The unexpected news from Northern Li concerned none other than the matter of the “empty red envelopes.” The organization in charge of distributing disaster relief in Northern Li was one called Musi (牧司). Recently, it had received two sealed red envelope donations—the same duo that had been gifted to Baili Lixiang and the late Madam Baili. They were also two of the ten red envelopes that Han Yunxi had personally mailed out.
The envelopes hadn’t been touched when they were sent to Musi, where its director recognized them as the empress’s personally gifted red envelopes for the New Year’s. However, he realized after a single touch that they were empty inside. The foolish director even unsealed the envelopes personally to confirm that they were, indeed, empty.
All donations received had to be publicized. The director didn’t know how to deal with the matter and was about to find his superiors when he ran into Jin Zi by chance. Jin Zi thus suppressed all news and reported the matter directly to Yunning Palace. Han Yunxi was quite calm after finding out. First, she sent people to ask Baili Mingxiang whether she had mentioned the empty red envelopes with her siblings. If the red packets had been sent to Northern Li before the crown prince’s birthday banquet, then there was nothing more to nitpick now. It would have been perfectly normal for Baili Lixiang to send them north directly and make a farce of the empress then.
But when Xu Donglin returned with Baili Mingxiang’s reply, Han Yunxi was furious. The girl had no idea about the red packets. Instead, it was Baili Qiyu who said he heard that Baili Lixiang had handed them over to an Old Madam Zhou before the birthday banquet.
“Is it the same Old Madam Zhou from Jiangnan’s Murong Clan?” Han Yunxi muttered to herself.
Jiangnan’s Murong Clan was second only to the Xiao Clan in strength. After the Xiao Clan was decimated, the Murong family became the most powerful faction down south. Although they weren’t as rich as the Xiao, they were still relatively wealthy. Three first-rank officials had come from its ranks in the last hundred years, with Murong Liaodong (慕容廖东) being a current first-rank official in the Great Qin court as well as the governor of Jiangnan, a top-ranking post.
Old Madam Zhou was none other than Murong Liaodong’s mother and already over 70 years old. Despite her age, she was still shrewd and quite reputable in Jiangnan, thus earning the name of first-rank noble lady.
“Esteemed Empress, how could Baili Lixiang have given the red packets to Old Madam Zhou?!” Zhao mama thought then added, “And even before the crown prince’s birthday banquet.”
Han Yunxi creased her eyebrows but remained silent.
Zhao mama slapped her thigh and exclaimed, “Esteemed Empress, this old servant gets it! Of the ten madams in that set, Old Madam Zhou holds the highest acclaim besides the late Madam Baili! I bet that crowd is using Old Madam Zhou to cause you trouble! They were probably planning as early as the birthday banquet. If Baili Lixiang hadn’t ended up in jail, they would probably have taken out the red packets to cause trouble! Heheh, truly nothing is as poisonous as a woman’s heart!”
Han Yunxi thought as much and nodded. “At the crown prince’s birthday banquet, Linger didn’t even lure them out after donating her own red packet. They were probably frightened then.”
“But Esteemed Empress, the rest of those packets were donated to the Ministry of Revenue on the very next day. How did the two from the Baili Clan get left out?” Zhao mama asked with confusion.
Here was the crux of the issue.
The other eight sealed envelopes were probably all sent to the Ministry of Revenue together under Old Madam Zhou’s eyes, or sent in separately by each of the eight madams. That wasn’t important. What was important was that Baili Lixiang hadn’t asked anyone to get the red packets back from Old Madam Zhou while she was in jail. In fact, she’d probably forgotten all about them before her death, thus leaving the two envelopes for the Baili Clan in the old woman’s hands.
“Zhao mama, it doesn’t matter that the Baili Clan’s red envelopes were the only ones forgotten. What’s important is why Old Madam Zhou decided to send those two to Northern Li’s Musi,” Han Yunxi said.
Zhao mama was a veteran of palace politics and immediately answered, “Esteemed Empress, as things stand, Old Madam Zhou wants to use the Baili Clan to expose the matter of the red packets and lose you face?”
When her mistress didn’t answer, Zhao mama thought some more and added, “Baili Lixiang already had the death penalty. If she gets accused of another crime, it doesn’t matter much. Old Madam Zhou simply wants to add oil to the fire and make Esteemed Empress hate the Baili Clan!”
Han Yunxi thought for a while and rejected Zhao mama’s theory.
“Zhao mama, that’s not it! Baili Lixiang had the death penalty already, so I would have hated her even without the red packet incident. Old Madam Zhou doesn’t need to add to the pile.”
She went on to say, “The Murong and Xiao Clans have been rivals in Jiangnan for ages. Baili Yuanlong and Xiao An had a private alliance but were deadset enemies on the surface. If Old Madam Zhou wasn’t aware of this clandestine relationship, she wouldn’t be foolish enough to help the Xiao Clan eliminate the Baili Clan. If she was smart enough, she would be helping Baili Lixiang, not harming her.”
Now Zhao mama was puzzled. “But...but these red packets were clearly in Old Madam Zhou’s hands. She sent them to Northern Li under Baili Lixiang’s name too?”
“That’s because Old Madam Zhou knew she couldn’t save Baili Lixiang, ah! If I guessed right, Old Madam Zhou is very likely preparing to smear Xiao Dong’s wife for the matter,” Han Yunxi replied.
