[Summary and partial translation of Ch 120 – 135 of the Chinese text]
Two other semi-important characters are introduced in this chapter: Bai Zixu and Nian Yaoguang. Nian Yaoguang is Xuanji’s elder sister of a different mother. Both their names are a reference to the Seven Stars of the Big Dipper.
璇玑 (xuán jī) is a combination and reference to the beta star (天璇 tiān xuán) and the gamma star (天玑 tiān jī).
瑶光 (yáo guāng) is a reference to the seventh star.
Love Pledged in a Night.
Nian family manor.
When Xuanji was led to the hall of the Nian residences by a servant, she saw that Long Fei-li was already there, with Qingfeng and Xia Sang standing behind him.
Earlier, a few hundred people had gathered around the entrance of the Nian family manor to greet them. Now, they had all withdrawn. Seated by the round table were numerous middle-aged men, as well as a handsome young man who Xuanji guessed was her elder brother born of a different mother. The woman who sat next to Long Fei-li was… Yaoguang.
Around the room, the fragrance of tea drifted idly as it mingled with the fumes from the hot plates of cooked food. Yaoguang stood, drawing back her sleeves as she poured a cup of tea for Long Fei-li.
At this moment, the conversation around the table faltered to a pause, for Long Fei-li’s gaze had drifted towards the teacup. More specifically, to the pair of flawlessly soft hands belonging to the beautiful woman serving him tea.
The Nian family observed this through tactful eyes.
As she met Long Fei-li’s eyes, Yaoguang’s powdered face reddened. Shyly, she handed the cup of tea to Long Fei-li.
With a faint smile, Long Fei-li received the cup from her.
Watching the pair of them, Xuanji’s temper heated, and she indicated for the few servants who were about to announce her arrival to remain silent, bringing only Diefeng along with her as she strode into the hall, stopping right in front of Long Fei-li.
Without acknowledging the rest of the Nian family, she said in an even voice, ‘Your Majesty, I’m also thirsty.’
Long Fei-li, who was drinking the tea, passed the teacup to Xuanji. Without feigning courtesy, Xuanji ignored the hot fumes emanating from the cup of tea, downing it all in one breath.
At once, the colour drained out of everyone else’s faces, particularly Yaoguang’s.
Smiling, Xia Sang observed her antics when he was suddenly aware of Long Fei-li’s keen stare on him.
Immediately, a chill crept down his spine as realisation jolted through him. Bowing towards Xuanji, he announced in a clear voice, ‘Greetings to Your Highness.’
With Xia Sang’s greeting, the rest of the Nian family did not dare to continue giving her the cold shoulder. In quick succession, they stood, paying their greetings to Xuanji.
The irritation on Yaoguang’s face disappeared as swiftly as it had appeared. With a curtsy towards Xuanji, she asked in a voice filled with worry, ‘Your Highness, you’ve arrived. I wonder how are things with Madam Nian?’
Yet Xuanji had not noticed the effect which had rippled from Xia Sang’s acknowledgment of her arrival. Placing the cup of tea down, she walked over to Yaoguang, before her lips stretched in a smile, ‘You don’t have to greet me. We’re sisters after all – why have you become so distant?’
She did not elaborate on Madam Nian’s situation, for she did not know the results of Physician Lady Cui’s examination. Raising a hand to fan herself, she continued, ‘It’s been a long day travelling. I’m also tired now.’
Her eyes remained on Yaoguang’s seat.
Yaoguang clenched her jaw. In her heart, she thought darkly: Nian Xuanji, if you were to fall into my hands in the future –
Hiding her bitterness, Yaoguang glanced at Long Fei-li, only to see that the beautiful Emperor was also staring intently at her. Their eyes met; her heart thudded in joy. Hoping to make herself appear even more accommodating, she turned towards Xuanji, about to offer her seat.
At this moment, one of Minister Nian’s sons stood up. Jovially, he laughed, ‘Your Highness, do have a seat here.’
Xuanji cursed in her heart – who asked you to meddle?
Instead, Long Fei-li spoke. ‘Xuan’er, your stubborn temper remains unchanged. A family’s hierarchy cannot be dispensed with. How could you allow your elder brother and sister to give their seats up to you?’
‘Your Majesty, please be lenient. The few of us old men were also about to offer our seats to Her Highness, but Tianyang happened to beat us to it,’ one of Minister Nian’s brothers chimed in.
‘Uncles and brother, please do not fight with me. From we were children, there is nothing that I haven’t given to Her Highness, as long as she wishes for it, let alone the small matter of this seat,’ Yaoguang interrupted with a smile, moving to leave her seat.
Behind Xuanji’s back, Diefeng glared at Yaoguang. Her nails dug into her palms, as she fought back the urge to rip Yaoguang’s mask of virtue off.
Xuanji lowered her gaze. In her heart, she extended her “warmest greetings” to Long Fei-li and his ancestors eighteen times.
That man’s abominable voice issued once more. ‘Yaoguang, propriety cannot be dispensed with. Concubine Nian can sit here.’
Fuming, Xuanji thought: sit here – where was that; did he want her to sit on the ground?
The rest of the Nian family looked equally puzzled.
A second later, a warm hand wrapped around Xuanji’s waist, and she was pulled into a person’s embrace. His voice, as unperturbed as a serene lake, continued, ‘Are you still thirsty?’
From a corner, Xia Sang said uneasily, ‘Your Majesty, allow me to do it.’
In disbelief, Yaoguang’s eyes followed the pair of slender hands which had taken hold of the jade teapot to carefully pour some tea into one of the teacups.
Only when the teacup was pressed against her lips did Xuanji jolt out from her reverie.
Long Fei-li was pouring her a cup of tea…?
