Dinner was set up in the reception of the Jinhua Hall.
Apart from Shen Yi Yao, everyone else was of the younger generation. Luo Huai Yuan was the oldest but he was only twelve this year. Therefore, they didn’t insist on segregating by gender.
There was a large table of sumptuous dishes. They included exquisite foods from the cook as well as Granny Ma’s specialties.
Granny Ma had been relocated to the Peaceful Garden’s kitchen, and was responsible for the masters’ meals. Her salary was also increased several-fold and her reputation increased quite a bit as well.
Her son had long since reached the age to be married but many families with daughters didn’t like that his mom was widowed and that they were poor. The slightly better off families weren’t willing to let their daughters marry him. Now that she was working in the madam’s kitchen, many people started reaching out regarding this matter. These days, Granny Ma was all smiles and served even more wholeheartedly. She put all her efforts into coming up with better things for the madam, miss and young master to eat.
When they were in the marquis estate, they could eat whatever they wanted by ordering from the main kitchen. After the Ningxiang Chambers built its own little kitchen, Yan Yan rarely ate at the Jinse Pavilion. Now that they lived at the manor, there were some restrictions. The kitchen only had two cooks and it was mostly their family of three eating together.
Everytime they ate, the atmosphere would be very gloomy. They merely focused on eating and didn’t talk. There truly wasn’t anything to talk about. Shen Yi Yao wasn’t good with words. She wanted to say something to her daughter, but seeing her unsmiling expression, she could only swallow her words. As for Yan Yan, the scars in her heart made her unable to smile at Shen Yi Yao.
Because Shen Qi and Luo Huai Yuan were present today, the atmosphere was quite a bit livelier.
Shen Qi was a glutton and every dish at the table suited his taste. His chopsticks moved swiftly. Luo Huai Yuan was a lively one. He had noticed some clues this afternoon and naturally put all his efforts into lightening the mood.
When he spoke about them playing cards in the afternoon, Shen Yi Yao listened extremely closely. When she heard Yan Mo’s face was stuck full of paper strips, she turned to look at her son. Yan Yan remembered the scene from earlier and also looked at her brother in amusement. Yan Mo felt very embarrassed from their stares and his little face turned red.
Yan Yan grabbed a piece of stewed duck and put it in her brother’s bowl. When she looked up, she happened to meet Shen Yi Yao’s gaze. The both of them froze before Yan Yan faintly withdrew her gaze.
Although it was only an instant, the goodwill, anxiety, unease and all sorts of complicated emotions in Shen Yi Yao’s eyes were carved deeply into her mind.
Seeing this, Luo Huai Yuan’s gaze flickered and he didn’t say anything.
After eating, Shen Qi asked if they wanted to go play cards again at the Lincang Residence. He had been screwed over by Luo Huai Yuan and Yan Yan teaming up in the afternoon, and wanted to get revenge. Although the sky was dark, it was actually still early. It was only just past seven. Pieces of snow drifted in the wind and a layer of white covered the ground.
Cui Qiao walked in while rubbing her hands. “It’s snowing outside. This servant will have the little lasses prepare some parasols.”
Seeing this, Luo Huai Yuan spoke: “Since it’s snowing, let’s not change locations. Auntie, how about you take pity on us and clear out a place for us to play a while?”
Shen Yi Yao naturally wouldn’t be against it. She let them use the western warm room to play. They had a little lass take a parasol to fetch the cards from the Lincang Residence and the group moved to the western room. Luo Huai Yuan used the opportunity to have Shen Yi Yao observe and supervise in case Shen Qi acted shamelessly when he lost.
This was an extra affront. Shen Qi hollered angrily, saying Luo Huai Yuan was the one acting shamelessly. As they messed around, Shen Yi Yao went along with the children.
There was a partition made of red sandalwood and a hanging screen made of crystal. After entering, there was a large kiln against the northern wall upon which was a scarlet gold mattress and dark green woven pillows. In the middle was a black kiln table engraved with birds and flowers. Next to the kiln were four rosewood carved chairs separated by two small rosewood tables. On the desk by the window was a jade vase with a blooming red rose inside.
The people took off their shoes and got on the kiln. Shen Qi and Luo Huai Yuan sat cross-legged on one side, each taking up a corner of the kiln table. Yan Yan and Yan Mo sat across from them. Yan Yan sat on the outside, Yan Mo in the middle and Shen Yi Yao leaned against the pillow laughing as she watched them play.
