Arc 5: Harem Competing Strategies Chapter 4
Tao Yuancleaned and dried the fresh rose petals, then began making rose jam. After making the rose jam, Tao Yuan stored a portion of it and used the rest to make rose cakes.
After completing these tasks, Tao Yuan took some rose jam and cakes and went to see the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager had the palace maids steep the tea with rose jam. After taking a sip of the tea and eating a bite of rose petals, she enjoyed the sweet fragrance of the roses, which made her feel quite comfortable. Among all the different types of flowers, roses were not the Empress Dowager’s favorite due to their intense beauty, but she particularly loved the scent of roses. That’s why she had a secluded garden dedicated solely to growing roses.
“I didn’t expect this rose jam to taste so delicious just by steeping it in tea. And these cakes are also excellent,” praised the Empress Dowager as she set down her teacup. Then, she turned to the nearby palace maid and said, “Bring the treasure box from my dressing table.”
The palace maid brought the Empress Dowager’s treasure box and placed it on the table. The Empress Dowager opened one of the layers and took out a bright moonstone. She said, “I thought that enjoying these cakes and tea while admiring the moon would be quite elegant. I’m gifting you this moonstone. Place it by your pillow at night, and you’ll have the company of the moon.”
“Thank you for your gracious gift, Empress Dowager,” Tao Yuan respectfully received the moonstone from the Empress Dowager’s hand. Such stones, shaped like spheres and capable of emitting fluorescence at night, were rare in ancient times. The fact that the Empress Dowager bestowed it upon him indicated her genuine fondness for his rose jam and cakes.
During these two months, Tao Yuan had received numerous rewards from the Empress Dowager. Although the Empress Dowager was biased towards him due to Ye Rong’s prestigious background and previous favorable impressions, she had always treated Tao Yuan with kindness. Moreover, she frequently rewarded Tao Yuan for the delicacies he made. However, each time she rewarded Tao Yuan, she would also give Ye Rong a portion as well.
This was the first time the Empress Dowager had personally rewarded Tao Yuanwithout Ye Rong’s presence, indicating that she already held a high regard and approval of him in her heart.
When Ye Rong arrived and saw the cup of tea on the table emitting an enticing rose fragrance, he knew that it was another attempt by Tao Yuan to please the Empress Dowager. Although he remained calm on the surface, he felt regret once again in his heart and became even more wary of Tao Yuan as his rival.
Tao Yuan returned to the Chuxiu Palace, where the noble young men from the military families came to his and Sun Yuan’s room to enjoy the tea and cakes. They praised them endlessly.
“It smells so good! I want to keep this rose jam in my room and enjoy the fragrance at night. It’s much better than incense.”
“I used to not like the scent of roses, but I don’t know why, this jam smells particularly amazing.”
“I feel the same way. I used to find the scent of roses overwhelming, but this light and sweet fragrance is incredibly pleasant.”
“Don’t just smell it. Once you taste it, the aroma will linger in your nose.”
“These cakes are really delicious. No wonder the Empress Dowager praised A-Xi’s desserts so much. When I have a poor appetite, only A-Xi’s desserts can tempt me.”
“It has a subtle sweetness and isn’t at all greasy. It’s so delicious.”
“Quickly, take advantage of the opportunity to eat more now. Once A-Xi becomes the Huang Guijun, we won’t be able to eat anymore.”
“Yes, after A-Xi becomes the Huang Guijun, he will only make desserts for the Emperor and the Empress Dowager. We might not even have the chance to stay in the palace, let alone taste his desserts.”
“I’m afraid that by that time, someone will use their status to force A-Xi to make desserts for him.”
“Why be afraid? Once A-Xi gains the Emperor’s favor, he can request a decree from the Emperor. Only the Empress Dowager and the Emperor can make A-Xi make desserts. Let’s see if he dares to be angry then.”
Tao Yuan and Sun Yuan exchanged glances but didn’t say anything. Even the people on their side believed that Ye Rong would definitely become the Empress. Tao Yuan didn’t want to say anything, nor was it necessary. Let them think that way.
Ye Rong’s room was opposite Tao Yuan’s room, separated by a large courtyard. However, with the doors open, they could see what the other side was doing.
