Chapter 149: Secret, carefree spirits
Three days later, the Plum Blossom Meet began.
The imperial plum tree orchards on the outskirts of the capital were filled with fragrance. Plum blossoms were in full bloom in large swathes of red and pink. From a distance, it looked like a sea of flowers, dreamlike and almost illusory.
This year, the exceptionally flourishing plum blossoms had bloomed remarkably early. Beneath the flowering trees, spaces had been set up for a banquet. Princess Changping and Crown Prince Long Tianmo sat side-by-side at the head table. On the crown prince's left was Western Zhou's Princess Rongle, Duanmu Yao.
Though a few refined and tasteful scholars had joined the banquet, the majority of its guests were still female. Long Tianmo hadn't wanted to come, but last night his imperial father had commanded him to go entertain the guest of honor. A few days earlier, he'd caught rumors that Imperial Qin Uncle had been spending all his time with Princess Rongle. It seemed like those rumors were false.
Nothing was more merciless than an imperial house. Regardless of whether they were concubines or consorts, the woman of an imperial clan were all tools in the end. When they were useful, others fought and competed for the chance to praise them to the skies. When they were useless, they were discarded like a shabby, worn-out shoe. The same could be said for the woman currently being accompanied by the crown prince.
If Duanmu Yao wanted to marry him, he could do it without blinking in an instant. Sadly, everyone knew that Duanmu Yao's heart was set on the Duke of Qin. Western Zhou and Tianning might have been allies via marriage alliances, but each had their own calculations and schemes. Imperial Father had urged him to quickly marry Princess Rongle so the two countries could grow closer, especially with the constant skirmishes happening on the northeast border. The sooner the two countries could work together, the better they could resist their enemies.
However, Western Zhou's emperor had long replied that Princess Rongle should personally seek out her ideal husband before she chose to marry.
Aside from the Duke of Qin, what other ideal husband could there be?
But despite this being an open secret, Duanmu Yao still hadn't expressed her intentions. No one else dared to uncover Imperial Qin Uncle's intentions. As a result, things had stalled.
"Yao Yao, try some of this plum blossom tea. You can only drink it in Tianning." Long Tianmo tried to search for a topic as he attempted to close their distance with 'Yao Yao.' Unfortunately, Duanmu Yao left him no face as she called him by his title to maintain their distance.
"Your Highness Crown Prince, isn't it more fitting to call me Princess Rongle?"
Long Tianmo was inwardly angry, but hid it very well. This woman was very beautiful and was truly thricely talented in the arts, martial prowess, and appearances. But deep in his heart, he couldn't esteem her at all. If not for the fact that she was Western Zhou's princess, he wouldn't spare her another glance.
Though he was furious, Long Tianmo's tone remained temperate and mild. "I heard that Imperial Qin Uncle will be leaving on a journey after New Year's. Does Princess Rongle know where he's going?"
At his words, Duanmu Yao turned to look at him directly, face full of shock. She hadn't gone home with her imperial brother precisely because she wanted to spend the New Year's in Tianning. Her hope was that she could settle her marriage when the new year came, but senior brother was actually planning to leave!
Emperor Tianhui had privately promised that she'd be able to find her ideal husband. Did his words still hold water?
Long Tianmo was very satisfied with Duanmu Yao's reaction. "Princess Rongle doesn't seem to know of this news. It looks like we'll have to wait for Imperial Qin Aunt to arrive and ask her." So speaking, he lifted his tea for a sip and spoke no more.
But Duanmu Yao's face had completely changed! Han Yunxi? Could Han Yunxi know the movements of her senior brother? How was that possible? By now, most of the guests had already arrived and were chatting amongst themselves. Of course, the most popular topic revolved around Han Yunxi.
Would she come?
The Plum Blossom Meet was not only a contest of interpersonal relationships, but a place to flaunt one's talents. Han Yunxi had no relationships here to speak of, nor any best friends in this circle of females. As for talent...that would be today's focal point! She was born from a commoner family. Could medical science really be mentioned with imperial nobility in the same breath?
