Lou Che's entourage got back on the journey back to the capital city from Lingnan province. Purposely set the trip back home in the slowest and most pleasurable he could get, he planned out to make a stop in each big city so he could reach the capital close enough before the spring began.
His trusted taijian had to travel before him to set up his lodging and the most important part was amusement for him. Lou Che liked them young and strong. Most of them did not even like to do it with a man. But Lou Che has the power and a lot of money to spend on them. All of them always ended up addicted to getting into Lou Che's bed after they found it was easy money. Their sensual activity even enlights some of them. They found their own true self and became Lou Che's regular partner whenever Lou Che was in town.
The entourage has reached the biggest city in Jiangnandong province. Lou Che was excited to enter the boarding house that had already been prepared because he needed a good warm bath. He liked to take care of himself.
He liked it when he heard the women inside the harem praised his face. He liked it when other royal family members praised his body build. Anything related with appearance, he did not mind to try.
His carriage stopped right in front of the boarding house that was situated on the main road. Even though he never put any royal banner to act low, people on the busy street acknowledge the entourage must be related to the royal family.
Lou Che jumped out from the carriage and straight away entered the boarding house. He has stayed there before so he knew exactly where to go. Ignoring the boarding house owner and their employees who greeted him, Lou Che stormed up to the stairs, walked along the alley and met his taijian that was already waiting for him right in front of the bedroom that was assigned to be his this time.
"Have you prepared my bath?" Asked Lou Che as he took off his winter cloak.
The taijian received the heavy cloak then bowed a little deeper than usual. "Nu has prepared the bath. But…"
The atmosphere was strange. Lou Che always thought of the worst that could be. Lifting up his chin, straightening up his back, Lou Che took a long breath before the taijian lifted up his face and continued.
"The Grand Chancellor's fu has sent a New Year gift for Fuma." The old taijiang said it carefully.
At that moment Lou Che became reluctant to enter the room. He never liked The Grand Chancellor and The Grand Princess. The pair always seemed intimidating. Just like this, finally he got the spine-chilling gift from them like they wanted to let Lou Che know that they have been watching him closely.
It was hard to swallow his own saliva. Lou Che waved his hand so the taijian moved aside. With his heart beat fast, Lou Che opened the door with both his hands. The sound of the opening door was even creepier. Unwittingly, his forehead was already moist by sweat.
A large tub was filled with warm goat milk. A familiar young lad stood next to it. Very familiar in his eyes until Lou Che gasped. The same lad that he used a few weeks ago was not like the very first time he met.
The lad looked just like the son of some wealthy family. His clothes were clean. His face was no longer pure and naive.
"Gongzi, I am your gift. I am here to serve you." The young lad kneeled down with both hands thrust a letter up.
Lou Che stepped forward but did not touch the letter. Instead, he just looked closely at the seal that was used to glued the letter. The red marks got even clearly as he was getting closer. The symbol of The Grand Chancellor's fu.
Her husband's return was sooner than she had expected. By the time Lou Che's taijian reached their mansion and informed that soon Lou Che would enter the city, Li Xi Shi was not ready yet. She has been very determined that the moment Lou Che reached home, he would be astonished by her appearance. Therefore she quickly changed dresses, applied some makeup, and made sure her hair was perfect before she stood and waited in the front hall.
Her effort seemed to be useless. Lou Che's reaction was not like she had expected him to be. The moment he jumped out from the carriage, Lou Che looked very much haggard. There were dark circles under his eyes.
When Lou Che reached her hands, Li Xi Shi was shocked that the tips of his fingers were so cold. There was no smile on his smile. Lou Che took a look on her face, then came down to her dress, before returning his eyes back on Li Xi Shi's face.
"Apparently, my wife has been using some cream that I left behind." Lou Che titled his head to give a closer look. "The skin is getting radiant and the spring dress is beautifully made perfect for the body."
"Husband, please get inside. Both your hands are cold. Your face looks thinner than before you left. You make me worry." Li Xi Shi pulled his hands as she led towards the main chair in the room.
"The weather is still cold. Was the journey rough? The servants did not serve you well?!" As soon Lou Che took his seat, Li Xi Shi poured warm tea in a cup and then passed it to Lou Che's hand. She did not take her seat and stood in front of him while waiting for his response.
