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25 Entering Hougong



WEI LI LIAN

PRINCESS LE-ANNE

THE PUNISHMENT BUREAU

"How dare a lowly servant talk to me so informally?" The woman's chest was heaving with anger. "Do you know who I am?"

Mo stared at her blankly.

"I'm Virtuous Consort Shu's court lady!"

At the mention of her ranking title, he quickly fell to the ground. Even through her pain, Le-anne couldn't help registering this with surprise. She never thought it would be possible for such a huge man to bow down to anyone.

"My Lady, please forgive me!" He was the one that was now shaking, "This servant had no idea. Please forgive me..."

"I do not care what virtuous woman you belong to but this decree states that this maid must be punished." The official stepped forward arrogantly and looked down his nose at her. "Do you dare go against his majesty's orders for a worthless servant?"

The court lady did not reply but angrily snatched the scroll from his hand. Her eyes ran down the wooden scroll. Then, without warning, she forcefully threw the scroll to the ground.

Clank. It tumbled on the concrete floor.

"I believe that this servant is now pertinent," she said coldly. She clapped her hands and her assistant palace maids rushed to help her free the princess.

Le-anne's body ached, but her pride chose not to show it. She was going to grace herself through the pain.

"This bureau considers two lashes to be no real punishment!" the official raged. He was now losing it.

"Are you feeling any pain?" The court lady ignored him, giving all her attention to the princess.

'Yes, maybe because I was just being scourged?'

"No, my lady must not worry about me," Le-anne gritted out.

The woman narrowed her eyes. She had colossal owl like eyes that made her seem a little intimidating. "Good. Because this cannot be mentioned to her highness."

'Why?' Le-anne was curious to find out, but decided not to ask out loud.

"Of course, my lady." She then nodded respectfully.

The court lady instructed Le-anne to follow her, and they left her punisher still kneeling on the ground while the unhappy official uttered some curses and turned to his next victim.

The court lady first had Le-anne sent to the Fashion Bureau for some measurements because she had been summoned to give audience to the Virtuous Consort, and appearing before royalty in servants clothes was a crime worth being tattooed on your forehead. After taking her measurements, they gave her a pale blue hanfu before sending her off to bathe herself, which was a chore in itself because of the bruises she gained from the beating. On top of that, she could barely hold anything with her red swollen fingers being so sensitive.


The Hougong was a remarkably beautiful place situated at the south of the Imperial palace, fenced around by long cedar staves to separate itself from the rest of the grand palace. This was where all the concubines and consorts of the emperor lived.

To Le-anne's knowledge, the previous emperor had not possessed any concubines but instead took in most women for the crown prince, the current emperor, to strengthen his throne as he was looked down upon for being the child of a low-born woman. It was tradition to have consorts and concubines of the late emperor sent away to serve at the temple but probably since Consort Shu was said to be the real mother of the sitting emperor, rules had been bent a little.

Le-anne couldn't help wondering why the consort didn't stay at the Rose Flower Palace with the Grand Dowager Empress and Dowager Empress Wang. She was an elder of the palace and not one of the emperor's women after all.

At the entrance, they were all thoroughly searched by the royal guards, then led inside where they were welcomed by the sight of a beautiful enormous courtyard that had all sorts of flowers and trees growing within it. The air was fresh with unique scents that enticed Le-anne's senses. Behind the courtyard were some organised and well spaced out chambers, each assigned for a single concubine.

Le-anne took in all of the sights with amazement and continued to trail behind the court lady. From the corner of her eye, she saw a few concubines play pitch-pot with the palace maids surrounding them, each group supporting their lady. Subsequently, she spotted another concubine enjoying the scenery of the flowers.

She had learned to identify the rank of each concubine by their jewelry. First rank concubines wore gold or silver while the rest were only permitted less expensive stones like bronze, iron, and copper in proportion to their rank. Those who had no jewelry were simply nameless concubines, yet to be called by the emperor and receive acknowledgement.

"Your highness! It is I..." They knelt at the entrance of Virtuous Consort Shu's chambers as the court lady made her arrival known.

"Come in," the voice which Le-anne assumed to be the Virtuous Consort's responded.

They got up and Le-anne slightly winced, a reminiscent of the earlier beating she had received. It also felt weird to stand up by herself since she had become accustomed to Ai's immediate help at all times.

They walked into a well decorated welcoming room that had bright colours all over the place. A prodigious painting of a blossoming tree was aligned on the wall, every bit of it screaming for attention.

"She is here already?" The Virtuous Consort's face lit up when she saw her from the floor couch she was sitting on. It seemed like she had been preoccupying herself by painting another gargantuan; an identical of the one that was stuck on the wall, though taking into consideration that the tree she now worked on was darker in colour, more sad looking and daunting to look at. Without a doubt the painting on the wall was presumably another of her artwork, considering how they were much spitting images of the other. The woman was perhaps passionate about painting.

And so was Le-anne's mother.

Fleeting images of her mother making her pose in the spring flowered forest painfully crossed her mind, leaving a trace of heartache and yearning.

"Yes, your highness," the court lady nodded while the whole entourage went on their knees again, but Le-anne furthered herself into a bow.

"Greeti—"

"Awwe you are as beautiful as I remember." Virtuous Consort Shu hurriedly moved over to her and ran her hands through Leanne's hair. The princess couldn't help noting her lack of royal comportment. As royalty, she should have asked Le-anne to come and kneel beside her rather than stand up for her.

"What oils do you use on your hair? It's so silky..." the consort cooed.

Princess Le-anne gave her a tight lipped smile; she had not been raised much in royalty but having observed the Nevorian royal life for the past few days, this consort was too different. Without warning, Virtuous Consort Shu tugged down the cloth that covered half of Le-anne's face, and the woman's eyes bulged in surprise while the rest of the women gasped in awe.

"Your face!" she shrieked in excitement and turned towards her court lady, barely containing herself. "Court Lady Park, have her moved to my quarters, and give her anything she needs to make oils for my skin and hair."

The consort grinned widely like she had hit jackpot as she trailed her hands on Le-anne's soft smooth skin, her fingers weaving through the black strands like the pools of purest ink. To the Virtuous Consort, her eccentric hair was unquestionably out of this world.

Princess Le-anne straightened the pleats of her skirt. Surely, she lacked sense. Who told her that she could make oils? But this was a good opportunity to get away from the vile women of art.

'Emperor Huizhong! You have the nerve to punish me?'

'Hah! No one punishes me and gets away with it, Huizhong.'

'Never!'