Chapter 42: Schemes
"Alright, alright," Qi Chen said impatiently. He put down the teacup and stood up. "Brother Feng can stay here and enjoy the view. Don't forget to attend my wedding tomorrow." He left with the housekeeper, leaving Jun Huang sitting there, watching them hurrying away. She shook her head. Such was the way of mortals, always rushing from one place to another.
She put down the teacup and looked up at the sky. Tomorrow would likely be a sunny day.
The next day, before dawn, there were already people bustling about outside. Jun Huang was woken by the noise and felt a little annoyed. The pain in her temples didn't help either. She had to take some pills to suppress it.
The maid who had been serving Jun Huang brought her a bowl of water and left her clothes on the end table next to her bed. She knew how Jun Huang was right after waking up, so she left the room and waited at the door.
Weddings for marrying concubines weren't normally this large-scale, but Qi Chen had not been married before, so his first concubine was married the way the principle wife would be. She would receive betrothal gifts and be carried here in a bridal sedan chair by eight people.
Qi Chen left for the Wei Manor on a horse to pick up and lead Wei Lanying back to his manor. Only then did Jun Huang saunter into the main hall. Almost all the sons from important families in the imperial city were present. Who knew, however, how many of them really were here to congratulate the couple, and how many were trying to get on Qi Chen's good side?
There were many guests wandering about. Jun Huang stayed near the wall, looking at the conversing people with her arms crossed.
Qi Chen got off his horse and started chatting with the guests. The festive wedding outfit made him look different from his usual self. Wei Lanying, with the help of the matchmaker, crossed the threshold, then the pot of fire.1 The red bridal veil she wore was embroidered with a golden phoenix. The phoenix was so lifelike it seemed like it would fly away any second. Her entire appearance was impressive. Qi Chen's friends cheered and applauded.
Nan Xun didn't arrive until halfway through the wedding. He spotted Jun Huang at a distance and went straight to her.
"How are you feeling?"
Jun Huang tilted her head to give him a look. "I'm fine now."
Nan Xun nodded. He followed Jun Huang's line of sight to the main hall. There, a maid was helping Wei Lanying to the marital bedroom, while Qi Chen invited the guests to take a seat and have a drink. He probably noticed Jun Huang's absence, and was looking around for Jun Huang. When he spotted her with Nan Xun, he walked up to them with a frown.
"Why didn't brother Feng come in?"
"I didn't have much to do, so I stayed here. Happened to run into Prince Nan. We talked a little." Jun Huang's face betrayed nothing. She curved up her lips. "Congratulation on your marriage, Your Highness."
"The banquet has started. Let us go in." Qi Chen led the two of them into the main hall.
At night, Qi Chen was dizzy with all the alcohol in his system. He might fall asleep any second. The housekeeper nudged him and said, "Lady Wei is still waiting. Please hurry and return to the marital bedroom."
Qi Chen tilted his head up and threw a glance at the housekeeper. He did have someone waiting for him. He struggled to get to his feet and left for the bedroom with a servant's help.
When he reached the hallway, it had started to drizzle outside, washing away the usual smothering heat. The breeze cleared his head a little.
After telling the servant to leave, he stood in the hallway for quite a while. Then he walked towards the marital bedroom. There was a red character of Xi, which meant joy, on the door. The door curtains had become damp from the rain and seemed like they were barely hanging onto the door frame. Qi Chen was filled with a fleeting sense of melancholy.
He took a deep breath to clear his thoughts before pushing the door open with a smile. Through the screen depicting mountains and flowers, he could see the silhouette of his spouse, the concubine he married today.
Hearing the footsteps, Wei Lanying knew Qi Chen was here. She sat upright on the bed, worriedly holding her hands together. Her heart seemed to be pounding in concert with Qi Chen's footsteps. One beat after another – she could hear so very clearly.
"I have kept you waiting, my dear," Qi Chen said with a chuckle. He stopped in front of Wei Lanying.
Wei Lanying looked down at the black boots lined with gold coming into her view, a blush finding its way to her cheeks. She blushed even harder when Qi Chen took down the veil over her face. She looked just like any girl who felt shy in face of her loved one. She didn't even dare to look at Qi Chen's face directly.
She never imagined that she would get to realize her dream after years of pining. Finally, the man she was always in love with had become her husband, someone she would devote herself to for her whole life.
Qi Chen let out a quiet laugh. "Let me see your face."
Wei Lanying looked up slowly, biting into her lip. Her cheeks were rosy red and her heart was pounding so hard; it was like it would jump right out of her throat.
Qi Chen looked at her deeply, approaching her. Then, with a hand on her chin, he forced her to meet his gaze.
The curtains were dropped. The phoenix cap she wore was taken off and thrown to the floor. All night long they tangled together. The clothes scattered on the floor signified their consummation. The marital wine on the table was left untouched.
