Chapter 41: A Secret in Bloom
“The advance-retreat approach consists of retreating after you’ve advanced and advancing after you’ve retreated.” Jing Qi was loosely draped in a light-blue robe, its white collar contrasting with a strand of his uncombed, inkstroke-esque hair that had fallen, since he had just woken up from an afternoon nap. Reclining on a chaise with his eyes half-lidded, he had a slightly nasally tone to his words; clarity in the young man’s voice had already initiated at some unknown interim, gradually getting polished into a deep and low sound by time, which his each and every unhurried word like a strike on one’s heart. “Bystanders all believe that when you advance, you then must take some steps back in retreat, so as to avoid blocking the path of one whose path shouldn’t be blocked. Bystanders all believe that when you retreat, you must advance regardless — that’s what is called ‘pushing forwards despite a hundred thousand people opposing me.'”
Wu Xi watched him mutely, his mind clearly wandering. Jing Qi had babbled on to this point lazily, liable to fall back asleep at any time, so he didn’t notice at first. After not hearing him respond for a long time, though, he tilted his head to look at him. “What are you thinking about?”
Startled, Wu Xi avoided his gaze in a slight panic and lowered his own head a bit. “Just like you, then?” he asked.
“Uh… wha?” Jing Qi opened his eyes some. “What about me?”
“When everyone else thought you shouldn’t go to the Guangs, you went. Once you came back, everyone else thought that you would use that opportunity to do something, yet you’ve done nothing, and are entirely the same as you were before.”
“Going to the Guangs was Helian Qi causing trouble for me. The matter’s settled. If I didn’t play the wealthy idler when I came back, when would I?”
Wu Xi pondered this, then shook his head. “Your words are ingenuine.”
Jing Qi burst out laughing, standing up to loosen up his body and stretch. The peach blossoms in the courtyard were blooming like a pileup of snow, and once the wind blew, frost dropped all over the place, bringing a cool aroma with it. As it fluttered down upon Jing Qi, Wu Xi thought that the other seemed to have walked out of a painting. He couldn’t help but recall a poem he had heard a few days prior and blurt it out. “Humble and modest, a youth nomadic…”
Having not heard that clearly, Jing Qi turned look at him with some skepticism. “What did you say?”
Wu Xi shook his head, inclining his head away frantically to gaze at the mottled courtyard wall. He felt that there was a dampness in his heart akin to the moss growing in that corner of the wall; he was right before his eyes, but some words had to be resisted. Suddenly somewhat wronged, he consequently asked in a low voice, “Can you talk about the Three-Hundred Poems for me today?”
Wu Xi was usually one to focus on pragmatism, typically being only fond of listening to things about historical tactics and peaceful governance, while not very willing to listen to him speak of etiquette and poetry. He wasn’t planning to take the exam for Prime Scorer, nor did he have a need to write works too well — those rhythmic written parables in the Poetry Classic had always gone into his ears, but he wouldn’t set them to heart. As long as he could understand what he heard, that sufficed.
Jing Qi was slightly taken aback. Taking note that the other’s head was tilted so that he could stare blankly at the base of the wall, gaze seeming to drift outwards with the shallow color of devotion suffused amidst his enigmatic and hearty features, he couldn’t resist giving a knowing smile, thinking to himself: this kid’s finally gotten to yearning age, huh? “Which section do you want to hear?”
“The one with ‘to take their hands and grow old with them.'”
Ah, so it was true.
Though jubilant, Jing Qi yet remembered something else. He didn’t point it out, merely saying, “That’s a sorrowful song, yet you’ve remembered the two most heavily heart-breaking lines in it.”
Surprised, Wu Xi turned to look at him uncomprehendingly.
Jing Qi lightly let off the couple of petals that had fallen onto his shoulders, then slowly began to speak. “‘With the noise of the striking drums, we leap out with arms, and a moat is dug out the city wall as we march South alone. We follow Gongsun Zizhong, since peace was made with Chen and Song, yet we were not lead back home, our anxious hearts distressed.’ — There’s fighting a hundred wars in the yellow sand until one’s armor turns gold, as well as meritorious achievements built from countless skeletons. Some people reminisce fondly of Loulan and the attitude of not returning until it had fallen, but the majority of folks would rather hear a song such as Snapped Willow in the nighttime, where the spring wind never waned and pining never stopped. What this says is that, in the landsea, a vast army is rushing forth with gold spears and armored horses, war drums swelling and steeds whinnying, but there was one such person that was turning his head to gaze in the direction of his hometown, and observing the living people surrounding him; one by one, they would march out to attack in the morning, and would not return at night. In his heart, that old friend harbors thoughts about his homeland, then appears to die.”
Wu Xi hadn’t expected that he would turn the subject matter to this, and he didn’t react for a moment, simply listening to him in a daze.
With a sigh, Jing Qi continued on. “‘A promise in life and death made with our beloveds, to take their hands and grow old with them.’ These words were not said by a General that had pledged to accomplish his mission, nor an Emperor that could lay millions of corpses low in a second of anger, but a minor soldier. In his life, he was doomed to not have outstanding aptitude, and only hoped that he could live it with his needs met, together with his plain-clothed, poor, ordinary wife: waiting for her makeup and splendor to wash away completely, waiting for her youthful beauty to age, waiting for her to fall deathly ill. After that, he would find a three-chi grave to lie both of them in, and if they were fated in the next life, they would see each other around again. If not…”
He suddenly paused. After a long time had passed, he reiterated, “Flourish, and the commoners suffer. Lose, and the commoners suffer. I shouldn’t say this to begin with, but dare I ask, Shamanet — if you return to Nanjiang, how will you then act?”
Wu Xi witnessed his typically slipshod look presently go completely serious, with a certain indescribable, deep feeling inside the peaceful lament of his gaze. In that instant, he felt that a distance, going from Nanjiang to the capital, had opened between him and the one he was normally close and familiar with. Sour in his heart, his eyes swiftly dulled. “…I get your meaning.”
You’re guarded against me, so why are you good to me?
Jing Qi was accustomed to watching others’ facial cues and body language. Upon sweeping his eyes in a circle across Wu Xi’s face, he knew that he was thinking of something, so he paused. Sitting down across from him, he poured the herbal tea on the table, and replenished it anew for both him and Wu Xi. He interlaced his fingers, placed them atop the desk, then exhaled. “How do you feel about the Crown Prince?”
Wu Xi was stunned, promptly after which he ached a bit. “He isn’t bad, of course. You wouldn’t do everything in thought of him otherwise.”
Jing Qi smiled. “I fear him, though. His Highness is in the most challenging space in Court, and he likes to escape to my place because the Prince Estate is tranquil. In truth, I don’t dare to speak much with him, so I annoy him less.”
Wu Xi’s brows furrowed. In his impression, Jing Qi seemingly hadn’t been afraid of anything previously, since he never saw him have any special reaction to even the most terrifying toxic creatures at his own Estate, and could talk and laugh with anyone without a care there. When he looked at him before, he felt that the guy didn’t take anything seriously. Later on, he gradually understood his strain, but after feeling sorry for him, he still believed that the other was executing things with ease and skill. “Why do you fear him?” he couldn’t help but ask.
