The First Madam of Wei spoke in a surprised voice, her mature eyes blinking twice as she stared at the concealed person.
Unconsciously, thin fluctuations of spiritual essence began to permeate the guest room, causing both the minister and cloaked figure to reveal hapless smiles.
The mysterious person shrugged nonchalantly as she directed a glance at Wei Xuan. Upon receiving a barely perceptible nod, a pair of trembling hands tugged at the fringes of the cowl, loosening and removing the hood of her cloak.
An aged countenance was revealed, faint wrinkles visible on her forehead and cheeks.
Though the woman seemed exhausted, the pair of azure irises couldn’t hide their brilliant radiance.
“Lan’er,” the elderly woman repeated, a warm smile spreading across her face.
“Could it be that you no longer remember me?”
Sheng Miaolan gaped at the familiar countenance, each and every detail matching with the ones in her memories. Regaining the bare minimum composure a few moments after, the madam rose before dipping her head into a low bow.
“Miaolan greets the Empress Dowager!”
“Enough.” The Dowager waved a wrinkled palm in her direction.
“So many years, and you still refuse to obey my yizhi? A naughty girl like you should be rightfully punished, ah!”
“This servant cannot honor such grace from Your Imperial Majesty,” the First Madam quickly responded, dipping her head even lower.
“If this one were to enact on such an edict, then Great Yong’s Imperial Family would become a mockery.”
“But you are a xianjun. What’s wrong with calling this old thing Imperial Mother?” the Dowager gently remarked, stepping forward to raise Sheng Miaolan out of her bow.
Forcibly seating the First Madam back onto the chair, the elderly woman smiled and sat next to her, taking the madam’s hands into her own.
“You lost your mother when you were young,” she stroked Sheng Miaolan’s hands.
“Although Zhao Yun was a secondary consort and concubine, both she and you once belonged to a junwang’s family. Why do you abstain from claiming the role of a xianjun?”
“Because this servant is an illegitimate child,” Sheng Miaolan gave a wry smile, glancing at the stoic-faced Wei Xuan.
“Even if the Lord Minister took this one in as the primary wife and elevated this servant’s status to that of a xianjun, the Sheng Family is no more. As my title has only the form and no substance, why should I strive to adopt it?”
“Alright, since you are so stubborn, so be it!” the elder cried in mock agony.
“All of my daughters have long since turned against me, only Little Sheng listens to me nowadays. Such a pity of the elderly, ah!”
Wei Xuan gave a ingratiating smile at the Dowager’s teasing of the First Madam, causing the elder to slap her knee in partial satisfaction and feigned anger. However, his expression quickly became solemn and he leaned forward, drumming his fingers against the table before them.
“Your Imperial Majesty,” he spoke in a slow and steady voice.
“To order this one to invite Your Imperial Majesty to this one’s lowly home, what is the decree?”
The Dowager Empress clasped her hands on her legs, staring down at her thumbs as she stroked her palm. A few moments later, the elderly woman raised her head to level her gaze, staring directly at Wei Xuan’s countenance.
The genial demeanor of a warm elder had diminished, revealing the domineering aura of the Imperial Family of Great Yong.
“This old thing came to impart to you just a few words and seek your opinion,” she replied after some pondering.
“It is completely acceptable for you to not respond, for these matters are not exactly one a third-ranked minister in the Ministry of Defense can bear.”
“This minister is willing to hear!”
Hearing the quick and decisive reply of Wei Xuan, the Dowager briefly nodded, before rapidly extending her left arm. Her fingers clamping like vices, the elder forced the First Madam back into her seat for the second time.
“Then, Ministry of Defense’s Third-Ranked Minister Wei Xuan, this Dowager has to inform you. The emperor of Great Yong has suffered a severe mental illusion, and refuses to assume any authority regardless as presiding emperor of the Imperial Court, or as a member of the Imperial Family. Not even the Empress can visit him, hence this Dowager wishes to utilize your close relation with Lu Jing Yi to sound his health.”
Not even the Empress could see the emperor?
Wei Xuan involuntarily trembled, his mind recalling the words Gao Yun Zhi had imparted before departing from Great Yong. The only possible instance for the emperor to have suffered a mental attack was during the night of which Lu Jing Yi had invited himself into the minister’s home.
If Gao Yun Zhi’s words were true, and his daughter’s appearance could distort the souls of others, even those of the Nascent Soul Realm, then…
“This minister will attempt his best!” Wei Xuan replied with gritted teeth, clasping both hands before his chest in salute.
“This Dowager shall wait for your report.” The elder nodded.
“Success is not necessary as long as the scope of the emperor’s injury has been properly determined. However…”
“However?” The minister raised his head in inquiry, his confusion only increasing even further when he noticed the Dowager Empress’ indecisive look.
“The Ascended Emperor has issued a decree,” the elder spoke in a dry tone.
“The Sun and Moon Pagoda is to be opened mid-winter of this year. What do you think?”
The First Madam exclaimed in surprise, her head swiveling to stare at the Dowager in astonishment. Wei Xuan lowered his head, his eyes flashing with an indeterminant glint.
“Yes, mid-winter. Only a year has passed since the last opening, the Ascended Emperor is ignoring the tradition of a decade of waiting and consolidation in between each opening of the Sun and Moon Pagoda. Although we knew the Ascended Emperor is a little temperamental, we didn’t think it would become to this extent…”
The Dowager spoke in a tired tone, the azure irises reflecting a deep exasperation and worry. While the First Madam gripped her sleeves in anxiety, Wei Xuan instead furrowed his brows before smoothing them within moments, his expression calming by the second.
“Breaking a tradition that has existed since several millennia…” he mused, counting on his palm.
“Even if it were to promote the number of aspiring cultivators in the empire, Great Yong already possesses several hundred thousand cultivators exceeding the realm of Foundation Establishment, even forming the 9th and 17th regiments. Such a force is enough to trounce any incoming enemy…unless…there is an external foe that is far too powerful that not even the Ascended Emperor could content with?”
“Nobody knows, not even the Old Emperor,” the Dowager Empress spoke.
“The only clues we could obtain was that prior to declaring this odd decree, the Ascended Emperor had divined a prophecy, one that drove him into a panic.”
“This…then this minister can only suggest that the ceremony of the opening of Sun and Moon be conducted with prudence. The supervision and restrictions should be enforced more, but the public shouldn’t be alerted of such information to alert whoever the Ascended Emperor is wary of.”
“En. This old thing thought of the same idea as well. It’s a pity that Jing Yi had to become unresponsive at such an opportune time.”
Standing up, the elder smoothed her robe, patting Sheng Miaolan on the shoulder one final time.
“Alright, this old thing should quickly return before Jingwen becomes angry with me. Lan’er, come by and visit this old thing someday, ah?”
Wei Xuan quickly rose to escort the Dowager Empress back to the backyard entrance of the Imperial Palace, Sheng Miaolan waving goodbye to the elderly woman with misted eyes.
However, what exactly the Dowager and minister discussed whilst traveling back to the Imperial Palace would remain a secret for many years.
An Fei sorely regretted having arduously climbed her way to the seventeenth floor of the library within the mysterious area of crystal. Glaring at the books emitted rays of warm and cold light, the girl extended her right arm towards the closest bookshelf, her fingers grasping for a thin book bound in twine, radiating a pale golden light…
…It seemed she had yet to learn her lesson from the armory.