# 175. Chicken Bouillon Looking at the azure-cloak’s figure, Emperor Yuanjing’s face was devoid of emotion, as if he were a cold hard statue. The imperial palace complex was made of twenty-four palaces, which housed Emperor Yuanjing’s concubines and children. The rear palace, the Emperor’s concubine chambers, were not lively at all; Chuxiu palace hadn’t seen any new young beautiful women pass through its doors in over a decade. Wei Yuan made his way to the rear palace, looking as if he had been there many times before, stopping outside the Empress’s palace. After the servant had reported his presence, he entered, and saw the Empress sat on a couch. This mother of the nation’s figure had diminished somewhat, her once round and plump face was now rather thin. She was an extremely beautiful woman, nearly forty years of age but still carrying the same splendour. Although she was no longer as lively and bright as her younger years, the years had refined and sculpted the subtle, mature qualities of her aura, making her grace something few young women could ever hope to match. “What brings Duke Wei here?” The Empress smiled ever so slightly, looking deeply at the great azure cloak. His features were sharp, with a high nose, thin lips, and a deep gaze that reflected within indescribable vicissitudes. The slightly whitening hair on his temples gave him even more charm. Wei Yuan lowered his head first, “I heard that the Empress was ill?” The empress smiled: “I’ve recovered now.” “His Majesty said that Your Grace’s appetite recently has been small, and asked your lowly servant to come see you.” The empress’s smile receded, as she looked at him calmly: “He wanted you to come? Does Duke Wei not know that we are unwell.” Wei Yuan hesitated for a moment, before shaking his head: “Recently my public duty has made me extremely busy, I did not know that your Grace was ill.” The empress turned her head to one side, her voice emotionless: “We are tired.” “Your Grace should drink less tea, it is not good for your spleen and liver…” seeing the Empress show a hint of irritation, Wei Yuan quickly clasped hands and bowed: “Your servant will go now.” “Wei Yuan!” The empress suddenly called after him. Wei Yuan stopped in his tracks, but did not turn around. “…” The empress opened her mouth, seemingly wanting to speak, but due to numerous apprehensions, ultimately said nothing. Myriad words were hidden in her beautiful eyes, yet Wei Yuan could not see them. Wei Yuan left the Empress’s palace, and as he stepped outside a breeze swept by, making his azure cloak flutter in the wind. He really didn’t know that the empress was ill, since the insiders that he had placed around her were all rooted out some time ago by Emperor Yuanjing. The empress, of course, didn’t know of this. This matter could not be publicly announced; it would only cause a misunderstanding. In front of him was the tall Princess Huaiqing, coming over with her palace maids. She was wearing a white palace dress, that was embroidered with bright and colourful plum blossoms. On top was a long cloak, protecting her against the cold. She looked aloof yet beautiful, with a grace beyond mortals. And entirely different from her mother in her younger years. “Duke Wei.” Huaiqing greeted him. “Your Highness.” Wei Yuan greeted her back with a bow, simultaneously explaining his coming: “His Majesty heard that the Empress’s appetite was not good, and was not well, thus asked me to come visit her for him.” Princess Huaiqing nodded; her father hadn’t come to the rear palace in a long time, only thinking about cultivation and immortality every day. Only when someone was ill, would he come ask after their wellbeing, but usually he would send someone to do it for him. “The palace maids have said that recently mother has not been eating much.” “If she abstains from food after a long illness, then she is likely to develop a chronic condition.” Wei Yuan frowned heavily, but in front of Huaiqing he hid his worry very well, only expressing the care that a servant ought to show for their master. Princess Huaiqing smiled lightly, seemingly not too anxious, and replied with with her crisp, cold, rich voice: “I was just wanting to summon Xu Qi’an, given that Duke Wei is here, Huaiqing can save my attendants an extra trip.” Wei Yuan asked in surprise: “What does your Highness mean by this?” Princess Huaiqing said: “Xu Qi’an has a secret recipe, that can increase the