Chapter 313: Respectable, winning without playing
Han Yunxi was very satisfied upon seeing the empress dowager's look of surprise verging on tears. She originally thought that the Medicine Fan wouldn't need to show its face, but it ended up being useful after all! She lazily straightened up to lean against her seat, the fan in her hands waving languidly as it reveal glimpses of the medicinal plants embroidered on each side. The empress dowager's eyes followed Han Yunxi's every movement as if afraid she'd seen the wrong thing. As if, a single missed glance would cause the Medicine Fan to disappear entirely!
The empress dowager liked getting gifts, but that was simply her enjoying the feeling of respect from her guests and surprises from unexpected presents. Compared to that, she had a serious need for Han Yunxi's fan! Chu Qingge was still standing in the same spot, waiting for the empress dowager to speak. But after stopping mid-sentence, the woman had ignored her completely. She had no idea why the old empress dowager had blanked out!
Han Yunxi and Long Feiye had caused enough trouble at the birthday banquet, so the old empress dowager should treat them ruthlessly. If she couldn't best Long Feiye, how could she ever let Han Yunxi off? Why wasn't the empress dowager seizing her chance?
"Esteemed Empress Dowager, Qin Wangfei's such a bully. You have to be the judge and support my case!" Chu Qingge's words turned even more blunt.
"Aiya, Miss Chu, everyone was watching. How did I ever bully you? When did I agree to anything?" Han Yunxi's unperturbed mood was enough to anger a girl to death.
Chu Qingge was a woman with high aspirations. She didn't want to waste words with a hoodlum like Han Yunxi, but kept her gaze on the empress dowager. If this was before, the empress dowager would've long forced Han Yunxi to come forward even without Chu Qingge's urging. But now she was irresolute. Her mind was wholly absorbed in thinking of ways to get the Medicine Fan from Han Yunxi. Han Yunxi was a woman who was open to persuasion, but not coercion. It wouldn't do to take the fan by force. What if she made Han Yunxi unhappy and the latter burned the fan instead? Where would she find another one?
She had to take it slowly and strategically!
At a time like this, thought the empress dowager, it's better not to provoke Han Yunxi. They were already as incompatible as fire and water. If she gave Han Yunxi another reason to hold a grudge, even strategic schemes to win the fan might prove ineffective.
Everyone in the hall was silent. Chu Qingge kept waiting until she felt like she was singing her own tune in a one-woman show.
Say something, old Empress Dowager! If you don't speak up, where am I supposed to put my pride?
Finally, Chu Qingge couldn't take it anymore. So what if she was supposed to be some proud and haughty ice queen? Angry and impatient, she made a Grand now at the empress dowager and cried, "Empress Dowager of Tianning, everyone is watching! Please support Qingge!"
Finally, the empress dowager turned to look at her. "Miss Chu, please rise."
Chu Qingge took a deep breath before she straightened up and resumed her arrogant expression. As long as the Empress Dowager cooperated with her, it'd be useless no matter what Han Yunxi said.
But who could've guess the empress dowager's next words? "It's true that Qin Wangfei never agreed to play a song. That was a joke at most, so Miss Chu shouldn't take it seriously."
Chu Qingge was thunderstruck. Her eyes turned blank as her entire body stiffened. Did I hear the wrong thing? What did the empress dowager say?
"Esteemed Empress Dowager is wise and brilliant! As this wangfei sees it, Miss Chu's qin skills are truly exceptional. How about she play another piece to accompany us and our wine?" Han Yunxi covered her smile with the Medicine Fan as she spoke, looking quite coy.
'Accompany us and our wine?'
If Han Yunxi hadn't compared her work to that of a servant, this comment wouldn't have elicited much reaction. But Han Yunxi had clearly stated that she wasn't some servant, so she wouldn't seek public attention in such a blatant manner. Now she was telling Chu Qingge to not only amuse the guests, but accompany their drinks with her music!
Who does she think I am?! Even if her status wasn't as high as Qin Wangfei, she was still the eldest daughter of Western Zhou's Chu Clan, the most respected family after the imperial clan! Chu Qingge had a haughty personality. Now she was so angry that her face was red and nearly on the verge of tears. She glared hatefully at the empress dowager, unable to fathom why the woman had spoken such words. The empress dowager was stuck in a tight spot as well. She didn't want to offend Han Yunxi, but neither did she wish to hurt Chu Qingge. She was trying to figure out a way to calm down the dispute so Chu Qingge could return to her seat when Han Yunxi spoke up lazily again.
"Esteemed Empress Dowager, have Miss Chu play another piece, won't you? She played so well that I still want her to continue!" As she spoke, she purposely laid the Medicine Fan on the table and tapped it a few times.
That movement... The empress dowager grew alarmed! Could it be that Han Yunxi already knew she'd been desperately searching for this fan for ages? Was the girl aware of her insomnia? Thinking back, she realized that the Duke of Qin was well in the know. In that case, it wouldn't be strange if Han Yunxi knew, either. It was even possible that he'd given Qin Wangfei the fan himself!
Is she threatening me? Damned girl! The empress dowager cursed silently, but she couldn't resist the temptation of the Medicine Fan. Suffering sleepless nights for over twenty years was a fate worse than death! It was enough to make her give up all the resentment she held in the past.
If Han Yunxi's really threatening me, then that means I still have a chance at that fan. Mhm, I can't be rash. I have to do this strategically!
"Heheh, I haven't gotten enough of it either. Miss Chu, could you play us another piece?" the empress dowager smiled as she pandered to Han Yunxi.