“He’s the Crown Prince, and Helian Zhao has never once bowed to him upon meeting him in twenty years, yet he didn’t mind it at all, still giving him brotherly respect.” Jing Qi shook his head. “Helian Zhao is courageous and accomplished. Helian Qi is insatiably greedy, vicious, narrow-minded, and heterodox. Only the Crown Prince… after his coming-of-age, even someone who grew up with him since childhood, like me, can no longer discern his emotions. Even so, nobody else knows his scheming and shrewdness better than I. Tell me, how could I not be afraid of him?”
Wu Xi’s brows scrunched even tighter together. “Since you dislike him, why do you aid him?”
Jing Qi smirked. “I didn’t say that I dislike him. His Highness has the power to hold up the world, having achievements both political and martial, I have no reason to dislike him — if I don’t aid him, then who could I? In the realm of the Great Qing, who could support it aside from him? Helian Zhao, or Helian Qi?”
Racking his brains, Wu Xi discovered that he still couldn’t get a grasp on a state of mind like that: revering, admiring, and able to do his utmost for someone else, yet also fearing them to the point that he wasn’t even willing to converse with them much.
He had always distinguished between love and hate; he liked what he liked and disliked what he disliked, unaware that there were many further specious feelings in the world. Left unable to understand this for a moment, he merely listened to Jing Qi go on. “Let’s talk about me going to the East Palace the same day I came back from the Guangs. The final words he said to me upon my departure… what he meant, and what was going on in his head, are things I still feel like I can’t figure out even now. The more I can’t figure them out, the more I’ll think about them, and after thinking back and forth on it, I’ll get terror-stricken.”
“Why do you have to think about it? Can’t you go ask him directly?” Wu Xi asked, confused.
Jing Qi went mute, finally looked at Wu Xi, then uncontrollably bust out in a loud laugh. The haze and shade on his face were entirely washed clean by his ear-to-ear smile, like a light wind, cloudless moon, and bright, clear sky.
Despite not internally getting it, Wu Xi nevertheless really liked to see him briskly belly-laughing to his heart’s content like this. A long while later, Jing Qi wiped off the tears he got from laughing, reaching out to clap Wu Xi’s shoulder. “No suspicion exists in your heart; I’ve forever admired that about you. I talked to you about Nanjiang just now, and you didn’t get worried. You’re the Nanjiang Shamanet, the future Great Shaman — how could you, in a moment of whimsy, privately make friends with me… when I’m yet the Great Qing’s Prince Nan’ning, and will naturally conspire on its peoples’ behalf? It’s tantamount to me plotting step-by-step for the Crown Prince to get the throne, yet refusing to be close him, and you’re ultimately a foreigner, yet I recognize you as a friend.”
That was to say… in his heart, the Crown Prince was way less close to him than he was? Wu Xi suddenly felt light, like his entire body was about to float out of joy.
At that point, Jing Qi suddenly appeared to remember something, though. He gathered up close to him, the look on his face obscene. “The topic veered off just then, so I almost forgot. You specially asked me to talk about poetry today, Shamanet, and once you opened your mouth, it was ‘to take their hands and grow old with them’, which is super curious. Could it be… that there’s some Young Miss you fancy?”
With him suddenly coming near and sticking close, his neckline, embroidered exquisitely and complexly with silver thread, thereupon seemed to faintly give off a subdued fragrance. Wu Xi knew that the scent came from the clothes being placed within an incensed closet after they got washed, but he always felt that it came off the other’s body, and it smelled a bit subtly distinct-like. Heart quickly skipping a couple of beats, he zigzagged his eyes in fear of looking inside the other’s slightly-drooping collar.
In spite of that, Jing Qi believed himself to have the right idea even more; it was rare to see this kid be so flustered. His teasing heart promptly started up again, and he put his elbow on the youth’s shoulder with a grin. “Well, we have to talk about it — what kind of friendship do we have, eh? If you fancy the Emperor’s Princess, I can tell you this; he might be willing to have a marriage connection with your Nanjiang.”
Wu Xi flung his hand away and stood up with a boom. Whether out of anger or anxiety, his face was permeated with a thin layer of blush, and he stared dead at Jing Qi for a while before turning his head and leaving without a word.
“Hey, I really can’t help but tease.” Jing Qi sat down and picked up his tea cup, unruffled. “That dumb kid. We talk and talk he still gets nervous with me.” He smiled, then called out, “Ping An, prepare a carriage for me. I’m going out.”
Ping An affirmed, passing the order down. “Where are you going today, Master?” he questioned off-hand.
“Yellow Flower. I haven’t gone in several days, and I miss Ming Hua’s tea. Go look for him.”
Ping An’s face crumbled immediately, wrinkling up to be bun-like. “Why are you going to that filthy place again, Master?”
“How is it a filthy place?” Jing Qi asked heedlessly as he let Ji Xiang take care of his hair. “There’s wine, tea, and beauties. Is there any better place for a debauchee like me? The Emperor’s word is paramount; he told me to act as a wealthy idler, so how could I dare to disobey my orders?”
Ping An was severely anguished.
Yellow Flower — that was male prostitute territory, and in the minds of ordinary folks, it was probably more unbearable than Jadeite and Finemist and other such places. The magnificent Prince, going to see a… a catamite practically every day, what did that look like?
Why was the Prince’s deviancy getting worse?
 From “Flagged Mound”, author unknown.
 From “Drum Strike”, author unknown.
 Not going to lie; I have no idea which specific poem of the 50+ that are based on the extremely common ancient practice of ‘snapping off willow branches to say goodbye’ this is referring to.
Chapter 42: The Divinations of Lord Seventh
Today, it was heard that the Ministry of Appointments’ Sir Zhao had stepped down. Tomorrow, it would be heard that the Ministry of Revenue’s Sir Zhou had been extracted and appointed elsewhere. The day after tomorrow, fights would spring up in all directions with the whole Court blowing out black smoke and sick air, practically being an event of ‘as soon as you quit singing, I’ll go up on stage.’
Jing Qi’s days passed in particular ease, though. At daybreak every day, he would go make a report, wandering about in a circle beneath the eyes of all the officials while quite lacking in a sense of existence, following which he would vanish without a trace.
He could be described as appearing and disappearing like a spectre.
The rest of his time after he returned — apart from the daily block of being a low-cost teacher for that brat, Wu Xi — was spent running off to Yellow Flower to hang around in when the weather was nice, or holing up in the Prince Estate when the weather wasn’t nice. He kept a group of young actors of unknown origin in his rear courtyard, and when he had nothing to do, he was fond of taking it upon himself to write a couple irrelevant, eccentric works for them to sing. During good moods, he would sometimes specially invite Wu Xi over, too.
