Chapter 126 : An Omen of National Calamity
An unexpected guest arrived first thing in the morning at the princess’ hall where Jiang Ruan resided.
Lu Zhu drew open the curtains and looked at Jiang Ruan, who had just finished freshening up after getting out of bed. “Miss, w.a.n.g Meiren has come with the clothes to be worn for the ritual performed by the Imperial Astronomical Bureau tomorrow.”
The womenfolk of the palace had to partic.i.p.ate in the rituals conducted by the Imperial Astronomical Bureau, and had to pay careful attention to the clothes worn. However, these were usually sent to them by the Clothing Department; this was the first time that one of the Emperor’s imperial consorts had brought them over. Although this was definitely not against the established practice, this att.i.tude seemed to be a little too enthusiastic.
Lu Zhu was clearly also thinking the same way. She said, “This servant remembers that Miss and this w.a.n.g Meiren have barely had many friendly interactions.”
Jiang Ruan flung off the little blanket at her side and said, “What do you think of w.a.n.g Meiren?”
“She looks quite friendly, and speaks in a straightforward manner.” Lu Zhu thought for a bit before continuing, “However, one who is unaccountably solicitous is hiding evil intentions. Miss, you had better be careful.”
Jiang Ruan smiled diffidently and said, “It’s good that you know.”
Although Lu Zhu was quick-witted, she was naturally disposed to be benevolent and, in the end, did not really know what went on in the palace. If one considered Jiang fu to be a den of wolves, then the imperial palace would be a den of tigers. Therefore, for one such as w.a.n.g Meiren- how could a sheep exist in a tiger’s den. A leisurely smile appeared on Jiang Ruan’s face. It had been awhile since their last parting and she couldn’t help but wonder about what kind of scene would play out at their reunion.
“Let’s go and meet this w.a.n.g Meiren.”
They had just reached the front of the hall when they heard a warm and cheerful voice calling out, “Hong’an Junzhu!”
Jiang Ruan looked up, and observed a lady in the prime of her youth attended to by a palace maid. The lady was twirling the gold and silver threads of her hua silk brocade jacket, and her hair was combed up into a ta.s.sel bun. The effect was neither too overdone nor too plain. Her pretty face was bright and confident, and her smile was shining with sincerity.
 流苏髻 (liu su ji) – lit. ta.s.sel bun, or fringed bun. The hair is combed into a bun, leaving two (finger-wide) strands of hair to fall on the shoulders like ta.s.sels.
This appearance made it easy for people to have a favourable impression of her, as her manner seemed to be transparent, straightforward, and orderly. When the lady saw Jiang Ruan, she stood up and bowed, smiling as she said, “I definitely knew that Junzhu was a matchless natural beauty, and I initially thought that these clothes for the ritual would be too plain. However, on viewing Junzhu’s graceful bearing, I have come to realise that these clothes, on Junzhu, would seem to glow with the most splendid of colours.”
Every woman loved to hear words of praise about her appearance. If it were anyone else hearing these words, she would have wanted to get closer to w.a.n.g Meiren. However, Jiang Ruan simply eyed her disapa.s.sionately and, with a gentle smile, said, “w.a.n.g Meiren does not need to be overly courteous.”
She had abruptly changed the subject, as if she had never heard the excessively enthusiastic words of praise.
w.a.n.g Meiren was taken aback, not having expected this kind of response from Jiang Ruan. Her brows furrowed, then very quickly smoothed out again.
When Jiang Ruan sat on the cushioned couch, w.a.n.g Meiren followed suit, ordering the palace maid to bring the little wooden box which held the clothes for her, and saying, “These are the clothes sent by the Imperial Household Department. Since this concubine was going to pa.s.s by your residence on my way back, I thought to bring the clothes to Junzhu. I hope Junzhu won’t blame this concubine for being meddlesome?”
A trace of contempt flashed through Lu Zhu’s eyes. She had lived and moved among the streets and alleys of the common people, so her sense of direction was very good. Within a few days of entering the palace, she knew the layout of the palace, and who lived where, like the back of her hand. The courtyard where this w.a.n.g Meiren lived was light-years away from their current location. On her way? Nonsense.
 骗鬼 (pian gui) – lit. to lie to a ghost. In other words, no one will be deceived except a ghost, which does not even exist.
