Chapter 45: The Joy of Making Dumplings
Consort Ning, wearing a white fur coat, quietly gazes at a few branches of cold plum blossoms in the corner of the wall. She sighs softly and begins to recite:
“Year after year, amidst the snow, I often find myself intoxicated by the plum blossoms. Yet, no matter how I try to embrace their beauty, all I earn is a garment soaked with tears. This year, at the far corners of the earth, my temples are turning gray…”
“Your Ladyship, it’s cold and windy outside. Shall we return indoors?” the concerned maid suggests.
Consort Ning shakes her head slightly, raises her hand, and points at the plum blossoms, saying, “While the plum blossoms still bloom, what about this consort?”
Since the passing of Emperor Taizu in May and the subsequent change to the Jianwen era, it had been over half a year, but Consort Ning had only been able to see the Emperor a few times, and he had never even stayed or visited Zhongcui Palace.
Her heart had turned to ashes, abandoned like the snow.
“Consort Ning, His Majesty requests your presence,” a eunuch hurriedly approached.
Consort Han’s eyes brightened, and she quickly straightened her attire, taking a few quick steps forward as she asked, “Where is His Majesty?”
“In the Shangshan Hall, Your Ladyship,” the eunuch replied with reverence.
“The Shangshan Hall…” Consort Ning’s expression turned slightly uneasy. After all, the Shangshan Hall was a place for dining, and it should not be the setting for any other stories.
“Please inform His Majesty that I am feeling unwell today, and thus, I will not attend,” Consort Ning raised her hand and gently touched her forehead, speaking softly with a delicate tone.
The eunuch glanced at Consort Ning, performed a bow, and then exited the room.
The maid by Consort Ning’s side, seeing the eunuch leave, anxiously asked, “Your Ladyship, why did you…?”
Consort Ning glanced at the maid, her beautiful face slightly furrowed in sadness, and said, “What difference would it make if I went?”
In the depths of this Palace’s Harem, without the Emperor’s favor, she was like a wild grass by the roadside, unnoticed in its withering or flourishing, with no one stopping for its life or death.
Even if they met, what would it matter? It would be nothing more than a fleeting encounter, passing by each other without any connection.
He would not ask about her well-being, nor accompany her in the moments of romance. He had given all his affection to the Empress. She could only stay in Zhongcui Palace, changing her appearance in secrecy, experiencing one spring and autumn, and then another winter and summer.
Zhu Yunwen watched as Ma Enhui poured water into the flour, and he couldn’t help but want to laugh.
Sometimes there was too much water, so she added more flour, and other times there was too much flour, so she added more water. Before long, the large basin couldn’t contain it all.
Anxious, Ma Enhui didn’t dare to look at Emperor Zhu Yunwen. Her face flushed, and she clenched her little fist to punch the dough. She had just spoken a moment ago, confident that she could make good dough.
“Oh, Empress, isn’t this basin a bit small?” Emperor Zhu Yunwen suppressed his laughter and leaned closer to Ma Enhui, saying.
Ma Enhui’s brow was covered in fine sweat. She snorted and said defiantly, “Exactly! Who made the imperial kitchen provide such a small basin? How can we make a dough like this?”
The people in Shangshan Hall were about to faint.
Oh, Empress, if the basin were bigger, it would become a tub…
“How about we divide it into three basins? Perhaps Consort Ning and Consort Xian will also come,” Zhu Yunwen suggested.
Ma Enhui’s face turned even redder, but she nodded repeatedly. With Zhu Yunwen’s help, they divided the dough into three portions.
“Consort Xian meets the Emperor, Empress.”
After Consort Xian greeted the Emperor, she walked over as well. She wasn’t surprised to see the Emperor and Empress wearing aprons. This couple had always been a bit unrestrained within the palace, disregarding court etiquette.
Originally, Ma Enhui valued etiquette, but somehow the Emperor had influenced her.
Truly, it was said that those close to Vermillion would turn red, and those close to the Emperor would become unrestrained.
“Consort Xian, it’s perfect. Please help… uh, let the Empress teach you how to make the dough,” Zhu Yunwen sensed Ma Enhui’s resentful gaze and quickly corrected himself.