Wu Xi inwardly hated the other’s unrestrained lifestyle so much that his teeth itched, of course, but he still understood that no matter how intemperate the guy was right now, he was entirely being compelled to be so. Oftentimes, he’d finish listening to it without a word, then look into the eyes of the one that was anticipating his assessment. Even if it might dampen his enthusiasm, he always told the truth:
“Similar to death wailing.”
“Day-long creepiness. A lifelike night owl’s call.”
“Why… that costume? I don’t understand. I just think it looks exactly like a hanged ghost that didn’t get washed clean before it reincarnated.”
Witnessing Jing Qi straight-up grind his teeth from his attacks, unable to explode and only able to force an awkward smile, he felt a bit of melancholy stuffing up his chest.
Those well-read and overly-heedful were frequently too inflexible in the ways of the world, conversely being unable to think of extremely imaginative stuff that would make peoples’ eyes shine. A long time later, Jing Qi also discovered himself to be relatively boring, as all the stuff he could think up belonged to the same old collection of stuff. He might as well run off to commoner’s haunts, listen to stories, and come out jolly.
In a few days’ time, he discovered a new way to have fun. Over in Tianqiao was a fortune-telling half-immortal with a goat’s beard; he had a small kiosk set up, and his mouth was so big he could let a carriage out of it, as his ability to make crap up to fool people was top-notch. Jing Qi happened to pass him by while on a random stroll, caught a glimpse of him, then had a sudden flash of inspiration, thinking that banking on his own babble to make a living seemed to be very fitting for him.
As a result, for a segment of time on the daily, he would squat beside the half-immortal like a roasted chicken and wait upon him. Good-looking and sweet-talking, he wore an outfit of coarse hemp clothes every day, so no one knew what his identity was and just said that he was the half-immortal’s young, newly-accepted apprentice. After more than two months of coaxing, the half-immortal would teach him many swindling skills whenever he was in a good mood. Jing Qi thought to himself that now that he had a decent skill, he could always rely on it to save up money for food if he ever did wander jianghu someday.
Finishing his apprenticeship after half a year, he felt it would be awful to rob his ‘master”s business. With his master being in the north of the city, he deliberately sought out a spot in the south, set up a little kiosk, got a sign, and wrote the few extraordinarily graceful words of ‘Divinations of Old Seventh’ on it. He asked Zhou Zishu for some face-change stuff, smeared a bit of it randomly on his face so that his skin was smudged greenish-yellow, then put things on his eyelids so both his eyes were shut. With a broken walking stick in his hand, those unfamiliar would truly regard him as a young, starved-looking blind man at first glance. When customers came, he would first inevitably make a head-bobbing show of swaying about, and once the day was done — sometimes it was a day spent crouching — he could earn over ten-something copper coins.
Despite not knowing what he was going out for, he wasn’t hanging out with a bunch of sing-song actors all day long (and thus wasn’t forcing him to accompany him in watching those unintelligible plays), Wu Xi breathed a sigh of relief at last, immediately after which he got alarmed again. He had vaguely heard Ping An complain about his Master always running off to prostitution areas whenever he was bored, and, although he knew that Jing Qi was bound to be proper about it, he still couldn’t resist following him for a look on this day.
His martial arts were superb, and after exchanging notes and sparring with Zhou Zishu, they were pretty much on par with each other. Jing Qi was naturally difficult to find, but he saw him saunter out of a side gate of the Prince Estate by himself, send back the imperial guards that pursued him, then take specially-selected, winding alleyways through the capital. As he walked, he took out a small box from his lapels and pasted up his face, after which he wound into a large, mixed-family compound. A while later, he came back out from it, happily greeting people prior to his departure, a signboard and small trunk added to his back.
Afterwards, on an area at the upper reaches of Fullmoon River in the city’s south, he found a big willow and built his stall there. The little sable popped out of his arms, leaping onto the tree to mess around, and he leaned against its trunk. Autumn had already entered the capital at this point, making it yet a bit chilly. He thus curled up into a ball with both hands collected into his sleeves as he crossed them before his chest, which made his entire person look wretched. Where was the vivacious, prodigal Prince Nan’ning, who incurred crushes in women’s quarters all over the capital when he passed them?
Wu Xi gracelessly rolled his eyes, bought a bowl of pleasantly warm tea gruel from a nearby vendor, then stood holding it in front of Jing Qi. The latter’s nose, which had gone a bit red from freezing, twitched. The sable in the tree scuttled a few paces down and then jumped to Wu Xi’s shoulder, rubbing against him affectionately.
Jing Qi wasn’t surprised when he noticed him. Putting on an act, he picked up his broken cane, tapped it against the ground, pushed lightly against Wu Xi’s foot, then gave a dry cough. “Young Master, will it be literomancy, or palmistry? Divining for a fated bond, or your future outlook?”
Wu Xi placed the steam-emanating tea gruel before him, then sat down on the small stool opposite him.
Jing Qi immediately beamed in delight. “This Young Master is a truly generous person. Cultivate good karma, and one will obtain good fruits; he will have a day where his good heart will certainly have a good recompense.” Immodest — and seeming to be genuinely, terribly cold — he raised it up and drank it.
Wu Xi smiled. “Why did you come out in this kind of weather? Are you unafraid of the cold?”
“Doesn’t the fragrance of plum blossoms get enhanced from bitter chill?” Jing Qi blew on the steam whilst he spoke obtusely. “Besides, am I also not forced into this lifestyle?”
The gruel’s bowl was a big one. He held it one-handed, occasionally switching hands due to the burn, and ate it joyfully, as if the cents-worth food was the tastiest stuff in the world. Wu Xi suddenly felt that his show of morality and virtue was pretty adorable.
After he had more or less eaten it all, he wiped his mouth. “Alright. As you’ve kindly bestowed me, Old Seventh, with something to eat, today’s divination fee will be waived. Ah, I see that your heart seems to have suspicions. How about I help you deduce them?”
Wu Xi shook his head with a smile. “You said my heart didn’t have those last time.”
The other waved him off. “You didn’t have them last time, but today you do. I, Old Seventh, have blind eyes, but not a blind heart. You’re skeptic about marriage karma, right, Young Master? Come, come, come, this lowly one will take a look for you. Bring your hand over.”
That other time, he had made Wu Xi abruptly leave out of anger. Against expectations, the kid came again the very next day like nothing had happened, and simply refused to open his mouth no matter what he was asked. Sore all over from boredom, Jing Qi’s gossiping heart had acted up, so he switched tactics in extorting him. How could he have foreseen that Wu Xi would regard him sincerely, yet his mouth would be as tight as a clam with no seam, unable to be pried apart in either life or death?
Since he said that he was going to grab Wu Xi’s hand, the other didn’t dodge him, allowing him to snatch it over with both of his own warm hands covering it — though he still shook his head. “I don’t need you to deduce them, and you’re not allowed to.”
Jing Qi’s smile went stiff. Being not blind, he opened his eyes to glare at him. “Don’t undermine me all the time, you awful brat,” he said in a hushed voice. “You’ll scare all my business away in a minute.”
