Long Tianqing's disdainful snort stunned everyone watching. Nobody thought he'd be so rampant with his posturing. Leaving aside the gift he prepared for the empress dowager and emperor's face, his courageous snort along was a large boost for Emperor Tianhui!
And a huge provocation for His Highness Duke of Qin.
Everyone was lost in thought amidst the silence. In any case, Han Yunxi had to admire the fellow for having such guts! Even she wouldn't dare to look down on Long Feiye. To do that, she'd first have to be better and stronger than him. Otherwise, what was there to use as an advantage?
Emperor Tianhui's lips curved up into a smile. He seemed rather satisfied with the second imperial son's actions. The empress dowager grew interested as well. Long Tianqing only paused to snort before continuing his way forward. He was dressed in robes of icy blue that gave him a handsome, impressive air. His steps were strong and vigorous with his rousing spirit. Still, everyone was paying attention to Long Feiye instead of him. How does he feel about this?
Under the gazes of everyone present, Long Feiye's face was cold as he stood his ground. His dark pupils were so still that they seemed to resemble a spring, making it impossible for anyone to guess his thoughts. Despite this, people still stared and tried to figure him out. They were hoping to catch a glimpse of his true feelings on his face. Meanwhile, Long Tianqing had nearly reached the empress dowager. But somehow, he suddenly felt a stinging pain in his foot. He lost his balance and abruptly fell forward with a whump, sending the item in his hands sprawling as well.
Finally, he became the center of attention!
The daring and energetic prince was now completely spread out on the floor, his face pressed to the ground with his limbs akimbo. It was a terribly awkward sight before the eyes of 100 or so spectators. Long Tianqing quickly rose to his feet and opened the gift box that had fallen on the floor. But the priceless porcelain inside had long shattered into pieces.
"Who tripped me? Pay me back for my present!" he said, utterly discomfited. Vexed and furious, he stomped his feet while sporting a nose covered in dust from the ground. If anything, he looked like a clown. It would've been better if he kept quiet, because his words caused Han Yunxi to laugh out loud. With that, the entire hall broke into guffaws. Who else could have made a move against him besides Long Feiye? Was Long Tianqing an idiot, or just pretending?! No matter the case, someone who couldn't keep his cool really had lost face for his status as an imperial son. In between all the laughter, Long Feiye darted a glance at Han Yunxi. If he had really made a move, would Long Tianqing have simply tripped? Everyone thought it was him, but it was actually Han Yunxi's fault.
Long Tianqing finally realized he'd transgressed when he saw the entire hall laughing. The best thing he could've done was to stand up and keep walking without ever opening his present! This time, he'd only prepared one gift, an extremely rare piece of porcelain from ancient times. Now that it'd been shattered to pieces, where was he supposed to find a replacement? What was he supposed to do now? He could keep going to offer his congratulations, but he had no gift to give!
At this moment, a sweet and gentle voice rose up in the hall. "Second Imperial Prince need not panic. Even without a gift, the empress dowager won't blame you as long as your heart is sincere."
Following the voice lead him to a young and beautiful woman around 20 years old, with a soft and dainty beauty. Her delicate smile looked especially warm and beautiful. This was none other than Baili Yuanlong's youngest daughter, Baili Mingxiang.[1 Baili Mingxiang () - Mingxiang can be read as "the fragrance of tender tea leaves.] Despite being the youngest daughter, she wasn't very young anymore. She had long reached marriageable age and had countless suitors, but refused to marry any of them.
Her words wouldn't have counted for much in the past, but by saying them right after the Duke of Qin and Baili Yuanlong had failed to give gifts, she was simply taunting Long Tianqing! Even Emperor Tianhui and the empress dowager were shooting her glowering looks. Han Yunxi looked over as well, but discovered something different about this beauty. She had intelligence shining from her eyes.
Gentle yet magnanimous, she was like a needle hidden in silk floss-a ruthless girl behind a harmless appearance. Compared to the young ladies of other established families, she was much more outstanding.
"Baili Mingxiang, there's no place here for you to-" the second imperial son was about to flip out when Emperor Tianhui cut him off.
"Enough! Why aren't you withdrawing yet?!"
"Imperial Father..." Long Tianqing panicked.
"Withdraw!" Emperor Tianhui was furious.
Long Tianqing was extremely unreconciled, but he had no choice but to retreat. And yet, he stopped on the way back to snort at Long Feiye and Han Yunxi again. This time, it wasn't a disdainful snort, but one filled with anger. Finally, Long Feiye shifted his gaze to stare at Long Tianqing. A single glance was enough to make the imperial prince feel that temperatures had plummeted. He was originally planning to give it his all at the banquet today, since Imperial Father and the Duke of Qin would definitely be at odds when it was over. Naturally, he wanted to use his father's favorite methods to express his stance. But at the sight of the Duke of Qin's eyes, he started to regret his choice.
Long Tianqing seem to flee to his seat. He'd barely sat down when the Prime Minister of the Left Xiao Zhengxin, stood up with wine cup in hand. "This old official congratulates Esteemed Empress Dowager on your birthday. May Esteemed Empress Dowager's phoenix body be in good health!"
When he finished, he downed the wine and sat down without taking out a single gift. Because he'd finished his actions so quickly, none of the participants in the audience hall had time to react, including the empress dowager and Emperor Tianhui. After all, this Prime Minister of the Left was the second imperial son's maternal grandfather! How could he...how could he be one of His Highness Duke of Qin's men?
Very soon, another important official stood up. He too, made a toast without a gift. This man was Zhao Ziling,1 the Minister of Revenue. But everyone had always known him as part of the second imperial son's faction! Following him, various high-ranking officials and ministers of the court, including Grand Preceptor Li Xiuyi,2 Junior Mentor3 Lin Botong4, Grand Academician5 Ouyang Ming6 and so on rose with toasts and no gifts. The second imperial son was stunned by the sight, because all of these men were supposed to be part of his faction!