Moreover, she'd been neglected since birth, so she hadn't been nurtured or particularly cultivated. What kind of talents could she have? What kind of confidence gave her the resolve to attend the Plum Blossom Meet? It wasn't just a place to simply eat and chat. Rumors had it that multiple parties in and out of the palace had bet on whether Han Yunxi would even dare to show up today.
And yet, in the midst of their whispers, an eunuch loudly announced, "Qin Wangfei arrives...Miss Wanru arrives..."
She came? She really dared?
In an instant, everyone followed the sound of the voice to see Han Yunxi arrive in elegant, exquisite white robes that covered her body like snow. Her only ornament was the sash at her waist, decorated with a plum blossom-shaped jade. The red jade and white skirts made a simple combination that seemed to make her shine in comparison, completely dominating her extravagantly-dressed opponents.
By her side, Murong Wanru also appeared dim and dull.
With Han Yunxi's standing, the people present had to rise and welcome her despite their own reluctance. It was only Duanmu Yao who remained sitting languidly, making her stick out all the more amongst her standing peers. Only after Han Yunxi had walked closer did she lazily get up without even a proper greeting.
"Long time no see." She disliked calling her esteemed wangfei, but hated calling her Qin Wangfei even more!
Han Yunxi not only kept her temper, but actually smiled harmlessly back. "Princess Rongle must have come for quite a few days now. I thought your senior brother would bring you home for tea, but who knew that you never showed up despite all my waiting?" Soon after that, she assumed the attitude for a mistress of the house. "How's this? After this gathering's over, you can come back with me and have tea in my courtyard."
Didn't she care whether Duanmu Yao would really marry into the Duke of Qin's estate? Or about Long Feiye's attitude? In any case, she had already steeled her heart. No matter who wanted to bully her or give her looks, she wouldn't give them any chance!
Duanmu Yao's hands clenched into fists inside her sleeves. Without a doubt, Han Yunxi's words had hit her sore spot. She didn't even know where she placed in the Duke of Qin's heart. He'd only accompanied her that day because Emperor Tianhui forced her to. Senior brother hadn't spoken more than five sentences to me the entire day!
"All right, then I'll find a time to come over and play with senior brother one day!" Duanmu Yao suppressed her temper to reply. Han Yunxi, don't get anxious so soon. There'll be a good show for you when I do come!
Han Yunxi settled into her place between Duanmu Yao and Long Tianmo. Murong Wanru had no such special treatment, and could only sit with the rest of the guests below. Princess Changping had kept silent the whole time to shoot glances at Han Yunxi. There was a cold smile in her heart. Today's gathering had been especially assembled for Han Yunxi's sake!
Han Yunxi would be the main event, but it'd only show off her incompetence!
Compared to Princess Changping, Crown Prince Long Tianmo was much more polite. As soon as Han Yunxi sat down, he started to speak. "Imperial Qin Aunt, I heard that Imperial Qin Uncle is planning to travel after the New Year's?"
His voice wasn't very loud, but it was enough for Duanmu Yao to overhear. Undoubtedly, he was doing it on purpose. Even if he didn't like it, he had to fight for Duanmu Yao. Once he got her, he'd have to kill off her affections for the Duke of Qin. Han Yunxi didn't expect Long Tianmo to suddenly ask her about Long Feiye's affairs. In truth, she was completely ignorant about such a thing. All right, so she knew even less about his other matters, too.
She was about to reply honestly when she caught a glimpse of Duanmu Yao's hostile gaze. Han Yunxi could admit that she had evil ideas when she easily replied, "Where did you hear that from? The Duke of Qin's only told me about this."
Long Tianmo smiled. "Of course I heard about it from Imperial Father."
Duanmu Yao narrowed her eyes. Emperor Tianhui clearly knew that Long Feiye was leaving, so why didn't he tell her? Abominable!
"Imperial Qin Aunt, where is Imperial Uncle planning to go? And for how long?" Long Tianmo asked again.
"Why don't you ask your Imperial Father?" Han Yunxi said carelessly.
"Imperial Father's not clear either, so...he told me to come ask you!" Long Tianmo lowered his voice.
Han Yunxi smiled, her face full of mystery. "It's a secret!"
