Chaos Of Beauty

Chapter 5 — The Imperial Palace’s Grand Banquet
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Chapter 5: The Imperial Palace’s Grand Banquet

Autumn passes, with spring flowers and wild cuckoos peacefully maintaining the otherness within the earthly realm.

The autumn wind blows, and although the view of lotus flowers in the pond has long gone, with the autumn air gradually thickening, the maple leaves floats down onto the pond, bringing with it its own distinctive charms, a mass of scarlet floating above the water, occasionally making little turns. When she had returned last night, she did not notice the fall of the maple leaves, could it be that they have fallen overnight? Unaware that the flowers of yesterday have already withered away, today other worries occupies her mind.

She had done the right thing right, it wasn’t wrong of her? He is originally the enemy of the Celestial Empire, had she let the tiger return to the mountain, perhaps more people will be put to sacrifice in future, if thinking this can calm her uneasy heart in the slightest bit, she shall continue to tell herself this, she is not in the wrong.

“Gui Wan.” That gentle, considerate voice calls out from nearby, such warming voice, can only be her husband.

Slowly turning her head, she sees Lou Che walk in from the corridor, as though he was revealing himself in the mist, suddenly, she thinks back to these past few days, all that has happened really feels like a dream, like smoke like mist. A smile floats to the surface of her face, “My Lord Husband, back from the court’s assembly?”

Such illusive smile, was the first he had seen. Returning last night when it was almost sunrise, the first thing she says when she sees him was filled with loss and exhaustion: “I’m back, so tired~.” He doesn’t know what she had been through these past few days, she says nothing, he asks nothing, although vaguely knowing that she had used quite a number of spies and guards, he had already promised her, her matters, he will not delve in, he needs only to cover for her.

Filled with tenderness, Lou Che picks up the neglected bowl that was left on the corridor, seeing that its contents were left completely untouched, he inquires: “Why are you not eating the soup, does it not suit your taste?”

“It’s I who doesn’t have the appetite,” Gui Wan smiles, the look in her eyes flickering, lips slightly parted, looking as though she’s struggling with something. After a long while, she asks: “Did anything big happen in the imperial court.”

He looks at Gui Wan in surprise, responding with a hint of wonder and exploratory, “I didn’t know you were also interested in the state affairs.”

Hearing this, Gui Wan says nothing. Lou Che watches her, he just gets the feeling that the her today, has many words that she has yet to say, her entire person appearing to be at loss, contradictory, there’s also this sense of unspeakable melancholy, unable to bear this, also pitying the look of confusion in her eyes, he gently says: “Something big did indeed happen in the imperial court,” Noticing Gui Wan reveal a hint of interest in his words, he continues to speak, “It is reported that General Lin was hunting down the Nu’s prince yesterday. In the end, he had let him slip away.”

Gui Wan lifts her head, confirming one more time: “Slipped away?”

“En, was originally already a bird in the net, who would have known that halfway there, the Nu people charged out in rescue, allowing him to escape.” His words were not spoken without regret.

Gui Wan gathers up her mixed feelings within a moment, the vivid happenings of yesterday in her head. In fact, she is not a cold blooded person, so she too felt perplexed, concerned, conflicted. Ye Li is the enemy of her homeland, is the Nu’s important commander, his death is the wish of countless people within the Celestial Empire, what she did yesterday is completely correct, but hearing that he had escaped just now, the big burden in her heart has dissolved. She did not kill him. Perhaps subconsciously, she was also hoping that she did not indirectly, or even directly, got him killed, hoping that she did not get involved in this kind of foul wind and rain of blood (bloodshed).

Shallowly, faintly, she laughs, the gloominess in her heart, swept away, reaching out, she takes hold of the bowl of soup, slowly starting to eat.

Seeing that she has suddenly got her appetite back, the hint of melancholy in her between her brows gone, Lou Che’s heart was also put at ease, “It’s already cold, call for the servants to heat it up at bit.”

“It doesn’t matter.” Gui Wan replies with her mouth filled with soup.

Perhaps it is because of the relaxation in her mood, the moderately cooled soup also tastes good in her mouth, sighing in satisfaction, she finds that Lou Che is still standing in the corridor, and calls out in surprise: “Lord Husband, what’s the matter?”

Lou Che slowly walks up to the edge, sitting across from Gui Wan. He looks at Gui Wan, wanting to say something but says nothing.

She clearly feels Lou Che’s eyes look past her. In fact, he was looking at the pond filled with scatters of red leaves behind her. Seeing the warmth in his eyes, Gui Wan’s heart turns soft at the sight, “Lord Husband, did you think back to something?”

“Perhaps so.” Lou Che is always carrying that smile, like that of the spring breeze in March, making people feel fresh and mild, “Gui Wan, the first day of next month, we need to make a trip to the palace.”

First day of next month? Isn’t that in five days? Gui Wan asks: “Is there a joyous event to celebrate in the palace?”

Lou Che nods, confirming her guesses, “The Jing Yi Hall (scenery viewing hall) is completed, and the young prince is now two years old. The Emperor will be holding a banquet to celebrate these two joyous events at the same time.”

Jing Yi Hall? Such a familiar name……where has she heard it before? Suddenly thinking back to that day at the restaurant, the middle-aged scholar has mentioned this with a tone of irony, a hall built for Consort Ying. In sudden realisation, Gui Wan looks towards Lou Che, “Do I also need to attend?” Just thinking of the possible scenarios that’s going to play out on the day, her blood freezes.

To accompany Lou Che to see Consort Ying, it is just too strange.

“Of course, you are my wife.” His gentle voice sounding very definite.

Hearing his words, Gui Wan was speechless, keeping watch of Lou Che’s calm face that reveals no trace of mood swings, she suddenly asks: “Wouldn’t it be conflicting?”

Raising his brows, Lou Che asks back: “What conflict?”

