Chapter 38: Gratuitous favoritism, or begging them to scram? Original and most updated translations are from volare. If read elsewhere, this chapter has been stolen. Please stop supporting theft.
Yongning held a small court assembly once every two days, and a large one once every three days. On the day of the new emperor’s large assembly, Heaven didn’t grant any beautiful weather. Starting in the hours before dawn, heavy rain had fallen until the sun rose. It was as if all the water from the rivers had decided to pour down from the skies. If anyone stood in the rain without an umbrella, they’d be hard-pressed to open their eyes against the onslaught.
Before entering the Hall of Golden Chimes[1. Hall of Golden Chimes (金銮殿) - jinluandian, a popular name for the emperor’s audience hall in the imperial palace.], Grand Preceptor Xie purposely paused at the foot of the steps to observe Fang Tang and the rest standing in the rain. Though Fang Tang and company didn’t know why, Lou Zigui had ordered them to look grieved and heartbroken today. Thus, they had all rubbed their eyes red to stand in the rain, looking as if they might weep. It seemed like they’d been driven to distraction by grief. Grand Preceptor Xie felt his heart ease at the sight. These were all military men who had killed countless people. For them to look so utterly wretched must mean that Lou Zigui had already passed away.
Ning Xiaoyao sat on the Dragon Throne in the Hall of Golden Chimes, wearing her emperor’s court dress. Various ministers knelt at the foot of the steps leading to her throne, doing their three kneelings and nine kowtows[2. three kneelings and nine kowtows (三拜九叩) - sanbai jiukou, also called the “grand kowtow.” A ceremony done during the coronation of a new emperor that involves the subject kneeling from a standing position three times and kowtowing thrice each time.] while hailing her to live ten thousand years and going through the grand rites between a sovereign and his subjects. Ning Xiaoyao’s face was wooden, her gaze seemingly cold. Her reserved and taciturn manner made her seem rather lofty and distant.
His Majesty was currently just 15 years old, but none of the gathered ministers considered her to be a little emperor. Just the feat of rescuing and absolving Lou Zigui from the Xie father and daughter, who’d racked their brains to dirty his name, along with rounding up the Northern Hu spies, were schemes and tricks too well to be called ‘little.’ Those so-called claims of a ‘self-injury ruse’ were enough to trick the commoners, but how could people of the imperial court be so easily hoodwinked?
Grand Preceptor Xie glanced at NIng Xiaoyao from his kneeling position. In his eyes, her expression was another verification of Lou Zigui’s death. Now she looked helpless and at a loss.
Actually, Ning Xiaoyao’s thoughts were currently wandering about. She truly sympathized with the people kneeling outside in the rain who couldn’t come in. Just what was the point of that? Ning Xiaoyao didn’t really understand imperial power, so she naturally couldn’t make sense of the situation. In any case, she’d rather die than get out of her bedcovers in weather like this unless zombies were besieging the city. After the ministers had finished making obeisances to their sovereign, Ning Xiaoyao still remained sitting without speaking. Grand Preceptor Xie cast a glance at the eunuch in charge of ceremony standing by the steps to the throne.
Immediately, the eunuch cried out, “Rise!”
All of the ministers stood up. Grand Preceptor Xie looked at Ning Xiaoyao again. This time, she was still lost in a daydream. All last night, she’d been trying to figure out how to fight today, so her nerves were stretched taut. Now they’d collapsed, leaving her a little out of character.
Grand Preceptor Xie stepped forward and said loudly, “May Esteemed Empress Dowager enter the court.”
There were ministers amongst the crowd that weren’t sided with the Grand Preceptor. When they saw that His Majesty had yet to speak before Grand Preceptor Xie took matters into his own hands, they felt the urge to reprimand the man. Do you still know the difference between a monarch and a minister? Just who’s in charge of this court assembly? But before any of the ministers could speak up for justice’s sake, the eunuch in charge of ceremony shouted, “May Esteemed Empress Dowager enter the couuuurt~”
A wan and sallow Empress Dowager Xie entered the Hall of Golden Chimes dressed in mourning robes. There was only a single silver hairpin holding up her hair, and Lai mama supported her as she walked. No matter what the ministers felt, they all knelt down to pay their respects when the empress dowager entered. At this moment, Empress Dowager Xie felt a sense of satisfaction in her heart. After scheming and struggling for half a lifetime, she’d finally gotten what she wished for today.
