CHAPTER 30 Imposing an unbearable burden
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When she saw the city gate of the capital from afar, Lan Dan felt that the familiar city tower looked more magnificent and towering than before. The contrast with Tongye was stark, and even Fengyang couldn’t measure up.
Every roof, every flying eave, every tile and every city wall exuded the majesty of the imperial capital.
The sight of the city tower, which had witnessed the rise and fall of several generations of Emperors from the Xiao family and had endured countless wars and conspiracies, weighed heavily on her. It carried so much of the joy and sadness of those who had either succeeded or failed in their quest for power. In the past, she had never felt anything, but passing by the city tower now almost made her burst into tears.
She was also a part of the tragic history, a record that was not glorious, and compared to the magnificent stories of others, she might only be a small footnote. The capital did not care about her, but as soon as she stepped into the city, she felt numerous conspiracies and dangers lurking around with a strong smell of blood, which made her feel heavy and frightened.
However, the people in the capital did not think so. Everyone in the market lived a comfortable and peaceful life, greeted each other with respect, and the whole city looked prosperous and harmonious, filled with the dignity and prosperity of the capital.
When Lan Dan looked at Shentu Rui who was riding alongside her, his expression was calm, unlike her tumultuous thoughts. Perhaps he had grown accustomed to it and was now numb and indifferent.
He caught her eye and smiled, “Let Sun Shi Xiang accompany you back to the mansion. I have to go to the palace to pay my respects to my mother.”
Lan Dan nodded, thinking of the youthful Empress Dowager in Taici Palace. She was really good to Shentu Rui, and treated him differently than she did Shentu Cheng. Shentu Rui was also very filial to her, and upon arriving in the capital, he felt like he was delaying his visit by returning home to freshen up.
It was not easy to maintain such sincere affection in the heart of Shentu family’s conspiracies.
Her eyes flickered as she suddenly remembered the confidential letter from that night. Shentu Rui was so eager to go to the palace, perhaps it was not only to pay respects to his mother, but also to see Lan Huang?
“What’s on your mind again?” asked Shentu Rui, both amused and exasperated.
Lan Dan sighed, realizing that her thoughts were really like a child’s scribbles in his eyes.
“Alright, alright,” Shentu Rui surrendered. “You can come with me!”
Lan Dan instinctively wanted to refuse. The palace, where she had grown up, made her feel suffocated even at the mere thought of it, let alone returning there. Nevertheless, she bit her lip and remained silent, determined to find out the secret between Shentu Rui and Lan Huang.
As they approached the palace walls, Shentu Rui switched the carriage for Lan Dan. After a short ride, the carriage suddenly stopped, and Lan Dan was thrown forward. Shentu Rui lifted the curtain and said calmly, “Come out and see. The Dragon Wall has been demolished.”
Lan Dan made a small noise and disembarked the carriage.
He had told her earlier that the Dragon Wall would be demolished, but seeing the majestic wall built by her father reduced to a pile of ruins still caused her unbearable pain.
The demolition of the Dragon Wall by Shentu Cheng was done in a particularly crude and violent manner, with pillars directly knocked down and the materials not being reused, but smashed on the spot and the debris sent out of the city.
Even in the center of the capital, the construction site was made into a dusty and smoky area, with the dust and debris covering the sky, making it clear that the Late Emperor had been demolished and destroyed by the new Emperor.
After looking for a while, Shentu Rui took Lan Dan’s hand and sent her back to the carriage.
Both of them remained silent, but they could understand each other’s feelings. Although they stood on opposite sides of the Dragon Wall, both of them shared a sense of sorrow and regret as they witnessed its collapse. It was even more ironic that while the physical Dragon Wall between the Da Min and Da Yan dynasties had fallen, the invisible Dragon Wall between the Xiao and Shentu families were now stronger and more towering than ever before. With Xiao Lan Huang in the court and Xiao Bing Wen outside the city, the attacking and defending sides had switched positions, and a fierce battle was inevitable.
She and Shentu Rui were both people who roamed around the wall.
