Part of a Memories of a Graceful Reflection translation project at fruitydeer.com.
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Source: 猶記驚鴻照影 by Feng Ning Xue Wu // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
Our two leads have yet to meet, but we’re already learning quite a bit about Nan Cheng Yao, albeit through third parties. Note how Shu Ying continues to refer to Murong Qing as “Young Miss” instead of the more appropriate “Wang fei.”
Chapter 005: The Fifth Time
In main hall of the wang fu, I sat at the master’s seat. Dark red peonies on silk muslin brocade paired itself with a complementary vibrant yellow ru qun1 while a swallow pendant of white jade tied at my waist. Resting in my hair was golden bu yao2 with a nine-phoenix design.
Such festive and luxurious attire was never something I enjoyed, but it couldn’t be more fitting for an occasion such as this.
The chief steward, Qin An, is an old man with a benevolent appearance, but he has a pair of wise, learned eyes. At this very moment, he was bringing everyone in the fu to come greet me one by one.
I paid special attention to that maidservant called Xun Yun. Her features were calm and gentle. Although she was not a beauty that people could remember upon a glance, she was graceful and tactful. Zhu Yu’s person was just like her voice, charming and delicate.
Just as I suspected, these two were Nan Cheng Yao’s personal servant girls. Having served him since childhood, their mutual affection was deep and their status was not something that others could compete with.
“Wang fei, according to custom, you were supposed to enter the palace to meet the Sacred One today to serve tea and offer greetings. But because His Majesty’s dragon’s body is unwell, the palace sent a decree that protocols be postponed. The Third Highness is currently at the palace serving from dusk to dawn and cannot get away. He sent a message to reassure Wang fei and to have this old slave take Wang fei around to get better acquainted with the wang fu.”
After the long session of greetings ended, Qin An bowed before me and said this placidly.
I smiled and nodded: “Chief Steward Qin has labored.”
Leaving the main hall with him, we strolled along the picturesque scenery of the wang fu. Carved railings and jade-like stone steps,3 waterside pavilions with stages for performers. Anywhere that the eye landed saw something crafted with the finest precision. Beautiful and magnificent, it made one suspect that they were in an immortal land.
I smiled faintly. This sort of grandeur was not inferior to that of the Imperial Palace.
Suddenly, I recalled the rumors I heard when I was still in the boudoir. Nan Cheng Yao had a penchant for fine craftsmanship. Every thing, every item, must be the best in this world. There wasn’t the slightest thread of fear towards what other people might think.
And this has often become a weapon used by his political opponents when attacking him.
Lian once said with disdain that the more incompetent one is, the more they sought out these sorts of insignificant details. They even pompously think themselves as clever.
What’s more, the one that they were going after was the one most favored by His Majesty these days, the third prince.
In the face these persisting annoyances, Nan Cheng Yao merely smiled like a gentle breeze, similarly to myself. It was as if all he concerned himself with was merely music, fine wine, and rainbow raiments.4
However, this Third Highness was definitely not a talentless person. In court, whatever order the Sacred One decreed, no matter how vexing the problem, he could always handle it appropriately and with a leisurely, indifferent smile. It left people unable to pick out a single fault.
“Wang fei, ahead is ‘Maple Grove Night,’5 His Highness often spends time alone here. He does not like it when others disturb.”
Qin An’s smooth voice interrupted my thoughts. When I followed his words and looked over, my eyes met with a dense, awe-inspiring maple grove.
Compared to all the splendor of the fu, this maple grove was beautiful, secluded, and serene. It gave off the sense of being independent from the world.
I carefully considered Qin An’s words just now, which carried subservience as well as a faint warning.
As wang fei, there is a separation between master and servant. Naturally, he could not and would not speak up directly and bar me from entering, but according to the meaning of his words, this maple grove was one that few people in the fu could enter and leave at will.
I gave Qin An a warm, tactful smile: “Many thanks to Chief Steward Qin for bringing up this point. Shu Ying and I will definitely pay extra attention to this.”
He did not speak much more, his expression remaining calm and peaceful as he led me to the location.
From this long walk, I realized that the Third Wang fu that was praised incessantly by outsiders could indeed bear its fame of being magnificent and elegant. Even after walking for most of the day, we had only walked through a few of the principal courtyards.
Qin An stopped and looked at me: “After walking for so long, Wang fei must be tired. The fu is very large, so there’s no rush to see it all at once. How about this old slave first send Wang fei to Gui Mo Pavilion6 to rest?”
Gui Mo Pavilion, the most exquisite and luxurious courtyard in the fu, is where I will be living from now on. It doesn’t neighbor Qing Tian House,7 where Nan Cheng Yao resides, but it’s also not too far away.