Wu Xi shut up, smiling both tenderly and indulgently at once, as if he was keeping an impish child company to play. Jing Qi’s slender fingers kneaded his hand, drawing along the creases of his palm, and he couldn’t help but purse his lips. His heart seemed to get lightly brushed by a feather, softly tickling; he itched to close his palm and grasp the other’s roving hand, never letting go for a lifetime.
Intermittently nodding and shaking his head, Jing Qi smiled after studying for half the day like this was genuine work. “Ah, congratulations, Young Master.”
Aware that he was talking rubbish, Wu Xi kept smiling. “Congratulations for what?”
“Your bond-signifying heaven-line is long and deep, which shows that you are an infatuated person rich in sentiment,” Jing Qi answered, swaying his head while he acted the part of someone above and beyond the world. “Your journey of love will certainly have great luck and benefits, and there is nothing to be wary about from the start, so if you’re a bit determined, you’ll definitely be able to get that beauty. Hm… there’s no island-line, which illustrates that the one you admire is a staunchly loyal woman…”
The former part was similar to being taught again, and the latter part was too unfounded. Wu Xi took a measure of Jing Qi’s deplorable-looking face before him, thinking to himself: a staunchly loyal… woman? Hence, he took his hand back. “You’re full of blather. You didn’t even get close.”
Jing Qi grabbed him and wouldn’t release him, however. “I, Old Seventh, absolutely do not blather. If it isn’t so, then that proves the one in your thoughts right now is not a good match. Young Master, that sea of bitterness is without bounds; turn around and go to shore!”
Hearing him miss the mark more and more, Wu Xi stood up. “Talk nonsense again, and I’ll go.”
The other quickly tugged at him with a grin. “My good brother, you’re always coming out here. You can sit and hang around with me for a while.”
Wu Xi smiled, compliantly moved the stool to be next to him, sat down, and pulled a copy of the Six Secret Strategies out from his lapels. While he read, he took of note of this swindler’s deed of glibly conning passersby in turn. Once some time passed, a cloud came to cover up the sun, which caused it to get colder. He untied his outer robe and tossed it to Jing Qi.
Knowing that the other had good martial arts that made it so chill and heat wouldn’t infringe upon his tough skin, Jing Qi wasn’t humble to him, and held it to wrap it around his body.
From that point on, Wu Xi appeared to have gotten into a general habit. Whenever Jing Qi went out every day, he would put a book into his pocket and follow after him, and then would help him carry his booth and signboard back to the compound at night.
It was strange to say, but Jing Qi’s business appeared to have gotten a lot better after Wu Xi started coming, especially since women of all ages that came and went always loved to cast a couple of looks at the handsome foreign lad. Jing Qi grumbled, half-genuinely and half-falsely, that if he had known this earlier, he wouldn’t have put so much chartreuse-yellow stuff on his face.
Wu Xi gave him a blank look. “So that everyone in the capital will know that Prince Nan’ning has set up a fortune-telling stall in the middle of the streets?”
“This Prince would call this ‘experiencing the sufferings of the commonfolk by living them.'” Jing Qi crouched at the roadside, biting into half a drumstick and talking in an utterly unmannerly way. “Besides, pretty much everyone here already knows. This little ploy of mine can fool poor commoners, but can it fool those gentlemen that have eyes and ears that connect to the sky? When I went to Court yesterday, I was stopped by the Emperor, and he insisted on making me give him a divination.”
That really seemed like something that old guy would do. “You divined one?” Wu Xi asked.
“What divining? Wouldn’t my nonsense talk be deceiving the monarch?” Having nibbled it so clean that even dogs couldn’t get anything out of it, Jing Qi threw the chicken bone to the side and wiped his mouth. “I said that the Son of Heaven has a holy fate, that fate is a celestial secret, and I’m a wandering immortal whose talent in the Dao isn’t profound enough to divine it.”
…Wasn’t that deceiving the monarch?
Wordless, Wu Xi peered at the sky; it was already nighttime. He was about to tell him to go back, but, all of a sudden, a lone figure was blocking their way in front. Raising his head to look, he saw that it was Crown Prince Helian Yi, followed by an exasperated-looking Zhou Zishu. After being startled for a second, he stood up to cross his arms before his chest and bow to Helian Yi, who waved him off. “No need to be so courteous, Shamanet.”
Jing Qi still used his rotten cane to jab at the guy, though. “I can smell a whiff of wealth. This Sir’s nobleness cannot be described in words. Do you want a divination done? Not charging is forbidden—”
Helian Yi had heard that he was making this kind of limitless trouble and couldn’t stand to see that continue, so he had come to haul him back to prevent him from making a fool of himself. Once he saw that scoundrelly image of his, he got both uncontrollably angry and amused, and flat-out sat down. “I don’t know what this… Lord Seventh can divine?”
“Ah, fated bonds, horoscopes, calamities, minor ailments — this lowly one doesn’t mean to brag, but I have some know-how in all of those. Is it literomancy or palmistry for you, Sir?”
“Literomancy,” Helian Yi replied with a skin-deep smile. Before Jing Qi could react, the other pulled his hand over, then drew the word ‘Jing’ onto his palm.
“That word…” Jing Qi gave a dry laugh. “Well, that word has a lot of meaning. What are you asking about, Sir?”
“A fated bond.”
Jing Qi’s heart jolted, and Wu Xi’s face suddenly cooled down.
 This is the name for a center in modern Beijing, so I’m assuming the same here. It’s also the name for overhead passes/skybridges (天桥), but they didn’t have those in ancient China.
 Look at your palm. The ‘heaven-line’ is the topmost one. Now look closely at that heaven-line. If you see a ‘bubble’ in that line, that’s an ‘island’.
Chapter 43: Meeting to Inquire Once More
Zhou Zishu, who was following behind Helian Yi, took a step back, looking pensively at Wu Xi as he stood beside him, brows lightly furrowed.
Jing Qi was quiet for a long time, still having that sallow complexion and those unmoving eyelids despite his heart flipping around a couple of times. That day in the East Palace, when Helian Yi blurted out those words, which seemed to remain in his ears, prior to his leaving, a slight hint of something different vaguely came through them.
The affairs of life were one big dream. The human world had experienced several bouts of autumn chill, and three hundred years of love and hate had hurtled past. From the beginning to the end, as if happening in the snap of one’s fingers, youthful faces and beautiful hair would both become dried-up bones, warrior’s courage and musician’s essence turning into flying ash.
For sixty-three years, there was an unconventional guest next to the Three-Life Rock. After sixty-three years of hard contemplation, he then realized that there were no characters upon the Rock to begin with. Those alleged several lifetimes of karmic ties; weren’t they laughable?
This world hadn’t changed a bit. It was just fickle.
Jing Qi smiled lightly, closing his palm. “The Explanation of Characters puts the clouds of yun, the bright of jing, and the light of guang together. The sun of ri is associated with it, and the jing of capital sounds like it,” he said, composed. “It’s a good word, but you’ve asked the wrong question, Sir.”
Helian Yi looked at him, eyes sullen. “What have I asked wrong?”
