By the time she was guided to the bridechamber, Shen Zhenzhu was utterly exhausted. Su Ci and Hong Rui carefully removed her veil revealing eight handmaids, four on each side ready to serve her hand and foot.
Everywhere she looked was bright crimson. As the wedding procession had left the manor at dusk, it was already the middle of the night now.
The small window of the bridechamber was half open, letting in the bright moonlight. The large dragon candle and phoenix candles produced a flickering bright light. Outside, the muffled sound of distant laughter, wine games and the footsteps of the servants trickled in.
“Your Highness, Lady Cui requests an audience with you according to the rules,” a young maid ran in announced.
Su Ci and Hong Rui hurriedly tidied her robes and helped her over to the outer meeting room. Lady Cui was already waiting there also dressed in a scarlet wedding dress. She was round and plump like a pearl and extremely beautiful . When she saw Shen Zhenzhu, she glided over and gave her a half bow and in a reluctant and begrudgingly way said, “Cui Caiping greets the Princess Consort.” As soon as she finished, the master of ceremonies sang, “According to the laws, please can Lady Cui give the Princess Consort three kowtows three times.” The other master of ceremonies has already pulled out a crimson cushion for Lady Cui to use to kowtow. But upon hearing that, Cui Caiping’s facial expression had changed, “What?! I haven’t even kowtowed to my parents like that! I refuse!” she shrieked.
Shen Zhenzhu silently sighed and she knew that Cui Caiping’s temperament was exactly as it was rumoured to be. She was going to stir up trouble, especially now that they share the same roof, but she also knew it was pointless to pay attention to her antics. She gave Hong Rui a knowing look. Hong Rui immediately knew what she wanted. She pulled a few gold taels from a red cloth purse and stuffed them in the hands of the two Masters of ceremonies.
“We are sisters,” Shen Zhenzhu told them, “so she does not need to go through such ceremony. My dear sisters can you forgive her?” The ladies knew about Cui Caiping and were a little intimidated by the power of the Yang clan. Besides they gained from this arrangement, so they did not press the matter and left to return to the palace.
Meanwhile, Shen Zhenzhu had already started to console Cui Caiping who was still furious. She pulled out a jade hairpin which was clear and looked almost transparent in its flawlessness. She inserted the hairpin gently into Cui Caiping’s hair and clasped both of her hands.
“Just now I heard that your name was Caiping right? That is such a lovely name! From now on, we are sisters and should take care of each other to support His Highness together. You have seen so much of the world but unfortunately, I was in a rush, so I do not have anything valuable. This hairpin is the only thing I have so please accept it.” Although Shen Zhenzhu’s words seemed plain and simple, as if she was just being courteous but they carried a deeper meaning. Firstly, although she called her her sister, decreasing the distance between them but she also clearly distinguishing their position in the household, one is the primary wife, the Princess Consort whilst the other a concubine . The second thing was by mentioning “that they must support Prince Guangping together” she reminded her that they were now on the same boat. To remind her to not abuse the power that the Yang clan carry now because Consort Yang was the Emperor’s favourite. To not do whatever she wishes especially if the consequences will harm all of them.
As for that jade hairpin, that was no ordinary hairpin. Lantian was once known for producing the most exquisite jade. One of Zhenzhu’s ancestors had travelled there during a journey and bought a beautiful piece of jade from there. It was gentle, fine and smooth with a shine to its polish. When it was lightly tapped with a finger, it gave off the reverbating sound of gold with a low subtone as it gently disappears into silence. Hence her ancestor employed skilled craftsmen to transform that stone into a few hairpins and polished stones, that hairpin was among them. Even though Cui Caiping was arrogant and spoilt, so much so that even her parents were a little afraid of her but who knew that Shen Zhenzhu would treat her like thus? Especially after she purposefully tried to aggravate the Princess Consort on the first day to secure her rightful position in the manor. She felt that although she had used up all her energy, but it all was to no avail. In the end, she was forced to make small talk with Shen Zhenzhu before taking her leave.
The night grew later and later, and the noise outside slowly receded. A sneeze broke the silence from a maid who could no longer hold it in. Though it was March, the night was still a little cold.
After about an hour, another woman came in. Her beauty was delicate with a touch of intelligence in her eyes. Although she was dressed like a handmaiden but she seemed different from the other maids. Instead of wearing a crimson dress, she wore a white robe with narrow sleeves, paired with a green vest and a dark red dress. Her single hairbun was accessorised with a small hairpin. She gracefully gave Shen Zhenzhu a short curtsy to show her respect before introducing herself. “Your servant is Dugu Jing greets Your Highness. I am also the deputy estate manager here. The other princes have persuaded His Highness to continue drinking with them so I am afraid he will not be able to return soon. You must be exhausted Princess Consort so please rest up first.”