Gui Wan places down the bowl, looking out to the skies as she organises her thoughts, she gently says: “Lord Husband is the court’s Grand Secretary, with authority overflowing the imperial court, in this world what is there that you don’t understand? Clearly knowing that righteous matters, you should do, but what if you clearly know it is right but you would regret doing it in future, would you do it?”

Seeing the seriousness in her eyes, her softly spoken tone, Lou Che slightly felt at loss, intuitively asking: “How could there be a matter that you clearly know is right, but would regret doing it in future?”

“Haven’t you already done it before?” Gui Wan says, slyly laughing.

Freezing on the spot, Lou Che looks towards Gui Wan with sharp eyes, seeing such an intense look from him for the first time, Gui Wan seemingly innocent, continues to speak: “The Emperor is the lord, Husband is the subject, imperial power is the key link, romantic feelings are frequent, is this not a conflict?”

Lou Che was dumbfounded, deeply scrutinising Gui Wan, under this sort of inspection of his, Gui Wan freely laughs and stands up, she lightly waves her sleeves, turning around and heads out of the porch, very casually throwing aside a few more words: “It truly is the players holding the pawns ah~.”

Understanding that the meaning behind her words is pinpointing something else, Lou Che gets a little angry, the problems that he has purposely been avoiding has suddenly been brought in front of him, he was also a little angry at the figure like light clouds and soft wind, towards the leaving figure, he responds: “The one who wordlessly watches the game of chess is the true lord.”

Hearing his words, the figure does not stop, continuing to walk out. Gui Wan secretly thinks to herself, who told them to drag her along to watch this game of chess, Consort Ying, Lou Che, her, all of whom originally had their own chessboards to play with, but now, she just had to have been dragged into this one chessboard by them, she too has been forced into this by fate, however, the great fortune within this misfortune, is that she is not the one placing down the pawns.

******

A building every five steps, a pavilion every ten steps, the roofs connected, turning out to look like there is no end in sight, as though trapped within the red-tiled courtyard, Gui Wan couldn’t help but to sigh, the magnificence within the palace is a lot better than she had imagined.

“Really is an excessive waste of luxury.” Gui Wan says, as though she was sighing. Her voice is accompanied only by the sound of the carriage’s spinning wheels.

Hearing her quiet voice, Lou Che explains: “The late Emperor loved the beauty of luxury, so the palace has gone through some renovations.” His voice also seems to carry a hint of melancholy.

Turning to face Lou Che, her eyes showing no emotion, only carrying an indifferent smile, “I presume Jing Ye is also as luxurious.”

Lou Che says nothing, smiling as he draws the carriages’ curtains, very gently giving her a light hug, not responding to her comment, he says: “Don’t catch the chill like this, you can easily catch a cold.” Unfamiliar with such intimacy, Gui Wan who had originally wanted to push him away, hears those words, and slightly relaxes.

Whilst both people were occupied with their own thoughts, the horse carriage stops. The sound of string instruments, the sound of laughter, the sound of liveliness passes through the curtains and travels inside, bewitched by these sounds, Gui Wan could also feel the excitement surging up from within, hearing the reporting officer loudly call out: “Prime Minister Lou and Madam has arrived.” The seat beside her was empty, Lou Che had already gotten off the horse carriage, Gui Wan moves her body a little bit, and was just about to follow after him, when the curtains were lifted, a hand extended in front of her, her eyes looks up, the originally lively palace, filled with extravagantly dressed officials and their female partners, all had their full attention on them.

Humbly smiling, she takes hold of Lou Che’s extended hand, slowly descending from the horse carriage. Amongst the crowd, there appears to be some who were alarmed and panicky, recovering themselves, several officials immediately surrounds them. Towards Lou Che they are full of flattery and bootlicking, officials’ words are empty words, one after the other, adding lies to a pile of nonsense. Watching them with their hypocritical fawning countenance, Gui Wan laughs mockingly inside, but was also a little startled: So this is power? It truly is a ubiquitous power ah~.

It is during this moment of wave after wave of worshipping officials, a sudden glance from the corner of the eyes, reveals that there are still people standing in the left corner, remaining firmly motionless, so there are still people who do not fear power. To satisfy her curiosity, Gui Wan eagerly looks over, and immediately receives a shock, standing there, with a tall and graceful posture, if not General Lin Rui En who else could it be?

Today, General Lin is dressed in a body of white Confucianism robe, the cold air around him feels different because of his clothing, looking gentle and refined, just from looking at his appearance, who would have known that he is a warlord with tremendous prowess on the battlefield? He stands by the side, surrounding him were also some members of the court, but the majority of them were military commanders. Don’t know whether it is her misconception, Gui Wan feels as though he is also paying attention to this side.

Finally done dealing with the pleasantries and greetings of the big crowd, they wait for the people around them to disperse a bit, Gui Wan feels slightly fatigued, could this be the imperial palace’s banquet? Hypocrisy, extravagance, with an atmosphere of luxurious wastefulness.

Noticing her strange demeanour, Lou Che quietly asks: “Gui Wan, are you tired?” His heart ached to see her looking worn out.

Turning to him with a smile, Gui Wan teases: “Lord Husband, the banquet hasn’t even started yet.”

Lou Che was stunned, he lets out a bright laughter, attracting the attention of some officials who once again looks over at them.

“Truly a woman of peerless elegance.” In the corner, a man with a tall and strong built, dressed in military robes, watches on as he comments. Everywhere is lively within Jing Ye, there is only this place, where only four or five people stands around Lin Rui En, the one who spoke is Feng Luo Cheng who stands before him.

The tall and slim man who stands on the left, begrudgingly says: “Folks like us struggle through life and death at the borders, yet these people who usually only know how to show off their literary skills, stays in the Capital and lives a happy life. Look at that Madam Lou, old me has lived for so long, and have never seen such a beautiful woman before.”