Technically speaking, she really had no idea why Long Tianmo was asking these things. But seeing Duanmu Yao's gloomy face, she couldn't help but feel very carefree. She discovered that Duanmu Yao and Long Feiye weren't actually all that close. At the very least, Duanmu Yao was on even footing with herself, and didn't know about Long Feiye's affairs after the New Year's. Thinking up to here, Han Yunxi's heart felt much more at ease without her even realizing it. In the middle of their idle talk, the eunuch's high, clear voice attracted the attention of the guests again.
"Marquis Pingbei's estate, Lord Che arrives...Marquis Pingnan's estate, Lord Mu arrives!"
The two young lords of Marquis Pingbei and Pingnan were known as the North and South Lords. They had a considerable reputation, but it was a bad one.
Marquis Pingbei's son by his first wife was named Zhangsun Che, or whom people commonly called the North Lord. He was dressed in white robes and held a fan, appearing eminently outstanding, refined, and tasteful. His talents laid not only in his scholarly learning, but his romantic nature. This year he was only 18 years old, but he already had ten houses' fill of maids and concubines. Rumors had it that he even went after his father's youngest concubine. He was more or less a beast in human skin.
Marquis Pingnan's son by his first wife was named Li Muge, or whom people commonly called the South Lord. He was dressed in purple robes and also held a fan. At first glance, he appeared free from the dirt of mortal cares, as if he was an immortal cast down from the Heavens. But closer scrutiny would pick up on how he held he positioned his fingers like a lotus flower and walked with small quick steps. His gentle and reserved nature was more feminine than a female, and it was an open secret that he was a longyang, or gay.
The appearance of the North and South Lords elicited a restless stir from the crowd. Elegant, free and easy men were poison to women, while gentle and reserved men were women's best confidantes. Both of these lords were quite high-class.
Princess Changping had invited quite a few men to these gatherings, but she'd never found these two before today. Why was that?
Ignoring the discussions popping up around her, Princess Changping shot Murong Wanru a searching glance, which the latter replied with a significant look. The two of them reached a tacit understanding as if sharing a secret. Han Yunxi was bewildered as she looked towards the North and South Lords, feeling that something was off. But she couldn't tell what it might be.
Soon enough, everyone arrived and the gathering began...
This year's Plum Blossom Meet featured plum blossom tea as the main course of interest, along with various original approaches to cakes, pastries, and drinks. Unfortunately, most of the people had no mood to sample the snacks. They were all looking towards the Han Yunxi sitting high up with a mixture of admiration and envy. More were itching to see her fall into disgrace. A commoner with inferior birth to all of them was a humiliation to the "Qin Wangfei" title, but she could actually sit so calm and composed in that seat of honor.
Today, their chance had come to strike against her until she assumed her original form. They'd find holes in her laughable pride and blind arrogance and teach her a lesson: even if she treated herself as a head of onion, nobody would pick her for their dipping sauces! Before Princess Changping could even speak, someone had already reached their limit. This person was none other than the youngest daughter of the magistrate of the Board of Civil Offices, Lady Xu's little sister Xu Yunrong.
She stood up and respectfully said, "Your Highness, princess, since the plum blossoms are blooming so well this year, why don't we compose poems for them!"
Composing poems for the plum blossoms...
Princess Changping was waiting for someone to speak up. She rejoiced so much at the suggestion that she stood up in delight. "Miss Xu is so tasteful and refined, this is a good idea!"
 Mariquis Pingbei...Marquis Pingnan () - Marquis North Ping and South Ping, respectively. Ping is a character that can mean 'peace, even, level.'
 Zhangsun Che () - Zhangsun is a two-character surname, the words together also mean "eldest grandson." Che is "clear, limpid," usually used to describe water.
 Li Muge () - Li is a common surname also meaning "plum," Muge together means "pastoral song, madrigal."
 positioned his fingers like a lotus flower () - lianhua zhi, a feminine way of holding one's hands found commonly in classical Chinese dance, in which the four finger splay out, with the thumb coming to the center of the palm to meet the middle finger. All in all, the effect resembles the petals of a flower. Sometimes called orchid hands, or lanhua zhi ().
 Xu Yunrong () - Xu is a surname meaning "slowly, gently," Yun is "cloud," and Rong is "tolerate, appearance, permit."