Chapter 166: Road Ahead
Before the first rain of early spring fell, Qi Wang, Mu Jingde, and his entourage left the city and headed west, under countless visible and hidden gazes.
The position once occupied by Qi Wang in the court was now taken by Mu Jingchen, bestowed with the title of Jing Wang.
Though they were still three Wang Yes, and they maintained an appearance of humility and camaraderie, it was as if Qi Wang had never been present here.
Many people looked at them and then glanced at their unfamiliar colleagues. In the investigations conducted at the end of last year, some individuals vanished without a trace. Coupled with the increasingly prominent bulge in the belly of the Li Jing Palace’s resident, one thing became clear.
As long as the Wang Yes remained in a state of uncertainty, with the final outcome yet to be determined, it was not the time for others to rush to take sides.
There was only one person who held the power to decide the fate and honor of everyone.
No matter how aged, soft-spoken, gentle, and benevolent that person might be, they always stood above the masses.
Great power, absolute authority, and the most deadly temptation.
“No matter who sits in that position, they would never want to share the spoils with anyone else—neither parents, siblings, nor sons,” a gentle hand gently rested on the protruding abdomen, softly asking, “Qingru, have you made up your mind?”
Liu Qingru’s gaze also lowered, and compared to a few months ago, although the little one in her belly had worn her out, she seemed more determined.
The girlish innocence she once possessed had been peeled away layer by layer since entering the palace. By now, it had completely dissipated.
“I have thought it through. And it’s not just me—even Zhongming, even if he hadn’t thought about it before, should understand now after meeting Qi Wang.”
“The rise and fall of power is a common principle. Otherwise, the Liu family wouldn’t have reached this point.”
A gentle smile curved her lips, and the restless little one in her belly kicked her again.
“This child belonged to the Liu family, but also didn’t belong to the Liu family. Without needing to mention it explicitly, father, Zhongming, and the others are probably tired by now. Being able to break free from this situation might be considered a good thing.”
They exchanged a knowing smile, understanding many things that didn’t need to be explicitly stated.
“And what about Niang Niang? Now that Jingchen has been granted the title of a Wang, has Niang Niang thought about her future path?”
Consort Xian pursed her lips and tucked the stray hair near her temple behind her ear.
She didn’t wear many hair ornaments, her makeup was elegant, and the only thing that stood out was the blood-red agate earring hanging by her ear, which prevented her complexion from looking too pale.
“The child’s path, let him walk it on his own. I haven’t been able to give him much, and instead, I’ve been a burden to him. This time, it’s his own decision, and I’ll just watch over him. I have no thoughts about my own future path.”
Liu Qingru paused for a long time, gazing at the agate earring as it quietly stayed in the gentle sunlight streaming through the window, reflecting a bright crimson on her cheek.
“Niang Niang… Have you thought about Second Uncle?”
The agate earring suddenly trembled.
Perhaps it had been a long time since anyone mentioned it, Consort Xian suddenly covered her mouth with her folding fan. Her eyes seemed to be smiling, but there was a hint of immediate tears.
“When my hair was first pinned up…”
The teacher clearly only taught them “A youth arrived on a bamboo horse,” but he didn’t teach them to fight with someone using a bamboo horse.
Even though that reckless youngster, who hadn’t grown much taller, wasn’t afraid of the teacher’s scolding, he was clearly a noble son but engaged in a brawl like a mischievous street kid.
Those unruly kids were sent running with their tails between their legs.
“I’m warning you again!” The snapped bamboo pole was thrown to the ground. “If you like her, treat her well and stop bullying her all the time!”
With her double buns, she timidly hid behind a peach tree, stealing a glance at his back, then looking down at the ground. With courage from an unknown source, her face blushing, she asked, “Brother Xian, what about you… Do you… like me?”
The young boy’s face turned red, and he ran away without looking back.
Everyone knew his feelings, everyone knew he was a fool with his heart sealed away. So, even before the imperial edict for the selection process arrived at the Liang family, he had already been dispatched to Jiangnan.
Perhaps neither of them had wronged the other; it was just a matter of unfortunate timing.
“That’s all in the past.” She fanned herself with the folding fan, and the watery look in her eyes gradually disappeared. “That’s just fate.”
From outside the door, a respectful voice could be heard, and the two of them stopped their idle conversation and hurriedly went out together.
Emperor Yu, supported by Yu Dexi, was stepping over the threshold, while on the other side was a young man dressed in a sand-colored woven golden robe.
Perhaps due to the warm weather after spring arrived, or perhaps because everything was going smoothly, Emperor Yu had suffered a relapse of his old illness at the end of last year due to anger, but he had persisted and not missed a single act of accountability or promotion.
Based on past experience, everyone thought that after the calm, the Emperor would probably fall seriously ill, but unexpectedly, he managed to recover well.