Blankly, she received the teacup from him, only to meet the stunned eyes of everyone in the room.
Suddenly, beyond the doors, a servant boy announced in a clear voice: Minister Nian and Eunuch Xu have arrived.
Minister Nian strode into the room. As his eyes landed on Long Fei-li, whose arms were wound around Xuanji, he seemed to be momentarily taken-aback, yet he quickly recovered his composure, moving to greet Long Fei-li.
With a smile, Long Fei-li said, ‘Minister Nian, you can dispense with this greeting.’ His eyes flickered towards Xu Xi.
Xu Xi bowed. ‘Greetings to Your Majesty. Physician Lady Cui has already examined Madam Nian.’
Xuanji sat up straighter. Though the members of the Nian family harboured a hundred different motives as they spoke with her, Madam Nian was the exception, and treated her extremely well. Now, she could only hope that Physician Lady Cui would not discover the exaggeration of Madam Nian’s illness, given her skill in medicine.
‘How is she?’ Long Fei-li’s brows were slightly creased.
The pressure around Xuanji’s waist increased, as though in comfort. Smiling faintly, Xuanji wondered how much of this simple action was borne out of genuine comfort, and how much, an act displayed to the Nian family? But no matter Long Fei-li’s intention, now, she would only think of his gesture as genuine.
Quietly, she reached over, taking hold of his hand. In response, his large palms tightened around hers.
An intense gaze landed heavily on their intertwined hands.
With a jolt, Xuanji glanced over, but that glance had already vanished… It appeared to be Nian Tianyang, Yaoguang, or… Minister Nian.
Xu Xi moved to a side, and Physician Lady Cui stepped forward to elaborate the results from her examination of Madam Nian.
Madam Nian had caught a pathogenic flu which had worsened due to her poor spirits. However, Xuanji’s return today had improved her illness, and she was no longer in any danger.
As Xuanji listened, a vague intuition rose within her: perhaps, this was the diagnosis Long Fei-li had instructed Physician Lady Cui to announce.
Except, in truth, Madam Nian’s illness was also not to be taken lightly. When Xuanji had spoken to her earlier, she had seen the unhealthy hue in Madam Nian’s eyes… after all, if Minister Nian wanted to exaggerate Madam Nian’s illness, he would have taken steps to ensure that his wife was passably ill.
But now, she did not have the energy to think about those, for they were about to… have a meal.
A meal was a delicate affair; the people who were invited to a meal with the Emperor even more so.
In her heart, Xuanji sighed. No matter how they the members of the Nian family ordered themselves by age, rank or hierarchy, it was impossible for Yaoguang to have numbered among those invited to lunch with the Emperor.
With a smile, Minister Nian explained that while he initially intended to have his brothers and his eldest son, Tianshu, join the Emperor in his meal, out of consideration that the Emperor often preferred to dine without fanfare, eventually, he did not call upon his other brothers. Moreover, as Tianshu was currently away in search of Songting, he instead had his second son, Kaiyang, accompany the Emperor in his meal. Later, out of consideration that Yaoguang was Xuanji’s only sister, and as the two of them had always been on close terms, he also allowed Yaoguang to join them in this meal.
Xuanji looked at the proceedings with a cold eye. Even Madam Ru, Yaoguang’s mother, was here. Very good – their entire family were all present, except for Madam Nian, who was bedridden within her room. Towards Madam Nian, her husband’s only acknowledgement of her existence was to make use of her.
Downcast, Xuanji said quietly, ‘It is unfortunate Mother cannot join us.’
Minister Nian sighed, his face a picture of resignation, as though he was struggling to withhold his sorrow. From the side-lines, Madam Ru and Yaoguang watched him.
At this moment, nearly seven or eight dishes had been served. Minister Nian was immediately occupied as he respectfully hastened for Long Fei-li to begin his meal.
Long Fei-li raised a pair of chopsticks, then placed them down. In a deep voice, he said to Xu Xi, ‘Have someone deliver these dishes to Madam Nian as well.’ He paused, before turning to Minister Nian. ‘Madam Nian is Xuan’er’s mother, so I took the initiative to arrange for her meal. I hope you do not take offense.’
Minister Nian exhaled heavily. ‘Your Majesty, I am beyond grateful for your concern towards my family.’
Xuanji saw Madam Ru’s expression twist in displeasure, and the gloom in her heart immediately vanished. Long Fei-li was sitting next to her. Beneath the table, she pinched herself, but eventually could not resist reaching over to place her hand on his knees.
A moment’s pause. Then, a warm palm enveloped her hand.
From the corner of Xuanji’s eyes, she saw that Long Fei-li was absorbed in his conversation with Minister Nian. His posture was straight and unyielding, and he commanded the undivided attention of all within the room. Beneath the table, his hand brushed against hers, the calluses of his fingertips pressed against her soft palms.
In that instant, she was intoxicated in that feeling.
As though from a distance, she heard Long Fei-li ask idly, ‘There has been no news from Songting?’
Minister Nian hastily replied, ‘He has left for the Western Mountains on a hunting trip. I imagine Tianshu will be able to find him soon.’
‘En,’ Long Fei-li said, without a tremor in his voice. ‘I originally intended to discuss the military deployment of our borders with you and Songting in this visit. General Rong, General Wen, and Songting are all formidable in the battlefield, only, if the Xiongnu were to invade, it would be best to consolidate our military command and have one Great General lead the army.’
‘Indeed.’ Minister Nian’s heart gave a jolt. His eyes intent, he asked, ‘Your Majesty, has your decision been finalised?’
‘Minister Nian, we are family, so I have no reservations in telling you this: all three Generals are trusted commanders of mine, so this is a difficult decision to make.’
