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Chapter 11: Drinking
The Findragon Pavilion’s banquet lasted until the bell tolled the beginning of spring’s arrival, and then the heavy curtain fell. During Her Majesty the Regentess’s congratulatory speech, the citizens who ushered in the new year lit up firecrackers, then returned home hand-in-hand among the flourish of released fireworks.
No one knew who Her Majesty had chosen at the celebration. After it was over, all sorts of things that had happened during were noted down in the eyes of those who cared – Lin Mengdie, for example. The number of people the greater officials were keeping in mind increased a little in value.
The Gilt Robe Guards carried lanterns, escorting Her Majesty’s imperial carriage as it galloped back towards the palace. The bright lights strung together within the cold night’s delicate breeze, forming a vast line of lamps flickering with brilliance below the flashy fireworks. Zhongli Shuo stood high within Findragon Pavilion, surveying the departing carriage as it sat within a flowering sea of illumination, and let out a low sigh.
When would she be able to see her face again? Those who often accompanied Her Majesty’s side were all of the Privy Council. If she worked a bit harder in the present, would she be able to become her everyday assistant?
Her thoughts were very optimistic, as she was completely unaware of the aspect that all the greater officials had been urging the Regentess to get married. In the wake of Her Majesty being seen off to the palace by the crowd of bureaucrats, she followed her elder sister back to their Finebloom Lane, a sky full of fireworks accompanying them.
The closer one got to the palace domain and away from the clamor outside the imperial city, the tranquility belonging to its interior gradually shone through. Her Majesty, wrapped in a foxskin cloak, disembarked from the imperial carriage and proceeded to Heavenmost Hall along with her two little sisters. The three had a meal together, and after giving her little sisters their red envelopes like ordinary folk did, Her Majesty kept the Eldest Princess of Serenity behind to speak to her alone.
The Regentess, who had previously commanded an impressive army, had always been very straightforward. Regardless of whether it was a government order or an evaluation of an imperial memorial, each clause would be direct and without embellishment. In the evaluations, for example, she never used any euphemistic rhetoric, always giving an “I’ll allow it” or “that won’t do”; and after a “that won’t do”, she’d make a detailed list of the reasons why and advise the ministers to make improvements to it.
Taking her lead, whenever the officials of the Ministry of Revenue wrote comments on an article, they were also completely frank. It was stuff like “so much money can’t be used for a banquet, I propose cross-referencing the previous dynasty’s Belletristic Emperor’s  way of handling things” or “Did you investigate the market value? Make a reasonable application after inquiring and send it over then”.
When the Regentess had studied at the Literature Advancement Institute in her youth, she hadn’t liked their bookish way of speaking at all. She liked to say things plainly. As an Emperor and Commander, her words held enormous weight, and it was unnecessary for them to twist and wind in a roundabout fashion. That’s why, in this juncture of confronting the Eldest Princess on her marriage, she was as straightforward as ever. “How do you feel towards Sanmu, An’an?  Are you planning on marrying him?”
The Princess totally hadn’t expected that Her Majesty had kept her behind for this. Xuan Jing’an had already been doing very well as Eldest Princess, having been tempered after going through so many things, yet her face went uncontrollably red at hearing this. ‘Sanmu’ was the nickname of Cloudly Prince Zhongli Mu – it seemed her slow-reacting eldest sister had been paying attention to her.
“Regal Sister…” The Princess knelt on the luohan, eyes on the cup in front of Her Majesty that sat on the low table separating them. She couldn’t help but cover her face as she hailed, “You’re just so…”
“Your face is all red.” The Regentess sighed, observing her graceful younger sister. “You’re obviously fond of that boy. This Regal Sister will sanction a marriage for you both. Would it be alright to have the diviners of the Astrology Office pick a time for the wedding?”
“Mhm.” The Eldest Princess nodded after she blushed, striving to maintain a Princess’s bearing. “However, marriage is something that would only be right if both sides are willing. May Regal Sister put the matter of a sanction to the side for the time being. Would it be alright for you to hold off until he comes by to request it?” she proposed confidently.
