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Fu Shen continued on, not waiting for Yan Xiaohan to speak. "Is there pufferfish on the menu today, Brother Yan?"
Yan Xiaohan took in his utterly serious appearance that didn't seem to be joking around, and just stared blankly. "No… that grade of toxin wouldn't be at an imperial banquet of the royal family."
"That's odd. I just saw a big one, plump and seething, glaring at me from the top of the steps with his hands behind his back…"
Yan Xiaohan almost flung him away. Fu Shen hid his face in his arms, chortling noiselessly.
When Fu Shen was set down in front of the Hall, Yan Xiaohan gave him a seemingly retaliatory pinch on the waist. The ticklish Fu Shen shrank back, pointing a finger at him. "Rude," he whispered.
Yan Xiaohan shot him a look that said, 'do you still have the face to say that?'
Fu Shen unwittingly grasped something, starting to shake again. Taking advantage of Yan Xiaohan's bowed head, he grinned into the side of his ear with ill intentions. "Don't have such a cold face, you'll hurt your good looks. It takes enough energy being so up in arms, hm?"
That 'hm' was br.i.m.m.i.n.g with pure provocation and could make bones go limp. All of Yan Xiaohan's blood was set alight by it, but disappointingly, there were eyes all around, so he could only press down his urge to steal this giant huli jing away and throw him onto a bed. He harshly pinched him on the web of his palm like he was venting his anger, standing up and leaving with a frosty face.
Fu Shen shook out his hand that had been squeezed numb, humming a little tune in content. The terrified young eunuch urgently wheeled him away.
The crowd of Kin-Princes, Prime Ministers, and second-rank or higher Dukes and Marquis sat at the front of the Hall. The rest's accompanying seats were further down on either side of the corridor, while the Emperor and Empress sat at the seats of honor. The banquet began at the ; the Emperor drank down all of the first cup of imperial wine, and then the foreign envoys came forwards to give their congratulations. The sound of a xiao arose, drums playing in unison, and the palace women of the Arts Department  executed a flower-array dance.
On the second cup of wine, all the Emperor's sons and Kin-Princes successively congratulated him on his longevity and offered gifts. Presents were sent into the Hall like a stream, all of them rare, precious treasures of the world. The Yuantai Emperor and Empress bestowed them trinkets one by one, granting some number of precious metals, exquisite baubles, and bright silks.
Fu Shen's eyes were narrowed within that Hall full of resplendence, carefully peering at Empress Yang. A thick layer of powder was applied to her face, but it still couldn't cover up her pallid skin tone. Her eyes were red, as if she had cried. There was a faint tremble under her extravagant fenghuang robes, but its extent was minuscule, and only with the cover of the dance and song and liveliness from every direction did it not look particularly out of place.
Not understanding that body language, he lifted his wine cup and took a sip——
The taste was off.
He seized the wine jar from the table with a darkening face and lifted the lid to take a look. Inside was scrumptious, sour-smelling rice vinegar.
That petty a.s.shole!
The cup had originally been just wine. Fu Shen had drunk half of it, refilled it from the jar, then drank it again without looking at it carefully. Its flavor was virtually difficult to describe, surging from the tip of his tongue to the top of his skull. Yan Xiaohan, who was monitoring the entire crowd from right under the imperial seat, witnessed the entire process, turning his head away silently before Fu Shen raised his eyes to him.
On the third cup, the Prime Ministers gave a toast, and the hundred officials stood up, simultaneously praising the Yuantai Emperor's long life and heavenly luck.
On the fourth cup, the Empress used the head of the Sixth Palace  as a stand-in for every concubine in the palace estate to give blessings for the Emperor.
The numerous songs and dances stopped, exchanged for all sorts of plays and sideshows onstage; dressed up as the Queen Mother clasping a peach of immortality, the heavenly woman scattered petals, a burst of a fluttering rain of flowers floating through the air. Mist-like muslin drifted from both sides, the lean figure of a pink-faced, white-haired Daoist then appearing, holding a l.u.s.trous Gold Pill  in his hand.
