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Confessions of a Foxy chef (Private)

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The afternoon sun shone strong through the windows in the imperial kitchen. It had been a stressful day for the head chef… hay, it had been a stressful month. Getting back from this trip of goodwill to equestria was one change of pace but to have herself exposed to Feng so soon and in such an embarrassing manner? That was simply nerve-wracking. Then to come home and receive an honor for her ‘honesty’, that only made Yanhua shudder in dread as she thought about how many events seemed to just line up so perfectly.

A bowl of bao sat in front of the yanhua, already half empty. The part where she could soothe her mind with cooking had passed, now she had to just eat this treat to herself.

 

After popping another into her mouth, her ears perked to a knock at the door. She hurriedly swallowed it down, “Come in!” she called back.  

 

The door opened and revealed one of the empress’ servants. Not one of the watch, someone less intimidating thankfully: The last thing Yanhua needed was something to worry her further. It was time. While the servant lead the chef down the corridors towards the empress’ quarters, Yanhua swore that every sound seemed… sharper. Perhaps even louder than usual. She felt her heartbeat quickening and too a few deep breaths to calm it down. It worked only half as well as she’d hoped. 

 

Elaborate doors were opened up by the servant, and Yanhua dipped her head in thanks before carefully walking in. The Empress was expecting her after all.

 

“Good Afternoon, My Empress.”

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Several hours had passed since today’s eventful morning court in the Imperial Palace concluded. After hosting the Peryton delegation in the palace gardens, Empress Yuè retired to her chambers to take care of various minor matters that needed to be attended to. Like going over tonight’s banquets with the Household Chef.


As far as private studies went, the Private Imperial Study— although cozy and cramped by lofty palace standards — exuded the same sense of grandeur and opulence that was expected to be found anywhere in an imperial residence. A window off to the side let in light and provided the room’s occupants with a glimpse of the gardens beyond. And at the end of the room was a modest but exquisitely-crafted desk, behind which sat the Empress in her serene glory.


Having sent for Yanhua several minutes ago, Empress Yuè was expecting her when the chef arrived. “Come Yanhua, have a seat.” The royal qilin gestured towards a cushioned stool... which of course was shorter than the chair the Empress herself sat it, ensuring the sovereign towered over those bidden to her study. Once Yanhua did as instructed, the attendant who brought the chef would close the door, leaving the two mares alone.


“You had questions over what to prepare for our guests, tonight?” Despite the simple question, Empress Yuè still believed from earlier that Yanhua had ulterior reasons for seeking her out. Only time would tell if the royal mare’s suspicions are correct.....

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Yanhua couldn't help but notice the difference in height between her and her cook's chairs. It was an interesting psychological use of furniture that Yanhua had the barest bit of insight in from her past. Back when she had her own temple there was a layout not dissimilar to this. Her thoughts didn't distract her long and soon she took a seat. The Chef took a deep ,steady breath before speaking. 

"Well ... that would be something to talk about afterwards if you're still willing to have me cook for you." Yanhua looked to the floor a moment and then back up to  the empress, "You see my empress,  I have some things to confess to you. The most important one I'll start with now." Yanhua gulped once and then let the words out, "You see, I'm not a Qilin. In fact I'm not any kind of equine at all."

 

That was a good start, Now Yanhua could try and ease into the other parts of her confession. Her past kidnapping of the empress of Long guo, her escape from the forest, and perhaps her feelings towards a certain member of the watch. 

 

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“Oh?” A simple rise of the eye brow was all the visible reaction that Yanhua would get out of Empress Yuè. Rest assured however, even if she had been correct to anticipate something out of the ordinary, the royal qilin was not quite expecting this. ...Well, it wasn’t exactly out of the realm of possibility that a member of the Imperial Household would masquerade as a Long Sun. The Empress had seen the Serpent King himself shapeshift on one occasion.


With the option of choosing between a simplistic incense burner on her desk that appeared to have been well-worn and an ornate gold one shaped like a lotus flower shining just as bright as the day it was made, Empress Yuè reached for the latter... but did nothing with it for now other than put it in front of her. There was no need to make use of it yet.

 

Although her courtiers would have advised otherwise, the Empress decided out of curiosity to indulge Yanhua for the time being. “If you are not an equine,” she asked nonchalantly; “Then what are you?”

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Yanhua swayed subtly on her chair, "Well... the short answer is I'm what Long Guo might call a ... Yao-Guai" It was the qilin language's word for Yokai. Perhaps a bit older than it , but still it should be enough to give a broad idea as to what she was. Taking note of the incense burner that the empress so casually brought forward, Hanabi thought that maybe the empress had come with some of that magic incense rich ponies in Neihgpon had to try and ward off yokai. A short olfactory investigation later, she could tell it wasn't. There was definitely something special about the smoke in the air though. It still seemed as though Yu wasn't getting anxious (not like the practiced ruler would ever show such signs), perhaps this may go better than she thought. 

"Specifically... I'm a fox." The chef's fluffy and swirled up tail seemed to lengthen and then give off a few motes of green flame, "I've... been in Long Guo for nearly a millenia learning how this country cooks and serves food." 

That was a true statement, no need to bring the confession of once having spirited away your boss's great grandmother to the forefront on such a pleasant evening...

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Aiya, this was quite the... peculiar situation Empress Yuè had found herself in. A fox spirit, a being that has lived through more than a dozen mortal lifetimes, hidden amongst the very Imperial Court! Of that there was no doubt, as Yanhua’s modest foxfire demonstration was still most convincing. As a royal qilin expected to treat with the likes of the Wise & Noble Long, the Empress knew that Yao-Guai needed to be treated with the uttermost discretion, and without betraying the slightest bit of weakness.