The current Emperor favours civil matters over military, this is known to the world. Military officers within the imperial court does not get promoted as fast the civil officers, their treatment also cannot compare to that of civil officers. All the frontier troops more or less holds feelings of resentment deep down in their hearts.

“General Zhou, watch your words, what place do you think this is.” Reprimanding him is the middle aged scholar accompanying General Lin by his side, he is a military advisor, known for always being able to come up with a hundred of strategies as well his great foresight, his seniority in the army has been preserved, so for him to reprimand someone like that, even the tall and slim man will keep his mouth shut.

Turning around, he sees the unfathomable look on Lin Rui En’s face, letting out a small sigh, he says: “General, I believe with your eyes, you too should have recognised that Madam Lou. It can be considered that we have had the pleasure of meeting her once before.”

Not saying anything in response, Lin Rui En turns a deaf ear, continuing to display that icy cold look of indifference.

The military advisor did not think rudely of him, continuing to speak: “Didn’t think she is Madam Lou.” These words spoken didn’t seem to be his, instead it was said on Lin Rui En’s behalf, Lin Rui En knits his brows together, about to say something. Right at this moment, he notices Lou Che lower his head, his expression gentle as he says something, Gui Wan turns her head and sweetly smiles. Upon seeing this, Lin Rui En freezes, his brows knitting together even more, forgetting whatever he was about to say.

Seeing him like this, the military advisor also frowns, lamenting: “Beauties are all disasters.”

Hearing his words, Lin Rui En didn’t even get the chance to react, when the tall and slim man besides him has already spoken up: “Didn’t think that Military Advisor Lu has also taken a liking to that beauty.” He pauses for a moment, seeming to have thought of something, he speaks again: “This cannot do, Military Advisor Lu, your child is already at the age qualified to enter the battlefield. For you to think of such a young beauty, this is unjust to Madam. I’d say, such a beautiful young lady, seems to match our General quite well.”

Once he had said that, he even let out a snicker or two, as though he felt his own idea wasn’t bad.

“Shut up.” Lin Rui En scolds, “What nonsense are you speaking?”

The people nearby also turns their heads, everyone there had only just seen this frost-like youth reveal a look of anger for the first time. The tall and slim man freeze on the spot, not knowing how he should respond. Everyone else also appears to be shocked by Lin Rui En’s expression.

Having just scolded, he immediately felt a sense of regret, these people are all brothers who he had fought through life and death with on the battlefields, yet he was unable to keep his emotions in check. Just now, he doesn’t know why, but he just couldn’t withstand such crazy talk that carried wishful thinking, severely interfering with his emotions. From the corner of his eyes, he sees the military advisor’s knowing expression, and once again another round of irritation rises within. Looking away, he just happens to meet eyes with Gui Wan’s surprised yet studying expression, he quickly turns away, pretending he didn’t see it.

In this moment of Lin Rui En’s endless irritability, an ink blue figure stands in front of the hall, calling out from the top of his lungs: “His majesty the Emperor, Empress, and Lady Consort Ying has arrived—“

Officials and their partners that filled up the entire hall, all bows down in greeting, the large hall falling into silence, only hearing the noise of footsteps walking in, following on is the modestly spoken “Forego the formalities—“

Gui Wan slowly raises her head, the Emperor stands in the middle of the large hall, a lady stood on each side of him. On the right, is the one who Gui Wan feels familiar yet unfamiliar towards, Consort Ying, and on the left should be the mother of the empire, the Empress. She had heard that within the palace, the one who is specifically opposing Consort Ying is the Empress, unable to hold back her curiosity, Gui Wan cannot help but to look over towards the Empress. The Empress is dressed in a lilac water sleeve robe, although she does not have such startling beauty like Consort Ying, she too has the eyes of a phoenix, clearly a delicate and beautiful woman, what’s more rare is, within her temperament there is tranquillity, a sense of a kind of amiable yet unapproachable elegance.

As a fellow woman, Gui Wan also had to give it to her, secretly singing her praises, she is indeed deserving to be the mother of the empire.

Seeing from the corner of her eyes, that the Emperor has already sat down, Gui Wan also sits down at the first seat on the left hand side, accompanied by Lou Che.

The banquet had already been prepared, without the Emperor’s command, no one dared to move. Gui Wan raises her head to look at the Emperor, who is completely different to the image she had of him. The Emperor has a handsome face, although he is nearing thirty years of age, presumably due to being pampered since young, he appears to have an elegant magnanimity, however, what makes Gui Wan feel regretful is, the Emperor has no eagerness and vigour, when the current Emperor was Crown Prince it was because he was approachable and was loved by the people, but as the Emperor, such modest attitude would definitely be a great flaw.

Seeing the Emperor hold up the jade bottle, Gui Wan also holds up the white jade cup in front of her. In that moment, she didn’t even get to hear what the Emperor had said, only hearing the people beside her reciting “Of peace and harmony” “A golden harvest of all five grains” “It is a rarely seen golden age since the beginning of a new reign” “The Emperor is ingenious” words of this sort. Looks like hypocritical flattery during occasions like this cannot be any more common, Gui Wan carries a mocking smile, whilst maintaining her grace and poise as she sits there……

“So this is Minister Lou’s tender wife?” The words that have been travelling to her ear seems to have suddenly mentioned her, hearing this, she lifts her head, seeing the Emperor gracefully smile as he gazes over.

Next to her, Lou Che has already spoken: “Yes.” Gui Wan nods her head with a smile, in indication.

The Emperor seems to be rather admiring, laughing as he praises: “Madam Lou’s grace is unparalleled, along with Minister Lou, really a couple as fine looking as jade.”

