Chapter 144: An Awkward Empress (I)
Thanks to Qin Yining’s strong memory, she was able to remember someone after a singular greeting. She realized that the lowest ranked title in attendance today was that of marquis. The only one without a title was the wife of Elder Statesman Cao, the empress’ sister-in-law, née Qian.
This was a character that Qin Yining and née Sun naturally remembered. When the Qin fourth miss had been summoned to the palace last year, she’d met Elder Statesman Cao, his wife, and their son. The statesman’s son, which was the empress’ nephew, had been blatantly disrespectful to Qin Yining. If it hadn’t been for her fast reaction into a teary fit that caused the emperor to react accordingly because his side was in the wrong, she might very well have married into the Caos by now.
Now that she was meeting née Qian again, all sorts of subtleties flitted through her heart. But outwardly, she pretended that she’d forgotten this person and made sure that she didn’t overlook any courtesy.
When the empress saw Qin Yining, she was reminded of Pang Xiao’s insolence and the emperor’s weak acquiescence. She sniffed and spoke lazily, “Let’s go. The banquet will begin when we reach the garden.”
The group assented, chattering and laughing, taking each other’s hands. They crowded around the empress like a group of stars around the moon, slowly making their way up the mountain.
The spring sun was gentle and bright, with the green of new growth stretched as far as the eye could see. A faint fragrance of flowers danced in the pure air. Birdsong and the calls of insects in the distance, along with the pleasant scenery, set one’s mind and heart at relaxed ease.
The madames and misses spent their days indoors and usually didn’t even set foot beyond in the inner door, much less the main doors. Although all manors had their own gardens, manmade sights were nothing compared to the ones found in nature. And the further in they went, the more exotic flowers and grasses appeared. Add to that the glory and pride they felt in accompanying the empress, even someone who usually took a palanquin through a garden like the old dowager found themselves light of foot and in easy spirits during the walk.
The officials in charge of overseeing the garden were waiting dutifully when they heard the advent of the empress. They bowed when the party drew near and led them onwards.
“This way please, Your Majesty.”
The empress lightly brushed her hair aside and pouted slightly. She responded indolently, “You’re not needed here. Don’t disturb this empress’ pleasure.”
The empress’ temper and methods were well known. The officials didn’t dare disagree at all and retreated after making their bows. They apprehensively placed themselves behind the ladies and fell in step with the guards.
The pace was slow as the group took in the scenery along the way. The old dowager and other noble madames were clustered closest to the empress, always keeping in mind to praise the surroundings to the high heavens. This was swiftly followed by further heapings of how the empress was the only one to ever enjoy such favor. Empress Cao beamed with delight and laughed and chatted generously from good spirits.
Qin Yining was supporting a huffing and panting née Sun at the back of the group. She didn’t join in the efforts to fawn over the empress, just focused on admiring the view. She murmured to née Sun, “Are you alright, mother? Are you tired?”
“I’m alright. You’re in good shape alright, I’ve spent too much time idling around these years.” Née Sun wheezed with a smile.
Qin Yining dimpled. “When we get back, mother should take make two laps around the garden with me everyday. Your body will start to grow stronger in no time!”
Née Sun shook her head with silent laughter and lifted her eyes to see a dense peach blossom forest in the near distance. She couldn’t help but sigh with wonder. “Look at the flowers over there! They’re so pretty!”
Qin Yining and the others all looked in the relevant direction. Pale-pink clouds extended in all directions, painting beauty onto the branches and interlocking with light and dark shades. The flowers here were all in full bloom, possibly due to the hot springs beneath the ground. This contrasted greatly with the flower buds back in the manors of the city, and the magical sight on display stretched up to the skies as well.
The group of womenfolk followed the winding path in the peach blossom grove. A light breeze flittered past, teasing silks and satins and sending petals whirling through the air. Everyone was wreathed in refreshing hints, and their eyes were drawn to babbling brook by the path. The petals were slowly washed away by the gentle eddies when they landed in the waters.
Another ten steps forward brought newly painted walls topped with black clay tiles in sight. Curved tips of rooftops could be vaguely seen past the wall, and the brand new buildings made one feel as though they were within an ethereal mountain.
“Aiyaya, how long has it been since we’ve seen such beautiful peach blossoms?”
“Indeed, if it wasn’t for Her Majesty receiving such enormous favor, we would never have the fortune to see such scenery as this otherworldly realm.”
“Only a national beauty such as our empress is worthy of such an immortal palace.”