How could this be?
Long Tianqing finally felt regret for acting so impulsively! Without the support of these influential officials, how was he supposed to compete against the crown prince and other imperial sons? What would he use to fight for the throne?!
Currently, Emperor Tianhui's face was completely black! The power and connections held by these officials, as well as the departments they controlled, were all critical sections of his government, especially the Prime Minister of the Left. This wasn't just a fatal blow to the second imperial son, but a strong force that kept him in check as well! Long Feiye's methods were simply mocking him outright with utter humiliation! He glared at the man, who happened to be looking his way. The two brothers silently measured each other up as the hall fell silent, too nervous to speak.
Even so, more people stood up to make their toasts. Official Jing7 of the third rank8, Marquis Pingbei, the Rong family of Luo City, and the Feng family of Ze City, etc., all followed one after the other to stand up at their seats and offer a toast without giving any presents. All this, despite the fact that their gifts were sitting prominently at their tables! None of them would dare provoke the imperial clan on their own, but Long Feiye had given them the courage! The empress dowager's face shifted between shades of white and sickly green, looking utterly ghastly. She clearly saw the presents these guests had brought upon entering the hall, but now she wasn't getting a single one. She didn't even hear much of their toasts or congratulations, so caught up in her thoughts. A perfectly good birthday banquet had been made into a joke by Long Feiye.
This was simply a coup d'état!
Emperor Tianhui was so enraged that his chest was heaving. Even though there were many high-ranking officials who stood up in opposition to the Duke of Qin to toast and present their gifts, even though he and the empress dowager had much more influential officials on their side, he still couldn't pacify his fury. After all, imperial power didn't tolerate such provocation. Tonight, he'd counted a total of 27 officials who'd directly provoked him. It was a disgrace to his name and a fearsome counter in Long Feiye's hands. Long Feiye had used reality to prove that he had the skills and strength to oppose his authority.
The birthday banquet was still going on, and people were still presenting their gifts, but it didn't matter who gave what anymore. Emperor Tianhui stared at Long Feiye from beginning to end, deeply regretting the fact that he hadn't killed the man when he was younger. After all, he was already 20 years old when this little brother of his was still in swaddling clothes. If he had the foresight back then, he could've stopped the late emperor and his special decree of amnesty to the Duke of Qin.
And yet, Long Feiye was as steady as Mt. Tai despite making such large waves. He wore a quiet expression as if he was simply an observer from above, coldly seeing through every person present. Currently, he was looking with interest at Great General Mu, who had just finished giving a present to the empress dowager. He had given a very common gift that wouldn't offend anyone nor curry any favors. It was obvious that he'd chosen a middling path. Han Yunxi sat silently by Long Feiye's side, finally realizing how she'd underestimated the man. Actually, he probably could have gotten himself out of house arrest back then without her help, either. She even foolishly brought up the idea of using the Medicine Fan to exchange for favors. Really, how stupid!
She stared at his side profile and discovered for the first time that she couldn't get enough of his looks. Even looking at the side of his face was enough to make her heart pound. Finally, as the nobility and officials finished giving their gifts, it was time for the foreign guests to take their turn. These guests had long heard of Tianning's Duke of Qin and his mighty reputation, but this was their first time seeing his capabilities in person. Indeed, it was just like the rumors said. He wasn't someone to provoke!
Chu Qingge's line of sight had never left Long Feiye, her cold face hiding her flaming heart. She always knew that this man was like some god, fierce and strong. But after witnessing his strength first hand, she felt like submitting to his feet right then and there.
"Big bro, let's not give any presents either," she murmured. Her brother had been angry at her even since he rescued her from the restaurant that day. He'd criticized her for stirring up trouble in Tianning's capital city, but she only felt wronged and stopped talking to him altogether. Today, she finally gave in to the urge to speak.
"That's not for us to decide," Chu Tianyin said mildly. Though he'd been amazed by Long Feiye as well, his focus was still on Han Yunxi. That considering gaze seemed to be searching for something on her body.
At this moment, someone near their table stood up. It was Mu Linger, who was here...to represent the entirety of Medicine City.
1. Zhao Ziling () - Zhao is a surname, Zi is a noun suffix that sometimes means "son," and Ling is "hill/mound, tomb/mausoleum."
2. Li Xiuyi () - Li is a surname that also means "plum," Xiu means "to cultivate/embellish/decorate," and Yi means "one."
3. Junior Mentor () - a title award to only the most eminent officials based on their great achievements and merit in the government. Part of the sangu, or Three Solitaries, which was irregularly used throughout Chinese history as the official name for 3 posts in the topmost echelons of the government, the other two being Junior Preceptor shaoshi and Junior Guardian shaobao.
4. Lin Botong () - Lin is a surname that means "forest/woods/grove," Bo is typically a word used to indicate the eldest son, Tong is "paulownia," also known as the phoenix tree.
5. Grand Academician () - a position tasked with the job of tutoring the heir apparent to the throne as well as assisting the emperor with his paperwork, including recommending imperial action on memorials and preparing edicts. They worked primarily with the inner court and were considered equals to Prime Ministers/Grand Chancellors.
6. Ouyang Ming () - Ouyang is a two-character surname, Ming means the cry of birds or animals.
7. Jing () - "peaceful, quiet, tranquil."
8. Third rank () - guogong is his official rank, also known as the Duke of State, which ranks in the top third of the nine official ranks in the Chinese imperial government. He was mentioned a few times in previous chapters, specifically as one of the carriages that accompanied Grand Concubine Yi, Han Yunxi, and Murong Wanru on the way to the Spring Hunt before they were ambushed by assassins.