It was so quiet there was not a sound to be heard. Hong Xiu was sitting next to the bed. She lived in a very small room and shared a big bed with six other palace maids. There was no separate closet and no separate dressing table. This was perhaps Hong Xiu’s most hard-pressed living conditions in her nearly twenty years of life; since she began seeing clients she only enjoyed the best resources of the brothel, becoming the top courtesan.
You c an fi nd t he la te st cha pte rs at ( th e ir on tr ee bl oo ms. c o m )
For Hong Xiu, her destiny was already decided. The best future she had imagined was to catch a man at her best age. This man might be a rich merchant or a young master, and he would redeem her from the brothel. She would then move from a larger cage to a smaller one.
She would be favored, and then fall out of favor. Her background meant that she could not become the lawful wife of anyone, married with all the rites and trappings of an official wife.
Or maybe she would not be redeemed. When she got old, she would become an old lady that would clean and sweep the floors in the brothel, her back bent over as she wiped the steps and the ground. No one would know that she was a graceful beauty when she was younger.
She had thought a lot, but never had she thought she would sit in such a place, and never had she thought that her past experience would become capital she now relied on.
“An Xiu, don’t keep sitting, come and go to bed.” The maid squinted her eyes while lying on the bed and called to her, “We have to get up early for work tomorrow.”
Hong Xiu climbed onto the bed and covered herself with the quilt, pulling it up to her nose. The maids whispered quietly about the day.
“I can’t sleep, the supervisor punished me to kneel in the afternoon, and my knee still hurts.”
The little palace maids were the daughters of minor officials. They had not enjoyed the luxurious life of nobles and those in power. The only difference they had from the daughters of the common people was that they didn’t have to go hungry. But they still had to do work as minor officials’ salary plus money from bribery was not enough for the family to really enjoy any luxuries.
“The supervisor is so fierce…..”
“They are hiding the empress!”
The senior palace maids were in charge of everything around the empress and they acted as her eyes and ears. They suppress the little palace maids underneath, just because they were afraid that if they climbed up the ranks, they themselves would have to come down. After all, the positions around the empress were limited.
But in the naive imagination of the little palace maids, the empress was being hidden by the senior palace maids.
Hong Xiu listened quietly, without saying a word.
“The empress has a good temper. I heard that she doesn’t punish people with a board beating even when they make a mistake.”
“The empress doesn’t beat us, but if the supervisors want to beat us, it still hurts even when it’s hitting our palms with a stick.”
“I heard that if the palm is hit twenty times it will be swollen, and if it is fifty times it will be crippled.”
“We can’t make mistakes. A beating is a small thing but the embarrassment is a big thing. My family is still waiting for me to come out of the palace!”
Although they would be much older when they finally left the palace, girls who had been in the palace received better marriage prospects.
It was a proud thing to be able to enter the palace.
“I heard that Consort Li is the most favored, and the emperor goes to her every day.”
“Consort Li looks beautiful! They all say Consort Li is more beautiful than Noble Consort Yang!”
“Would the emperor love her if she was not beautiful?”
“Go to bed, we have work tomorrow, don’t wake up the supervisor.”
The little palace maids stopped talking. Some closed their eyes to sleep, and some kept their eyes open. When meeting the equally open eyes of a fellow little sister next to them, they would bury their heads in the quilt and giggle.
The sun was shining on the earth, and this temporary small imperial palace city awakened from the dark night. The eunuchs and the palace maids moved about in hurried steps. The spring morning cold had yet to disperse so they walked in the imperial palace city wearing cotton-padded clothes. Hong Xiu followed the other maids with her head bowed as they walked forward. Their eyes always looked in front of them. On the road, no one knew what was ahead, who was ahead.
“An Xiu, you come with me.” The leading palace maid called over Hong Xiu.
Hong Xiu walked up to her in a practiced manner in accordance with etiquette. Hong Xiu had her head lowered, her eyes confused and uneasy, just like every young nervous girl.
The palace maid smiled at Hong Xiu: “I see that you are honest and well-behaved. It happens that there was an older sister who left the palace and the Empress’s palace is missing a tea-serving palace maid.”
Hong Xiu’s eyes brightened, and she looked very happy. She said carefully: “I bought rouge for Sister Zhang.”
The palace maid’s surname was Zhang, and she pretended to cough: “I was not aiming for this benefit, I just looked at your obedience and decided to give you a chance.”
Hong Xiu nodded repeatedly: “I know, I know, it’s sister who is thinking of me.”
She had given the palace maid Zhang a lot of benefits, and almost all the gold she brought into the palace was given to her. Only then did she manage to reach this point.
If palace maid Zhang did not fulfill her promise, then she would be in a more difficult position in the palace. At that time, she could only send a letter to An Laosi and the others to come up with a new method, as the original plan failed and she could only become one of the informants they had in the palace.
The palace maid Zhang took the small box of rouge that Hong Xiu handed over, pursed her lips and smiled: “If you gain the favor of the empress in the future, don’t forget me.”
Hong Xiu: “I will take sister’s good words to heart, if one day I’ve done well for myself, I will not forget sister’s great kindness.”
“Let’s go.” The palace maid led the way and told Hong Xiu, “You have to be more cautious after going to the empress’s palace. You are smart so I don’t need to mention anything else, just remember one sentence. You don’t have to worry about others except for Lady Zhao. Be careful, she has the most face next to the empress. It won’t be much of a problem if you offend others. But if you offend her, you won’t even know how you died.”
