Chapter 4 Going on the Stage
The imperial physician and eunuchs had just left, before a loud voice of a young eunuch arose from red plum blossoms. “Here comes Her Majesty!”
The maidens in the garden all knelt down at once, saluting respectfully, “Welcome, Your Majesty!”
“Well, get up.” A graceful and drawling voice went through the red plums, revealing a sense of grandeur of controlling the overall situation.
Qin Yunuan got up together with other noble women, when she heard the Empress asking their feelings about entering the Imperial Palace and sending her regards to the family of several famous or high-ranking noble women.
Her tone was gentle during the whole process, and it was so smooth that no mistakes could be found in her wording and order of greetings. Qin Yunuan waited aside quietly, thinking to herself that Empress Chen had covered all sides as beautifully as she always did. She was a smooth winner on the surface and a ruthless ruler underneath.
“Oh, where’s Yunzhuang? I heard that she was scratched by Shishi. Is that true?” Empress Chen seemed to think of the chaos that happened just now.
Qin Yunzhuang walked out of the line hurriedly and answered with a deep curtsey. “It’s my fault to have your royal highness concerned about me. Shishi looked so lovely that I wanted to take a good look at her. I didn’t expect that she was also a loyal one that was close to your majesty only. So, when I picked her up, no surprisingly, I got some slight injuries by her struggling. It’s really my fault.”
Empress Chen looked quite satisfied at Qin Yunzhuang’s answer. That girl did have a honey tongue. Though such a girl could be scheming, at present, she was the one that she and Ray needed. “Get up. Let me have a look. Is there any other injury?”
Qin Yunzhuang raised her head. After looking at her veiled face over, Empress Chen told her to take care with concern, which was an obvious sign that she intended to draw Qin over to her side. Qin Yunzhuang held her head slightly high, enjoying the pleasure brought by other girls’ envy and jealousy.
Empress Chen took the principal seat after showing her concern to Qin Yunzhuang, while all the other people got to their seats, and the banquet got ready to start. There were various kinds of fruits and snacks on the bright yellow tablecloth, but none of the maidens dared to eat first.
On the left side of Qin Yunzhuang was Qin Yunuan. She had just caught sight of the guilty face of Shangguan Yee who also sat beside Qin Yunzhuang. She might be regretting that Sister Qin got hurt for her negligence, but she took her blame in front of Empress. Qin Yunuan was clear that what Qin Yunzhuang said was not scapegoating. Instead, she earned a lot of sympathy and affection for herself.
Empress Chen gave an easy smile to the maidens who were restrained. “Relax. It’s Flower Fairy Festival, a rejoicing day of the whole country. Make yourself at home,” she said. And then, she turned her eyes to the fat nanny beside her and told her, “Come to see why Ray has not come. He is busy learning politics and national affairs by Emperor’s side these days and needs to take some time off.”
When it came to Prince Ray, the girls present all blushed for coyness. It was acknowledged that the match of men with great talent must be beauties, and Prince Ray was the dream boat of countless ladies. An essay written by him when he was studying at the Imperial College was now priceless on the market.
Empress Chen looked very proud. Prince Ray was not her own child, but they were closely connected by ten years’ relationship and their common interests. It occurred to Qin Yunuan that in her previous life, Sima Ray had framed his eldest brother Sima Ruo for witchcraft. If she had not seen it with her own eyes by accident, she would never have believed that Prince Ray, who looked decent and dignified, would plot against his own brother.
Right now, Qin Yunuan was sitting quietly on a rush cushion. The girls around her were becoming more and more enthusiastic, while she remained indifferent and unswayed. However, the unnoticeable alienation and refinement in her eyes were caught by Sima Ray who had just arrived.
“I’m late, Mother,” said Sima Ray. With a golden crown on his head, he wore a pair of long boots and an embroidery robe with sapphire hibiscus patterns on his cuffs. Such a dashing and exalted man was very pleasing to the eye.
Empress Chen, with great affection and kindness, said playfully, “Losing yourself in studying again? Learning is important, but you should also take care of yourself.”
“Yes, it surely is,” Sima Ray smiled faintly and said more respectfully.
Then he glanced at the dressed-up noble women, feeling more confident and prouder by their delight and enthusiasm that could not be held back. Unconsciously, he looked at the direction where Qin Yunuan sat again. That woman was calm, aloof and even scorning when everyone else was expecting his appearance. How could it be?
Qin Yunuan felt Sima Ray’s eyes were on her, so she looked up and nodded to him coldly, looking a little bit disagreeable. She never intended to please Prince Ray, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. They had no contact in her previous life, and it was better to keep it that way now.
