Chapter 162: New Year's Eve, shielding shortcomings at the family banquet
On New Year's Eve, the palace was adorned with colorful festoons and lanterns to liven up the scenery. The family feast was held in the empress dowager's Peace & Wellness Palace. Just like Zhao mama had said, it was a large dinner that had everyone sitting around the same round table. There were no other superfluous programs. Even so, a few mouths could be enough to cause trouble here.
It was rare for the empress dowager and Grand Concubine Yi to be sitting together. Emperor Tianhui and Long Feiye sat on the empress dowager's left, followed by the crown prince and other imperial sons. The empress and Han Yunxi were on Grand Concubine Yi's right. Han Yunxi was still young, but only at this setting did she perceive her order of seniority in the family. Originally speaking, she should've been on equal terms with the empress.
Duanmu Yao sat right next to Han Yunxi. Everyone had already starting eating dinner, but there was no sign of Princess Changping anywhere. The mama said she was just in a side room, preparing a New Year's gift for the empress dowager that would be an unthinkable surprise.
"This Changping certainly knows how to take her time," the empress scolded unhappily.
"Just humor her. I'm still waiting to see her surprise," the empress dowager replied with a smile.
Grand Concubine Yi drew her lips up in a disdainful smile as she quietly picked up food with her chopsticks. She didn't speak since it would be awkward to talk about events at the Plum Blossom Meet here. After all, it was her family's Murong Wanru that had lost face. Eunuch Li's dereliction of duty had resulted in his death by the empress's hands. This also counted as the empress settling accounts with Grand Concubine Yi.
Long Feiye and Emperor Tianhui were whispering in each others' ears. Though everyone saw them, it was inconvenient to interrupt. After all, these brothers wouldn't be speaking of casual matters so secretly. A family feast was a chance for a family to reunite. Elders could show solicitude for the younger generation, who in turn could ask after their health. The empress dowager was sitting in a hall full of grandsons. Naturally, she asked after this one and that one, her face wreathed in smiles and her mood excellent. Occasionally, she speak a few lines to Grand Concubine Yi, who had yet to hold any grandchildren. Sometimes she'd reply with a smile, but the expression never reached her eyes.
Soon enough, the empress dowager's attention settled on Princess Rongle. Actually, both the empress dowager and the empress wished that Princess Rongle could marry the crown prince. Unfortunately, her heart was completely set on the Duke of Qin. A marriage alliance was no child's play, much less a simple affair between two families. It held the major considerations of two countries and put Tianning and Western Zhou's cooperation at stake, especially their mutual trust on the battlefield. As a result, even if the empress dowager and empress were unsatisfied, they didn't dare interfere but stood on Emperor Tianhui's side, hoping that the Duke of Qin would agree to this marriage.
"Princess Rongle, you mustn't be so polite. Someone, hurry and pour Princess Rongle some wine."
"Esteemed empress dowager is the one who's polite. Yao Yao can do it myself."
The empress dowager had spent fastidious care on Duanmu Yao, who'd long gotten wind of the stiff relations between her and Grand Concubine Yi. Naturally, she didn't dare act too familiar with the empress dowager in front of Grand Concubine Yi, but she maintained her courtesy and face.
"Come, Yao Yao. Eat more vegetables."
"Grand Imperial Concubine, Yao Yao doesn't dare receive your care. It should be Yao Yao getting vegetables for you."
Grand Concubine Yi personally got vegetables for Duanmu Yao, who refilled Grand Concubine Yi's soup bowl in turn. The two of them hadn't yet become mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, but were already behaving like mother and daughter. As far as logic went, Han Yunxi should be the star of the feast since she had newly married into the imperial family. But ever since the beginning of the meal, she'd been given the cold shoulder, as if the bustle of this table had nothing to do with her. Still, she was at ease as she quietly ate her meal and listened to them talk. The hypocrisy and sincerity in their speech was rather obvious to her ears.
The empress dowager darted her a look before finally speaking. "Yunxi, is there any news?"
