Emblem of the Phoenix

Emblem of the Phoenix

Chapter 4 - Palace Intrigue

Mingde left the Zhengtai Palace, not knowing where to go. As he was lingering at the entrance of the Imperial Garden, he suddenly heard laughter coming from afar within the garden.

A woman's voice said coquettishly, "This concubine hasn't seen the Empress for many days. How come you don't look very well today? Logically, this concubine should kowtow to the Empress, but since this concubine is with child, the Empress Dowager's gracious decree says it's not necessary to kowtow. So this concubine will be exempted from this courtesy. The Empress won't blame me, right?"

This voice was undoubtedly the Noble Consort's. She recently became pregnant with the Emperor's child. Although everyone suspected that she had killed Concubine Xia Zhaoyi, the Emperor did not reprimand her. Therefore, people said that the Noble Consort's favor truly surpassed all others.

Mingde silently hid behind a cluster of snow plum blossoms. He saw the Noble Consort, dressed in an ermine cloak and a peacock gold-tasseled red satin skirt, standing in the snow surrounded by a group of people, forming a confrontational stance with the Empress who was leading a few young palace maids and eunuchs.

The Empress was already advanced in years and had experienced everything in the harem. She wouldn't get upset over this, and only said indifferently, "Noble Consort, you have good fortune. Take care of yourself, no need to pay respects."

The Noble Consort covered her mouth and laughed, "Sister is really considerate. I just told the Empress Dowager that the hardships of a pregnant woman, those who haven't experienced it definitely can't understand. Who knew Sister truly cares about me? Sister, you empathize with this concubine's hardships, even exempting me from paying respects. It's truly the magnanimity of the head of the harem."

Although the Empress was the head of the six palaces, she had not given birth. The crown prince was not her biological son, but was adopted from the previous emperor. The Noble Consort kept poking at her sore spots. The Empress felt extremely uncomfortable in her heart, and only gave a cold laugh, saying, "I see your mouth is getting sweeter and sweeter."

The Noble Consort laughed, and suddenly clutched her waist, moaning, "Oh no!"

The people around her immediately panicked and rushed to support her. The close attendant palace maid hurriedly called out, "Imperial physician! Quickly summon the imperial physician!"

The Noble Consort weakly waved her hand to stop her, "Forget it! Which woman isn't like this when pregnant? I think this is most likely a boy, kicking me so painfully. The suffering..."

The Empress's face sank, looking even more unpleasant. Unfortunately, being pregnant with the dragon's seed was like a resounding gold medal of immunity. What could she, an out-of-favor and childless empress, do?

At this moment, a young man's voice was heard from afar, slowly and extremely gently saying, "If the Noble Consort feels that giving birth to an heir for the imperial family is suffering, then this humble official is willing to exempt the Noble Consort from this suffering. What does the Noble Consort think?"

That voice was so clear and melodious, as if coming from an empty valley, but one couldn't tell the distance or volume. The Noble Consort hurriedly looked around. There was not a single figure nearby. She immediately realized her slip of the tongue and panicked, "Who are you? How dare you trespass into the harem!"

The young man's voice laughed, almost very gently saying, "This official believes that continuing the dragon's lineage and producing heirs is the proper duty of the harem concubines. If one considers this suffering, it's better to leave the palace and no longer be the Emperor's concubine. If the Noble Consort has this intention, this official is willing to help report it to His Majesty. What does the Noble Consort think?"

The group of people became even more terrified. A young eunuch had already hurriedly shouted in all directions, "Help! Help! There's an assassin! Quickly protect Her Highness!"

However, no guards rushed over from around the Imperial Garden. Just as the Noble Consort was feeling apprehensive, the Empress threw down her hand and said with authority, "What kind of decorum is this shouting! That's the imperial secret guard on duty around here. How did they become assassins? Making a big fuss over nothing, don't be a laughingstock!"

The Noble Consort had never heard of the existence of secret guards in the imperial family. For a moment, she stood there dumbfounded. The Empress then said, "Sister should also discipline the people in your palace. One look and it's clear they don't have the bearing of the imperial family!"

The Noble Consort had never suffered such humiliation. She gritted her silver teeth, almost to the point of shedding tears.

The Empress lightly nodded and said, "The Noble Consort should still take pride in nurturing the dragon's seed. After all, there has been no news of pregnancy in this palace for two years. The Noble Consort's pregnancy is the focus of everyone's attention."

