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Held in the Lonely Castle (Chp 3 Part 3)

Chapter 3: Pointlessly Missing Another Chance

Part 3 – Guanyin (观音)[1]观音 (guānyīn) Bodhisattva of Compassion or the Goddess of Mercy.

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

When Qiuhe turned fifteen, the Empress appointed her as the Coiffure Attendant [2]司栉内人 (sīzhì nèirén) While translating this, 侍櫛 (shìzhì) was the closest official title that Nyamachi could find. They basically have the same meaning: maid in charge of hair. in the Hall of Gentle Countenance. She was fully responsible for all matters related to the Empress’ hair style, hair ornaments, and makeup. 

When Zhao’rong Miao had previously told the Empress of the time when Qiuhe seriously advised her not to purchase expensive jewels, the Empress had sighed and said: “I knew that she loved studying dynastic history, but I didn’t expect her to also take the welfare of the people into account. There are honestly very few women with her level of insight within the six palaces.” Following this, the Empress had the thought to promote her.

“This girl, Qiuhe, will surely have a bright future,” concluded Zhao’rong Miao.

The Princess heard their conversation and asked her mother: “Is Elder Sister saying that Qiuhe might someday take over Matron Chu’s position and manage the Imperial Wardrobe Service?”

Zhao’rong Miao smiled, but did not comment. 

I sensed the meaning behind Zhao’rong Miao’s words “will have a bright future,” but felt that it might not necessarily be what Qiuhe wanted. 

Since the time that I had escorted her from the pavilion, she also treated me as a close friend; there was a sense of intimacy between us, and she gradually spoke more with me. Whenever she came to Yearning Phoenix Pavillion, I would always be the one to escort her back just as before.

The day I found out that she would be promoted and would move into the Hall of Gentle Countenance, everyone in Yearning Phoenix Pavillion congratulated her, but she merely smiled and did not show an especially delighted expression. 

As I escorted her back to her quarters, her head was lowered and she seemed to have something on her mind. She appeared to be in a trance as we walked through the palace corridor between the pagoda trees planted on both sides, stepping on the fallen blossoms. 

[Seeing her like this] I couldn’t help but ask: “Qiuhe, is there something troubling you?”

“Oh, there isn’t anything troubling me,” she replied, and continued walking. Her pace was sluggish, as though she was afraid to disturb the flowers below our feet. 

It was a good while later when she hesitatingly came to a halt and turned her head to ask me: “Huaiji, do you have a wish?”

I was startled, and remained silent for a moment before replying like this: “Watching the Princess grow up carefree without worries… If that counts as a wish.”

Perhaps this answer was contrary to her expectations. She stared at me for a long time before finally laughing softly. “Of course it does. You can always stay by her side.”

Seeing her mention having a wish, I recalled His Majesty’s promise, and asked Qiuhe: “Then what is your wish?”

“After last year’s Double Seven Festival, many people asked me the same question, but I never gave an answer,” responded Qiuhe with a shallow smile. 

I immediately felt that I was being meddlesome; there was no need to ask her this kind of private question. 

To my surprise, she agreed to tell me: “But I can tell you… It’s to leave the palace. One day I will make a request to His Majesty and ask him to permit me to leave.”

I asked her, feeling at a loss: “You don’t like the idea of staying in the palace? Then why don’t you tell His Majesty right away?”

Qiuhe didn’t answer. As the light breeze blew down a rain of pagoda tree blossoms, she stood silently beneath them. 

In a flash, she looked upward, half closing her eyes in concentration, and gazed through the flower branches towards the far away blue sky. A layer of yellow and white flower petals floated down from her muslin hair wrap with a rustling sound.

I noticed her focused expression and also raised my head to take a look, but I only saw wild geese flying overhead in the sky, embarking on a journey past the palace walls.

“Huiji, Sir Cui… Is he still in the capital?” she asked with a mumble. Immediately after speaking she bowed her head and lowered her eyes, and her entire face reddened.