Just staring at the cup on his hands, Lou Che locked his lips tightly. Fine wrinkled lines appeared on his forehead. Naturally Li Xi Shi touched it and pondered how hard it was for Lou Che to do his business.
"Everything was fine." Lou Che let Li Xi Shi caress him. He knew how she adores him. He adored his wife too but not in the same kind of love like she was over him.
Straightening her back, Li Xi Shi turned her head to check their people who were moving Lou Che's trunks. The head steward along with Lou Che's taijian were arranging which trunks need to be stored at the storeroom, which trunks need to be unloaded at the main hall.
Her eyes stuck at one person she never knew was working for neither her or Lou Che before. A young man wore neat clothes and stood idle beside the head steward and the taijian.
"Who are you?" Li Xi Shis question stopped the conversation between head steward and personal taijian. The young man bowed his head deeply towards Li Xi Shi.
Instead of kneeling down, he lifted back up his head and tried his best to reply to Li Xi Shi's question. "My name is Ah Ke, furen."
"Why did you not give proper respect toward gongzhu?!" Dai Mao mama stepped forward. Her intonation made Ah Ke awkwardly kneeled in confusion.
Actually Li Xi Shi was not angry over something this simple. She was not a person who did not know compassion toward people bellowed her. It was just Lou Che's reaction after her question which made her hint something was dubious.
Lou Che put down the cup in a rush until the cup spilled all over the table. He jumped up from the chair and stood beside Li Xi Shi all of a sudden. Li Xi Shi caught him acting strange as sweat appeared on his forehead.
"Both of you should teach him proper respect." said Lou Che towards the head steward and his personal taijian. After that he turned to Li Xi Shi, took her hand, gave gentle taps on her hand and smiled widely.
"I took him from the port at the southern province. He is just a poor orphan but seems to have the intention to work hard. I bought him from the boarding house there."
Lou Che tried to cover Li Xi Shi's gaze on Ah Ke by lifting his cloak and embraced Li Xi Shi under his arms. He led her to leave the front hall.
"My lovely wife, I bring some stuff from outside for you to see. I also bought rare items for us to give muhou." Slowly they stepped out from the front hall and moved towards the main resident.
Naturally smiled, Li Xi Shi blushed happily at Lou Che. "Muhou must be very happy. I cannot wait to see what gifts hubby has prepared for her."
Lou Che pinched her cheeks and made her blushed even more. "I bought so many items for you, but my wife is a considerate person who thinks about muhou before herself. I am very proud to have you as a wife."
"Husband, I am very happy you are back. I promise to be more attentive to you." Under Lou Che's embrace, Li Xi Shi made a turn. Her hands hugged Lou Che tightly. She put her face on his chest. "I have been missing you dearly, husband. Please travel less this year, stay with me."
They stopped in the middle of their way to their private quarter. The romantic scene was displayed in front of their servants. Dai mao mama retreated quietly along with other servants. The view of spring flowers at their garden made their silhouette even beautiful to see.
Lou Che put his chin on top of her head. Both of his hands circled her body. His cloak made her warm and Li Xi Shi enjoyed every second of it. Even though Lou Che stayed quiet and did not answer her plea, Li Xi Shi made sure he followed what she wanted.
They hugged for a while without anyone daring to disturb them. One was full with a happy smile and imagined a son or a daughter would be born soon. One was thinking a completely different thing with a hard face stoned full of trouble.
Inside Kui Yuan Hall, The Empress was relaxing, sitting on a stone chair, facing toward her new additional flower plant that The Emperor sent to her. The flower has not completely bloomed but she still adores it dearly.
Every year, at the beginning of the spring, The Emperor always sent flower plants for The Empress. Even though the person was not there to enjoy it together, The Empress never dwelled. From the day she wed Li Yuan Tian, she knew all along that her husband would never belong entirely to her.
For about thirty years they together, from witnessing Li Yuan Tian went to wars, became the right hand The Late Emperor conquered the previous empire and established a new dynasty, until crowned as The Dragon Heir. The only thing The Empress was resentful was about her failure to give son to The Emperor.
The first and the second of her pregnancy were stillborn sons. The third pregnancy was Li Xi Shi Gulun gongzhu. After that she has to accept the fact that the two fei gave The Emperor two healthy born sons sequentially.