Hearing those words, Consort Ying and the Empress simultaneously set their line of sight on her. Gui Wan raises her head, just happening to meet eyes with Consort Ying, really is autumn water for pupils, but at this moment, her eyes carries the look of perplexity, tenderness, and even a hint of loath, there were also emotions that Gui Wan cannot understand nor define.

Seeing such eyes, even Gui Wan could feel a heavy stone set in her heart, abruptly looking away, she notices that the Empress was looking at her, her face carrying a smile, but also a look of complication.

Luckily at that moment, the Emperor had turned towards other senior officials, lifting the attention away from her. Gui Wan lightly breaths out.

Although she very well knew that today’s banquet will have an underlying turbulence, but what she is facing right now, also carries the feeling of something else. Gui Wan secretly pledges to herself, banquets like this must most definitely be prevented in future, really does harm your mentality, harm your spirits as well as harming your physical body.

Taking hold of the wine cup, she lightly takes a sip, using this action to hide away from several complex eyes. She doesn’t dare to raise her head again, and looks over towards the seat perfectly in centre, making a point to look down a bit.

Sitting below the Emperor seems to be the Emperor’s younger twin brother. Indeed, he and the Emperor looks somewhat similar, but their temperaments are utterly different. The Emperor is modest and gracious, whilst this Prince Duan is known for being cold and heartless, because he is merited for once saving the Emperor out of trouble, he appears to have gotten more domineering. Whilst she was studying him, Prince Duan seems to have noticed someone’s gaze on him, turning his head to her, his eyes like that of an eagle, shooting over. Towards such callous eyes, Gui Wan was slightly startled, but smiles, and nonchalantly turns away.

Prince Duan sees her naturally looking away, and was actually rendered surprised for a moment. When he usually comes across such situations, other people would either submissively avoid his gaze, or be too scared to move, this woman is indeed different from others. This Lou Che, his luck is abnormally great, first he had the peerlessly beautiful Consort Ying, and later gets a wife with such exquisite elegance. The brilliant blessings offered to this world, he has pretty much taken half of it.

Without even looking over, she can feel the bursts of oppression omitted from Prince Duan. Turning her head to look below, these government officials who’ve been drinking, all attitudes will grow unrestraint, laughter converging into one, her heart bursts with irritation. Gui Wan tugs at Lou Che’s sleeve, Lou Che slightly lowers his head, looking at Gui Wan in puzzlement.

“Lord Husband, Prince Duan’s staring is bit too impolite, is it not?” Gui Wan says.

Hearing this, Lou Che looks up towards Prince Duan’s direction, his face displaying a cold smile, eyes relaying a stern warning.

This smiling tiger, meeting eyes with Lou Che, Prince Duan’s look turns more severe. Right now there is no need to oppose this Prime Minister, secretly cursing at him, he turns his face away.

Seeing such an expression from Lou Che for the first time, Gui Wan felt like she couldn’t really adapt to this. The Lou Che she usually sees at home is generally as gentle as the spring breeze in March, it was her first time seeing such smile with a sword hidden within it, this could also be consider another side to him right? If not, within this you-cheat-me-I-cheat-you environment, how would he have been able to maintain his position of power.

Telling herself that she is overthinking too much, after all, the man beside her has promised, he will not cause her any harm. Since he will not harm her, why should she care about his tactics and methods?

Gui Wan who was silently absorbed in her own thoughts, was suddenly jolted awake by the sound of string instruments, and only then did she realise that the entertaining music and dance performances has already started. Raising her head to look over, the youthful dancing girls in front of the seats have started dancing to the tune, such light weighted movements, with gestures touching the hearts of people, be it serenity be it dance, be it fanning be it turning, the sound of string instruments is pleasant to listen to, the movements of the dancers is pleasant to watch. Within that moment, the hall turns hazy, looking as magical as a dream.

A while later, the music and dancing have come to an end. Hearing the reporting officer announce the hour, Gui Wan was taken aback. It has only been an hour. Could it be that she is passing a day like it is year (to be in deep anxiety), thus feeling as though the times are particularly hard to get through?

According to the reporting officer, the music and dance is only a short interlude of the banquet, the real entertainment would be performed after dinner. Gui Wan was dumbfounded, to organise such a grand scale banquet in celebration for the birthday of your two year old son, is this not a bit too extravagant? She later finds out that she was wrong, this banquet that is officially said to be a celebration for the young prince, is actually a celebration for the completion of Jing Yi Hall. To use the birthday of one’s own child as a front, in order to seek the favour of a woman, everything within this imperial palace seems to be blurred and incredibly unconceivable.

The banquet was soon to diffuse, the Emperor, Empress and Consort Ying leaves first to take a short rest. After they left the scene, there was still another hour left, the majority of the officials starts to disperse, starting to head over to the newly built Jing Ye to take a good look around, the women of their families walking in twos and threes, officials talking with eloquence, all in all, the atmosphere was a lot more relaxed compared to when everyone were eating just now, bursts of laughter can be heard here and there.

Gui Wan felt rather bored, and during the dispersing of the banquet, Lou Che said he has important matters to discuss with the Emperor, immediately leaving after. Now that she is left all alone, how is she to kill an hour’s worth of time? At the blink of an eye, she sees some of the other women gathering together to chat, some fluttering around like butterflies as they admire the flowers, she subtly sighs, it’s a shame that she doesn’t usually chat with any of the madams of senior officials, otherwise she wouldn’t be bored to death right now.

Just sitting here would be inappropriate of her, Gui Wan stands up, thinking that it is better to wander around, admire this newly constructed palace hall, otherwise, she may even forget the purpose of entering the palace in first place.

The structure of Jing Ye is almost no different from the other halls, golden magnificence, not even a few steps in and Gui Wan was already sick of it, thinking to herself, if the Emperor wants to seek the favour of Consort Ying, how could he be so unoriginal? Turning here turning there, she has already wandered faraway from the crowd, something that she too was unaware of. When she finally returned to the right state of mind, she was already entering the back courtyard of Jing Ye, here the lighting is scattered, completely different to the brightly lit large hall, looking towards the garden, Gui Wan freezes on the spot.

