Ruan Zhu was dumbstruck and innumerable bewildered thoughts rolled around in her head. Her chopsticks fell out of her hands, and her expression was of one that was at a complete loss.
The Empress Dowager; the Emperor’s Mother; Xuanyuan Zong Zhi’s paternal grandmother!
Last night in the Prince of Qi’s residence, because of Nuan Chun, she had slapped Steward Chen and humiliated him. Then after Xuanyuan Zong Zhi returned, he had also commanded the imperial bodyguards to beat Steward Chen half to death. Reportedly, the steward had then been dragged to the woodshed and because he had extreme difficulty breathing, died not too long after.
Steward Chen was previously one of the Empress Dowagers’s people, and if one wanted to strike at a dog, one had to look at their master. She was finished; the Empress Dowager must be furious. However, how was it that the Empress Dowager knew of something that had just occurred yesterday, unless there was an informant among the imperial bodyguards? Otherwise, had the imperial family long taken note of her and assigned a spy by her side?
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi handed Zhi Xi over to Nuan Chun for them to return to the room. He then grasped his wife’s hand and gave her a faint smile, his eyes soothing. Ruan Zhu’s frazzled mind somewhat stabilized and she felt her other hand was also a little tight–Yun Shi Wei had gripped it.
“Spouse, don’t be scared. I will protect you.” If worst came to worst, he would discard this life in order to take his wife and the child to a faraway place.
“Eldest Sister, what should we do?” Ruan Yu was flustered.
“It’s all right. Stay behind Sister.” No matter how it was said, Xuanyuan Zong Zhi was also a prince; plus, there was imperial flesh and blood in her belly, so how could she be killed?
“En.” Ruan Yu did not know that her Eldest Sister had slapped one of the Empress Dowager’s previous people. The common people treated the nobility of the Nine Palaces that were above everyone else with respect and reverence. This disposition was innate and had nothing to do with other factors.
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi led everyone in walking towards the front courtyard.
The Empress Dowager had paid an unsolicited visit and had already strode into the main building and into the main hall, where she was currently sitting with an air of strength and discipline in the main seat that Ruan Zi Xu would rest in when he was home.
The currently sixty-some years old Empress Dowager Zheng sat perfectly straight with a dragon-headed cane underneath one hand. Her mind bright, her eyes were strict as she studied the group of people stepping inside.
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi took the lead in kowtowing before the Elder, and Ruan Zhu soon followed him. Beside her was Yun Shi Wei; behind her was Ruan Yu. The most intriguing thing was that Xuanyuan Min Zhi had received the news, popped up from who-kn0ws-where, and was also kneeling next to Xuanyuan Zong Zhi.
This era was not like the Ming or Qing dynasties that paid particular attention to etiquette with their three kneels and nine kowtows along with the shaking of their sleeves.
The biggest etiquette of this era was to kowtow flat on the ground, and if the one above called for you to rise, you would then rise. If they did not issue the command, you then had to continue to kneel, even if one would become a stone gargoyle by doing so.
Empress Dowager Zheng scanned everyone before her gaze fell on Xuanyuan Zong Zhi. She used the dragon-headed cane to point at him: “You may rise.” One’s own family was not a problem, and her own blood-related grandson was naturally different from the rest.
“Thanking Imperial Grandmother.” Xuanyuan Zong Zhi instructed an imperial bodyguard to refill the Empress Dowager’s tea while he looked at his wife out of the corner of his eye, mulling how he should plead leniency for her. Lifting his gaze, he saw that the Elder’s face was full of suspicion as she pointed her cane at Xuanyuan Min Zhi.
“This boy; this dowager thinks is very familiar. Whose family’s child is he?”
The elderly Empress Dowager had ten sons and daughters, several dozen grandchildren, and her memory had declined with old age. She only remembered the children that she cared about and often mistook the ones she did not pay attention to with each. other. The reason why she thought Xuanyuan Min Zhi seemed familiar was because his appearance closely resembled those of the other Xuanyuan clan members.
“Imperial Grandmother, this is Third Brother, Xuanyuan Min Zhi.” Xuanyuan Zong Zhi responded on behalf of the other.
“Min Zi?” The Empress Dowager’s face was full of doubt as she sized up the young man kneeling on the ground: “Why does this name seem so familiar? Where has this dowager heard it before?”
“Imperial Grandmother, Grandson is Emperor-Father’s third son that was given to Nan Ling for adoption in childhood.” Xuanyuan Min Zhi’s expression was deferential but the eyes that he had slightly cast down were completely indifferent. He had been driven to a barbarian land, solitary and impoverished, and had experienced all kinds of supercilious looks. Things like relatives and bloodlines–he simply didn’t take them to heart.
“Oh, I understand with you saying it like that.” The Elder suddenly realized it and struck the ground with her cane twice: “So you are precisely that absolutely disgraceful child that let our family’s Fifth suffer so terribly. I heard that at the time, you had sedated him with drugs then tied him up and sold him to human traffickers. Worried that your Emperor-Father would discover your ploy, you then used a palace eunuch’s corpse to pass as our Fifth and set a room on fire.”