Jing Qi reached out his hand, dipped it into the bit of water in his cracked, coarse porcelain tea cup, and rewrote the character ‘Jing’ onto the table with a slender finger. “The sun rises in the East, daylight sprouting in all directions, and is gradually able to climb the layers and layers of mountains. It misses the Emperor’s head a bit, but the splendorous capital beneath his feet is filled, able to advance yet not retreat. If you ask about this word’s future prospects, Sir, then despite its difficulties and challenges, it will also have sublime affluence.”
Helian Yi chuckled, though there were no laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “And if I… want to ask about a fated bond, instead?” he asked, voice hushed.
Jing Qi shook his head, chuckling back. “This word has no affinity. Were there to be a three-life-long karmic tie for it, it would only be an empty shadow. There was no need to ask, Sir. You’re well aware of this in your heart.”
Helian Yi lowered his head. A long while later, he forced out a smile and stood up. His shoulders and back seemed to be getting pressed down by something, both of them bent. Lifting his head and narrowing his eyes, he looked at the ostentatious signboard of ‘The Divinations of Lord Seventh’, the expression on his face somewhat irrepressibly miserable. “What you’ve said makes sense, Mister…”
That phrase seemed suppressed inside his throat, each and every word spat out like knives slicing his voice up, until he sounded a little hoarse. “It makes sense.”
He suddenly took out an absolutely exquisite pouch out from his lapels, then tossed it into Jing Qi’s broken bowl for receiving divination payments. It bumped against the less-than-half filling of copper coins with a clinking sound. He turned and left in big strides, as if he didn’t dare to even turn his head back around. Zhou Zishu nodded at Jing Qi and Wu Xi, rushing to follow after him.
The smile on Jing Qi’s face seemed to grow right then and there, and it didn’t recede for a very long time. Afterwards, he picked up the pouch and opened it up for a look; inside was not pieces of silver, but a two-cun sized jade hare. There was a hole drilled through its foot from which an ancient bell hung, making a crisp ring when the wind blew.
He held it in hand, observing it, for half the day, then remembered that it was from that pair of jade hares that Helian Pei had given to him when he was a child. He had deliberately gotten someone to put a bell on one, which he had given to Helian Yi. The other one was likely still in his own Estate, together with those old things that had been accumulated over time.
It had already been more than ten years. Grinning, he put the pouch away, then languidly stood up and stretched his back. “That rich guy spent a generous amount, so it’s time to pack up. Li’l Wu, this Lord invites you to go to the stall across from here and eat wontons.” Saying this, he bent down, collected his ostentatiously deceiving kiosk into its worn-out case, and started moving forwards as he bumped his wooden cane against the ground.
After going a few steps, he realized that Wu Xi wasn’t following him. He looked back with his eyes slightly open a crack and a curl on his lips. “Why aren’t you coming? Do you not want to?”
“What did that guy mean just now?” Wu Xi asked. “Was he saying that he likes someone with the surname Jing?”
Jing Qi stood stock-still. Rubbing his nose and thinking that he mustn’t misguide children with messy affairs like these, he replied, “Whether the surname’s ‘Jing’ or ‘He’, it was just a joke making fun of a wealthy Young Master being a wastrel. He was really hoping that he got it right, but he didn’t find me out.”
Wu Xi shook his head. “He wasn’t making fun, he was saying it seriously. I know it.”
“What do you know?” Jing Qi sneered. “You’re a little kid. Studying well is fine and all, but what are you thinking so much for?”
Wu Xi frowned. “I’m not a little kid.”
Jing Qi nodded half-heartedly. “Yeah, yeah, you’re not little, you’re right at the time of your life where your youthful looks are in full bloom and you take neither passion nor woe into account. Hey—” He started mumblingly singing in an imitation of an actor’s intonation, mocking and cracking jokes like nothing at all had happened just then.
Wu Xi remained standing where he was, motionless. “I’m not a little kid,” he insisted.
Jing Qi had since swayed over to the front of the wonton stand, put down his stuff, and begun to strike up a conversation with the owner, too far away to hear what he had said.
There was a vast field of reeds dewed with frost-like white, and a certain someone stood on the other shore, difficult to reach out and touch.
In glory and dust, his native land was a far journey away. Who had the free time to sigh deeply over these sentiments?
Wu Xi suddenly traipsed forward, grabbed Jing Qi’s arm, and looked at him with a cauterizing gaze. “In your heart… has there ever been someone that, whenever you see them, it feels like there’s a flower blooming inside you, and when you don’t see them, you’re restless all the time? But even then, you’re afraid to say it to them, and just feel that you’re unworthy of them? And you think up of all sorts of things on their behalf, refusing to let them have one day of difficulty or one spot of unhappiness even if you died?”
Jing Qi’s hand that was reaching for chopsticks paused. Having seemingly remembered something upon hearing that, he lightly laughed an age later. “Yes.”
Wu Xi jolted, his mouth open with his voice stuck in his throat, neither spitting it out nor swallowing it down. A long time after, he took in a deep breath, then asked in a quiet voice, “What… kind of person are they?”
Two piping-hot bowls of wontons were served, steam assailing their faces. Jing Qi picked up a soy sauce dish from the table and poured some seasoning into his own. “Dead,” he responded casually. “I’ve long since been unable to remember them clearly.”
“If you really had someone, you wouldn’t forget them even if you died. You’re speaking untruthfully again.”
Jing Qi smiled, yet said nothing. Shutting his eyes and lowering his head, he put on a whole slew of affectations in fumbling about to eat the wontons.
The reason why he couldn’t remember clearly wasn’t because the person was dead, but because… his heart was dead.
In Court the next morning, Helian Pei unexpectedly appeared. At departure time, Jing Qi was intentionally made to stay behind, and he called for him to accompany him for tea and xiangqi.
“You little brat, wanting to run off again. What is appealing to you so? Do you not even feel like seeing your Uncle Emperor?”
Jing Qi smiled apologetically. “Ah, how could that be? Am I not… busy with official business?”
Helian Pei lifted his eyes to glare at him. “Busy? You’re entirely busy with setting up a fortune-telling stall in the city’s south, ah?”
“Cough, you see… what’s with the Crown Prince suddenly reporting this subject’s circumstances again?” Jing Qi grumbled with a bitter face. “Is this because his friend extorted him out of a speck of divination money?”
Helian Pei pushed him on the head with a smile. “Troublemaker! When your Father Prince was young, he was a first-rate talent of our capital. How could he have made such a naughty, undisciplined kid as you?!”
“It’s a pity that he passed early,” Jing Qi followed along, “or else you could’ve asked him if he had swaddled the wrong child, right?”
Those words invoked Helian Pei’s nostalgic memories. He looked Jing Qi up and down once. “Mingzhe… has been gone for eight years, yes?” he asked, sorrowful.
“Yes. Answering Your Majesty, it’s been a whole eight years.”
Helian Pei narrowed his eyes as he recalled the past. Somewhat emotional, he extended his hand into the air and made a gesture. “Eight years ago, you were only this tall… such a tiny baby. Now you’ve already grown into an adult.”
Jing Qi remained silent.
