A warm wrinkled hand was resting on her forehead.
The gentle face of an old man was right before her eyes.
The immaculate yet simple room, she had seen before.
“Here? This is the sanitorium in the north of the inner palace. It’s cramped in the medical office, so you’re here.”
The old man explained what Maomao wanted to ask.
Ruomen, the old man, moved his hands away from Maomao’s forehead and picked up some cooled water. He poured some into a small teapot and brought it over to Maomao’s lips. Perhaps there was medicine dissolved in it – it was slightly bitter.
“Once again, you did the unreasonable. Because of you, there was an uproar as Rakan tried to get into the inner palace three times. Come on, don’t make such a face. He’s surely worried about you.”
Knitting her brows, Maomao drank the medicated water.
“You still can’t speak properly? You had rashes all the way to the inside of your mouth.”
He prised open Maomao’s mouth and looked inside. The stinging from the bitterness of the medicine must be due to that.
“There’s congee, but will you be able to eat it on your own?”
She was extremely hungry. Just how many days since she had last eaten? She somehow moved her body, but it didn’t move well.
Upon seeing that, Dad picked up the bowl of congee and spooned some into Maomao’s mouth.
The lightly salted flavour was familiar to her palate.
“Rest here for the time being. I have other work to do.”
After feeding her the congee, Dad patted Maomao’s head and left in a hurry.
Did the medical office have work like that? she had thought, then arrived at the reason her dad originally came here for. Maomao had requested him to look after Consort Gyokuyou’s childbirth instead of her.
She considered the dates. It wouldn’t be strange even if the baby was born anytime soon. He shouldn’t have the free time to leave Maomao in the medical office and look after her.
Maomao slowly extended her hands. Her hands were ugly, broken out in rashes. It should take some brief time for them to heal.
(It would be good if she could give birth with no issues.)
It would be good if she gives birth to a healthy baby peacefully without any issues, Maomao thought.
While her dad wasn’t around, it was the middle-aged palace lady called Shenryu – who had once proposed a consultation with her before – who looked after Maomao. As she was a palace lady with an unaffected, candid personality, even Maomao was relieved.
Perhaps some improvement had been observed since then, it seems even medicine can now be given out in the clinic. Medicine was given out along with congee. The medicine seemed to have a sleeping effect; her body became sluggish after she drank it.
“Did you request it for us? We were permitted to use medicine, though it isn’t much, since then.”
Shenryu talked to Maomao as she changed the bedsheets.
Maomao’s condition had improved considerably. She can now get up and walk. Considering that she remained in a coma for a couple of days, she thought that it would have been better if she had just taken a sip of the buckwheat shaojiu that time.
“I didn’t do anything.”
When she finished making the bed with a slap, “Go sleep,” she pointed at Maomao with her thumb.
If she was that skilful, she can find work even if she leaves the inner palace.
Perhaps she was dazed from drinking the medicine, Maomao unintentionally mouthed it.
“Why, don’t you leave the inner palace?”
It took little time for her realise it was a stupid question.
Shenryu’s expression momentarily froze. It was a face like something she didn’t want to remember had crossed her mind.
“…we can’t leave even if we want to leave, the women of the clinic.”
Abruptly, she looked at the palace lady who passed through the corridor.
Shenryu as well, but all the palace ladies here are middle-aged. Everyone was over the standard age.
“The flowers that have been picked once must not leave until they wither. We were always told that. As if we can leave now.”
She revealed what happened to those who became the emperor’s mistresses.
Based on their age, Maomao understood that they were not the palace ladies who served in the era of the current emperor. They became the mistresses of the previous emperor and then continued remaining here always.
Even when the leadership was changed, the women who had passed the flowering season must have no place to go. They could only bury their bones in this flower garden.
“Your old man must not be coming today. He must be busy.”
So saying that, Shenryu held out the medicine Maomao ate before she slept.
Ring. She noticed that she heard bells.
She thought of opening her eyes, but she couldn’t open them properly. Her body was sluggish.
She thought of continuing to sleep, but she was interested in the sound of the bells so there was nothing she could do. She also heard footsteps with the bell sound. The sounds were approaching Maomao gradually.
The two sounds stopped right before Maomao.
Instead, she heard a soft, innocent voice.
“The bell-sound insects, you know, the females eat the males in order to reproduce.”
Maomao somehow cracked her eyes open. There, was Shisui with a distracted expression, no, Consort Rouran.
Consort Rouran had something that looked like a book in her hands. She flipped through it and took out a sheet of paper.
“The female dies after laying her eggs, and only the offspring overcome the winter.”
While not understanding what she was trying to say, Consort Rouran folded the paper in her hands many times and slipped it under Maomao’s collar. And then, she leaned the booklet she was holding onto the shelf in the room.
“Hey, can the offspring definitely overcome the winter?”
She stroked Maomao’s forehead gently.
While Maomao couldn’t move.
She soon understood that question.
Shenryu was behind Consort Rouran. In her hands, was a towel.
She lifted up Maomao’s rigid body and stuffed the towel in her mouth.
“You can hate me as much as you want.”
