At the palace the emperor held a meeting with the court officials.
The empress, Pei Jin and Yan Shi Ning waited for the emperor in the De Fang chamber.
The empress was forty years old, but she maintained her youthful appearance and looked no older than thirty years old. The empress wore an intricately embroidered silk dress and she was seated high on a platform next to the chair reserved for the emperor. She smiled politely at Yan Shi Ning. ‘Little girl, I remember the first time I met you two years ago. I thought you were beautiful and I didn’t know who would be blessed to marry you. If I knew back then you would marry little nine then I would have asked little nine to come back to the imperial city earlier.’
The empress’ fake praises didn’t enter Yan Shi Ning’s heart. Although in the past Yan Shi Ning didn’t meet the empress often, it was clear to her that the empress’ loyalty was reserved for Princess Kang Hua and Yan Shi Ting. Princess Kang Hua hated her so there was no reason for the empress to love her. Besides, everyone in the palace had years of experience of giving fake praises, especially someone of a high status like the empress.
‘Imperial mother, you are too kind,’ Yan Shi Ning said. ‘I’m blessed to be married to ninth prince.’
Yan Shi Ning smiled politely at Pei Jin.
‘Imperial mother, I’m the one who is blessed to marry Xiao Ning,’ Pei Jin said sweetly and smiled warmly at Yan Shi Ning.
Yan Shi Ning refrained from vomiting earlier when Pei Jin called her ‘wife’ endearingly in front of the maids, but she felt more nauseous after hearing Pei Jin called her ‘Xiao Ning’ too sweetly.
The empress’ ears stiffened after hearing the newlyweds’ loving exchange. It reminded her of the year she married the emperor. Except the emperor married her to secure the throne. She didn’t know if the newlyweds’ situation was similar to her and the emperor… it couldn’t be, the deep love aura in Pei Jin’s eyes were too clear.
Suddenly the empress felt Pei Jin’s warm smile was too blinding. She picked up a cup, drank a sip of tea and hid her cold smile. She put the cup down and smiled politely. ‘I’m happy to see the strong bond between the two of you. My heart was saddened when little nine was heartbroken after the little girl Yewu… forgive a muddled elder like me, I shouldn’t talk about the sad past. You two should start eating. The imperial cooks made many delicious food.’
The empress saw Yan Shi Ning frown like she expected and she smiled brightly. She glanced at Pei Jin but his head was lowered while drinking tea.
Yan Shi Ning couldn’t remember who Yewu was and frowned. She thought deeply and finally remembered six years ago when Pei Jin was eighteen years old, the emperor arranged a marriage between Pei Jin and a court official’s daughter Yewu. Yan Shi Ning was overjoyed and relieved Pei Jin was going to marry Yewu, it meant he wouldn’t look for her in Xuan Qing and trouble her anymore. Unfortunately less than two months after their betrothal was announced, Yewu became severely ill and died. Then Pei Jin asked the emperor to allow him to visit his former teacher’s country home in Xuan Qing while he grieved for Yewu. The emperor consented and during Pei Jin’s grieving period, Pei Jin bullied Yan Shi Ning in Xuan Qing.
Yan Shi Ning’s heart laughed mockingly. The empress’ intention to strain hers and Pei Jin’s relationship was too clear. The empress wasted her saliva, even if Pei Jin married Yewu, she wouldn’t be depressed.
‘The emperor, crown prince and Consort Mu are approaching De Fang,’ a guard announced.
Everyone inside the De Fang chamber stood to kowtow and greet the emperor.
While Yan Shi Ning kowtowed on the floor she felt the emperor’s gold sleeve swept past and her anxiety surfaced. It was the first time she officially met her father-in-law who had the highest status under the sky.
‘Everyone can rise,’ the emperor said. ‘We’re all one family, there’s no need for imperial protocols.’
The emperor sat on his chair next to the empress and he accepted the cup of tea from the empress.
Everyone obeyed the emperor and sat down. The empress sat on the emperor’s left side and the crown prince sat next to the empress. Consort Mu sat on the right of the emperor and Pei Jin and Yan Shi Ning sat below Consort Mu.
The empress glanced at Consort Mu and was unhappy Consort Mu’s dress was more beautiful than her dress but she smiled politely. ‘Today little sister looks beautiful.’
Consort Mu had battled with the empress for decades and understood the empress always hid a dagger behind a praise. She knew the empress was accusing her of purposely outshining Pei Jin’s new bride.
‘No matter how beautiful I look, big sister is always more beautiful,’ Consort Mu said and sighed. ‘But the years and months haven’t been kind on me. I need to wear thick makeup if I want to go outside my chamber. I need to choose my dress carefully too, unlike a young bride who can wear any dress and still look beautiful.’
The empress sat upright. She glanced at the poor fabric quality of Yan Shi Ning’s dress and shook her head. Indeed her little sister Kang Hua hated Dung Thi and Yan Shi Ning deeply, it was clear Kang Hua didn’t want to waste a single silver tael on Yan Shi Ning.
The empress didn’t care if Kang Hua hated Dung Thi and Yan Shi Ning. What she cared about was Consort Mu using Yan Shi Ning’s ordinary dress to insult her. She knew Consort Mu implied that Yan Shi Ning’s family must be poor. How was it possible for a prime minister and his wife be poor? Then it was reasonable Yan Shi Ning was mistreated by Kang Hua, which reflected badly on her. Also Yan Shi Ning married Pei Jin, if she didn’t care about Yan Shi Ning’s appearance it meant that she was looking down on the emperor’s son and daughter-in-law.
