After a short while, the carriage stopped in front of the gates of Fang Gui Pavilion. Relentless killings were being carried out in the darkness outside, but this royal palace remained unaffected, isolated from the outside. Joyful tunes and sounds of laughter emanated from the palace.
"Miss, we have arrived," the servant said, lowering his head.
Chu Qiao got out of the carriage. She was dressed in a light blue robe. She stood upright, eyes fixated firmly towards the front, devoid of any fear. She lifted her legs walked towards the palace.
"Miss," a low voice boomed from behind her. Four of the carriage marshallers knelt on the ground in unison. The young lady stopped in her tracks upon hearing the hoarse voice. The man, in a forced tone, uttered slowly, "The path ahead is unpredictable and arduous. Miss, please stop for the sake of Da Tong and Your Highness."
Chu Qiao shivered lightly. An unknown emotion surged through her mind. The years of anticipation and waiting had ignited her determination. Amidst all the storms that she had weathered, she had become much more resilient. Her eyes were able to see much clearly, her spine had become more straight, and her shoulders had become more rugged. She believed that she had the ability to journey on. At this instant, the purpose of this was no longer due to aspirations or due to Da Tong. It was solely to honor the promise she had made at the start.
"Let's go back to Yan Bei together?"
"Let's go back to Yan Bei together!"
With a whoosh, the wind blew at the seams of her dress. The young lady raised her head and took slow, steady strides towards Fang Gui Pavilion.
A fragrant aroma drifted from the distance. The sleeves of the dancers fluttered with the breeze. Hundreds of officials were gathered here. They were in groups and conversing with one another. The banquet had not officially started. The Emperor, the main lead for the night, was still resting in the back palace after a long day of visiting. Without his presence, the atmosphere in the pavilion appeared relaxed.
Due to Chu Qiao's identity, she was not allowed to step in the main palace; she was only allowed to take her seat at the second block of the side palace, which was separated from the main palace by a row of thick pillars. In the main palace, the indistinct chatter and movement of human heads made the inside seem lively. The royals of the Xia Empire were flamboyantly dressed, giving off an aura befitting of their status.
"Miss," a gentle voice said beside her. Chu Qiao turned around and saw a young lady with a fair complexion sitting on the seat next to her. She was dressed in light pink and appeared elegant. She remarked gently, "May I know which family you are from? I'm from the Heluo family, my father is Heluo Zhangqing. What's your name?"
The young lady dressed in pink looked demure and lovable. Chu Qiao nodded her head politely, replying, "I am Chu Qiao, Prince Yan's personal attendant."
"Oh, it's Miss Chu." The smile on the face of the young lady from the Heluo family dissipated upon hearing her words. Although she replied to Chu Qiao politely, her attitude was visibly cold as compared to moments ago. As she turned her head to talk with the other rich, noble ladies at the side, she deliberately turned her body away from Chu Qiao, fearing that others would associate them together.
After a short while, she revealed Chu Qiao's identity to more people. Many people stared in Chu Qiao's direction, harboring disgust, disdain and other negative emotions. Chu Qiao sat at the side nonchalantly, smiling. She had seen enough indifference and coldness that humans harbored towards each other.
She brewed a cup of tea for herself and gulped it down while raising her cup. The noble ladies at the side, seeing her raise a wine cup, thought that she was drinking wine in public, amplifying their feelings of disdain. Sounds of gossip started to surface, saying that she was an uncultured, lowly swine with no proper upbringing. The volume at which they spoke was expertly controlled. Their remarks were audible, but the exact person who said it could not be pinpointed.
Chu Qiao remained indifferent. After a long while, the sounds around her suddenly faded away. A shadow appeared in the reflection of the water in her cup. Chu Qiao looked up slowly, seeing Zhuge Yue standing in front of the many mats. He was dressed in a dark purple robe, embroidered with dark half-moon patterns. His jet black hair was bundled by a ribbon of the same color, fastened behind his back.
The second block and the main palace was separated by a shallow pond. The wind carried the cymbidium aromas onto the man's robe, spreading a fragrant scent all around. All the noble ladies in the second block were stunned. To them, they were just small fries within the capital. However, figures in the seven big families were living legends, comparable to members of the royal family. Many of the ladies were unable to interact with them their entire lives. Also, the cost of attending this banquet was equivalent to four taels of pure, solid gold. Although the second block and the main palace was separated by a mere pond, that distance seemed insurmountable. In addition, the other party was the eldest biological grandson of the Zhuge family. How would the ladies not be captivated by him?
Zhuge Yue's eyes scanned the crowd, eventually noticing Chu Qiao. He started to walk in her direction. Chu Qiao raised her eyebrows, wondering if the man would make trouble for her. However, he made his way to the seat beside her.
The young lady from the Heluo family turned red with excitement. She stood up clumsily, knocking over the teapot on the mat accidentally, spilling the water all over her dress. The young lady panicked, giving way to Zhuge Yue, while trying to conceal her actions. Her face turned unbelievably red and she did not know where to put her hand.
Zhuge Yue sat down on the mat, not even looking her in the eye.
"Young Master Zhuge, please…please have some tea." The young lady from the Heluo family stood at the side, shocked. She could not conceal the look of surprise on her face. Under the envious stares, she prepared a cup of tea and gave it to Zhuge Yue.
The man remained silent. He took the teacup and drank it in one gulp, without even raising his head.
Sounds of discussions erupted from all directions at this instant. The fourth young master of the Zhuge family had actually accepted the cup of tea from this young lady. This was a great honor for her.
