CHAPTER 33 Royal Night Banquet
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At noon, the weather was already very hot. Lan Dan opened the door of the room and also opened the sliding door of the garden to the maximum. The breeze brought in some flower petals. Lan Dan leaned against the high pillow and silently watched the flower petals come and go with the wind.
The entire courtyard was very quiet. It was the time of the scorching sun and drowsiness after dinner. Except for the rustling of the branches and leaves of the crabapples in the courtyard, there was no other sound.
Shentu Rui went out with Zi Fu again, leaving only herself in the yard. How could it not be quiet? Shentu Rui had explained to her that he and Zi Fu going out could be considered as going to work. He told her not to think too much, and she also knew what “business” they were doing. It was not just about finding a baby boy. Shentu Cheng was not a fool. To deceive him, they had to figure out how to switch the babies in and out unnoticed, how to silence the people involved, and where to send the switched baby… Needless to say, it was a pile of tricky and bloody conspiracies and secrets. Three months was definitely not enough time.
Therefore, Shentu Rui and Zi Fu were very busy.
Sometimes when they returned together, they would enter Shentu Rui’s room and whisper in low voices. She deliberately disturbed them, ignoring the two palace maids guarding outside Shentu Rui’s door and swaggered in. The palace maids had likely been instructed not to forcefully stop her, instead they greeted her loudly, bowed, and blocked her path. This was a routine Lan Dan was accustomed to from her time in the deep palace, where it was simply a way to notify those inside the room. When she entered the room, Shentu Rui was indeed smiling, while Zi Fu remained reserved, smiling but not speaking. At these times, the feeling of being excluded by them was most intense.
Lan Huang was a cunning person, skilled in judging and utilizing people. She seemed to accurately grasp Shentu Rui’s preferences. When Zi Fu first arrived, Shentu Rui’s coldness and disgust towards her were evident. However, in just a month, he changed— perhaps without even realizing it— but Lan Dan noticed the difference.
Initially, when she interrupted their conversations, Shentu Rui would politely ask Zi Fu to leave.
Later, he would tell herself that she could leave first.
This slight difference in wording had a world of difference— at the very least, Shentu Rui no longer saw Zi Fu as just a servant. Not to mention the subtle changes in his gaze and expression.
As Shentu Rui and Zi Fu returned together, the sound of laughter and conversation could be heard coming from the hallway. Lan Dan’s expression darkened as she was certain she had not misheard– Zi Fu was laughing, and it wasn’t her usual fake laugh. What had Shentu Rui said to make Zi Fu laugh like a normal teenage girl? Perhaps she was even blushing!
The sound of their voices passed by Lan Dan’s door and headed straight for Shentu Rui’s main room. Clearly, they weren’t finished talking and were going to continue their conversation at a leisurely pace.
In a fit of annoyance, Lan Dan gave a hard kick to the pile of blankets next to her, causing them to scatter and fall.
The maid came in holding a full tray and saw that Lan Dan had kicked the quilt. A slight smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. She didn’t mean to tidy up, but calmly put down the things and informed her, “His Highness said this is for your attire at the flower-watching banquet tonight.”
Lan Dan felt a bit embarrassed and looked awkwardly at the clothes on the tray, frowning and asking, “Are there no other colors?” It was that pale yellow color she had been wearing all her life, and even though it was a common spring color, she hated it and felt like she looked like a washed-out rapeseed flower in it.
The maid’s faint smile was full of understanding. “You’ll have to ask the Prince about that.”
Lan Dan was stunned for a moment. These maids were so unlikable as their Prince. They were all tricky and cunning!
She got up with a sulky face, looking like she wanted to pick a fight with someone. The two palace maids greeted her with fake politeness and helped her open the door to the room. Because Shentu Rui couldn’t stand the heat, the room was already chilled with ice. When she walked in, the cold hit her and she felt goosebumps all over her body.
Shentu Rui was sitting behind the desk writing something, while Zi Fu stood calmly next to him, grinding ink skillfully and elegantly. A bunch of lilac flowers adorned the desk, their gentle purple hue and fragrance filling the air. The young pair, both strikingly good-looking, one writing intently and the other adding fragrance with her red sleeves, created a beautiful and serene scene, like a painting that touched the heart. Even to Lan Dan, it was really nice to look at. Shentu Rui, who was focused on his writing, looked so unfamiliar, composed, and wise, unlike the playful person who slept by her side every night.
After finishing writing a line of words, Shentu Rui lifted his eyes and glanced at Lan Dan’s expression, knowing that she was jealous again and deliberately spoke in a cold tone. “What’s the matter?” he drawled, feigning ignorance, with a mischievous intention to see how she would react in front of Zi Fu.
