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    Chapter 75: Birthday Celebration

    Zheng Tanhua's sudden proposal left Yuan Jun feeling awkward and embarrassed. After all, for any woman, a marriage proposal was a significant moment. Being an upright gentleman, he felt even more guilty for having taken over someone else's body. That night, he wrote a few simple lines and attempted to meditate to attain inner peace.

    Sure enough, upon entering that realm of clarity and purity once more, he returned to his own body.

    He was beginning to grasp the technique of switching bodies... If so, would he be able to cease this soul-swapping existence if he didn't actively initiate the switch?

    Yuan Jun pondered, browsing through Rong Court Lady's records from recent days. Most of her time was spent reading, with many extracts from agricultural texts and medicinal cuisine recipes jotted down. It was evident that she genuinely enjoyed these pursuits. From her diary, it was clear she had deliberately prepared vegetarian meals each day, catering to his "immortal cultivation" facade. She was an incredibly thoughtful and meticulous woman.

    No wonder Zheng Tanhua was smitten with her; she was both suitable for domestic life and possessed a gentle strength, embodying great loyalty and courage.

    Yuan Jun picked up his brush and silently recited Ji Kang's "Poem on Immortality." His strokes were like a wandering dragon, exuding a carefree elegance. This was to pave the way for Rong Bi's love for vegetarian feasts and also to subtly hint at the upcoming memorial day for his mother's passing.

    Yuan Jun smiled slightly, remembering his suspicious imperial father who must be analyzing his every move, wondering if he had truly mastered the Soul-Departing Spell or if it was just a ploy to seize the throne.

    What he needed to do now was to give his dear father a taste of his own medicine – his paranoid father, who believed in a talking barbarian courtesan and a Taoist alchemist spouting nonsense, did so because Yuan Zixu only trusted what he wanted to believe.

    ====

    Indeed, Yuan Jun's handwritten "Poem on Immortality" soon found its way into Yuan Zixu's hands. Unfolding it, he read slowly, "Cicada sheds its filthy shell, befriending the plank of cypress... Playing the Nine Songs by the cup, elegant songs resound peacefully. Forever apart from commoners, who can trace their tracks?" He clenched the poem manuscript and asked, "What has the Crown Prince been busy with lately?"

    Someone replied, "As usual, he meditates, reads, plays chess with himself, practices calligraphy, personally gathers herbs, and prepares vegetarian medicinal meals. He doesn't eat much, but his complexion looks good."

    Yuan Zixu asked again, "How is the pill that Chong Xiao is refining coming along?"

    The attendant in charge of monitoring Chong Xiao reported, "Venerable Chong Xiao has personally tended to the furnace for a cycle. It will be ready to open in ten days. This time, he's guarding it day and night, saying that it will surely form into a pill."

    Yuan Zixu chuckled, clearly not fully convinced. Nonetheless, he leisurely picked up a few memorials, flipped through them, then tossed them back onto the desk. Lately, he had stopped taking his original elixirs and distanced himself from the consorts with whom he practiced dual cultivation. With no outlet for his energy, he became easily agitated and irritable. He summoned the court physicians, who prescribed calming tonics, but the bitter taste only worsened his mood.

    At that moment, faint sounds of music and drums could be heard. Yuan Zixu inquired, "Where is the opera being performed?" Li Dongfu answered, "Today is Consort Jiang's birthday. The Third Prince has presented her with an opera troupe. They're celebrating at the Clear Sound Pavilion. Your Majesty, why not go watch the new play and relax?"

    Yuan Zixu was taken aback. Only the Empress could host a grand banquet for officials and noblewomen on her birthday. However, as a first-rank consort and mother to a prince, Consort Jiang was entitled to have her family's ladies-in-waiting come to congratulate her. Thus, he rose and said, "Let's go take a look."

    Despite the freezing cold, Consort Jiang was enjoying the new opera performance at the Clear Sound Pavilion. She was dressed in her finest attire, having set up a few tables in the palace theater to entertain her visiting brothers' wives. The Third Prince, Second Prince, and Second Princess were also present, bearing gifts from Empress Luo. Additionally, there were several other consorts and unmarried princesses who regularly socialized with her.