Empress Dowager Xie raised a hand to let the ministers rise, then looked at Ning Xiaoyao who was still foolishly sitting atop the Dragon Throne. According to custom, Ning Xiaoyao should rise now to meet her mother and receive her at the steps to the throne.
“Your Majesty,” the eunuch at attendance by her side called out in a low voice.
Ning Xiayao was currently musing, do the refugees in the streets have a place to seek shelter with the rain like this? So vexing! Is there anyone with too much money on their hands that can lend me some for an emergency?
The eunuch called out to Ning Xiaoyao a few times with no reaction before he didn’t dare to say any more. The empress dowager and Grand Preceptor Xie could treat this palace as the Xie Clan’s domain, but not him. Empress Dowager Xie’s expression grew heavy. This girl still wanted to give her attitude? Grand Preceptor Xie coughed in response and shook his head when Empress Dowager Xie looked his way. Empress Dowager Xie thought over multiple possibilities before taking a step towards the throne, tears flowing from her eyes as she wept in sorrow.
“Ah, late emperor. Now that you’ve gone and left His Majesty so young, how is this consort[1. chenqie (臣妾) – a humble form of self-address for females equivalent to ‘your subject’ or ‘your servant’.] to do as a weak woman? Ah, late emperor!”
When Empress Dowager Xie started crying, Grand Preceptor Xie shed tears as well. Many others in the Hall of Golden Chimes followed suit, though none of them dared to cry out loud. If you bawled out loud like the funeral wailers, weren’t you cursing the new emperor to die as well?
Song Jin and the rest couldn’t hear the sounds inside the palace from their position at the foot of the stairs. General Seventh Song was currently straining his ears to listen, but couldn’t hear His Majesty summoning them inside.
“Why isn’t there any movement?” Fang Tang was getting impatient.
“Supreme Commander’s disappeared, too,” another general piped up quietly.
Song Jin knew he couldn’t be rash right now. At the very least, he had to hold fort until his Supreme Commander showed up. Wiping away rainwater from his face, he said, “Be more patient. Wait.”
“I saw Old Liu, but didn’t recognize any of the others next to him,” Fang Tang took a step forward to lean on Song Jin. “Are they Grand Preceptor Xie’s men?”
Song Jin’s eyes quickly swept over the imperial guards nearby. The Old Liu that Fang Tang had mentioned was originally a military officer from their Black Frost Cavalry. Later on, he’d borrowed his family’s power and influence to get reassigned to the capital city’s imperial guards. This person had been in close contact with them recently, so Song Jin recognized all the men under his command. But Fang Tang’s comment made him realize that all of Old Liu’s surrounding men had unfamiliar faces.
“Old Liu looks like he’s about to pee his pants,” Fang Tang added.
Song Jin’s gaze rested on Old Liu’s taut, tense face before he shifted his eyes away. “Even if the Grand Preceptor wants to rebel, he’ll have to ask if His Majesty and Supreme Commander agrees first.”
Fang Tang subconsciously brushed a hand against his waist, only to realize he couldn’t bring a sabre to a court assembly. Damn it.
Ning Xiaoyao heard the sounds of crying in the Hall of Golden Chimes and suddenly came back to her senses. Only now did she see Empress Dowager Xie actually ascending the steps to her throne.
“When did you show up?” Ning Xiaoyao asked in surprise. Weren’t people only allowed to enter at the emperor’s summons? Did she call this person in?
Empress Dowager Xie paused in her sobbing, feeling as if she’d just been slapped in the face. Ning Xiaoyao pointed at her and said, “You can just stand there.” Any closer, and she feared she’d make a move because she couldn’t hold herself back.
Empress Dowager Xie stood on the steps to the throne, unable to advance or retreat. The ministers were a little at a loss. Beforehand, it was the Xie father and daughter calling the shots in the palace. Now His Majesty had recalled he was the emperor after waking up from his daydream?
Empress Dowager Xie wasn’t a woman who lost her cool easily, but two sentences from Ning Xiaoyao had left her embarrassed. She still looked weak and heartbroken, however, as she spoke. “This Dowager meets with Your Majesty,” Empress Dowager Xie lowered her head towards Ning Xiaoyao.
Ning Xiaoyao sat without moving. “You’re my, you’re Zhen’s[2. Zhen (朕) - the royal ‘We,’ a personal pronoun used exclusively by the emperor to refer to himself.] mother. You can meet with Zhen anytime.”
