Arc 5: Harem Competing Strategies Chapter 3
Tao Yuan and Sun Yuan were assigned to the same room. When they entered the palace, they couldn’t bring anything with them, and all the items they needed were newly provided by the palace attendants.
Sun Yuan closed the door of the room, and the two of them prepared to change into the standardized attire of palace attendants.
While Tao Yuan watched him close the door, he walked behind a folding screen to remove his clothes. After Sun Yuan closed the door, he also walked over.
“My father told me that he has made all the arrangements for me. As long as I behave modestly and unremarkably, in three months, I will definitely become a palace attendant and be able to return home after spending two or three years in the palace,” Sun Yuan said in a low voice.
While changing his outer garments, Tao Yuan spoke in an equally soft voice, “Your father truly cares about you. He knows that the harem is not a good place and doesn’t want to trade your happiness for the honor of the family.”
“I am of average appearance and ordinary talent. I can’t attract the Emperor’s attention, nor can I please the Empress Dowager. Even if I stay in the harem, it won’t bring any benefits to the family,” Sun Yuan peeked outside the door and said in an even quieter voice, “But you are definitely going to stay in the palace. Those people think that at most, you can only become a Huang Guijun, but I overheard my father’s conversation. He said that the Emperor is likely to bestow upon you the title of Empress.”
Tao Yuan replied with a helpless smile, “Regardless of the role I assume, my destiny is controlled by others.”
Sun Yuan sighed, “Your father is a grand marshal, and the Emperor and Empress Dowager will definitely want to keep you in the palace. But even if you become a Huang Guijun, so what? Not to mention sharing your husband with so many others, life in the harem, filled with intrigue and power struggles, is a treacherous path. Personally, I don’t want to live such a life at all, but some people consider entering the harem as a great stroke of luck.”
“Everyone has different thoughts, but their destinies are not within their control. But what else can we do? Although there are those who don’t want to leave everything to fate and want to fight for their own desires, no matter the outcome, they will have to bear the consequences themselves.”
“In the future, when you stay in the palace, whether as a Huang Guijun or Empress, you must be extremely cautious and guard against others,” Sun Yuan advised.
“I understand. Since I have entered the harem, I have mentally prepared myself to face anything. However, I am not someone easily bullied. What belongs to me, I will never let anyone else take,” Tao Yuan responded determinedly.
Due to the original host’s family background, Tao Yuan had to enter the palace, and he also had a reason to stay there. Because his beloved in this lifetime was the Emperor, he had to remain by his side. Even though his beloved was the Emperor, he would never share him with anyone else. Others could fight and snatch, but regardless of the outcome, they would have to bear the consequences themselves.
After changing their clothes and placing the discarded ones in the wardrobe, they sat at the table, sipping tea and chatting.
The next morning, under the guidance of the manager of Chuxiu Palace, they went together to pay respects to the Empress Dowager.
All the court ladies wore pink, while all the palace attendants wore light blue. The attire was simple and elegant, making them all look spirited. However, with everyone wearing the same outfit, the contrast in appearance and temperament became more apparent.
The Empress Dowager sat above in the main hall, observing the people standing below. In her heart, she believed that indeed Tao Yuan and Ye Rong were the most outstanding. Although the others had good looks as well, standing next to the two of them only made them appear as mere accessories.
Although they would all spend three months learning the rules and etiquette in the palace, only Ye Rong and Tao Yuan had the opportunity to receive personal guidance from the Empress Dowager. This confirmed the speculation that one would become an Empress and the other a Huang Guijun. However, in the minds of others, Ye Rong was undoubtedly the Empress.
Although the Empress Dowager knew in her heart that Tao Yuan would eventually become the Empress, she did not hold much hope for him to excel in that role. She believed that in the future, she would still rely on Ye Rong to assist her in managing the harem. At the same time, it was also a way to show her appreciation for Ye Rong, which was why she allowed him to start learning early.
Two months later.
Tao Yuan, as usual, woke up early and prepared several pastries 1 using ingredients he had prepared the night before. He carried them and went to Jing Shou Palace to pay respects to the Empress Dowager.
When Tao Yuan entered Jing Shou Palace 2, the other court ladies and attendants were already waiting outside the hall, ready to pay their respects to the Empress Dowager. Tao Yuan arrived later than them due to making the pastries, but the manager of Chuxiu Palace turned a blind eye since the Empress Dowager herself had personally requested Tao Yuan’s pastries.