Yan Yan didn’t play this time and let Yan Mo play instead. Her brother had expressed a lot of interest in the afternoon, and despite being stuck full of strips he still happily gave suggestions. She naturally had to let him enjoy himself as well. The maids brought over strips of paper and a small bowl of rice slurry, putting it on the small table.
The game started.
Shen Qi lost the first round and got two strips of paper stuck on his face. Shen Yi Yao hadn’t seen such a method of playing before and couldn’t help but laugh.
Yan Mo had a good hand the second round. He was very nervous and gripped his cards tightly. His little brows furrowed as he studied his cards seriously, wondering if he should be the landlord.
This wasn’t Go so there was no need for observers to remain silent. Those watching from the side liked to make random suggestions. Yan Yan spoke up: “Go for it. Your cards are pretty good.”
His sister’s support filled little Ah Mo with confidence. He picked up the three covered cards.
Yan Mo’s cards went together very well and didn’t leave the other two with any means of counterattacking. He played out his entire hand. A “bomb”1 was played this round so according to the rules, Luo Huai Yuan and Shen Qi each had to get stuck with two strips.
Yan Mo took the little strips and dipped it into the slurry. His mouth was pursed in a smile as he stuck them on their faces. After he was done, he shot his sister a smile. Yan Yan smiled back and stroked his head.
“Fighting the landlord” was a game suitable for young and old, and it was easy to learn. Shen Yi Yao learned how to play after watching next to her son for a bit. When Yan Mo hesitated and didn’t know what his next move should be, she would give him suggestions. Yan Yan was the same. Otherwise, why would there be the saying of “the emperor wasn’t anxious but his eunuchs were”?[enf_note]Observers more anxious than the person involved.[/efn_note] Those watching from the side would get more riled up than the participants.
Since there were multiple people, they would have different thoughts. Sometimes Shen Yi Yao would feel it was better to put out a pair when Yan Yan thought it was better to play a single. After some back and forth, the two of them exchanged quite a few words without realizing it. When the cards were hard to play, the two of them would even start bickering.
Since everyone was too focused, no one noticed the hints apart from Luo Huai Yuan, as well as Cui Qiao and Cui Ping who were serving on the side.
They played until shortly before midnight before stopping. Everyone seemed reluctant to stop.
Shen Yi Yao ordered the maids to send the miss and young masters back, and told them to make sure they didn’t get snowed on. She returned to her bedroom and with Cui Qiao and Cui Ping’s help, washed up and got in bed.
In the winter, the bedding would be warmed up with a steamer until it was dry and warm before putting it on the bed. Prior to sleeping, two warm bottles would be put inside as well so it didn’t feel cold.
Cui Qiao helped tuck Shen Yi Yao in as she chattered with a smile: “Madam was very happy today. That young master Luo is really an interesting person to come up with such a game. The doctor said if madam maintains a good mood, you will recover sooner. It would be good if every day is like this in the future.”
Looking at Shen Yi Yao’s faint smile, Cui Qiao lowered the cyan curtains embroidered with flowers, plants and birds around the bed as she continued: “This servant saw that the fourth young master was very happy today as well. The third miss too. Allow this servant to overstep and say that actually the third miss care quite a lot about you. She’s just young and her temper is stubborn, so she just doesn’t know how to express it. If the madam takes the initiative a bit more, things will get better.”
Shen Yi Yao was a little startled. After a moment, she said, “Ah Yan is still angry at me in her heart.”
“How can that be? There are no overnight grudges between mother and daughter. The third miss is just stubborn and doesn’t know how to sugarcoat things. But don’t you see, it was always the third miss stepping up these past few times. Without her, madam would have been swallowed whole already.”
Cui Qiao was momentarily emotional. Only after speaking did she realize she shouldn’t have spoken these words. She stammered a little, “Madam, this servant overstepped.”
Shen Yi Yao let out a bitter smile and didn’t speak, indicating Cui Qiao to blow out the lamp and rest.
Shen Qi was too immersed in having fun after arriving at the Peaceful Garden. He only remembered he was supposed to send a letter home on the second day.
He hurriedly asked Shen Yi Yao to help send a letter home.