Lan Dan trembled. What? Now he wasn’t even asking Zi Fu to leave? She decisively turned her head and walked away.
As soon as she entered her bedroom, Shentu Rui caught up and grabbed her arm, playfully asking, “What are you doing?”
Lan Dan vigorously shook his hand off and asked him, “What am I doing? Are you mad because I disturbed you and Zi Fu?”
Shentu Rui admonished Lan Dan in a hushed voice, “You’re only making Zi Fu laugh at us by being jealous of her. She’ll think I care about her.”
It must be said that Shentu Rui is very good at coaxing people, at least very good at coaxing her. She felt that she should be more indifferent and not care about Zi Fu.
Shentu Rui glanced at the fallen quilt and teased, “Oh, did Miss Fu Zhu get angry?”
Feeling embarrassed, Lan Dan found an excuse and said, “I don’t like the color of this dress! I want to wear light red!”
Shentu Rui paused for a moment, sighed, and gave in, saying, “Alright, alright, Miss Fu Zhu can wear whatever she likes.” He hugged her, and she snuggled up to him obediently.
“Shentu Rui…” Lan Dan called him softly, her nose suddenly sour, her eyes stinging, and tears flowed down her face. She wanted to ask him to take her with him when he goes out, just like when they went to Tongye together, but she couldn’t bring herself to say it. Even if he wanted to take her, she didn’t want to be involved in the cruel plan of Luan Huang.
However, she hated the fact that someone was slowly coming between her and Shentu Rui.
She was originally a rootless weed who relied on him, but Shentu Rui’s heart did not seem as strong and reliable as she imagined. At least in such a short time, he had allowed Zi Fu to get close to him, causing her panic and anxiety more than ever before.
“Don’t get carried away,” Shentu Rui bumped her forehead with his chin and held her tightly. “Come with me to the palace tonight. When I’m not around, you must stay close to my mother, understand?”
“I understand.” Lan Dan nodded. He didn’t want to send her to Shentu Cheng’s side, where his extra attention could pose another danger to her.
The flower-viewing banquet was held at Chunhui Terrace, a huge water pavilion built on Taiye Pond. Long and winding stone bridges on both sides connected the terrace, spanning the two banks of the lake.
On the banks of the Taiye Pond, there were peach, plum, crabapple, magnolia, and lilac trees planted all around. These trees bloom in the spring, creating a sea of flowers that stretch as far as the eye could see. At night, there were tens of thousands of hanging lanterns on the stone bridges, and the Chunhui Terrace was lit up like a huge glass lamp, illuminating the entire Taiye Pond and reflecting the light onto the trees and flowers, creating an indescribable atmosphere of springtime beauty and luxurious elegance.
Lan Dan walked on the stone bridge, gazing at the pavilion on the water from afar. In an instant, she felt a sense of confusion, as if she had returned to the grand spring banquet belonging to Da Min, with the same brilliant lights, beautiful dancing and charming women.
The wind blew her dress, the red gauze swayed in the night breeze, and the dazzling color awakened her confusion. She sighed, realizing that not only did the world show no mercy, but the forbidden palace of glass also had no feelings. Even with a new group of people, it remained the home of the Emperor, with its golden palace and jade halls. She looked at Shentu Rui, who was walking in front of her. Although he walked calmly, he seemed burdened with worries. She wondered if his troubles were the same as those of Zi Fu, who was walking behind her.
All night banquets were the same, weren’t they? Lan Dan sat quietly between the Empress Dowager and Shentu Rui, unable to speak up. To avoid feeling awkward, she pretended to be absorbed in the singing and dancing performances. The seating arrangement at the main table was arranged by Lan Huang. Lan Dan’s seat was originally intended for Zi Fu, a deliberate attempt to raise his status, while she should have been seated between Shentu Rui and Lan Cheng. When they sat down, Shentu Rui pulled her into this seat, and no one dared to object to his wishes. Lan Dan knew that the banquet was full of danger and intrigue, and she couldn’t afford to throw a tantrum. She had to follow Shentu Rui’s every arrangement.
As expected, there were many noblewomen attending the flower-viewing night banquet. After the Empress Dowager and Shentu Cheng had respectfully offered their drinks, they gradually began to come over to offer their drinks and engage in small talk with the several high-ranking individuals. However, Lan Dan, who had been left out of the attention of the crowd, also had a chance to observe them closely. Third Sister-in-law and Ninth Sister-in-law didn’t have a chance to sit at the main table, so they were left in a dimly lit corner. Lan Dan hadn’t seen them in a long time and felt that they no longer had the resentment and eagerness they had when they last met. They sat there silently without talking to each other. Such women were common in the palace. They were the last stage of concubines who had lost all hope and had become completely uninteresting. Based on Lan Dan’s experience, it was likely that they would not even be able to attend this kind of banquet for much longer and would silently disappear in the depths of the palace after forcing themselves to endure for a short or long period of time.