    Consort Jiang was chatting merrily with her guests when she suddenly heard the eunuch announce, "His Majesty has arrived!" The stage's musical instruments fell silent, and she was both startled and delighted. She quickly stood up, leading everyone to receive the Emperor.

    Everyone was surprised by the Emperor's personal visit. After all, just last month, it was the Empress's birthday, but Yuan Zixu, engrossed in his pursuit of immortality, had not attended. This unexpected visit sparked a gleam of joy in Consort Jiang's eyes.

    Yuan Zixu entered and gently helped Consort Jiang to her feet. He wore a friendly expression and said, "I was bored on this festive occasion and heard that there's an opera here. I came to enjoy the show. Don't worry, I haven't come empty-handed; I've prepared a generous gift to celebrate your birthday."

    Consort Jiang hastily expressed her gratitude and then said with a smile, "Your Majesty's grace is too profound for this concubine to repay in a lifetime. What kind of performance would you like to see?"

    Yuan Zixu flipped through a book, casually choosing "The Celestial Gathering: Eight Immortals Celebrate Longevity on the Jade Lake." Consort Jiang immediately instructed her attendants to replace the current play with that one. Smiling, she also ordered some exquisite pastries to be served again.

    Yuan Zixu engaged her in small talk for a while. Noticing Yuan Zhen, Yuan Ya, and Yuan Yixue below, he asked a few casual questions about their studies. Yuan Zhen, seeing that the emperor treated him no differently from Yuan Ya, felt a burning resentment. He recalled how his father had not attended Empress Luo's birthday celebration, yet was now personally congratulating Consort Jiang on hers. This made him both jealous and furious, suspecting that the emperor might be favoring Yuan Ya.

    Yuan Zixu quizzed Yuan Ya about his studies and was pleased with his well-rounded responses. Today, Yuan Ya, dressed in a bright red robe for the celebration, looked handsome and full of vigor. Yuan Zixu smiled at Consort Jiang and said, "Our third son has grown up. He's a charming and talented young man. It reminds me of my own youth, galloping through the capital with high spirits."

    Consort Jiang quickly laughed and replied, "He only inherits a bit of Your Majesty's good looks. How can he compare to Your Majesty's majestic charm and brilliance? If he could inherit even a fraction of your grace, this concubine would be at ease, instead of worrying about him every day."

    Being much younger than the emperor and skilled in jesting, Consort Jiang had always been dear to him. Her words amused Yuan Zixu, filling his heart with joy.

    Yuan Zhen, growing more envious, couldn't help but interject with a smile, "Consort Jiang's words are timely. Since Third Brother is serving now, he should share some of Father's burdens, not act like a child and cause you worry. I heard he pressured the Mayor of Chang'an to search for a Hu woman? With all the scholars in the city for the exams, such a ridiculous act will become known to all literati. It would create chaos and be utterly inappropriate."

    Consort Jiang's heart sank, but she quickly laughed it off, masking her unease. "Third Brother can be overly cautious and incompetent. He needs Second Prince's guidance. I've already scolded him about this. Please, Second Prince, help me keep an eye on him so he doesn't make any mistakes."

    Yuan Zhen, not wanting to ruin the celebration, held his tongue. Although Yuan Ya was unhappy, he knew it was his mother's birthday and refrained from speaking. Yuan Zixu, believing Third Prince's usual dalliances were at play, asked, "Did a Hu woman offend Third Brother, or did one of your slaves escape? I'll grant you more if you need them. There's no need to bother local officials; it might draw criticism from advisors, and I wouldn't be able to protect you then."

    Yuan Ya replied with a slight pout, "I thank Father for your generosity, but it wasn't about a Hu woman in my household. I wasn't driven by lust. I acted out of a sense of justice. In the heart of the capital, a vulnerable woman was helpless against injustice and kidnapping. Even the Mayor of Chang'an couldn't locate her. How can that be? I only met that Hu woman once, and seeing her panicked and afraid, I felt compelled to help."