The lotus pond, maple leaves, corridors, are actually exactly the same as the Prime Minister Estate, even the red leaves floating on the surface of the pond is no different, virtually misguiding her to believe she has returned to the Prime Minister Estate.

Her heart struck with shock, for Gui Wan, walking around this pond feels completely different to her usual stroll back at home, her current mood at this moment is rather heavy. Thinking of Consort Ying’s implications of doing this, Gui Wan slightly breaks out in cold sweat. If this matter is known to a conscientious person, once exposed, it is practically a great sin, the consequences of such crime can bring calamity to the nine grades of relations[1]. Composing herself, she thinks over it again, even if the skies falls down, she still has Lou Che to prop it up, so what is there for her to be afraid of?

With mixed feelings, she continues to walk, she does not know if it has been purposely arranged like this, but the back courtyard actually has not a single guard nor palace maid in sight. Slightly settling her heart, Gui Wan grew a little curious, could this entire garden really be the same as the one in the Prime Minister Estate? Thinking of the jade steps by the pond that she usually loves to stay at, don’t know whether there’d be one here, thinking this, Gui Wan strides deep into the garden.

Walking up to the very edge of the lotus pond, there is indeed the jade steps. At this moment, Gui Wan really has no choice but to give it to this Consort Ying, looks like she is yet another love-struck fool.

Having just confirmed her own speculations, she had just wanted to turn back, but the sound of footsteps can already be heard from behind her, Gui Wan was surprised, all this time there had been not a single soul in sight, who could have walked into this garden at this time?

Taking a quick glance with a turn of her head, approaching from afar is actually Lou Che and Consort Ying!

Gui Wan’s mind blanks out for a second, she had wanted to greet them, but doesn’t know how to speak up, noticing that the two people have no one besides them, the atmosphere also appears to be a bit strange, to come out during such time, wouldn’t it just be too weird? Switching to another thought, she bends her body to hide behind the fake rockery next to the jade steps, at this moment, she was fortunate that this place is made to look exactly like home, hiding here, she most definitely wouldn’t be found.

“Lady Consort Ying, why exactly have you brought this subject here?” Lou Che calls out to Consort Ying, his tone carrying estrangement.

That beautiful face holds a look of hidden bitterness, Yao Ying turns around, directly looking at Lou Che. This beloved man of hers, to actually use such cold voice towards her, to call out to her in such an estranged way, causing her heart to tighten in pain, her voice bringing tears as she speaks: “Do you not recognise the place before your eyes?”

How could he not recognise it? Lou Che continues to speak emotionlessly: “This is the newly built Jing Ye.”

“No,” Yao Ying strains, her voice sounding even more sad and dreary, “This is not Jing Ye, this is not……” Her hand points towards the garden -- pointing over, she says in a crying tone: “That is the lotus pond I love most, the lotus pond you made; that is the corridor I love most, the corridor you made; that is the jade steps I love most, the jade steps you made……” Her words can no longer form any sounds, Yao Ying sobs incessantly.

Seeing Yao Ying weep so sorrowfully in front of him, a scene like that of a pear blossom bathed in rain[2], Lou Che stands frozen, seized by a sudden impulse, an image of Gui Wan’s face floats before his eyes, both are women equally as beautiful as the other, yet how could there be such a big difference between them personality wise? Yao Ying looks glamorously beautiful on the outside, but is soft on the inside; Gui Wan looks elegantly beautiful on the outside, but inside……inside, she should be considered carefree and easy-going right?

“What are you thinking……?” Yao Ying feels a burst of panicking heartbeats, seeing Lou Che appear absent-minded just now.

Composing himself as he looks at Yao Ying, Lou Che lets out a sigh, gently saying: “Ying-er, do you know what you are doing? This is the imperial palace. There are many eyes and ears, you must always be cautious, if anyone sees you like this, it will give rise to an impending fatality.”

Hearing his change of addressment, Yao Ying’s heart slowly calms, softly speaking: “I am just anxious, today seeing you……you treat Yu so well, I felt too heavy-hearted, that’s why……” (Note: Yu is Gui Wan’s surname)

Brows knitting together, Lou Che responds saying: “Gui Wan is also the wife you have found for me, what exactly do you want me to do?” His heart greatly troubled.

Slightly stunned, Yao Ying reveals a smile that looks worse than crying, “That’s right, it is I who found her for you. I had originally thought, if I cannot stay by your side, then I should find you a woman who is no less than myself to be your wife, but……but seeing it today, I could not even refrain my jealousy……good heavens, how despicable I am, even I loathe myself.” Both hands masking her face, Yao Ying’s tears once again steams down uncontrollably.

Back then when she was entering the palace, she had sincerely wanted for Lou Che to get a great wife, thinking of the stunning glimpse of Yu Gui Wan at Hong Fu Temple, she immediately asked for a marriage grant, but what pained her heart at the time, was that she cannot let go……cannot let go of the man, as gentle as jade, in front of her. That is why on his wedding night, she had summoned him into the palace, doing every means possible to keep him there, when she was being bullied by other imperial concubines within the palace, he would stay by her side to protect her, therefore she does not retaliate, and would rather rely on him to protect her, everyone think she is weak, but how could they know her ulterior motives?

As long as she is vulnerable within the palace, he shall forever stay by her side, so she does not mind, does not mind harming herself, in exchange, he will not be able to let go of this attachment.

The strong feeling of sorrow that is pouring out from Yao Ying’s body, even Gui Wan could feel it, causing her heart to also feel slightly sad, just how heavy of a feeling it is.