The Regentess nodded, believing that to be the reason. Only upon a deeper pondering did she promptly react, looking at her little sister with a smile and shaking her head with a sigh. “Ah, you. So you two had already come to an agreement before? We’ve been sentimental in vain.” What’s with the talk of ‘coming by to request it’? The kid had very likely sought out her little sister earlier to discuss this.
The Eldest Princess smiled softly. Calling to mind the drivel said in Court, she voiced some embarrassment. “Do you blame me, Regal Sister, for not stating this clearly and adding to your many troubles?” The Princess knew that Zhongli Mu was a suitable candidate for Empret in the eyes of a great many higher officials, and her Regal Sister was troubled by being pressured to wed. If she had told her a bit sooner, would this thing about the Cloudly Prince have been resolved a bit sooner?
“Sanmu isn’t bad enough to cause me trouble.”
“I know. It’s those old codgers that are troubling you, and that’s the reason Sanmu is dragging his feet in deliberating things with you.” The Princess gazed at her sister, voice tender. As the last remaining bloodline of the Chu Dynasty and holder of an orthodox status, how many people were gauging how to make use of that? What a pity that the Cloudly Prince didn’t have ruling in mind, though he could exploit his status advantage to bestow good faith in taking the Eldest Princess as a wife.
One as astute as the Regentess understood what he wanted to do from just a few words. She laughed quietly. “He really is considerate.”
“That’s the good faith he ought to have,” the Princess replied with a candid look. That was also the reason why she wasn’t anxious to get her sister to sanction a marriage. With the Cloudly Prince around, the Court’s influence could be divided up some so the pressure put on her Regal Sister wouldn’t be as great, and a few other people could be found out even more easily.
Zhongli Mu was the one in her heart – the Cloudly Prince was a lure for the Great Qing’s Court. So long as there was a chance to, he would do everything he could to walk through fire and water for Her Majesty.
The Princess knew that they both thought the same way, safeguarding Her Majesty for a certain someone’s sake. It was a tacit agreement between her and Zhongli Mu, starting from their childhood and going until now.
The Regentess listened to her sister’s entreaty, then took in her peaceful expression, and suddenly wanted an understanding of why her sister hadn’t disclosed to her that she admired the Cloudly Prince. She’d been worried that she was neglecting her sisters in her busyness with politics, which was leading to them not discussing matters of the heart with her.
Thinking like that, she smiled helplessly, looking at her sister gently. “I don’t want you two to do this. Those codgers cannot obstruct me. I’ll declare that Sanmu is entering the palace in a few days, and you’ll both get ready for your wedding.”
“Regal Sister…” The Princess knew she wouldn’t agree with them being like this, which was why she kept dragging it on and not bringing it up. “Are you worried that I wouldn’t be able to marry off?” she thus sighed.
“Of course not.” Her Majesty’s smile was warm. Grasping the cup in front of her, she took a light sip. “I merely hope that your lover can become family somewhat sooner.”
Her Majesty, nearing thirty, had the charming looks of a sixteen-year-old young lady. As she held her cup, her shining, dark hair spread out against her black robes, making her look gorgeous and slightly gallant. Her clear eyes flashed with a gentle light, and in this moment, they were full of it.
In the Princess’s memory, her elder sister was precisely that sort of majestic heroine atop a horse, and when she shed her battle robes, she was a sweet and stunning noble court lady. The Princess idolized her in this way, and revered her, and had her heart hurt for her.
Especially with her extremely maidenly appearance, which, in the Princess’s impression, was how her sister always looked every time she faced the Bright Emperor.
A lover becoming family? Her sister’s lover had been buried in the dirt of the springs below. The Resplendent Heir who everyone liked was already gone. Would there be yet another lover?