The people on Ye Rong’s side saw the lively atmosphere and laughter on Tao Yuan’s side. Even if they couldn’t hear clearly what they were saying, they could guess the general content.
Even they had to admit that Tao Yuan’s performance in the past two months deserved the Empress Dowager’s favor. His behavior during court etiquette in the academy was no worse than Ye Rong’s. He also had excellent culinary skills, and his desserts completely captured the Empress Dowager’s taste buds. The Empress Dowager’s attitude towards him was obviously more sincere than before. Now it wasn’t just because his father was the Grand Marshal of the Army that she treated him and Ye Rong equally.
Although these people had to admit in their hearts that Tao Yuan’s performance was truly outstanding, they still refused to accept it verbally.
“It’s just making a few desserts. Even if he pleases the Empress Dowager, it’s difficult to please the Emperor. The Emperor, as the supreme ruler, won’t be fond of someone just because of food. Only someone like A-Rong, who excels both internally and externally, with an extraordinary appearance and an elegant temperament, will be favored by the Emperor.”
“He always stays in the kitchen to make those desserts, getting covered in the smell of cooking oil. If the Emperor smells it, I wonder how disgusted he would be.”
“Once A-Rong becomes the Empress, he should show the authority of the Emperor’s legitimate wife and let him know who the Emperor truly loves.”
“Exactly! Since he loves making desserts, once Ah Rong becomes the Empress, we’ll make him stay in the kitchen every day and not let him come out.”
Ye Rong stood up and said lightly, “I’m feeling a bit tired. You all can return to your own rooms. I want to rest for a while.”
The others glanced at each other and stood up, saying, “Rest well. If you’re feeling unwell, let the palace maid find the imperial physician to check your pulse.”
“Okay,” Ye Rong nodded.
After the others left, the people sharing the room with Ye Rong closed the door. Ye Rong walked to the bed, took off his shoes, and lay down.
In his encounters with the Emperor at Jing Shou Palace, he failed to attract the Emperor’s special attention. He originally thought that with his unparalleled beauty and the aura of the protagonist, he would definitely be able to catch the Emperor’s eye. He had successfully attracted the Crown Prince, Yu Wang, after meeting him a few times, making him fall in love to the point of no return within less than a year. But it seemed that his protagonist aura had not yet worked on the Emperor.
Thinking it over, he could only come up with one reason. Tt was more difficult to capture the Emperor’s heart. The Emperor wasn’t easily swayed. In that case, he would have to think of another way. In any case, he had to win the Emperor’s favor before the grand wedding.
In the evening, after Tao Yuan finished washing up, he sat in front of the dressing table, looking at the moonlight pearl bestowed by the Empress Dowager. The moonlight pearl, also known as a luminous pearl, was not a type of pearl but a stone that emitted light. However, its soft glow was not enough to illuminate other objects, nor did it have the wide range of illumination like an electric bulb. Nevertheless, rarity made it valuable. In ancient times, these naturally luminous stones were highly prized and extremely scarce.
Sun Yuan finished washing up and sat down beside him, looking at the pearl and asking, “Is this the moonlight pearl? I’ve only heard about it before, and this is the first time I’ve seen it with my own eyes. However… it doesn’t seem as bright as I imagined. I thought it would be bright even without a lamp.”
Tao Yuan smiled and said, “It appears brighter in complete darkness, but it’s not possible for it to be brighter than a lamp.”
“Nevertheless, no matter what, it’s a rare item and a gift from the Empress Dowager. It’s something others can’t even hope to obtain,” Sun Yuan said.
The two chatted for a while and were about to get up and go to bed when they suddenly heard urgent knocking at the door.
Sun Yuan quickly walked to the door and opened it, looking at the palace maid outside and asking, “What’s the matter?”
“Xu Gonggong has arrived. Please come out to greet him,” the palace maid quickly said, then ran to knock on the doors of other people’s rooms.
Sun Yuan exchanged a glance with Tao Yuan. Xu Gonggong , who could make them go out to greet him, must be Xu Gonggong , the eunuch in charge by the Emperor’s side. There was only one reason he would come to the Chuxiu Palace at this time, and they could think of it.