Lou Che says nothing, and could only look at Yao Ying. Just when did it start to become like this, this woman’s body has been tied up, shrouded in sorrow and melancholy. Letting out a sigh, he takes out a handkerchief from him sleeve, and very gently wipes away the tears of Yao Ying who had already become like a child flooded in tears.

As his breathing came closer, her heart felt as ease. Yao Ying gently leans onto his shoulders, noticing that he had wanted to back away, she reaches out to hold onto his waist, softly saying: “Don’t leave me, I will no longer be bothered by other women by your side anymore, just as long as you don’t leave me.”

Hearing her words, Lou Che doesn’t say anything, but also doesn’t push her away.

Gui Wan could no longer hold back, taking a little peep from behind the fake rockery, she didn’t think that, what she will be seeing is the beautiful scene of Consort Ying gently resting on Lou Che. Honestly speaking, they do indeed match very well, unfortunately fate messes with people, not knowing why, she too also feels slightly upset today, although Lou Che is not someone she loves, but to personally see the intimacy between him and Consort Ying, she too can feel her heart knot up a bit.

For her who doesn’t have feelings of love as the base point, to be slightly bothered by this, then if by chance the Emperor who deeply loves Consort Ying finds out……would that not……she dares not to think too deeply into it, Gui Wan reminds herself to forget everything she has seen today.

Having finally waited till they have walked far away, Gui Wan could finally let out a sigh of relief, her body that was leaning against the fake rockery was aching, standing up straight, perhaps the performances has started, she was planning to just slowly walk back, turning around, she hears a noise come from the thicket of bushes and trees, her heart immediately rendered shocked, could it be that there is someone else hiding within the bushes?

Taking two steps back, towards the place where the sound has come from, she looks over attentively. Within the darkness, she makes direct eye contact with another person. Gui Wan was alarmed.

Didn’t think that there would be someone within the thicket, Gui Wan was somewhat perturbed. If matters that had happened today is disclosed, there will be an impending fatality awaiting them. Her heart beats in a putong putong rhythm, pinning her eyes on the figure in the darkness, she gently calls out: “Who’s there?”

The person inside the thicket also appears to have been startled by her, shrinking back, and colliding into branches, thus sounding a wave of rustling. Within the still of the night as such, nothing more can appear as abrupt as this.

Seeing that the other person is even more flustered than her, Gui Wan calms down, coldly speaking: “Come out.“ The thicket remains quiet and motionless. After a short while, a figure slowly crawls out from the thicket, a slim body, dressed in a long ink blue robe, he was very nervous, his clothes hooks onto the branches, and his hand tries to detach it, but after several tries he was still unable to unhook his clothes.

Seeing his extremely troubled look, Gui Wan can feel herself loosen up, and even wanted to laugh. That figure who had been inside the dark the entire time, raises his head, Gui Wan looks at him attentively.

Didn’t think that the one who was hiding inside the thicket was actually a delicately handsome youth, his fair skin is no less than that of a woman, his facial features holding a delicate and elegant charm, and a pair of eyes that expresses unspoken purity and innocence. Facing such a handsome and pure youth, Gui Wan was temporarily speechless.

Organising her current feelings, Gui Wan speaks, her voice flowing like quiet waves: “Who are you?” Judging by his clothes, he doesn’t seem to be of noble aristocracy, his temperament doesn’t seem like one all the more, within the aristocratic families, there is none who has such pure eyes like that of water.

The youth appears extremely surprised, but quickly calms down, answering: “I have come with the Kun Yuan Performance Troupe.”

Only after thinking back in circles, did she manage to remember that the performance starting in a bit, seems to be performed by the supposedly well-known Kun Yuan Performance Troupe. Gui Wan’s heart somewhat rests assured, as long as is not someone from within the palace, then it will be much easier to handle.

“Since you are someone from the performance troupe, why are you not in the front hall preparing to start the performance, and instead came here?”

Once the youth heard this, he fell into a daze, not answering immediately, after staying silent for a while, he says: “I don’t act in the opera, only following the performance troupe. Taking advantage of the opening of the performance, I have come here to rest for a bit, do a bit of reading.” Having said that, he slightly lowers his head. Seeing that his eyes appears steady, it does not look like he is lying.

Only now did she notice that when the youth had crawled out in panic, a book had fallen beside him. Gui Wan crouches down, reaching out to pick up the book. Under the youth’s slight look of shock, she turns the page, having skimmed through it, she was unable to hold back her surprise, didn’t think that he was actually reading 《Ingenious Schemes That Assisted The Country》 he’s actually reading such a profound strategy book?

Taking a moment of thought, Gui Wan feels a little troubled, “Just now……did you see it all?”

The purity in the youth’s eyes immediately shows a trace of panic, smacking his lips together, in the end he says nothing. Seeing this, Gui Wan was sure that he had witnessed the scene just now, this really can’t be good.

Her lips lifting into a faint curve, Gui Wan asks the youth: “How old are you this year?” Her voice as gentle as the breeze in spring.

The youth was surprised, answering in a crisp voice: “Nineteen years old.”

A year older than her, Gui Wan smiles. To be able to have such a pure and innocent look in one’s eyes, it really isn’t an easy matter, but no matter how na?ve, how innocent, now that he’s gotten involved in this matter, there is no way for him to get away.

Looking at this youth, Gui Wan was momentarily unable to think of a good idea. The front hall is bustling with people, here it is overly cold and cheerless, such a sharp contrast, dividing this place into a strange dimension. A young woman dressed in a glamorous outfit and young man as pure as water, exchanging gazes, yet neither of them speaks.

She can no longer drag this on, Gui Wan thinks to herself, staring at the youth, she clearly tells him: “You have seen something that you should not have, this really is troubling. From now on, your fate is no longer yours.”