I immediately understood that her wish was related to Cui Bai.

I told her frankly that since I had been transferred from the Exterior Department of Service, I had little opportunity to get in touch with people from the Fine Arts Institute, so I honestly did not know about Cui Bai’s current situation. 

She then asked whether it would be possible for me to make inquiries on her behalf. I agreed and asked her: “Do you have a message you want to pass onto him?”

She subconsciously twisted a corner of her sleeve, and her voice was as soft as the sound of a mosquito’s cry: “The painting he gifted me last time… {{Esteemed Guests at Qiupu River}}… The wild goose flying above… Please help me ask him… Whether that goose…”

Only upon seeing her expression and recalling the details of {{Esteemed Guests at Qiupu River}}, [3]Re-read Chapter 1 Part 6 for the details. did I remember that wild geese were also called “Virtue Birds” because each of a pair would remain alone if their mate should pass away. 

In the book, Rites and Ceremonies – Official Wedding Ceremonies, [4]《 仪礼·士昏礼》is the earliest record of weddings and China. it is written that: “When the marriage ceremony is finished, one receives a wild goose feather.” It refers to the moral integrity and loyalty a couple should have towards each other and their relationship. When discussing exchanges of yin and yang energy, a wild goose feather is used as a token of trust according to the imperial wedding customs of ancient countries and as a lucky charm for marital bliss. [5]Nyamachi did her best for this sentence. Here is the original Chinese. Any feedback is very much appreciated!!《仪礼?士昏礼》曰:“昏礼下达,纳采用雁。”取其对配偶坚贞节义之意,以讨阴阳往来,妇从夫随的吉兆,故国朝婚姻礼俗,仍以雁为信物。

Cui Bai’s painting had a pair of wild geese. Judging from his aloof and easy-going personality, while he might not have given  this painting to Qiuhe as a hint that he wished to become engaged, it at the very least showed that he was interested in her. 

Cui Bai was handsome and had the air of a gifted scholar. It was not surprising that young women would fall in love with him. 

Now, observing Qiuhe’s attitude, it was clear that she had already fallen deeply in love with him, since she wanted to make inquiries into Cui Bai’s whereabouts. She probably wanted to find him and ask him to clarify how he felt. If he had the intention to marry her, it was possible for her to personally request to leave the palace and fly away with him like a pair of wild geese. 

After thinking through this layer of meaning, I immediately said to Qiuhe: “I’ll go make inquiries right away and let you know the minute I have news.”

First, I went to the Fine Arts Institute to find the address in the capital that Cui Bai left behind, then I entrusted Zhang Chengzhao to find a eunuch from the Exterior Department to ask around while he went out of the left palace for errands. 

Unfortunately, the news that Zhang Chengzhao later brought back was not good at all: Cui Bai had long since left the capital, saying that he wanted to travel across the land under heaven, and sketch the famous mountains and rivers from nature. No one knew when he would return. 

I passed on this message to Qiuhe. Naturally, she was disappointed, so I hurriedly promised that I would get in touch with Cui Bai when he returned. Qiuhe repeatedly said that it didn’t matter, saying, “It’s fine to stay in the palace for now. I quite like fiddling with flowers, cosmetics, and perfumes. If I left the palace, where would I be able to find so many of these?”

Her words were not an excuse; I could see that Qiuhe truly liked the work at the Style Bureau. Others might consider it complicated and dull, but she could enjoy herself quietly with the work. This fact made her wait [in the palace] not seem as boring or endless. 

I felt better for her as I thought this. 

For now, she could work in the palace for a few years doing work that she enjoyed. Later on, when she left the Imperial City and married Mr. Right, she could live the remainder of her life in familial bliss. Qiuhe was such a kind-hearted girl, and she deserved this kind of perfect life.