savouriness of food a hundredfold. It’s flavour is hard to forget. Since mother’s appetite is not great, this would be a good time to try it.” … Xu Qi’an dug into his own wallet, to invite Song Tingfeng and Zhu Guangxiao to the Goulan to listen to music. The two of them simultaneously listened to music, as well as carrying out life’s most fundamental task. This was Xu Qi’an’s way of compensating them, especially Song Tingfeng, who had donated a full five taels of silver to the welfare home. Someone without a family and children like him, his daily costs only went so far. If he had no money to spend at the Jiaofangsi, he would be very blue indeed — especially around the crown jewels. Leaving the Goulan, Song Tingfeng and Zhu Guangxiao having had their fill of seafood were extremely satisfied. The three of them hadn’t walked far when a Bronze Gong on a horse stopped them, complaining: “Where the hell were you slacking off at? I couldn’t find you anywhere.” “What’s the matter?” Xu Qi’an asked. “Duke Wei has summons.” that Bronze Gong replied. The summoned person naturally was Xu Qi’an. Song Tingfeng and Zhu Guangxiao knew their own position, and bade farewell to their kind and charitable colleague, continuing on with their patrol. Returning to the constabulary, and entering the Tower of Noble Spirit, Xu Qi’an met Wei Yuan, who was sat by the table reading. The great eunuch put down his book, and said: “I heard Huaiqing say that you have a secret recipe, that can increase the savouriness of dishes.” *Is Huaiqing that fond of gossip? Chatting about even small things like this…* Xu Qi’an was shocked for a moment, before replying: “Merely small child’s play, nothing that would be sufficient for Duke Wei to think about.” “The Empress’s appetite recently has been poor, and her body is weak. We wish to try your secret recipe.” Wei Yuan replied with a kindly tone. *The empress is Huaiqing’s mother, Huaiqing asked Wei Yuan to ask for my chicken bouillon…* Xu Qi’an nodded in realisation. Seeing that there was no one in the tea room except them, he took out the small jade mirror and tapped on its back, as a head-sized jar fell out, only to be deftly caught. Chu Caiwei and Song Qing’s hard work was all here in his hand, he only left them a small bottle of it. Wei Yuan opened the jar and smelled it, frowning immediately. He smelled a savouriness that was so strong it stung the nose. “This is called chicken bouillon.” Xu Qi’an said. Chicken bouillon was a mixture of different ingredients, with monosodium glutamate and guanylic acid as its main components. These two together supported each other more than if they were apart. Talking about that, “Spirit of Chicken” as it could also be known, was a deep and profound name with multifaceted meaning. It could mean, for example, the seasoning mix in front of them. A spirit or monster rising from a chicken could also be called that. And of course, the final meaning referred to something only men could produce.[^1] Closing the lid, Wei Yuan returned the jar to Xu Qi’an, and summoned a clerk: “Ask the kitchen to make a bowl of noodles.” Xu Qi’an understood his intention, and followed the clerk out. About fifteen minutes later, he returned with a bowl of egg and shredded pork noodles, putting it on Wei Yuan’s table. Wei Yuan nodded: “You eat first, be my food taster.” “…” There was only one pair of chopsticks, and so Xu Qi’an used the other end to eat a mouthful. After a while, seeing that his small Bronze Gong had not died nor fallen ill due to the noodles, Wei Yuan finally began eating. Xu Qi’an joked: “Perhaps the poison was put on the chopsticks.” Wei Yuan paused for a moment, before angrily saying: “Get out.” Xu Qi’an did not get out, merely smirking. Having interacted with Daddy Wei for so long, he knew that Wei Yuan was not someone that was really quick to anger, he was scarily proficient at maintaining his temperament. As expected, Wei Yuan did not pay him any more mind, and concentrated on eating. Chewing the springy noodles, he was somewhat caught off guard by their texture, and simultaneously felt the impact of someone tasting MSG-enhanced food for the first time. When he drank a mouthful of soup though, his eyes lit up. “How is it?” Xu Qi’an asked expectantly. “Many chefs have poured blood, sweat and tears into their art, and yet cannot make something with this flavour.” Wei Yuan nodded in satisfaction. The empress was used to eating the fine