Hong Xiu asked in a low voice, “Is Lady Zhao very fierce?”
The palace maid Zhang led her through the small door. No one passed by here and it was considered a blind spot. She looked around and made sure that no one was passing by before pulling Hong Xiu over and saying, “Lady Zhao has been serving the empress for a long time.”
“Before the empress entered the palace, she was already the most favored person around the empress.” The palace maid Zhang said, “She doesn’t love money, so don’t think of giving her gifts. Lady Zhao likes honest people.”
Hong Xiu understood, and smiled sweetly, “Thank you, sister.”
The palace maid Zhang smiled and said: “If you do well, I will be better too, won’t I?”
Those who did well in the palace and managed to be seen by the master, might actually even be able to come back to the palace to serve as senior palace ladies even if they had already married and had children. If one was lucky and the master had a child, one could even come back to be a nanny, which was practically the same as reaching the sky in one step.
So long as one could be remembered by the master, everything else was empty and superficial.
There was not much that the tea-serving maid could do, it was just brewing tea for the empress. If the maids next to the empress had the intention, then one would not even have the chance to bring the tea to the empress.
But even so, those who were vying for this position fight fiercely for it.
“Lady Zhao, this is An Xiu.” The palace maid Zhang brought Hong Xiu to Lady Zhao, as all the palace maids in the empress’s palace had to go through her.
Lady Zhao was in her thirties. She had a stern face and a stiff manner from her older age. Her lips were thin and made her look a little bit mean. Her back was slightly stooped, the result of years of bending over. No matter how much face she had in front of the empress, and how much power she held in her hand, she was just a servant who couldn’t straighten up when facing her master.
Lady Zhao just took a look at Hong Xiu, and said mildly: “Be honest and obedient, do what you should do, and don’t think about what you shouldn’t.”
Hong Xiu lowered her head, and she could only see her skirt: “Yes, thank you Lady for your teaching.”
Lady Zhao: “It’s not to that extent. Follow me.”
Hong Xiu had learned some tea skills before and her tea art was very good. As a courtesan from a brothel she must be proficient in music, chess, calligraphy and painting.
Being a high grade prostitute in ancient times was also a kind of technical job.
“Not bad.” Lady Zhao drank a sip of tea, and finally made such a comment, “The craftsmanship is passable.”
Hong Xiu showed an appropriately measured expression of excitement.
Lady Zhao glanced at her sideways, and Hong Xiu shrank her neck and tucked in her chin.
Lady Zhao: “Such unsteadiness, how is that seemly? This is the empress’s palace, the place of example for the women of the world!”
Hong Xiu lowered her head: “Yes.”
Lady Zhao looked away: “You are a servant of the empress, and you must be loyal to the empress. If I learn that you have been communicating information to the outside, I will let you know that while you may have come in here vertically you will be going out horizontally.”
After Lady Zhao finished making her warnings, Hong Xiu was led away by other palace maids.
Although it was the palace of the empress, it was actually not all that big. After all, Anfeng was only a county and it could not be compared with most cities, nor could it be compared with the real imperial palace city. It was just that everyone pretended that this was the imperial palace city. After pretending for a long time, this palace also seemed to have become more magnificent.
Hong Xiu looked at all this calmly, but in her heart she was full of contempt.
The women here took pride in being the empress’s maids, and they tied their own personal honor and disgrace to one person.
If this person tells them to live they will live, and if it is to die then they will die.
How similar was it to herself once upon a time?
She once also placed everything about herself on men.
But then she discovered that her life must be in her own hands if she wanted to live happily.
Just like with her standing here now, not because she wanted to bring honor to the family, nor because she was forced to be helpless. She had chosen all this by herself.
So she could face all the advantages and disadvantages that came of this choice.
These women couldn’t.
If the empress fell from grace, their lives would also be over, and they wouldn’t even know what they did wrong.
Hong Xiu stood in the tea room with countless tea leaves behind her. The room was filled with a strong tea fragrance. Her wrists were very thin and white. She was wearing a palace dress and her hair was pinned up in the most ordinary hairstyle. She had no expression on her face and the surrounding maids also all did their own things. No one made a sound, as if they were standing in a mausoleum instead.
The empress’s palace sounded honorable on the surface, but what was so honorable if only the empress was present in the palace?
It was only honorable wherever the emperor was.
People outside all say that the empress was kind and benevolent, but no one had ever thought deeper. If the empress was really that kind and benevolent, why was Consort Li still not pregnant despite having the emperor’s favor every night? The emperor was young and strong and virile and yet there was no prince or princess being born in the palace. Consort Li was also at a ripe age with imperial physicians at her call and the most favor from the emperor. It was natural for the coupling of man and woman to result in children.
The corners of Hong Xiu’ lips were curved in a smile.
She was not afraid of the empress’s cruelty and greed, but she was afraid that the empress really had no wants and desires.
A person who had no wants and desires was the most terrifying person.
If this person didn’t want anything at all.
Then how could others seek what they want from her?
You c an fi nd t he la te st cha pte rs at ( th e ir on tr ee bl oo ms. c o m )
The more fierce she was, the more likely it was that Hong Xiu would climb up the ranks.
Hong Xiu took a deep breath.
It was not a day’s cold that could freeze three feet deep of ice. She must continue to lay dormant, and take things slowly and gradually.
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