IBTBTED Chapter 16
It’s Better to be the Empress Dowager
Chapter 16 Choosing Concubine
The sky was clear in the eighth month, and the air was fresh, and the vegetation was lush. Early in the morning, the Jing Wang mansion was full of excitement.
Since then, the side gate of the Jing Wang mansion had never been quiet. Carriages drove into the second gate one by one. The well-dressed madams got out of the carriages, and they all smiled when they met other familiar madams they knew. They all smile and greet each other warmly. Young and beautiful ladies followed behind their mothers, smiling without showing their teeth, and walking without showing their feet. At a glance, they were as beautiful as flowers.
It was really colorful and beautiful. Everyone present today, whether it was a madam or a young lady, knew today was an extraordinary day. The banquet hosted by Jing Wang was called the flower appreciation banquet, but in fact, it was to pick out a Shizifei.
All the mansions in Xiping were in excitement because being able to be in-laws with Jing Wang was exactly what everyone had been looking forward to. The madams of every family even put extra effort to dress up their daughters so that their hair was exquisite, and they were determined to fight a way out among all the women.
Many ladies have already arrived, the garden was bustling with noise and excitement and full of beauty. Tang Shishi and others who served as the facade sent by Empress Dowager, would also attend this kind of occasion.
Tang Shishi was sitting in the pavilion, watching the young delicate ladies behind the bushes talking and laughing softly, taking their fans and flapping at the butterflies. Feng Qian approached from outside, coughed, and gently sat down beside Tang Shishi, “Sister Tang, everyone else is outside enjoying the flowers, why are you hiding here alone?”
Tang Shishi glanced at Feng Qian quietly and said, “I’m tired of walking, so I’m resting here. What about you, why don’t you play with them?”
“I would have to catch my breath already after just taking two steps with my body like this. How can I go play with other people? It’s just a disappointment.” Feng Qian covered her mouth with a handkerchief and coughed softly and with a pair of slender eyes slowly looked at Tang Shishi, “Sister Tang, today I heard that there are many matters involved behind this flower appreciation banquet?”
Tang Shishi knew that Feng Qian had already figured it out, she smiled, and ignored Feng Qian’s question, “Jing Wang is brilliant and powerful. Naturally, the banquet hosted by Wangye involved many other matters as well.”
Feng Qian lowered her eyes, pressed the corner of her lips with her handkerchief, and said slowly, “I heard that it was Wangye’s intention for Shizi to choose a Shizifei. This flower viewing banquet is used to meet future Shizifei. I think we’ll have a few more mistress after the banquet ended.”
There were so many guests and only one position of Shizifei. However, there was no shortage of beauties rushing to be chosen as side concubines. As long as one could establish a relationship with Jing Wang, even if became Shizi’s side concubines were still worth it.
Tang Shishi had known for a long time that they could not be Zhao Zixun’s wife with their background. Even Zhou Shunhua became a nameless tongfang first. Then relying on Zhao Zixun’s favorite foothold, she overthrew other women step by step. In the end, after his wife died, she used her son as an opportunity to move up. Zhao Zixun doted on Zhou Shunhua that much. After he ascended the throne and was proclaimed Emperor, he established his former Shizifei as his Empress. Zhou Shunhua was only conferred as Shufei*. Zhou Shunhua had been a concubine under other women for more than 20 years. It was not until the queen died of an illness that she finally waited for the opportunity to move forward.
(Shufei* – One of the titles of imperial concubines, ranked first among one of the three wives)
Ironically, after Zhou Shunhua became Empress, she followed her old enemy’s footsteps. Then Zhou Shunhua also fell out of favor, and young and beautiful newcomers were constantly appearing in the harem. Zhou Shunhua could only see Zhao Zixun at the festival banquet. Once she was so favored, but later, it was just a boring and rigid Kunning Palace symbol.
Tang Shishi thought that she could accept it, the winner was the strongest, and the course in between was not important at all. But when this day really arrived, Tang Shishi discovered that she still felt dismayed.
Tang Shishi knew that this thinking was very unreasonable. She knew that she could not cling to such things as status and morality if she wanted to be the supreme Empress Dowager. But Tang Shishi could not help thinking if she becomes a concubine, then used her beauty to compete for a favor, would not it be exactly the same as what concubine Su did to both of them, her mother and her?
