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The familiar cloves on that Miss, the look in those eyes that gave deja-vu, and that gentle intonation that had accompanied her for years before, all caused Zhongli Shuo to suddenly think of the one she had always been longing for.
She’d already seen her Empress.
The instant she reacted, her heart welled up with elation, though infinite regret promptly surfaced within it. She had finally seen the Empress again, but she was regretting that she hadn’t recognized her in the moment.
Disguising herself as Gilt Robe Guard was also very likely to be something the other would do. Her body responded quicker than her brain, and after her reaction, Zhongli Shuo had broken into a run towards the area she had parted from the Empress.
“Su? Where are you going?”
Where she was going was to find her Empress, of course. She overcame an ocean of fire, she was reborn from death, she trekked over from the distant Lan Province; wasn’t that all exactly for another glimpse of her Empress?
“I’ll wait for you to come back,” Zhongli Shuo stated, not eating her words at all.
The red-clothed teen shuttled through Findragon Pavilion, her reckless figure looking like a lithe swallow.
Yuezheng Ying, dazed by her sibling’s brainless actions, looked to the left and right. Not caring about anyone else, she also chased after Zhongli Shuo.
“Su, Su…” Yuezheng Ying speedily followed behind, calling out her name in a low voice.
Zhongli Shuo heard nothing, caught up in constantly moving forwards. It was just like how it had been within the inferno. In that instant of suffocation with the blaze hemming in, she had reached out towards a past that could only be remembered.
“‘A child of Heaven defends the country’s openings, a ruler dies for the people and their land.’ That’s something Zitong said to me. You will yet go North, and this lofty one will stand guard in the imperial city. The defending ruler will be safe and sound, far behind the front lines.”
“This servant will certainly not fail Your Highness’s expectations.”
“Do you think I could be a good ruler?”
“So long as You work hard, with Your heart that empathizes with the people, you will surely become a wise monarch throughout the ages.”
“The East Palace’s cherry blossoms have bloomed well, but I think the view outside the imperial city will be even more beautiful this season. If you get married off to me, Great General, all you’ll be able to see in this lifetime is this yard of cherry blossoms. With that, General, are you still willing to marry me?”
“You’re thinking too much, Your Highness. In my eyes, You’re a good person.”
Scene after scene flitted past her mind, and the one that it finally froze upon was their first meeting at that broken temple in Yun Province. The Cervine Scion in her shabby, thin clothes had held a black porcelain bowl of medicine, her back facing the temple of wounded soldiers and refugees as she looked toward the silver-armored young general riding atop a black Southridge horse, who she asked:
“Who are you, Dame?”
The second the General saw her, she nimbly dismounted, half-bending over in salute to her. “This servant is Xuan Jingchen. Greetings to Her Highness the Heir.”
The Heir hung her head, the General raised her eyes. The instant four pupils made contact, Zhongli Shuo felt that she had seen the sole beam of light – aside from her chiba – that she could chase after.
Zhongli Shuo ran back to the side of the banister she had been at before, restlessly looking everywhere, rays of hope flickering in her eyes.
Her gaze went everywhere, but she didn’t see a single trace of the one in question. It was in that moment that Yuezheng Ying happened to come rushing over; watching her sibling looking like she was hunting around in a fluster, she went and pulled at her arm. “What are you looking for, Su? The Miss from just now?”
Zhongli Shuo nodded anxiously, giving absolutely no verbal response. Yuezheng Ying was concerned about her health that had been poorly from birth; with a bit of worry in her heart, she soothed her in a patient, meticulously warm voice as she tugged at her. “Your big sister will ask about her for you when we get back, so don’t worry, Ah-Su. Tell me, do you feel unwell anywhere?”
From letters their parents had sent, Yuezheng Ying was made vaguely aware of the symptoms Yuezheng Su had during an illness flare-up. The teen that had been bedridden the years before had inexplicably gotten up and run outside; she was presently very worried, and extraordinarily apprehensive, about whether Su would flare-up or not.
Medical workers had all stated that she needed to recuperate and could not be burdened with worries. Was she not just thinking of giving a gift, and therefore had a worry? Right, right – Su didn’t have much contact with people, so when she suddenly came across someone who was friendly to her, she must have had the notion to repay her properly.
Their mother had said, after all, that Su was as pure and kindhearted as that, and had the warm heart of a newborn.
Thinking so, Yuezheng Ying couldn’t resist saying a few more words of consolation, hugging her as she spoke. “It’s okay, Su. Don’t think about it.”
Being held tightly by someone pulled Zhongli Shuo’s attention back. She looked up to see her elder sister’s worried face as she embraced her, feeling a chunk of repentance brew in her mind. She’d always handled things a bit lackadaisically, but she didn’t want to cause others concern.
She lowered her head, speaking in a quiet voice. “Su is fine, and was in the wrong to make you worried for me.” She inevitably mentally sighed, putting away her inclination to see the other woman’s face again, then gleefully recalled how she had exchanged a few words with her Empress tonight regardless.
Yuezheng Ying saw that she had finally returned to her senses and couldn’t help but let out a sigh of relief. Just as she parted her lips to say something, a bell’s tone fell to the ground. The sound of music faded away, following which a gentle voice came into the ears.
“Everyone who was invited to this reunion of families tonight has come, making us glad. We went around Findragon Pavilion just now and saw many of the Great Qing’s young talents, giving us immense gratification.” The Regentess, having already returned to her seat, sat calmly upon the throne at the topmost position, looking down on her subjects with gentle eyes and speaking to them in a warm tone. “Tonight’s music and dance is also very good. You’ve done well, Serenity.”
