Chapter 154: A Joyous Place
The rows upon rows of exquisite buildings at the palace were mostly built from wood. The trees lining the way were adorned with white, pink or red ribbons and lanterns, as well as sachets. Some even had gourd wine bottles hanging from them, giving off a remarkable fragrance.
The carriage pulled to a stop. Chen Rong heard the young eunuch reverently say: “Hong Yunzi is here on the order of His Majesty.”
It took a while before a high voice replied, “His Majesty is not here. You may go to the Orchid Pavilion.”
The young eunuch replied with an aye, and so the carriage drove forward again.
Shortly after, he called in, “Priestess, the Orchid Pavilion is just ahead.”
Chen Rong hummed a reply and stepped off the carriage with his help.
She was in a flower garden whose perimeter was planted with pear and peach trees. Between the two were also lush eucalyptus, banyan, and pine trees.
She noticed a pavilion hidden behind the foliage.
“Priestess, His Majesty says for you to go ahead,” the young eunuch reminded her when he saw Chen Rong standing around.
She nodded and apologized to him, then took her first steps.
Even though it was only early spring, she noted that the plants in this garden were surprisingly lush as she walked the serpentine road.
It was very quiet here, and no eunuchs or palace ladies were in sight.
She hesitated for a while before going again.
After a quarter of an hour, the pavilion appeared before her eyes. Under the left pillar sat a man.
Chen Rong softly went to him.
He was very well dressed in his light blue robe and a white jade hat.
He was squatting on the ground, his hand holding a twig, intently tugging at something.
Chen Rong quietly craned her neck to look and at once recognized him to be His Majesty.
What was he playing with that he was so preoccupied?
Chen Rong took two more steps, bowed her head and stood to the side.
She was very still while the birds chirped all around her. The occupied man remained unaware of her after a long time.
She hesitated for a moment and tilted her head thinking about her last encounter with the emperor. A moment later she lightly walked to him.
Chen Rong looked over his shou.
Eh? The emperor was playing with the ants on the ground!
He kept trying to stop them from leaving the stone pillar with a twig in his left hand. His right hand was placing pieces of rice from an antique jade bowl around the ant mound.
He was very focused and his eyes didn’t blink once.
Chen Rong couldn’t help wanting to laugh. She squatted down beside him to watch the ants with him.
The ants went around and around, and then simply moved the grains out of their way. The emperor got anxious when he saw that they weren’t moving back to the mound. He took more pieces of rice from the bowl and plugged the mound.
When he felt warmth next to him, he finally turned his head.
This time, he saw Chen Rong also attentively watching the ants like him. Her fair fingers were drawing a circle on the dirt ground to trap the ants within.
The emperor looked at the ants who were going around and around and said, “That won’t stop them.” He grabbed more mud and made a mud wall around the perimeter, grinning: “But this will.”
Chen Rong thought for a moment and said, “It’s not high enough.” Two ants had climbed onto the mud wall and were about to climb over it.
The emperor quickly piled more mud and asked, “Have you eaten?”
Chen Rong also grabbed a handful of mud and carefully repaired the mud wall. She shook her head, saying: “I was about to when your people came for me. I’m starving.”
The emperor laughed to hear this. He clapped and said, “Eat with me.”
Chen Rong smiled. “Aye.”
He stood up and took Chen Rong’s hand.
She looked at his shining eyes and perspiring face and thought to herself: His Majesty is such a child right now. She was convinced that he had no romantic thoughts even as he was holding her hand.
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The emperor led Chen Rong by the hand and went a dozen steps to a lake.
Dozens of eunuchs, imperial guards, and palace maids stood lakeside. When the emperor and Chen Rong arrived, they lowered their heads and stood as still as wood statues.
“Aye, Your Majesty.”
Amid their orderly responses, the palace maids brought towels and water basins for the emperor and Chen Rong to wash their hands. Afterwards there was a steady stream of people who brought tables and food containers.
