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The man’s eyes were chilling, like a wolf hidden away in the depths of the night, causing one to shiver involuntarily. Zhongli Shuo hadn’t had much contact with him in her previous life, so she had no idea whether this was just how he looked at people, or just at her. From within the thread of his sight, however, she could make out strings of amazement and probing.
His gaze was very brief, nothing more than a passing glance that slipped right off her. Following his eyes’ departure, that trace of indistinct inquiry was still yet in them. Zhongli Shuo composed herself, giving her salutations to him. “Hello, Sir Xu.”
Xu Renqing looked back at her upon hearing that, giving her a slight nod in response, after which the man shifted it back towards Yuezheng Ying. “Is this your little brother?” he asked softly, words unhurried. “You siblings sure look a charming pair.”
That sounded like a compliment, but the expression he had when he spoke was coldly mocking. Yuezheng Ying beamed at him, shooting back her own biting remark. “My little brother naturally couldn’t compare with your majestic presence, Sir, so there couldn’t be anything better than him being a bit charming.”
Xu Renqing looked at her the same, his face betraying not very much emotion, and then he lifted his foot and brushed past them. After the young folk following him greeted Yuezheng Ying in succession, they all took their seats in the grandiose Ministry of Revenue’s area.
Zhongli Shuo went with her older sister to their seats. She took a measure of Yuezheng Ying’s expression, thought about what had happened just then, and, going by the fact that she was currently 16-ish, assumed that asking after it would be in-line with the curious nature of a young person. “Big sis, do you have a bad relationship with that Sir Xu?” she thusly asked. “He seemed kind of menacing. I was a bit scared when he looked at me just now.”
Yuezheng Ying hadn’t wanted to divulge too much to her little sister, but that final statement stoked a spark of fire at the bottom of tender Miss Yuezheng’s heart. She hooked up her lips, laughing coldly. “We were classmates, and we’ve had some tiny disputes. You don’t need to mind it, Ah-Su. As for him being menacing… he’s never been one to consider others as being better-looking than him, so if someone is, he’ll always glare at them. You’re elegant and pretty, Ah-Su, so it’s inevitable that he wouldn’t give you a kind look.”
Zhongli Shuo couldn’t say that she’d had a lot of contact with this big sister of hers, but whenever they did interact, Yuezheng Ying was always a reliable one, and it was no mistake that she was cute when disparaging someone else right in front of her. Zhongli Shuo startled, then laughed immediately afterwards.
That smile of hers held a youthful energy and could brighten up a day like no other. The young one, in her jade pin-crown and dark red, embroidered robes, had her eyes curved upwards, giving off a gentleness as she spoke. “It certainly seems big sis doesn’t like this Sir Xu. Ah-Su won’t like him either, then.”
In Yuezheng Ying’s impression, Yuezheng Su would forever be that terrifyingly pale child who stayed in the rear courtyard all day, her sickly looks vexing their mother to tears. She had never seen her so vivacious before, and it made her recall someone else.
The Heir Apparent, in her pitch-black brocade robes.
In spring that year, she had gone into the East Palace to look for the Heir’s Consort, and had seen under a hill cherry tree the Resplendent Heir, who she shared a superficial blood relation with yet a great physical resemblance to.
On that day, the rear court of the East Palace had countless cherry trees in full bloom. Sunlight fell through the branches and onto the young Heir kneeling on a blanket spread out under the tree. In front of her were legal documents the Thorn Emperor had imparted her with, as well as the dignified and opulent Consort in her long skirts.
The Heir – who had no idea how the government worked – had been ordered by the Thorn Emperor to take over the Court’s affairs, and to the embarrassment of all parties, had recently gone to request help from her own Consort. The Heir sat before the Consort, watching her evaluate the imperial memorials using a cinnabar brush and carefully listening to her guidance.
Being such a good distance away, Yuezheng Ying didn’t know what they were saying; all she could see was the faint movement of the Consort’s lips and the Heir’s side profile as she listened attentively. She couldn’t tell what the Consort had said, but the Heir suddenly clapped, raised her head, and laughed. The smile on that affectingly pretty face was beautiful enough to compete with the abundant blossoms over her head.