Hearing this, Yaoguang, whose head was bowed, interrupted softly, ‘I know that I should not have spoken, but I have a few words to say… I wonder if Your Majesty will be willing to listen?’
Yaoguang’s voice was soothing and gentle. Even as a woman, Xuanji’s breath also gave a hitch at the sound of her pleasing voice, but in the next second, she thought – why have you interrupted if you know you should not have done so?
Long Fei-li said warmly, ‘There is no harm in speaking your mind. I will listen.’
Xuanji clenched her jaw, breaking free from the man’s grasp, and continued to eat her meal.
Yaoguang raised her head, and saw that the young Emperor’s eyes were keen upon her, a faint smile playing on his lips. Shyly, she turned her head away, and said, ‘Although I rarely have the chance to speak with Songting, I have occasionally heard his discussions with Father when he is home. Songting often speaks of hoping to be Your Majesty’s most loyal servant and to contribute to the prosperity of our country. In my humble opinion, Songting’s loyalty is unquestionable. Moreover, though Generals Rong and Wen are valiant commanders, they are not young, and are also your father-in-law and uncle respectively. I imagine Your Majesty cannot bear for them to continue working so tirelessly…’
‘Your words are reasonable.’ Praise filled Long Fei-li’s eyes, and his lips quirked in a smile, ‘I will give your words due consideration.’
Minister Nian’s face was radiant with joy, yet he chided lightly, ‘How much can a young girl like you understand, to speak wilfully in the presence of His Majesty? Hurry and thank His Majesty for not taking offense.’
‘Minister Nian, you’re too harsh,’ Long Fei-li said.
Minister Nian returned him a resigned smile, but which part of his eyes was filled with unhappiness?
Hearing the Emperor defend her, Yaoguang’s head bowed even lower, further exposing her flawlessly slender neck.
Laughing, Nian Kaiyang chimed in, ‘Sister, are you using your nose to drink your wine?’
Long Fei-li and Minister Nian exchanged a look, then laughed.
Laugh, laugh, laugh – Long Fei-li, be careful of laughing yourself to your grave! Don’t you enjoy eating green vegetables and tofu? Be careful of choking when you eat your tofu!
Fuming, Xuanji coolly observed them from the side-lines… Regarding the delegation of Xi Liang’s military command, ignoring the fact that Long Fei-li already had his own course of action, taking a step back, how could a person like Long Fei-li be swayed by the two or three sentences spoken by Yaoguang? Only, ignoring their political discussions, the expression in his eyes as he stared at Yaoguang left her… extremely displeased!
The more she thought, the greater the ire.
At this moment, Madam Ru interrupted, ‘Yaoguang, why haven’t you served His Majesty his food?’
When their topic dwelled on politics, Xuanji was unwilling to join in on their discussions, but as for the matter of serving Long Fei-li his food… Xuanji smiled, taking a pair of new chopsticks from the table, before she picked out a few dishes and piled them all onto Long Fei-li’s bowl.
‘I am untalented, and cannot compare to Yaoguang in giving an insightful analysis to share His Majesty’s burden, so all I can do is this. Moreover, Yaoguang is sitting so far away, and will have to cross half the table to serve His Majesty his food. I’m afraid His Majesty will not be happy to see her exert herself so.’
Madam Ru’s face whitened. Gritting her teeth, she forced a smile, ‘Then I can only trouble Your Highness.’
A few pots of wine had been placed around the table. With an frozen smile, Yaoguang took hold of one of them, moving to help the Emperor pour his wine. Yet Xuanji was sharp-eyed and deftly took hold of another wine pot, swiftly pouring the wine into Long Fei-li’s cup. When that was done, she resumed piling food onto his plate.
Though infuriated, Yaoguang was a person with great restraint. The smile on her face did not flicker.
Long Fei-li observed this with a smile. Without batting an eyelid, he continued his conversation with Minister Nian.
Standing attentively behind Long Fei-li was Xia Sang. The corners of his mouth began to twitch, and he looked to his left and right, wanting to see the expression on Xu Xi or Qingfeng’s faces, only to remember Xu Xi was currently delivering a meal to Madam Nian, and Qingfeng was away deploying various hidden guards around the Nian manor in anticipation of Nian Songting’s arrival.
By Xia Sang’s side, Diefeng, who had been staring coldly at Yaoguang, was also stupefied by the image presented before her eyes.
It would not be an exaggeration to liken the bowl in front of Long Fei-li to a small mountain of food.
Without holding herself back, Xuanji exhibited her full range of skills in piling up food during buffets to this situation, and only stopped when she could not add any more food onto Long Fei-li’s bowl.
Occasionally, Yaoguang would glance over. The intensity in her eyes could not be smothered by the shyness of her demeanour. Long Fei-li did not let this slip, returning her gaze. As their eyes met, Yaoguang hurriedly lowered her gaze.
The mountain of food successfully blocked this pair of man and woman’s line of sight to the other, and Xuanji’s mood lightened.
Yet Long Fei-li’s lukewarm voice abruptly issued, ‘Xuan’er, you’ve spent much time in the palace, and it’s been a while since you last had the chance to eat a meal prepared by your family.’
Long Fei-li’s eyes were smiling. The warmth in his face remained unchanged even as he pushed his bowl piled with a mountain of food towards Xuanji.
Xuanji froze and stared at the bowl. Wasn’t this a product of her own actions –
With a cold sneer, Yaoguang was about to call for a servant to replace the Emperor’s bowl and chopsticks when she saw that he had switched Xuanji’s bowl over. Without missing a beat, Long Fei-li began to eat from Xuanji’s bowl, as though nothing was out of the ordinary.
Seeing this, Minister Nian’s expression grew a shade heavier.