He scarcely realized that the Zhenguo Duke Estate was already boiling over.
The first night Shen Ding had wanted to beat his son but was stopped by Second Madam Shen. The next morning, Shen Qi had run off. Second Madam Shen had assumed the naughty child was afraid of being beaten and didn’t reveal himself. Only after not seeing him after dinner did Second Madam Shen start worrying. Not only did she send someone to the Qingshan Institute to look for him, she also started searching the entire estate.
If it wasn’t for the Zhenguo Duke saying that there was someone protecting him secretly and they probably didn’t return due to the weather, Second Madam Shen might have done something drastic.
Despite this, she didn’t forget to vent her anger at Shen Ding after returning. She complained that he shouldn’t treat their son this way. He clearly knew he didn’t like studying so why force him? Studying wasn’t easy, and their eldest son now studied without returning home. Did he also want their younger son to run away from home?
Second Madam Shen didn’t sleep the entire night. Only after receiving Shen Yi Yao’s letter did she relax.
“This little brat truly knows how to run!” Shen Ding cursed while laughing.
The Zhenguo madam also let out a breath of relief. “He definitely went to find Ah Yan.” Mentioning her granddaughter, she thought of her daughter and gave the old man a glance. She said quietly: “Who knows how Yao’er is doing. It’s said she’s ill. Who knows if she’s recovered yet?”
How could the Zhenguo Duke not understand the old woman’s meaning. He raised his eyebrows and gave her a glance. “Stop worrying needlessly. The younger generation shouldn’t be spoiled.” Then he said to Shen Ding: “Come with me to the study.”
Only after father and son left did the Zhenguo madam twist her mouth and say to Matron Xu: “That damn old man, saying one thing while meaning something else. Does he think I don’t realize he’s more worried than I am?”
When they heard that Shen Yi Yao was unconscious and wouldn’t wake up, the Zhenguo Duke was completely depressed. Everyone in the estate gave him a wide berth. He considered sending someone to invite an imperial physician, but resisted the urge. Luckily Shen Yi Yao woke up afterwards. His granddaughter had sent a letter over, allowing the entire estate to relax.
Matron Xu said while holding in a smile: “The lord duke doesn’t want you to worry too much, so you should worry less. The lord duke knows what he’s doing.”
The Zhenguo madam naturally understood this. But understanding and being at ease was two separate things.
“I know. I’m just worried about Yao’er. That wretched Yan Ting, how dare he treat my precious daughter this way? Oh my Yao’er. What sin has she commited to end up with such a person? It’s all my fault for not persuading her back then….”
As she spoke, the Zhenguo Madam couldn’t help but started getting upset.
Within the study.
“Has that Yan Ting made any moves recently?”
Shen Ding who was seated down below put his teacup down. “He’s like a headless fly. However, we’ve noticed he’s been diligently interacting with the Wuding Marquis household’s Liu Xi. He seems to be planning on getting connected with Liu Xi’s older brother-in-law.”
The Zhenguo Duke sneered disdainfully, “He’s pretty good at currying favor.”
“Perhaps he might end up succeeding. The Xu household doesn’t have any foundations and would love to have more people on their side.” Shen Ding gestured. “Those two aren’t young anymore. It’s about time for them to make a move.”
This was indeed the case. This was a bit of a long story.
During the selection process a certain number of years ago, Senior Concubine Xu who came from a commoner household ascended in a single bound. At that time, she wasn’t the senior concubine yet, but rather Attendent Xu. She was extremely beautiful and aroused sympathy. Emperor Xi was very fond of her.
Attendent Xu was of humble origin, but was good at understanding others. She also worked hard and gave birth to two princes in one go. She was also favored by Emperor Xi, and went all the way from attendant to the most favored senior concubine within the six palaces. She could be said to be so extremely favored that even Empress Xiao didn’t dare reveal her blade.
As the saying goes, when a man achieves the Dao, his chickens and dogs ascend as well. The Xu household naturally became well regarded. Senior Concubine Xu’s dad was a butcher. He shed his oily rags and transformed into the Chengen Marquis.
The merit-based nobility naturally looked down upon these new nobles who relied on their women’s relationships to ascend. However, they were helpless since the Xu household’s Senior Concubine Xu was favored. They only dared speak sour words secretly, but were all smiles when facing them, and were even reverent. Some households had similar thoughts and couldn’t wait to send their decent looking daughters into the palace. They hoped they could come up with another awesome senior concubine.
