The deathly silence inside the warm pavilion was frightening. Old Madam Zhou’s heart beat rapidly as time stretched on. She was anxious about Xia He but had no idea that the bowl of noodles she would face...was much, much more terrifying.
Zhao mama hadn’t seen what Han Yunxi made of her noodles, but when Xia He carried it in, she couldn’t help but rest a hand against her forehead. She stole a peek at the empress and silently wondered when the emperor would ever get down a bowl of the empress’s personally cooked noodles! Although she’d studied for days, she still hadn’t mastered how to roll the dough. This time, she hadn’t cooked the noodles into a lump, but she rolled them into lumps instead. In any case, the entire bowl was full of the bumpy stuff so that it resembled a bowl of clear vegetable soup with floating lumps of flour inside.
Xia He and Old Madam Zhou were both very tense. Neither of them paid any attention to the noodles. While the servant girl avoided eye contact with the old woman, she was on the verge of breaking her armrest with how hard she was gripping it. When Xia He set the bowl in front of Old Madam Zhou, she didn’t even notice its abnormal contents.
“O-O-Old Madam Zhou, p-ple...please serve yourself!” Xia He’s teeth were chattering. Her behavior made it impossible for Old Madam Zhou to continue deceiving herself. Esteemed Empress must have discovered that Xia He was one of her agents and even had evidence in her hands. Otherwise, she wouldn’t call the court lady out o lightly.
Just how much evidence does the empress have? Do I still have room to explain myself or absolve my crimes? Old Madam Zhou managed to rein in her expression so she didn’t reveal a thing. Only by knowing oneself and one’s enemy could one prevail in a hundred battles. Since she couldn’t get to the bottom of the empress yet, she could only go step-by-step.
Rising to her feet, she bowed down in thanks. “This matron thanks Esteemed Empress for this reward!”
“I already said there’s no need for formal bows. Zhao mama, hurry and help Old Madam Zhou up,” Han Yunxi remained polite as she smiled guilelessly at the old woman. It was as if she’d never poisoned her just moments ago.
Zhao mama helped Old Madam Zhou up and pulled her to sit before handing over the chopsticks. “Old Madam Zhou, this was made personally by the empress herself. You must eat it well.”
At last, Old Madam Zhou glanced at the contents of the bowl, only to give a start. What...what is this?
Looking at the four to five lumps in the soup that somewhat resembled flour, Old Madam Zhou began to suspect that Han Yunxi had added poison to this bowl as well. Still, she had no choice but to eat. If anything happened to her afterwards, Han Yunxi would still have to give an explanation to her son and the Jiangnan Murong and Zhou families. If she refused, then she would be defying the empress’s authority and ruining her reward. That was a hefty crime.
Palace politics never shied away from extremes. What was truly fearful was superior status suppressing those beneath it. The empress’s rank ensured that she could vie in the open. If Old Madam Zhou knew that she already had a handle on the spy Xia He, she never would have entered the palace today.
Afraid to tarry too long, she picked up a lump of flour about the size of her fist and..ate!
Normal balls of flour were quite uniform in size and at most the size of a nail. They were chewy and usually paired with thicker soups or stews mixed with all sorts of wonderful ingredients to produce fragrant flavors. Such balls of flours were light in flavor and chewy to complement the rich soups and were a common, delicious dish.
Old Madam Zhou realized after one bite of the empress’s fist-sized flour lump that it stuck to her teeth more firmly than mochi! It wasn’t chewy at all and lacked any of flour’s light flavors. For the elderly, foods they feared the most were sour, hard, or sticky types!
Old Madam Zhou was already exerting much strength after a single bite. She began to puzzle over the soup’s flavor without any thoughts about whether it was poisoned.
“How is it?” Han Yunxi asked with interest. Of course she knew this wasn’t the way to make balls of flour. She had rolled out the flour but tired her hands in the meantime. Without time to waste, she simply tossed in a few lumps to boil in the pot.
Old Madam Zhou looked at her for a long time in silence—not from choice, but because her mouth was full of sticky flour. She used massive strength to deal with it before answering, “The flavors are most excellent. This matron is really blessed today with a treat.”
“If you like it, then eat more,” Han Yunxi chuckled.
Old Madam Zhou couldn’t just eat more. As a reward from the empress, she was obligated to finish it off! Thus, under the eyes of everyone present, Old Madam Zhou silently began to chew on the lumps of flour. It would’ve been fine if it was just sticky, but eventually she reached the hard center that was still uncooked!
Seeing the remaining lump on her chopsticks and the three big pieces still floating in the bowl, Old Madam Zhou felt like she was breaking apart! Already her thoughts had shifted once more: she would have never entered the palace if she knew the empress’s cooking skills were so poor.
Still, by exerting the strength of nine oxen and two tigers and enduring waves of nausea, she managed to down the giant flour lumps. When she finally drank her first sip of soul, her thoughts changed again: she would have never mailed out those two red packets or sent Xia He into the palace if she knew the empress’s cooking skills were so poor!
That big bowl of soup was nothing but salt water!
All the fighting spirit left Old Madam Zhou once she finished eating. Her mouth and stomach were both miserable as if she’d throw up any second.
“Aish, you finished the entire bowl? Old Madam Zhou, your appetite’s not bad for your age,” Han Yunxi smiled, absolutely thrilled.
