he three immediately rose to welcome the Emperor, but the young Emperor was a step quicker and stopped them.
"No need for formalities. Sit." He pulled Meng Sangyu along and sat in the host’s seat.
Catching sight of her slightly reddened eyes, Emperor Zhou’wu’s thick brows knitted. He rubbed the corner of her eyes and tenderly comforted her in a gentle voice, "A father-daughter reunion ought to be a happy occasion. Why are you crying?"
"This concubine was too happy." Meng Sangyu said lovably, gripping his hand.
Since her father had returned safely and the man had shown consideration by allowing them to meet, right now her smile was a hundred percent sincere. Her gentle gaze didn’t have the same falsified emotions as before.
"If you are happy, you cry; isn’t that just like a child?" Emperor Zhou’wu’s heart heated up under her gaze, and he reached out to rub her nose, his voice full of pampering.
Seeing the emperor’s unusual gaze towards his daughter, Duke Meng looked down, his mind full of wavering thoughts.
They were both were men who shared deep affection with their wives. How could he not understand the hidden significance behind the Emperor’s gaze?
The Emperor’s adoration of his daughter was not a scheme to pacify him – this point was undoubtedly true.
Just as he believed, how outstanding was his daughter? If the Emperor did not fall for her, then he would simply be blind!
Thinking to this point, Imperial Duke Meng smiled to himself. He gradually relaxed and began to chat happily with the Emperor.
When it was almost noon, remembering that his wife was still at home waiting for his return, Imperial Duke Meng and his son stood up to pay their respects and were personally seen off to the palace gates by the Emperor.
Turning his head towards the reverent-looking Imperial Duke Meng, Emperor Zhou’wu slightly smiled, and cautiously said, "After returning, Imperial Duke has no need to think too much. It’s fine to just make sure to recuperate from your injuries. We trust you, and therefore will not take back the tiger tally at this point in time."
Imperial Duke Meng did not dare to take the words at face value and immediately cupped his hands and spoke, "Your Majesty, the Barbarians have already been dealt with, this subject has no need to use this military power. It’s better if your majesty takes the tally back."
"To settle internal affairs, one must first settle the external threats. The external affairs have already been taken care of, and it is now time to deal with the internal threats. Are you willing to let threats sleep in our government?
"Within two years, Great Zhou will definitely have unavoidable military conflicts. How could Imperial Duke Meng not have anywhere to use your military might?" Emperor Zhou’wu forcefully clapped his shoulder, his pitch-black eyes filled with fighting spirit.
Concerns about internal threats? Getting rid of those who overstep their bounds? Imperial Duke Meng was startled.
After he pondered for a moment, he cupped his hands in obeisance and said, "This subject was shortsighted and is willing to render this one’s humble services to Your Majesty!" The Emperor had made connections between these military plots and had even revealed this to him. It could clearly be seen how much trust his sovereign placed in him.
Imperial Duke Meng came from a military background and had extraordinary resolution. He immediately relinquished any thoughts of retiring. If he could assist the Emperor in achieving the unification of Great Zhou in its truest sense, then he felt he would not have lived his life in vain. When the time came, it wouldn’t be too late to return the tiger tally again.
"This humble official is also willing to be at Your Majesty’s beck and call, willing to risk life and limb for Your Majesty’s great vision!" Meng Yan’zhou declared with a flushed face, unwilling to be left behind. Right now his esteem for his brother-in-law  had already equalled his esteem for his father and had the potential to surpass it.
"Haha, good! Zhen is very fortunate to have you virtuous generals as subjects!" Emperor Zhou’wu energetically clapped Meng Yan’zhou’s shoulder with a lofty, heroic smile.
Since the rest of the army would only reach the capital three days before New Year’s, the banquet to reward the three armies was combined with the imperial household’s New Year’s Banquet.
The guests invited to participate in the banquet included all the generals in the military, as well as any civil officials who were of the fourth rank or above. It could be described as a magnificent and unprecedented event. 
At six pm,  Bao’he Hall  was brightly lit and the smell of alcohol wafted about. The civil and military officials were seated on both sides according to rank. They chatted while waiting for His Majesty to arrive.
Imperial Duke Meng, seated in the highest seat among the military officials, was completely surrounded by other officials trying to strike up a conversation with him. At the moment, his reputation was unmatched.
Since Meng Yan’zhou was seated by the cold-faced Yan Jun’wei, he was able to avoid these social niceties. 
After the Empress Dowager greeted all of the noblewomen in Ci’ning Palace, she left to attend the banquet in Bao’he Hall with Meng Sangyu supporting her arm.
For such a large-scale palace banquet, apart from the noblewomen of the first rank who had been granted titles,  only imperial concubines of the first rank or higher were entitled to participate. Therefore, all of the imperial concubines could only look on with envy as they sent off Meng Sangyu, Worthy Consort, and Beautiful Consort.