Chen Rong was seemingly unaware that she was still holding hands with the emperor, or that the maids and guards from time to time stole glances at their joined hands. She excitedly looked at the rippling lake, sparkling from the sunlight, and smilingly said, “Your Majesty, this place must be gorgeous in another month. There will be peach blossoms, pear blossoms, weeping willows and white poplars to complement each other.”
She turned her head and mischievously winked at the emperor. “Think about how beautiful it will be to be on the lake when the colors of the sunset are diffused across the sky.”
The emperor’s eyes followed her gaze to the lake. He leaned back and picked up a leaf to put over his eyes, muttering: “Beautiful but boring.”
Chen Rong tilted her head and unhurriedly replied, “How can it be boring? There are fish jumping in the water, colonies of ants under the tree, and birds singing in the forest. What a scene!”
The courtly and pale emperor smiled, showing his white teeth under the leaf.
He did not answer Chen Rong’s words, merely shouting: “Go, all of you, leave us.”
Footsteps signaled their retreat. Even the palace maids who were serving food and drinks stopped their movements.
Chen Rong’s eyes lingered on the table as she muttered, “But I’m still hungry.”
“Haha, then I guess you’ll have to stay hungry,” said the emperor with a huge grin on his face.
He removed the leaf from his eyes to glance at a speechless Chen Rong and laughed again. After replacing the leaf back on his eyes he said, “I have never spoken to anyone of your rank until now. I did not expect a poor gentlewoman to be so lively and charming. Wang Qi sure knows how to pick them.”
Chen Rong smiled, saying: “Did Zhuangzi not say that an eagle has an eagle’s freedom while a sparrow has a sparrow’s happiness?”
The emperor laughed again.
He suddenly sat up.
The leaf fell to the ground when he moved.
He turned back at Chen Rong. After glancing around, he approached her and quietly said, “That’s true.” He paused, his voice dipping even lower: “Even before you arrived in Jiankang I had already heard about you. I had wanted to meet you very much… They said there is a young lady of humble background; she looks like Daji, but possesses commendable bravery.”
He suddenly paused, winked and asked Chen Rong, “Do you like that assessment of you?”
Chen Rong blinked and looked into his eyes. She blinked again. Perhaps good fortunes made her smarter, Chen Rong pursed her lips and sullenly said, “Your Majesty clearly wants to say there is a humble woman who periled her life to be with Wang Qi in besieged Mo’yang. This woman looks like a flirt, and Wang Qi is really lucky.”
The emperor stilled and stared at Chen Rong.
He suddenly broke out laughing.
He had been laughing all along but it had been done heedlessly. Only now was he really laughing.
The eunuchs and maids all looked this way.
He slapped his thigh and pleasantly remarked, “This nun, haha, haha, you’re very smart!”
He laughed again to see Chen Rong’s dour face.
After playing around for a while, the emperor grinned and asked, “Aren’t you quite pleased? You are but a humble woman yet your every move shocks the emperor. Doesn’t this make you happy?”
Chen Rong sighed.
She raised her head to sadly stare at the blue sky and said in a regretful voice, “Had I known I already caught your attention, when I first met you I wouldn’t have asked you to let me become a nun. Instead, I would have asked you to decree a marriage for me with Wang Qi. Alas.”
The emperor first blanked and then laughed.
But it was only a single laughter this time.
He lay back on the ground and picked up a leaf to place on his eyes. He pursed his lips: “You don’t have to remind me!”
He sounded irritable.
Chen Rong was surprised by his sudden vexation.
She saw him angrily picking up leaves and hurling them away. “I already know you are Wang Qi’s! Hmph!”
He swung his back against her, sulking like a child.
Chen Rong was alarmed at first, but then wanted to laugh at his demeanor.
She also pursed her lips and unhappily said, “I had thought Your Majesty would be pleased.” With his back facing her, the emperor straightened himself and had his ears perked up.