“w.a.n.g Meiren has such kind intentions, how could I possibly reproach you?” Jiang Ruan said evenly.
w.a.n.g Meiren seemed not to have considered the possibility that Jiang Ruan might be difficult to deal with, being unmoved by any kind of persuasive force; if it had been anyone else, there was no way they would be so distant and unapproachable. w.a.n.g Meiren racked her brain but could not think of anything she had done to offend this Junzhu, and concluded that Jiang Ruan’s natural disposition must be as such. She paused, then smiled and said, “Why be so stuffy and courteous? This concubine is only a few years apart from Junzhu, thus if Junzhu does not take umbrage, why doesn’t this concubine address Junzhu as ‘meimei’? Seeing you like this, Junzhu is really like the meimei in this concubine’s fu.”
Jiang Ruan smiled thinly as she eyed her and said, “w.a.n.g Meiren, we cannot dispense with courtesy.” She received the cup of tea Lu Zhu was offering her and took a sip. When she was satisfied with watching the marvellous expression on w.a.n.g Meiren’s face, Jiang Ruan then said, “This Junzhu only has one older brother and has no older sister.”
w.a.n.g Meiren clenched her fists tightly and forced herself to smile as she responded, “This concubine has been too irreverent . . .”
Jiang Ruan smiled faintly but did not speak, causing w.a.n.g Meiren to feel increasingly lost as to what to do. Within the palace, everyone said that she was a straightforward and sincere person, and she got along well with all the imperial consorts, who were also considerate and attentive towards her. She never expected that, today, she would hit a snag with Jiang Ruan. She surveyed Jiang Ruan’s smiling, pretty face, and an inkling of hatred flashed in her eyes.
 嫔妃 (pin fei) – imperial concubines, a mid-tier position. Below the imperial n.o.ble consort (皇贵妃 huang guifei), the n.o.ble consorts (贵妃 gui fei – like Imperial Consort Chen), and the consorts (妃 fei – several positions, with different names).
Lu Zhu also felt that something was off. Jiang Ruan was usually cold and detached towards others, but she also would not express it so clearly, giving the other party some leeway. This was the first time she had ever dealt with an unfamiliar concubine with such harshness.
As Jiang Ruan replaced the cover of the tea cup, her mind whirred with images from her previous life.
This w.a.n.g Meiren was quite a capable person by palace standards. Amidst the gaggle of imperial consorts, her good looks would be considered average, and she had no power or influence to speak of. She could only rely on her ability to get what she wanted by acting with guile, thus achieving the position of Meiren. In her previous life, when Jiang Ruan had been conferred the t.i.tle of Ruan Meiren, this w.a.n.g Meiren had intentionally sought her out to congratulate her. Later on, when she had been left out in the cold and the other imperial consorts had trampled on her, only w.a.n.g Meiren had consoled her every day. She had thought of w.a.n.g Meiren as someone she could trust, until a time when Pei’er was seriously ill. She had gone to beg for authorisation to invite the imperial physician to treat him, but had inadvertently overheard w.a.n.g Meiren commanding the office of the imperial physician not to take notice of the request.
 莺莺燕燕 (ying ying yan yan) – lit. orioles and swallows; used to refer to concubines or prost.i.tutes.
It turned out that w.a.n.g Meiren had taken notice of her natural beauty and was fearful that, one day, Jiang Ruan would overtake her in popularity. The people in the palace were accustomed to trampling on those they considered of lower status, and flattering those above them, and generally being two-faced. w.a.n.g Meiren played the part of a concerned sister, but had no qualms in backstabbing her.
Jiang Ruan did not know how w.a.n.g Meiren had ended up in her previous life. She only knew that, today, once again meeting this person whom she had once trusted, she felt that her every action was simply shoddy acting, giving rise to sheer disgust, such that she had not even the slightest desire to play along.
In the end, w.a.n.g Meiren was human, and she had never encountered this kind of cold-faced reception before. Seeing that Jiang Ruan was maintaining her expressionless demeanour, she seethed with repressed hatred, and did not continue to invite further insult. She stood up and said, “This concubine has now delivered the clothes, Junzhu can take a look. If there’s anything not in order, you can ask the Imperial Household Department to make alterations.”
“There’s no need.” Jiang Ruan smiled slightly as she said, “I trust that the clothes are in order since w.a.n.g Meiren has personally handled them.”
w.a.n.g Meiren felt that there seemed to be a special meaning behind these ordinary words, so she subconsciously stole a glance at Jiang Ruan, only to be met with Jiang Ruan’s bright eyes, whose expression seemed to hold a tinge of ridicule. Startled, w.a.n.g Meiren hurriedly turned away and said, in a flurry, “In that case, this concubine will take my leave first.”