“.....” went the ministers. What did these words mean?
Grand Preceptor Xie knew that Ning Xiaoyao couldn’t be allowed to speak any longer. What if she wanted to take off her clothes again? Covering his mouth, he gave a cough. Two eunuchs silently shifted towards the Dragon Throne until they were within arms’ reach of Ning Xiaoyao.
“Your Majesty has grown up at the Grand Preceptor’s estate since you were a child,” Grand Preceptor Xie said. “Now that the late emperor’s suddenly passed away, these ten thousand miles of rivers and mountains[3. ten thousand miles of rivers and mountains (万里江山) - wanli jiangshan, idiom to represent a kingdom.] are all pressing upon Your Majesty’s shoulders. This subject feels terrified in his heart.”
“Heheh,” Ning Xiaoyao replied. Turning a girl into the emperor, of course you’d feel scared.
One minister couldn’t listen any longer. Why feel afraid that His Majesty’s ascended the throne? Are you cursing His Majesty of being incapable with his power? Of being unable to reign as emperor? This minister was about to step forward when his colleagues held him back. If you step out now to oppose Xie Wenyuan, aren’t you seeking death?
Grand Preceptor Xie didn’t even want to give Ning Xiaoyao a chance to speak. Hearing her chuckle, he sped up his words. “When the late emperor passed away, he once had a final wish for the empress dowager to assist in political affairs.”
“....” Here they go, Ning Xiaoyao thought. This idiot’s crediting words to a dead man again.
Empress Dowager Xie sucked in her tears and spoke up quietly for the occasion. “The late emperor…”
Grand Preceptor Xie continued. “Ordinarily, those of the imperial harem don’t concern themselves with political matters. But as the late emperor left us so hastily, and as His Majesty has been distant from court affairs since youth, and the late emperor himself left this will behind him. I invited Esteemed Empress Dowager to trouble herself for the time being. Your Majesty is naturally bright and clever, so this subject believes it won’t be long before Your Majesty can take care of politics on your own. When that time comes, Esteemed Empress Dowager can be invited back to spend her remaining years peacefully in the imperial harem.”
As Grand Preceptor Xie spoke, he kneeled down and pressed his head to the ground. “This subject invites Esteemed Empress Dowager to hold court from behind the screen.”
With a foosh, half of the officials in the palace knelt down in suit and loudly chorused, “This subject invites Esteemed Empress Dowager to hold court from behind the screen.”
Empress Dowager Xie feigned a difficult expression as she said, “This Dowager is just a married woman, you…”
“So then,” Ning Xiaoyao finally found a opening to speak. “Since you think you’re incapable, there’s no need to force things, right?”
Empress Dowager Xie was stifled once again by Ning Xiaoyao, who looked at the kneeling Grand Preceptor Xie and said, “Zhen’s been listening to your words. Are you cursing Zhen for being mentally deficient?”
“......” said Grand Preceptor Xie.
“.....” said the various ministers.
“For better or worse, Zhen has half of your Xie Clan’s blood, right?” Ning Xiaoyao had no skills with court intrigue and zero experience with politics, but she understood one truth: whether it was quarreling or coming to blows, you had to hold onto your enemy’s mistakes like death as soon as you found one. “If Zhen is mentally deficient, it can’t be the imperial clan’s blood to blame. It must be your Xie Clan blood that’s lacking.”
Grand Preceptor Xie just knew that they couldn’t give this girl a chance to talk! Empress Dowager Xie’s fingers pressed against her palms once more as she wept, “Why do this, Your Majesty? If Your Majesty isn’t willing…”
“I, Zhen indeed isn’t willing,” Ning Xiaoyao didn’t wait for Empress Dowager Xie to finish before raising her voice. “Just then, the Grand Preceptor even said it himself. ‘The imperial harem doesn’t concern itself with political matters.’ Are you treating the established customs of my Ning Clan as a joke?”
Empress Dowager Xie’s face turned green. Grand Preceptor Xie soundly kowtowed and said, “This subject doesn’t dare. Your Majesty is overwhelming this subject with gratuitous favoritism.”
“You even called Zhen mentally deficient. Is this ‘You Majesty showing gratuitous favoritism,’ or you wanting Your Majesty to scram?” Ning Xiaoyao smiled coldly. Gratuitous favoritism? She wanted to whip that idiot to death!
Hall of Golden Chimes (hypothetical picture):