Leaving Minister Nian’s study, Long Fei-li had just returned to his room when he discovered that Xuanji had disappeared. His brows drew together.
Xia Sang smiled, about to speak when the door was abruptly flung open. A lone figure hurried in. Without taking a clear look at the people gathered within the room, the newcomer’s said urgently, ‘Eunuch Xia, I heard the others say you were here. Her Highness has a favour to ask of you… Ah! Your Majesty… you’re here as well?’
‘Oh? You wish for me to disappear?’ Long Fei-li said with furrowed brows.
Frightened, Diefeng immediately knelt. ‘Greetings to Your Majesty.’
‘Where is your mistress – or should I ask, what does she want from Xia Sang?’ Long Fei-li said, his voice giving nothing away.
Diefeng’s heart thudded uneasily. She could not speak a word about Her Highness and Bai Zixu, who were still awaiting her return by the pond, fearful that the Emperor would… She was deliberating her reply, but Long Fei-li’s deep voice issued once again.
‘I imagine you have not heard my question!’
Brows creasing, Xia Sang rebuked in a low voice, ‘Diefeng, hurry and answer!’
Alarmed, Diefeng quickly kowtowed. ‘Your Majesty, please be appeased. Her Highness…’
A shadow flickered across Long Fei-li’s face. ‘What is it?’
Diefeng did not have the courage to prevaricate any further, thinking to herself that when push comes to shove, she could only choose the lesser of the two evils to confess to the Emperor. Slowly, she said, ‘Her Highness has a use for some money –’
She halted, her face burning. After all, this was a delicate matter to raise.
Mumbling, she continued, ‘Previously… her allowance was reduced after she offended Your Majesty, and now, she doesn’t have much money left. For the time being, she wants to borrow some money from Eunuch Xia, but will immediately pay them back when she receives her next allowance.’
Diefeng no longer dared to look at the Emperor, her eyes drilling into the grounds.
Speechless, Xia Sang’s instinctive response was to lament his ill fate.
As expected, in the next moment, Long Fei-li’s chilly voice was directed towards him. ‘Xia Sang, you are on extremely close terms with Concubine Nian?’
Another pair of knees joined Diefeng’s on the ground.
‘Your Majesty, my relationship with Concubine Nian is – if she wishes to borrow money from me, I will issue her a receipt for the loan,’ Xia Sang said, his smile apologetic.
Long Fei-li scoffed. Only then did Xia Sang, who had lowered his head, dare to chance a covert glance at the Emperor. Long Fei-li’s face was a picture of distraction.
A long moment passed before he heard Long Fei-li speak.
‘And how much silver does your mistress need?’
Trembling, Diefeng said, ‘Her Highness wishes to borrow one thousand taels of silver.’
‘Xia Sang, hand her twenty thousand taels of silver. Split them into banknotes of a thousand each.’
‘Yes, Your Majesty.’ Xia Sang stood. A thought came to his mind, and without fearing for his life, he vocalised it, ‘Your Majesty, do I record the loan under your name or mine?’
Diefeng, who was still quivering at the thought that this time, her mistress had struck the lottery, was immediately dumbstruck, and nearly fainted… This Eunuch Xia…
With a laugh, Long Fei-li said, ‘Worthless servant. If you wish to record the loan under your name, by all means.’
Xia Sang smiled, and hurriedly withdrew. Though he could not say he was able to fathom the thoughts of his master, the many years he had spent by Long Fei-li’s side were not for naught. He could clearly discern the rising displeasure within Long Fei-li. The Emperor was displeased with Concubine Nian’s attempt to borrow money from another, wasn’t he…
In the room, Long Fei-li did not give Diefeng the permission to rise, so Diefeng did not dare to move an inch. The Emperor sat on a chair, picked up a book, and began to read it, remaining silent the whole time.
The room was tranquil, but Diefeng felt as though she was on the verge of suffocating.
A pair of slender hands turned the pages of the book. Abruptly, the book was discarded to a side.
Long Fei-li’s lips curled.
She was his woman, yet she had chosen to borrow money from another. Earlier, as he observed the embarrassment of her servant when describing her awkward predicament, a tremor had risen in his heart.
Returning, Xia Sang approached with light steps, handing the banknotes over to Diefeng. Diefeng quickly kowtowed, and was about to excuse herself when she heard the Emperor say, ‘Where is your mistress? Lead the way.’
Diefeng’s heart jumped to her throat.
At this moment, Her Highness and Bai Zixu were alone together… why hadn’t she thought about this damned problem earlier?
Central Lake Pavilion.
Abruptly, Bai Zixu asked, ‘Why did you give me this pearl?’
Xuanji stopped. Hadn’t she already explained the reason to him?
It seems that the most difficult thing to do was to convince another person of your sincerity, to allow them to understand that your actions were devoid of ulterior motives.
Quietly, she said, ‘Earlier, you said that the koi was at least a hundred years old – old enough to be a mythical spirit. What if it were an apparition of evil? There are two pearls: one for you, and the other for me. If I were to die, then let us both be cursed.’
Bai Zixu had not expected her reply, and was momentarily taken-aback. A second later, his face relaxed as he laughed.
Yet Xuanji continued coldly, ‘You’re an adult man, so how could you possibly be afraid of a pearl? As the saying goes, a gentleman is magnanimous. I thought you were one, but it appears I was mistaken. If you were truly afraid, or if you wish to continue scrutinising my actions with your untrusting mind, then I will not be averse to you giving the pearl back to me.’
In his life, Bai Zixu had come across countless beautiful women, including Nian Yaoguang, whose beauty could not be surpassed by Nian Xuanji. But as he stared at the slightly displeased expression of the woman who stood before him, his heart stilled. An unfamiliar fear swelled within him at the thought that he had managed to annoy her.