Outsiders didn’t know much, they only knew that initially, the Emperor would occasionally summon the newly appointed Si Tian Guan, but now he had been summoned so many times that it was no longer a noteworthy event. Sometimes, he even had discussions with the officials of the Three Ministries, and would often bring Qu Si Tian with him.
Unlike when Qu Si Tian first entered the palace, ever since the Emperor bestowed the Xuan Mang Woven Gold Robe, anyone in the palace, including the Noble Consorts, had to bow and pay respect when they saw Qu Si Tian, addressing him as “Qu Sitian.”
The only reckless youngster left was the young Shizi of the Liu family.
When this pair of adversaries met in a narrow path, Liu’s young Shizi had just managed to drag the other person into a corner when Bo Yan hurriedly arrived, taking both of them to the presence of the Emperor.
It was said that the young Shizi of the Liu family had been publicly punished with a few strokes of the cane in front of the court, and he limped out of the palace, restraining his previous arrogance.
The once domineering young Shizi of the Liu family had been humbled, and since then, no one dared to be ignorant of the current situation and cause trouble for others.
On the other hand, Lin Xiang directly reprimanded Qu Si Tian, ordering him to leave the study. Although the Emperor didn’t mind a few times due to Lin Xiang’s seniority, he also didn’t pay much attention to it.
But when Rong Jiuan advised the Emperor with the phrase “rely on the virtuous, keep the sycophants at a distance,” it gave the Emperor an outlet for his anger. If it weren’t for Qu Si Tian interceding with the Emperor, the punishment might not have been as lenient as just a three-month salary deduction.
Although Rong Jiuan didn’t take personal favors, it was increasingly noticed that Qu Si Tian had an extremely pleasant temperament. He was innocent and gentle, never arguing or causing trouble with anyone. He didn’t accumulate wealth or flatter others, and he conducted himself in a proper and disciplined manner. It was no wonder the Emperor was extremely fond of him.
Everyone had sharp eyes and clear minds. They could see that Qu Si Tian’s influence was growing stronger and stronger. The Emperor consulted him on everything, and who could guarantee that they wouldn’t seek his help in the future?
The number of impeachment reports gradually decreased day by day until one day, after the morning court session ended, the Deputy Minister of the Ministry of Personnel saw Qu Si Tian waiting for him at the palace gate. He then took back the impeachment memorial that had been submitted not long ago from Qu Si Tian’s hands.
From then on, the study desk in the Imperial Study became much quieter.
As the three of them entered, before Liu Qingru and Consort Xian could bow and pay their respects, Emperor Yu weakly raised his hand, “No need for formalities. Your bodies are delicate. Don’t stand in the cold wind.”
Yu Dexi supported him and entered the room first, followed by Liu Qingru.
Consort Xian was assisted by a senior palace maid, just as she straightened her body, her other hand was gently lifted by someone.
“Niang Niang, be careful.”
She glanced sideways and saw those enchanting eyes hidden beneath long, fan-like lashes, focused on her hand. In a low voice, they said, “Niang Niang, be careful.”
Once inside the room, after they were all seated, the young man released her and stood by Emperor Yu’s side.
Consort Xian sat upright with a smile on her face, her hands clasped beneath her sleeve, holding the rolled-up piece of paper in her palm.
“The Emperor’s complexion has improved a lot recently,” Liu Qingru ordered refreshments and smiled, her eyes filled with delight. She asked, “It seems that all the sisters here are talented in understanding the Emperor’s words and serving him well.”
In mid-March of last month, a newly appointed concubine entered the palace and had already learned the rules.
Emperor Yu scooped a spoonful of silver ear fungus and smiled, “Your words sound as if you’re blaming me for neglecting you. They say that pregnant women have spoiled temperaments. From what I can see, nothing else has changed about you, except that you’ve become jealous.”
Liu Qingru pursed her lips and smiled, as the delicate jade by her ear swayed restlessly.
“How dare I? I was just admiring how lively and lovely the sisters are, and it makes me feel a few years younger.”
Consort Xian chimed in with a smile, “Noble Consort, you’re in the prime of your youth, yet you worry about your age. What should I do?”
Emperor Yu burst into laughter, “These young girls are full of energy, with their chirping voices. They disturb my peace. But you guys, you guys are good, so good.”
Yu Dexi also bowed and smiled, “Just now, Niang Niang said that the Emperor’s complexion has improved, and that is indeed correct. It was Qu Si Tian who suggested to the Emperor to change his sleeping quarters and the layout, and also try a new calming incense. The Emperor has been sleeping peacefully these days.”
It wasn’t appropriate to talk about unlucky matters, as everyone had heard about it. Bones were found in a well not far from the Emperor’s previous sleeping quarters, but it was unclear from which dynasty they came. The well was filled up overnight.
Liu Qingru’s eyes slightly raised, and she smiled, “I didn’t expect Qu Si Tian to also know feng shui.”