Seeing my nod, Qin An personally led me back. Inside Gui Mo Pavillion, Xun Yun had been waiting since early on. As soon as I entered the little reception garden, a servant girl held up a towel and a basin of water for me to wash my hands. Xun Yun personally held a cup of bi luo chun8 that was at just the right temperature. On the small table was all kinds of fresh fruits and delicate refreshments that had been prepared much earlier.
After enjoyed the refreshments and rested for a while, Xun Yun step forward and performed a customary bow: “In the past, the position of mistress of the fu was vacant, so His Highness instructed nu-bi to temporarily handle the wang fu‘s accounts. Now that there is a wang fei, the big and small affairs of the fu should be handed over to Wang fei to make the final decision. Wang fei, please follow Xun Yun to move the stores and allow Xun Yun to clarify past accounts.”
I offered a slight smile: “Just earlier, I walked around with Chief Steward Qin. Everywhere in the wang fu was well and orderly. This is all due to the efforts of the maiden and Chief Steward Qin. Today, the fu just has me as one additional person, so it’s just as well to maintaining the current situation. There’s no need to change anything.”
Xun Yun froze slightly before lowering her head and replying: “Nu-bi doesn’t dare.”
Still, I continued to smile: “When His Highness instructed the maiden to handle affairs of the fu, it must have been because he could trust the maidservant. Today, I am the same. Besides, it’s my first time entering the wang fu, so I’m not familiar with things. It wouldn’t be good to intervene so hastily. As such, I’ve to burden the maiden.”
Xun Yun was silent for some time. After a long while, she replied in a respectful and soft tone: “Since Wang fei instructs as such, nu-bi will certainly make every effort until Wang fei takes over. Nu-bi will report everything to Wang fei without hiding anything whatsoever.”
Shortly after, she took her leave, only leaving instructions for the maidservants in the courtyard to serve well. She also exchanged a few polite words with Shu Ying before leaving.9
Shu Ying was disgruntled, so her expression naturally did not fare much better. Perhaps Xun Yun thought she was still unhappy about what happened in the bridal chambers the prior night, so she didn’t make a fuss.
Once inside the room, only Shu Ying and I remained. I looked at Shu Ying and chuckled: “If there’s something you want to say, just say it. You’re not the type that’s able to hide your words.”
“Young Miss, why are you allowing yourself to be wronged like this?” She had held back for a bit, but still spoke up at the end: “The honor and glory of being Prime Minister Murong’s treasured daughter should be enough to allow you to act as you’d like, even in the wang fu.”
I smiled impassively: “Shu Ying, that Murong Clan has the power to overturn the world is naturally an utmost glory, but it’s also planted a troubled root that cannot be ignored. Since ancient times, the greatest danger to a public minister is surpassing the master’s merit and winning over the court as well as the common folk. The master cannot tolerate two monarchs in one country, two tigers on one mountain. There will eventually be a day where the minister is framed with criminal accusations with his party killed and eradicated.”
Shu Ying took pause: “But the emperor has always treated Murong Family with extreme preference Isn’t this marriage the best proof of it?”
I gently shook my head: “This bestowment of marriage to the Imperial Family is certainly a great honor, but with such pearls and jades before oneself, the next time Murong Family does a meritorious deed, what else can be rewarded? If there really is a day where the Sacred One has nothing more that can be bestowed as reward, the only thing left for the entire Murong Family is suicide by imperial decree.”
Shu Ying’s face paled: “Young Miss, don’t scare me, you mean that the emperor will…”
“Things are not to that point yet.” I smiled and held her hand. “However, this bestowment of marriage could be seen as an indication.”
She did not not speak, merely staring at me. As for me, I moved my gaze past the window, gently continuing on:
“This marriage to the Imperial Family was original meant to reward Second Uncle for his mission to Qi Yue the previous year of his great services in quelling the war and establishing friendships. But Shu Ying, the crown prince has yet to marry, and now, the wedding of the third prince has preceded the crown prince. With this violation of routines, others may simply believe that it’s because the emperor favors the Third Highness. This could very well be the case. However, I can’t help but take caution to another possibility. The emperor is already on guard against Murong Family. The bestowment of marriage was unavoidable; a consequence of the circumstances. Yet he is also unwilling to let Murong Family’s daughter marry the crown prince and grow wings.”10
“But why, out of all the princes did it have to to be the Third Highness?” she asked.
I smiled ever so slightly: “Because everyone in the world knows that the Third Highness receives the most care from the Sacred One, so no one would suspect against the violation of routine.”
Shu Ying’s expression shifted: “For the sake of guarding against Murong Family, he’s willing to sacrifice his own son’s happiness? Doesn’t he favor the Third Highness the most?”
I laughed. Who can truly make a correct guess on the will of the Nine Heavens?11 Disdain does not necessarily mean disdain. Doting is not always true doting.