Thinking to there, the Princess wouldn’t suffer to recall Bright Emperor’s death. She looked at the cup in her sister’s hand. Remembering how she would get after drinking, she wanted to take it away, yet couldn’t bear to and could only advise her. “What about you? Everyone’s worrying over when your lover is going to show up. Did you see anyone suited for it today?”
The Regentess tilted her head, pondering that for a spell. “They were all children not yet grown. Quite green.”
“What about Scion Lin Mengdie? His chiba playing was great, and his physique should be too.” The Eldest Princess, having mixed in with the army for a good while, was also pretty bad in a certain area.
“It’s much better than Her Highness.” She had certainly been quite weak. The Regentess knew as much, as she looked like she couldn’t stand the torment.
She had never avoided bringing up the Bright Emperor in front of other people; on the contrary, everyone else regarded that person as taboo and never dared mention a word of her. Tonight, though, she suddenly wanted to speak with someone about her, so she drank another cup of wine.
There were some things that could only be spoken of without qualms after drinking.
“You don’t know, An’an. Her Highness played the chiba well, and it stands to reason that someone who plays wind instruments would inevitably have a good physique. But Her Highness looked tall and thin and didn’t have a bit of muscle. The first time I saw her, she stood in front of my horse, seeming like the wind would blow her over.
Such a frail person was going to be the Heir? Yet she was so good-looking. I’d never seen a youth that had looked better than her.” So good-looking, she fixed her eyes on her, and never moved them away.
Her lips were moistened by alcohol, bright eyes covered in a layer of fog. No one knew that under the Regentess’s grandiose exterior was a glass that seldom touched a drop of liquor. She habitually drank plain water at the banquet, but after having wine, she intermittently spoke of everything related to the Resplendent Heir this night.
The Princess had heard of this many times before. In the first year after the Bright Emperor’s death, following her primary encounter with her drunken eldest sister, she frequently listened off and on to her. She knew of the first meeting between she and the Heir, knew of secrets that could not be told of, and knew of adoration her sister ignorantly could not free herself from.
In front of the Thorn Emperor’s deathbed, she had dedicated her life to the Heir. The Princess thought that, if she were in the same place and met someone who was so willing to risk their life to save her, she would be perfectly happy to tie their lives together.
But she isn’t her, and thus isn’t the party involved. When the party is her sister, she could only hope – from a bystander’s perspective – that she could get by in life a bit better.
She took her sister’s cup, interrupting the Regentess’s disjointed soliloquy.
“You drank too much, sis.” The Princess softly sighed, looking at the one who was only willing to say her mind when in front of her.
Her Majesty merely murmured softly in response to the Princess. “Your Highness…”
It mimicked the night wind’s low voice, touching yet bone-biting.
Chapter 12: Jiwu Dagger
Zhongli Shuo, who wasn’t aware in the least that someone was longing for her, sneezed in her bedroom in the west courtyard. She touched her nose, using candlelight to carefully scrutinize the dagger placed in the center of her palm. It shivered with cold light, bloodthirsty edges manifesting on the unsealed blade.
She took in the decorative ruby and intricate design of the hilt. After a good while of close examination, she stuffed it into its plain, unadorned buckskin sheath, the chilling light restrained within. Nodding with satisfaction, she wrapped the dagger in her mid-robes and dug into her warm sheets. Placing the blade on top of her chest, she lifted her head and looked to the top of the illuminated canopy, unable to contain her excitement.
The North-Quelling Marquis had specially found this dagger for her on the autumn day of her sixteenth birthday, back when she had just woken up last year. It was a famed edge named Jiwu,  giving it the connotation as an executioner of infinite evils and protector of longevity. It was her most valued gift and most cherished treasure, so she thus wished to gift her most prized object to the Empress.
Happy-hearted Zhongli Shuo hadn’t forgotten her final words following their brief meet-up in Findragon Pavilion. She could even be said to be immensely glad for them, as she now had a valid reason to give the Empress a present.