“Replying to Niang Niang, I don’t know feng shui. I can only divine using divination. It was by chance that I learned about it from a palace guard. Even if I hadn’t mentioned it, he would have discovered it soon. I simply shamelessly took credit for it,” Qu Chenzhou answered in a soft voice.
Emperor Yu playfully scolded, “We didn’t ask you, yet you still can’t keep your mouth shut! Is serving tea here not enough for you? I think Liu Qingru is still too soft-hearted towards you.”
Qu Chenzhou fell silent.
Liu Qingru only smiled without saying a word, and Consort Xian intervened to ease the situation, “Children will be children. If they are too mature, they would lose their liveliness.”
“If he were even more lively, it would be excessive,” Emperor Yu laughed and said to the two of them, “Don’t be fooled by his obedient appearance in front of me. In front of others, he can put on quite a show.”
This remark was not meant to blame or punish him. Consort Xian glanced at Liu Qingru and chuckled, covering her mouth as she joked, “Qu Si Tian is by the Emperor’s side, displaying the Emperor’s own aura. It’s only natural.”
“All children are like this. I heard recently that Zhongming and Commander Bo had a little scuffle near the Green Grass Pavilion, which almost scared people to death. Later, I found out that they were just sparring,” Liu Qingru said.
Emperor Yu burst into laughter and said to Liu Qingru, “This little Zhongming, as he grows older, his mischievousness also grows. Why isn’t he as steady as his father? It seems like he has been influenced by Shining.”
Liu Qingru pouted and said coquettishly, “Your Majesty, you’re blaming the wrong person. It’s solely because of his brother-in-law’s influence that Zhongming dares to act that way. He clearly relies on the favor you show him. Last time, when I scolded him a bit, he even ran to you for support.”
“You see,” Emperor Yu said to Consort Xian, “She’s so eloquent. Those newly arrived palace maidens can’t compare to her. I only made Zhongming run a few errands, and she’s already blaming me.”
Consort Xian also laughed, “Consort, you’ve watched Zhongming grow up. It’s only natural to be biased in his favor.”
Liu Qingru casually glanced at Qu Chenzhou and smiled faintly, “Zhongming may seem outgoing, but he has a straightforward heart. He doesn’t have as many schemes as others, so he often ends up at a disadvantage. If I don’t support him, then who else should I support?”
Emperor Yu followed her gaze and smiled. He no longer pursued the topic and turned his attention to the mischievous child in her womb.
Qu Chenzhou was ordered to come to Lijing Palace for divination every five days, but the divination never mentioned the “clouds obscure the moon” again.
The hidden claws lurking in the darkness hadn’t had a chance to strike, so they had to quietly retreat.
Today, with Qu Chenzhou’s presence, it was natural for him to perform a divination for Liu Qingru. The paper slip had only two words: “peaceful harmony,” signifying no dangers or worries and bringing great joy.
Consort Xian remained quietly listening by the side, wearing a gentle smile. She had long grown accustomed to this. In the end, Emperor Yu suddenly noticed her silent presence and casually asked, “How has the Empress Dowager been recently? I’ve been busy and haven’t had a chance to visit her for a while.”
Consort Xian slightly bowed and smiled in response, “The Empress Dowager is in good health. She also knows that Your Majesty is busy and is afraid that you won’t have time to take care of your own well-being.”
“That’s good. You keep an eye on the Empress Dowager. I’ll go visit her in a few days,” Emperor Yu reassured before turning to Liu Qingru and saying, “The Empress Dowager loves Zhongming the most. How about letting Zhongming take a break and accompany the Empress Dowager for some time.”
“Zhongming is just so pampered, he didn’t even think of visiting the Empress Dowager. It’s his own fault for being so playful,” Liu Qingru laughed. “He’s full of energy. If you don’t keep him busy now, he might start worrying if he did something wrong.”
Emperor Yu nodded and chuckled, “Only you would say that.”
Consort Xian’s gaze flickered briefly, and she smiled faintly, “The Empress Dowager does indeed lack a pleasant companion to talk to. She asked me recently why the rare child living in the palace, who was appointed as the Si Tian Guan, hasn’t been seen for so long.”
Emperor Yu’s face suddenly turned grave, and the room fell into silence.
After a while, he uttered a single word, “Let’s go,” and left first.
Liu Qingru and Consort Xian escorted him to the palace gate, watching him walk away before parting ways themselves.
Consort Xian clenched the paper slip tightly, her fingers seeming to sweat, but they were dried by the cool breeze of March.
A peach branch, leaning askew against a rock, extended outward, full of blossoms, a delightful sight to behold.
She reached out and touched it, leaning against the railing, while two palace maids stepped on the rocks to reach for the peach branch.
The paper slip was slightly dampened by sweat, but the writing remained clear. It had only six words: “Recommend me to the Empress Dowager.”
Author’s note: Consort Xian and her counterpart may have a happy ending in the extra chapters.