CHAPTER 7 Empress Dowager of Da Yan
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Lan Dan allowed him to pull her for a few steps before she angrily shook off his hand.
“I’m not going!” She fiercely glared at Shentu Rui. “Is this your plan all along? To lay down the bait and lure me in, and then try to push me next to Shentu Cheng so you can kill him at the right moment?”
Shentu Rui laughed dryly. “You’re unnecessarily too cautious! He has been harboring suspicions against me for a long time. If I personally send you into the palace, won’t he keep his guard against you?”
Lan Dan’s face wore a dubious expression, which looked somewhat adorable given her shallow logic.
Shentu Rui gazed at her face and smiled. “You said you haven’t agreed with our alliance yet. And even if you do agree, I still have to train you before sending you away, else you will be exposed at first sight. I am not that stupid to put myself in jeopardy. What?” Seeing Lan Dan about to explode, he stretched out his hand and tugged her. “Alright, don’t overthink. You won’t see Shentu Cheng today. Let’s go.” He smiled coldly again. “The imperial palace is much livelier than when your father was alive. There, you will find the answers to all the puzzles in your mind.”
Lan Dan’s heart jolted. She peered at the indistinct shapes of carriages lining up in the dense snow.
Shentu Rui was very adept at persuading people. There were indeed too many puzzles in her mind that needed to be solved. In fact, even if he didn’t say so, she also understood that many things in the world were already predestined and couldn’t be evaded.
The carriage of the Prince of Yan had already been waiting by the time they descended from the city wall.
Aware of her difficulty in walking, Shentu Rui thoughtfully picked her up, not even letting her step on the padded stool. He stepped up in the carriage relying on his height and long legs. The carriage did not shake much, but the golden bell on the eaves of the roof made a crisp, melodious sound. The carriages used by the royal family were extremely spacious. Shentu Rui eased her on the soft seat at the side. Then, he flung out the snow that accumulated on the top of his head through the window.
There was a warming stove in the car. When the guards lowered the curtains, heat suddenly gathered in the carriage, warming the space.
The snow on Lan Dan’s head already melted, wetting her hair and drenching her forehead. She raised her hand and wiped her brows with her sleeves, but the thin fur coat she was wearing was lined with woven brocade, which was not absorbent.
Shentu Rui clicked his tongue, took out a towel from the small cabinet, and wiped it on her head. “Use this! You don’t even mind wasting things. This woven brocade is worth half my salary for a month.”
Lan Dan knocked off his hand with her right hand, and the towel fell off. Her hair was originally tied in a hanging flower bun, but he also tore it loose. The black strands scattered charmingly against her temples. The slightly messy look lent her already extremely beautiful appearance an enchanting aura. Shentu Rui looked at the pretty face that was even more porcelain-like due to the cold, and his gaze fell on her increasingly reddish lips. On impulse, he caught her around the back of her neck and pulled her forward, closing the space between them. His lips grounded heavily against hers.
Her lips were cool and soft. She was trembling slightly, not knowing whether it was due to anger or fear. She had never been kissed by anyone, so she didn’t know how to resist his invasion.
Shentu Rui acutely sensed the stiffening of her body. Guessing that she had recovered her senses, he immediately leaned back, and stretched out his hand just in time to catch her wrist.
Shentu Rui was still a little out of breath. His apology reeked of insincerity. “Under normal circumstances, I’d let you hit me to vent your anger, but not today.”
Lan Dan was panting badly. Because she was still unable to control her expressions, her face didn’t look very upset or angry, just pitifully red. She shook her hand vigorously, trying to withdraw her wrist from his grasp. He didn’t resist, allowing her to break free.
He smiled confidently. “I didn’t mean to kiss you, but you know what you look like now. As a normal man, I can’t resist it.”
His nonchalance infuriated her.
“Alright.” He retreated and sprawled on the soft bed in the middle. “I’m really tired, and I want to sleep for a while. Don’t take this opportunity to hit me.” He pointed at her playfully. “Otherwise, I’ll really make you suffer,” he added with a wicked grin.
Lan Dan wanted to give him a good tongue-lashing, but he already closed his eyes and quickly fell asleep. She glared at him fiercely, wishing to gouge out a piece of his flesh.
This Shentu Rui… was so different from his previous self, as if he suddenly emerged from the shadow, sparkling brilliantly. He slept with his eyes closed, his eyelashes wet with snow, drooping heavily without curling up, covering his lower eyelids like a row of frightening soul-stirring banners. His profound features, especially the nose and brow ridge, were quite unlike the features of Da Min people. His features were distinct, especially his nose and brow bones, which were straight and sharp. This prominent handsomeness, which Shentu Cheng also possesed, was familiar to her. This distinct and sharp features were very similar to the appearance and style of Beimo’s envoys. From her observations, Beimo’s people were rough and rude, not as refined as these two brothers.
The curtain of the Prince’s carriage was tightly closed. Lan Dan didn’t try to lift it to look outside. The carriage drove to the direction of Sifang City, her former home which she had put in a great deal of effort to leave behind. Because she didn’t have a maternal support or any backing, Lan Dan had always been sensitive from a young age. Even though she was an Imperial Princess, this sense of helplessness followed her like a shadow. As she grew up, her mind also broadened. She understood that to live a less miserable life within the heavily guarded and clearly defined imperial city, she mustn’t overthink.