As she spoke, a maid who had been following behind her had started to place plates of food and dimsum onto the table. There were sugared pea cakes, steamed French bean rolls, jade (mixture of vegetable) cake, layered green bean and hawthorn cake, fried curry rolls, a dazzling array of the most exquisite snacks from the Su region. Shen Zhenzhu felt herself let out a “yi” sound. Dugu Jing continued to inform her, “His Highness told me to prepare this for you. Your Highness, please try it to see if it is your taste?”
Shen Zhenzhu slowly nodded and smiled, “From your accent, you’re also from Jiangnan?”
“My family are from Yangzhou,”Dugu Jing replied.
“That is very close to Wuxin, we are from the same area then!”
“Your servant does not dare to agree,” Dugu Jing answered in the same monotonous tone, remaining unmoved by the special attention, cooling Shen Zhenzhu’s interest. She continued to order the maids to bring more pillows and arm rests to ensure Shen Zhenzhu’s comfort before leaving.
Shen Zhenzhu had not eaten the entire day and had started to feel hungry long beforehand but was too embarrassed to say so. She picked a few pieces of the dimsum, leaned against the bed pillar and slowly drifted asleep.
In her sleep, she felt a pair of gentle warm hands tenderly touch her forehead, her cheeks and then brushed through her hair. The air around her seemed to carry the slightly intoxicating smell of wine. Suddenly she jolted up, as it must be the young boy from back then, Prince Guangping and her husband.
She woke up to find his hands clasped around hers. His appearance had not changed much since then. His handsome facial features remained, the only difference was he had lost the childish air from ten years ago. Instead, his facial features had sharpened and become more pronounced, and he now carried the aloofness and grace of an Imperial prince. The fragrance of the wine he drank, the osmanthus wine from Xinjiang enveloped the warm chamber and the air around them as he stared unblinkingly at her. When he was silent like that, she felt that his imposing manner was too suffocating causing her to struggle to breathe properly. And his bright dark eyes, seemed to be able to see through her heart.
She felt herself blush under his penetrating gaze. Shyly, she looked away and studied the room but realised that they were now alone in the large chamber. Lowering her eyes with embarrassment, she started, “Your Highness, you are drunk…..”Despite the fact she had read so many books that even five carts was not enough to fill, she did not know what to say.
“Don’t call me Your Highness, call me Chu!” he gently ordered. She was his gift from Heaven. That day when he went to Jiangnan with his parents, although almost everyone was on the boats admiring the landscape but only he saw her drowning in the water. Without a second thought, he leapt into the lake to save her. How old was he back then? It frightened the guards almost to death but he managed to save her life in the process. Even after many years, he had heard people say that he had fished out a pearl from the lake. Her name was after all Zhenzhu (pearl). During the bride selection contest, he could not say anything, could not give the Emperor any hint of who he wanted. There were so many noble ladies and the one who seemed the most likely was the one who was usually disqualified. When he thought that there was no chance for her to be his, fate smiled on him and she finally did.
By this time, Shen Zhenzhu had turned beetroot and was unable to bring herself call him that. To distract herself, she finally remembered that she had not removed her hair accessories yet and hurriedly pulled a hairpin from her hair.
“I’ll help you with that,” Li Chu told her as he stood up to help her remove the pile of gold inserted into her hair. He had always been someone who was fully in control of everything. Although he had drunken a lot of wine this eve but that only slightly intoxicated him. But after seeing her, for some reason he felt even more inebriated. He clumsily removed her gold butterfly Buyao but was unable to remove the precious gem encrusted hairpin. By roughly pulling it in the wrong direction, he accidentally hurt her. She winced in pain and let out a small cry of pain. Before she could react, she felt a warmth against her lips. Li Chu had leant down to kiss her passionately on the lips.
After that kiss, Shen Zhenzhu felt weak all over, unable to even lift a finger. Li Chu picked her up and gently put her onto her bed.
“Your Highness…”she whispered.
“Call me Chu!” he insisted as he leaned over her and continued to kiss her, drowning himself in her intoxicating sweet scent. The strength in her arms and legs was gone. As he deepened the kiss, she could smell his familiar scent and slowly raised her arms to embrace his wide shoulders and wrap herself against his body. As if it was a sign of encouragement, he started to make his descent around her body, kissing her lips, eyes, forehead, hair, neck, collarbone, first gently and then overcome with passion. His mad, fervent kisses seemed to drain all the strength left in her body until she felt herself as soft and pliable as soil and her breath getting heavier from his touch.
“Zhenzhu, it’s been ten years, you’re finally mine,” he whispered against her ear as he pulled himself against her.
 During the Tang Dynasty, being round and plump was considered beautiful. Yang Guifei, the Noble Consort Yang who is in this novel was known to be chubby.
The primary wife and the concubines would address themselves as sisters with the primary wife the eldest sister as in Ancient China, the primary wife was usually the eldest, and often older than the husband.
 The dimsum which we are accustomed to are actually snacks from southern China, in the Guangdong region. But in China, there are actually all sorts of different dimsum. The ones mentioned are known to be popular Imperial snacks, all vegan with some sugar. Most of them are steamed to produce a slightly bouncy texture.
Buyao: This is a type of hairpin with a dangling accessory.