Tang Shishi still could not adjust her psyche for a short time. For this reason, Tang Shishi had very little interest in seeing Zhao Zixun’s Shizifei selection banquet. She knew what Jing Wang intended to do. Jing Wang did not want Zhao Zixun to mix together with the beauties sent by Imperial Palace, neither she nor Zhou Shunhua nor Ren Yujun would be out of the question. This banquet was just a warning to them.
Tang Shishi sighed silently. She originally would not have been exposed during that incident on that rainy day. Although pretending to be Jing Wang’s messenger was a risky move, she only wanted to persuade him with some grandiose words, such as encouragement and motivation. Then, Zhao Zixun would have been deeply inspired and devoted himself to studying more and more and would not go to seek confirmation with Jing Wang at all. If this had happened, Tang Shishi “pretending” would have been concealed. She just did not expect that Jing Wang would suddenly appear at the scene.
Although Tang Shishi immediately threw the pot out, Jing Wang could possibly see it, but for some reason, Jing Wang did not pursue it.
Tang Shishi did not understand, but since she managed to get her life back, why bother to get to the bottom of it?
Tang Shishi and Feng Qian were sitting behind the bushes, and several butterflies flew to them. A few young ladies chased the butterfly and ran into the bushes, they were startled when they saw Tang Shishi and Feng Qian there.
Tang Shishi got up and bowed in a ceremony without hesitation, “I am Tang Shishi from the Imperial Palace.”
Feng Qian stood behind Tang Shishi, followed her, and bowed. The young ladies gazed at each other helplessly and returned their salutes hurriedly, “It turned out to be people from the palace. We are being impolite. We did not know that the two gugu were sitting here. We have disturbed gugu. Please forgive us.
When Tang Shishi heard the way they addressed them, she knew they had misunderstood her. Tang Shishi smiled, “I’m certainly not a gugu. I’m just a maid sent by Empress Dowager to serve Jing Wang. Young ladies can just call me by my name.”
Not gugu? The ladies were taken aback, and it suddenly triggered them that two days ago, Imperial Palace had sent a group of beauties to Jing Wang. So, these were the ones.
Several people looked at each other carefully and saluted again, “It’s impolite of us to disturb the two beauties. This little girl’s name is Lu Yufei, and my father was appointed as a Provincial Judge. This is my sister Lu Yuji. I’m very sorry to disturb you.”
Tang Shishi already knew the plan as soon as she heard the name. The Provincial Judge General was the one that upholds the provincial law and this young lady from the Provincial Judge’s family most likely was the strongest contender for Shizifei this time.
Tang Shishi sized up Lu Yufei quietly. Miss Lu was wearing a white dress with flowers, birds, and a horse and a light-yellow long coat over it. She has a silver-gilt butterfly with flowers hairpin on her hair and was surrounded by hairpins of the same quality. At first glance, she was specially prepared for today’s occasion. Lu Yufei dared to chase butterflies everywhere in the Jing Wang mansion. It was obvious that she was extremely pampered at home. She was surprised when first met Tang Shishi and Feng Qian, but after learning their identities, she introduced herself immediately. It showed that she was modest with a sense of propriety and could also perceive that her mother had a very good upbringing.
All in all, this was an official’s daughter with both status and intellect. After sizing up at Lu Yufei, Tang Shishi took a look at her sister. Tang Shishi knew that the girl was a commoner with a glance. Her clothes and jewelry were all one grade lower than Lu Yufei’s, and even her temperament was gloomy.
Her eyes’ expression was very sharp, and her facial features were even better than Lu Yufei’s, but she always kept her head down when looking at other people and dared not look at them. These details immediately discounted her image. The other girl who was at the back was mostly the followers of the Lu family sisters. Tang Shishi only glanced and did not pay any attention to them.
When Tang Shishi was sizing up Lu’s sisters, the opposite person also sized her up. Lu Yufei was surprised. She has heard her mother say that the capital had sent a group of beauty to Jing Wang and each of them was top-rated beauty with an excellent appearance. Lu Yufei did not believe it at first. All the court ladies around her were good-looking and not ugly at all. We were all women with two eyes and one nose, and no matter how beautiful they were, who was going to look at them?
Lu Yufei did not know how naive her idea was until she met Tang Shishi. She had a limited outlook that beauties in the world were the same, not much of a difference, and did not put too much thought into it just because she had not met the top-tier beauties yet.
