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Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 3 Part 2)

Chapter 3: Pointlessly Missing Another Chance

Part 2 – The Double Seven Festival (七夕)

Translator: Nyamachi
Translation assistant: Petrified
Translation checkers: Nyamachi [redacted]
English proofreader: 247Reader

After this, Their Majesties and all of the imperial women moved to Jade Forest Garden to appreciate the season’s flowers. When dusk fell the party held a banquet on the Treasure Ferry riding along Jingming Pond.

For this kind of private banquet, the Imperial concubines would usually shell out some of their own money to prepare a few dishes for the Emperor to sample according to precedent.

Today the main course being offered was twenty-eight crabs freshly transported to the capital from Jiangnan. They were large specimens that had been steamed to a reddish-gold hue, plated on a white porcelain dish. They looked utterly scrumptious. 

Who would have guessed that His Majesty would have frowned as soon as he saw the dish? 

He called over Ren Shouzhong and asked: “This item is available in the capital even though there’s a festival going on right now? How much did it cost?” 

Ren Shouzhong bowed and replied: “Each crab cost one thousand copper coins… These are tokens of the ladies’ sincerity. Before the festival, they had specially instructed the Imperial Kitchen to find the ingredients in order to offer them as a tribute to Your Majesty.”

The Emperor became enraged. 

He looked around at the Imperial Concubines and asked: “You wasted twenty-eight thousand copper coins on the meal before us?”

None of the Imperial Concubines were able to respond. 

His Majesty set aside his chopsticks and did not taste the crab. 

Upon seeing this, the Empress ordered the servants to send the crab dishes back to the kitchen. Only then was His Majesty willing to dig in. 

The Emperor and Empress sat on the host seats in the hall while the Imperial Concubines sat in order of rank in two rows on both sides. 

The Princess sat by His Majesty’s side, but although she was the closest to him, they still weren’t joined at the hip. There was still five or six feet of space between them.

Taking advantage of the fact that the Imperial Concubines’ attention was fixed on the singers and dancers in the middle of the room, the Princess lowered her head and leaned over towards her father, softly calling out: “Daddy…”

Seeing her act so mysteriously, the Emperor couldn’t help but smile. He leaned towards her and whispered: “What is it?”

The Princess continued in a whisper: “I know why you didn’t eat the crab.”

“Oh?” The Emperor deliberately raised his eyebrows and asked: “Why?”

“I’ll tell you later.” The Princess smiled and quickly straightened her posture before turning her head to speak to me where I waited in attendance behind her: “Huaiji, peel a water chestnut for me.”

After the banquet ended, a eunuch entered and announced that the colourful pagodas for the ‘Skill Seeking’ ceremony were prepared outside the palace hall [on the ferry]. [1]水殿 (shuǐdiàn) seems to refer to either a palace hall facing the water OR a luxurious cruise ship ridden by the Emperor. It seems to be a hall within the ship in this case. Thus, His Majesty led along the Princess and several others, including the Empress and Beautiful Lady Zhang’s adopted daughters, to go take a look.  

When they went downstairs the Emperor brought up what the Princess had said during the banquet, and the Princess replied: “Daddy didn’t eat the crab, not because the crab wasn’t delicious but rather because Daddy felt it was too expensive. If Daddy ate it and the news spread outside the Palace, this year the price of crab would soar even higher. It was just like how Daddy said Lady Zhang’s headpiece was no good. It wasn’t because the headpiece didn’t look nice but because the pearls decorating it were too expensive…”

“Okay, okay…” The Emperor smiled and interrupted her: “As long as you understand, there’s no need to say it out loud.”

The Princess smiled and nodded, before adding: “Your daughter has a question for Daddy, and hopes that Daddy can answer truthfully.”

The Emperor permitted her to speak, so the Princess asked: “Today, between Cai’er, Jingnu, and Qiuhe, which one of them created the best hairstyle for the concubines?”

The Emperor was about to respond when the Princess stopped him again and seriously added: “Daddy must tell the truth.”

The Emperor smiled. He turned around to look behind him, and seeing that only Wang Zhaoming and I accompanied them while the rest were still far away, he stooped down and whispered: “Qiuhe.”

The Princess pouted and said discontentedly: “Then why did Daddy not let Qiuhe become the new Directress of Style? Mother, Elder Sister, and I all like Qiuhe! Could it be that Daddy doesn’t like her?”

“Hmm… Daddy likes her.” The Emperor laughed and continued to walk along with the Princess. His tone of voice was gentle and easygoing.