In the Seventh year of the Qingli Era, [6]庆历 (qìnglì) is the sixth era name of Emperor Renzong of the Song Dynasty. It lasted from November 1041 to 1048 A.D. Era names or 年号 (niánhào) were used to identify the years in Imperial China and usually reflected the political, economic and social landscapes at the time. Thirteenth Regiment and Gao Taotao turned sixteen. The Emperor and the Empress jokingly spoke about the childhood engagement between the two. 

They sighed with sorrow that they had no children between them, and thus it was proposed that the Emperor and the Empress prepare Thirteenth Regiment and Taotao’s wedding to one another. 

Hence, everyone in the palace began to prepare the official wedding when “the Emperor’s son” would accept a wife and the Empress would marry off “her daughter.” [7]This was a bit hard to translate. Chinese: 天子娶妇,皇后嫁女. According to Chinese culture, a man “accepts” a wife into his family (referred to as 娶妻), whereas a woman “marries out” of her family (referred to as 女嫁). There is also the adopted children’s nicknames of “The Emperor’s Son” and “The Empress’ Daughter”. Hopefully, this was captured!

Miss Gao had not yet partaken in her rite of passage to adulthood. [8]笄礼 (jīlǐ) Refers to the hairpin ceremony ancient Chinese women underwent when they turned 15. Their hairstyle would change from a girl’s style to putting up their hair in a bun. Males underwent something similar. Since there were discussions regarding a suitable marriage, it was decided that she would undergo the ceremony the day before this year’s Qingming Festival. [9]寒食 (hánshí) Lit. meaning “cold food”; Refers to the Qingming Festival where one abstains from cooked food for three days. 

That day, the Empress led a group of imperial concubines to personally attend the ritual at Miss Gao’s manor. Originally, the Princess also wanted to go, but unfortunately a few days prior she caught a cold and was obliged to stay in her pavillion to recuperate. With nothing to do, she was extremely grumpy.

In the afternoon, the servants of Yearning Phoenix Pavillion followed social customs and made pastries out of dates and flour, before using a willow branch to connect the pastries and placing them on top of the door lintel. 

When the Princess saw this, she also wanted to take part, but Zhao’rong Miao stopped her with a shout. So the Princess grudgingly laid down again, making a pitiful expression.

Ms. Han suggested that Zhao’rong Miao invite Miss Fan over to play with the Princess. Zhao’rong Miao replied that today the Empress would attend Miss Gao’s Hairpin Ceremony and that Miss Fan ought to have gone with her. 

However, Ms. Han shook her head, saying: “I heard that Miss Fan has been indisposed these past few days and could not attend the rite of passage.”

Upon hearing this Zhao’rong Miao raised an eyebrow: “Sunflower Water?” [10]葵水 (kuíshuí) refers to 癸水 (guǐshuǐ), or menstruation. 癸 refers to the 10th heavenly stem in the Heavenly Stems and Earthly Branches Systems. This is the last branch, completing the Five Element cycle of renewal.

Ms. Han nodded, rendering Zhao’rong Miao somewhat surprised. “She’s still not that old yet…”

Ms. Han laughed and said: “My Lady sees her every day, therefore you feel that she is still quite young. In reality, Miss Fan is four years older than the Princess. This year she turned fourteen.”

Ai, without realizing it, these young girls have grown up so quickly. It’s clear that we’ve also aged.“ Zhao’rong Miao sighed.

Afterwards, she called me over and instructed: “Go and ask Miss Fan if she would be willing to come over and chat with the Princess.” 

I accepted the order and immediately headed for the Hall of Gentle Countenance to look for Miss Fan. 

Since the Empress had gone out today and many servants had followed to wait upon her, there were not many servants remaining in the Hall of Gentle Countenance, making it seem desolate and deserted. 

I headed towards Miss Fan’s quarters but didn’t find her there. Her maid pointed towards the main hall of the Hall of Gentle Countenance and told me that Miss Fan was inside replenishing the supply of incense, so I walked over to the main hall.

Unexpectedly, there were no servants on duty outside the entrance of the main hall. I had the vague sense that something wasn’t right, but I still unhurriedly walked inside.