Old Madam Zhou rose to her feet. “Esteemed Empress...this matron...at home, this matron still…” She wanted to bid farewell and go home. She wanted to run out and throw up! But Han Yunxi’s next words made her suppress all of her disgust once again.
She said, “I’m not done here yet. Old Madam Zhou, you’re the oldest amongst the madams and hold the highest prestige. I’ve been fretting over a troubling issue for days and thought it’d be best if I discussed it with you. Old Madam Zhou, Baili Lixiang mailed the two red packets I gave the Baili Clan to Northern Li’s Musi. When they opened it up, they saw that the contents were empty. Say, why would these red packets be empty?”
Old Madam Zhou immediately recalled Esteemed Empress’s earlier question to Zhao mama.
It was Xia He who helped me pack those red packets, right?
If the bowl of noodles was torture, after that was nothing short of disaster. Old Madam Zhou knew if she answered one word wrong, Esteemed Empress might push all the blame on the empty red packets onto Xia He, who would in turn expose her as her mastermind! She abruptly turned towards the girl, who caught her gaze before turning away. This made Old Madam Zhou completely despair.
What should she do?
How should she answer?
Old Madam Zhou thought for a long time. Han Yunxi didn’t push her, but waited patiently. Instead, it was Zhao mama who grew impatient and blurted out, “Old Madam Zhou, the empress is asking you a question!”
The crown prince had been spending nights at the Grand Tutor’s recently. Zhao mama had personally sent someone to inform the emperor and suspected that he’d return nice and early tonight. How could she allow Old Madam Zhou to delay things between the couple?
Old Madam Zhou’s thought had truly wandered off into a cloud of regrets. She was such a shrewd old lady, but seemed to have aged in an instant as her eyes drooped lifelessly. She said, “Esteemed Empress, that official from Musi must have been mistaken. Baili Lixiang once told everyone that Esteemed Empress gave her ten sheets of silver drafts from Kangan Bank. It was a huge red envelope! How could it be empty? As this matron sees it, it’s better to send someone to Musi for an investigation.”
“I think there’s been a mistake too. With Old Madam Zhou as my witness, I can set my cares at rest. Fine, that’s all there is to it. Zhao mama, send someone to investigate it later,” Han Yunxi said lightly.
Old Madam Zhou immediately exhaled in relief, but Han Yunxi added, “I heard that the Chen Clan in Jiangnan has a daughter called Jiangnan’s Number One Beauty. She’s both beautiful and talented, has Old Madam Zhou heard of her?”
Everyone feared Long Feiye’s cold face in court and never dared to bring up the subject of selecting women for the palace. However, these madams liked to incite public opinion and make waves ever so often. They would say so-and-so’s daughter was like this, or would be participating in selections for the palace, or would be doing this-and-that. The Chen family’s daughter had the most rumors recently, so much that Gu Qishao had ran over to ask about them in person.
In his words, he’d declared, “If Long Feiye takes concubines, then I’ll kill each one as I see them!”
How could Old Madam Zhou not understand the empress’s intentions! The biggest source of conflict between them was the matter of taking concubines! Although she was unwilling, she could only submit before the taint of a threat like Xia He.
“To reply Esteemed Empress, this matron has seen the Chen Clan’s daughter before. She’s not as good as the rumors say, which are only hearsay after all. As this matron sees it, those gossipers should really be taught a lesson!”
Han Yunxi was very satisfied with er answer.
“Aish, so it was fake. Then wouldn’t the person who married her based on those rumors be suffering a big loss? Looks like we really have to teach the gossiper a lesson!” Han Yunxi turned serious.
Afterwards, she asked about a few more daughters, all of which Old Madam Zhou replied with care and caution. After a long time had passed, Han Yunxi stretched lazily and said, “It’s getting late. Old Madam Zhou should retire early.”
Old Madam Zhou hastily got to her feet. She shot Xia He another look and knew that the girl was destined to be trapped in the palace forever. The empress might have forgiven her on the matter of the red envelopes, but she would never be able to call wind and rain again, much less get involved with those other madams.
Han Yunxi’s move against Old Madam Zhou could be called “to catch the thieves, first capture their king.”
Old Madam Zhou was the Jiangnan region’s weathervane amongst all its wives. If she didn’t dare to raise the issue of palace selections again, who would? If she grew docile, how could the others dare to raise a ruckus?
After the matters were settled, Han Yunxi sent someone to mail Jin Zi a letter instructing him to make up for the deficiencies in the empty red packets and pay off that official to keep the matter secret. Just like that, no one brought up the issue of the empty red envelopes again.
Meanwhile, little Rui’er really did end up staying the night at the Grand Tutor’s estate. Long Feiye also came back in one of his rare early returns and entwined himself with Han Yunxi in the bath while she told him about Old Madam Zhou’s matters.
He held her quietly as he listened until the end, then said, “Empress, you shut the doors to Zhen’s imperial harem. Because of that, you alone shall taste all the favors I owe to those 3,000!”
Han Yunxi had a fright. She was about to escape when Long Feiye turned on her with domineering strength!
1. The 3,000 refers to the traditional saying of the emperor’s harem containing “3,000 women.” Now that I think of it, doesn’t it sound like Iron Man’s “I love you 3,000”? Maybe he was an emperor in his past life hahaha~
life has been cool. word of honor and the imperial coroner are the two dramas currently taking up my life, i recommend you watch them both! ^-^