In Maomao’s medicine, there must have been anaesthetic mixed in the sleeping medicine. She couldn’t taste properly as the rashes in her mouth hadn’t healed completely so she hadn’t noticed it at all.
Was it Consort Gyokuyou going into labour the reason why her dad didn’t come today? If so, the attention would be focused at the Jade Palace and the other defences would be shorthanded.
That must be their aim.
(You can hate me, is it?)
She had no idea what her intention was, but it wasn’t that she didn’t understand the reason she moved.
Maomao was at their mercy. She was stuffed into a basket and swept away.
How long had she been rocking? It was a long enough time to the degree of her thinking that it would have been better to have drunk less water for the time being.
The wind coming in through the gaps of the basket was getting cold fast.
There were furs packed in the basket, so she wrapped herself in that.
(Where could she be taking me?)
She was treated like baggage, but the inside of the basket was more comfortable than she expected. Besides the furs, there was a zongzi(粽, sticky rice dumpling that is wrapped in leaves.) with meat stuffing and a bamboo pipe filled with tea, but disappointingly it didn’t seem like she could have either of them. The zongzi looked delicious, stuffed with chicken and jujubes, but the current Maomao didn’t have the energy to let alone eat while she was rocking.
As she tasted the bamboo pipe to the extent of wetting her parched lips, Maomao thought about her current situation.
She was able to understand that they must have left the inner palace. Be that as it may that the inner palace was that much vast, they shouldn’t be rocking in the horse carriage for that long. From the horse sounds she sometimes heard along with the clattering sound, it was certain she was riding in a horse carriage.
How did they go outside the inner palace?
She had no idea about that.
Just that, like she was connected with Shenryu, if she was told about the existence of a hidden passageway, that must be the end of it.
(It’s full of things I don’t know.)
It was a kidnapping no matter how she looked at it, but she didn’t know the motive.
(Does she know that I have a connection to that man?)
She might not be a bad piece to use as a measure against a certain monocle person, but would they be not scared of that man’s counterattack if they are sloppy? That being’s way of thinking was completely different to other people, so she had no idea how and what would come out of that.
Besides, what would become even they used Maomao as a shield after all this time? Gaoshun, who came in to visit her once, told her that important people are held in check. Whatever they try to raise are too transparent as well. It is understandable enough that they would display defiance from getting exposed, but there must be several people among those people who come out on such a grand scale.
(More than that, the current problem is,)
Maomao took a deep breath.
(It would be that I have a guarantee of my life, I suppose.)
Maomao didn’t have interest in the government. The serious matters of the country will affect her lifestyle deeply, but aside from that, her own safety right now was more important.
From the fact that she had minimum anxiety, she thought that didn’t have the danger of being killed the moment she is taken out of the basket.
No, she had thought.
The basket suddenly jolted. It seems she was taken down from a horse carriage or something. She must have been loaded onto a handcart or something, the rocking had now subsided to choppy swaying.
She heard Consort Rouran mutter from outside the cage.
“Quiet down for a bit. I’ll let you out soon.”
That tone, rather than Consort Rouran, was Shisui’s.
The girl too, must have the resolution in itself to leave the inner palace. Consorts, excepting the garden party which was a special case, are not permitted to go outside the inner palace.
Along with the solemn sound of the gate opening, a saccharine smell reached her nose.
The cart stopped. Some footsteps approached instead.
The smell thickened with the footsteps.
“It’s been a while, Mother.”
She heard Consort Rouran’s voice. It wasn’t Shisui’s voice. It was somewhat stiff, a voice lacking in individuality.
“You seem to be in good health.”
She heard a voice that was to some degree deeper than Consort Rouran’s. Together with the shuffling of footsteps, she heard the rustling sound of clothes. An extravagant dress dragging along the floor projected in her mind.
She was pretty sure that this was the woman who was the previous emperor’s high ranked consort bestowed to Shishou.
“What is it, that luggage?”
A startling question was raised suddenly.
Maomao shrank her body inside the box.
“Please allow me to bring back some luggage at least.”
Consort Rouran, no, would consort be needed now? Rouran declared it without any timidity.
“Is that so.”
It was the moment she was going to let out a deep breath, when the person openly passed through the side.
With a stab, a sharp object protruded through the lid of the basket. It seems to be a hairpin(笄, kougai. This hairpin is the simple hair stick with two parts, no dangly decoration like the kanzashi.).
The point stopped at the tip of Maomao’s nose. To not raise her voice, she held her mouth desperately.
“Since it’s you, I thought you brought back a dog or a cat again, but I was wrong.”
“Mother hates cats. I’m not a child anymore.”
“I’m glad you grew up.”
As she spoke indifferently, Rouran’s mother stepped past and left, her clothes rustling.
Maomao could only hold her breath until she couldn’t hear footsteps anymore.
Synopsis: Somewhere in the universe, there was an altar. On it, laid a bloody eye as big as the sun itself. It burst with light and bathed the entire star system in red.
"The aura of an ancestral artifact!" Someone's voice rose in surprise.
The Great Galactic Era had begun.