Helian Pei sighed once more. “Those old friends that we used to talk, jest, drink, and compose with have mostly passed on now. Watching all of you grow big, we have also grown old.”
“You are right in the middle of the prime of your years, Your Majesty, how can you say that you’re old?” Jing Qi countered immediately. “Father Prince… had poor luck, is all.”
The man kept sighing for a while, dragging Jing Qi into jabbering about those times when he was young, and dripping a couple rounds of tears in the midst of them. Jing Qi was obliged to be beside him and listen, having to contort into an outstandingly sad expression as he accompanied him in his anguish. Really, who made the Emperor extend this topic himself?
He knew that His Majesty was someone of deep feelings, and he still wasn’t allowing anything new towards himself these days, so he took this chance to deliberately bring up past events. He hadn’t expected that this gentleman would get distressed and be unable to put a brake on it.
The tea continued for three or four rounds, and only then did Helian Pei stop, wiping his tears. “When people get old, they love to talk about past things. All you young folks certainly don’t love to hear of them.”
“Why do you say that?” Jing Qi said with a smile. “Father Prince had gone early, when this subject was a child. My impression of him is not profound, and sometimes, whenever I think of him, it even feels fuzzy. The more things you say, the more things are jotted down into my heart, and they will remain in the next life for me to be filial towards him.”
Helian Pei shook his head. “Ah, you…”
Suddenly remembering something, he looked up at Jing Qi. “Beiyuan, with that said, you aren’t little, yes? It ought to be time for you to be concerned about major life events. The day of selection is next month, so Uncle Emperor will decide on a noble and virtuous lady for you among the debutantes. Though, if there’s one you take a liking to, you may say so ahead of time. Old man that I am, I mustn’t be hasty, lest I irritate you into unwillingness.”
Jing Qi raised his head to look at him, somewhat stunned.
Helian Pei clapped him on the shoulder with a happy grin. “You’re not little, and should settle down and establish yourself. What will you end up looking like, when you muck about everywhere, anywhere, and all day long? Wouldn’t it make people laugh?”
The forebear of mucking about was now educating someone else. Jing Qi quickly lowered his head. “What is this you’re saying, Uncle Emperor? Beiyuan still feels young,” he whispered. “It’s… still too early to… to settle down.”
“Hah?” The man glared. “Still too early? Tell me, when would not-early be?”
Coughing drily, Jing Qi racked his brains for half the day until he choked out one phrase. “The… the Xi-Xiongnu haven’t been exterminated yet, how could I think about family?!”
Helian Pei guffawed, nearly rocking back and forth, and once again laughed out tears that had just been wiped away. “The Xiongnu aren’t yet exterminated, so how can you think about family? None of your four limbs work hard, and you can’t distinguish between the five crops. If the Xiongnu actually came, what could you do?”
Jing Qi looked pained. “Your Majesty, you say it like that, b-but… but…”
“But what?” Helian Pei cut him off. “Do you avoid taking a wife because it’ll prevent you from playing wild? It’s time to find someone who’s tremendous enough to manage you — right, speaking of tremendous, there’s that girl from Feng Yuanji’s household whose nickname is Shu’r. You’ve seen her once when you were young. Her dad was loyal to the last for the nation, and we looked upon her with pity, accepting her as an adopted daughter. As it happened, Noble Consort Xian had no heirs, so she’s been raised with her this whole time. Indeed, that girl is a lady who doesn’t concede to men, being fond of dancing with blades and toying with spears ever since she was a child, and animated in personality, you see…”
Jing Qi’s heart thumped. Whilst smiling obediently, he gave Helian Pei’s expression a careful investigation.
Great General Feng’s daughter, the later-titled Princess Jing’an? Whoever married her would pretty much receive the General’s crowd of ambitionless former ranks, which were scattered all over the country. Furthermore, didn’t Noble Consort Xian have that high-powered Grand Preceptor Zhao? He and Lu Renqing had a very close personal relationship. Though the bulk of him was ordinarily hidden from view, what scholarly hanger-on didn’t take him as a superior?
What position did marrying Princess Jing’an give within the Court?
The Princess was a sweetcake, but when it came to him, she was a hand-burning sweet potato.
Was this another testing maneuver, Helian Pei? He let out a breath of relief, taking in another one anew. With a sudden idea in mind, he knelt down with a plop. “Your Majesty, this subject wholly doesn’t dare to follow this order!”
Helian Pei swept his eyes over him. “Why? Is our Princess undeserving of you, Prince?” he questioned mildly.
Jing Qi merely knocked his head against the floor in kowtow, soundless with his teeth gritted. A chunk was bashed off of his forehead, yet he seemed to not feel it at all. Helian Pei’s face morphed. “Enough! What does this look like?!” he bellowed, then laughed coldly. “Since you dislike our Princess, and we are not an incompetent ruler lacking in reason, how could we force you?”
“This subject deserves infinite deaths,” Jing Qi replied, voice low. “May I atone for my sin, Your Majesty, but I have someone else I’ve fallen for. I absolutely do not dare to tarnish the Princess’s clean reputation.”
Helian Pei paused, raising his eyes to look at him. “Which family’s Young Miss has such magical talent as to enrapture our Prince Nan’ning into not even wanting a Princess?”
After being silent for half the day, Jing Qi began slowly. “Answering Your Majesty, Ming Hua is… a man.”
Helian Pei nearly sprayed out the mouthful of tea he was drinking. Witnessing this, Eunuch Xi quickly stepped forward to pat him on the back, and he choked for ages before slowly breathing out. “What did you say?” he questioned, raising his voice.
Jing Qi knelt on the ground without rise, head lowered. “Answering Your Majesty, although Ming Hua is someone from brothel grounds, his heart is not that of a lowly person, and he’s mutually fallen in love with me. We’ve both known it for a long time, I… I…”
As soon as the words ‘brothel grounds’ were said, Helian Pei’s brain exploded. He pointed at Jing Qi with a trembling finger, ‘you’ing for half the day because he forgot words.
“Quell your anger, Your Majesty, it’s only… an affair of passion. Restraining oneself is most difficult,” Jing Qi stopped and started. “Like old willows and purple jade, I just know that it’s a matter of vowing to be with each other in life and death—”
“Scoundrel!” Helian Pei furiously chastised, interrupting him. “There are three ways to be unfilial, and having no descendants is the greatest; do you want no heirs? Do you want to make the first outer-surname Prince title in our Great Qing have its bloodline cut off from now on?!”
Reticent, Jing Qi looked forlorn.
“Jing Beiyuan, you will return to your Estate and be on house arrest, not to come out of it for three months!” Helian Pei raged. “If… if we come to know that you’ve gone off to someplace as ridiculous as a brothel again, w-we’ll break your leg on Mingzhe’s behalf!”
Jing Qi prostrated himself, and Helian Pei suddenly threw his tea cup onto the ground. “Get up and get out! You make us angry just looking at you! Get out, go back, and don’t you dare leave from there!”