Indeed after the emperor heard Consort Mu’s words, he looked at Yan Shi Ning and frowned. Although he didn’t favour Pei Jin, he wouldn’t allow anyone to look down on Pei Jin.
‘I remember when Kang Hua was a little girl, she always acted recklessly,’ the emperor said. He put the cup down and glared at the empress. ‘I didn’t expect she would stay the same even after being married. As her older sister you should teach her boundaries.’
The empress lowered her head. ‘It’s my fault for being careless.’
The empress cursed Consort Mu in her stomach. Whereas Consort Mu was satisfied about the outcome and didn’t say anything else.
Yan Shi Ning’s head ached. The empress and Consort Mu dragged her into their battle and she didn’t want to offend either of them. She didn’t know if she should praise Princess Kang Hua in front of everyone to appease the empress. Then she thought if it was better for her to not deny she was a pitiful mistreated step-daughter. Her head ached more, she didn’t have any experiences dealing with battles in the palace.
Yan Shi Ning glanced at Pei Jin who was lowering his head as though his ears and mouth were dead. She realised Pei Jin chose the right approach, acting dead was the safest choice.
Suddenly Yan Shi Ning’s back shivered. She felt like someone was staring at her with bad intentions.
Yan Shi Ning raised her head and unexpectedly the eyes that were staring at her belonged to the crown prince. He quickly looked away after their eyes met. It made her suspicious why he would care if she caught him staring at her.
The crown prince, Pei Lam was eighteen years old. He was a beautiful young man. When Yan Shi Ning first met him she thought he was a beautiful rich young lady who dressed in men’s clothes for amusement.
Pei Lam was flustered Yan Shi Ning caught him staring at her. He regretted she married Pei Jin. Pei Lam knew in the Yan Manor were two young mistresses. But at every banquet held at the palace Yan Shi Ting always shadowed him and didn’t give him a chance to carefully assess Yan Shi Ning. Until the banquet a month ago, his heart was moved when he looked at Yan Shi Ning closely for the first time.
Pei Lam didn’t care that Yan Shi Ting was more beautiful than Yan Shi Ning. He hated Yan Shi Ting and he wouldn’t spend time with Yan Shi Ting if his mother didn’t force him. He regretted that day he drank too much and slept with Yan Shi Ting in his drunken state. If that day never happened then he would never willingly marry Yan Shi Ting. He felt Yan Shi Ting was too controlling. His ideal wife was someone who was beautiful and gentle, Yan Shi Ning. A month ago, Yan Shi Ning wore a beautiful dress and she looked heavenly under the setting sun. Yan Shi Ning’s gentle smile captivated him and carved deep in his heart. He had missed Yan Shi Ning since that day and he was heartbroken when Yan Shi Ning married Pei Jin.
Yan Shi Ning was unhappy throughout the meal with Pei Jin’s family in the palace. She hated how the emperor had a close bond with seventh prince and the crown prince yet the emperor treated Pei Jin coldly. Everyone else followed the emperor’s behaviour and they looked down on Pei Jin. She wasn’t fooled that on the surface the meal was to celebrate hers and Pei Jin’s marriage, but the truth was she and Pei Jin were merely decorations in everyone’s eyes.
From the moment Yan Shi Ning stepped into the De Fang chamber, her intuition warned her the atmosphere was strangely familiar. After the meal, she realised the atmosphere resembled the Yan Manor. She and Pei Jin were alike, unloved and viewed as insignificant by their families. Except, Pei Jin’s life inside the palace was more pitiful than her life inside the Yan Manor. Although her father was useless under Princess Kang Hua’s control, at least occasionally her father didn’t neglect her. Her heart ached for Pei Jin who had no one inside the palace who would at least ask him about his health. Each time she glanced at Pei Jin, he smiled gently in front of everyone but they ignored his presence.
After Yan Shi Ning struggled to eat food at the palace, she was happy to leave. Pei Jin led her to the horse carriage, but they were stopped by Consort Mu and seventh prince, Pei Zhang at the palace gardens.
‘I came here to see the flowers blossoming, I didn’t expect to meet you two here,’ Consort Mu said. She smiled at Yan Shi Ning. ‘You’ll make me happy if you join me in my chamber and talk with me.’
Yan Shi Ning was about to reply when Pei Jin spoke on her behalf.
‘Mother, Xiao Ning’s body is weak,’ Pei Jin said. ‘It’s better if I take Xiao Ning home to rest.’
Yan Shi Ning didn’t know when her body became weak. She glanced suspiciously at Pei Jin. She didn’t know why he didn’t want her to accompany Consort Mu, but she believed he had his reasons so she followed his lead. ‘Mother, I feel a close connection with you. But today I don’t know why my body is unwell. Forgive me for not accepting your kind invitation.’
Consort Mu acted regretful but she didn’t detain Yan Shi Ning. She took off a jade bracelet, gave it to Yan Shi Ning and advised her to take care of her body.
After Pei Jin and Yan Shi Ning wasn’t within sight, Consort Mu’s polite smile disappeared.
‘It appears he doesn’t want to help us,’ Consort Mu said. ‘He doesn’t even want to step foot in my chamber. It shows he doesn’t want to be associated with us.’
Pei Zhang smiled coldly. ‘After he returned from Southern Jiang, I visited his manor many times, but he made many excuses to avoid seeing me. Luckily his relationship with the other side is neutral too.’
Consort Mu gripped the stem of a flower. ‘Don’t worry, one day he will help us. There’ll be other opportunities in the future, let me think of a way to force him.’
End of Chapter Eight