Jiang Ruan spared her but a fleeting glance. She also did not stand up to exchange courtesies with w.a.n.g Meiren, and merely instructed Lu Zhu, “Lu Zhu, send w.a.n.g Meiren off.”
It was only after w.a.n.g Meiren had departed that Jiang Ruan opened the little wooden box on her table and took out a plain, snow-white palace satin silk skirt. When the Imperial Astronomical Bureau conducted rituals, the clothes were organised into different grades according to workmanship but, whatever the grade, all of them could not be too bright or gaudy. This skirt was plain and simple, and Jiang Su Su would love it if she saw it, for it would cause her, the little white flower, to become even more lovely, elegant and ethereal. But Jiang Ruan . . .
Jiang Ruan tossed the clothes to Tian Zhu and asked, “What might be wrong with this?”
Tian Zhu brought the skirt up to her nose and sniffed it. She frowned and thought deeply for a moment before walking to one side to fetch an oil lamp to shine a light on it. She then held the clothes above the flame. After a short period of time, before their very eyes, a streak of red gradually appeared on the snow-white cloth.
The streak of red spread, looking like blood seeping out from the inner recesses of the material. It was a fearful sight. Jiang Ruan was not at all astonished, merely asking, “What is this?”
“Bi luo essence. When heated up, it becomes increasingly red,” Tian Zhu replied coldly.
 碧落 (bi luo) – might be from a tea leaf, 碧落春 (bi luo chun). 碧落 on its own is used to refer to the blue sky, the heavens.
Jiang Ruan nodded in sudden understanding. When the Imperial Astronomical Bureau conducted the ritual, there would inevitably be incense involved. Once the incense in the great hall started to burn, the blood-red stain would emerge on her clothes. Without a doubt, she would be branded an evil-doer, and anyone would be able to guess what her ending would be. She had to say, this was an excellent method of surrept.i.tiously damaging someone’s reputation. The Emperor had always placed great importance on superst.i.tious signs. If he wanted to make a fuss about this situation, it was indeed possible that she would be put to death.
She would not have discovered this problem without someone like Tian Zhu by her side. Tian Zhu asked, “Miss, should we change this set of clothes?”
“There is no need to beat the gra.s.s and scare off the snake,” Jiang Ruan replied diffidently. “This item of clothing is so precious, it should not be wasted. Someone has sent such a good present, and I ought to return courtesy with courtesy.” She laughed coldly and said, “I would also like to see who emerges the victor from this ritual in the end.”
 鹿死谁手 (lu si shei shou) – lit. whose hand the deer dies by (idiom); fig. who will emerge victorious
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After w.a.n.g Meiren left, she first returned to her own little residence. She rested for a while, then strolled to Si Meng Palace, making it seem as if she had headed there accidentally.
 亲王 (qin w.a.n.g) – t.i.tle conferred on blood-related sons of the Emperor, usually after they had reached a certain age. Not all the Emperor’s sons would be conferred the t.i.tle of 亲王.
When Empress Dowager Yi De saw that Jiang Ruan had been ostracised and left behind by the rest of the womenfolk, she frowned slightly and said, in an icy tone, “Hong’an, come here and join aijia.”
Jiang Ruan obeyed and moved forward. Jealousy briefly made its appearance on the faces of both Rongya Junzhu and Princess He Yi, while the men seemed to finally notice Jiang Ruan. When Jiang Ruan reached Empress Dowager Yi De, the Empress Dowager reached out to hold her hand, an intimate gesture which took everyone present by surprise. Although they knew that Jiang Ruan was favoured, Empress Dowager Yi De was known to be cold and solitary. Such an intimate gesture was a rare honour that even the late Princess Yuan Rong very seldom earned.
Jiang Ruan smiled faintly. Her gaze landed upon a familiar figure seated in the men’s section and she could not help feeling somewhat startled. Clad in black brocade attire- clearly, it was Xiao Shao. Only the Emperor’s relatives could partic.i.p.ate in the Imperial Astronomical Bureau’s ritual; why was Xiao Shao there?