Jing Qi stumbled a bit when he stood up, with Eunuch Xi hurriedly ordering Wang Wu to support him, and ended it with a barely-squeezed-out smile. “This subject will obey the decree.” Then, he withdrew with a slight curve to his back. He was a thin person to begin with, and this bow gave his retreating figure an emaciated feeling. Helian Pei watched him, dazed, and couldn’t resist turning his head away.
He walked all the way out of the palace in this dried-wood-god manner, after which he straightened up his spine, a minor smile exposed on his marginally pathetic-looking face.
The Great Qing’s first outer-surname Prince? Might as well cut off those authoritative roots, then, and save that gang of top-seaters the time of being overly suspicious all day long. Three months of house arrest… well, after three months, the Emperor wouldn’t have reason to not be worried anymore.
When the time came, someone would be waiting to make their move.
 From the poem “The Reeds”, author unknown.
 An ancient version of a female talent show, except it consisted purely of noblewomen, and was for the purpose of selecting women to marry into the royal family to one person or another.
Chapter 44: Dispatching Troops for a Condemnation
Prince Nan’ning Jing Beiyuan was typically favored, running amok in the capital with a team of the Emperor plus Crown Prince backing him. The Eldest and Second Scions both deeply hated him for different reasons, but they had no way to apprehend him at any point.
Now, however, he abruptly came under house arrest.
There were secrets all over the place within the depths of the palace, and for that very reason, they would turn into non-secrets; on top of that, Helian Pei had blurted out his inquiry, and the move Jing Qi had made was impromptu, without a painstaking avoidance of taboo. The result was that, in the span of a day, the reason why Prince Nan’ning got a three-month house arrest was pretty much spread throughout the whole Imperial City.
Literally everyone was in an uproar.
In the East Palace, Helian Yi vigorously crushed a cup, the fragments of broken porcelain cutting his regaled hand until it was dripping blood. A couple of young palace maids beside him were terrified, some quickly running out to call for an imperial physician, and another kneeling down, carefully gathering up his hand, then removing the porcelain pieces. Before she had cleaned them, he suddenly flung her away, stood up, and strode outside.
His personal attendant, Yu Kui, happened to be bringing tea in from the outside then, nearly full-on colliding with him, but got pushed away by him. Noticing that his expression was off, Yu Kui didn’t take anything else into consideration as he hurriedly followed him out, repeatedly shouting to him. “Your Highness, Your Highness, where are you going?… You are—”
Helian Yi’s words seemed like they were getting squeezed out from between the cracks in his teeth. “Go… bring people to raid that Yellow Flower or whatever it is for me. Furthermore, that Ming Hua… I want to see what he’s made of. His ambitions are connivingly deviant, to have turned into this seduction of a powerfully-connected, named official of the Dynasty… good. Very good, very good!”
For what reason is something inferior like that perfectly acceptable, while I’m not? A cherishing heart that, for so many years, hasn’t stepped the slightest bit out of line — was it fed entirely to the dogs?
I see you as a treasure, and you reciprocate by letting yourself go like this?
Anxious, Yu Kui rushed up in front of Helian Yi, out of breath, then knelt on the ground with a plop, hugging his leg. “Your Highness, you absolutely must not! Right now, the Prince’s affair is causing a scandal all throughout the city; were you to muster a huge force to arrest one single prostitute at this critical juncture, and word of that got out, what would people say? What would the Emperor think? What would the reputation of the Crown Prince be, too? Y-You’re not thinking of anyone else, nor about our flock of servants in the East Palace, but can you still not think of our Great Qing? You should take your time making decisions on this, Your Highness!”
Helian Yi’s eyes were all red, and he wanted to struggle free, but Yu Kui was hindering him for dear life. He staggered — thinking that there was some blackness before his eyes, he subconsciously reached through the air to grab it. Fortunately, an observant imperial guard nearby noticed that he looked weird, and he promptly came over to support him, disallowing him from collapsing to the ground on-scene.
The Crown Prince, normally slightly smiling when coming across people with neither joy nor anger recognizable on him, had a face white as paper, and with the addition of his hand that was bleeding without cease, he was frightening no matter how one looked at him. Yu Kui frantically stood up, framed by imperial guards on the left and right of him. “Your-Your Highness?! Where’s the physician? Is he dead? Disabled? Why is he still not here?!”
Helian Yi seized his shoulders with all of his strength, eyes opened. Anxiety and fury attacked his heart in that moment, the color of blood in his lips fading all the way to nothing. He spat out a few low words from within his throat. “Arrange for a chariot, and go… to Prince Nan’ning’s Estate.”
It wasn’t a long journey from the palace to the Estate, but he felt like a lifetime had passed. When he had emerged, his mind was blank from rage, but as time passed little by little, he seemed to have a feeling of powerlessness that climbed little by little as well.
He thought of the other’s gradual change from childhood to adulthood. He thought of that pair of vibrant and stained-glass-like, yet bottomless, eyes. He thought of his face smeared with sickly yellow as he grasped a broken cane, a slender finger pointed at the remnant water on the table beside the southern river, telling him in a muted tone that “this word has no affinity.”
It felt like he was rolling on a bed of nails, and he couldn’t say where exactly he hurt.
Do not praise this place as being separate from the world, for it only has Consort Xu‘s half-face of makeup… the realm is to the left, and that man is to the side. Within the human world, there are all sorts of pains from seeking yet not obtaining — from the very beginning, there was no reason that you heavenly, royal descendants would be able to avoid them.
What joy was there… what joy was there in life?
What it was like to have a knife twisted in one’s heart… he now knew.
The ache was awful. He nearly cried, but that wad of melancholic air was felt in his chest, rather like it was going to break it open. It neither went up nor down, getting stuffed up in there like that, where he couldn’t even vent it out.
Year after previous year, several times, he had been heartbroken. Several times, for him. Several times…
He was hardly aware of how he got to the Estate. Somewhat discombobulated, he pushed away the person guarding the entrance, not even waiting for them to give any sort of prior notice as he charged straight in.
All of a sudden, a burst of scintillating sound came through the wind. Helian Yi’s consciousness awoke, and he couldn’t help but pause in his steps. Raising his head for a look, he saw that there was a string of colored silk ribbons hanging from the doorway of Jing Qi’s study. Beneath them was a row of small bells, which split into two segments, a little jade hare hanging from each. As the breeze came, the little bells would sway left and right, bringing the rabbits to bump together from time to time as if they were alive, friendly and frolicking.
The noise of bells and green jade knocking against each other was akin to the music of a pure-hearted immortal. In the span of a seeming second, it strangely made the horribly twisting air in his chest dissipate by more than half.
He stood there dumbly, staring, for half the day, then pointed to the little stringed-together things. “Since when has that been hanging there?”
Ji Xiang, who had been keeping up with him at all speeds the whole journey, quickly answered. “Of that pair of jade hares, one had previously come from the Estate, and the other one was brought back by the Prince out of nowhere from outside. On that day, he had people hang it up there, only saying that it was a present from an old friend; by seeing it often, he would be able to go back to the past, and feel a bit better on the inside, too.”