‘You are right. I did not consider the way my words would have come across. Don’t be annoyed.’
Xuanji scoffed. In the next instant, her face warmed, and her gaze dropped to the stone table where Bai Zixu had taken hold of her hand.
Startled, the rebuke which had risen to her throat was swallowed back when she saw the clarity within his eyes, devoid of ill will. Instead, she withdrew her hand.
Yet the colour quickly drained out of Bai Zixu’s face.
He stood, bowing deeply. ‘Greetings to Your Majesty.’
Xuanji nearly fell off her chair in her fright.
A hand rested heavily on her shoulder, radiating warmth.
She quickly stood, and was immediately pulled into a strong embrace.
An enchanting face, the faint smell of ambergris – who else could it be, but her foe?
Xia Sang and Diefeng followed closely behind him.
Xuanji did not know how much Long Fei-li had seen or heard… Her heart racing, she was about to greet him when he spoke, his voice expressionless.
‘Xia Sang, hand him the banknote.’
The alarm in Xuanji only deepened. He knew…
The next moment, she remembered Bai Zixu’s awkward predicament, and turned to look at him.
His face remaining unbashful, Bai Zixu said in a clear voice, ‘Thank you for your grace, Your Majesty.’
Long Fei-li’s penetrating gaze levelled upon him. A smile appeared on his lips. ‘Earlier, I’ve heard about you from Concubine Nian’s servant. If I were to allocate you a post within court, would you be willing to accept? Or would you think it preferable to make your mark in the Imperial Examinations?’
Bai Zixu had not anticipated the Emperor’s words, and faltered. A heartbeat later, he smiled, ‘Although I am untalented, I am willing to perform my best to repay Your Majesty’s good intentions.’
‘This would only be a low-ranking post within one of the six ministries. If you had greater aspirations, would this not be a pity?’
Bai Zixu lowered his head. ‘I feel it more prudent to seize an opportunity when it appears. Thank you for your benevolence, Your Majesty.’
With a nod, Long Fei-li said, ‘Xia Sang, hand him to Xiahou Chu.’ With a wave of his hands, he indicated for Xia Sang to come forward.
Xia Sang quickly assented, preparing to lead Bai Zixu away.
‘Please wait a moment,’ Bai Zixu said. Stepping forward, he clasped his fists together, and said solemnly to Xuanji, ‘I would like to express my thanks to Your Highness once again.’
Xuanji nodded, and Xia Sang immediately withdrew with Bai Zixu and Diefeng following behind him.
Everything turned out fine after all… Distracted by her thoughts, Xuanji let out an exclamation when her body was abruptly lifted into the Emperor’s arms, bridal style.
Holding her within his arms, Long Fei-li sat down on one of the stone benches.
Face reddening, Xuanji said, ‘Don’t. The rest will see.’
‘They will not.’
‘What if they do?’
‘Even if they did, they will pretend they have not. What are you afraid of?’
The corners of Xuanji’s lips twitched. Alright, how could she possibly use an ordinary person’s thought process to fathom the self-confidence of this demonic man?
The arm around her waist suddenly tightened.
Hurt, an exclamation left her, and she said angrily, ‘Long Fei-li, you –’
The pressure around her waist only increased. Annoyed, Xuanji said, ‘Let go of me, you maniac.’
Her struggles were blanketed by his low voice. ‘There are still nineteen thousand taels of silver with your servant. If you have any need of them, you can get them from her.’
Xuanji stopped, her attention distracted from her pain, eyes brightening… Money – an essential item when attempting to escape.
Momentarily brightened, she planted a kiss on the man’s face, only to receive Long Fei-li’s cold snort in response. Yet the arm around her also relaxed.
In a low voice, Long Fei-li said, ‘The Nian family are wealthy merchants, and your dowry is sizeable. Why are you left with nothing after three months without allowance?’
Xuanji rubbed her stomach, the casualty site from the man’s unrelenting grip. Hands curling into fists, she hammered Long Fei-li’s chest. A second later, dull pain emanated from her knuckles, and after considering the costs which outweighed the benefits, she stopped.
‘I have to go back and check the dowry to measure their worth. I haven’t looked at them yet.’
This woman was a strange creature. Brows creasing, Long Fei-li continued, ‘Why haven’t you asked from Minister Nian?’
Hearing this, anger rose within Xuanji. Fuming, she said, ‘You – In any case, I’m already married to you. Before marriage, I listened to my father, but after we married, I followed you. And if I were to ask for money from the Nian family, can you afford the loss of face?’
‘And you asked from Xia Sang because?’ The man said in return.
Surprised by Long Fei-li’s even voice, Xuanji faltered, even as a familiar grip tightened around her waist once again… Although the strength from this insane man was not excessive, Xuanji was peeved. She raised her head, her gaze sweeping upwards to land on Long Fei-li’s lips. His lips had been bitten raw by her, a faint mark remaining on them.
An idea came into mind, and she opened her mouth, biting hard on his lips.
He did not make a sound, allowing her to do as she pleased. His tongue slid into her mouth, brushing against hers. Xuanji’s mind quickly fell into disorder, her original intentions long forgotten. Their tongues entangled, breaths quickening.
Breathless, Xuanji struggled to free herself, but Long Fei-li’s stance was resolute as he held her in place. When he finally released his stronghold over her, Xuanji inhaled deeply, her head resting on the junction between his neck and shoulder.
With this bite, the only good thing that came out of it was that he had once again released his torture on her waist.
She gifted him with a ruthless punch, and fumed to herself, ‘What are you angry about? You’ve already withheld my allowance. If I were to ask you for it, will you give it to me?’
‘…’ Xuanji was speechless.