The Consort lifted her head upon hearing it, her beautiful, swan-like neck slowly raising, finely concentrating her gaze upon the Heir. A wisp of a smile arose on that tender and delicate face, neither too heavy nor light, yet perfectly expressing her joy.
It was that momentary glance that made Yuezheng Ying then think that this practically absurd sanctioned marriage having befallen her childhood friend Xuan Jingchen… wasn’t a bad thing at all.
At the very least, in her eyes, the Resplendent Heir was definitely a good person.
Yuezheng Ying was distracted for but a moment, looking back at her little sister whose countenance looked way too much like the Bright Emperor, and stowed away that bit of thought in her heart. “You’re a good kid, Ah-Su,” she said with a smile.
Even if there was a resemblance, they wouldn’t be the same person. Everyone would understand the logic behind that, so how could a woman like the Regentess not? Even so, she couldn’t bear to watch someone chase a dream that wouldn’t happen.
The fireworks bursting outside Findragon Pavilion were at their pinnacle, lighting the entire place up with their glow and illuminating all of Yuan City with a shine as bright as daylight. The lights outside the window met with the radiance inside the pavilion, the spectacle dazzling. The guests had all arrived – following a gentle burst of tingling bells from behind the fish-and-lotus stage, all the golden lotuses floating by the side of the stage came to bloom. The flames flickered for an instant, a rainbow of strips of fabric falling from the pavilion’s roof. Young men and women in colorful clothes tugged at the sky-fallen silks, then leapt towards the stage.
The fourteen young people flowed together through the air, encircling each other by the waist in pairs, following which they slid the silks along as they tread through the air, dancing for the initiation of the Year of Dragon.
A lively tempo of song started up as the young people began to dance. Those vivid colors fell upon Zhongli Shuo’s eyes, changing into the most sparkling sense of delight.
“Tonight’s New Year’s Eve feast is also a feast for the realm of the Great Qing, and a gift bestowed by Her Majesty. Her Majesty has decreed that on this evening, regardless of status or party, you should be at ease and get drunk before you go home happy.”
The speaker was a woman. Zhongli Shuo traced the voice back to look, only to find that where she was just happened to be in a place she couldn’t see. It could be surmised that the speaker was a harker official from the Regentess’s side.
With the harker here, Her Majesty must be soon to arrive.
For some reason, Zhongli Shuo’s heartbeat suddenly quickened some. She delivered the teacup that she was holding in front of her straight up to her mouth. At this moment, she heard an aged yet powerful voice ask something. “Aide An, since the feast is now underway, when will Her Majesty be arriving?”
Yuezheng Ying also heard, and knew that this was the Right Prime Minister Wang An’su, who was the most demanding in pressuring Her Majesty to get married. That old fox – was he still afraid that the Regentess would back out right before the battle?
“Answering Prime Minister Wang, Her Majesty has been here for a while. She is currently admiring the Year of the Dragon dance by the diviners together with all of you gentlefolk. There is a precedent for a monarch and Her subjects to have fun together; Our Majesty is very conscientious of you all,” Aide An replied with a smile, giving rise to whisperings as soon as her words came down.
The ruler was not in her seat of honor and was currently in some unknown space in the Findragon Pavilion – if she couldn’t be found to take up the arrangements intentionally put in place for her by the Ministry of Rites, wouldn’t this whole ploy be in vain?
As the hearty Prime Minister Wang fumed in his seat, the Minister of Rites chuckled from his side. “Our Majesty is quite old-fashioned. To enjoy things with Her subjects like this is a nice surprise, like a flowerbud meeting.”
Compared to Prime Minister Wang’s snootiness, the long-beared Minister of Rites seemed to be more of a free spirit. Those words of his rapidly caused the Prime Minister to mull things over. Right Minister Wang glared at him. “Flowerbud meeting? Of course you’d say that this lousy idea for Her Majesty to go out and about would actually be a good one. Her Majesty is still the supreme leader, is She in the same boat as an ordinary woman?”
The Minister of Rites just smiled. “Nah, nah, this isn’t a lousy idea by any means. It’s much better for Her Majesty to find someone on her own than for you to randomly pick one out for her.”