A real beauty was enough to be remembered at a glance.
Lu Yufei was surprised, but not envious of them. Since she was here as a candidate for Shizifei and no matter how stunning these court beauties were, what did it have to do with her?
Instead, Lu Yufei wanted to have a good relationship with Tang Shishi. Although these people were not her proper potential-to-be mother-in-law, they were Wangye’s women after all. Lu Yufei still had to be careful when flattering them. Today was the first time they met, and Lu Yufei was very engaging and wanted to make a good relationship with Tang Shishi.
Tang Shishi saw through her and smiled sarcastically in her heart. Lu Yufei did not know the truth yet, therefore she tried her best to show goodwill to them. If Lu Yufei really became Shizifei, after the marriage, she was not sure if she still could be as happy as she now.
Lu Yufei said enthusiastically, “I have heard about the water and soil in Jinling for a long time, but it’s a pity that this little girl was in Xiping and has never seen it. I realized that the rumors were true when I saw two beauties today.”
Tang Shishi said with a smile, “Miss Lu praises too much. I am a weak woman, I do not deserve your praise.”
“Miss Tang’s remarks are laughable.” Lu Yufei said immediately, “If you say you are a weak woman, then how can other women live in the world?”
While Lu Yufei was talking, the bushes behind them sway gently. A woman in a smoky light blue dress separated the willow and walked out. Her voice came first before the person, “Why can’t other women in the world live anymore? Who are you praising?”
Lu Yufei turned her head and saw the newcomer, surprised and delighted, “Yunchu, why are you here?”
“Why can’t I come?” This woman has slender eyebrows and outstanding beauty, but her words were not hospitable at all, “Could it be that only Miss Lu is allowed to come to the Jing Wang mansion, but I am not allowed to? “
“Yunchu, stop joking.” Lu Yufei grabbed Xi Yunchu’s arm, dragged her to Tang Shishi, and introduced her like a treasure, “This is Xi Yunchu. Her mouth is used to taunt people. Yunchu, these are the beauties from the Imperial Palace. This is Miss Tang, and this is Miss Feng.”
Xi Yunchu was originally smiling but held it back when she heard that Tang Shishi was from the Imperial Palace. She straightened up, took a close look at Tang Shishi and her facial expression suddenly worsened, “It turns out that you are the court ladies from the palace. Those female beauties captivate even the birds and animals. Why are you pulling me over just to make a fool of myself?”
Lu Yufei originally meant well, but Xi Yunchu suddenly became hostile. Lu Yufei was embarrassed, quickly glanced at Tang Shishi, and secretly pulled Xi Yunchu’s hand, “Xi Yunchu, what are you doing? These are the people who serve His Highness, Jing Wang.”
Tang Shishi raised her eyebrows lightly, probably because of a woman’s instinct. As soon as Xi Yunchu started to talk, Tang Shishi felt that Xi Yunchu was hostile toward her.
Why? Even if Xi Yunchu was spoiled, she was just a young lady from an official family. How could she dare to offend the womenfolk of the Jing Wang mansion? Wait, her family name is Xi…
Tang Shishi suddenly remembered that Feng Qian had told her that Jing Wang had two former betrothed, one was the eldest daughter of the Xi family, and the other was the granddaughter of General Li, whose both accidentally died before the marriage.
Tang Shishi re-examined Xi Yunchu again. Xi Yunchu’s eyes and brows were long and slender, considerably charming. If she had a sister, her appearance would not be bad. Taking Xi Yunchu’s age into account, could it be that she was Jing Wang’s first Wangfei-to-be sister?
The more Tang Shishi thought about it, the more likely it was. However, the death of her sister, Xi Yunwan had nothing to do with Tang Shishi. Why did Xi Yunchu be hostile towards Tang Shishi?
Tang Shishi was baffled. She was just about to say something when a familiar voice came from the other side of the garden, “Tang Shishi.”
Tang Shishi turned around and saw Zhou Shunhua standing on the gravel road, looking at them from a distance, “Why are you here? Tongxiu Gugu has been looking for you for a long time. Let’s go.”
It was Tongxiu Gugu. Both Tang Shishi and Feng Qian moved when they heard that name. Tang Shishi stopped at what she was about to say, and nodded lightly to the young ladies, “There are other important matters. Please forgive me, I must leave now.”
Lu Yufei quickly stepped aside, waved her hand, and said, “I dare not, it’s us that hold you up. I should say sorry.”