All this won’t be mentioned for now. Since the Xu household were commoners, their foundations were shallow. Now that the princes were all matured and since the second and third prince were birthed by Senior Concubine Xu, it was normal for her to have some thoughts.
This Xu Xiang Rong was Senior Concubine Xu’s younger brother. He married the Wuding Marquis household’s daughter. Liu Xi was his younger brother-in-law. Both brothers-in-law were similarly trashy people. They were both hedonistic young masters. As for why Yan Ting would get connected with them, it goes without saying.
“He does have quite the ambition.” The Zhenguo Duke muttered for a bit: “Let’s wait and see first. Have the people keep a close eye on them. What about the Pei household’s side?”
Shen Ding grinned. “We don’t need to do anything. The Pei household is finished this time.”
The capital was the liveliest every time the imperial exam came around. The second month of this year was exceptionally lively.
The source of this was because the exam results were canceled. The reason there was a ruckus was because the exam questions were leaked.
This matter needs to be told from the beginning. After the exam was over, the examinees didn’t return to their hometowns right away. They all waited in the capital for the rankings to be released. Having studied bitterly for a decade, whether they were able to leap through the dragon’s gate depended on this moment.
While waiting for the rankings to be released, the examinees naturally got together, eating and drinking, sightseeing and walking around. Those who felt they did pretty well naturally entertained grand aspirations. Those who felt they didn’t do well still went around while planning their retake and making connections.
At this time, some examinees spread rumors that the exam questions had been leaked beforehand. It wasn’t just one person saying it. There were several examinees from different hometowns who were staying in the same tavern all saying the same thing.
After asking about the details, it turns out there was an examinee surnamed Chen staying in this tavern. That examinee was kind and charitable, his personality outspoken. The examinees who arrived in the capital first all tried to do some last minute cramming, hoping to pass the exam. Only that person got together with likeminded people when he reached the capital and went around eating, drinking and playing.
Examinee Chen participated in a poetry convention where he met a friend. The two got along very well and returned after drinking and enjoying themselves. After a few days passed, Examinee Chen saw a drunk person by the road on his way back to the tavern one night. He realized it was that friend of his who he didn’t know by name. He took him back to the tavern.
That person became feverish around midnight. Examinee Chen fed him ginger soup and found him a doctor. After he awoke the following day and learned that Examinee Chen had saved him, he was extremely grateful. He knew that if he slept on the road in the middle of winter, he would have either frozen to death or gotten seriously ill. He definitely wouldn’t be fated with the upcoming exam.
That person hesitated for a long time before pulling a small piece of sealed paper from his sleeves and giving it to Examinee Chen. He told him to go back and look it over carefully, and not tell anyone.
Then, that person left without saying farewell.
Examinee Chen looked at the paper and realized it contained several test questions.
At that time, there were several examinees in the room. They all knew that Examinee Chen had saved someone yet that person had left without a word. They came over to comfort him. Seeing Examinee Chen’s weird appearance, they all leaned in for a look. Someone joked that those questions might be in this time’s exam.
When these words were spoken, everyone had their own thoughts. Some thought this was just a joke and they were extremely mocking. Other people had different thoughts. Within the same tavern, the majority knew about this matter.
On the day of the exam, the examiner unsealed the questions. The people were all alarmed. Those who had thoughts were naturally well prepared as though they had divine assistance. Those who thought it was a joke naturally couldn’t focus and weren’t able to exhibit even half their abilities.
This matter thus became a mess.
Actually it could be imagined. Those people had an opportunity in front of them but didn’t cherish it, and instead treated it as trash. Of course, there weren’t any second chances in life, so they would definitely feel jealous. Some people even scolded righteously that such actions were wrong, and as an upright man they wouldn’t follow in their bad example.
Whether that was the truth, only the heavens knew.
When the rankings were released, there were ten people from the tavern ranked among the top. Things truly got out of hand. The rumors spread quickly around the capital. There were even examinees who went to protest at the Minstry of Rites.
This matter could no longer be concealed and reached the higher ups. Emperor Xi was furious and ordered a thorough investigation.
The examinees involved were locked up and questioned one by one.