Now Zhao mama understood it all. She slapped her leg again and said with emotion, “Esteemed Empress, this old servant gets it! Old Madam Zhou must have long figured out that Baili Yuanlong and Xiao An were in cahoots, so she’s using this chance to sow discord between the two families.”
“Right. It takes time for the red packets to reach Northern Li. Old Madam Zhou must have never expected the Baili Clan to sell out the Xiao Clan so fast, or for both families to meet their ruin,” Han Yunxi answered.
At this moment, a shadow guard returned from the Ministry of Revenue. “Esteemed Empress, this subordinate has investigated thoroughly. Those other eight red packets were delivered as a set to the Ministry of Revenue by Lady Xiao.”
Han Yunxi and Zhao mama both smiled at the news. Their guesses had been correct. Most likely Old Madam Zhou had kept the two Baili Clan red packets for herself while asking Lady Xiao to deal with the remaining eight.
“Esteemed Empress, the true old fox only showed her tail now!” Zhao mama sighed.
Old Madam Zhou’s move of borrowing a knife to kill others by sending out the red packets in Baili Lixiang’s name would 1) ruin Han Yunxi’s reputation, 2) drag down Lady Xiao, and 3) drive a wedge between the Baili and Xiao families. Then the Murong Clan would stand to reap all the benefits. Han Yunxi rather admired the old woman for her schemes. If Baili Yuanlong hadn’t died, if Baili Lixiang and Baili Qiyu didn’t present the secret military agreement, then Baili Lixiang’s case might still be pending investigation right now. The two red packets would subsequently affect the attitudes and stances of all parties involved.
Yet despite her admiration, Han Yunxi found no enjoyment in such plots. She said coldly, “Zhao mama, our palace has grown chilly after Ning Jing and the rest left. Why don’t you take a trip and invite Old Madam Zhou here? Just say I’m inviting her for tea...to make things more lively!”
Han Yunxi’s “make things more lively” was filled with meaning. Leaving aside the shadow guard, even Zhao mama felt goosebumps at the words. The inner palace was so vast and the emperor busy all day. Since those noble ladies had nothing better to do, Han Yunxi didn’t mind inviting them here for a row!
Zhao mama had Old Madam Zhou in the palace by that very afternoon. A trip to the palace was unlike other places where you could invite a companion to come with you. Without the empress’s permission, Old Madam Zhou didn’t dare to bring anyone else along. Even the servants she brought with her were subject to severe restrictions, to say nothing of things like guards. She could only limit herself to a single servant girl.
Old Madam Zhou was born in Jiangnan as the daughter of a wealthy family. She was already well-known in her youth. After marrying into the Murong Clan and birthing a son who attained first-rank official, her fame grew with her years into one of inviolable prestige. At 70 years of age, her hair had long turned white, but her body was tough and her eyes bright and spirited. She used her own cane to walk and never needed the assistance of others. Naturally, she was sharp enough to guess the empress’s intentions for inviting her here, but she had no fear. When Zhao mama extended the invitation, she openly and happily accepted with no qualms.
The weather was still bitterly cold in the middle of the second lunar month, with the skies dim and dreary in the afternoon. It cast a gloomy pall over everything as Zhao mama led Old Madam Zhaou into a heated pavilion in the gardens.
“Esteemed Empress wanted to come long ago, but the crown prince is badgering her,” Zhao mama smiled. “Old Madam Zhou, just sit here and wait a bit. This old servant will go have a look.”
Old Madam Zhou was a woman of few words and simply nodded. “I’ll be troubling Zhao mama.”
In actuality, Rui’er had gone to the Grand Tutor’s house while Han Yunxi was currently busying herself with cooking noodles in the kitchen. Ever since her bet with Long Feiye, she had developed some self-awareness. She quietly vowed to personally make some noodles to firmly grab Long Feiye’s appetite.
When Zhao mama ran to the kitchens, Han Yunxi was personally rolling dough.
“Esteemed Empress, Old Madam Zhou is here. When she left, she had a servant inform her son in front of my face.”
Zhao mama assumed Old Madam Zhou’s voice and mannerisms as she imitated, “Little Cui, go tell my son that Esteemed Empress has rewarded me with teatime. I’ll be going into the palace for a bit, so he doesn’t have to accompany me this afternoon.”
Han Yunxi only smiled coldly to herself. She’s already in the palace. So what if His Excellency Zhou knows about it? What can he do? As the official head of all the generals, I can get involved in politics. But none of the officials in court have the right to interfere with inner palace matters besides the Grand Tutor and crown prince!
Although the red packets reaching Northern Li wasn’t an inner palace matter, she still had ways to resolve the issue right here.
“Did you offer tea?” Han Yunxi asked.
“Esteemed Empress, there isn’t any new tea in the palace. The first batch of tea won’t arrive until 10 days later,” Zhao mama replied honestly.
“Then find some old tea, she’s a guest after all,” Han Yunxi said with a straight face.
Zhao mama couldn’t help grinning. “This old servant obeys!”
Thus, neither she nor her master ever showed their faces, leaving Old Madam Zhou to wait for four whole hours in the heated pavilion until it got dark. Finally, Han Yunxi finished cooking her noodles, changed into a different set of clothes, and went to the location.
Even after she arrived, Zhao mama had yet to “find” any tea leaves. Old Madam Zhou had already asked the court lady for two cups of water to drink instead.Previous Chapter Next Chapter