She was accustomed to first acknowledging her most sensitive feeling, then immediately forcing herself to calm down and compelling herself not to think too much in the end.
This was also the reason why she could live so peacefully in hiding. If it were someone else, would she be able to sit still and not look at the way home?
The Prince of Yan did not follow the procession for an audience, but turned to the west side of the palace, and entered Taici Palace through the Xihua Gate. Lan Dan was a little astonished when she got out of the cariage. When her father was alive, there was no Empress Dowager in the palace, and the area around Taici Palace was deserted. She herself had only been there a few times. Now, however, there were many palace maids and eunuchs everywhere, and the palace was adorned with beautiful lanterns, flowers and birds.
Shentu Rui pulled her into a small room at the back of Taici Palace, and summoned two maids to dress her up, while he went somewhere else.
Lan Dan sat by the window and let the maids dress her hair. Outside the window, the snow was falling heavily, and the palace walls, still an old dark red, were highlighted against the bright white. It seemed that Taici Palace had not yet undergone a major repair. She vaguely remembered that there was a Madam in the Duke of Anguo’s household, but after her husband’s death, she shut herself in and did not even visit the palace for festivals and celebrations.
And yet, this silent woman had now become the Empress Dowager of the country.
The palace maids finished dolling her up, and respectfully invited her to sit in the back hall. One of the girls was more lively and said with a smile, “The back hall is warmer. If you were to catch a cold here, His Highness would be distressed and angry.”
Lan Dan didn’t want to talk too much. She followed them out the door, and walked a few steps along the veranda to the back door of Taici Palace. The maids led her into the ear room of the back hall, and served her tea before retreating.
The back hall was indeed warm. Lan Dan struggled to untie her cloak, folded it slightly, and put it on the head of the kang bed to dry.
Suddenly hearing the sound of footsteps and low laughters coming in from outside, Lan Dan realized that this chamber was connected to the side hall, separated only by a window. Lan Dan relaxed her hands and feet, and quietly moved to the window at the head of the kang. She could vaguely see the people in the side hall. On this snowy and overcast day, the side hall was lit up by bright and warm lamps, contrasting with the dark and dim room where Lan Dan was hiding, allowing her to observe the situation in the side hall more clearly.
Although Taici Palace has been roughly repaired, the arrangement in the palace was not sloppy at all. The number of palace maids and eunuchs was much greater than that of the Zhaoyang Hall during her father’s reign.
A gorgeously dressed and beautiful woman sat on the central throne, receiving the greetings of two noble ladies. Through the window, Lan Dan couldn’t see her face very clearly, but she had black hair and fair skin, and her face was delicate and beautiful, not too old.
After the two ladies had finished paying their respects, they sat opposite the Empress Dowager on embroidered cushions and exchanged some small talk with her.
Lan Dan knew them. They were the wives of the Grand Ministers of Revenue and Agriculture! In the past, they had also come to see the Empress in their splendid clothes and makeup, speaking respectfully and carefully. Now that the imperial power had changed hands, they remained the same as before, and while the previous royal family had fallen into disgrace, they still enjoyed wealth, glory, and splendor, coming to pay their respects to the new ruler.
To Lan Dan, this scene was extremely ironic.
The two ladies spoke briefly before leaving the hall, and two more were brought in by the palace maids, cycling through again and again. In a short period of time, there were more than thirty people.
The more Lan Dan watched, the more frightened she became. She knew most of these women. They were the wives of trusted ministers of her father.
If these ministers were still alive, then who were the people in the mass graves?
After the last two noble ladies withdrew, the new Empress Dowager let out a tired sigh, and her shoulders sagged slightly.
The palace maid opened the curtains again, and a young girl came in. She ignored the maids following behind her and ran a few steps to sit intimately next to the Empress Dowager, kneading her shoulders.
Lan Dan’s mouth fell open and her breathing even stopped as she stared in horror at the girl outside the window.
The Empress Dowager asked with both tenderness and reproach, “Have you met her before?”
The young girl smiled sweetly and pleaded, “It’s not my fault. It’s an important day today and I had to pay my respects.”
The Empress Dowager snorted coldly and enjoyed the girl’s massage, no longer speaking.
Who was this “her” that could make the Empress Dowager of Da Yan be so disdainful and helpless?
The young girl was good at reading people’s expressions. She said tauntingly, “Your Highness doesn’t know how funny it is! Those eunuchs don’t know what to call her, and some flatterer came up with the term “honored mistress”. All the maids looked so strange calling her that, it’s hilarious.” Then she expressed some concern and asked tentatively, “Does Your Highness think that Brother Emperor will make her a Consort… or even the Empress?”
The widow of the late Duke of Anguo snorted domineeringly. “He dares!”
Lan Dan finaly managed to recover. She stroked her chest, gasping for air. It still felt uncomfortable, as if her breath was trapped somewhere in her tightened chest.
“Aaah!” She cried out in fright, startled by the sudden apperance of someone standing by side of the kang bed without her noticing.
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