The Eldest Princess of Serenity was President of the Privy Council, leading its ministerial staff to task and being in charge of drafting policies for Her Majesty. At the same time, though, she was holding a number of different duties at once; this big palace banquet was jointly arranged by her and the Ministry of Rites, for example. That originally should have been the responsibility of the Empress or Empret, but considering that position was currently unoccupied, it was handed over to the Eldest Princess.
At this, the Princess bowed slightly in respect. “You flatter me unduly, Your Majesty.”
Everyone’s sights landed on the most eye-catching seat of the Pavilion’s third floor, and Zhongli Shuo was no exception. She broke free from her elder sister to lean on the railing, peering up at the woman who was now in the host’s chair, delight showing in her eyes.
That’s her Empress, her Zitong.
Unlike the orthodox two-feather crowns and red-black dragon robes that all female Emperors of the former Chu had, Xuan Jingchen wore a crimson dress with embroidered gold dragons tonight as the acting ruler, a grandiose and estranged glamorousness showing through that cold face that could suppress all beauties.
A good distance away, Zhongli Shuo could yet make out the Empress’s features, taking in the movements of her lips and her familiar countenance; seeing that her appearance hadn’t changed a bit gave her even more satisfaction.
Nothing on her differed, still having the same radiance that made people pursue it. Zhongli Shuo was so happy, she wanted to laugh out loud, wanted to call out to her Empress – and all of that was drowned between her lips and teeth in the instant the crowd chorused out shouts of ‘Your Majesty’.
At the end of it all, all she wanted to do was gently say something to the other—
I waited for you, Zitong.
The teen’s peculiarity was noticed by Yuezheng Ying. She followed her line of sight to the Regentess seated above, then turned to see the luster in the young one’s eyes, and suddenly felt uneasy. She was aware that the young, famous, and ever-victorious Regentess was like a god to be worshipped in the eyes of young men and women.
Could it be that her little sister… was also entranced by Her Majesty?
With that in mind, Yuezheng Ying’s brow scrunched up hard, and she went to hold on tight to her sister. “Su.”
“Hm?” Zhongli Shuo turned around, those clear, black-and-white eyes having distinct joy and adoration in them. Yuezheng Ying swallowed down the words at the brink of her mouth, thinking to herself that she should just let it be; it might be nothing more than her little sister that had never seen the world worshipping Her Majesty. Even if it was affection, that would be entirely dependent on whether She would respond to the child.
Maybe her joy was too evident. Afraid of her sister sensing something, Zhongli Shuo thought things over for an instant, then turned and looked at Yuezheng Ying brilliantly. “Big sis, Her Majesty looks a bit different from the rumors, but she really is good-looking.”
She did indeed have the mind of a child, still. With that, Yuezheng Ying replied, “Ah-Su, you can’t make jokes about Her Majesty willy-nilly.”
“But Her Majesty does look good, sis. Can I stay here until the feast is completely over?” She looked at the other with hope, trying hard to put on the appearance of a curious youngster.
Yuezheng Ying was unable to refuse her request, thus she promptly accompanied Zhongli Shuo in standing there all through the night.
This was Heaven’s kindness, allowing her to be able to see the Empress once more. There had been scarcely any bright colors within her brief lifetime; the Thorn Emperor had borne her, killing her father after the birth and wiping out the entirety of her paternal Yang family, subsequently abandoning her in the Cold Palace with her gentle foster mother for company.
Later on, her foster mother passed away, and the Thorn Emperor flung her over for the former Cloudly Prince to bring up. Yet that good thing didn’t last forever, as within a few years, the calamity of the armed rebellion of Zhong Province spread to Yun Province, and the former Cloudly Prince died in battle. She had gotten lost when she fled, wandering over to that one Daoist temple. That was, until Xuan Jingchen found her, and she returned to Yuan Province as the host of the East Palace.
In her life as a person discarded like a dead branch that had lost its leaves, only the Empress had never left her, accompanying her from their teens to their young adulthood. The Empress was the most lively, most just, and most publicly conscientious person she had ever seen.
The Empress was the hero she revered the most all her life.
Perhaps the Eastern Emperor felt that too much was owed to her in her last life, thus giving her this chance to see her. If that was so, then she would definitely exert even more effort to stay alive, so she could then get up to be in front of her Empress in spirits.
Whether it would have results or not, she also wanted to voice a question that she had never dared to ask all this time.
Would you be willing to walk through life like this with me, Zitong?
The teen leaning on the banister flashed with a longing light. The Regentess seated upon the throne was watching the song and dance below intently, and upon incidentally turning her head, her single glance hit upon the exceptionally pretty youth.
The teen was gazing at her, focused and serious. The Regentess’s heart jumped, a portion of a long-lost emotion suddenly inundating it.
She knew who the teen was. They really were too much alike, the thought of which distracted her. She promptly thought how that one person’s mien, from sixteen to twenty-one, was like an unchanging layer; forever a pale hue of sickness, a frame that was tall, straight, skinny, and frail, as well as a pair of darkly-shining eyes that flickered with light despite.
The Regentess moved her gaze away, her procession of thought gradually floating far-off. An unreal chill surrounded her. She couldn’t help but tightly knead the blanket laid upon the throne’s armrest, hoping to catch a little bit of warmth.
It was a bit cold, she thought.
She began to miss the eternally-warm Morning Light Hall.