Chu Qingge couldn't believe her ears. Her vision swam as she narrowly fainted from rage. Who could tell her what was going on? Had the empress dowager lost her mind? Or had she been possessed?! The old woman was actually protecting Han Yunxi! Truthfully, there were few in the hall who could explain things to Chu Qingge, because everyone else found the scene unbelievable as well. Even Emperor Tianhui hadn't recognized the Medicine Fan and was left bewildered. What was wrong with his imperial mother?
Though Emperor Tianhui wanted to help Chu Qingge, these were women's matters. Because he hadn't interfered in the start, it'd be hard to poke his nose in now. Moreover, he feared that once he did, Long Feiye would start to meddle as well. If the man pulled out some other tricks, he might suffer yet another loss. Emperor Tianhui hadn't feared Long Feiye before the birthday banquet and only yielded him three parts. But now he feared Long Feiye three parts in turn. He stared at Long Feiye, who was still leisurely sipping his wine with an expressionless face, before deciding that things were too uncertain to make a move. Muhou must have a reason for acting this way. I'll ask her about it later.
"Esteemed Empress Dowager!" Chu Qingge felt greatly wronged.
"What, Miss Chu isn't willing to play another piece for me?" the empress dowager wore a face full of disappointment.
Hearing this, Chu Qingge nearly spat out blood. What a beastly bully! Utterly abominable!
On the side, Duanmu Baiye and Chu Tianyin watched, the latter with furrowed eyebrows. This little sister of his was really unlucky and lamentable! He'd long warned her not to strike back against Han Yunxi, but she simply wouldn't listen. If father gets word of this, I won't be able to protect her, either.
The situation before them was painfully clear. Though there was no way to explain the empress dowager's behavior, anyone who tried to help her now would only be disappointed. Duanmu Baiye was planning to vilify Han Yunxi with his words, but now he was counting his lucky stars that he hadn't been brash. Otherwise, he'd been stuck in an awkward situation as well. There was no way for Chu Qingge to refuse the empress dowager, especially since she was the one who'd stirred up the mess in the first place.
Furthermore, she and her brother had come under instructions to accompany Crown Prince Ye and offer their congratulations. Their main motive for coming was Duanmu Yao and Northern Li's Duke of Kang's alliance. To put it plainly, they were here to explain themselves and apologize. Duanmu Yao's matter hadn't even been put to rest yet, so Chu Qingge couldn't make the empress dowager unhappy again in such a public setting.
She had no choice but to play another piece!
"As long as empress dowager likes it, Qingge will be honored," Chu Qingge had no idea how she finished saying those words when she was about to suffocate from her frustration.
It was Han Yunxi who smiled next and spoke up. "Is Miss Chu planning to accompany the dancers through another dance, or play a solo piece?"
Chu Qingge had to suck in a deep breath before she could control her feelings to prevent exploding right then and there.
"A solo!" she answered icily.
Of course it had to be a solo. If she accompanied the dancers any longer, she'd really be a "servant" performing to make everyone happy! The dancers withdrew as Chu Qingge once again took her seat behind the zither. Though she was as beautiful as always, with her proud, cold looks and ethereal air, she had none of her previous confidence or calm. The best qin skills came from playing with a peaceful heart. When the heart was moved, the melody would turn chaotic and unsteady as well. The more Chu Qingge played, the more she became out of sorts. The more she played, the more she wanted to give up, but she had to suffer until the end. She didn't even dare to lift her head as she played, afraid to see mocking looks directed her way. Still, she couldn't stop herself from glancing in Han Yunxi's direction.
Han Yunxi was still sitting against her chair in the same leisurely posture, "enjoying" her playing with utmost amusement. Even though Chu Qingge had chosen to play a solo of her own accord, seeing Han Yunxi's elegant, poised posture and lazy-looking eyes made her feel even more like a servant. It was as if she was simply performing to entertain the other woman. She had started out with intentions to challenge Han Yunxi to a contest. But it'd ended up with her playing two pieces in succession, while Han Yunxi simply sat respectably to the side and won without fighting a single battle.
Grievances, dissatisfaction, and resentment all rose at once into her heart. The melody of her zither grew even more disorderly, enough to incite murmured comments from the crowd. But Chu Qingge didn't even notice. She couldn't help but look towards Long Feiye next, only to see the man looking straight at her! She grew alarmed.
Heavens, is he finally paying attention to me?
Chu Qingge's heart gave a lurch before one of her zither strings snapped with a twang...
Only then did Chu Qingge recover her wits and realize how terribly she'd played! She stared at the broken string, then back at Long Feiye, looking somewhat at a loss before the man she'd she desperately wanted attention from. Long Feiye was looking at her, but it was in her sorriest state. He only gave her a brief glance before turning back to Han Yunxi and leaning close to whisper something in her ears. It wasn't clear what he said, but the position looked very intimate. Han Yunxi chuckled softly in delight, as if she was very happy.
Chu Qingge felt her heart ache at the sight. Are they laughing at me?
Because the zither string had snapped, there was no way for her to play any further. She gritted her teeth and finally lowered her proud head to bow to the empress dowager. Then she silently returned to her seat.
She'd lost. She'd lost utterly.
After the ruckus with Chu Qingge, Emperor Tianhui and the empress dowager had no choice but to withdraw all the schemes and plots they'd planned for the Duke of Qin that evening. The birthday banquet thus came smoothly to an end. Long Feiye's actions at the feast couldn't be counted as a coup, but it left a deep impression across all of Tianning. He and Han Yunxi were the first to depart in their carriage once the banquet had adjourned. Unexpectedly, Mu Linger was even faster than the pair. By the time they reached the Duke of Qin's estate, she was already waiting for them on the steps.