She regretted her evil thoughts for a lifetime, but also could not return to the Xiao family due to her disgust for Lan Huang’s framing. Shentu Rui was ambitious, coveted his brother’s throne, and received help from Lan Huang, so he remained neutral and observed from the sidelines. The situation was already complicated enough, but her emotional entanglement with Shentu Rui made matters even more chaotic. The collapse of the Dragon Wall weighed heavily on her heart, like a pile of boulders crushing down on her.
Returning to Taici Palace again, Lan Dan’s mood was not as tumultuous as last time. As long as she remained silent and followed Shentu Rui, thibgs would be fine.
Taici Palace, bathed in the spring sunlight, had been renovated. The walls were bright red, the glazed tiles were sparkling, and the carved beams and painted rafters were all repainted, giving the palace a brand new look.
Despite it not being a special day, the edict to pay respects had caused the side hall to be filled, and people entered one by one to see the Emperor.
As he passed the door of the side hall, all the colorful ladies of the court stood up and bowed to him. He, too, smiled and nodded elegantly, but once he entered the main hall, he put on a mischievous look and whispered to Lan Dan, “It seems that Shentu Cheng is doing a good job. Your sister’s trusted aides have all been brought under his banner.”
Lan Dan didn’t know whether to be angry or amused after hearing what he said, so she just frowned and ignored him.
Turning past the huge peony screen, the Empress Dowager rushed over eagerly. Shentu Rui shouted “Mother!” and was about to kneel down, but the Empress Dowager pulled him up, grasped his arm, and looked him up and down with teary eyes.
“Let mother take a look, have you been alright on the journey? I heard you fell ill.” At this point, the Empress Dowager wiped away her tears with a handkerchief, her gaze passing over her son as she glared fiercely at Lan Dan, scolding her, “Useless thing! Can’t even take good care of him!”
Lan Dan lowered her head, silently thinking to herself, that indeed, aside from her son, everyone else was in the wrong.
“Mother, what do you think of her?” Shentu Rui held the Empress Dowager’s hand and walked towards the warm kang, acting spoiled like a child.
“You don’t have anyone who knows what you need by your side, making me worry about you,” the Empress Dowager complained as he led her away.
Lan Dan didn’t follow them. She stood by the screen, not disturbing their conversation. As expected, the Empress Dowager was too worried about her son, crying and talking to Shentu Rui, making all the palace maids attend to them, bringing this and that to eat and drink.
Lan Dan felt a pang of envy in her heart, as she had no mother to dote on her.
Shentu Rui was busy juggling conversations with his mother and eating the food she fed him. He finally had a moment to whisper, “Mother, why make her stand?”
The Empress Dowager became even angrier when she heard this and slammed the table, “She didn’t take care of you properly, so what right does she have to sit?”
Shentu Rui was about to speak, when a eunuch outside announced that the Emperor had arrived.
Lan Dan trembled slightly, striving not to reveal any unwanted emotions.
Shentu Cheng entered with a charming smile, always looking effortlessly elegant, and by his side was Lan Huang, whose large belly was clearly visible under her loose clothing.
The Empress Dowager did not grant them permission to rise, so when they got up, Lan Huang looked a little clumsy and Shentu Cheng supported her considerately. The two of them exchanged a bitter smile.
Lan Dan was standing towards the back, behind them, and their smiles caught her eye. She felt a sudden flutter in her heart. Their plain and sincere smiles seemed to contain some deep affection.
The moment she entered the palace, she saw them and her heart was already in turmoil. The scene of them exchanging smiles intensified her anxiety. Could it be that they had developed feelings for each other after being together for so long?
No wonder Shentu Cheng was able to quickly win over the support of Lan Huang’s side. But if they reached an agreement, what would happen to Shentu Rui’s life?
Shentu Cheng looked back at Lan Dan, then turned to the Empress Dowager with a helpless smile. “What are you angry about again, Mother? You won’t even grant us a seat. Aren’t you afraid that Rui will blame you?”
The Empress Dowager glared at Shentu Cheng arrogantly and snorted, “He wouldn’t dare!”
Shen Tu Rui was leaning next to her, eating snacks and shaking his head repeatedly. “No, no, I dare not be angry with you.”
The Empress Dowager was very satisfied but didn’t want to smile. She asked sternly, “So, if she didn’t take good care of you, does she have the face to sit here?”