Han Yunxi raised her head in confusion. What news? Meanwhile, Grand Concubine Yi's face had suddenly turned gloomy.
"Muhou, it looks like there's nothing after all. Look at her reaction, she probably doesn't even know what you're asking about. She's already married but she still acts like a unmarried girl," the empress teased.
Han Yunxi was really at a loss. Why were they suddenly asking her if she had news? What kind of news?
Seeing her expression, the empress dowager suddenly laughed out loud and looked towards Grand Concubine Yi. "Little sister, this girl from your family...is she pretending not to understand, or does she really not know? You didn't teach her anything?"
Grand Concubine Yi heaved a soft sigh filled with emotion. "She's only been married for half a year and the Duke of Qin's so busy that he's hardly seen around the house. How could there be any news so soon?"
At these words, Han Yunxi finally understood what it meant to 'have news.' The empress dowager was asking if she was pregnant yet! She immediately found things awkward and lowered her head, her cheeks a little red. Long Feiye and her were just a couple in name at most. Even their drop of red from the wedding night had all been a sham, so how could her stomach have any news?
"So there's really no news yet?" the empress dowager asked while clearly knowing the answer. She even adopted an expression of well-intentioned concern. Grand Concubine Yi didn't even want to answer, but only shot Han Yunxi a cold glance, hinting that she should reply by herself.
This 'having news' and 'drop of red on the white handkerchief' were one and the same principle. They didn't ask after the process, but the results. Although things like this needed efforts from both sides, a lack of results would typically be blamed on the female party. This was especially true in the Imperial Clan, since no one would tolerate calling its men into question!
Grand Concubine Yi said nothing more. Besides the ones who were listening to Emperor Tianhui and Long Feiye talk, everyone else at the table had focused on Han Yunxi. As a woman, there was no other method beyond bearing a child to establish herself securely in a household! This was especially true for a commoner like Han Yunxi who had married into a rich and powerful aristocratic family. Having a child was even more important for her standing. Not being able to issue children was one of the seven reasons to divorce a wife. In the stillness of the atmosphere, even the imperial concubines sitting on the sides turned their heads to look around before devolving into gossip.
Although Han Yunxi's face was a little red, she she spoke calmly without misgivings. "There's none yet."
What else could she do besides act calm?
Her words elicited a round of secret laughs from the people around her. Behind Han Yunxi sat Noble Consort Xiao at the head of her table. She leaned over and spoke in a low voice, "It's already been half a year. Even if the Duke of Qin's busy all day, there's no reason that... Han Yunxi, ah, have Imperial Physician Xue have a look when you go back. He's an expert when it comes to things like this."
Though her voice was low, many others still heard her speak. Another round of secret laughter swept past them, while Han Yunxi only felt that she'd turned into a target of public criticism. But regarding this problem, she didn't take the initiative, nor did she have any room to explain herself. Of course, such a topic wasn't appropriate for a family feast. The empress dowager was already satisfied from seeing Grand Concubine Yi's unpleasant expression.
When she saw that everything had run its course, she withdrew the topic and gave Han Yunxi a platform to get down from the spotlight. "Duke of Qin, this would be your wrong. No matter how busy you are, you shouldn't give Yunxi the cold shoulder."
Originally, the empress dowager thought that the Duke of Qin hadn't been listening. At most, he'd just nod. Unexpectedly, Long Feiye raised his head with perfect awareness of all that had happened. His tone was mild as he spoke. "Empress Dowager has rebuked rightly. Erchen shall strive to continue my efforts."
Suddenly, the scene turned into an uproar. Nobody expected the Duke of Qin to have this kind of attitude. Duanmu Yao was gaping as if she'd been struck with a heavy weight. In her heart, senior brother was a godly figure who was forever elevated and unpolluted. She had no idea he could say such dubious-sounding words. Many women in the hall suddenly felt their faces turn red, to speak nothing of Han Yunxi's own face.