‘Earlier, where did Bai Zixu touch you?’ Long Fei-li’s low voice surrounded her.
Xuanji jumped, her hands flying to guard her waist. ‘It isn’t what you think…’
‘If it weren’t what I thought it was, he would have long been dead.’
Xuanji could not wrap her mind around his words. A heartbeat later, understanding dawned upon her. He had not mistaken their actions after all… She breathed a sigh of relief.
Long Fei-li said, ‘This is the first and the last time. Do you understand?’
Xuanji gave a half-smile. Tyrant… yet her heart warmed, and she wanted to ask in return: what about you and Yaoguang?
But now, it was better for her to avoid riling his temper, so she changed the topic and asked lightly, ‘Why did you arrange that post for Bai Zixu?’
‘He is not an untalented man.’
‘If that is so, wouldn’t it be better for him to make his mark in the Imperial Examinations?’
Long Fei-li’s smile was arctic. ‘Do you think he will rank among the top three candidates?’
‘Didn’t you say he was talented?’
Long Fei-li did not answer. His fingers twined around the strands of hair which had fallen around her face, idly playing with them.
Xuanji rewarded him with another punch.
‘Why are you so short-tempered and wild, without a trace of your sister’s virtuosity?’
The idleness in his voice only heated Xuanji’s temper further. ‘Then you can search for Yaoguang.’ She was about to stand and leave when his arms took hold of her from the back. His grip was unrelenting; she could not move an inch.
Pressing her lips together, she turned her head away.
‘Bai Zixu is without money and power. Ignoring Minister Nian’s sabotage, are the invigilators truly impartial to select his script for evaluation, on the basis of merit? He is an intelligent person, and has made the right decision.’
Xuanji paused, her mind dwelling on the meaning behind Long Fei-li’s words. In the next second, she asked curiously, ‘But now that you’ve learned of his existence, you can pay special attention to his script. If he were a man of talent…’
Impatience lining his tone, Long Fei-li interrupted, ‘If he were talented, how could he be shackled to this small position? And if he were able to achieve results, would he be afraid of receiving no recognition? There is no reason for him to waste his time on the Imperial Examinations.’
A faint glimmer of insight into the workings of Long Fei-li’s mind rose in Xuanji’s.
‘What are you thinking about?’
Her jaw, which was suddenly clasped between Long Fei-li’s fingers, brought her out of her reverie. She raised her head, falling captive into boundless depths of his eyes.
‘Nothing. I was just thinking that he seems to be an astute man.’
Long Fei-li’s lips lifted. ‘That is evident from the way he has chosen to live in seclusion within the Nian residences.’
Not understanding, Xuanji’s brows knitted.
‘Given his ambition, how could your mother be unwilling to loan him a thousand taels of silver to aid him in leaving, if he were to ask? And for what reason does he continue to live here, in the Nian residences, where he is despised?’
Xuanji jolted. ‘I hadn’t thought about this. Why?’
‘His life is only protected if he remained in the Nian residences. I imagine his stay here is not a secret. Would Minister Nian be willing to risk the wagging tongues of the common people by doing harm unto him while he resides here?’ Long Fei-li paused. ‘But what if he were to leave?’
Eyes downcast, Xuanji said dejectedly, ‘So it is like this. My good intentions were in vain. No wonder he was laughing earlier – he must think me a fool. Long Fei-li, you’ve found a treasure.’
Yet Long Fei-li said, ‘I only hope it is not a treasure concealing malice.’
‘If it were, what will you do?’ Xuanji asked lightly.
‘What do you think?’ Long Fei-li returned.
His smile did not flicker, but the ruthlessness in his eyes could not be smothered.
Her small hands wound around his outer robe, twisting it. In a low voice, Xuanji said, ‘You’re a tyrant. I hope that one day, you’ll cross paths with a traitor, one who you will not be able to lift a finger against.’
Long Fei-li laughed. Xuanji knew that he was laughing at her bold words, even as her spirits sank.
In this world, it was unlikely to exist a person who Long Fei-li could not bear to condemn after their betrayal.
And if there truly was such a person, perhaps, it could only be the owner of the embroidered pouch Long Fei-li treasured.
Coldly, Nian Songting ordered, ‘Guards! Seize the two of them.’
With a leap, Long Fei-li reached over and snapped a branch from the tree, turning it into a makeshift weapon.
The black-robed assassin froze, not having expected the arrogance of the Emperor. A second later, he leapt forward, palm extended towards Long Fei-li’s face.
Long Fei-li did not bother evading his attack, his branch twisted in the direction of the assassin’s chest.
Stupefied, the assassin faltered. He had feinted his attack in search of an opening to escape, yet he had not anticipated for Long Fei-li to have seen through his intentions.
The fleeting moment for escape vanished; scores of guards swarmed in their direction.
Long Fei-li’s eyes flickered to the dark expression on Nian Songting’s face, and knew the man was about to join the crossfire.
‘What’s happening?’ A cacophony of shrill voices rang from all corners of the compounds as the various members of the Nian family hurriedly draped their outer robes over themselves to rush over, closely followed by dozens of guards.
Men and women alike were clustered within the courtyard.
Long Fei-li’s expression darkened… What did it mean for the Emperor, Xu Xi, and the others to be absent at such a point in time?
Abruptly, a bellow followed by a cry pierced the air from the direction where the guards and Nian family had gathered.
In unison, the heads of all within the compound turned.
One of the guards was stumbling back several steps. Voice shaking, he stammered, ‘Concubine Nian, I did not mean…’
Minister Nian, who had been observing the proceedings with a cool eye as he stood at the front of his study, interrupted in a harsh voice, ‘What is it?’ At the sound of Xuanji’s name, his attention left the chaos of the fight as he quickly strode towards Xuanji.