When the others saw Tao Yuan approaching, they made way for him, allowing him to stand at the front. Seeing the pastries he held in his hands, they couldn’t help but feel envious and jealous.
Liu Gonggong, the chief eunuch by the Empress Dowager’s side, came forward and said, “You may all enter and pay respects to the Empress Dowager now.”
The Empress Dowager had just finished dressing up and was seated in the main hall of Jing Shou Palace, waiting for them to enter and pay their respects.
Tao Yuan and Ye Rong walked at the front, while the others formed two rows behind them. After entering the main hall, they all bowed together and said, “Paying respects to the Empress Dowager.”
The Empress Dowager smiled and said, “Rise.”
“Thank you, Empress Dowager.”
After everyone stood up, Tao Yuan took two steps forward and respectfully said to the Empress Dowager, “Reporting to the Empress Dowager, this morning, as a humble servant, I made some appetizing pastries for you.”
The Empress Dowager had expressed her desire to eat pastries made by Tao Yuan the day before, so naturally, he had prepared them for her.
A palace maid beside the Empress Dowager approached and took the tray from Tao Yuan, placing it in front of the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager glanced at the exquisite pastries on the tray and said, “You’ve worked hard.”
“Not at all, Empress Dowager. It is my fortune that you enjoy them,” Tao Yuan replied respectfully.
Just the aroma of those pastries immediately whetted the Empress Dowager’s appetite. Her appetite had not been good in recent days, and only the pastries made by Tao Yuan could stimulate her desire to eat.
Over the past two months, the Empress Dowager’s impression of Tao Yuan had changed significantly. She no longer saw him as the ill-mannered and uncultured person she initially thought he was. Not only was he well-behaved and refined, but he also quickly grasped any instructions she gave him.
Most notably, he had exceptional culinary skills, making pastries that surpassed even those from the imperial kitchen.
Through these delicious dishes over the past two months, Tao Yuan had greatly improved the Empress Dowager’s opinion of him. Although she still favored Ye Rong in her heart, at least now she treated the two of them equally.
After the Empress Dowager picked up her chopsticks and was about to taste the pastries, she suddenly heard a voice from outside the palace.
“The Emperor has arrived!”
The Empress Dowager immediately put down her chopsticks and looked towards the entrance.
Others quickly stepped aside, knelt on one knee, and bowed as the Emperor walked in with big strides, saying, “Greetings, Your Majesty!”
The Emperor walked to the front and bowed to the Empress Dowager, saying, “Mother.”
The Empress Dowager asked, “Why didn’t you attend the court session?”
“I have already retired from the court,” the Emperor replied, then took a seat to the left and below the Empress Dowager.
“Has the Emperor had breakfast yet?” the Empress Dowager asked.
“I haven’t had breakfast yet. I thought it has been a long time since I had breakfast with the Empress Dowager. Since I finished court early today, I came to accompany the Empress Dowager for breakfast,” the Emperor replied.
“The Emperor, please taste these pastries.” The Empress Dowager raised her hand, signaling a palace maid to divide the pastries in front of her and give some to the Emperor.
The palace maid brought a table and placed it in front of the Emperor, then put the divided pastries on the table.
Xiao Junye glanced at the pastries on the table, picked up a small soup dumpling with his chopsticks, took a bite as soon as it entered his mouth, and the delicious soup flowed into his mouth.
Xiao Junye paused for a moment and said, “Has the Imperial Kitchen hired a new chef? I haven’t had such delicious soup dumplings before.”
“Not from the Imperial Kitchen, it was made by Mu Xi,” the Empress Dowager said with a smile.
“Oh?” Xiao Junye was somewhat surprised. He turned his head and looked down, seeing Tao Yuan standing there with lowered eyebrows, looking pleasing. He couldn’t help but look at him a few more times. He thought that since Tao Yuan entered the palace, they had never had a “chance encounter.” On the other hand, Ye Rong, who entered the palace at the same time as him, had “chance encounters” with him several times in the Empress Dowager’s palace.
Xiao Junye thought to himself, with such excellent culinary skills, Tao Yuan had never sent him any food after entering the palace. Could it be that he didn’t want to catch his attention?