The inside of the palace hall appeared empty. The brocade curtains hung loose, and it was completely silent. 

Starting from tomorrow, the beginning of the Qingming Festival, the palace would abstain from lighting fire for three days; therefore, today was the last chance to burn incense before the festival began. Consequently, the quantity of incense used was more than usual. 

In addition to the two honourable golden beasts outside, two silver incense balls hung from two roof beams inside the hall. The metal balls were made using openwork metal with carvings of birds of prey. Between them was a clasp to open and close the ball and inside was fragrant-smelling incense. The lower part of the ball contained burning charcoal suspended by fine silver chains. In front of the brocade curtains on both sides hung a row of metal incense balls, resembling a beaded curtain. 

The smell of warm perfume quietly wafted from the gold and silver incense balls; it was the scent of top-quality blessed water. The floral scent of lilies was charming and gentle as the smoke curled around the quiet space. 

I had come to the Hall of Gentle Countenance many times before, but I had never experienced such an unusual atmosphere. As I silently continued forward, I felt almost as if I were a poisonous insect creeping within the dense fragrance. 

Suddenly, the curtain to my left moved, and several silver incense balls collided with a sweet-sounding bell-like chime. I turned slightly towards the direction of the sound and craned my neck to see what its source was. 

Behind the curtain made of silver incense balls, I could vaguely see two figures. I focused my attention on them and could distinguish the shape of Miss Fan. She held a small box of incense in one hand and a silver spoon in the other. A silver incense ball hung open beside her, waiting for her to replenish its contents. 

However, she was too preoccupied to do this at the moment.

There was a man who was in the middle of gently hugging her waist, his head lowered as he kissed her. 

The bell-like chime from earlier was likely caused by this sudden turn of events. This likely occurred when Miss Fan was in the middle of replenishing the incense, so her posture was practically the same as before. 

First, the man gradually pecked her lips, and Miss Fan’s body faintly trembled. She was probably somewhat startled, but in the end, she didn’t push him away, so the man began to deepen his kiss. 

They were hidden behind the curtain with their side profiles facing me. My current position was not too far from them, but previously I had not made any sound whatsoever, therefore they were not conscious of my presence. 

This scene caused me to feel panic-stricken, and I only wanted to escape. I had never seen this kind of love affair between men and women, let alone… let alone the fact that it was them

To prevent them from discovering me, I slowly retreated. I moved silently, afraid they would hear my loudly beating heart. 

I endured with difficulty until I reached the entrance, and only then did I suddenly turn around, leave in a panic, and run outside.

I had barely rushed out of the main gates before I realized I had neglected to see the thin silk cages preceding the pair of embroidered silk fans covering the two rows of servants supporting a palanquin that was heading directly towards me.

I only vaguely registered that it was some kind of ceremonial weaponry used in the palace. 

I wanted to run away even more, but unexpectedly just as I turned, I heard someone berate me: “How dare you! Kneel and greet the Empress! Have you no respect?” 

I had no choice but to stop and face the Empress, performing the customary salute according to etiquette.

The Empress was chatting and laughing with the senior attendants following her. 

She observed my rude behaviour without a change in expression. She continued smiling as before and alighted from the palanquin, asking: “Huaiji, why are you in such a rush? Are you hurrying back?”

I unconsciously replied yes, but soon after felt something was wrong and promptly corrected my previous remark, saying no. At that moment, I couldn’t figure out how to explain [the situation]. My face reddened, and I began sweating as if it had started to rain. 

Upon seeing this and sensing that something was off, the Empress’s gaze sharpened, and she asked me: “Did you come out of the Hall of Gentle Countenance?” 

I nodded and said yes, and the Empress asked again: “Who was inside?”

I hesitated a moment and only answered: “Miss Fan.”

“Guanyin?” asked the Empress. “Guanyin” was Miss Fan’s childhood name. 