She hugged the dagger tight, what she was going to do tomorrow going through her mind again. She had recognized the Empress’s primrose uniform from tonight as being from the South Gate; if the Commander of the Gilt Robe Guard knew of Her Majesty’s touring about incognito, maybe then she could find a Guard that she’d seen today and the Empress might be able to come collect it.
With such optimism, she couldn’t help but hope that the Empress would heed her. The other woman was capable of remembering that someone was going to gift her as thanks and could have someone watching the South Gate, but… Zhongli Shuo mulled it over again. Would an Empress take random words literally anyone could have said seriously? She was already diligent and hardworking during Shuo’s own reign, and now that she had ascended to Emperor, she was still the most respected person in the whole realm – would she take her words to heart?
She had gotten to talk to her, though… still so gentle, so engrossing.
Zhongli Shuo, ever sunny and energetic, was immersed in the delight of seeing the Empress again, and didn’t spare a thought to how this face of hers could give people a shock. Perhaps, in her eyes, her similarity to Yuezheng Ying didn’t mean anything. It could have also been that in her world, she was forever the one looking up to her Empress, to the point that she didn’t even have the extravagant hope that the woman would ever be thinking about her.
The bustle of the New Year had not yet dissipated, washing the sky outside her room in luster. Every spot in the Marquis’s Estate was also brightly illuminated, as well as loudened by the racket of those observing the night. Zhongli Shuo’s room sparked with lights as she witnessed the final night of the year. The restless youth, harboring a longing for the future, looked forward to the arrival of New Year’s day from the bottom of her heart.
Amid the sounds of firecrackers, dawnlight of the New Year sprinkled over the various streets of Yuan City. The girl who hadn’t been able to sleep all night, yet was full of vitality, went with her parents to make offerings to their ancestors at home, and after having breakfast, she pulled out her little red horse by the reins. She didn’t expect that she would run into the North-Quelling Marquis at the entrance.
“Where are you going, Su?” The Marquis, in middle of preparing for his friend’s arrival, asked in astonishment upon seeing his young child lead a horse with her, a bundle of stuff strapped to her back.
“To the South Gate to look for a friend.” Zhongli Shuo pulled at her ride with a look of excitement. The joy on her face was so obvious, it even made the Marquis have a hint of happiness.
“A classmate from the Institute? Where are you heading to meet up, and why didn’t you tell so to your father and mother before? Let Ah-Sheng and a few bodyguards come with you. I wouldn’t not let you go out, why didn’t you say something beforehand?” As was known, Yuezheng Su previously had almost no contact with anyone. The Marquis was intensely pleased at suddenly learning that his child had a friend.
“No need, dad, I’m alright.” Zhongli Shuo smiled brilliantly, nimbly mounted her horse, then turned towards the non-mounted Marquis. “I’ll definitely be back before the time of the Horse to have lunch together with mother, so you don’t need to worry her. I’m off.” She lightly patted her horse after she finished talking, rushing out of Finebloom lane with the small pack on her back.
The Marquis had been completely duped by the kid’s enthusiastic energy and watched her slip away right out from under his eyes. He reacted only a fair time later, hurriedly urging a few guards to catch up with her to put his heart at ease.
He had been contemplating just then how children needed a bit of freedom when they were older, and in regards to her having been in bed for years on end with great difficulty getting about, he begrudged restraining her, allowing her to be somewhat more active the past few days. Added onto his joy was an unbearable sadness – the girl was well, after all.
He had been properly prepared for his child to die prematurely for a long time now, but she had gotten so big in the blink of an eye. The gratitude in his heart was further replenished. While the young and insensible Yuezheng Su was off with proper plans, the Marquis came across Yuezheng Ying wanting to head out as he himself was returning.
“Why, did you make an appointment with your friends today, too?” The Marquis cheerfully asked. He had originally believed they would be spending the first of the year together as a family, and now he was seeing his eldest daughter in a brightly-colored get-up.