Meng Sangyu supported the Empress Dowager’s left arm. The two chatted in an intimate manner while walking leisurely, seeming like an ordinary family’s mother-in-law and daughter-in-law.
Seeing this, Worthy Consort’s eyes darkened and she took two steps forward, wanting to lend an arm to support the Empress Dowager’s other side. If her position fell behind Meng Sangyu’s when the four of them entered Bao’he Hall, wouldn’t it seem as though her influence had weakened?
How could the Empress Dowager not be aware of her thoughts? She loathed being made use of in this manner!
The Empress Dowager waved her arm and brushed off Worthy Consort, coldly saying, "Aijia is still not old to the point where We can’t walk. How would We need two people to support Us? That will only invite the ridicule of others!" As she spoke, she couldn’t help but somewhat speed up her pace.
Worthy Consort’s face flickered from red to white. She felt embarrassed and angry.
Beautiful Consort smiled righteously as she gave her a sidelong glance full of contempt and quickly caught up to the Empress Dowager.
When the four of them arrived, Emperor Zhou’wu just happened to be crossing over the threshold  to enter the hall.
His bright yellow dragon robe emitted a golden glow as it shone under the candlelight, contrasting with the unparalleled handsomeness of his face and his clearly imperious temperament. He looked like a god who had descended to the mortal world, making Worthy Consort and Beautiful Consort blush.
The Empress Dowager subtly glanced at Meng Sangyu and saw that though the corner of her mouth was curved in a smile, her eyes appeared unmoved. Then she noticed her son’s shining gaze looking over and silently counted the prayer beads in her hands as she inwardly shook her head. This couple was truly very amusing. She hadn’t wasted her trip down the mountain!
Emperor Zhou’wu quickly came forward to welcome them. With Meng Sangyu on the left and him on the right, they supported the Empress Dowager as she entered the hall and escorted her to her seat. Only then did Emperor Zhou’wu walk to the host’s seat to be seated. All of the officials promptly knelt and called out "Long live His Majesty!" It was a grand spectacle.
"You may rise!" The Emperor’s clear laughter rang out as he briefly said a few words of well-wishes. He hinted to Chang’xi to fill his cup with strong alcohol before raising his cup to give a toast to Imperial Duke Meng, draining it in one gulp.
Imperial Duke Meng was overwhelmed by the favour from his superior and promptly picked up his wine cup from the table to return the toast. The harmonious scene between ruler and subject caused all the officials to have their own thoughts.
It seemed that at present, Imperial Duke Meng’s relationship with His Majesty was still as uncomplicated as before. He had not let his many meritorious achievements overfeed his ambitions, and he was still restrained by his reverential respect for His Majesty!
Soon after, the Emperor’s actions further deepened this impression for the officials. To their surprise, he put down his wine cup and gently gazed towards Virtuous Consort, who was sitting in the corner to his lower right.
He waved a hand and said, "Beloved consort, come to Zhen’s side."
The empty place by the Emperor’s side was reserved for the Empress.
Why didn’t he make his intentions clear?
Meng Sangyu fell into a daze until she sensed Worthy Consort and Beautiful Consort’s ice-cold gazes aimed towards her from the side. She then saw her father, who was seated, looking over with a gaze full of gratification.
She set down her chopsticks and gave a faint smile as she calmly walked over and took a seat at His Majesty’s side.
This was His Majesty giving face to her father and the Meng family. No matter what kind of deep meanings were hidden behind this action, she would accept them. As a daughter of the Meng family, she couldn’t sully the Meng family’s reputation!
The woman wore a court dress of the highest rank. As she winded her way towards him, the golden dangling hair ornaments on her head swayed, making a crisp jingling sound.
It was almost like someone had rapped his heart, making his heart shiver. A layer of mist covered Emperor Zhou’wu’s pitch black eyes, concealing the burning passion that could devour someone whole.
He extended a hand and tightly gripped the woman’s proffered pearly white fingertips and pulled her into his embrace with one swift motion. Afterwards, he gave a near inaudible sigh.
Seeing His Majesty’s intimate, completely unrestrained actions, the crowd of officials lowered their heads one after another, each with a different expression.
Imperial Duke Meng immediately drank to his heart’s content, wiping his mouth with a bright smile.
Meng Sangyu made a supreme effort to preserve an appropriate smile on her face as she obediently sat in the man’s embrace.
"Sangyu, Zhen will toast to you. Without you, Zhen wouldn’t be here today."
Emperor Zhou’wu personally filled her wine cup with peach blossom wine and brought it to her lips.
His manner of speaking was extremely careful. Perhaps Sangyu wouldn’t understand his intentions, and might even sneer at him in her heart, but he knew how genuine his feelings were towards her, and that was enough.
What did he say? Is he sleep-talking? Sure enough, Meng Sangyu really did sneer at him in her heart, yet her facial expression remained bashful.
Taking the wine cup, she raised her head and drank it all in one gulp. The fragrant-smelling alcohol soaked her bright red lips, making them seem tender and beautiful as they glistened.