“However, Huirou, the more We like her, the more We can’t let others see that We like her. That would make the fondness We have for her appear to be lust, which is tantamount to putting a target on her head, turning her into everyone’s public enemy. Whether the attacks come in the open or in secret, in the end, she would be harmed.”

The Princess frowned, thinking deeply, and asked: “Daddy is afraid that the maids in the Imperial Wardrobe Service would be jealous of Qiuhe?”

“Haha.” The Emperor patted her head. “Perhaps.” 

He paused and then said: “You need to remember these words. When you truly like someone, don’t treat him too well. Don’t let others discover that you like him, and  don’t even let him realize how much you like him…”

“Oh…” The Princess didn’t really understand. She thought for a while, but still decided to ask: “Why can’t I let him know?”

The Emperor smiled and shook his head, keeping silent on the matter. [2]讳莫如深 (huìmòrúshēn) Chinese idiom meaning to keep an important matter a secret. “I’ll tell you later.”

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On the night of the Double Seven Festival, the noble families in the imperial capital carved wood and used bright satin cloth to make a colorful pagoda and placed it in their main halls. They were known as “Skill Seeking Pagodas”. [3]乞巧楼 (qǐ qiǎo lóu) Here is an image that seems to be a colourful pagoda. The maid seems the carrying them on a tray.

Flowers, melons, and boiled wine, writing brushes, ink stones, and needlework were arranged [on top of the altar] along with mud dolls wearing colourful clothing called, “Polished Merrymakers”. [4]磨喝乐 (mòhēlè) Colourful dolls that probably look something like the ones in these articles (Article A | Article B). The literal meaning is “grinding, drinking, fun” (XD) likely referring to ancient forms of entertainment – poetry (grinding ink), drinking, and music/dance.

In the evening, young boys would compose and recite poems and young maidens would show off their skillful embroidery and burn incense to worship the gods. This practice was called “Skill Seeking”. [5]乞巧 (qǐqiǎo) Also translated as “Begging for cleverness”.

His Majesty ordered for the colourful pagoda to be placed in front of the palace hall. Lanterns hung high from the roof eaves, illuminating the brightly sparkling stars in the sky as they gleamingly reflected in the clear and crystalline water of the pond.

Moreover, palace servants had cast beeswax in the shape of mallards, wild geese, and mandarin ducks; turtles, fish, and lotus flowers. Each and every one looked as detailed and as golden as a painting.

The lamp wicks were lit and they were placed in the water, elegantly floating in the pond. These were called “Floating Candles.” [6]水上浮 (shuǐshàngfú) Lit. floating on water. The candlelight from the beeswax candles contrasted beautifully with the starry night sky.

The Princess lit up a few Floating Candles and picked up a Polished Merrymaker doll. As she disliked the poor-looking clothes of the doll, she told her female companions: “Let’s change these Polished Merrymakers into nicer dresses and see who makes the best dress.”

The girls agreed, and each one took a Polished Merrymaker. 

One after another, everyone took out handkerchiefs, silk flowers, or other kinds of cloth to decorate the dolls. 

The Princess ordered her retinue to pick some lotus flowers from the pond. She tore a few petals and wrapped them around the female doll, using a ribbon to secure them. Then she showed it to everyone. 

The Empress and several Imperial Concubines who were sitting on the side looked over, and everyone praised her ingenuity. 

Then it was time for the Skill Seeking ceremony. The Princess picked up a seven-holed needle [7]七孔针 (qīkǒngzhēn) in Chinese. and threaded the needle in a flash. 

All of the madams praised her again, but she waved a hand and said bluntly: “This needle’s eye is as large as the small hole in a copper coin; it would be harder to fail than to succeed.”

There was no one who didn’t burst into laughter upon hearing this. 

The needle used for Skill Seeking was unique and very unlike a regular sewing needle. The body of the needle was flat and there were seven holes; however, each eye was enormous. Although one needed to pass a silver thread through all seven holes for the Skill-Seeking ceremony, this was an easy task for a seven- to eight-year-old girl. 

When all the girls finished threading their needles, the Princess led everyone to burn incense and worship before the colourful pagoda building. 

After the ceremony ended, she hadn’t had enough fun and asked the Empress: “Mother, is there nothing to do after this?”

The Empress smiled and said: “When I still lived with my parents before I was married, I also played a game. First you have to make a wish, then stand up a copper coin on its side and spin it around your finger. Once it falls, if the head’s side faces upwards then that means your wish will come true.”