    Yuan Zhen chuckled, embellishing his words as he went on, "Third Brother's amorous reputation is known throughout the capital. Now that he has intentionally lent a hand, it has caused quite a stir in the city, with even tales of fox spirits spreading like wildfire, vivid and lifelike, absurd and unfounded. I fear Third Brother, inexperienced in the ways of the world, may have unwittingly fallen prey to a trick of seduction by a supposed immortal."

    Yuan Zixu queried, "What talk of ghosts and fox spirits?"

    Yuan Zhen said, "Your Majesty, Third Brother came across an enchanting Hu woman in the capital. While walking, he accidentally broke her exquisite glass lantern. She then led him to a place of ill repute and claimed she was coerced by a malicious customer, refusing to entertain guests. The next day when Third Brother returned, he could no longer locate that woman. Your Majesty, judging from the situation—breaking the lantern and pretending to be reluctant—it's clear that this was a trap, a scheme commonly used by cunning individuals to extort money. They must have learned Third Brother's identity and realized they had crossed someone they shouldn't have, thus fleeing in haste during the night."

    He couldn't help but sneer at the corner of his mouth: "Poor Third Brother is still obsessed with the idea that the woman must have been coerced and kidnapped, sending someone with a note to the Jingzhao Prefecture, demanding that the Prefect find the villain who kidnapped the weak woman. The Prefect of Jingzhao even informed the Commandant of the Five Armies and mobilized a search for several days, but of course, they couldn't find her. Instead, it became the talk of the town, saying that Third Brother was deceived by a fox spirit, and even the fox spirit's pair of mandarin duck eyes were vividly described. The guests in my household feel that it's a disgrace to the royal family's reputation and are persuading the Jingzhao Prefecture to suppress the rumors. After all, it's the year of the great examination, and when scholars from all over the world turn it into a royal joke, it will be spread in the streets and alleys..."

    Yuan Zixu initially took it as mere amusement, but as he heard the term "Yuan Yang Eyes," a subtle crease formed between his brows. He inquired, "A fox spirit with Yuan Yang Eyes?"

    Yuan Zhen paused, "Third Brother mentioned that the Hu woman has a pair of mandarin duck eyes. Thus, the Governor of Jingzhao Prefecture dispatched officers to search the entire city for Hu courtesans with such eyes. But since they couldn't find her, someone invented the story of a mandarin duck-eyed fox, claiming to have seen it somewhere."

    Yuan Zixu's smile seemed to freeze momentarily before he turned to Yuan Ya, still maintaining a cordial tone, "Third Brother is young and inexperienced, easily impressed by superficial things. What's so special about a Hu courtesan? It's time he selects a worthy princess consort. In that case, let the Empress and Consort Jiang carefully choose for him."

    Consort Jiang promptly agreed. Yuan Zixu then spoke warmly to Yuan Zhen, "Now that Second Brother has established his own household, he knows how to discipline his siblings and acts like an elder brother. This is as it should be, and he must continue to do so." He then ordered a reward for Yuan Zhen and the Second Princess Consort, soothingly addressing the latter, "Since you've married into the royal family, settle down here and focus on expanding our dynasty's lineage sooner rather than later."

    The Second Princess Consort, grateful for the favor, wept tears of gratitude. She glanced secretly at Yuan Zhen but dared not speak. Seeing her expression, Yuan Zixu knew the issue lay with Yuan Zhen. However, given that Bei Xi was now a defeated nation, it no longer mattered whether they aligned or not. Hence, he merely put on a show.

    Glancing at the fairy on stage dancing with flowing sleeves, his anger reached its peak, though his face remained smiling as he stood up, "Enjoy the performance at your leisure. I suddenly recall having scheduled a meeting with some ministers today. I'll go attend to that first."

    Consort Jiang hastily rose, accompanied by her entourage, to respectfully see off the emperor's departure.

    As Yuan Zixu exited the Clear Melody Pavilion, his face had turned ashen. He merely addressed Li Dongfu, "Summon the Prefect of Changan, I wish to see him at once."

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