Sima Ray frowned slightly. “Am I not that pleasing?
“Ray, General Leng has just returned from East Qin and will show up at the banquet. You used to ask him to compete in swordsmanship against you before. Do you still remember?” Empress Chen asked, trying to pull him back to reality secretly, as she saw that he was lost in thoughts.
“It’s just childhood jokes, and you did not forget,” Sima Ray was stunned and then replied hurriedly.
At the very moment, the eunuchs outside had already reported loudly, “Here comes General Leng!”
The man in a dark purple robe had mounted the stairs before the girls straightened their clothes and sat properly again. There was a square jade embedded in his four-finger-wide belt. He looked impressive and inviolate.
Leng Changxi held his head up slightly and took a quick glance at the banquet without showing any emotion. He did not greet the Empress until he walked close. “Please pardon my offense, Your Majesty. I am late.”
“Never mind,” knowing his status at the court, Empress Chen put on her official smile, pointed to an empty seat on her right side and said, “I have specially reserved this seat for you. It’s the best place to watch the girls’ performances.”
Hearing this, many girls’ faces beamed with delight, and some of them even winked at Leng Changxi boldly. But unexpectedly, without sitting down, he bowed his head and said, “I have something to do later. I’m afraid I can’t stay long.”
With a weak smile, Empress Chen pointed to the seat again and said, “It doesn’t matter. Enjoy some delicacies and wine, General Leng.”
Leng Changxi took the seat and peeked at somewhere. At this time, Qin Yunuan, who had just picked up a piece of fried fish, shuddered for a sharp glimpse and the fish crisp fell back to the bowl. She caught sight of Leng Changxi’s glimpse, which made her uneasy like a gust of cool wind had blown over her heart.
She knew she was moderate in appearance and skills, and her background was also inferior to those legal daughters. Her quick and accidental encounter with General Leng in the Plum Garden should not have drawn the special attention of this indifferent general to her.
Suddenly, Qin Yunuan became a little bit alarmed. She had been worrying that she might have given some clues away when talking to Leng Changxi, and now, it occurred to her that he could have been watching them quietly behind the rockery. Who knew whether he had seen her changing the flower sachet?
“I have to be more careful of him,” thought Qin Yunuan, who was looking at Leng Changxi examiningly. She could not lose this game, and even she was at a disadvantage, she would do whatever it took to find a way out.
Sitting beside Qin Yunuan was Fang Ziying, the girl who had argued with Shangguan Yee just now. She was open-minded and easy-going, and got along well with Qin Yunuan. Seeing that Qin Yunuan was staring blankly, she jested, “it is said that the lionhearted General Leng has won many girls’ hearts without showing his real face. Now, even you, our cool Sister Yunuan, are lost in the charm of General Leng, so the rumors should be true.”
“It’s not like that, Sister Fang,” answered Qin Yunuan, “I was just wondering why General Leng always wore a mask. Look, it’s not convenient to drink wine.”
“I know little about this matter either. I just heard that the mask was used to cover a long scar on his face which was left during a weapon practice in his childhood,” said Fang Ziying, who suddenly lowered her voice, “but it’s just a scar. Scars make a man more manly, don’t they?”
“Yes, exactly. Now I know how an infatuated woman looks like by seeing your face, Sister Fang,” Qin Yunuan joked at Fang Ziying who was now filled with tenderness and admiration.
Fang Ziying knew she was jesting her. The two of them chatted happily for a while before the dishes were all served.
“Be casual today.” Empress Chen announced with a calm and faint smile. However, before they start to eat, a sorrowful and shrill shriek arose from outside of the garden and it became noisy all of a sudden. It seemed that someone was crying for something.
The Empress’ face darkened, and the nanny knew what she meant immediately. “Check out who is crying outside the garden at this very moment. He had ruined the good mood of Empress and the girls,” said the nanny to a maidservant.
Since Empress Chen seemed to be in a bad mood, the maidens did not dare to eat. However, Leng Changxi was not affected by the unsettling atmosphere at all and continued to enjoy the wine leisurely.
His eyes were fixed on the wine in the white jade cup for a while, and then he suddenly raised his head and met the inquiry peek of Qin Yunuan.
“That man is much too calm and detached,” thought Qin Yunuan.
The maidservant who was sent for inquiry came back and reported what was going on honestly.
“It that true?” Empress Chen was a little surprised.
“Yes, it is true,” the maidservant replied, “It was a soldier who was beaten for 80 times and crying. He said he was a member of the Leng Army, and he had gone through fire and water for the country for years. But it was unfair that he got the punishment of rod beating for 80 times for such a tiny thing. So, he hoped that General Leng and Empress could uphold justice for him.”