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Zhongli Shuo had never thought that she would see the Empress again because of something like this.
She wanted to see her.
Starting from the moment she had agreed for the Empress to lead the troops into battle on her behalf, that split second she personally put the Empress’s battle suit on for her – she began to miss her. She had believed these hopeless and endless remembrances would fade along with the fire, yet she also hadn’t expected that day she had opened her eyes again.
It was all starting from the top again.
As far as the Empress was concerned, she’s since become a complete stranger. For her, though, her Empress was the sole cherished memory of her previous life.
She was happy, yet terrified, and further ill at ease.
With an indescribable eagerness, Zhongli Shuo awaited the night of New Year’s Eve, when the Regentess would through a large party for her Court at Findragon Pavilion. Come sundown, the young nobles and children of high officials of Yuan City were riding on towards the Pavilion on the east side of the Imperial City with haste.
The City that had undergone the Summer of Chaos was glowing once more with the splendor of a country’s capital under the Regentess’s administration. Multicolored lights decorated the cold and stiff palace walls, giving a soft brilliance to the frigid winter night. Zhongli Shuo sat within a carriage as it sped towards Findragon Pavilion, reaching out to lift the cart’s curtain to peep outside. At a glimpse, she could see the place was packed with young men and women walking side-by-side.
Carriages were lined up in a long queue ahead of the girls, proceeding through the entryway of the Pavilion in an orderly fashion.
Fireworks exploded not too far away. Zhongli Shuo lifted her head, the bright rays of light casting down upon her fair countenance and shining on her delicate and callow features.
What an atypically lively New Year’s Eve.
She delighted in the magnificent scene, her face permeated with the innocent fancifulness unique to youngsters, her youthful excitement unable to be hidden. Looking at all the young and enthusiastic faces appearing on the road, Zhongli Shuo turned her head to Yuezheng Ying, who was at the side guiding the horses to drive the carriage. “Big sis, are all the Court’s officials so young?”
Yuezheng Su was a child who had never seen a celebration before this night. Yuezheng Ying had noticed that she had been looking every which way the whole journey, likely out of unending curiosity. On that matter, she was wearing crimson-colored, embroidered robes today, a jade pin-crown bunching her hair up high on her head, and the contrast those gave made her fair face all the more charming and adorable. As an elder sister, looking at her like this made her heart billow with affection for her, and she’d been awaiting that little sister of hers to pull at her and ask her a million things for a long time now.
But the question she’d asked just now wasn’t one she had prepared an answer for.
Yuezheng Ying thought about it a bit, considered that there were probably a lot of teenaged little sisters that would ask exactly this on the road here, and gave something of an answer. “Her Majesty likes to utilize young, energetic officials. Apart from a few old ministers, the Court is pretty much full of the young nowadays.”
“Those young men and women who passed in front just now were all Court officials?” That was the real thing Zhongli Shuo wanted to ask.
“Maybe.” Yuezheng Ying thought about how her sister actually did take note of all those young faces. But how could she tell her that the majority of them had been urged by their families to come out to this blind date party for Her Majesty?
She naturally wouldn’t tell her little sister about something so insignificant, to say nothing of the fact that speaking poorly of the Regentess’s personal matters was also something she couldn’t do. Instead, she said, “It’s a rare feast that Her Majesty prepared for Her officials, and the first grand celebration since the Great Qing’s founding. They’re like you, Ah-Su, and came by Her Majesty’s grace.”
Zhongli Shuo had gotten the answer she wanted, nodding and lowering the curtain to once again take a proper seat in the cabin. As her body jolted with the carriage’s swaying, Zhongli Shuo thought of the young people she’d seen just now, and a bit of regret piled into her heart.
The young official’s vitality was being used for the Qing State, with everything growing more prosperous with each passing day. The decayed Great Chu had become a thing of the past.
The carriage rode past the Findragon’s gate and came to a stop before the Pavilion. Royal guards were assigning numbers to people’s carriages, then leading them away to be looked after in the holding area. Zhongli Shuo looked up to see the words ‘Findragon Pavilion’ in eye-catching calligraphy overhead, then followed after her older sister into the Pavilion.
When they went through the entrance, a clamor surged into her ears. Colored lanterns were released into the night, making the entire Pavilion as lit-up as the day. Zhongli Shuo kept following, taking in everything nearby out of the corners of her eyes.
As soon as they entered, an attendant led them up the stairs.
All along the way up the three floors, many young folk saluted Yuezheng Ying, who cupped her hands in response to each and every one of them. As the youths cast their sights upon the Assistant Minister of War, they also cast them upon the pretty, young Zhongli Shuo. Those of them who knew the secret meaning behind the ruler’s grand feast all inquisitively sized up this young one who was the legendary carbon copy of the Bright Emperor, trying to see if she was their strongest competitor.
Those mysterious looks made it to Zhongli Shuo’s own eyes; despite them making her curious, she found them unworthy of having any extra attention spent on them. What did grab her attention was the incomparably huge fish-and-lotus decorated stage  in the middle of the Pavilion’s ground floor.
This Pavilion had always been the place the Great Chu’s royal family had held its Court banquets. Though Zhongli Shuo had been the reigning monarch, she had only been here once before in her previous life. She gazed at the platform that looked like it had countless golden lotuses revolving around it, the flickering of the lights making it look like it was made of jade stones, and a long-sealed scene flashed past her eyes.
The year she was dubbed the Heir Apparent, the Thorn Emperor had held a feast like this. At the peak of the event, the Emperor had her play a song for moon-viewing.