“Xu Gonggong has arrived. Come out and greet him quickly,” the palace maid said hurriedly before running to knock on the doors of other people’s rooms.
Sun Yuan turned and exchanged a glance with Tao Yuan. They knew that the person they were being called out to greet must be Xu Gonggong, the chief eunuch by the emperor’s side. At this time, his visit to the Palace of Beautiful Virtue could only mean one thing.
All the courtiers were standing outside their rooms, and Xu Shiguan 1 was already in the courtyard with attendants and palace maids, waiting to receive Xu Gonggong.
Before long, Xu Gonggong arrived with his entourage. He was accompanied by ten eunuchs and several palace maids, each holding a large palace lantern. In the middle of two rows of palace maids, eight eunuchs carried a sedan chair covered with a light gauze canopy.
The grand procession confirmed their suspicions. The emperor was going to bestow his favor upon a courtier.
It was normal for the emperor to bestow his favor on selected concubines and courtiers. Being chosen meant being advanced in status and required entering the imperial harem. Once someone became the emperor’s person, even if they lived a lonely life in the palace until their old age, they could not remarry outside the palace.
Xu Shiguan stepped forward and half-bowed toXu Gonggong, saying respectfully, “Xu Gonggong.”
Xu Gonggong nodded in response. “Xu Shiguan.”
“May I ask, Xu Gonggong, are you here to escort a certain courtier?” Xu Shiguan asked with reverence.
Xu Gonggong did not answer immediately but looked around before responding.
Because Xu Gonggong came with the emperor’s command, the courtiers stood respectfully by their room doors, feeling both nervous and expectant. Everyone who wanted to stay in the imperial harem hoped that they would be the one favored this time. However, Grand Secretary Xu’s arrival was sudden, catching them off guard and causing them to feel involuntary anxiety.
Xu Gonggong turned directly and walked towards the left, stopping in front of Tao Yuan. He said, “Minister Mu, His Majesty summons you to accompany him tonight. Please board the sedan chair.”
Tao Yuan had already guessed that it would be him. He had encountered Xiao Junye during the day, and Xiao Junye had discovered that Tao Yuan’s fragrance could alleviate his headaches. Tao Yuan was certain that Xiao Junye would seek him out. However, he didn’t expect it to happen so soon and in this manner.
Amidst the gazes of everyone present, Tao Yuan boarded the sedan chair and was carried away from the Chuxiu Palace.
After watching them disappear beyond the gate, Xu Shiguan loudly said, “It’s already late. Everyone, return to your rooms and rest.”
The others turned back to their rooms with mixed emotions, knowing that most of them would have trouble sleeping tonight.
Ye Rong clenched his fists and then turned back to his room. He didn’t expect that the first one to accompany the emperor would be Tao Yuan, not him.
Ye Rong lay on the bed, removing the hairpin from his head and holding it in his hand. He had even prepared medicine, ready to accompany the emperor at any time. Although he couldn’t actually engage in relations with the emperor now, he still felt extremely displeased that he wasn’t the one chosen for tonight’s encounter.
Tao Yuan was brought to the Kunyang Hall, which was Xiao Junye’s sleeping quarters. However, Xiao Junye was still in the study room. Under the service of palace attendants, Tao Yuan bathed and changed clothes before sitting on the bed, waiting for Xiao Junye to come and favor him.
After a while, Tao Yuan saw Xiao Junye entering and immediately stood up, greeting him with a bow. “Your Majesty.”
“You all may leave,” Xiao Junye commanded.
The attendants and palace maids dared not delay and quickly stepped out.
Xiao Junye approached Tao Yuan step by step. Tao Yuan looked at him and slowly stepped back, appearing somewhat afraid. “Your Majesty…”
Xiao Junye observed Tao Yuan’s skin, as tender and fair as peach blossoms, his lips rosy and delicate like roses. His face was exquisitely beautiful, akin to a picturesque scene. Adorned in a red sleeping gown, with long hair flowing behind him, he exuded an indescribable charm.
“You don’t have to be afraid,” Xiao Junye comforted him. “Zhen have something to ask you, and you must answer truthfully.”