A cold glint in his eyes, Fu Shen reached out and tugged at the sleeve of the one beside him, the Marquis of Guan Ting. "Where did that Daoist monk come from?" he asked in a quiet voice.
The other Marquis laughed. "You don't know this, Jingyuan, but he's Priest Chunyang of the Clear Void Monastery.  His Majesty suffered a headache the month before, and National Uncle Yang recommended this priest to him. His folk remedy was actually effective, and His Majesty soon brought him into the palace to ordain him."
Fu Shen nodded inattentively, mentally saying: effective my a.s.s.
In all monarchs of dynasties before, was there any one of them who sought immortality and doted on trusted alchemists that ended up being able to live beyond a hundred? The Yuantai Emperor had always been distrustful, and putting a Daoist priest by his side was starting a fire and fanning its flames. Who knew what evil influences that would bring in the future? These fantastical things would sooner or later turn into a cause of ruin, inciting unrest in the Court, and the country would not have a single peaceful day.
Priest Chunyang had the look of being an elite from another world. He walked teetering before the Yuantai Emperor, using a bizarre, foggy tone and willowy voice. "Please, Your Majesty."
The Emperor leaned forward, grasping the Gold Pill between two fingers…
"Your Majesty, watch out!" Fu Shen abruptly shouted.
He held two jujubes in his palm, and with a flick of his fingertips, all that could be seen was two shadows cleaving through the air and flying off. They swiftly grazed across the Emperor's chest, then were obstructed by his outstretched arm, ultimately rolling down along his dragon robes to tumble onto the carpet.
At almost the same time as him, Yan Xiaohan had dashed out and spun Priest Chunyang to the ground.
The Emperor was astonished, his heart pounding. It was as if he had yet to react to anything that had just happened. The hand that was left on the imperial table faintly shivered.
An inner attendant picked up the jujubes soon after and presented them to him. He took a look at them through the daylight shining in from outside the windows – they each had a glittering, cun-long steel needle stuck through them!
A Daoist priest consecrated by the royal family had the gall to try to a.s.sa.s.sinate the Emperor during his own Vast Longevity Feast!
"What… what is going on here?" Veins bulged from the Emperor's neck as he shook all over with anger. "Fu Shen! Yan Xiaohan! What's going on?!" he bellowed loudly.
This was a pretty ironic scene. At the critical juncture of the thread of life and death, of the two people that were the sole most trusted in the Emperor's subconscious, one was Fu Shen, who he was incessantly afraid of and did everything he could to suppress, and the other was Yan Xiaohan, who he had just resumed using not very long ago.
Turmoil showed one's true colors, and loyal officials would be known in trying times. What a pity that he had already annihilated those loyal officials long ago.
"Allow me to report, Your Majesty." Fu Shen mentally sighed, filing up. "This traitor had malicious intentions, and he wished to use the opportunity of offering up the Gold Pill to a.s.sa.s.sinate You. This servant did not have time to rescue You, thus had no choice but to use these jujubes. I have offended You, but please do not blame me for it."
"Bring the tray up here," the Emperor dictated.
"Be careful, Your Majesty," Fu Shen promptly spoke up. "I'm afraid it has a strange, built-in mechanism. Were the Gold Pill to be picked up, needles would be shot out. To avoid accidental injury, You should let… let the Flying Dragon Guard break it open."
Wei Xuzhou and a few Imperial Guards had Priest Chunyang tied up with his arms behind his back and loop around his neck. Yan Xiaohan picked the tray up off the floor, inspected it carefully, and discovered that there were indeed two tiny holes side-by-side along its edge. After showing that to the Emperor, he took a silver knife from a fruit platter and carefully pried open the tray's double layers.
There was only a layer of thin wood under satin. A small round indent was at the area the Gold Pill was placed, linking up the Pill to a mechanism in the tray. Only when the Pill was picked up would the change in weight set the device off, shooting the steel needles outward.
The imperial doctor on standby brought out a puppy to test for poison on, fetching a needle from a jujube and p.r.i.c.king the dog in the belly. Only a few breaths later, it convulsed, foamed at the mouth, and died.
The needles had been smeared with toxic upas poison.