I replied yes again, not daring to say another word. 

The Empress remained silent. A long time passed before she asked: “Who else was inside?” 

I remained silent. Though I was fully aware that not answering Her Majesty’s question was considered a major act of lèse-majesté, I didn’t dare to open my mouth again. 

However, by this time,  the Empress had already had a guess: “His Majesty?”

I bowed my head deeply. 

I don’t know what kind of expression the Empress made. I could only see a corner of her clothing in my peripheral vision. 

Everyone in the surroundings was also silent. It was like time came to a stop. The only sounds came from the birds fluttering about between the Japanese pagoda trees that lined the narrow path. 

A drop of water fell on the ground in front of the Empress. Had it started to rain? 

As I thought this, I noticed the Empress’ skirt spinning slightly as she floated out of my view. 

“I heard that the flowers in the Back Garden have started to bloom; how nice…” The Empress looked away as she spoke. Her tone of voice remained as steady as before, but there were more pauses. 

These senior attendants hurried to catch up with her and continued the conversation: “Yes, the peach blossoms, plum blossoms, flowers, and plants [11]The phrase used here was 金蛾玉羞.  Another name for 金蛾花 (jīnéhuā) is 毛茛 (máogèn) or buttercup flowers. See image. Nyamachi could not find what 玉羞 meant. It seems to be a fancy way to reference plants and flowers in reference to Zhang Hao’s poem《艮岳记》from the Song Dynasty. have all bloomed. Does Your Majesty wish to take a look?” 

The two rows of servants silently passed before my eyes, following the Empress towards the Back Garden. 

Finally, one person stopped in front of me. 

I raised my head, and saw Qiuhe’s tearful eyes. 

“Huaiji,” she said softly, “Quickly go find Sir Zhang Maoze and invite him to come to the Back Garden.”

I agreed. Qiuhe wiped the corners of her eyes and quickly rejoined the Empress’ procession of servants. 

I ran in the direction of the Office of the Inner Eastern Gate. Before leaving, I stared at the vestiges of the water droplets that had permeated the tile on the ground, and then looked upwards towards the sky… It was a clear day devoid of clouds, without the slightest trace of rain. 

When I found Teacher Zhang, I gave him an extremely brief summary of what had happened. 

When I mentioned what had happened in the Hall of Gentle Countenance I only said, “The Emperor and Miss Fan were inside,” and he understood everything. 

Without waiting for me to finish, he promptly flicked his sleeves and headed towards the Back Palace with large strides.

I slightly hesitated but ultimately still followed him. 

When we reached the Back Garden, I saw that the Empress was in the middle of walking amongst the flowers. Her gaze wandered among the flowers and leaves, but her eyes were completely empty, clearly blind to this garden filled with fragrant blooms. 

Teacher Zhang walked to her side and bowed, gently calling: “Your Majesty.”

“Oh, Pingfu…” Her voice trembled somewhat unexpectedly when the Empress saw that it was him. 

This made me suddenly think of the Princess. 

Sometimes when she felt wronged by Zhao’rong Miao, she would get upset and refuse to speak. However, if I went over to console her, she would tearfully call my name and usually cry bitterly soon after. 

“Your Majesty, in the first month of spring, [12]孟春 (mèngchūn) The first month of the Chinese lunar calendar. you led the six palaces in presenting early-planted late-ripening grain to His Majesty. They have already sprouted leaves; would your honoured self like to visit the Garden Viewing Palace [13]In the early Song Dynasty, the Emperor set up the Garden Viewing Palace (观稼殿 guānjiàdiàn) and the Silkworm Palace (亲蚕宫 qīngcángōng) in order to show diligence, thrift, love for the people, and an emphasis on farming. He planted rice in front of the Garden Viewing Palace and would harvest it in Autumn. The Empress would hold a Silkworm Parenting Ceremony (亲蚕仪式) in the spring and complete the process of raising silkworms. – Baidu to take a look?” asked Teacher Zhang in a gentle tone. 