Pushing aside the clouds to see the bright moon, that elated and touching melody of the chiba made the lofty Thorn Emperor so ecstatic, she had jumped up to her own song. It was at that banquet that she had thought that all the tribulations she had gone through before she hit sixteen would be left behind her, and her mother would teach her how to be a good ruler.
Now that she thought about it, that might have been the only tender moment between her and the Thorn Emperor.
Zhongli Shuo took her seat, looking towards the glittering stage downstairs as she concealed all her feelings.
This evening, the patterned lanterns were glowing, and the golden lotuses surrounding the stage were all in bloom. The braziers hidden under the tables on every floor started to ignite, and attendants successively served the prepared pastries. Within the great many noises happening, the musicians concealed behind the stage changed their tune to a happier one.
Zhongli Shuo’s eyes swept through every seat top to bottom, finally coming to a rest upon the chief seat on the east side of the same floor she was on.
According to the planned layout of palace-bound parties from the Ministry of Rites, the third floor was for important officials of the six Ministries and relatives of the royal family, then was split into the nine regions, with the regent having supremacy over the nine. That’s why her Empress… would be sitting right there tonight.
But that… turned out to be a blind spot in her field of view. She couldn’t see the Empress, and the Empress couldn’t see her. Coming to realize that, her previously nervous heart had a bit of turbulence added to it.
Perhaps she was too obvious in how she looked around everywhere, as after Yuezheng Ying had finished greeting her surrounding colleagues one by one, her sight was set upon her.
“What are you looking at, Su? Father and mother are over on that side, hanging with the elders of each family. If you want to go look for them, we can go do that in a bit,” Yuezheng Ying spoke softly as she looked at her sister’s juvenile little face.
The younger folk and families of officials had also been divided into their own areas – Zhongli Shuo had followed her sister, and their parents were elsewhere. Since her little sister had never attended an event like this before, Yuezheng Ying was under the impression that she was afraid of the unknown and wanted to find them.
Zhongli Shuo shook her head. “I’m fine with following you, big sister,” she replied softly. “Our parents likely want to reminisce about old times with their friends, so it’d be best not to go and bother them.”
As she spoke, the puerile young girl seemed rather cute and tender under the vivid lanternlight. Looking at her pale face, Yuezheng Ying couldn’t help but say, “That’s okay. Her Majesty isn’t here yet; it’ll be about half a shichen more before the banquet starts. If you’re hungry, eat a few sweets to pad your belly with.”
“Mn.” The youth nodded obediently, concentrating her gaze down to the fish-and-lotus stage.
The greater officials participating in the feast showed up in succession, with more and more young folk showing up in the Findragon Pavilion. At this time, an unending amount of people came to greet Yuezheng Ying, and as a junior, Zhongli Shuo had no choice but to go along with her sister in returning the greetings.
“Hello, Sir Xu…”
The voices of those young men and women came from both near and far, and just like how they were after her older sister appeared, they successively showed respect to someone else. Zhongli Shuo couldn’t resist glancing towards the source of the sound, then caught sight of a person walking in front, people flocked around them like petals to a flower’s disc.
It was a man wearing dark-purple embroidered robes, a jade pin-crown keeping all his hair up top. His sword-like brows went to his temples, his nose tall and straight, his lips sharp as the edges of blades, and eyes harboring a cold frost. This lofty, noble man was handsome-looking, yet radiated a freezing aura.
She recognized him. Many years prior, she had once heard of something interesting; this honest and heroic-seeming man, along with this scholarly, refined Assistant Minister of War at her side, were known as the “Two Flowers”.
He was one of the most outstanding, good-looking youths in the previous Chu Court, and today he’s the Assistant Minister of Revenue, eldest son of Left Prime Minister Xu Mingyi of the Great Qing—— Xu Renqing.
Born of the major noble family of Xu in Yuan Province, he was like Yuezheng Ying in that he currently had a friendship with Her Majesty that started since childhood. Back then, the Thorn Emperor had decreed that all major officials had to have their children enter the Literature Advancement Institute to pursue their studies, bringing about what might have been called the threads of fate for the three children.
Xu Renqing had followed the Regentess into her all-front war, and, along with Yuezheng Ying, received Her Majesty’s high regards. Though the Xu family was classified as nobility of the former Chu, it was because of these meritorious deeds on behalf of the new ruler that they had a firm foothold in the Qing Dynasty, and upon their combining with the old Dynasty’s former adherents, they formed a new group.
Fighting between political factions was difficult to escape from no matter when it happened, and that was especially true after this Dynasty’s year of peace, little fights within the Court happening with ever more frequency. Thankfully, Her Majesty the Regentess held the military power, and with just one of her weighty words, many of the disputes were soundlessly disintegrated.
Yet even so, those young friendships were progressively drifting away with the increasing conflicts. Yuezheng Ying, who had disapproved of the Xu family’s ways, and her childhood companion, Xu Renqing, ultimately came to mutually loathe seeing each other.
Therefore, when Xu Renqing took his band of younger folk from the Ministry of Revenue past them, the normally absolutely cordial Miss Yuezheng put on a fake smile and called out to him simplistically. “Sir Xu.”
The solemn man stopped in his tracks. Standing beside Yuezheng Ying, he looked at her and blandly returned a “Miss Yuezheng”. His gaze slid past Yuezheng Ying, stopping on the youth in the dark red robes by her side.
 鱼龙 – lit. Fish Dragon. (It’s also the chinese name for ichthyosaurus, but I don’t think anyone knows what a dinosaur is yet…)
 鱼戏莲叶 – “fish dancing with lotus leaves”, taken from the folk song Jiangnan. In this instance, I’m pretty sure the stage is just decorated with swimming fish and lotuses.