The Princess wanted to try it immediately after hearing this, so the Empress had the servants hand out a few copper coins to the Princess and the rest of the girls. 

To everyone’s surprise, the Princess’ first try resulted in tails facing upwards. She kept saying: “This time didn’t count!” and continued to try spinning the coin, but not once did the coin land on heads after trying three times in a row. 

All of the spectators felt that this was ominous. Even though they still wore smiles on their faces, everyone felt somewhat awkward. 

However, the Princess did not look unhappy. Suddenly, she stood up and ran in front of the string of lanterns, taking down a candle. After letting a few drops of wax fall onto the reverse side of the copper coin, she then took a second copper coin and stuck the reverse sides together using the wax as glue. This way, the two coins were stuck together with both sides showing heads. 

She purposefully tried spinning the coin again using this particular coin and the thick copper coin clumsily spun around her finger. When it finally stopped spinning, it landed upright, not falling on either side. 

Upon seeing this Zhao’rong Miao smiled and said: “What would this count as?”

The Empress saw this and also smiled saying: “What a coincidence. When I was eighteen and played this game I had the same result … however, that coin was only a single copper coin.”

Everyone was curious and asked: “What did your Majesty wish for? Did it come true?”

The Empress didn’t respond, silently lowering her head, but the corners of her lips curved upwards. 

Zhao’rong Miao came to a realization and said: “What could an eighteen-year-old girl wish for? Of course it would be to marry a good husband!” 

The ladies came to an understanding and each one smiled at the Empress. 

Only the Princess still confusedly asked: “Then what happened?”

“Then…” The Emperor suddenly spoke, gazing at the Empress with gentle eyes. He smiled faintly, “Not too long after, I issued an imperial decree to summon your mother to enter the palace.”

“I see.” The Princess clapped her hands and smiled: “Then it’s a good sign!”

All of the Imperial Concubines also smiled and agreed. The Empress continued to smile faintly, but her head dropped lower, not daring to look at the Emperor again. 

This year, she was twenty-nine years old, but her blushing face was like a young unmarried woman in her boudoir, gentle and soft. It was completely different from the calm and collected, powerful figure of the Empress that I had seen in the past.

“Huirou,” the Emperor called out to the Princess at this moment, drawing everyone’s attention back to her, “Since it’s a good sign, why don’t you tell us what you wished for?”

“Ah!” The Princess’ eyes opened wide as she cried out in surprise. She immediately pouted, looking very annoyed: “Just now I completely forgot what I wished for.”

The Emperor wanted to let the Princess try to make another wish, but Zhao’rong Miao said: “She’s so muddle-headed and impulsive. Letting her try again won’t necessarily give a good result. Why don’t we play a different game?”

Zhao’rong Miao was probably worried that the Princess would receive another bad omen.

 After hearing this, the Emperor nodded his head and agreed, but the Princess became worried again. “But we already played everything there was to play! What can we play now?”

I looked at the copper coin still grasped in her hand and suddenly recalled a phrase from Ouyang Xiu’s poem: “Tossing coins in the halls above or walking in the streets below.” A vague idea suddenly came to mind.

“Princess,” I suggested, bowing, “Why not summon Maid Dong over to toss coins for amusement?”

The Princess’ eyes lit up, and she smiled. “Okay! Lately, she’s been practicing her hair combing techniques, and I haven’t tossed coins with her in a long time… Quickly call her over.”

I agreed and personally went to look for Qiuhe. 

When I found her, Qiuhe was standing alone, leaning against one of the railings along the side of the riverside palace hall. As she gazed at the closed lotus flower buds atop the water, her eyes were affectionate and she wore a faint smile on her face.

I didn’t know what kind of pleasure the scene across the railing brought her, but her mind was drifting around the magnificent surrounding landscapes. 

Only after I called her three times did she come back to herself with a start and turn around. She lowered her eyes and turned to the side with embarrassment, as if I had stumbled onto one of her secrets, and hurried to the Princess’ side after hearing my message. 

The dark cover of night fell and His Majesty ordered all of the Imperial Concubines to return to their quarters to rest. 

Afterwards, he led the Empress, Zhao’rong Miao, the Princess, and several young ladies inside. Aside from the host seat, several finely woven mats had been prepared for the girls to toss coins.

This time, the Princess requested to play in teams. She and Qiuhe formed one team and Miss Fan and Miss Zhou formed another. The composite score of each team would be used to decide the final result. 

The two young ladies did not agree and said that Qiuhe’s skills were the best: whoever was in the same team as her was certain to win. 