Having said that, without waiting for the Noble Consort's response, she turned around and slowly strolled away with the palace maids and eunuchs.

The Empress walked to the outside of her bedchamber and dismissed the crowd. She gently pushed open the door herself. The Winter Warmth Chamber was filled with a warm fragrance. Mingde knelt on the ground, his long robe spread out, revealing a corner of his undergarment inside, which was actually bright yellow.

The Empress took a few steps forward to help Mingde up and asked in a low voice, "Coming out from the Emperor's place?"

Mingde said expressionlessly, "If the Empress had even a little charm, this official wouldn't have fallen into such an awkward situation."

The implication was that you, Empress, can't capture the Emperor's heart. You're such a failure.

The Empress was almost rendered speechless by his words. After a long while, she said, "You child, really... Do you know that Concubine Xia Zhaoyi was killed by the Noble Consort?"

Mingde laughed lightly, "Minister Xia has almost fallen out with the Noble Consort's maternal family's Minister Ding."

His smile disappeared in an instant, and he put on a serious face, saying, "Your Highness, don't be lenient with the Noble Consort. The Emperor, in fact, doesn't like her."

The Empress really wanted to ask him how he knew the Emperor's thoughts, but after thinking about it, she let it go. This child seemed to have an extremely accurate insight into the Emperor's mind, and the Qianwan Emperor, unexpectedly, did not take any measures against this. On the contrary, he quite appreciated it.

If this child were a girl...

The Empress shook her head. Shangguan Mingde was forcibly summoned to the palace at the age of fifteen. In the two years since then, nothing had come out of the harem. If he were a girl, the one sitting in the Empress's position today might not be herself.

"However," Mingde said softly, "speaking of which, the Noble Consort's child, I really..."

He stopped talking halfway through his sentence. Although he was a staunch supporter of the Crown Prince, he would not tell the Empress everything he had done.

The heart and the stomach are separated. Even blood relatives are the same. In this world, who can truly be entrusted and believed in?

The Empress saw that there was no one around and hurriedly covered his mouth, "Don't say it! Harming the dragon's seed, do you want to be thrown into the dungeons!"

Mingde took half a step back and asked solemnly, "Does the Empress know if His Majesty still visits the Consort's palace these days?"

The Empress nodded, "He goes there every day."

Mingde then smiled slightly, a hint of gentle sweetness in his expression. But the Empress knew that even if the Qianwan Emperor visited the Consort's palace daily, he didn't always bestow his favor; the man's main energy was still spent on Shangguan Mingde.

The Empress was puzzled by Mingde's meaning when he lowered his voice and whispered to her, "Summoned each time but not favored, the Consort must be quite anxious, right?"

The Empress replied with difficulty, "I know that feeling all too well."

Mingde nodded. To outsiders, the Emperor and Empress appeared deeply in love, but in reality, it was a cold, calculating game. This was a taste not only the Consort but also the Empress had grown accustomed to. Speaking of which, who in this harem was truly favored? Who wasn't enduring day by day? Only after becoming Empress and then Empress Dowager would one's meritorious deeds be complete.

Mingde stood up, staring into the Empress's eyes, and said deliberately, "Empress, try having the Consort prepare a few pretty boys to greet His Majesty."

The Empress was startled, "How would the Consort listen to me? Besides, what are you trying to do?"

Mingde didn't answer, only letting out a soft snort. His delicate features were shrouded in a terrifying gloom.


That evening, the Qianwan Emperor made his customary visit to the Consort's Palace, for no other reason than to spite the Empress.

His temper had been provoked these past few days with no outlet. The moment he entered the palace, he headed straight for the bedchamber with a blank expression. The Consort's close attendants and elderly maids exchanged glances, all breathing a sigh of relief. After so many days of walking on eggshells, the Emperor's favor was finally being realized, albeit belatedly.

This favor was the key to countless victories in the struggles of the harem and even the court.

The Qianwan Emperor passed through the inner chamber's door curtain woven from icy gauze and shark silk. A faint silhouette could be seen on the couch, an extremely graceful figure. The Emperor couldn't be bothered with pleasantries. He lifted the bed curtain and froze.