Embarrassment was on Xuanyuan Min Zhi’s face: “Imperial Grandmother, those are all old debts from a long time ago and Grandson has long not been able to remember them.”
Empress Dowager Zheng nodded her head: “Understandable. You are one without a conscience and forgetting it is correct. Not forgetting would be against reason.”
When those words were said, the group of palace eunuchs behind the Elder could not hold back their tittering.
Yet Ruan Zhu recalled the story that had been told to her when Xuanyuan Zong Zhi was still Lu Piao Xiang. He had an older brother that was extremely jealous of him, and the year he turned seven, the brother had thrown him to human traffickers and sold him to a brothel in Lan Zhou. That time she had given Xuanyuan Min Zhi, that bastard, to Aunt Sun could be considered a punishment since he had been subjected to much suffering then.
Although Ruan Zhu’s head was lowered, her eyes were filled with disdain. This Xuanyuan Min Zhi was too evil and it served him right to currently be so wretched.
“Why did you run to Tian Chu and not obediently stay in Nan Ling as the heir?”
“Responding to Imperial Grandmother, last year the old Duke became seriously ill and a rebellion took place in Nan Ling. The Duchess’s bastard son, Wang Kun, bestowed the title of heir on himself and assembled a personal army, creating a situation of ‘hold the feudal overlord and you control his vassals.’” With great difficulty, Xuanyuan Min Zhi finally had obtained an opportunity where he could meet with the imperial family of Tian Chu. How could he easily let this chance slip away? His emotions were especially stirred and he spoke openly: “Originally, Grandson was the heir of Nan Ling, but what can one do when the Duchess dotes on the bastard Wang Kun? They persecuted Grandson, and Grandson was only able to narrowly escape to Tian Chu. Fortunately, with the assistance of the Ruan clan, there was the opportunity to meet with Imperial Grandmother.”
Ruan Zhu was greatly astonished that Xuanyuan Min Zhi had helped say good words on her behalf. She had always thought him not pouring cold water over her was already not bad.
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi took advantage of the situation to say some good words for his wife: “The Ruan clan is faithfully devoted to the imperial dynasty, and Ruan Zhi Xu spares no effort for the sake of the country. Originally, he could have spent his life quietly enjoying his days with his family with the enormous amount of wealth he has, but he prioritizes the country, and amidst the disasters currently upon us, cannot help but to busily rush about. Three months prior, he lead a group of merchants north towards Mongolia to purchase horses, without caring the slightest about how difficult or life-threatening the task may be.”
Empress Dowager Zheng snorted: “I did not ask you.”
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi relied on the Elder’s favor and said with a smile: “Imperial Grandmother has demanded for an explanation on Eunuch Chen’s death. Grandson will remind Imperial Grandmother–Eunuch Chen was beaten to death by Grandson’s imperial bodyguards; it has no relation with Elder’s Granddaughter-in-law.”
Empress Dowager Zheng did not even lift her eyelids: “Who is this ‘Granddaughter-in-law’; why have I never seen her before? Min Zhi, could it be that you have married and have not even brought her back to Tian Chu for Grandmother to have a look?”
Xuanyuan Min Zhi was still kneeling and he bitterly smiled: “Grandmother, Grandson is still yet a bachelor.”
“Pity. Wait for Grandmother to find a young maiden for you. You may rise now.”
Xuanyuan Min Zhi stood up. Now, the only ones kneeling were the two sisters of the Ruan family and Yun Shi Wei.
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi’s heart was anxious, thus he intentionally used a miserable voice: “Please allow Grandson to remind Imperial Grandmother–your Granddaughter-in-law’s stomach already contains Grandson’s flesh and blood and kneeling for a long time will cause problems to arise. Imperial Physician Zhang has said the first three months of pregnancy are the most vital, and if the mother becomes too tired, a miscarriage will occur. Even if a miscarriage does not occur, later after the child is born, your Grandson is afraid the child will be a fool.”
Empress Dowager Zheng was infuriated. Her eyes had widened into perfect circles and she raised her dragon-headed cane against Xuanyuan Zong Zhi’s head: “You reckless thing! You dare to say my great-grandson is a fool; I will hit you, you immature dolt.”
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi smiled as he ducked: “Then how could Imperial Grandmother still allow your Granddaughter-in-law continue to kneel? Could it be that Imperial Grandmother believes an eunuch’s life is more important than Imperial Grandmother’s great-grandson’s life?”
The Empress Dowager huffed: “She likes to kneel; what does that have to do with this dowager? Don’t tell me this dowager has to personally go support her?”
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi was delighted and walked over to help his wife up. Yun Shi Wei and Ruan Yu followed in standing soon after.
