CHAPTER 35 Side Consort
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Lan Dan walked aimlessly. The cold wind blowing against her body jolted her back to reality.
With a bitter smile, she found herself in her home… It seemed to be an instinct. Without realizing it, she had returned to her original residence, the Yuehua Palace. After all this time, the palace appeared particularly narrow and desolate, perhaps because there were no lights or perhaps because it had become deserted. Outside the spacious palace gate was a narrow palace road. When she was dragged out by the Imperial Guards, she felt that the brick road she had walked for more than ten years was particularly long. She raised her hand and pushed the familiar vermilion gate, hearing the sound of the lock echoing lightly in the deserted palace and long alley. The door was locked, and she could never return. Looking up, she saw the faded plaque under the dim light of the palace path, the character ‘Yue’ in the name ‘Yueha Palace’ was barely visible. Her unloved status was scattered in every crevice of her living space. But even in such a place, it was still her home. Countless times when she was sad and lost, as long as she came back here, her body and mind would relax. She knew deeply that when looking up from this dilapidated courtyard, the sky was still blue, the moon was still bright, and the wind and rain were still outside the courtyard walls.
“Who’s there!” a palace maid called out in fear. “Who’s there?”
This voice was so familiar that she almost couldn’t stop herself from blurting out, “It’s me.”
The palace maid, holding a lantern, became even more afraid. Her hands shook badly, and the lantern shook along with her, but she didn’t run away. She asked in a trembling voice, “Princess? Princess Danyang? Is it you who has returned?”
Just then, a gust of wind blew by, giving Lan Dan a chill. She almost answered “yes,” but fortunately she held back.
The palace maid fell to her knees with a thud, and the lantern fell to the ground, spilling oil and extinguishing instantly. She clasped her hands together, repeatedly kowtowed, and cried, “Jiang’er was forced to do hard labor and couldn’t even offer you a single coin, but I heard that those who died with grievances become vengeful spirits wearing red clothes. Are you really not willing to move on?”
Tears welled up in Lan Dan’s eyes. For a moment, she couldn’t tell whether she was really the vengeful ghost with unresolved grievances.
“Princess, Jiang’er has served you for many years and knows your temperament well. You are not a ruthless person, and after death…you cannot become a malevolent ghost. You are just holding onto a grudge and unable to enter the cycle of rebirth. It is you who are suffering in this situation! Now that the Emperor of Da Min has passed away, you…”
“Jiang’er! What nonsense are you talking about!” Another palace maid with a lantern appeared from the corner and anxiously scolded her, “Be careful not to let anyone overhear, or you will lose your life!”
Lan Dan also regained some sanity, realizing that if Jiang’er continued to speak, she might bring disaster upon her and herself. Lan Dan quickly wiped away her tears with her sleeve and composed herself, saying calmly, “I got lost while admiring the flowers and unintentionally ended up here. I was just asking for directions to the Chunhui Terrace. It seems that this girl has misunderstood.”
The palace maid was startled when she suddenly saw Lan Dan, but upon hearing her speak, she naturally knew she was not a ghost, and her fear dissipated. She kicked Jiang’er and asked her to come and greet Lan Dan. Being able to enter the palace and attend the Chunhui Terrace night banquet, this lady’s identity must be high.
Jiang’er pressed her heart, knowing it was a misunderstanding but still crying and apologizing while bowing. “Miss, I’m so sorry for my nonsense earlier, please don’t be angry with me. I was just confused. Your voice sounded so much like my former mistress, that’s why…”
Lan Dan felt sorry for Jiang’er and reassured her, “Don’t blame yourself. It’s my fault for not bringing a lantern and scaring you.”
Lan Dan’s voice and speech patterns were so reminiscent of her former mistress that Jiang’er couldn’t stop crying.
The other palace maid could no longer bear to watch and pushed Jiang’er while apologizing, “Miss, please don’t mind her. She used to serve a Princess from the previous dynasty, that’s why she’s a bit eccentric. Let us escort you back to Chunhui Terrace.”
Lan Dan nodded and followed them slowly, casually asking, “May I ask which Princess the girl served in the previous dynasty?”
Just as Jiang’er was about to answer, the other palace maid broke in, “Let’s not talk about the past. Those people are all gone. Saying too much will only bring trouble.”
Jiang’er nodded obediently, then worriedly said, “Oh no, my lantern just burned out. The person in charge will punish me when I go back.”
“You’re so scatterbrained! You can’t do anything right!”
Lan Dan smiled bitterly. It seemed that the master and servant were indeed similar. The words the palace maid used to scold Jiang’er were also suitable for scolding her. “Thank you both for showing me the way. Consider this a little gift from me. It should be enough to buy another lantern.” As she spoke, she handed a hairpin to each of them. Jiang’er didn’t say anything, but the other palace girl expressed her gratitude.
The palace maid couldn’t help but admire Lan Dan as they walked towards a brightly lit area. Seeing that Lan Dan was approachable and humble, she asked with a smile, “Miss, which noble family do you belong to?”