“You should also taste this flaky milk. It melts in your mouth and has a sweet and savory taste. The Empress Dowager especially loves it,” the Empress Dowager said.
Xiao Junye took a bite, and indeed, it melted in his mouth, sweet and not greasy.
“And try this egg yolk pastry as well. You will definitely like the taste,” the Empress Dowager added.
“Empress Dowager, during this period, you must have frequently enjoyed such delicious pastries. How come you never asked your son to taste them?” Xiao Junye complained to the Empress Dowager, but it was actually praising Tao Yuan’s culinary skills.
“In the future, there will be plenty of opportunities for you to eat your fill,” the Empress Dowager said with a smile.
The jealousy in the hearts of others felt like being scratched by a cat’s claws—painful and itchy. Ever since they entered the palace, they hoped to encounter the Emperor during their greetings to the Empress Dowager, hoping to receive an extra glance from him. They were not like Ye Rong, who could often stay in the Empress Dowager’s palace and have more opportunities to meet the Emperor. They thought that those favored by the Empress Dowager, like Ye Rong, were beyond their reach, not to mention someone else who was likely even more envious.
However, they didn’t expect that this person would gain even more recognition from the Empress Dowager after entering the palace. With just a few exquisite dishes, the Empress Dowager couldn’t stop praising his culinary skills. Now, both the Empress Dowager and the Emperor engaged in conversations that were filled with overt and covert compliments about his cooking.
Xiao Junye was happily eating when suddenly his brow furrowed. Sensing his discomfort, the Empress Dowager immediately said to the people below, “You may all leave.”
“Yes,” they replied.
Tao Yuan and Ye Rong led the way as they walked out, followed by the others.
Back in the Chuxiu Palace, Tao Yuan and Ye Rong looked at each other without saying a word. But just from their gaze, sparks flew. After a moment of eye contact, they turned and went back to their respective rooms.
The onlookers thought the more intense their rivalry, the better. If they could make the Emperor detest both of them in the end, then there would be more opportunities for the rest of them.
Ever since Tao Yuan entered the palace and witnessed how his culinary skills won the Empress Dowager’s favor, Ye Rong deeply regretted not purchasing a Level 10 cooking skill when he had the chance. At that time, the cooking skills were too expensive, and each time he cooked, it would decrease his appearance value. So he didn’t make the purchase.
However, recently he had his family find skilled attendants who excelled in cooking and send them to the palace. Once he became the Emperor’s Huang Guijun, he would have attendants to serve him. He still believed that cooking was something that should be done by servants. But even though he lacked culinary skills himself, he had to admit that using food to cultivate favor was a good method. He couldn’t afford to lose to him.
According to the progress of the game’s plot, these three months were the time for Ye Rong, as the game’s protagonist, to find a way to gain enough favor with the Emperor. According to the game’s setting, the Emperor would marry both Mu Xi and Ye Rong on the same night. Whether he would go to Mu Xi, who would become the Empress, or to Ye Rong, who would become the Huang Guijun, would depend on whether Ye Rong’s favor points were high enough.
After Tao Yuan and the others left, the Empress Dowager instructed the palace maids, “You may also leave.”
“Yes,” the other palace maids responded, and they all left, leaving only a few trusted attendants of the Empress Dowager guarding outside the hall.
“How have you been feeling these past few days?” the Empress Dowager asked with concern. “Have your headaches been more frequent? Have you been coughing up blood?”
At the thought of Xiao Junye’s condition, the Empress Dowager couldn’t help but feel a heart-wrenching pain, rendering even the delicious food tasteless.
“I haven’t coughed up blood these past few days, and the headaches have only occurred a few times. They weren’t particularly severe, and I could bear with them,” Xiao Junye reassured the Empress Dowager. “Mother, there’s no need to worry. The new medicine has been effective, and it might help eliminate some of the toxins in my body.”
“It’s because I failed to protect you. I’m the one who caused this to happen to you,” the Empress Dowager couldn’t help but feel like crying every time this matter was mentioned.
When Xiao Junye was young, someone had poisoned him with a chronic toxin. Since then, he often felt unwell, but the imperial physicians couldn’t diagnose the problem. Several years later, he suddenly started coughing up blood and nearly died. It was only then that they discovered he had been poisoned. Although they managed to save his life, the toxin had already deeply penetrated his body, and there was no known cure. They could only rely on other medications to sustain his life. Due to the incurable nature of the poison, he would experience intense headaches, and during severe episodes, he would cough up blood.