Chen Rong continued to say, now with a smile: “Imagine the kind of shock you would have dealt Wang Qi if you had granted our marriage in front of everyone that day. I bet he would look at me, and then at you, and back at me, then back at you…”
The emperor couldn’t help but laugh at her vivid description of the imaginary scenario. He quietly chuckled at first, but when he thought of that scene, of Lang’ya Wang Qi unable to believe his own ears, of the courtiers and aristocrats looking at each other, of those rotten Confucians inwardly cursing him for being absurd, he immediately felt intrigued.
He laughed and repeatedly said, “You’re right, you’re right, that would be very shocking!”
The emperor was now in a good mood. He turned to Chen Rong to study her in seriousness. He leaned in to her and whispered, “When there is no one around, call me Sima Chang. I like hearing my name.”
Chen Rong nodded.
He stepped back, cleared his throat and bade, “Set the table.”
As soon as his order was given, the eunuchs and palace maids standing fifty paces away started to move.
Meat and wine filled the table.
Chen Rong sat opposite the emperor. After he had reached out with his chopsticks and brought a meatball to his mouth, he personally took the dish and placed it in front of Chen Rong. “It’s very good, have a taste.”
Chen Rong had a bite or two and nodded her head in approval.
The emperor drank some wine and vaguely asked her, “How is the food in the palace?”
“It’s delicious,” Chen Rong replied with her mouth full. “Better than at the temple,” she added with a nod.
The emperor laughed again to hear this.
A moment later, he handed her a jade cup which contained some yellow liquid and said, “Try it.”
“How is it?” he asked when she took a sip.
Chen Rong was struggling to swallow. She winced, “It’s too bitter,” and further commented, “like it’s made from wine residue.”
The emperor clapped his hands. He smiled so widely that his eyes stretched into lines. He hurriedly swallowed the food in his mouth and leaned in to Chen Rong, whispering: “It is made from wine residue.”
While Chen Rong rounded her eyes, he slowly said, “Every time there is a banquet, I would pretend to drink and savor it… Guess what happened after?”
She thought for a moment and then asked, “Did all of the consorts love it, too?”
The emperor vigorously nodded. “After doing this a few times, they and the flatterers always have to drink it whenever there is a banquet… Well, you tasted it, so you know this liquid is very bitter. They lost all of their appetite. I don’t know how many beautiful women have lost weight in the last couple of years.”
Chen Rong blinked. Then, she raised her sleeve over her face and couldn’t help but break into laughter which attracted countless looks their way.
The meal took about one and a half hour to finish. When the dishes got cold they got reheated, after they were reheated, they became cold again.
Unknowingly the two had moved closer together. Chen Rong was clutching her stomach from all the embarrassing stories the supreme Emperor had to tell her since his childhood days.
On the shaded road.
The young eunuch respectfully said, “My lord, they are over there.” He retreated half a step to let the white robed man waltz by.
As the young man was approaching, he heard a string of laughter. It was the emperor, he was sure of it.
However, a woman’s voice was also heard amid the emperor’s laughter. She was cheerfully laughing herself.
The man slowed down.
After crossing the willow trees, he was less than twenty steps from them and was about to announce himself when he heard the emperor calling: “Ah Rong.”
Chen Rong smiled and turned her head. The tears in her eyes made her face ever so beautiful.
As the emperor looked at Chen Rong, his eyes lingered and he unconsciously leaned closer to her to say, gently yet seriously: “Ah Rong, I had not met any young lady like you in all my life… Say, why don’t you marry me?”
In the sunlight, he flashed his white teeth in a beatific smile. “Lang’ya Wang Qi cannot marry you, but I have no such problem. Wait a few years and I will crown you my empress. What do you say?”
The emperor’s voice was clear and bright. His smile was as vivid as a flowering field in the summer sunlight. It was brilliant, direct, and blinding.
Under the verdant willow trees, the handsome lad came to a still.
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