delicacies available in the palace, her refusal to eat food was not only because her appetite was bad, but also could be because she was fed up of the palace food. Xu Qi’an could feel the praise in Daddy Wei’s eyes. Wei Yuan took a small porcelain bottle from his shelf, handing it over. Xu Qi’an took the bottle, and filled it from his jar, handing the filled bottle back over. Wei Yuan shook his head, not taking it, looking at the jar. “The bottle is for you, that is mine.” Xu Qi’an’s expression became sluggish. … Dusk. The palace maids brought up dishes upon dishes of the best food, as a dense fragrance filled the room. But the Empress’s face was sickly, and she said with a frown: “We have already said, a bowl of light porridge is enough.” The maids said in a low voice: “Duke Wei just delivered a secret ingredient, and ordered us to make something good for my Lady.” The other maid said with hopeful expression: “My Lady, please, try some.” They had already tried it, the flavour was different from anything they had had before. It was hard to forget, even after being a palace maid for so many years, and having tried so many delicacies from all over for their master. Today’s flavour though made those in the past seem merely adequate by comparison. Hearing that this was Wei Yuan’s order, the empress sighed, and with some reluctance ladled a bowl of soup, and tasted it with furrowed brows. A strong umami flavour exploded over her taste buds, as *gulp*… her long neck moved, and she instinctively swallowed it down. Afterwards, the Empress proceeded to drink the soup mouthful by mouthful, without any sign of reluctance or disgust. “We suddenly feel rather hungry. Fill the bowl.” The Empress handed the bowl over to a maid, gazing expectantly at the full table. … The next day, just after six, a eunuch of the empress’s palace brought a gold and silver adorned jade artefact to the Nightwatchers Constabulary. Wei Yuan received the eunuch in the Tower of Noble Spirit. This eunuch and Wei Yuan clearly knew each other, as they sat casually by the table, simultaneously drinking tea brewed personally by Wei Yuan, and talking with smiles: “From where did Duke Wei find such a secret ingredient, last night my Lady the Empress’s appetite was nothing like it had been before.” Wei Yuan stared at him, asking somewhat nervously: “She did not resent the food? How much did she eat?” The eunuch laughed: “She ate more than she had dome ever before, more than even when she was well. This morning, for the first time in ever the Empress asked about the noon meal.” Wei Yuan smiled with all his heart. Just after noon, Xu Qi’an was summoned to Princess Huaiqing’s palace. In a elegant and well lit guest room, he met the beautiful princess, whose breasts could rest on the table. She was as cold and aloof as before, noble, beautiful, and if you didn’t look at her curvy shape, she was like a solitary lotus on a snowy mountain, not a speck of dust on her petals. “Today we had lunch with my mother, your recipe seems to have been improved?” Princess Huaiqing said. “All thanks to the hard work of Brother Song and Miss Caiwei.” Xu Qi’an replied. Huaiqing nodded, “We are somewhat fond of that flavour, yet mother does not wish to share any of it. Do you have any more?” “None.” Xu Qi’an shook his head. “I gave a whole jar to Duke Wei, and he gave it to her Majesty.” In reality, he still had a small bottle, but this was not for Huaiqing, this was for Biaobiao. Not to say that Princess Lin’an’s position in his heart was so important, but rather Biaobiao was too quick to make a ruckus, and however large the Emperor’s rear palace was, news of this new chicken bouillon thing was bound to reach Lin’an sooner or later. That was of course fine, as Wei Yuan had delivered it. However Princess Huaiqing knew the true inventor, and with Huaiqing’s dark heart… by that point Biaobiao would be as sour as a crashed cart full of vinegar, and Xu Qi’an would have to bear much of the fire. As after all, in Lin’an’s heart Xu Qi’an had long since publicly assumed the position as her underling. Princess Huaiqing’s delicate eyebrows frowned, “Yet we had heard that the… chicken bouillon that Duke Wei delivered, was only half a jar.” “Huh?” Xu Qi’an was caught off guard, staring in confusion at Huaiqing. Huaiqing looked back at him, as the two of them fell into silence. --- [^1]: The pun carries less well into English [^2]: Princess Lin’an’s nickname