A line appeared between Nian Songting’s brows; his gaze shifted to follow Minister Nian’s line of sight.
Under the darkness of the night, the burning flames of the torch lamps illuminated the crowd of terror-stricken guards standing… Encircled within them was the blur of a bloodied figure, lying lifelessly on the grounds.
A heavy emotion coiled around Long Fei-li’s heart, but he did not falter. With a sweep of his sleeves, a sword was unsheathed. The blinding glimmer of metal, reflecting light as it cut through the night skies in a wide arc, was the only presage to the forceful blow which slammed into the swarm of guards a second later.
Bodies hit the ground, the breath of life leaving their owners before they even had the time to understand what had happened.
Hearing the distorted cries of terror, Nian Songting’s eyes narrowed into slits, a sudden realisation dawning upon him. But even as he spun around, there was no longer anyone there.
Blooming flowers and tall trees; in another corner of the wide-open pavilion, cool breeze rippled across the grounds, closely following the heels of the black-robed assassin as he fled, swiftly scaling the walls. That man had seized the opportunity to flee with Long Fei-li’s ruthless attack of the guards.
Long Fei-li’s lips curled, yet he did not give chase. With an agile leap, he headed in the direction of Xuanji’s rooms.
Moments later, he saw Xia Sang and the others rushing towards him. They had changed their attires to don their normal robes.
‘We have administered the antidote of the locking-soul fumes to Nian Kaiyang. He will regain consciousness soon and arrive with Nian Tianshu,’ Qingfeng said urgently.
‘En.’ Long Fei-li’s gaze dipped to the side, his attention caught on his yellow dragon-embroidered robes held within Xu Xi’s hands.
He nodded. ‘Clever.’
Xia Sang and Qingfeng exchanged a look.
In a low voice, Xia Sang said, ‘Your Majesty, it is… Nian Xuanji.’
‘You fool!’ Angered, Minister Nian lifted his hands to strike the guard standing before him. Madam Nian and the rest of the Nian family were clustered around him in a tight circle.
Madam Nian’s face was a picture of terror, aghast at the sight which met her eyes.
Huddled within the center of the wall of guards was a lone woman.
She was dressed in red robes, the colour as striking as fresh blood.
Blood splattered across the grounds. An upheaved tray lay lifelessly to the side, broken plates of food scattered across the ground.
The woman’s sleeves were drawn back, revealing her arm. Blood trickled down from her shoulders to pool on the crook of her elbow, her wound a horrifying sight.
Her eyes were shut; beneath her close lids, the movements of her eyes were quick.
On the grounds beside her, a young servant was rocked her body gently as she cried, ‘Your Highness, Your Highness…’
One of the guards kowtowed in furious succession, his face ashen. ‘She knocked into me. I – I did not know she was Concubine Nian, so I stabbed her with the sword.’
Everyone had fallen into disorder amid the confusion.
Minister Nian was alarmed and furious; Nian Songting’s expression heavy.
Concubine Nian had met with harm in the Nian residences. If the Emperor were to pursue the matter…
Choking back her tears, Madam Nian bent down, wanting to pull Xuanji into her arms. In the next moment, she halted in place, beaten to the mark.
‘Long live Your Majesty!’
The brilliant yellow robe of the newcomer was all that was needed to frighten the crowd. At once, their knees fell to the ground as they scrambled to pay obeisance to the Emperor.
The Emperor did not speak.
He reached out, lifting Xuanji into his embrace.
Over one hundred individuals had gathered within the courtyard, but at this moment, an oppressive silence had smothered the entire compound. Not a breath was heard; not one person dared to speak.
In a low voice, Long Fei-li said, ‘Where is Physician Lady Cui?’
Seeing the state of Xuanji’s injuries, Xia Sang was also alarmed. He was about to reply when Xu Xi spoke in a deep voice, ‘Your Highness, Physician Lady Cui’s room is located a distance away. I will head over to bring her here at once.’
Brows creasing, Qingfeng said, ‘I’ll go.’
With a blur, his figure had already disappeared into the blackness of the night.
Yaoguang stared coldly at Xuanji, who was curled within Long Fei-li’s arms. Unhappiness rose in her and she stood, taking a few graceful steps to stop next to the Emperor.
‘Your Majesty, please be appeased. Her Highness will be fine,’ she said gently.
‘Scram.’ Long Fei-li’s gaze did not leave the woman in his embrace.
The Emperor’s harsh rebuke punctured the hearts of everyone within the courtyard, disbelief and fright distorting their faces.
Were it not for Madam Ru who held onto her from behind, Yaoguang would already have fallen to the ground in shock.
Nian Songting glanced sideways to look at Minister Nian.
Minister Nian’s face was contorted in an ugly expression. ‘Your Majesty, I deserve death for what has happened,’ he said, kowtowing heavily.
Long Fei-li did not speak. Tearing a corner of his robes, he secured the cloth around Xuanji’s wound, pressing heavily upon it to prevent the blood from draining out of her.
Blood soaked his fair hands. His aristocratic eyes traced the pale face of the woman within his arms.
Suddenly, Long Fei-li wanted to laugh.
Nian Xuanji, don’t you know, if the person were to slant his sword a fraction, or if the sword were a silver sharper, your entire arm would have been sacrificed.
Don’t you know.
‘Is this how you have been keeping watch of your mistress?’
Tension surged; the Emperor’s accusation only intensified the razor-sharp feeling of danger which had seized everyone’s throats.
Diefeng forcibly held back her cries, and kowtowed furiously, ‘I deserve death, I deserve death…’
‘What use do I have for such an incapable servant?’ Long Fei-li said, without a trace of anger in his voice, yet this only caused Xia Sang’s unease to swell.
