Chapter 63: Frivolity In Front of the Majesty
The empress had summoned the female relations of a subject, among them a girl who had yet to come of age. So… shouldn’t foreign males keep out of the way as well? What’s going on here? Qin Yining racked her brain furiously as she slowly made her way forward. Someone who can appear in the empress’ palace in the presence of the emperor must be someone she’s close to. It’s very likely that he’s a relative.
“Subject née Qin greets the emperor and empress.” Qin Yining curtsied gracefully, her elegant motion at odds with how rapidly her mind was sorting through things. She’d spent enough time with Zhan-mama by now to have manners come as second nature. Not only was every gesture correct and precise, but her bearing was a sight for sore eyes as well.
The empress’ slender eyebrow arched, her naturally flirty eyes losing their usual gleam as they examined the girl in front of her. After a moment of silence, she lifted her right hand. The three inch long finger sheaths that graced her hand, etched with decorative scenes, clinked softly as she gestured.  “You may rise.”
“Thank you, Your Majesty.” Qin Yining stood, but kept her head low.
“Your Majesty, see how well Old Dowager Qin looks after her people.” The empress smiled. “It hasn’t even been that long, but now the little wild girl of the mountains has already turned into such a fetching thing. She’s so pretty, I can’t help but like her very much. It’s often said that the Qin family produces beauties, and it seems that those words are indeed the case today!”
“Yurou speaks truly.” The emperor nodded with a smile. “I can see that this girl has a few hints of a young Qin Meng. What’s your name and age? Lift your head when you respond.”
Qin Yining cautiously raised her head, but kept her eyes down and away from the imperial couple. “In response to the emperor, this subject’s given name is Yining and fourteen this year.”
The imperial duo examined Qin Yining from head to toe. The girl in front of them was tall and limber, possessing delicate features and glossy black hair that exquisitely offset her fair skin. This vision of fresh beauty looked like it’d walked out of a painting. She appeared stately and composed as she stood solemnly in front of them. She was yet young, so a sense of innocence and youth wreathed around her. She really was a very likable girl.
“Back when I watched Qin Meng grow up almost twenty years ago, I’d mused that he would make the prettiest girl. How beautiful would he be! And today, I’m seeing the female version of Qin Meng, hahaha!” The emperor slapped his thigh in hearty laughter while the empress narrowed her eyes and looked sideways at Qin Yining.
The palms of the old dowager and née Sun had gone slick with sweat. One could interpret the emperor’s words as a joke, but there lay another layer of meaning behind them. The old emperor was almost seventy years old, was he not satisfied with an immensely alluring and tempting empress, but wanted fourteen year old Qin Yining as well? If Qin Yining entered the palace today, the empress would swallow her whole and spit out her bones in less than two days.
The old dowager moved quickly, pasting on a smile as she spoke up. “Indeed, to think that so much time has passed in the blink of an eye. The emperor is still in the prime of life, diligent and benevolent in all his matters. I’ve been deeply moved by the relationship between my son and liege. It is no wonder that my son remains so wholeheartedly loyal. Furthermore, I am grateful for Your Majesty’s judge of my son’s talent!”
The emperor was moved by the old dowager’s words. At his age, it was easy for him to slip into his nostalgic memories. The old dowager’s words put him in mind of the times two decades ago, when the court wasn’t as tumultuous as it was now. His smile turned gentle as he recalled the times, when he’d truly been in his prime.
The empress laughed softly at the old dowager’s silver tongue. “Your Majesty, Grand Preceptor Qin toils away on behalf of the country, so you should bestow a favor upon him. Luckily, a girl can marry at fourteen, and it only seems fitting that I play matchmaker for Miss Qin. Why don’t we see if we have a suitable match, Your Majesty?”
The emperor clapped his hand over the empress’. “Which house’s son are you speaking of, my dear? I’ll say this first, the Qin girl is so pretty that I won’t allow it if he isn’t worthy!”
The empress chuckled and reached to the side. “Jun’er, come over here.”
“Yes, aunt.” A crisp voice sounded from the young man who’d been standing silently off to the side all this time.
The empress smiled. “Isn’t this candidate most suitable, Your Majesty? My nephew here is just nineteen, and a strapping boy. This is an eminently suitable match with Grand Preceptor Qin.”
The emperor nodded merrily, looking at Cao Chenjun. The young man seemed to be dumbstruck as he gazed, stupified, at Qin Yining, murmuring, “I knew she was a beauty when I looked at her profile just now…”
Qin Yining involuntarily backed up two steps, a frown appearing on her face. Cao Chenjun matched her gait and advanced two steps. “You’re called Yining, right? My aunt is right, we definitely make a handsome couple and are meant to be. Since this is the case, let’s get married immediately. I’ll dismiss all my concubines when I go home.” He reached for Qin Yining’s hand even as he spoke.
If it’d been any other time, Qin Yining would’ve broken this oaf’s hand before he’d gotten through his first frivolous sentence. Is he that secure in his identity as the trampress’ nephew that he dares treat an official’s daughter like this in front of the emperor?! However, right then, she had an idea. She backed up frantically, staring at the young man in what seemed like panic. “W-what do you want?!”
Before the young man could say another word, her eyes welled up with enormous tears, quickly spilling over her cheeks. As if triggered by the feeling of the falling tears, she started to sob up a storm. Even as the startled young man stared at her, she whirled to hide behind the old dowager. “Grandmother, I’m scared! I don’t want to marry him. You might as well let me go be a nun!”