Miss Heluo was all smiles, but was timid in her actions. She held the edges of her dress and slowly took her seat beside Zhuge Yue. Her face was red but carried a tinge of arrogance. She leaned towards Zhuge Yue, speaking softly and gently, "Master Zhuge, are you just back in the capital?" Seeing that he did not answer her question, she took the initiative and added, "During the last hunting meet, we noticed each other from afar. I didn't expect Fourth Master to remember me."
Zhuge Yue remained silent. He held the teacup in his hands, frowning. No one was able to comprehend his thoughts.
The second block was unlike the main palace. The gaps between the seats were narrow. Although the other noble ladies were engaged in their own conversations, they were half-hearted. It was obvious that they were trying to eavesdrop on Zhuge Yue.
The look on Miss Heluo's face turned to that of embarrassment. She bit her lower lip lightly. Making her voice even gentler, she remarked lightly, "Master Zhuge, I am Heluo Fei. My father is Heluo Zhangqing, from the Ministry of Ceremonies."
"Do you mind sharing a seat with someone else?" Zhuge Yue suddenly turned his head and remarked. Miss Heluo froze for a moment. Zhuge Yue repeated, "I'm asking, do you mind sharing a seat with someone else?"
Heluo Fei snapped out of her trance and replied, waving, "I don't mind. Of course Fei'er doesn't mind."
"Oh, that's good." Zhuge Yue nodded, raising his head to look at the side. He pointed at another lady who was looking at him and gestured, "You, come over." The lady's face turned red and she walked towards Zhuge Yue with a smile on her face, asking, "Master, are you referring to me?"
"Yes." Zhuge Yue nodded and continued, "Do you mind sharing a seat with someone else?"
Heluo Fei looked on, dazed and unaware of what was happening. The other lady vaguely sensed Zhuge Yue's intentions and looked at Heluo Fei with a strange smile. She said, "Since Master Zhuge has spoken, I do not mind."
Zhuge Yue remarked, "In that case, I'll trouble you to bring her over."
Heluo Fei was stunned, retorting, "Master Zhuge, you…"
"That's enough!" The young lady smiled and tugged at Heluo Fei's arm. "Did you really think that a delicacy just fell from the sky? Let's go."
Heluo Fei turned red with embarrassment and gritted her teeth. As she was dragged away by the other young lady, tears welled up in her eyes. She was ready to cry anytime. The other ladies, who were happily chatting with her not too long ago, covered their mouths and laughed at her misfortune.
Fang Gui Pavilion was the biggest in the Xia Empire's royal palace. It was joined together by 36 other smaller pavilions on the water, decorated by hundreds of carvings on the walls. The exquisite craftsmanship in designing the entire structure could be seen. The majestic central pavilion was built to worship the Wine Deity, Fang Gui. It was surrounded by four big side pavilions, connected by a waterway. The fragrance of the flowers along the waterway could be smelt. Along with the sounds of the sizhu, the place seemed pristine and serene.
At this instant, the main pavilion started to bustle with the arrival of majority of the officials and scholars. The atmospheres in the other pavilions were also lively. Only in the second pavilion, people were fighting to stare at Zhuge Yue. He remained indifferent, continuing to sip at his tea, seeming unaware that he had become the focal point for many.
At this moment, someone from the main pavilion reported, "The arrival of the Tang Empire's Crown Prince, the Seventh Royal Highness and the Thirteenth Royal Highness!"
The atmosphere was noisy in the main pavilion. Everyone there was fighting to see the royal figures. The unruly and unrestrained Tang Prince, since arriving in Zhen Huang, had not put his best foot forward. He exemplified the definition of a wastrel. Perhaps only due to the importance of today's occasion, Li Ce was dressed in a red robe, adorned with cymbidium patterns. Although he was flamboyant as usual, his outfit added a bit of seriousness to his demeanor. His hair was neat, he was all smiles, and he was bubbly, as if he was getting married. On the contrary, Zhao Che and Zhao Song, who stood beside him, appeared gloomy.
Zhao Che's biological mother had just passed away. He was not dressed to the nines, just in a plain brown outfit. He was frowning lightly, standing beside Li Ce and appearing impatient. It was obvious that he was not here on his own accord.
Li Ce laughed and raised his hand to say, "Sorry I'm late, I seek everyone's understanding."
The musicians and dancers started their routines. Melodious tunes started to resonate around the compound. Li Ce and the rest followed the navigator and walked towards their assigned seats. Li Ce's seat was near Zhao Che's. As he sat down, he leaned towards Zhao Che, looked around, and asked, "Where's Qiaoqiao? Have you seen her?"
Zhao Che frowned and replied, "Who is Qiaoqiao?"
"The one under your charge." Li Ce gestured wildly, continuing, "The one who pummeled me with a few ruthless blows."
Zhao Che frowned again, looking at this prince from the Tang Empire in confusion. He suspected that Li Ce enjoyed being abused from the fact that he appeared uncomfortable if he was not beaten up by anyone. He shook his head and replied, "I didn't see her. This is a royal banquet. Given her identity, she would not be qualified to attend this banquet."
"Is she not attending her master's wedding?" Li Ce sighed and shook his head. "Poor Qiaoqiao. Yan Xun is about to marry. She must be hiding somewhere, crying."
"Zhao Song, have you seen Qiaoqiao? The young lady beside Yan Xun, the one who beat me up."
Zhao Song, angered at the fact that the Emperor had ordered him to follow Li Ce, appeared even more enraged upon hearing Chu Qiao's name. He stubbornly turned his head and looked at Li Ce, replying in a cold tone, "I don't know."