“Your Majesty, what does Your Majesty wish to ask this humble subject?” Tao Yuan inquired.
“How did the fragrance on your body come about?” Xiao Junye had secretly investigated during the day, thinking that if he knew what fragrance Tao Yuan used, he might be able to find a way to counteract the poison. However, the investigation revealed that Tao Yuan didn’t use anything scented.
“This humble subject does not enjoy using perfumes. The fragrance has naturally been present since my childhood,” Tao Yuan replied. He had backed up against the bed, with nowhere else to retreat, and ended up sitting on it.
Indeed, the original body had a faint natural fragrance, but when Xiao Junye smelled it on Tao Yuan, he felt extremely comfortable. It was because Tao Yuan had consumed the water from the space, which had that unique fragrance.
Xiao Junye also sat on the bed and embraced Tao Yuan, burying his face in his neck and inhaling deeply. “Zhen wants to smell the fragrance on you, but you must not tell anyone. That’s the reason why Zhen summoned you here tonight.”
“Y-Yes…” Tao Yuan replied in a low voice, allowing himself to be held without moving.
Originally, Xiao Junye only intended to hold Tao Yuan and smell the fragrance on his body, to make himself feel a little more comfortable. He didn’t have any other intentions. However, despite being deeply poisoned, he was still a normal man. It was difficult for him to not feel anything when he had such a fragrant and soft body in his arms. His hands involuntarily slipped into Tao Yuan’s sleeping gown, caressing him. The smooth and tender touch was addictive.
Xiao Junye buried his face in Tao Yuan’s neck, pressing tightly against his skin and breathing heavily. Although he didn’t know why exactly the fragrance on Tao Yuan’s body could alleviate his headaches, he was certain that it had the power to counteract the poison within him.
Because of the tormenting headaches he had endured for years, Xiao Junye had never felt so comfortable before. He couldn’t get enough of this fragrance, as if he could never smell it enough.
Gradually, Xiao Junye’s face moved lower, and he couldn’t help but open Tao Yuan’s garment with his hands, burying his face in his chest.
Tao Yuan’s breath became increasingly rapid and his body grew hot due to Xiao Junye’s actions.
Xiao Junye’s face moved further down because he noticed that the skin on Tao Yuan’s chest emitted a stronger fragrance than his neck.
Xiao Junye’s lips pressed against Tao Yuan’s skin, the sensation smooth, tender, and warm. He couldn’t resist extending his tongue to lick it. The taste was even more delicious than the pastries he had eaten that morning, and it was incredibly smooth and tender. He sucked harder, relishing in the sensation.
Tao Yuan couldn’t help but tremble in response to Xiao Junye’s actions.
Xiao Junye didn’t proceed further. He had intended to, but he was too absorbed in inhaling the fragrance from Tao Yuan’s body to pay attention to anything else. Feeling immensely comfortable, he eventually fell asleep, tightly embracing Tao Yuan and enjoying the scent throughout the entire night.
Tao Yuan’s entire body had been kissed all over by Xiao Junye. Eventually, they were both completely undressed, and while Xiao Junye had a restful sleep, Tao Yuan, unsatisfied, couldn’t sleep well at all. Tao Yuan would have preferred that Xiao Junye had gone all the way and then fallen asleep in exhaustion. The stirrings incited by Xiao Junye left him in a state of desire, neither satisfied nor settled enough to sleep properly.
The next morning, Xiao Junye woke up feeling refreshed and considerably more comfortable. The discomfort he used to feel upon waking each morning was no longer present.
Sitting by the bedside before heading to court, Xiao Junye gazed at Tao Yuan’s sleeping face and thought to himself that perhaps this person was his antidote. It was after smelling the fragrance on Tao Yuan’s body that he had felt so comfortable. Despite his years of effort in finding a remedy for the poison, he had been unable to discover any medicine or method to counteract it. Just when he was about to give up and resign himself to a few more years of survival, fate unexpectedly brought the antidote right to his side.
Xiao Junye believed that even if the fragrance on Tao Yuan’s body couldn’t truly cure him, as long as this person remained by his side, he would be able to live a little more comfortably during his final years.