Her Majesty was still the supreme leader, and it didn’t matter which man she picked to be her husband. Furthermore, if this was only for the sake of having a successor, then that husband wouldn’t even need to have a strong background.
Officials each had their own things to consider, so this conversation between the Minister of Rites and Prime Minister Wang was heard by those who cared, after which passed onto family servants, who then passed it on to the ears of the young men and women of every family.
Xu Renqing, who was sitting up straight amidst the heap of the Ministry of Revenue’s youngsters, also got the news, and he gave a sneering smile upon hearing it.
A flowerbud meeting… was there any person in this world deserving of more than one look from the Regentess?
When she got word of the tidbit about Her Majesty going about Findragon Pavilion in plainclothes, the Eldest Princess of Serenity, Xuan Jing’an, was in the middle of entertaining the Cloudly Prince, Zhongli Mu, who had come from far away. After the servant finished relaying it to her, her fine brows wrinkled slightly.
The Cloudly Prince sitting across from her noticed, and couldn’t help but ask her a tentative question. “What’s wrong?”
The Princess looked up, gazing at the young man’s gentle face. “My little sister took our Royal Sister to go make a scene.”
“But sister-in-law… no, I should say Her Majesty— isn’t She supposed to attend the banquet tonight?” Zhongli Mu ask doubtfully, who, before they arrived at Yuan Province, had worn his heart on his sleeve and really didn’t care at all about the awkward position the herd of Ministers had currently brought about for him.
The Eldest Princess sighed, turning her head to tell the imperial bodyguards to track the two down.
The core of Findragon Pavilion’s banquet was precisely Her Majesty the Almighty Ruler, and now that no one knew where She was, every party that had their own schemes in mind started to successively whisper to one another. The show on the fish-and-lotus stage became all the more marvelous, as after the diviners’ Year of the Dragon dance came the peerlessly wondrous song of the Lanternlit Night from the Literature Advancement Institute.
Onstage was a thoroughly vigorous performance, and offstage was a similarly-wondrous chaos. The young men and women who had planned for this in advance were filled up with expectation, yet also with apprehension, hoping that this exceptionally heroic woman from rumor would spare them more than one glance, and they would get the opportunity to be her lifelong companion.
Within that group was also one Zhongli Shuo. Her heart was brimming with expectation, hoping that she would be able to hear the Empress’s voice at the banquet. No- even being able to catch a glimpse of her from a distance would be enough.
Who would’ve ever thought that she’d actually be walking around the Pavilion in common cloth?
Where are you going to show up, Zitong?
Will you appear right in front of me, Zitong?
Harboring such delusions, Zhongli Shuo was a bit restless. She drank cup after cup of tea, downing most of the whole pot. Her excessive behavior drew Yuezheng Ying’s attention, who thereupon asked, “Is the food not to your liking, Su?”
Zhongli Shuo nodded her head, then shook it. “I drank too much tea and have to go to the bathroom.”
Yuezheng Ying smiled in understanding, finding a servant to trouble her with leading Zhongli Shuo to the bathroom. Before she left, Yuezheng Ying gave her a word of caution. “There’s a lot of people here, Su, so don’t go running about. Come back soon after you’re done.”
Her Majesty going incognito was likely in response to this flowerbud meeting.
A flowerbud meeting was when unmarried noblemen and women of Yuan Province, as per recommendation of friends and relatives and prior to a betrothal, were invited to meet each other alone. To say it bluntly, they took a quick look at each other, and if they were mutually suitable, they’d abide by their parents’ words and link up. Nowadays, it’s become a fixed standard for how nobles chose their partners.
If they were happy, then it was love at first sight, and they’d be settled down for this life.
For Her Majesty tonight, if someone caught her eye, they’d be set, married back into the palace, and then they’d produce an heir together.
At this point in time, it’d be best if Yuezheng Su didn’t appear before Her Majesty. If that too-similar face showed up, Her Majesty would likely think about the dead Bright Emperor, and She would find it hard to come to a resolution and would want to give up.
But… Your Majesty, oh, Your Majesty, where did you go off to now?
The translator says: If you’re confused as to why both men and women are here to catch Xuan Jingchen’s eye, despite the pressure to marry a man for heir-related reasons… concubinage didn’t stop being a thing as far I know, haha.