The Princess calmly acknowledged their argument before retorting: “It’s precisely because I want to win! Normally it’s always the both of you who take the victory. Since today is a festive occasion, why don’t the two of you close one eye this time and let me happily make a comeback!”

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Seeing that she had spoken her mind outright, the two young ladies laughed and agreed. The four girls each took a turn and began to toss coins. 

The sweet tinkling sound of coins tossing mixed with the girls’ laughter filled the hall.

Qiuhe was still the one who could toss the coins in the most visually appealing way. Her actions as she tossed and caught the coins were very natural and flowing, and even her opponent praised her skill. 

I knew that she was an incredibly strong player in this game and was inevitably given more attention by the spectators. 

I quietly observed His Majesty and saw that he was indeed paying more attention to Qiuhe. Even if there were no coins in her hand and she was just sitting quietly, his gaze never left her.

I was not the only one taking note of this detail.

The musicians from the Department of Performance Arts [8]教坊司 (jiàofángsī) The Palace’s official talent agency, typically comprised solely of female members. This department originated in the Tang Dynasty and was responsible for the training of artists and musicians to provide entertainment to royalty. Eventually, starting from the Ming Dynasty, 教坊司 became known as an official brothel where its members would be forced to ‘entertain’ dignitaries and the like. Note that performers were part of the Artisans and Craftsmen caste of society. performed music to liven up the atmosphere while hidden behind a screen. 

Since a song had just ended, a eunuch came over to ask the Empress what song to play next. The Empress instructed, “Play {Gazing Towards Jiangnan}.”

I couldn’t help but look over at her, and surprisingly our gazes met. She calmly smiled and I lowered my head and bowed, but it felt like she had already seen through my thoughts.

From beginning to end, the Emperor freely watched Qiuhe, and didn’t seem to notice what the Empress had instructed the musicians to play a moment ago. Only once the music began playing did he gradually become aware of himself and sit a little straighter. His leisurely smile faded, probably because he had recalled Ouyang Xiu’s matter. 

The song’s tune was soft and clear as its melody weaved throughout the room. [The musicians] continued to play until the second movement. I followed the cheerful tune and softly recited Ouyang Xiu’s poem in my head. When I reached the phrase “to say nothing of the present”, I suddenly heard the Emperor call: “Zhaoming.”

Wang Zhaoming immediately responded, and respectfully stood awaiting His Majesty’s order.

“Go and preside over Ouyang Xiu’s case,” said His Majesty. After sighing deeply, he also added: “You must investigate thoroughly. Don’t wrongly accuse anyone.”

Wang Zhaoming shivered with fear as he realized His Majesty’s meaning. He hurriedly knelt down to accept the imperial decree and solemnly said: “This subject will certainly be very careful in presiding over the case, and does not dare to dishonor to Your Majesty’s command.”

On this night, naturally the Princess and Qiuhe won by a landslide while tossing coins. 

Miss Fan and Miss Zhou tried to count how many coins to give her, but she didn’t accept them, saying: “Daddy will give me a prize, there’s no need for you to pay up.”

The Emperor heard this and joked: “I won’t be giving you a prize. Even though you won this time, it wasn’t due to your own contributions.”

The Princess seized the opportunity to request a reward for Qiuhe: “That’s right, it was all thanks to Qiuhe that I could win. Since that’s the case, Daddy should reward her more.”

The Emperor nodded, and warmly asked Qiuhe: “Qiuhe, what would you like?”

Qiuhe merely bowed and shook her head, saying: “The Princess was willing to lower her standing to play a game with this servant. This is already Qiuhe’s greatest fortune, how could this lowly one dare to request even more rewards?”

“You playing with her is the same as you becoming her master; you’re teaching her a skill. Since you’re offering a service, why can’t you receive a reward?” said the Emperor, and he no longer listened to Qiuhe’s attempts at refusal. 

Turning to face the Empress, he asked with a smile: “What would be a good reward for us to bestow upon her?”

The Empress also smiled, and said: “She has always done her best to teach the Princess. This concubine also doesn’t know what would be a good reward, for fear that she won’t like it. Why doesn’t Your Majesty let her declare her own wish. If it’s within Your Majesty’s capabilities, then you can help her to fulfill it – wouldn’t this be a good idea?”

The Emperor also agreed and asked Qiuhe what she wished for. 

Qiuhe faltered before finally saying softly: “This servant has not given it thought before…”

“In that case, today I will give you this promise,” the Emperor declared. “In the future when you’ve decided on something, let me know. If it’s within my capacity I will help you to fulfill your wish.

