and slightly bowed, praising: “Your Majesty is wise.”

All the imperial concubines added their own praise accordingly, but soon after Zhao’rong Miao chuckled: “But now that your honoured self has expelled Madam Combing Lady, the Style Bureau needs a Directress. The empty position is a small matter, but now you will have to trouble Her Majesty the Empress to put thought into who ought to substitute her to comb Your Majesty’s hair.”

Jie’yu Yu asked: “Doesn’t the Imperial Wardrobe Service also have a Directress Chen?”

Zhao’rong Miao shook her head and replied: “The makeup made by Directress Chen is quite good, but it’s a pity that she isn’t well versed in Daoist massage techniques. Her combing skills are also not up to par.”

“The maid who combs my hair is actually not bad,” Beautiful Lady Zhang, who had originally remained silent, suddenly interjected. “She knows Daoist massage techniques and she’s good at combing hair. Her movements are gentle and whenever she finishes combing, hair will not fall out.” 

Intentionally or otherwise, her gaze skimmed over the Emperor, and Beautiful Lady Zhang added: “It’s precisely the slave, Xu Jingnu, [10]I feel so sad for this girl. Her name literally means ‘quiet slave’ 许静奴. who Your Majesty met previously. She is sixteen this year.”

“This concubine also has someone in mind to recommend to Your Majesty.” Jie’yu Yu turned towards the Emperor and smiled before turning towards the Empress and saying: “Your Majesty the Empress still needs to make a decision. She is a maid in the Style Bureau of the Imperial Wardrobe Service named Gu Cai’er, eighteen years old. She is the one who has been combing this concubine’s hair recently. Her skills go without saying, and the most important thing is that her personality is good. She is extremely steady, and her speech and behaviour are absolutely not flirtatious like Madam Combing Lady. Among the people who wait upon His Majesty, naturally, it’s great if one’s appearance is outstanding however what one fears the most is beauty without virtue.” 

“Ha.” Beautiful Lady Zhang sneered as she shot a cold glare at Jie’yu Yu. The meaning of the glare was of the utmost disdain.

Zhao’rong Miao lightly waved her circular fan to and fro and spoke unhurriedly: “This concubine has also thought of someone. She is detail-oriented, her skills are good, and furthermore, her behaviour is proper to the utmost degree. Your Majesty and Your Majesty the Empress both know her.” 

The Empress quickly understood and guessed: “Qiuhe?”

“Precisely.” Zhao’rong Miao held her circular fan as she half rose out of her seat and faced the Empress, saying: “Although Qiuhe is still young, she is a master in Daoist massage techniques. After she combs your hair once in the morning, you’ll be clear-headed and brimming with energy the entire day. Whenever she combs this concubine’s hair, she often has unconventional but wonderful ideas – her hairstyles are fresh, original and extremely unique. As for the person herself, His Majesty and the Empress have both observed her conduct, so this concubine will not say much more on the subject.”

The Empress did not reveal her stance, but turned to look at the Emperor and asked: “What does Your Majesty think?”

The Emperor hesitated but decided in the end: “Let the three of them make preparations. For the next two months, they will still comb the concubines’ hair, and on the day of the Double Seven Festival, I will judge which among them is the best at combing the concubines’ hair and promote them to become the new Directress of Style and the new ‘Madam Combing Lady.’” 

 


TL Thoughts:

Hello dear readers,

Thank you so much for your continued patience! Here is Chapter 2 Part 7! As always, I appreciate any feedback you have about my translation.

I think I’m starting to really feel the tragedy vibes and notice the social commentary that Xia Yu hinted at in her review on NU. Madam Combing Lady dares to call out the hypocritical ministers for not following their own advice, yet she is the one who suffers for simply voicing her opinion (and the truth)!! How bad was it in ancient times that women couldn’t even voice their opinion… Reading this chapter made me grateful for living in modern times but also rawr at the injustice. Also, what kind of character naming sense is this? Jingnu = ‘Quiet Slave’?!?! My heart went out to this fictional character. </3 Love Jie’yu Yu’s comment at the end~ Fufufu~

I’d love to know your thoughts on the chapter! Please do share in the comments!

Hoping to get one more chappie uploaded tonight.

Until next time,

Nyamachi

 

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