On the bed knelt a boy in the most humble, helpless posture at his feet. The child was only about ten years old, with a delicate frame like a girl's. His features were extremely pretty, his skin moist and fine, completely unlike a normal boy his age.

At first, the Qianwan Emperor didn't react. Then he almost instantly flew into a rage, whirling around and demanding, "Whose absurd idea was this? Someone, come!"

The eunuch ran over trembling, kneeling outside the bed curtain, "Your... Your Majesty..."

The Qianwan Emperor was about to erupt in curses when he suddenly felt a light tug on the corner of his robe. He turned to see the boy shaking with fear, the trembling of his fingers visible even in the Emperor's fury.

The eunuch outside was equally terrified, his teeth chattering, "May Your Majesty forgive us, may Your Majesty forgive us..." Although he had no idea what crime he had committed or why the Emperor had suddenly become so enraged.

The Qianwan Emperor himself didn't know why he was so angry. It was just a little trick in the concubines' fight for favor. Ruining someone's innocence for a moment's desire was something he himself had done before.

But in that instant when he saw the boy, he suddenly felt it was intolerable, as if something in his heart had been violated, even defiled. It was as if someone had sullied Shangguan Mingde right in front of him.

He knew it was an absurd illusion. The one who had ruined Mingde was none other than himself.

Yet in that moment, it felt like a precious treasure he had hidden in his heart had been forcibly tainted, all under the guise of fawning over him and currying his favor.

The Qianwan Emperor stood frozen for a while before reaching out to help the boy up. To his surprise, he saw the child was crying, tears streaming down his face.

The Emperor opened his mouth and asked softly, "...How old are you?"

The boy was so frightened he could barely speak. After a long while, he said, "In... in reply to Your Majesty, fourteen..."

"Whose child are you?"

"My... my family is from North Alley in the southern city..."

Being young and scared, the boy spoke haltingly. It took the Qianwan Emperor a long time to understand that the child had been offered to the Konghe Residence by the prefecture and bought by the Consort Palace's aunts. As for his parents, they were probably wailing at home.

As the boy spoke, he began to cry. He knew he shouldn't cry but couldn't help it, his face deathly pale as if he were about to die. The Qianwan Emperor was inexplicably reminded of that night two years ago. Had Mingde been this afraid, this terrified?


The memory was actually hazy. He himself had likely been completely immersed in joy and excitement at the time. He vaguely recalled the boy trembling slightly, but as for whether he had shed tears in his deepest agony... he really couldn't remember.

The Qianwan Emperor wanted the boy to stop crying. He reached out to try to wipe away the child's tears, but the boy seemed even more frightened. Not just his hands, but his whole body was shaking, his teeth almost chattering.

The Qianwan Emperor dropped his hand in defeat. He spoke, his voice wooden, "...Someone, give this child a hundred taels of gold and send him home."

The attendant murmured assent and walked in with a bow, carefully helping the boy up and out.

The Qianwan Emperor sat a while longer before slowly rising and walking out past the bed curtain. The Consort knelt deeply on the ground, not daring to say a word, not even daring to raise her head to see the Emperor's expression, just kneeling there stiffly.

The Qianwan Emperor stared at her for a moment before saying softly, "You can go atone for me in the Cold Palace."

The Consort suddenly rushed over, wanting to cry and complain about something, but the Qianwan Emperor pushed her away and strode out. His attendants hurriedly caught up, with the trusted eunuch Zhang Kuo following closely behind, asking in a low voice, "Your Majesty, shall we summon Mingde?"

The Qianwan Emperor abruptly stopped in his tracks. Everyone behind him stood still, not daring to make a sound or even breathe heavily.

It was already late at night, with moonlight spilling into the courtyard like a pool of tranquil water. The wind gently rustled through the treetops, the leaves whispering like lovers in the endless night.

The Qianwan Emperor took a deep breath. "...Summon him. I want...to see him."

Shangguan Mingde was in bed when he received the secret imperial decree stating that the Emperor wanted to see him.

Rong Shiba, who delivered the decree, sat disapprovingly on the bedside and said, "Mingde, I think having one more concubine in the harem is less valuable than having one more captain in the secret guards. I've spelled it out for you, how can you still not understand what I mean?"

Half-asleep, Shangguan Mingde rolled over and said, "Alright then, I won't go."