However, over the years, the Empress Dowager hadn’t been able to identify the person who poisoned him. To ensure Xiao Junye’s position as the Crown Prince wasn’t jeopardized and to keep his potential death from poison hidden, the Empress Dowager concealed the matter until he successfully ascended the throne.
Xiao Junye comforted the Empress Dowager for a while. Once her emotions improved, he changed the subject. “Mother, it seems you’ve had a change of opinion regarding Mu Xi. It appears that you’re quite satisfied with his performance since he entered the palace.”
“Indeed, my view of him has changed quite a bit in these past few days. He doesn’t resemble a child raised in a military family at all. Not only is his behavior and manners graceful, but his way of speaking and handling matters also displays elegance and nobility. Initially, I thought he was pretending, and I expected his true colors to be revealed soon. However, over the past two months, I’ve come to realize that it’s impossible for him to pretend if it wasn’t ingrained in his upbringing. Moreover, his exceptional culinary skills aren’t something one can learn in just a day or two.”
“Previously, Mother was concerned about him becoming the Empress. Now it seems you’re more at ease?” Xiao Junye asked.
“I wouldn’t say at ease. I can only say that he’s not as bad as I initially thought. Whether he can be a good Emperess or not depends on his own capabilities to survive in this imperial palace. If I had to choose, I would still prefer Ye Rong as the Empress, but my opinion of Mu Xi has improved compared to before.”
“I believe that time reveals a person’s true character. I have encountered Ye Rong several times in the palace, but I have never met Mu Xi alone. Based on his ability to remain composed, I feel that Mu Xi might be more suitable as the Empress.”
“Is that so?” the Empress Dowager paused and said, “Mu Xi has been in the palace for two months, and you haven’t met him alone yet?”
As long as Xiao Junye was in the palace and not too busy, he always came to greet the Empress Dowager. He had encountered Ye Rong several times in the Jing Shou Palace, but he had never come across Tao Yuan even once. So both he and the Empress Dowager found it surprising.
Ye Rong, in order to quickly increase his favorability with the Emperor before the grand wedding, purposely had several coincidental encounters with Xiao Junye. He had already completed his pursuit of Prince Yu and gained a lot of favor with the Empress Dowager. Now his main target was Emperor Xiao Junye, so he naturally wanted to encounter him more frequently. Ye Rong intended to use his protagonist halo and appearance to attract him and leave an impression in his heart, making it easier for him to pursue the Emperor later.
However, what he didn’t know was that the current Xiao Junye had changed on the inside and was immune to his protagonist halo. Each time Ye Rong appeared before him, it only made Xiao Junye feel that he was restless and overly ambitious. Moreover, he didn’t know what fragrance Ye Rong was using. Whenever Ye Rong got closer to him, that scent made him very uncomfortable.
After chatting with the Empress Dowager for a while, Xiao Junye got up to leave.
The Empress Dowager also stood up and said to him, “Yesterday, Mu Xi mentioned that the roses in the Jing Shou Palace are in full bloom. He wanted to pick some to make rose pastries, and I granted his request. I believe he is currently picking rose petals. When he’s done, I will have someone send them to you to taste.”
The Empress Dowager suddenly said this, and Xiao Junye naturally understood her intentions.
During this period, the Empress Dowager had eaten so many dishes made by Tao Yuan. Although her heart hadn’t been won over, her stomach had. She felt that regardless of her previous satisfaction with Tao Yuan, at least now he was doing well. Therefore, she wanted to give Xiao Junye and Tao Yuan a chance to interact a little before the grand wedding.
This was also because Tao Yuan had put in effort to increase the Empress Dowager’s favorability toward him, which led to the Empress Dowager’s actions.
Although Xiao Junye understood the meaning behind the Empress Dowager’s words, he still had things to attend to, so he prepared to leave directly.
As Xiao Junye walked in the corridor, he suddenly saw a figure passing by the corner ahead. He paused for a moment, then instinctively stopped and said to the eunuchs following behind him, “Stay here, don’t follow.”