Emperor Zhou’wu’s line of sight locked onto her lips. He suddenly had the urge to kiss her.
The clamour inside the hall just barely pulled his attention back, and he couldn’t help but look around and take a big gulp of alcohol to mask his nearly uncontrollable state of mind.
Catching sight of the several meat and vegetable dishes on the table, he faintly smiled and pushed everything in front of Sangyu. These were all dishes that he had purposefully instructed the Imperial Kitchen to make for Sangyu. They were all the foods that Sangyu had most enjoyed recently.
Seeing that the plate of peach blossom wine-infused prawns in front of her still had a few prawns left, Meng Sangyu suddenly had a bad feeling.
As expected, the man’s lips curved into a smile.
Setting aside a monarch’s regal bearing, after wiping his fingers with a handkerchief he began to carefully peel the prawns. His leisurely and content figure made it seem as if he were not at a royal banquet, but rather in the side hall of Bi’xiao Palace.
He placed the ready-peeled prawns into bowls set in front of the Empress Dowager and Sangyu. Then, he began carefully picking out the small, delicate bones from a plate of peony fish filet. 
He separated the fish into two and gave the two women sitting at his sides the one portion each. His solicitous and polite attitude was comparable to the noblest and most refined gentleman from modern times.
Meng Sangyu mentally facepalmed. She finally knew what it meant to crush one’s own foot while trying to maneuver a rock.  Recently, she had been testing the man at the dinner table, making him peel prawn shells, peel crab shells, remove fish bones, et cetera. Now, these requests were coming back to bite her.
She hadn’t thought that her actions would actually go so far as to train the man into making this a habit!
He couldn’t be doing this on purpose, right?
The corners of Meng Sangyu’s eyes twitched as she glanced at the jealous gazes that Worthy Consort and Beautiful Consort passed her way. She had no choice but to smile weakly and gracefully swallow the man’s eager attentions.
Emperor Zhou’wu unhurriedly wiped the grease from his fingertips. His pitch-black eyes flashed radiantly. He had constantly indulged Sangyu’s testing, seamlessly reducing the distance with each other! When Sangyu finally noticed, she would already be a bird in his cage and wouldn’t be able to run away anymore! 
All of the officials had closely followed their sovereign’s every move. How could anyone with eyes fail to see the special treatment he gave to Virtuous Consort? Presumably, it wouldn’t be too long until the Empress’s empty seat had a master!
All the officials came to the same conclusion in their thoughts.
After the banquet ended, there would be fireworks. The Empress Dowager still had her evening devotions, so she excused herself and returned to her palace first.
Everyone walked over to the open space outside of Bao’he Hall and looked up into the pitch-black night sky. An array of fireworks skyrocketed upwards and beautifully blossomed in midair, emitting a magnificent brilliance that dazzled the eyes of those below.
Emperor Zhou’wu and Meng Sangyu stood next to each other by the fluttering muslin curtains under the eaves of the palace hall with their eyes glued to the brightly multicoloured night sky.
Snowflakes floated down on their faces, melting into tiny droplets.
Meng Sangyu wiped her face without a care. The reflections of the fireworks contrasted like coloured glass against her dark eyes. She wore a full smile on her face, and her pure and unadulterated happiness resembled a child’s.
Emperor Zhou’wu’s gaze was unconsciously attracted towards her. His heart beat as strongly as thunder.
This was his first time ringing in the New Year with Sangyu, and it seemed to foretell that their future would be as splendid as these fireworks.
He couldn’t restrain himself and extended a hand, bringing her into his embrace and bundling her up in his thick cloak. On the ground, their elongated shadows fused together, inextricably linked, and he gave a satisfied sigh.
With an ice-cold gaze, he forced the flabbergasted officials to withdraw. He was the Emperor! If he wanted to hug his own woman, could it be that he needed to consider the gazes of others?
"Your Majesty, this isn’t appropriate!" Meng Sangyu shifted uncomfortably, but the man’s embrace was really quite warm, making her feel as though she didn’t want to leave.
"Zhen dictates what is appropriate," the man said overbearingly.
After muttering to himself for a moment, he said quietly, "On the third day of the New Year, Zhen will take you back to visit your relatives. You should properly prepare."
Meng Sangyu abruptly turned back to look at him. Her phoenix eyes were round with disbelief. Return to visit relatives? With the Emperor’s personal accompaniment? What does he mean by this?
This kind of honour and favour was too excessive!
"Watch the fireworks!" The man turned her chin to face the sky. Indulgent love could be heard in his helpless tone.
"This moment is so beautiful, wouldn’t it be a shame if you missed it? Don’t think about anything right now and just quietly enjoy it!" The man’s voice was serene and relaxed. It had the power to soothe others.
Meng Sangyu followed his finger and looked towards the sky, languidly resting against his broad chest with a faint smile. That’s right, this moment is so beautiful, it would be a shame to miss it!