She gazed at him, her heart filled with anxiety, but a short while later finally gave a slight smile, saying: “Alright, let’s go to the Garden Viewing Palace.”

The Garden Viewing Palace stood in the corner of the Back Garden. Every year in the first month of spring, the Empress would lead the imperial concubines of the six palaces to select nine varieties of early-planted late-ripening grain and late-planted early-ripening grain [14]穜 (tóng) – Early-planted, late-ripening grain; 稑 (lù) – Late-planted, early-ripening grain to present to His Majesty. Soon after, the Emperor would personally plow the fields below the Garden Viewing Palace. When the seedlings sprouted, he would look over the fields with pleasure. 

The Empress slowly climbed up the watchtower overlooking the Garden Viewing Palace. I didn’t continue to follow and only quietly stood in a corner of the rice patty field to watch her from afar. 

The fields and orchards had specialists to look after them. At that moment, the seedlings were dense and green, and their growth was gratifying. 

If one looked down at the scene from the watchtower, the magnificent landscape of the new sprouts would surely seem like the scene from a poem, “Fragrant luxuriant growth colours the raised paths between the fields, as bountiful as billowing smoke.” [15]This is a line from the poem,《从幸亲稼殿观新秧稻奏御》 by Song Xiang (宋庠) from the Song Dynasty.  Chinese: “苒苒香塍色,油油瑞亩烟”. Any feedback about the translation is much appreciated!

I imagined that the Empress would probably feel slightly more cheerful upon seeing this grand view. 

The Empress finally stood in the center of the watchtower, dressed in an imperial court dress with a red collar embroidered with a long-tail pheasant design and a pair of white jade accessories. [16]祎衣 (huīyī) was the most formal type of ceremonial dress the Empress was allowed to wear. She could only wear this when receiving imperial decrees or offering sacrifices. Check out the video in this post at 1:00 to see how this looks. 1:18 shows you what the flower headpieces looked like for the female officials and imperial concubines.

Her expression gradually reverted back to her habitual calm as she overlooked the vibrantly growing green sprouts below. She still had the same solemn, quiet, and serene expression. 

The wind blew, causing her long, dark blue sleeves to billow in the wind. She looked up slightly, the twelve pearls on her dragon and phoenix crown and her floral hair ornaments lightly quivering in the wind. As she closed her eyes, a quiet and contented smile appeared on her face. 

All the while, Teacher Zhang stood quietly hidden behind the corridor pillar behind the Empress, gazing at her. He stood silent and motionless for a long time.

His black robes made it seem like he was simply a tall shadow. 

 


TL Thoughts:

Hello dear readers,

What did you think of the chapter? Translating this left us with feelings of disgust… The age gap between the Emperor and Miss Fan… I guess it was somewhat normal in ancient China, but it left a bad taste in our mouths. Poor Empress. I wonder what her relationship with Zhang Maoze is? They seem to foreshadow what Huiru and Huaiji’s relationship might look like in the future…

There were many TL notes this chapter, like always. Any feedback about our translations is truly appreciated! FYI Chinese is not my first language, so I’m doing what I can with the ancient poetry etc. If you have a better translation or notice a typo, please don’t hesitate to leave a comment!

Thank you for your continued patience these last few months! Apologies for the lack of chapter updates. irl continues to be chaotic. Please look out for our monthly TL goals post – we include team updates there if you’re wondering how translation is going. We are still interested in continuing to translate Held in the Lonely Castle along with our other project, Why Harem Intrigue When You Can Raise A Dog Instead? Please check it out if you like cute doggos and sweet romance.

If you have time to spare, we are still looking for two people to join our team as discord moderators. Please contact us if you’re interested!

Until next time,

Nyamachi

 

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2 Comments

  • Woah. . . I wonder what the Remonstrance Officials will think of this?

  • The Empress didn’t seem to have too good of a reaction, although things seems to be changing in the palace for the better or worse. . .

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