At this point it was too late for regrets. Now that things had gotten to this point, it was no longer a matter of angry words. Those who passed the exam resented those who messed things up. Those who didn’t pass the exam were scared inside yet still put on a righteous act. In the end, the blame was placed on Examinee Chen. If he wasn’t there, this matter wouldn’t have occurred. Everyone would have relied on their own abilities.
But that Examinee Chen was very unjustly accused. If he had known this would happen, he definitely would have been more careful and not let anyone know about it. As for that person who left without a word, he had also kindly repaid his debt several fold. He had shared this information he obtained with great difficulty with his savior, yet unexpectedly so many things occurred because of it.
In the end, they didn’t find out who leaked the questions. That person seemed to have vanished from the face of the earth.
Since they couldn’t find the person, the investigation came to a halt.
This matter won’t be mentioned for now.
To appease the masses, the scores of the exam this time were invalidated. The court decreed a date for a retake. The examiners this time were investigated one by one. Even the officials in the Ministry of Rites were interrogated.
The assistant minister of the Ministry of Rites Pei Nan felt very unjustly accused.
But it was no use. The imperial exam was a major matter for the Ministry of Rites, and this wasn’t the first time questions were leaked. However, it was the first time things got so out of hand. Although outsiders didn’t know the situation, those inside all had some idea. Which household didn’t have descendants? Alternatively, if someone influential made a request, they had to give them face. But although everyone knew to some extent, they couldn’t let other people know about it. Who would have thought things wouldn’t play out by the rules this time?
Those who had access to the questions this time were only the right assistant minister who was responsible for the exam this time, and the Director of the Board of Rites. Pei Nan wasn’t clean himself, so how could he dare try and bite his superior?
Assistant Minister Pei was thus dismissed and exiled.
He knew this was the best outcome for him. If someone hadn’t protected him secretly, his entire family might have lost their lives.
Of course, this was a matter for the future.
What happened in the Pei household naturally couldn’t be kept from the old madam.
When the matter occurred, the Pei household had sent someone to find the old madam, and asked her to have her daughter-in-law return to her maternal household and ask the Zhenguo Duke for help. But Shen Yi Yao was currently at the manor and there had been so many disagreements previously. How could the old madam have the face to ask her for help?
But the Pei household’s person didn’t know the inner workings and assumed the old madam wasn’t willing to help. While Assistant Minister Pei was locked up, the Pei household’s old madam had come to the door several times. First she asked nicely, then she tried coaxing and finally her words became vicious.
The Pei household’s old madam had no choice. She carried her grandson over and sat crying in the Rongan Hall. She cried about her husband, about her deceased father and mother-in-law, cried about her poor son and grandson. Her crying gave the old madam a lot of pressure.
The old madam no longer dare conceal anything and told her about the previous disagreements. Her general meaning was that she had offended her daughter-in-law and her household thoroughly, and was truly helpless.
The Pei household’s old madam didn’t believe her. Only after finding out Shen Yi Yao truly wasn’t in the estate did she return with some doubts.
After her sister-in-law left, the old madam felt uneasy.
Assistant Minister Pei was locked up and interrogated. This matter had gotten out of hand, and no one could say what the outcome would be. This was her biological older brother and the Pei household was her maternal household. How could she remain indifferent?
She called her son over and asked Yan Ting to think of ideas. It would be fine if he could come up with something. Yan Ting rushed around outside for several days before coming back and directly saying this matter couldn’t be helped. The old madam refused to give up and spent a few sleepless nights tossing and turning. She finally thickened her skin and sent Matron Zhao to the manor to ask Shen Yi Yao to return. Unexpectedly, Matron Zhao didn’t even get to see Shen Yi Yao. The servants said she had gotten sick again after reaching the manor, and was bedridden at the moment.
After Matron Zhao returned, the old madam also became bedridden. This time she was really sick.
Luckily, the good news was sent over later. Pei Nan was merely fired and exiled, and didn’t implicate his family. He could return after a few years. Only then did the old madam slowly recover.
Don’t think that it’s unimaginable for the questions to be leaked. This author borrowed an event from the Ming Dynasty’s novelist Ling Mengchu’s “Slapping the table in amazement”. Of course, the matter was written very surreally and was blamed on an immortal. This author feels that it was probably imperial exam fraud.