The womenfolk kept up a strong undercurrent of conversation. No one was overly loud, and no one addressed their comments to the empress, but their volume was a perfect level for her to overhear.
Up at the front, the empress was wearing a small smile of utter delight. She strolled ahead with great pride, leading the ladies on with small sounds of appreciation and awe. However, the young eunuch in charge of leading the way, dismissed to the back of the group, was blanching every step of the way.
Another dozen or so steps brought them to the door. The group looked up at the signboard over the doors with admiration but were puzzled to see the words ‘Ning Park’ dancing across the black lacquer with great magnificence.
The empress paused and flicked a sideways glance at the servants. “When did this seat’s ‘Oft Spring Garden’ change name? How come I didn’t know of this?”
The group was perplexed as well, and strands of conversation arose here and there.
The young eunuch trotted up with a dismayed expression and quickly kowtowed. “In response to Your Majesty, this isn’t Oft Spring Garden. We, we took the wrong fork just now.”
This realization startled the group and all conversation halted. The empress’ slender brows were tightly knit together as she responded coldly. “What? We walked all this way and we’re not at Oft Spring Garden? I don’t recall such a place appearing in Eternal Spring Mountain!”
The young eunuch was trembling on the ground. He wanted to lead the way earlier, but the empress had refused to let him serve!
The empress was feeling rather awkward as well. Due to her station, she spent her days keeping the emperor company. She had exceedingly few opportunities to travel out of the palace with him. Touring a province or any other outing were very rare occurrences.
Oft Spring Garden had been bestowed to her, but she’d only come once last year for a dip in the hot springs. There had been a large group of people with her then, so naturally she hadn’t needed to remember the way. It’d been an obvious conclusion for her today that Oft Spring Garden was the only place present on the mountain. To think that the scenery that everyone had spent so much effort admiring was someone else’s!
“You dog of a servant, is this how you serve?!” A high ranked mama kicked the eunuch’s shoulder and sent him rolling on the ground.
When the eunuch righted himself, he kowtowed several more times. “Mercy, Your Majesty! Mercy!”
The empress pursed her lips impatiently and felt that, with the group of people behind her, she couldn’t lose her dignity as the mother of the nation. She had to swallow her temper and dismiss lazily, “Let it pass. It’s not a big deal. We’re out for some fun, so we can just walk back since we’ve taken the wrong way.”
“Your Majesty speaks rightly. The air here is clean and fresh and the sunlight gentle. It’s lovely to chat and laugh on a nice walk,” the wife of Statesman Cao offered smilingly.
Everyone hastened to agree, warming the stiff atmosphere. The eunuch quickly crawled up to show the way.
In better spirits now, the empress marched back to where they’d come from with the nobles ladies clustered around her. They went down a slightly wider bluestone path this time. This was when she noticed that the peach blossom grove they’d just walked through was accessed via a newly created path. The bluestones on the ground here marked the old way to her place.
However, her good spirits and complimentary sighs from the group dwindled the further they traveled down the way. With that seemingly magical palace fresh in their minds, the way to Oft Spring Garden was lacking and boring in comparison. The blooming crabapple trees lining the side were well enough, but on a whole, it wasn’t as breathtaking as Ning Park.
Meanwhile, the noble ladies had used up their entire repertoire of pretty phrases earlier. When faced with such dull scenery, they could only silence their consciences and scrounge for words like ‘simple and unsophisticated’ or ‘peaceful’.
The expression on the empress’ face was growing uglier and uglier. When the group reached the doors of Oft Spring Garden, her face had sunk to the most extreme of lows.
Ning Park had freshly retouched walls and lavish doors. The buildings within were also brand new. In comparison, Oft Spring Garden’s walls showed the passage of time. While the view through open doors of eunuchs kneeling in welcome was impressive enough, the weathered buildings and unimaginative garden were also clear to see. Distaste welled up from the bottom of the empress’ heart.
“How did you all prepare for my arrival?!” She frowned and hectored lowly. “What’s with that park from just now?!”
Although she’d kept her voice down, those behind her weren’t too far away and could hear everything clearly.
Elder Statesman Cao had given special orders to the eunuchs in charge, and they hastened to report back. “In response to Your Majesty, the elder statesman gave orders to fix up the park. The owner of the park has a great background, so he says to just ignore that park.”
The empress grit her teeth but couldn’t vent her anger. “Isn’t he worried of overstepping himself!” she squeezed out in the end and entered the garden first.
The group of noblewoman inwardly snapped to solemn attention when they saw the empress was displeased. They didn’t even dare speak loudly, for fear of angering the empress in her awkward state.
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