“I made plans with Commander Su earlier. I’m going to get drinks with a few friends at Apricot Blossom. Go meet with your old pal, dad, I won’t bother you.” Her dad’s old friend had ragged on her in years prior, and was in the same situation as that flock of higher officials bugging the Regentess to get married: hide from them if you can.
The Marquis never pressured his children, and gave her an understanding look. “Go, go, go. You go take your time off. Your mother and I will reminisce with your Uncle Su.”
[T/N: That’s the same surname as Su Yangqing, AKA Commander Su. Slightly confusing with Yuezheng Su’s name in here too, but, it is what it is.]
Yuezheng Ying chuckled. “You say that, but Ah-Su went out too,” she pointed out.
“Mn, she did. She was leading her red pony along with a pack of stuff on her back – probably some nice snacks – and went to go meet her friend.” The Marquis beamed, fondness all across his face. “The child has raw energy, and would probably give anything to a friend she had.”
He wasn’t wrong.
“You’re going to Apricot Blossom? That’s by the South Gate as well. If you see Ah-Su, keep an eye on her,” he harped on, still not too eased after thinking it over.
“This child will remember to,” Yuezheng Ying promised him, following in her little sister’s footsteps and departing right after.
On the way to Apricot Blossom, the ponder-loving Yuezheng Ying couldn’t help but wonder: who was the friend her little sister was going to meet? Could it be a child from the same class as her?
Ah-Su didn’t have much contact with people, and she was innocent and adorable, so it wasn’t surprising that she had the inclination to make friends with a bunch of kids, even bringing food with her. Following that line of thought, Yuezheng Ying brought to mind the Sers in that lived in the South Gate and sorted through which of them had children.
Zhongli Shuo had indeed brought food; she had gotten several of the Empress’s favorite pastries and stuffed them all together in a giftbox, and she was going to gift that along with her dagger.
Her heart brimmed with good intentions, merely awaiting the Regentess to accept them. Only thing was, whether she would be able to or not might depend on the will of the Heavens.
Starting with the Belletristic Emperor of the Chu Dynasty, several dozens of female Emperors had continuously cropped up in the royal family. With the passing of centuries, the citizens became more open-minded, and women entering Court to serve as officials or entering the army to serve as generals went from infrequent to commonplace. Chu held many sagacious female emperors; the Prime Emperor  of the Resurgence Era was an example, though the Thorn and Bright Emperors from the end of the Dynasty both being women don’t need to be mentioned.
Like this, the Chu state, under the influence of Yun Province, saw the increasing formation of man-man, woman-woman marriages until it also reached normalcy. By the Qing Dynasty’s arrival, there hadn’t been a huge disparity in notions between men and women for a long time.
That was why, the instant Zhongli Shuo came into the department hall of the Gilt Robe Guard with a box packed full of stuff strapped to her back, the subordinate receiving her at the door questioned her with an expression of astonishment. “Which Ser are you looking for, Young Scion?”
There were female Sers everywhere in the Guard. Who’d even know which one she was looking for without a name?
And the person she was seeking genuinely wouldn’t have been here. Was she supposed to say that the Ser in question was actually the supreme ruler in plainclothes? That in mind, the cute-faced Young Scion hugged her giftbox tight, biting her lower lip in awkwardness.
The author says: Two sentimental fools. The Empress was very restrained in Her Highness’s presence, because that was her beloved, but they were at an unclear phase. The Empress: on the outside, a tender, principled unmarried noblewoman, on the inside… an old curmudgeon (she’s a military brute, after all).
 景文帝 – “vivid writing emperor”
 三木 – “third tree”. The mu (木) here is a homonym for Zhongli Mu’s name (幕). I can’t think of a good translation, so I… won’t.
 戢武 – lit. “stored up martial power”
 中元帝 – “within origin emperor”
Slight translation update: ‘Your Majesty’, in regards to ZLS, has been changed to ‘Your Highness’, because XJC sometimes uses a slightly different term for her (殿下 as opposed to 陛下).