The little girl had been the very picture of demure composure seconds ago, but was now crying fearfully thanks to this unbridled lecher. Her cowering form behind the old dowager and refusal to come out was very much reminiscent of a spooked bunny. Cao Chengjun’s heart pounded in alarm as he quickly turned his gaze to the floor.
The emperor was already glaring at him. “What nonsense is this? Dismissed!”
Cao Chengjun gathered his wits and returned to his parents’ side with an ashen complexion. The empress’ smile was a bit stiff, but her voice seemed more tender than ever. “Your Majesty, these two are so suited for each other! Jun’er likes her so much at first glance that he’s even lost his composure.”
Cao Chengjun nodded and piped up. “Yes, yes! My very soul left me after seeing such a pretty girl. I’m sure she’ll be a beauty worth cities after a few more years!”
The empress’ expression froze and she glared fiercely at her brother and sister-in-law with clenched teeth. Cao Chengjun immediately shut up, but the emperor wasn’t looking too happy. When decreeing a marriage, it was one thing if he accidentally put together a pair that wasn’t suited for each other. That was the emperor being blinded to the truth and not his fault at all. But there was no hiding the fact that Cao Chengjun was a good-for-nothing dandy. He was only nineteen, but he already had gaggle of concubines, and seemingly no sense of propriety. He even dared act in this manner before his imperial majesty, scaring the little girl to the point where she wanted to be a nun!
The emperor had absolutely no intention of giving an imperial decree after seeing this nonsense. His expression had gone very dark. Meanwhile, the old dowager had her arm around Qin Yining and was comforting the girl quietly. Qin Yining had buried her face into her grandmother’s shoulder and was almost hiccuping with her sniffles. It was so quiet within the hall that only the girl’s suppressed sobs could be heard.
Nervous sweat beaded née Sun’s forehead. Her thoughts had gone down a different path than the old dowager’s. This was an imperial audience! How could someone who’d terrorized the Qin manor like a born tyrant be crying after just a few words from a boy!? They would be in dire straits if the imperial couple was displeased with this carrying on! Née Sun couldn’t help but viciously pinch Qin Yining’s arm, hissing quietly, “Stop crying!”
Qin Yining trembled from the pain, but she’d already anticipated this kind of reaction from her mother. Née Sun wouldn’t dare do anything else in front of the emperor, so she decided to push her act one step further and cry even louder instead.
In the emperor’s eyes, a perfectly fine imperial audience had been ruined by Cao Chengjun’s brash impropriety. The emperor’s previous good mood completely vanished and he dismissed everyone after a few words of censure directed at the young man. After the hall was clear, he half seriously castigated the empress. “Yurou, could you not handle even such a small matter? You told me that you’d found someone suitable and was sure that this would be a successful meeting, but look at who your family sent! Such rashness, and that in front of me! It’s simplicity itself to see what he would be like in normal company! Qin Meng has only one daughter, he’d never agree to this marriage. This emperor is a wise monarch, not a muddled one. Did you want me to force them to marry? That little girl was absolutely terrified. It’d be another group of people misunderstanding me if she really did kill herself or go to a nunnery!”
The empress patted the emperor’s chest in apology. “Don’t be angry, Your Majesty. It was just my oversight. This consort has been by your side all these years and rarely has the opportunity to see family. I just recalled that Jun’er was smart and quick-witted in his youth. I hadn’t thought that he’d turn out like this after growing up. It was my negligence, but it’s not really my fault. I don’t live at home and can’t serve by my parents’ side. I only see my in-laws once a year…”
Her apology had turned into pitiful, aggrieved tears. The emperor’s heart twinged, and he turned his mind to holding the empress with murmurs of “my darling” and “ dear heart”…
Meanwhile, the Caos had changed out of their formalwear and departed the palace. Now safe in their own carriage, everyone heaved sighs of relief. The empress’ brother stuck his thumb up at his youngest son, complimenting quietly. “Good thinking on your feet today!”
Cao Chengjun chuckled deeply and whispered. “Pity. Although I was purposely acting out, I did speak the truth. She’s certainly a beauty.”
“This marriage can’t happen even if she was a goddess, much less a mere beauty. Your grandfather may be muddleheaded, but your father isn’t! I’ve already asked around privately, do you know how today’s matter started?”
His wife and Cao Chengjun looked questioningly at him.
“The dear empress has some spies in the Eastern Palace and discovered that the crown prince was dwelling on the painting of a girl day and night. It was obvious that he likes her. After some investigation, she learned that the subject of the painting was Grand Preceptor Qin’s daughter…”
“No wonder!” Cao Chengjun suddenly realized what was going on. “No wonder we were suddenly summoned today.”
The elderly emperor only had one offspring. After being in charge of the world for half his life, it was natural for him to be reluctant in giving up power. There existed a delicate distance between the emperor and crown prince for all these years while various matters happened in the dark. If the crown prince became even closer to Grand Preceptor Qin, then the future would be even harder to control. This was why the emperor had wanted to put the Qin daughter under his thumb in marrying her off to the Caos.
The empress’ brother picked up the thread of the conversation again. “But the empress is too naive. This nation is already doomed to destruction, and the roots of our clan aren’t in Great Yan. Forging a connection to Qins now? When we don’t know what’s going on? We wouldn’t be able to shake off this connection no matter what.”
His wife and son both nodded.
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