When Xiao Shao saw Jiang Ruan, he was also taken aback. Jiang Ruan was wearing a plain snow-white palace satin silk skirt, and her jet-black long hair was coiled into a gourd bun, with a white jade hairpin. She wore no ornaments, and no makeup. Jiang Ruan had always been partial towards crimson clothes, even in the brightness of day, she was an even more bright and colourful figure. Now, she was so plain and simple, it was as if the artifice of the secular world had been washed away, exposing her fresh, pure temperament. This lovely sight was so moving, and in great contrast to Jiang Su Su’s exquisite and ethereal appearance. Wearing all white in this way, Jiang Ruan’s gentle, faint smile seemed to convey several degrees of coldness, while her eyes, slightly lifted at the corners, seemed to harbour a ridicule sharp enough to cut. If one could say that red-clad Jiang Ruan was like a fire fox, then Jiang Ruan clad in white was like a clever snake. ‘Pitiful’ and ‘pathetic’ were not words to be a.s.sociated with Jiang Ruan; on the contrary, she exuded a coldness that incited apprehension.
A blood-red plum blossom had suddenly become a snow-white pear flower. Many pairs of eyes were already looking in her direction, and Xuan Li was no exception. He saw that Jiang Ruan’s gaze was a little distracted, and felt that this woman was almost otherworldly, not of this earth, and utterly different from other women, thus causing him to be overwhelmed with the thought of claiming her as his own. Watching that indifferent gaze become one that was obsessed with him would be a beautiful experience.
The Emperor’s eyes also briefly lit up in appreciation of her stunning appearance However, she was still too young, and too cold in her disposition, and men always preferred a softer, gentler disposition. The Emperor would never think of being fond of Jiang Ruan, whereas Imperial Consort Chen looked at Jiang Ruan with the faintest indication of a smile.
w.a.n.g Meiren was also observing Jiang Ruan from a distance. For no discernible reason, her heart was beating very fast tonight, as if in response to some vague premonition. It was only when she confirmed that Jiang Ruan was wearing that plain, snow-white palace satin silk skirt that she felt at ease. As long as she wore that skirt, and the Imperial Household Department had not sewn any others, then tonight’s events would be totally foolproof.
The corners of Jiang Ruan’s mouth ticked upwards slightly. She observed the Emperor proclaim the start of the ritual, whereupon the people of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau lighted incense and washed their hands; the divinatory sticks were all prepared. Green smoke gradually spiralled upwards from a gigantic censer. Hui Jue, dressed in his monk’s robes, stood next to the Supervisor of the Imperial Astronomical Bureau, quietly reciting scriptures with a benevolent expression.
Jilin Wanshou Temple Incense Burner
A gigantic censer in Wanshou Temple in Changchun, China
As the Chief Astronomer surveyed the stars, a loud ‘dong’ was heard, and, without warning, the huge tortoise sh.e.l.l arranged at the very front began to split down the middle, the crack steadily becoming more apparent.
“Great evil . . .” The Astronomical Bureau Supervisor’s eyes widened. Before he could say anything further, he was interrupted by the sound of someone saying, “It’s not good, daren!” It was the Master of Records, who staggered from the observatory platform to scurry over, crying out, “Twin stars with the moon, twin stars with the moon! Great evil!”
The Emperor stood up and asked in a low voice, “What’s happening?”
The Master of Records immediately sank to his knees and repeatedly touched his forehead to the ground, uttering, “Your Majesty, twin stars with the moon, an omen of great evil!”
“What?” The Emperor frowned severely. The Imperial Astronomical Bureau had conducted this ritual for so many years, and this was the very first time since he had ascended the throne that they had encountered such an omen of great evil. Composing himself, he asked, “Speak clearly, what twin stars with the moon?”
The Astronomical Bureau Supervisor seemed to recover from his shocked state at this point. Kneeling down, he said, “To answer Your Majesty’s question, twin stars with the moon is an omen of great evil. The nation has a demon star, a portent of great evil, which signifies great calamity and the destruction of our nation!”
“Demon star?” It was Imperial Consort Chen who spoke, slowly turning her head to ask, “What demon star?”
“A person who throws the court into chaos and the nation into disaster,” the Astronomical Bureau Supervisor said as he mopped the sweat from his brow. “This person is the reincarnation of a demon star, and the twin stars with the moon is heaven’s way of warning us of the great calamity and destruction of our nation!”
“Where is that demon star?” Imperial Consort Chen appeared somewhat nervous.
“This . . . heaven is benevolent, and may allow us an early warning. This subject . . . . this subject is willing to burn xiyuan incense and seek heaven’s will.”
 惜愿 (xi yuan) – lit. cherished wish/desire.
Jiang Ruan smiled faintly. At long last . . . the time had come.
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