'Strive to continue my efforts,' such words really stirred the imagination to infinite depths!
How is he planning to continue his efforts?!
She even starting imagining how before she stopped herself. Han Yunxi couldn't resist stealing a peek at that venerated deity sitting across from her, only to see Long Feiye looking back at her without batting an eye. She immediately looked away and missed the flash of amusement in his gaze. The empress dowager pursed her lips, uncertain of how to reply. As for Grand Concubine Yi, she was in stark disbelief despite being his mother. She thought back to how the drop of red had came about the handkerchief in the past. Judging from Feiye's words now, he was protecting Han Yunxi.
If he hadn't spoke up, the 'having news' question would plague Han Yunxi in the coming days. His words ensured that many of the people present wouldn't bring it up again. How could a personality like her son's be willing to help Han Yunxi this way? Grand Concubine Yi realized that she was beginning to understand him less and less.
Emperor Tianhui had a complicated expression as he studied Long Feiye before saying teasingly, "Duke of Qin, you only have one wangfei in your entire estate and you're already giving her the cold shoulder. When the new year comes, what will you do if a new person comes in? You can't be like this then."
A new person coming in the new year was a blatant reference to the marriage alliance. And that new person would be none other than Duanmu Yao. This should be Emperor Tianhui's first time bringing up the marriage alliance in a public setting. Although his words were veiled, everyone present understood the meaning behind them. Duanmu Yao had even joined in on the family feast. Add that to Emperor Tianhui's speech, and everyone assumed that the recent rumors regarding the marriage alliance were eighty or ninety percent true.
Long Tianmo picked up a goblet of wine and polished it off in one gulp. Though others couldn't see through the acting, he did. Grand Concubine Yi had brought Duanmu Yao to the family feast, while Imperial Father had asked such a question in public. The two of them were joining hands to apply pressure to the Duke of Qin so he had no way to refuse, right?
It looked like the matter was set!
He could let go of the fact that he couldn't marry the woman he liked, but he didn't expect to miss out on a woman he didn't like, either. Thinking up to here, he poured himself another goblet of wine.
A conclusion was a conclusion, but everyone still hoped that the Duke of Qin could personally agree to the arrangement. Duanmu Yao grew nervous, her cheeks dusted with pink as she waited for Long Feiye to reply. At the same time, Han Yunxi was waiting as well, her face still red from her previous blushing. Once again, she looked towards Long Feiye. Once again, she met his deep, profound stare. He was looking at her again. Han Yunxi wanted to avert her eyes, but for some reason, she didn't this time. She only kept her gaze on him and waited. Everyone said that locking gazes with each other was a form of wordless communication. But Han Yunxi didn't have anything to tell Long Feiye. She was just waiting. Yet when Long Feiye saw her serious stare, his lips rose into a light curve.
In the ensuing silence, he said, "Your lordship is already too busy to properly attend to one wangfei. We might as well forget about any new person."
His words fell on the hall like a thunderbolt on the banquet table, shocking everyone so much that their hearts nearly stopped. What did Long Feiye say?!
Silence descended upon the scene. Emperor Tianhui's complexion turned stormy, while Grand Concubine Yi shot him a fierce glare. The empress dowager and empress were so astonished that they didn't know what to do.
Suddenly, Duanmu Yao gave an angry shout and shot to her feet before turning to flee. The same time she turned, she knocked over her bowl of soup, which trickled onto Han Yunxi's clothes.
Grand Concubine Yi chased after her in a flurry. "Yao Yao! Yao Yao, wait!"
Han Yunxi was covered in soup but ignored it to look at Long Feiye. Inexplicably, her lips drew into a small smile. Right now, the one thing she wanted to asked him was whether he did this on purpose. Did he wait for a public setting before announcing his refusal? Otherwise, why did he keep silent all the times before?
This man, how thoroughly wicked!
 Peace & Wellness () - kangning, which literally means 'healthy and free from worry.'
 Noble Consort () - guifei, a title for the highest-ranking imperial concubine.