She gave up trying. She knew that she no longer could compete with both Jing Guì Fēi and Shu Guì Fēi. All women in the harem much younger than her. She knew she would not win. The wise move she chose was to be more reserved.
"Niangniang, He Lu gonggong from Zhong Jing Hall came by on behalf of Jing Guì Fēi to ask permission to not attend the routine greeting. These past few days Jing Guì Fēi does not feel well." Mu Tong stood beside her and informed the news calmly.
She turned her head to face Mu Tong, her personal mama. Mu Tong and Dai Mao were part of her dowry that she brought on her wedding day. Both have served her almost for her entire age.
Jing Guì Fēi did not like Shu Guì Fēi who has a bold and loud personality. While Shu Guì Fēi openly showed disrespect toward her, Jing Guì Fēi maintained her manner according to harem protocol. If there was a greeting schedule within the harem, Jing Guì Fēi always made sure she would attend it.
"Ever since Duan Wang Fei got miscarriage, Zhong Jing Hall became dead air. Jing Guì Fēi did not join the winter festival as she grieved for the unborn grandchild. She might think after coming back from the winter retreat Duan Qin Wang would already calm down and visit her to greet and together receive new year blessings from Huáng shang. Turned out Duan Qin Wang went straight to attending the first new year assembly, greeted Huáng shang, and avoided Zhong Jing Hall."
She knew what Jing Gui Fei had done. It was wrong and unwise but it has been done. To plot to kill Duan Wang Fei who turned out that she was pregnant, Jing Gui Fei was lucky enough The Emperor covered her sin by sending her out of the palace to pray for the unborn child.
But for Duan Qin Wang, he was on the edge. His mother's act not only made him lose an heir but also exposed Jing Gui Fei's intention to smooth his way to the throne. A move which made Duan Qin Wang lose respect, The Emperor had prejudice against him and Jiang Gui Fei.
Mu Tong mama gave her hand so The Empress could hold on to her as she was trying to get up. Slowly, they walked along the yard.
"Bengong always thought Jing Gui Fei is smarter than any other consorts here inside the palace. This reckless act proves that my thought is wrong." The Empress muttered.
"Now, no one dare to approach Zhong Jing Hall, should nubi inform and request someone from the imperial taiyi to check Jing Gui Fei?" Mu Tong asked carefully.
Both of them stopped in the middle of the yard. As she gave a moment to think thoroughly of her next move, Mu Tong waited in silence. This habit was taught from before she became part of the Li family line. Her maiden family line was Confucius's descendants.
"Mu Tong mama can request imperial taiyi to come and examine Jing Gui Fei, after that lead the taiyi to pass Kui Yuan Hall. There is something in bengong's mind."
Mu Tong's eyes swifted up and met The Empress's eyes.
"Bengong noticed Li Xi Shi is trying to make an effort to gain Lou Che's affection. Specially after Lou Che returned from his winter trip to the southern province. Li Xi Shi's appearance was fresher than she used to be. It seems like that foolish girl had returned to be playful like she once was and is trying to keep Lou Che from going for a trade trip."
The Emperor once promised her that their only child together will always stay close within their eyesight and it did come true. Li Xi Shi supposed to be happy with her husband who would not dare to share their love with other women. But as years went by and Li Xi Shi did not get pregnant, The Empress became worried.
Mu Tong nodded in agreement. "Nubi has noticed that too. But Lou Che fuma seems different than usual when we all attended the New Year banquet."
"Li Xi Shi turned attractive meanwhile Lou Che turned languorous. Bengong noticed it too and worried. If bengong makes a special request for imperial taiyi to come and discuss Li Xi Shi and Lou Che, it would just add more rumour. Bengong does not want anyone to make ridiculous rumors about gongzhu's ability to bear a child."
The more she explained her thoughts on this matter, the more she raised her voice out of anger. She was calm and wise but ever since she heard rumor saying that gongzhu might be barren and people put their pity on Lou Che for being in hard place to find a concubine to continue his family line, even The Calm and Wise Empress cannot held up her emotion.
"Nubi understands." Mu Tong nodded once again. She held The Empress's hand tighter. "Niangniang, please rest inside. The coldness of the beginning of the spring could harm the body. After niangniang rest inside, nubi will personally make a trip to the imperial taiyi's office."
Being led back to her main quarter, inside The Empress's mind was only thinking about Li Xi Shi and her husband.