Qiuhe raised her hands to her forehead and solemnly made a formal kowtow to thank the Emperor for his grace. 

When she stood up again there was a faint glimmer in her eyes, and a subtle sense of joy suffused her peaceful expression. 

I guessed that she definitely had a wish. Since she had been able to obtain the Emperor’s promise, her future was beginning to look brighter. 

I was very happy to see this result. Having a promising future was always something to be happy about. Qiuhe ought to live a bit more happily in the future. 

When the eighth month of the lunar year arrived, Ouyang Xiu’s case finally came to a conclusion. 

After reviewing the results of Su Anshi’s and Wang Zhaoming’s investigations and discussing the punishment, the Emperor issued an imperial decree making Ouyang Xiu a Drafter [9]知制诰 (zhīzhìgào) A supplementary designation for officials in the Imperial Secretariat and the Hanlin Academy in charge of drafting proclamations. and the Magistrate of Chu Prefecture. [10]知州 (zhīzhōu) Also translated as Prefect or Chief Administrator of a prefecture. 

At the same time, he also made Su Anshi a Palace Aide, [11]殿中丞 (diànzhōngchéng) This seems to be a staff position in the palace; It seems like it might be something more commonly assigned to eunuchs… in charge of supervising the salt tax in Tai Prefecture. 

[The Emperor] expelled Wang Zhaoming from the capital to supervise the wine tax in Chun County.

Not long after, the results of the investigation was circulated within the capital: Wang Zhaoming had visited Kaifeng Manor’s Prison and after seeing Su Anshi’s compilation of all of the official documents indicating that Ouyang Xiu had indulged in incest and plundered his niece, he was aghast and said: “Zhaoming has served by His Majesty’s side but has noticed that His Majesty does not go three days without mentioning Ouyang Xiu’s name. The current investigation’s results cater to the Chancellor’s will. In the future, if His Majesty is displeased, it will certainly be difficult to preserve Zhaoming’s life.”

Su Anshi was knowledgeable in the ways of the world and knew that since this matter had already been taken as truth, His Majesty was unlikely to blame him. Wang Zhaoming then asked him whether or not Ouyang Xiu had already pleaded guilty. Su Anshi replied: “He refuses to admit his guilt, so why not have him undergo training?”

The so called “training” referred to interrogation via torture to force someone to plead guilty. 

Wang Zhaoming repeatedly shook his head and solemnly said: “His Majesty commanded me to preside over this case, with the intention for me to handle this matter in an impartial manner and carry out justice to the utmost of my ability. ‘Training’? What kind of nonsense is this!”

Hearing this, Su Anshi felt extreme fear and didn’t dare to comment further on the matter of “plundering the niece,” instead impeaching Ouyang Xiu for using Madam Zhang’s assets to purchase property to start a business. 

Following this, His Majesty concluded Ouyang Xiu’s case with this crime. 

Of course, Jia Changchao and his cronies were not pleased. Too bad for them that the Emperor’s mind was made up and they had no way to alter the result. Thus, using the excuse that Su Anshi and Wang Zhaoming were not thorough enough in their investigation, they insisted that His Majesty punish the two. In the end, His Majesty compromised by making the aforementioned decision.

The day Wang Zhaoming was set to leave the palace, I followed his departure and saw him off from the West Glorious Gate. [12]西华门 (xīhuámén) The western outer gate of the Forbidden City.

Having had to stand in attendance slightly bent at the waist all year round, he was already unable to straighten his back, so he walked slowly with a bowed posture in the direction of the palace exit. He would frequently turn his head to look back and lift his sleeve to wipe tears from his eyes, seeming extremely sorrowful. 

Once he exited the palace gates, the heavy gates slowly closed behind him. Only then did I recall that it was now the time for the imperial gates to close. I lifted my head towards the sky, looking at the disorderly clouds amidst the rose-tinted sky, as crows flew overhead. After standing like this for a good while, my mood also sank with the deep red sunset.

 


TL Thoughts:

Hello dear readers,

We hope you enjoyed the chapter! As always, thank you for your patience. Looks like this mini-arc about Ouyang Xiu is over. What do you think of the result?

If you haven’t already, please check out our May updates post! If you have time to spare, we are looking for two people to join our team as discord moderators. Please read the post for more details.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like we’ll be able to publish two chapters this month. Currently, only 40% of Chapter 3 Part 3 has been translated. Please look forward to it next month.

Until next time,

Nyamachi

 

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