It was fortunate that Fu Shen had been seated close by. With his good eyes and attention to detail, he had dared to act boldly, saving the Emperor's life in the blink of an eye. Were the Yuantai Emperor to have taken a misstep the time before and disallowed Fu Shen from attending, thus having someone else present on the scene, the Emperor's funeral would very likely be under preparations right now.
"We did not treat you unkindly, Chunyang." The Emperor's chest heaved continuously, watching him closely and coldly. "Why did you want to conspire against our life?"
Head Priest Chunyang was not a person of this world. Death was at hand, yet he looked serene and at peace, turning a blind eye to the Emperor's rage. Beneath his binds, he mumbled a recitation of the Scripture of Daoist Virtue.
A Longevity Feast had nearly turned into a murder; paired with Priest Chunyang's exceptionally foggy voice, the scene was bizarrely terrifying. Every single military and literary official watching got gooseb.u.mps all over their bodies. Yan Xiaohan knew he wasn't going to say anything useful. "Stuff up his mouth," he ordered in a low voice.
"Take him down for examination," the Emperor ordered.
With the Flying Dragon Guard there, the three judicial departments didn't dare to step up and take on this case. Wei Xuzhou thus took the man away. The Emperor shut his eyes at his imperial seat to calm down for a moment. Slowly opening them back up, he then gave a sudden harsh bellow. "What a great person you recommended, Yang Xu!"
Yang Xu's face was ashen, promptly taking off his official's hat and lying prostrate as he apologized profusely, kowtowing without cease. Empress Yang being his little sister, she could also not escape accountability, so she hurriedly went to kneel in suit.
No one could've expected that the second she stood up from her seat, she would suddenly sport an expression of pain. She staggered a few steps while clutching her lower abdomen, then her legs went soft, and she collapsed at the top of the tall platform.
The Emperor stood up in a fearful panic. "Empress! …Doctor? Where is the imperial doctor?!"
In that instant, someone unknown cried out in alarm. "Blood! The Mother Empress is bleeding!"
As if a clap of thunder had sounded out, the entire Hall went quiet. Everyone's eyes simultaneously shifted to the Empress.
At the hour of noon, daylight was plentiful, illuminating the Hall to be bright and imposing. The Empress's fenghuang robes were scattered about the ground, and directly underneath her, a circle of murky crimson was gradually spreading out.
Though all the officials present were men, the majority of them had families. Even if they had never seen a situation like this before, they could pretty much figure out what had happened.
The imperial doctor hurried forward, carrying a box of medicine. Not allowing the Empress to move, he took her pulse on both wrists with a solemn expression. In the end, he knocked his head on the ground towards the Yuantai Emperor, despair all across his face, feeling that he could forget about keeping his black hat – he probably wouldn't be able to keep the head it's on.
"Reporting to the Emperor, the Mother Empress is two months pregnant, but from the condition of her pulse, she's having the first signs of a miscarriage… I'm afraid the fetus is in danger…"
Every word of his was like a sledgehammer strike, smashing onto the Emperor's throbbing temples. The blood and phoenix robe warped into a grotesque pattern in his field of view. The woman's pale face had a sorrowful expression, but her red lips were burning, and in his eyes, it was like a silent, ridiculing demonstration.
Swindler! They're all swindlers!
Fury and anxiety attacking his heart and phlegm caught up in his throat. Just as the Emperor thought to fly into a horrid rage, he suddenly felt himself list to the side, and his body fell downwards like a floating feather.
The surroundings immediately spiraled out of control.
The translator says: The Emperor is pitiful, but that's his own fault.
 教坊司 – ata the Royal Academy, this was a department for song, dance, and theater, and unlike pretty much any other Department, was composed of all women. Depending on which era this is in, they'd also be prost.i.tutes, or the female relatives of disgraced officials, or both…
 This is where all the concubines live. The ‘head' is presumably the most favored out of them all.
 This is the famous Jindan (金丹), known in most xianxia works as a Golden Core, known otherwise as the Chinese version of the pseudoscientific elixir of life and based on Daoist It's literally a gold ball here, though.
 清虚观 – Qingxu Guan, which is a real place.