Until it was prudent to believe otherwise, Empress Yuè had no choice but to assume that there more behind Yanhua’s unassuming words than she let on. After all, it seemed fairly uncharacteristic for a fox spirit to reach nearly 1,000 years of life and be content with the mundanity of cheffing. Not from all the tales and legends of trickery the Empress has ever heard.


“If you have managed to keep your true identity concealed for so long, venerable Yao-Guai,” Empress Yuè got right to the point, her gaze focused and unwavering; “Then what do you hope to gain from revealing your true self now? A resplendent creature of nature like yourself deserves not to be constrained by the boundaries of civilization.” Which was pretty much a face-saving way of saying that Yao-Guai and Long Sun don’t tend to mix very well. And every creature knew that even by Long Sun standards, the denizens of the Imperial Palace were extremely hostile to the thought of Yao-Guai in disguise walking around, free to weave mischief and mayhem.....

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"Well, Your empress." Began the qilin shaped creature, "What I hope to gain is freedom from guilt. I have served the palace for quite some time and have managed to keep my nature concealed from most. As a favor to me, Prince Lian has not told anyone about me." A while ago when the prince was done with rather nasty summer cold, Yanhua had brought him some soup to help him heal. She ended up catching his cold and having to hide away for a time until he came around to try and help her heal... and the rest was history. A history that the empress might not be privy to. 

 

As the empress listened, Yanhua couldn't help but notice that stiff upper lip of hers. How nearly unchanging her expression was as she worked to not show any hint of weakness. The only reason the chef noticed was because of how much harder the empress seemed to be trying to keep it up. That, and even while she worked to keep her emotions in check, Yanhua could sense unease in a room well. She could practically smell it. 

 

"You don't need to steel your heart, Empress. I'm not like that spirit from the stories that steals your face the moment you furrow a brow..."


Yanhua cleared her throat, "... Also you don't have to shower me in compliments. I had enough  that sort of thing in the kitchen and when I used to guard ricefields. I must admit it is oddly fun to hear you doing it to me for once." She gave a soft chuckled before opening up her eyes for the empress, revealing the vibrant green eyes with slitted catlike pupils. "I have been 'constraining' myself as you put it because there is someone very close to my heart is in your employ. He in fact inspired me to start up the restaurant in the capital that lead me to this new occupation."

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That mention of Prince Lián was enough to elicit another subtle twitch of Empress Yuè’s eye. Her twin brother might have been prone to the occasional act of imprudence, but he had also been the one being in this wide world that the qilin mare could unconditional trust and rely on. But hearing that Lián kept Yanhua’s identity a secret from his very own sister — that in truth he did not reciprocate Yuè’s trust in him — that would be a blow to any psyche who had learned from a young age to always keep their heart guarded to all but a very few.


A part of the Empress even hoped that this fox spirit had actually bewitched the Prince, as Yao-Guai are known to do, if only so she can continue believing in the comforting myth of her brother's filial fidelity.


Yanhua went on to be so audacious as to call out the royal qilin’s attempt at regal composure. Further confessing her deepest motivations... did her few favors, although the fox should still be glad that Empress Yuè remained unable to grasp what caused her recent feelings of possessiveness concerning the certain longma that Yanhua alluded. Nonetheless, if the Yao-Guai desired candor..... then candor was what she would receive.


Long ago, Empress Yuè’s court tutors impressed upon her the virtues of stoic gracefulness, but they had also trained her in the acceptable ways in which to channel one’s emotions should the mask fracture. Should an occasion arise that forced courtly pleasantries to be swept aside, project unwavering resolve and catch the offending party off-balance, while ensuring that they themselves didn’t feel they had the upper hoof... or just cause to feel offended. An imperial sovereign that mastered this art possessed a true Heart of the Dragon... and Yù Yuè had no intention of letting her ancestors and predecessors down..... 


After several moments of silence, which the Empress used to keep her gaze coldly locked with Yanhua’s, she spoke once more. “I hope to not offend with a simple recollection of the tales and legends of mortal beings,” Yuè began, but now with a faint hint of nonchalant airiness in her voice which expressed passive-aggressiveness; “But it is widely believed in the Dragon Kingdom — even to this day — that the Huli Jing are habitual tricksters who take wicked glee in extorting rural peasants, seducing the hearts of the faithful... and in provoking infighting to rip entire families apart.


“And of course, my venerable mother would tell me as a young girl about the Legend of the Queen Snatcher, the nefarious fox demon who once imprisoned our ancestor in the Spirit World and assumed her place. Were my ancestor’s husband a less wise stallion, the Snatcher might have very well stolen the Dragon Throne for herself, and be terrorizing Long Guo to this day.”


“.....Surely then, you can understand why many who loyally serve under me would feel great apprehension if they knew a fox spirit freely roamed the halls of the Imperial Palace...” The Empress did not phrase that statement as a question.....

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"What one or many believe is not always true, Your Highness." The fox said with a surprising solemn expression, "I have never extorted peasants, stolen anypony's heart, or caused any infighting. To help with your impressions, I've only gotten gifts of food from peasants in exchange for protecting rice fields, I've enchanted noone to fall in love with me, and I asked that your brother not tell you. So don't bear the prince any ill will." 

While Yanhua was keeping her calm, inside she was rather annoyed. She'd heard that legend many times around the palace and told to fillies and colts around the capital. It was absolutely maddening to hear her history so butchered and so obviously re-written to suit the crown. "There are many falsehoods in that story. Do you wish to know the truth about the story of my imprisonment, Your Highness? It may not matter as most witnesses have passed away, but I'm sure an enlightened mare like yourself would be at the least bit curious about the other half of the story."

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