‘Xu Xi, take her away.’
The person who Long Fei-li had called for was Xu Xi. Aghast, Xia Sang gave a bitter smile, resigned. The Emperor had even stifled his last chance to plead mercy on Diefeng’s behalf.
Who within the courtyard did not understand the underlying meaning in the Emperor’s orders to have Diefeng taken away?
The Emperor wanted to kill her!
Minister Nian’s eyes drifted to Yaoguang’s trembling figure. Face ashen, he thought: had he truly prized the wrong person? Was the Emperor’s affection genuine or an act? More importantly, Xuanji’s room was located a distance from the courtyard, so how could she have appeared here in the middle of the night, dressed neatly, when an assassin was discovered to be lurking?
At this thought, Minister Nian’s face grew heavy.
Diefeng choked back her cries as she looked towards Xuanji, trembling. She did not wish to die, only, at that point in time when disaster had unfolded, she had been standing right behind Xuanji. Her Highness was stubborn, but she had not done her duty in stopping her…
‘Xu Xi.’ The ice in Long Fei-li’s eyes could not be veiled.
‘Yes, Your Majesty. I will do it right away.’
‘What do you want to do…’ A tired voice whispered from Long Fei-li’s embrace.
Long Fei-li stilled. His hand was enveloped between a person’s warm palms, and he instinctively returned the woman’s hold.
His voice, cut with ice a moment ago, softened with the hint of warmth. ‘Physician Lady Cui will be here soon. Bear with it a moment longer.’
Xuanji smiled tiredly. ‘Your Majesty, please don’t punish my servant. You personally had her allocated to me. Your Majesty, you said you wanted some supper, so I brought Diefeng out… The kitchen is not far from here, and I know I should have hidden when I heard the chaos, but… I could not help my curiosity. I ran into the guard in the chaos… this has nothing to do with Diefeng.’
Perhaps it was because the tension which had been lining his body this entire time had finally dissipated, Long Fei-li’s lips cracked into the ghost of a smile, and at last, he could not help his faint laugh.
Yet his heart tightened. His fingertips drifted across her brows, smoothing out the creases.
Apart from pardoning your servant, you also wish to dispel my suspicions of your father, is that it.
I’ve said before: I detest you. Don’t you understand?
A moment’s pause.
Then, Long Fei-li raised a hand and blocked Xuanji’s sleep acupoints, before levelling a look at Xu Xi.
Xu Xi, who had already issued an order for a guard to seize Diefeng, understood at once the Emperor’s intention to spare her.
Even though the Emperor did not speak a word, after serving by his side for years, Xu Xi was perceptive of his thoughts… Except, in all these years, it was rare for Long Fei-li to have changed his mind after arriving at a decision. Now, for Concubine Nian…
The second Diefeng was freed, she stumbled back towards Xuanji. Her fingers had not even made contact with Xuanji’s body when Long Fei-li had already lifted Xuanji into his arms.
Coldly, Long Fei-li said, ‘Minister Nian, on account of Concubine Nian, I will not be pursuing this matter. But I have no intention in letting the assassin escape scot-free, no matter if their target were you or me. Xu Xi, seal the manor.
‘Xia Sang, issue my edict: Duan Yuhuan is to deploy a thousand imperial guards over. I will be conducting a thorough investigation of the manor while it remains sealed. In this period, anyone who dares to enter and leave without grant will be executed.’
Xu Xi and Xia Sang immediately bowed and assented.
With increasing alarm, Minister Nian listened to the Emperor’s orders. How could Prince Zuoyou leave if the Nian manor were to be sealed? And if Prince Zuoyou’s presence were to be discovered by the Emperor… Moreover, the Xiongnu were still awaiting his report. If his message were to be delayed, so would the commencement of the war…
How could Nian Songting be unaware of Minister Nian’s consternation? He immediately knelt and said, ‘Your Majesty, this accident was a product of my negligence. There is no need to trouble Commander Duan. Please allow me to atone for my mistakes by conducting a thorough investigation with my subordinates.’
Long Fei-li raised a brow. Icily, ‘Since you are aware of your ineptitude in handling things, am I to gamble Concubine Nian’s safety once more by allowing you to helm the investigation?’
Nian Songting clenched his jaw, but did not dare to press on.
Long Fei-li pulled back his sleeves, gently cradling Xuanji within his arms as he departed, the imperial guards following closely behind him.
Within the courtyard, the faces of the men were lined with heaviness, while the eyes of the women glittered with shock and jealousy.
Tears welled in Madam Nian’s eyes, but her heart was comforted. Absentmindedly, she glanced at Madam Ru and Yaoguang, only to see Yaoguang’s lips part in a sudden cry of terror. At the same instants, shrieks from the other women joined Yaoguang’s.
‘Madam!’ The elderly servant who supported Madam Nian’s arm exclaimed, her voice shaky. She pointed to a distance ahead.
Terror rising, Madam Nian looked in the pointed direction. At once, her hands flew to cover her face.
The Emperor carried Xuanji with one hand; his other was gripped tight around the sheath of a long sword, which was in the process of being extracted from the chest of a guard.
Even before he could cry out, the guard’s body had already softened as he collapsed onto the ground, leaving behind only a thump of finality.
Everyone said, Emperor Qingjia was a mild-mannered ruler.
Following the fall of the Emperor’s sleeves, shocked terror imprinted the faces of everyone in the courtyard. Yaoguang shook, even as a sudden thought rose in her mind: if she were the one who was held within the Emperor’s arms…
This chapter summarises the events occurring in the Nian family manor. When translating the last scene, I suddenly remembered the chapter where LFL executed a hundred people and had an urge to translate that part now. But that chapter is still a long way to go, so, till then. ^^