After having breakfast, Tao Yuan carried a basket and went to the garden to pick rose petals. Most of the time, life in the palace was quite boring. So when there were no rules to learn and nothing else to do, he would cook to pass the time and also increase the Empress Dowager’s favorability.
As for Xiao Junye, he wasn’t in a hurry. After all, Tao Yuan was confident that he could make Xiao Junye fall in love with him quickly after the grand wedding. Besides, only he could cure the poison within Xiao Junye. Even though Ye Rong had an eighth-level skill in pharmacology, he couldn’t cure the poison in Xiao Junye, and considering Ye Rong’s goals, it would already be good if he didn’t poison Xiao Junye. How could he possibly cure him?
Xiao Junye stood at the corner, looking at the scene in front of him, and suddenly he froze. The person standing amidst the rose bushes was a hundred times more beautiful than the flowers themselves, as if a floral deity had descended, unrealistically beautiful.
Tao Yuan had picked about half a basket of rose petals and thought it was enough, so he was preparing to return to the Chuxiu Palace. Just as he raised his head, he saw Xiao Junye standing not far away, and he paused for a moment.
Xiao Junye had entered the garden without even realizing it.
After Tao Yuan regained his senses, he walked over to greet him.
“Cough… cough…” Xiao Junye suddenly started coughing violently. He felt discomfort in his body and was about to turn around and leave when a fishy-sweet taste surged up his throat, and he spat out a mouthful of blood, “Puh!”
“Your Majesty!” The bamboo basket in Tao Yuan’s hand fell to the ground, and he quickly ran towards him.
Xiao Junye’s headache started to intensify. His vision was turning black, and the intense pain made him feel unstable. Although he had experienced frequent headaches before, they were rarely as severe as this.
“Your Majesty, are you alright?” Tao Yuan supported him as he was about to collapse.
Xiao Junye’s body swayed, and he fell onto Tao Yuan. Despite the poison he had been afflicted with for many years, he had a naturally tall stature, and combined with his years of martial arts and equestrian training, his physique was still robust. He completely collapsed onto Tao Yuan, but the sixteen-year-old Tao Yuan couldn’t support him at all.
The two of them ended up squatting on the ground together. Xiao Junye’s head weakly leaned on Tao Yuan’s shoulder, and he suddenly caught a whiff of a very sweet fragrance. This scent made him feel considerably more comfortable, and he couldn’t help but take deep breaths, wanting to inhale more of this fragrance.
Xiao Junye buried his face in Tao Yuan’s neck and took deep breaths. Tao Yuan could only tilt his head and cautiously watch out for anyone approaching.
The sweet fragrance entered Xiao Junye’s nostrils and spread through his chest, gradually alleviating his headache and bringing back his consciousness.
When Tao Yuan thought he was feeling better, he shook his body and said, “Your Majesty, are you alright? Should I go and call the imperial physician?”
Upon hearing Tao Yuan mention calling the imperial physician, Xiao Junye immediately became alert. He endured the remaining headache and looked at Tao Yuan, saying, “There’s no need to call the imperial physician. I’m fine.”
“Your Majesty, you… you don’t seem alright,” Tao Yuan said, looking at his slightly pale complexion.
“When I say I’m fine, I’m fine. This matter must not be told to anyone, understand?” Xiao Junye spoke with a serious expression.
“I understand…” Tao Yuan said, “This humble servant will never tell anyone.”
Catching a whiff of the fragrance from Tao Yuan’s body, Xiao Junye couldn’t help but bring his face closer to his neck.
Tao Yuan stepped back and said, “Your Majesty, you shouldn’t… If someone sees us like this, it wouldn’t be good.”
Only then did Xiao Junye remember that there might be palace maids passing by. Being seen so intimately in broad daylight would indeed be inappropriate.
Both of them stood up, and Xiao Junye sternly warned Tao Yuan again, “You must not mention what just happened to anyone.”
“Yes.” Tao Yuan lowered his head respectfully and answered seriously.
Xiao Junye took a deep breath before turning around and quickly walking away.
Tao Yuan watched his figure for a while, then turned to pick up his bamboo basket. Acting as if nothing had happened, he calmly left the scene.
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- 点心 dian xin: light refreshments, pastry, dimsum, dessert
- 景 Jing: bright; circumstance; scenery; surname Jing ;
寿 Shou: long life; old age; age; life; birthday