Seeing the youth reveal an expression of confusion and panic, Gui Wan also couldn’t help but to pity him, “Right now, you only have two paths to choose from……”

“I will not speak out about it.” The youth suddenly interrupts her words, speaking with an expression of incomparable determination, the raising of his voice was also because of his firm resolution.

Lightly nodding her head, Gui Wan laughingly responds: “I believe you,” Seeing the youth reveal a smile because of those three words, Gui Wan reminds him again, “But I cannot take the lives of so many people to place a bet on you, the stakes at place here are far too great……right now you can only choose one of the two paths.”

The youth’s face appears even paler within the darkness, carrying an expression of contemplation, the youth quietly listens to Gui Wan’s words.

“The first path, is you die.” Not at all realising how brutal of a matter she is speaking of, Gui Wan’s voice does not waver, as though she was speaking of something very common, “If I loudly call for people to come right now, I can immediately have you sent to your death, but……are you willing to die like this?” Taking a pause, Gui Wan looks at the youth, wanting to see what he is thinking underneath those eyes that are as clear as glass.

Seeing the youth carry a bitter smile, Gui Wan lays down the second option, “You still have a second choice,” Once again, she gives the youth an attentive look before speaking again, “Are you willing to leave the performance troupe and come with me?” Hearing this, the youth freezes.

When facing someone who knows a secret, usually there is only two approaches, one is to silence them through death, and two is to accept them as your own. No matter how cruel and heartless this palace is, she does not want to follow the crowd[3], belittling human lives. Besides this youth gives her the impression of a diamond in the rough.

Seeing the youth’s silence, she waits, without showing the slightest bit of impatience, she silently waits for him to give her an answer.

In the dark, the youth’s eyes becomes more and more firm. He raises his head, looking directly into Gui Wan’s eyes, “I’m willing to go with you.”

In an instance, Gui Wan gets another kind of feeling like being in a scattered dream, that youth determinedly said to her:

I’m willing to go with you.

******

This is a play.

Sitting on the bench, Gui Wan watches the pounding of gongs and drums on stage, and the dancing of shadow-like figures. Feeling a little dizzy, she turns her head, her eyes circling around the hall, some officials listens on obsessively, entranced as though in a drunken state; some were absent-minded, exchanging flirtatious glances with their female counterparts. Lou Che did not return, Consort Ying also didn’t show up with the excuse of feeling unwell, even the Emperor didn’t come, only leaving the group of officials and their female counterparts to watch the performances. Seeing the situation at hand right now, she could not help but find it funny.

Unable to hold it in, Gui Wan cracks a smile, the real opera act has left, those that have remained to watch the performance, this gathering of public officials attentively watching on this play, has not even noticed, the main characters had already withdrawn. As for herself, although having already discovered the withdrawal of the main characters, has no choice but to continue watching this lead-less play.

Truly a laughable imperial palace.

Unable to help it, her thoughts return to the refreshing youth from before, she had personally followed him to face the head of the performance troupe, once the head of the troupe sees that she is the Prime Minister Madam, he immediately accepts all her requests without a second thought. So that youth is also born from a rundown scholarly family, living an impoverished life. He had followed the performance troupe to the Capital, wanting to participate in tomorrow’s early spring imperial examinations.

Does this na?ve youth also want to step into the officialdom? This truly is cruel.

However, when the youth heard others address her as Prime Minister Madam just before, he seemed to be very shocked. Never would he have thought that, she is someone who personally witnessed her own husband and the imperial concubine’s secret rendezvous, and even dealt with a troublesome person for them. Thinking of the youth’s stunned look from before, Gui Wan was no longer able to hold back her laughter.

……

At this time, when the performance was already playing out, a figure walks towards the seats on the right, sitting down. The people in same area raise their heads in surprise, speaking in surprise: “General? You only just arrived, the performance has already reached the midpoint.” The tall and slim man never holds back his tongue.

Lin Rui En nods his head, “It doesn’t matter.” Calmly sitting down, his expression appears rather absentminded.

The military advisor leans in, a little worried, he asks with concern: “General, where did you go just now, none of the people I sent out could find you.”

Lin Rui En freezes for a moment, hesitantly answering: “I went for a stroll around the back garden of Jing Yi Hall just now.”

“Oh?” The military advisor reveals an expression of surprise, lowering his voice, “Lady Consort Ying does not allow just anyone to stroll around that garden, does General know this?”

Bitterly letting out a laugh, Lin Rui En’s forehead faintly carries a trace of thoughtfulness, turning his head, he could not help but to look towards the first seat on the left side, although the distance was quite far, that face could still be reflected within his eyes, he opens his mouth to answer: “I did not know there was such rules.”

“As long as you say nothing then it’ll be fine.” The military advisor smiles in consolation. With the status of a general, so what if he had strayed into the garden, it’s just that, this is the Emperor’s doted consort, there is no need to be troubled by such trifle matters.

“Is that so? As long as nothing is said then it’ll be fine?” Unconsciously, Lin Rui En recites this in repetition.

Noticing his odd behaviour, the military advisor turns to the left. Following Lin Rui En’s line of sight, he cannot help but sigh, his heart also starting to feel troubled.

On stage, the act continues to sing as it is set in full swing.

******

The opera act finally comes to an end. Gui Wan feels as though a heavy load had been lifted. Although she didn’t listen to much, she still feels that the performance was splendid, sometimes sad sometimes happy. It’s just a shame, she wasn’t in the mood to listen to it. Life is originally a drama in itself, so what’s the need to go watch such dramatic plays.

Getting up, she heads out of the hall, where a horse carriage awaits. She’s tired, today she needs to go home and take a good rest. Not noticing this when she had come, the aisle in this big hall is actually this long, or should she be saying, her mood has changed.

“Madam Lou……” A voice calls Gui Wan to a stop, turning her head, Prince Duan smiles as he stands three steps outside.