Even if the favor he graces is true, in the Imperial Household of Heaven’s Family, the most unreliable thing is the favor of the imperial father. For the sake of imperial power, there is nothing that cannot be sacrificed.
“If Murong Family’s influence in the court was weak and its power frail, I’d need to exhaust great efforts to consider how to seek sacred favor and assist the family. But Father is already wholly powerful in court as well as with common folk, so Murong Family’s daughter must not seek further favor so as to avoid provoking suspicion or jealousy.” I turned my eyes to Shu Ying and spoke gently: “Is it worth our trouble to spoil the balance that has lasted in the wang fu for so many years as soon as we’ve arrived? Moreover, Shu Ying, remember, what others let you see will always only be what they’re willing to let you see, not necessarily the truth.”
She stilled for a long time, then finally said: “No wonder Master and Madam are always praising Young Miss’ intelligence and pure heart. From today onwards, whatever Young Miss says, Shu Ying will do as such.”
I suddenly thought of the question Lian asked me that night under the moon. Why offer my life for what could be regarded as a family of strangers?
I laughed softly from the bottom of my heart. Even if my memory was completely gone, some things were deeply imprinted in the abyss of one’s blood. Even death could not change that.
I could still remember those days I had first returned to the fu. Mother invited a titled woman from the palace to re-teach me matters about etiquette, music, and the like.
Before, I thought I would follow Mister Su’s leisurely, unfettered life and became used to being unbridled. Learning these tedious rules of etiquette was extremely headache-inducing.
However, everything about my performance stunned every single person. A mo-mo12 once lamented to Mother that even a princess of Heaven’s Family could not do any better than this.
Actually, even I was surprised.
Such a familiar feeling didn’t even require conscious effort. Merely following my body’s most natural response allowed everything to be done flawlessly.
As such, even bereft of my memories, I knew that this was where I belonged.
Those three years were like a long, beautiful dream that let me meet many people and learn many things. No longer imprisoned like a puppet, I was able to soberly and calmly face matters in the world.
However, matters of the past had never left me either. Others to speak much in order for me to be able to guess their schemes. It was as if I understood by nature. As for those tedious rules of ettiquete, they were like something I had once done in a dream lasting as long as an entire lifetime.
With a mere gentle reminder, I would wake up from the dream and return to the life I once lived before.
Translator’s Note: The plot is moving at a snail’s pace and despite knowing it’s a defense mechanism, I wish Murong Qing’s expressions were described a little more dynamically than gentle smiles and soft laughter. But overall, I’m really enjoying Feng Ning Xue Wu’s writing style. It’s subtle where it needs to be and forthright when the scene calls for it.
The name of Murong Qing’s pavilion means “return to Mo.” Feng Ning Xue Wu seems to have a penchant for using deliberately placed literary references and symbolism, so when I saw this, I did some research to and found that it derives from Ten Wen Gong (滕文公) by Mencius, a renowned Confucian philosopher who lived during the Warring States period. The phrase directly references another philosopher, Mo Zi. Because I’m such a sucker for this kind of stuff, I’ve written a more extensive piece unpacking the history of that and the meaning of “gui mo,” which will go up early next week.
Lastly, here’s an example of a ru qun. I imagine Murong Qing’s is much fancier with more layers, but this is the general silhouette:
- 襦裙 // Ru Qun: The oldest type of han fu, primarily worn by women, that consists of a blouse and wrap around skirt.
- 步搖 // Bu Yao: Hair ornament that has hanging jewelry that dangles as one walks, which is the literal meaning of bu yao. I imagine Murong Qing is wearing a buyao set with many decorative pins.
- 雕闌玉砌: Describing a magnificent building.
- Refer to the intro in Chapter 3 and Chapter 3, footnote 1. Another reference to the poem, Raiment of Rainbows and Feathers. This instance in particular refers to courtesans.
- 楓林晚 // Feng Lin Wan: Maple Grove Night. Wan can mean both late and night.
- 規模 // Gui Mo: Means “return to Mo.” For some details on this, see the Translator’s Notes at the end of the chapter.
- 傾天 // Qing Tian: Means “overturning the skies.” Sky can refer to either the actual sky or the world/country.
- 碧螺春 // Bi Luo Chun: A type of green tea that comes from a mountain region in Jiangsu Province, China.
- Dowry maids like Shu Ying are there to help stabilize a bride’s position in a new house and usually have higher standing than normal maids, hence the courtesy.
- Wings refers figuratively to the crown prince becoming an asset for the Murong Family’s rise to power.
- Since the emperor is conferred by the gods, the emperor and Imperial are referred to as the Son of Heaven and Heaven’s Family, respectively. Thus, the emperor’s will is also Heaven’s Will. Nine Heavens is the immortal realm where the gods reside.
- 嬷嬷 // Mo Mo: An auntie or wet nurse type of figure that serves in a household.