No matter who was in charge of the imperial palace, such women were always numerous.
Compared to their setting sun, the countless beautiful young girls at the banquet were as bright as the morning glow. Their brows were full of affection, their eyes sparkling. They were led by their mothers to meet Shentu Cheng or Shentu Rui.
Yes, regardless of who the Emperor or Prince was, women with such ambitions and hopes were always numerous.
Similarly, women born into the imperial family like Lan Huang, Lan Dan, and Lan Cheng were indifferent and composed in the face of such scenes, despite the fact that these young girls were looking at their loved ones or those around them with affectionate eyes. This kind of detachment was also the wisdom and helplessness inherent in women in the palace.
Shentu Rui pretended to be courteous for a while before sitting next to Lan Dan and gesturing for her to pour him a cup of wine.
Lan Dan was in a bad mood and coldly whispered, “Haven’t you had enough to drink? What else do you want me to pour?”
Shentu Rui leaned over and took hold of her waist, ignoring the gaze of the crowd, and whispered in her ear. He seemed to be speaking sweet nothings, but in fact, his words were disappointing, “Hurry, save me. If you don’t help me, my Elder Brother will soon send me another beauty to compete with Zi Fu.”
Lan Dan shuddered. No wonder why the highest-ranking man, Shentu Cheng, and so many girls were fawning over Shentu Rui. There was an unseen person behind the scenes.
She quickly poured a cup of wine and held it up to Shentu Rui. However, he complained and gave her a stern look. He pulled her waist, and she fell into his arms, with the wine glass touching his lips.
Shentu Rui took advantage of the situation and drank it, staring hotly into Lan Dan’s eyes with a smile. Lan Dan didn’t know if his smile was for the girls who were instructed by Shentu Cheng, but it was unbelievably charming and affectionate, to the point of being almost indecent.
He acted as if nothing had happened, while Lan Dan was so ashamed that she could hardly lift her head. Most likely, everyone in the room had witnessed the scene.
Lan Dan’s eyes didn’t know where to look, and in her confusion, she accidentally met the Empress Dowager’s gaze. She froze, and the Empress Dowager, realizing this, deliberately turned her eyes away with an air of haughtiness.
It was beyond comprehension! Lan Dan couldn’t help but repeatedly think about the Empress Dowager’s gaze towards her and Shentu Rui just now. A normal mother would at least disapprove of her son being so indecent with a woman, but the Empress Dowager seemed to be delighted and excited.
As the music and dancing heated up, and people exchanged toasts, the scene became lively and chaotic. Lan Cheng remained icy-faced and disappeared into the confusion. Lan Huang and Shentu Cheng were busy with their respective duties, while even Shentu Rui and Zi Fu were nowhere to be seen. Only the Empress Dowager and Lan Dan remained at the main table.
When the Empress Dowager got up, Lan Dan remembered Shentu Rui’s reminder to stay close to his mother when he wasn’t there. She didn’t want to take any chances because the palace was a dangerous place, so she hurried to catch up with the Empress Dowager.
The Empress Dowager understood Lan Dan’s actions and said, “Let’s go outside for a walk.”
The palace maids and eunuchs followed them from afar with lanterns, not daring to interrupt their conversation. However, they did not need to as the two women did not say anything on their way.
They walked in silence over the stone bridge, arriving at the dense lilac forest where the fragrance was so strong that it could make one intoxicated.
“When I saw Rui’er smiling at you, it reminded me of his father.” The Empress Dowager stopped walking and brushed her hand over a cluster of flowers to explain her earlier gaze.
There was a light by the lake, and Lan Dan clearly saw the Empress Dowager’s delicate hand that did not show signs of aging, with a noticeable scar extending from her fingertip to her finger pad. The beautiful, slender hand gently stroked the flowers, but the owner of the hand seemed to be lost in memories of someone.
Lan Dan dared not disturb her and tried to recall what the Duke of Anguo looked like. She was too young when he died, and had no impression of him, but she imagined he must have been very handsome to father a son like Shentu Rui.
“It seems… Rui’er really likes you.” The Empress Dowager quickly woke up from her memories, let out a faint sigh, and with a sudden force, mercilessly plucked a lilac flower ball. Her tone also became cold as she threatened, “If you make him sad, I’ll be the first to kill you!”
Lan Dan was left speechless and could only manage a bitter smile.
As expected, this was a mother’s mindset. Her own son was the most precious thing to her. The Empress Empress did not even consider that with Shentu Rui’s wit and cunning, what could Lan Dan possibly do to hurt him?
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