Shen Tu Rui smiled bitterly and said, “Let’s not talk about her. If Brother and Sister-in-Law didn’t take good care of you, wouldn’t you let them sit down?”
The Empress Dowager snorted again, and raised her hand. The clever palace maid moved two chairs for Shentu Cheng and Lan Huang to sit down.
“The Prince of Yan have been through a lot of hardship on the way,” Lan Huang smiled and looked at Shen Tu Rui. “You have lost so much weight. No wonder the Empress Dowager is worried. You refuse to take a proper concubine, and your daily life is not properly taken care of.”
Her sudden remark caught everyone off guard. They all had astute minds and knew she had more to say. Shentu Rui simply smiled and did not respond.
“My personal female attendant, Zi Fu, is beautiful, meticulous and dexterous,” said Lan Huang, raising her hand to signal a slender and graceful palace maid behind her, who knelt down and bowed. “She has long admired the Prince, and although she does not expect to win your favor, at least she can serve you and attend to your daily needs. Your Majesty… what do you think?”
Lan Huang didn’t ask the Empress Dowager, nor Shentu Rui, but asked Shentu Cheng.
Shentu Cheng smiled and nodded. “I also think Zi Fu is very good.”
Shentu Rui appeared dissatisfied, showing a stern expression and a cold look towards Lan Huang, as if he had something to say but chose to remain silent.
Seeing him silent, Shentu Cheng turned to the Empress Dowager and asked, “Mother, what do you think?”
The Empress Dowager grumbled, “If you all agree, what else can I say? Having more people to attend to him can only be good.”
After the words fell, no one spoke again, and the atmosphere was awkward. Without waiting for the eunuch’s annoucement, Lan Cheng ran in and shouted, “Has Brother Rui come back? Brother Rui, Brother Rui!”
The Empress Dowager naturally scolded her for being rude, and everyone cooperated with a smile, finally getting through this embarrassing moment. Zi Fu also took the opportunity to stand up and return to stand behind Lan Huang.
“Prepare to serve the meal now, and make some more of Rui’er’s favorite dishes.” The Empress Dowager turned around and instructed the palace maids.
“No need.” Shentu Rui brushed off the fine crumbs that had fallen on him while he was eating dimsum earlier. “I’m tired and not feeling well. I’ll just eat something casually at home and rest.
The Empress Dowager knew he was unhappy and didn’t want to force him to stay, so she didn’t say anything. Her expression, however, showed her displeasure with Lan Huang.
Shentu Rui got up and walked out, and Lan Dan was a little slow to follow. He glared at her in front of everyone, and Lan Dan could only swallow her anger and follow him closely.
As they approached the carriage, they heard Lan Huang’s soft voice from behind, “Prince of Yan, please stay.”
Shentu Rui halted his steps, remained silent for a moment before turning around slowly. Lan Huang was assisted by her palace maids and although she was coming to catch up with him, she didn’t walk too fast and maintained a dignified posture.
Lan Huang signaled her palace maids to stop following her and walked alone towards the carriage. The carriage was parked in a small open space outside Taici Palace, with a narrow palace wall on one side and the Taici Palace gardens on the other. The palace maids and eunuchs who were standing on both sides previously stepped back and kept a distance after seeing Lan Huang’s palace maids retreat.
Lan Dan felt a little awkward, thought for a moment, and walked to where Lan Huang’s palace maids were standing, watching Shentu Rui and Lan Huang talk from afar. Lan Huang’s thoughts were extremely meticulous. She turned her back to everyone, so even if someone were to peek at their conversation, they could only see Shentu Rui’s expression.
They didn’t know what she was saying, but Shentu Rui’s expression of slight anger gradually turned into resignation, and finally he nodded.
With a swift movement, Lan Huang wiped away her tears and stood before the palace staffs with the same regal and cold demeanor as before, as if she had not shed a single tear.
She walked up to the palace maid and glanced at Lan Dan, who lacked her strong will and could not meet her gaze.
With indifference and pride in her voice, Lan Huang softly said, “Zi Fu, you may follow the Prince of Yan now.”
Zi Fu lowered himself to the ground and replied simply in a humble tone.
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