Bending down, Xiao Junye buried his face in Tao Yuan’s neck, inhaling his fragrance deeply a few times before finally getting up to attend court.
About half an hour after Xiao Junye left, Tao Yuan was awakened and began to prepare himself for the day. He washed up, changed clothes, and then returned to the Chuxiu Palace.
Early in the morning, all the palace maids and attendants were required to gather in the Xunli Hall of the Chuxiu Palace to listen to the instructions on palace etiquette from Xu Shiguan.
By the time Tao Yuan arrived, they had already been lecturing for a while. However, they all knew the reason for his tardiness, and when he entered, all eyes turned toward him.
Tao Yuan apologized to Xu Shiguan for being late, but Xu didn’t say much and simply allowed him to take a seat.
Tao Yuan walked over to an empty seat next to Sun Yuan and sat down, and Xu Shiguan continued with the lecture.
Most of the attendants hadn’t slept well the previous night, especially those from Ye Rong’s group who had barely slept at all. Consequently, they appeared tired and lacked energy. Now that Tao Yuan had arrived, their gazes occasionally shifted towards him, showing a lack of focus on Xu Shiguan’s words.
Observing their state, Xu Shiguan had to pause and say, “Today, we will discuss the proper etiquette that concubines in the harem should follow during grand celebrations held in the palace, based on their ranks. If you fail to remember these rules and make mistakes during such occasions, the consequences can range from confinement to self-reflection, being sent to the Cold Palace, and even bringing trouble upon your family. Surviving in the harem is much easier when you know the rules rather than being ignorant of them.”
With Xu Shiguan’s reminder and warning, they had to pull themselves together, attentively listening and memorizing every word he said. If they made serious mistakes without anyone to protect them when the crucial moment arrived, their lives could truly be at stake.
After lecturing for half an hour, Xu Shiguan allowed them a one-hour break to review what he had just discussed, after which he would continue for another half an hour. The morning session would then conclude, and the afternoon would be dedicated to studying etiquette.
Once Xu Shiguan left, some people remained inside, quietly sipping tea while silently recalling his words, while others gathered outside, engaging in hushed conversations in groups of two or three.
Tao Yuan and Sun Yuan walked towards a nearby pavilion. Tao Yuan covered his mouth as he yawned, immediately drawing the attention of many onlookers.
After entering the empty pavilion and sitting down, Sun Yuan whispered, “After you left last night, I’m certain none of the people in our courtyard slept well.”
Tao Yuan, half-closing his eyes in drowsiness, replied, “They can choose not to sleep even when they can, while I want to sleep but can’t. It’s their own business if they’re jealous and can’t sleep.”
Sun Yuan chuckled and said, “If they hear you say that, they’ll think you’re bragging. But the one who definitely couldn’t sleep was Ye Rong. Those people all assumed he would receive favor as soon as he entered the palace, while they believed you would be disliked by the Emperor. Now you’ve taken the lead in sharing the Emperor’s bed, and he’s probably feeling quite miserable.”
Just as they were speaking, the others also joined them.
“A-Xi, you definitely didn’t sleep well last night, did you?”
“No,” Tao Yuan thought to himself, “but not for the reasons you all think.”
“There’s still an hour left. Why don’t you have a bed prepared in your quarters and take a nap?”
“Indeed, you didn’t have to come today. We could have briefed you when Sun Yuan returns. Both of you have excellent memory, so listening once would be enough to remember,” someone suggested.
“Yeah, go and take a nap. We still have to learn etiquette in the afternoon. Rest up so you can handle it,” Sun Yuan added, offering his advice.
“Okay,” Tao Yuan nodded. “I’ll go and take a nap. Call me later.”
“I’ll have a palace maid prepare a bed for you.”
“We’ll stay outside and make sure you can sleep peacefully.”
Tao Yuan stood up and walked towards the vacant room. It would be good to get some rest. Otherwise, he would spend the entire day looking fatigued, and people would think he was showing off. Even if he wanted to boast, he wouldn’t do it at this moment. When he received the exclusive favor of Xiao Junye in the future, he would achieve the desired effect of showing off without even trying.
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- 徐侍官 assistant eunuch Xu/ Officer Xu