Tang Shishi casually said something and left with Feng Qian. Zhou Shunhua stood on the gravel road waiting for them, gave them a meaningful glance, and saw Lu Yufei. After Tang Shishi approached, Zhou Shunhua turned around and left without saying a word.
After waiting for the three people to walk away, Lu Yufei lowered her voice and said to her friends, “It turns out that these are the beauties sent by Empress Dowager. They were indeed groomed by the Imperial Court, they are truly beautiful, one in a million, especially Miss Tang. This the first time I’ve seen such a beautiful person after I’m this big.”
Lu Yuji and another girl shared the same feelings but Xi Yunchu listened on the side and scoffed lightly.
On the gravel road, Tang Shishi was also talking with the other two. Since Tang Shishi was in a bad mood, she must make others feel even worse than her. Tang Shishi approached Zhou Shunhua deliberately and said, “Sister Zhou, have you seen the young lady in the yellow color long coat? Some said that she is the candidate for Shizifei.”
Zhou Shunhua was calm and did not pay attention to Tang Shishi. Tang Shishi was not annoyed when she was left out in the cold. She continued to sing to herself, “That young lady is the daughter of the Provincial Judge. She is talented and beautiful and has a good family background. Listening to her speech, her opinions are different from those of ordinary women. Shizi likes talented women the most. If Shizi and Miss Lu tied the knot, I’m afraid they have a lot to talk about.”
“Enough.” Zhou Shunhua glanced at Tang Shishi coldly, “A woman’s reputation and integrity is the most important thing. Since Miss Lu is a guest, how can you simply say things behind her back?”
“This is not what I said.” Tang Shishi said with a smile while watching Zhou Shunhua slowly, “Everyone in the mansion said that. Obviously, this is what Wangye meant. Miss Lu seems to have a good-natured temperament and it could be assumed she will not be harsh on others in the future. This is a good thing. You should be happy to have such a good-natured mistress while serving Shizi by his side, ah!”
Zhou Shunhua strived hard to endure and not lose self-control. She had been with Zhao Zixun day and night during this period. If Zhao Zixun did not take her as his servant, Zhou Shunhua really felt that they were equal. It was not until this banquet that Jing Wang openly let Zhao Zixun pick out his Shizifei, Zhou Shunhua then and only then understood the severe warning.
It turned out that they were not equal. She was just a maid, and she could not marry Zhao Zixun as his legitimate wife at all.
Tang Shishi stabbed Zhou Shunhua’s sore spot several times and saw Zhou Shunhua’s complexion change drastically as she wished. Tang Shishi was satisfied. Zhou Shunhua said with a cold face, “You are also just a maid. What are you proud of?”
Tang Shishi nodded, “I know, ah.”
“Sooner or later there will be a mistress in the mansion. When that happens, everything in the inner courtyard will be handed over to the mistress, including you.”
“I know that too.” Tang Shishi stroked her hair and said slowly, “I understood it from the time I first entered the mansion. Do you just realize that now?”
Zhou Shunhua was too angry to speak. Feng Qian looked at them quietly, coughed, and reminded them, “Sister Tang, Sister Zhou, the reception hall is here.”
Tongxiu had already walked out when she saw them coming. Tang Shishi and Zhou Shunhua shut up together and stepped forward to bow to Tongxiu, “Gugu.”
“Here you are.” Tongxiu glanced at Tang Shishi calmly and said, “Wangye and Old Madam Zheng are talking inside. Please be careful when you serve them.”
In the reception hall, there were seven other people, and resembled a bunch of exhibits being displayed on the side. When they came in, everyone looked at them, especially Tang Shishi, who was stared at suspiciously.
Tang Shishi pretended to be ignorant and stood in the forefront justifiably. Behind Duobao Pavilion*, Zhao Chengjun was talking to someone who was sitting opposite him, a grey-haired old madam. This old madam looked very old, but she was hale and hearty and spoke with full vitality. This was Old Madam Zheng. There was another madam adorned with brilliant jewels and pearls who sat on a pear blossom wooden chair next to the arhat bed and her appearance was very similar to Xi Yunchu.
(*Duobao Pavilion – a type of shelf dedicated to the display of antiques)
Tang Shishi made a bold guess. Could this be Xi Yunchu’s mother, the former mother-in-law of Jing Wang?