Consort Xian chuckled, took the apron from a maid, tied it around her waist, and washed her hands. She said, “Then, Empress, please kindly instruct this humble concubine…”
“Come, sister, start with this basin. I’ll watch you,” Ma Enhui, knowing that Consort Xian was from Anhui and fond of noodles, assumed that she must know the method of making dough. She herself didn’t know and couldn’t admit it, so she had to learn on the spot.
Consort Xian was quite knowledgeable. While kneading the dough, she explained to Ma Enhui, “The dough should be elastic, so you need to knead it thoroughly. The surface should be smooth. Start from the center, fold the ends, and then knead repeatedly…”
Ma Enhui gratefully glanced at Consort Xian and began to deal with her own dough.
Zhu Yunwen held a kitchen knife and chopped the meat filling. A eunuch approached and reported, “Consort Ning is feeling unwell and won’t be coming.”
As he gathered the meat filling together again with the kitchen knife, Zhu Yunwen asked the eunuch, “Not feeling well? Could she have caught a cold? Has the imperial physician examined her?”
The eunuch hesitated and said, “We don’t know. When we arrived, Consort Ning was enjoying the plum blossoms.”
Emperor Zhu Yunwen burst into laughter, suddenly chopping the kitchen knife on the cutting board, wiping his hands, and said to Shuangxi, “Consort Ning must have some grievances in her heart. Go and invite her.”
Shuangxi agreed and hurriedly left.
Ma Enhui looked at Emperor Zhu Yunwen and said, “Consort Ning is talented and somewhat aloof. Your Majesty, don’t take it to heart.”
Emperor Zhu Yunwen picked up a handkerchief from a palace maid’s tray, wiped the sweat from Ma Enhui’s forehead, and smiled, “I’ve neglected Consort Ning and Consort Xian. They have some temper, but it’s expected. Consort Ning is as cold as a plum, and Consort Xian is as gentle as the moon. They are both exceptional women, but the affairs of the Ming Dynasty are complicated, leaving little time to attend to other matters. Consort Xian, please don’t hold it against me.”
“Your Majesty’s focus on the nation is for the benefit of all the people. This humble concubine is not a woman preoccupied with personal matters. I only hope Your Majesty can free yourself from worries, and may the Ming Dynasty soon embrace an era of prosperity.”
Consort Xian respectfully bowed.
Zhu Yunwen helped Consort Xian up, nodded slightly, and said, “The era of prosperity will come. But what I am most concerned about now is when you will all finish making the dough so that our family can enjoy a reunion dinner with dumplings.”
“That would be wonderful.”
Consort Xian smiled and, together with Ma Enhui, finished kneading the dough. They then placed it in the dwindling fire of the stove.
Consort Ning eventually arrived.
Zhu Yunwen looked at the apologetic Consort Ning while chopping vegetables and said, “Today, there are no emperors, empresses, or concubines here, only our family. Since Consort Ning arrived late, naturally she should take on more responsibilities, so I’ll assign you the task of rolling out the dough.”
Consort Ning had never done farm work before, and she had never even set foot in the kitchen.
Seeing Consort Ning, who was sweating profusely and had no idea how to roll out the dough, Zhu Yunwen reluctantly let her go and took on the task himself.
Consort Xian had experience and her dumplings were shaped like crescent moons.
But when it came to the dumplings made by Ma Enhui, they looked more like lumps.
And as for Consort Ning, well, are you trying to stuff the dough to the point of bursting with so much filling?
She couldn’t wrap them properly and only knew how to stretch the dough, without realizing that she should use less filling…
Originally, Ma Enhui and Ningfei were anxious, but when they saw the flour on Zhu Yunwen’s face, they burst into laughter.
They were all joyous and filled with happiness.
Emperor Zhu Yunwen enjoyed this sense of togetherness, where everyone was present, and a meal of dumplings made even a distant place feel like home. Looking at the women in front of him, all smiling, memories that rolled on and on became an unreachable distance.
Farewell to the past and continue moving forward.
What would the glorious era of the Great Ming look like?
Would his grand plans and blueprints gradually become reality?
Could he handle the infinite variables and challenges that lay ahead?
Zhu Yunwen emerged from his contemplation and raised his cup, saying, “May future generations say after a thousand years: Han and Tang were no match for Great Ming. That will be enough!”
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