Qi Chen had already left when Wei Lanying woke up. It was early in the morning. A servant told her that the emperor had sent for him, saying that they had matters to discuss. Moreover, she was a concubine and did not need to enter the palace to greet the emperor. Therefore, Qi Chen left without waiting for her to wake up.
No matter the reason, Wei Lanying felt uneasy. The blood on the bed was like a blooming peony. It unsettled her. After making herself presentable, she hurried outside and got on a coach to Wei Manor without even having breakfast.
No one at the manor expected the lady that got married yesterday to return so early in the morning. They talked among themselves, saying that Wei Lanying must have come back to complain about how unloved she was.
"Why are you back so soon, Ying'er?" Sir Wei scolded her harshly, his eyebrows knitted together. "You are Prince Chen's spouse now. How can you act so inappropriately?"
"I don't care. Father, yesterday – yesterday the prince mentioned that he wanted to be the crown prince," said Wei Lanying, her brows furrowed in concern. "We have to help him. The emperor sent for the prince earlier for reasons I don't know about. Father, the crown prince has passed away. Now the second prince is the best candidate. If one day emperor Qi regains his full health, it'll be too late for us."
Sir Wei thought about the situation. If Qi Chen became the crown prince, then maybe Wei Lanying would become the crown prince's wife rather than a mere concubine.
"Come here." Sir Wei waved her over. They talked in a low voice. The concerned expression on Wei Lanying's face slowly melt into a smile.
When she returned to Prince Chen Manor, Qi Chen had also returned. He frowned as she entered. "Where have you been?"
Wei Lanying looked around. This wasn't a good place for such conversations. She smiled at him and whispered, "Ying'er went home and brought Your Highness some good news."
That didn't answer any aspect of Qi Chen's question. He led Wei Lanying into the study. "What good news?"
Wei Lanying gave him a seductive smile. "Your Highness said last night that you wanted to be the crown prince. Are you being truthful? If so, Ying'er can help Your Highness gain the title. What would I receive in return then?"
Qi Chen understood what she meant immediately. Sir Wei really was severely underestimated as a scholar official. He had come up with a plan so quickly. He knew, however, Wei Lanying could never be his principal wife. This woman was too calculating for her own good.
The longer Qi Chen remained silent, the less confident Wei Lanying felt. She bit hard into her lip and didn't dare to even breathe.
Seeing how nervous she was, Qi Chen smiled and pulled her into his arms. "I will give you anything you want, of course," he gently said. "Don't you remember the wonderful night we shared? Don't you know how I feel already?"
Hypnotized by his eyes, Wei Lanying forgot all about her goals. She laid out Sir Wei's plan. "The crown prince has passed away, and Royal Father is not young anymore. In addition, the world is unstable. Royal Father should choose someone to take the mantle of the crown prince in order to comfort the people. My father said that the emperor has not been feeling well lately. Your Highness should tell the emperor that you can help him shoulder the burden. My father also has connections in the imperial court. His friends will support you. As long as Your Highness has achieved something, and the officials met with Royal Father to speak for you, Royal Father will realize that Your Highness is worthy of the title."
"Your Highness made such great effort at the border to help. Royal Father must know of it. You don't want your efforts to be in vain, do you? Since the ancient times, there was the belief of following destiny in Northern Qi. Your Highness needs only to spread rumors among the people. Tell them that without a crown prince, Northern Qi will fall into chaos. And give them hints pointing them to Prince Chen Manor. Then Your Highness will reach your goal very soon."
Qi Chen fell silent. She had thought this through. The crown prince's death had made residents of the imperial city disquieted. Without a crown prince, they would never be at ease. The emperor, of course, knew this already. If Qi Chen could achieve something now and conjure up a so called heaven's order, how could the title of crown prince not be his?
Qi Chen nodded, pleased. "You are right. Do you have a good plan?"
Wei Lanying quirked up the corners of her mouth. "Let me do this for you. Your Highness only has to wait for the good news." She walked out of the room and left Qi Chen to his own thoughts.
Wei Lanying was indeed clever. In only a couple of days, ancient tortoises appeared all around the city with the words following destiny written on their backs. All of them crawled towards Prince Chen Manor and stopped at the door. Suddenly more and more people supported Qi Chen to become the crown prince.
Jun Huang was caught completely off guard. People were saying Qi Chen was born to be the crown prince. If she didn't want to raise suspicion, she couldn't deny what they said. Without a good solution, she could only let things play out.
"Congratulations, Your Highness, the crown prince's title is within your reach." Jun Huang cupped her hands in greeting, smiling. Her gaze, however, was fixed on Wei Lanying.
Feeling like Jun Huang was up to no good, Wei Lanying frowned. She then turned to Qi Chen with a smile. "Who is this gentleman?"
Part of the wedding ritual. The bride will cross a small pot of fire for good luck. ↩