Lan Dan frowned, afraid that not answering would make her suspicious, so she said plainly, “The Prince of Yan’s mansion.”
The palace maid suddenly realized, and said flatteringly, “You must be the beautiful woman that the Prince of Yan dotes on!”
This statement was an immense irony to Lan Dan tonight, and she gave a cold smile.
Although the palace maid with the lantern was in Yeting Courtyard, she was a well-informed person. Seeing that Lan Dan was generous and of a high status, she had the desire to attach herself. “Miss, don’t blame Hai Shan for being talkative. Hai Shan heard that His Highness will confer Sister Zi Fu the title of Side Consort on this auspicious fifteenth day.”
Lan Dan suddenly stopped in her tracks, and when Hai Shan saw her face turn pale, she knew her information was valuable and tried to please her by saying, “You should start making plans early and don’t forget about Hai Shan’s feelings for you.”
Jiang’er had not spoken all along. At this moment, she stepped forward to hold Lan Dan’s arm and helped her continue walking. Jiang’er had a moment of confusion, as if she were serving her own Princess. This noblewoman, like the Princess, preferred to remain silent when sad, and her attendants just needed to stay quietly beside her.
The night viewing at Chunhui Terrace was coming to an end. Many noblewomen and ladies said their goodbyes and left the palace. There were fewer people on the terrace, but more guests gathered below and on the stone bridge.
Shentu Rui leaned against a stone pillar below the terrace, obviously waiting for someone. Lan Dan saw him from a distance but didn’t know if this handsome young man in his gorgeous attire was waiting for her.
Wanting to show off in front of the Prince of Yan, Hai Shan escorted Lan Dan to Shentu Rui, where she made a curtsy.
Shentu Rui didn’t pay much attention to these insignificant palace maids. He looked at Lan Dan with a sidelong glance and asked lazily, “I haven’t seen you for so long. Where have you been?”
Lan Dan didn’t answer and looked down. Quick-witted Hai Shan replied, “The young lady got lost while admiring the flowers, and we’re escorting her back.”
Upon hearing this, Shentu Rui smiled sarcastically and didn’t say anything. She got lost?
Hai Shan felt a little embarrassed and bid farewell with a bow, but Shentu Rui ignored her completely.
Jiang’er, who had been silent all along, suddenly kneeled and bowed to Lan Dan, tears streaming down her face. Shentu Rui looked at her for several moments, furrowing his brows and looking displeased.
Lan Dan’s heart was in turmoil. She was about to speak when Shentu Rui hurried over and pulled her away forcefully without even saying goodbye.
After crossing the stone bridge, Shentu Rui slowed down his pace. Lan Dan tried to break free from his grip, but he pulled her harder, causing her to stumble a few steps. With few people around, Shentu Rui grabbed her upper arm and pulled her closer, questioning her in a low voice, “Where did you go? That palace maid was your former personal maid. Did she recognize you?”
Lan Dan noticed the strong smell of alcohol on Shentu Rui and her arm was in pain from his grip. She looked at him closely, trying to determine if he was drunk. His face was slightly flushed and his eyes seemed to show signs of drunkenness, but they were still sharp.
He was visibly annoyed by her lack of response, so shook her forcefully, “Speak!”
Lan Dan turned her eyes away and stopped looking at him. It had been a long time since he had used such a menacing tone with her that she had almost forgotten this side of him. “No,” she said coldly. “She just thought my voice sounded familiar.”
Shentu Rui stared at her, his tone not softening. “That’s still dangerous.”
Lan Dan took a deep breath and pushed down all her complex emotions. She needed his help now more than ever! She thought of how Lan Huang begged him, and tried to mimic her tone, but her heart felt as though it was being crushed. It was painful and heavy, as if it were about to break. Tears streamed down her face as she struggled to suppress the disappointment and bitterness that suddenly surfaced. She looked at Shentu Rui again, the handsome face that she previously thought was sincere and emotionally invested in her. But now she suspected that he might be the most cunning and devious person in their midst. The most ingenious deception was the one that left no trace of deception.
“Shentu Rui…” She sobbed, almost incoherent. “Help me bring Jiang’er out, she’s living a hard life in the palace.”
Shentu Rui frowned as he looked at her, keenly sensing that something was different. It was unlike her usual coquettishness and pleading. There was a hint of despair in her eyes.
“No,” he refused softly, as if he couldn’t bear it, but he was very decisive. He knew that this answer saddened her, so he released his grip on her hand and smoothed her hair by her temples. “Because she knows you too well. She could easily give away your whereabouts, and she’s not exactly the most astute or cautious person. If someone were to coax her into talking, you’d be in danger.”
At this moment, Lan Dan could not bear his refusal. After hearing the promise and commitment he made to Lan Huang, she threw all of her dignity away and begged him.
Perhaps her eyes were too sad and desperate, and after watching her for a while, Shentu Rui finally relented and said, “Let’s talk about this later.”