“Thanking Empress Dowager for her grace.” Ruan Zhu bowed in ceremony. Seeing her husband giving her a meaningful glance, she corrected herself: “Imperial Grandmother clearly knows Granddaughter-in-law’s wrong, yet Imperial Grandmother does not fault this young one. This magnanimity has caused Granddaughter-in-law to feel extremely moved.”
Empress Dowager Zheng snorted: “Who is your ‘Imperial Grandmother’? There is not even the first stroke of the character ‘eight,’ hmm?”[a]
Xuanyuan Zong Zhi happily laughed: “Then, asking Imperial Grandmother to please grant Grandson a favor. In any case, Imperial Grandmother’s great-grandchild must not have the reputation of an illegitimate child suspended over him at the time of his birth, allowing him to be looked down by others.”
Empress Dowager Zheng made a noise of surprise: “Previously, did you not regard your old wet nurse and her man as your parents? How would it be disgraceful for the child to be born as surely that would be solved if he was also surnamed Jia like them?”
“That was merely just a makeshift plan and must not be taken as true.” Xuanyuan Zong Zhi awkwardly laughed and personally poured a cup of tea before offering it: “This Granddaughter-in-law of yours is actually one with great ability and Grandson tying the knot with her is not considered a loss at all.”
“Girl, come here.” Empress Dowager Zheng looked at that cup of tea, then beckoned to Ruan Zhu before saying to the other people present: “The ones with no business here may leave.”
Yun Shi Wei, Ruan Yu, and all of the servants left the room, leaving only several of Empress Dowager Zheng’s capable palace eunuchs that continued to stand in attendance behind her.
“Asking Imperial Grandmother to please instruct.” Ruan Zhu performed the rites.
“The new gunpowder formula was thought up by you?” The Empress Dowager’s expression was peculiar, as if she found it very unbelievable.
Ruan Zhu’s face did not show it, but she was still thinking of a countermeasure in her heart. Gunpowder was regarded as hazardous material and saying that she had personally come up with it did not seem too good. Also, for a young girl only in her teens to know so many incomprehensible things, the other would surely marvel and call her a witch for all of this so-called abnormal knowledge.
“Responding to Imperial Grandmother; as a child, Granddaughter-in-law had seen a gunpowder formula written in a notebook, as by chance, one of our neighbors was one that manufactured fireworks. Granddaughter-in-law was quite close with the children of that family and would often play at their home. Seeing them create fireworks, Granddaughter-in-law also wanted to do the same, but they refused to divulge the formula for gunpowder so I thought of the gunpowder formula I had seen in the notebook and decided to test it out and made a few firecrackers to play with. I used a flintstone to light them up and hurriedly ran away, but there was a gigantic sound that terribly frightened me. Fortunately, I had ran far away, or else my small life would have been gone. It was only later that I found out what I had created was different from their products and the strength was much stronger by who knows how many times.”
“The idea of putting in sharp iron shards was also yours?”
“En, when the gunpowder explodes, the shards will fly everywhere. Whoever it meets is whoever will be out of luck. It is a very simple principle.”
“This girl is rather intelligent.” Empress Dowager Zheng murmured a sentence and picked up the cup of tea on the table for a sip: “Then what about the trebuchet? Exchanging the leather sling for a giant metal spoon–how did you think of this?”
Ruan Zhu widened her two bright eyes: “This is also a very simple principle and one can understand with a glance. It is the same as if we throw something; if we wrap the item in a cloth bag, the distance we can throw it will surely not be very far. But if the item is placed on top of a hard stone slab, it can be thrown extremely far. If one mulls over the concept a bit, one can comprehend it.”
Empress Dowager Zheng curled her lip: “You said that so effortlessly–If one mulls over the concept a bit, one can comprehend it. Saying it like that, the ones in the military are all idiots?”
Ruan Zhu also thought it was strange. When she had first watched Approaching Science, they had explained it so clearly, so why was it that the ancient people could not understand? But modest words had to come from her mouth: “All of the people in the military are pillars of the country so how could there be basis for saying they do not understand? It must be that they were hindered by other, more important matters.”
“Well said. Trebuchets have been around for thousands of years and the men of each military from each era have consistently been busy and have never been able to rest.” Ridicule was all over Empress Dowager Zheng’s face and her meaning was: Little girl, you can continue fabricating.
“It really is strange, oh.” Ruan Zhu agreed.
Empress Dowager Zheng snorted: “Even if what you are saying is reasonable, then what about the ballista, hmm? You have not even seen it before so how could you know how to modify it?” The Empress Dowager did not feel this matter was that simple and wanted to investigate it to the end.
“As a child, I saw a carpenter create rackets and gears and he had said these items could be used in many places, even on ballistas. That day, I had heard Lord Husband say he had become a generalissimo, thus I thought of that matter.”
Ruan Zhu had neatly divided herself from these matters. Empress Dowager Zheng was in half-belief and half-doubt but also could not find any holes in her story and decided to temporarily indulge her.
[a] 八字没一撇, idiom meaning things have not begun to take shape.
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