Satisfied, Rong Shiba got up and left through the window of Shangguan's side courtyard. After a few steps, he turned back, poking his head through the door, and weakly said, "...By the way, Mingde, doing this seems like disobeying the imperial decree."

Mingde pulled the covers and lazily said, "It was you, Lord Rong, who taught me to disobey."

Rong Shiba's hair stood on end. "No, no, no! Mingde! My little ancestor Mingde! You should still go! I, your superior, dare not instigate disobedience! I only have one head!"

So Mingde was forcibly dragged out of bed, quickly wrapped in a cotton robe. As he stepped outside, the cold wind made him shiver, instantly waking him up. Rong Shiba hopped from foot to foot, rubbing his hands, "So cold! So cold! Mingde, why don't you even have a warm stove in your room?"

Mingde said, "To save money."

"..." Rong Shiba said, "I don't remember withholding your salary."

"I don't spend much," Mingde said. "Besides, my stepmother used to say that when raising children, you should always keep them a little hungry and cold, so I'm often a bit hungry and cold."

Rong Shiba turned to look at him. The young man's lean profile under the moonlight and shadows was as silent as a rock.

Rong Shiba turned back to hurry along the path when he suddenly heard Mingde ask, "Lord Rong."


"You're about to be promoted?"


"What do you want to do then?"

Rong Shiba thought for a moment. "Probably join the Imperial Guards, maybe as a commander...Of course, I might also be sent out. I'd prefer that, to be a general guarding the southern border or something. Although it's the remote Yunnan frontier, it's far from the Emperor's eyes, much more free to throw my weight around."

Mingde nodded. "Oh."

"What about you? What do you plan to do?"

Mingde smiled. "I want to guard the Imperial Tombs."

Rong Shiba nearly tripped and fell under a tree. Guard the Imperial Tombs? Stay in the tombs with ancient Buddhas under dim lamps, living a vegetarian life chanting scriptures, never seeing the light of day?

"You...you...you, are you alright? Are you talking nonsense from a fever or am I having auditory hallucinations from lack of sleep?"

Mingde stared at Rong Shiba's back for a while before slowly breaking into a bitter smile. He sighed, "...I was just joking."

In no time, they had entered the palace from the outer city walls. The majestic gates of Zhengtai Palace were already vaguely visible, the fierce horned beasts reflecting the pale moonlight in the night.

Rong Shiba stood under the palace wall and said, "I'll escort you this far. You deal with His Majesty on your own."

Normally, people wouldn't speak this way. Mingde knew it was just his personality, so he nodded. "Take care, Lord Rong."

Rong Shiba walked back a few steps. When he turned around again, Mingde had already pushed open the door and gone in.

He walked almost without making a sound, always light on his feet as if constantly wary of something. In fact, given his status and favor, he could be as domineering as he wanted without anyone saying anything. But he was always like that, seemingly never relaxed and at ease.

The heavy palace doors opened one after another before him. Shangguan Mingde walked onto the long bluestone path leading straight to the silent and stately Zhengtai Palace in the night.

His footsteps faltered slightly as he adjusted his breathing.

What did the Empress tell the Consort? How was the Consort doing? Had she succeeded? What was the effect? He knew none of this.

All he knew was that since that man said he wanted to "see him", it meant the handsome boy prepared by the Consort had failed. Otherwise, why would that man summon him in the middle of the night? When had that man ever let him off without tormenting him all night?

In this underhanded fight for favor, if it succeeded then it succeeded. If it failed, it would truly be embarrassing. A Noble Consort, using lowly obscene tricks to entice the Emperor - any self-respecting monarch would be furious.

Mingde took a deep breath, a fleeting cold smile on his lips.

How foolish, anyone in this harem was. With a little inducement, they immediately took the bait, too greedy to control their desires.

He slightly adjusted his emotions. Just as he was about to step forward, he seemed to hear a faint whoosh of wind by his ear.

Shangguan Mingde instantly tensed up - in a split second, a dark shadow flashed across the night sky above Zhengtai Palace, so fast it was nearly invisible. But in that flash, Shangguan Mingde shot up like an arrow let loose from its string, leaping up in an instant, fiercely pouncing over!


Heya! I'm Leafy. My passion for stories is matched only by my love for the outdoors. As I translate, I draw inspiration from the tranquility of nature. Whether I'm translating or tending to my garden, I'm always finding new stories to share with you.

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