Lan Dan didn’t say anything else and silently followed him into the carriage, heading back to the mansion.
Shentu Rui was really tired after drinking and exerting so much energy. He fell asleep in the carriage, while Lan Dan sat next to the wall, keeping her distance from him. She thought hard and long throughout the journey, wondering what she could do in this situation and how to handle it.
Her head gradually began to ache, and she felt empty-handed and isolated. When Shentu Rui stood in front of her, she had the illusion that she was nothing without him.
She had never hated herself as much as she did today, loathing her own helplessness and dependence on Shentu Rui. She even hated Shentu Rui himself.
Shentu Rui returned to her room as usual, but this time he was accompanied by Zi Fu and her attendants.
Zi Fu must have already known about the reward given to her by Lan Huang, and thus did not care much about Lan Dan. She and her maids helped Shentu Rui change into casual clothes, tidied up his appearance, and even kindly fed him the hangover soup.
Shentu Rui did not refuse and indulged Zi Fu’s intrusion into Lan Dan’s room, acting as if it was normal.
Lan Dan watched them quietly in front of the floor-to-ceiling window, feeling oddly unaffected, at least not as hurt as when she was rejected by Shentu Rui for asking help for Jiang’er’s case.
After Zi Fu and her group left, Shentu Rui was already lying in bed, feeling drowsy and said incoherently, “Today…too tired…”
Lan Dan softly replied, yes, today was too difficult for everyone.
She pushed the window open a crack and gazed out into the night sky, deep and dark, with only a scattering of stars and moon. Humans, she thought, were truly the most incomprehensible creatures in the world. It seemed like sweet and happy moments were only a day and night away from slipping out of reach.
Everything had changed, everything had completely changed.
Following their usual routine, Shentu Rui prepared to attend court at daybreak while Lan Dan feigned sleep. However, this time she noticed a difference in the way he walked away, no longer trying to be quiet for her. The heavy sound of his footsteps felt cold and unfeeling.
Near noon, Lan Dan received a verbal order from the Empress Dowager, summoning her to the palace.
Lan Dan didn’t care to guess whether it was good or bad news. She just dressed up hastily and got into the sedan chair sent by the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager, in contrast to Lan Dan’s tired appearance, looked stunning with her rich makeup and joyful mood.
The palace maid announced that the Prince of Yan had arrived at Taici Palace and then left, leaving Lan Dan and the Empress Dowager alone in the side hall.
“You may not know yet,” the Empress Dowager said, not allowing Lan Dan to sit down, “but ‘Her Excellence’ insists on getting her servant a status.” Her tone when speaking of Lan Huang and Zi Fu was so disdainful that Lan Dan felt a slight sense of relief upon hearing it. “Cheng’er and Rui’er can’t really oppose her face, and it’s not a big deal anyway. A concubine can be deposed at will.” The Empress Dowager hummed proudly, then softened her expression and tone. “But considering your situation and feelings, this mistress will take care of it! You’ll also be given a title of Side Consort. Since Rui’er likes you, his mother will naturally take care of you.”
At first, Lan Dan didn’t care much about her title being sealed off. As the Princess Danyang, she knew how empty these titles could be. But hearing the Empress Dowager’s words, Lan Dan, who had no mother and was used to being alone, felt indescribable emotions in her heart. Had she ever had someone who would focus on her like that? Although she disliked the disputes over her identity, she couldn’t bring herself to refuse the Empress Dowager’s request and had to kneel down to express her gratitude.
“He’s coming now, you go to the ear chamber first. Don’t make a sound, listen to what he says,” said the Empress Dowager with a mischievous smile. She meant well, but Shentu Rui was like his father when it came to expressing his love. The more he loved someone to the bone, the less he could speak. By letting this girl hear how he expressed his gratitude and happiness, their relationship would be stronger and Shentu Rui would be more at ease.
Lan Dan complied with the order and went to the ear chamber beside the side hall… She had been there before and had seen many secrets last time.
As soon as Lan Dan was seated, Shentu Rui walked into the side hall. The Empress Dowager got straight to the point and explained her intentions, smiling and waiting for her son to express his gratitude. However, Shentu Rui remained quiet for a long time, causing the Empress Dowager to feel uneasy.
“What’s the matter? You don’t want to do it? Do you blame your mother for being too nosy?” She intentionally spoke seriously to encourage Shentu Rui to speak.
“How can I blame you for being too nosy?” Shentu Rui joked as expected, but his playful tone quickly became serious, “But I really don’t want to do it.”
Upon hearing this, the Empress Dowager couldn’t sit still and said, “Why? That person of yours… without a name or status, you’re just letting a servant girl suppress her?”
Shentu Rui scoffed nonchalantly, “So what?”
The Empress Dowager felt like she had made things worse and hadn’t expected her son to refuse. “Could it be that… you don’t want her to become the Side Consort and want her to become the Princess Consort instead?” She still held onto hope and guessed.
“No,” Shentu Rui said coldly. “Don’t give her any title. Let her have nothing to do with me.”
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