Moving her body slightly, Gui Wan plasters on a shallow smile as she answers: “Prince Duan, is there anything you need?” Such callous eyes, makes people feel dreadful, but can actually be dealt with a forced smile.

Prince Duan takes two steps and then one step, crossing over to Gui Wan as he stands next to her side by side as they walk out of the hall, “It’s just that I see Minister Lou isn’t here, so I shall act as the trailbreaker for Madam.”

Gui Wan picks up her pace, blandly answering: “Prince Duan really is caring.”

Prince Duan lets out a laugh, even his laugh is more arrogant than others, “Minister Lou really is obsessed with the state affairs, will he also be staying in the palace tonight?”

“It is only natural that Husband puts his efforts in contributing to the country.” The words spoken were so hypocritical, Gui Wan found that she is becoming more and more adapted to this place.

“Is it really this simple?” He takes a pause, noticing that Gui Wan is not showing any emotional expression, he changes the subject, “With such a tender wife at home, had it been me, I’d definitely wouldn’t stay in the palace.” His words carries a frivolous tone, deliberately to test her, he really wants to see, just how big of a tolerance this woman has.

Hearing those words, Gui Wan merely knits her brows together ever so slightly, but immediately smiles indifferently again, “Then Princess Consort Duan must be happy.” Raising her eyes to see the horse carriage just in front, she subtly sighs in relief, slightly turning her head, “Your highness, sorry to trouble you, I’ve already arrived. Really thankful to your highness for today.” Saying that, she doesn’t even wait for Prince Duan’s response, and had already left without looking back.

Prince Duan freezes on the spot, not showing any response. An official in crimson red leans in as he comes up to his side, standing next to Prince Duan as he speaks in a toady manner: “Does Lord Prince like this woman?”

Seeing that Prince Duan shows not the slightest of reaction, he assumes he guessed right and gives a sneaky look: “This Madam Lou cannot be touched, but I can get a woman who looks about six or seven points like her, for your highness to enjoy.”

All of a sudden, Prince Duan coldly sounds a laugh: “Who says I like this woman?” He speaks as though he’s clenching his teeth in bitter hatred, turning his body to coldly eye the person in front of him, he hatefully says: “Even if I want it, I would not want a fake. Minister Zhou, if you have the time to come trying to figure out my mind, it’s better to spend more time thinking about how you can keep that wusha hat on your head in the long term.” (Note: Wusha is the black gauze cap that is worn by officials)

Having said that, he leaves with vigorous strides. The remaining official in crimson red shows a face filled with fear, his forehead sweating profusely.

Gui Wan walks up to the horse carriage, and only then did she find that youth was waiting at the side. Seeing his still jade-like figure stand there, her heart warms up. She doesn’t know why, but having just dealt with the hypocritical imperial palace, and then see this youth that is as clear as water after that, makes her feel a type of long absent friendliness.

Firmly sitting in the horse carriage, she turns her hand to beckon the youth on board. Originally, doing this is inappropriate, but now that the skies are so dark, with no other horse carriage, she cannot just leave this youth to run after the horse carriage as they return to the Prime Minister Estate.

Both people firmly sits facing each other. The horse carriage had already started moving, Gui Wan lets out a sigh of relief, extending her hand to lift up the curtains, wanting to see the outside. Another hand suddenly appears in front of her, gently closing the curtain, the youth’s voice sounds in a very gentle manner: “The winds are really strong outside, you’ll catch a cold.”

Looking at him in astonishment, Gui Wan freezes up, such a familiar scene, when coming here, Lou Che also seems to have said this.

The youth sees Gui Wan’s reaction, his face turning red, immediately retrieving his hand back to his side. That’s right, she is of such noble status, how could she tolerate him making such gestures[4], thinking this, the youth shows an expression of bewilderment.

Noticing the youth’s sudden haste, Gui Wan lets out an elegant yet tense laugh, “Thank you.” Seeing the youth’s clear pupils, she is struck by a thought, asking, “What’s your name?”

The youth replies: “I’m called Guan Xiu Wen.”

Gui Wan takes a look at him, and closes her eyes, gently leaning against the pre-prepared cushion in the carriage, listening to the sound of the carriage’s wheels, she thinks for a long time, then indifferently says: “Are you prepared? Officialdom, is a path even more dangerous than being in the battlefield, if you do not have a firm conviction, how will walk down this path? The you right now is not enough.”

This voice is ever so light, so faint, but with one hit one shot it is beaten into Guan Xiu Wen’s heart. Intently looking at the woman with her eyes closed in front of him, this woman who had once very calmly said she will kill him, this woman who had completely changed his destiny, suddenly feeling at a loss, conviction……just what kind of conviction should he be holding to walk down the path ahead?

The horse carriage continues to run, throwing behind the imperial palace with red walls and gold tiles. At this moment, no one knew, this very night, changed the fate of several people……

Everything, has only just begun.

Note:

[1] Nine grades of relations or jiǔ zú / 九族 is a concept often used when it comes to the application of the law and the punishment of severe crimes. The term is most used in the phrase zhū lián jiǔ zú / 株连九族 - one of the cruellest of punishments - as it means the extermination of the nine grades of relations, whereby innocent family members are executed because of a crime committed by a certain family member - guilt by association. The nine grades of relations includes: the criminal’s parents, grandparents, children, grandchildren, siblings, siblings-in-law, uncles, uncles’ spouses, the criminal and the criminal’s spouse. Note that only children over a certain age can be executed.

[2] Pear blossom bathed in rain or lí huā dài yǔ / 梨花带雨 refers to a weeping beauty.

[3] The actual proverb used for following the crowd is suí bō zhú liú / 随波逐流which translates to sailing to the stream or to be carried along by the tide.

[4] To make gestures of remark to someone - zhǐ shǒu huà jiǎo / 指手画脚which means to gesticulate profusely or criticize indiscriminately.

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