“Better?” Helian Yi asked, practically sleeptalking. “Is he not doing well?”
Before Ji Xiang had time to speak, someone was heard to interrupt and come in from the side. “The Emperor placed this subject on house arrest for three months. Isn’t that enough to be unwell about?”
Jing Qi appeared from the half-covered study. His hair had not yet been bound, and there was a bloody mark on his forehead — despite this appearance, he was utterly unabashed, as if he had not just been castigated by the Emperor, but instead had just returned from an excursion. Once he caught a glimpse of Helian Yi’s hand that was coated in bloody trails, his expression changed, and he took a few steps forward. “What’s going on, Crown Prince?” He then turned his head to chastise Yu Kui. “Are you dead, or what? Are you even trying at your job?”
Saying so, he carefully bent over, flipped Helian Yi’s palm over, took a careful look at it, then turned to talk to Ji Xiang. “Go fetch the goldsore ointment that Young Master Zhou brought last time, quick!”
Helian Yi laughed coldly. “I’m not dying yet.”
Jing Qi sighed, exasperated. “My dear Highness, who are you getting annoyed with now?” With a turn, Ji Xiang jogged back over while carrying a small box. Jing Qi pulled Helian Yi to sit down at a small stone table in the middle of the courtyard, the latter watching him unblinkingly.
He saw his delicate brows lightly knitted as he leaned over, a sprinkling of his black hair hanging down from behind him. He saw him meticulously clean him up, apply the ointment, and bandage him up. As if feeling no pain, he suddenly reached out to place his other hand on Jing Qi’s shoulder, his fingers touching his neck. He could almost feel his pulse jumping there. Helian Yi thought that, so long as he closed on it and squeezed, this hateful, vile man would never be able to take the reins of his soul again. So long as…
Like he detected something, Jing Qi lifted his head. “What? Does it hurt, Your Highness?” he softly asked.
That countenance being within reach made Helian Yi’s heart jolt, and he automatically released his fingers. He heard Jing Qi sigh. “Why go through this pain anyhow, Your Highness? You can’t be injuring yourself like this when you get angry at whoever,” he said quietly. “In the case that you genuinely displace your muscles or bones, who would be able to compensate for that awful loss?”
Helian Yi was silent for a long time, then smiled wryly. “What does that have to do with you?”
Jing Qi froze, opening his mouth like he wanted to say something, but ultimately only lowered his lashes. Looking at them up close, they were extremely long and seemingly trembling, his expression unspeakably gloomy. Helian Yi raised the hand he had bandaged up, grabbed Jing Qi’s chin, then forced his head up.
Ji Xiang and Yu Kui were both clever people, and gave each other a look. After dismissing the group of surrounding non-working workers, they quietly withdrew to the entrance as well.
Helian Yi’s lips trembled a couple of times, as he momentarily had no idea what he ought to say, merely gazing extremely closely at Jing Qi. The latter sighed again, being the first to speak. “Do you know what this subject and the Emperor talked about, Your Highness?”
The former narrowed his eyes.
“He said… that he would allow me to take Princess Jing’an as a wife.”
Helian Yi’s mood had been going up and down so many times while inside the Prince Estate, it since gotten a nostalgic tang to it. He was startled upon hearing this, already reacting by giving an involuntary cry of “What did you say?”
Jing Qi lowered his voice. “The elder Zheng defeated Duan at Yan. According to the city granted, he waited, waited until the walls were thick enough to overthrow the king… the Princess is to me as the city was to Duan. I am loyal with no place to express so, and it would be better to get rid of the hidden apprehensions in His Majesty’s heart.”
Helian Yi’s eyes were getting wider and wider while he listened to him continue on.
“Now, the legacy of Prince Nan’ning ends with me.”
When subjects were strong, the ruler was then weak. A Prince of a different surname — the first Prince of different surname — had been an ailment in the Emperor’s mind, not allowed to be too close nor too far.
Helian Yi abruptly stood up, remaining silent for a while, then suddenly took Jing Qi into his arms.
A hundred different emotions intersected within him.
The helpless, distraught expression on Jing Qi’s face was discreetly stowed away in a place Helian Yi could not see. He slowly raised his hand and patted him on the back, knowing on the inside that… he could barely force himself to do this much.
Once Helian Yi was seen off, he let out a sigh of relief. He looked up at the darkened sky, then turned back and returned to the study, shutting the door. Someone suddenly walked out from behind the screen.
Zhou Zishu was holding a folding fan with a smile. “You’ve planned for a rainy day with that exhaustive scheme, Prince. Very admirable.”
Jing Qi waved his hand. Without answering him, he sat down at the side, a bit mentally worn out. “I’ll still need to trouble you with Ming Hua, Brother Zishu.”
Zhou Zishu nodded. “That’s only natural, Prince, do be assured. I’ve already made adequate arrangements for Young Master Ming Hua. I definitely won’t let the Crown Prince to do anything in a moment of impulsivity that would dishonor his grace.”
Jing Qi took in a deep breath. “Many thanks to you.”
The emptiness in his heart was indescribable. It was simply that that was once the one greatest to him in both life and death, once the one he relentlessly kept in mind beside the Bridge of Helplessness, underneath the Yellow Springs. Nowadays, he had to excavate his mind like this to calculate the guy’s anger and joy, or his thoughts. He couldn’t resist laughing bitterly. “I don’t even know when this is going to end…”
Zhou Zishu took a mindful measure of Jing Qi’s expression, then suddenly drew a paper out of his lapels and passed it before him. “Speaking of that, this is something that I require an explanation for, Prince.”
Caught off guard, Jing Qi looked up to see that the paper he held was a signed contract, and his face swiftly contorted.
“This commoner is untalented, but a few days prior, I incidentally found a few things out…” Zhou Zishu continued, voice fain, “are you planning to construct a separate manor in some other area, Prince? Your subordinates are truly astute. We went around in one big circle, yet still couldn’t discover the purchaser of these land deeds, and it wasn’t until a bit ago that we could laboriously find out a little. The residences you’ve established in private likely aren’t limited to just this one, right? Is it purely personal capital, or… is it to prepare for the future…?”
Jing Qi shut his eyes, then opened them back up. The look they had showed some vulnerability, along with a smidgen of a plea. He opened his mouth, yet no sound came out, and only his lips were seen to be moving extraordinarily slowly. “Cut me some slack…”
They stared at each other for ages, one sitting and one standing. Zhou Zishu suddenly smiled with some unclear feeling, then hoisted the thin piece of paper up close to the edge of a candle’s flame, watching as it burned bit by bit into ash.
“I owe you one,” Jing Qi said gently.
Zhou Zishu gave a big grin, turning to leave. “When another day comes that we meet by happenstance in the landscape of jianghu, I hope that you’ll grant me a cup of wine to drink, Prince.”
Jing Qi smiled as well. Regardless of whether the other was too far to hear him or not, he yet lowly agreed, “It’s a deal, then.”
He leaned against the chair in relaxation and closed his eyes, feeling a lassitude like all the strength in his body had been sucked dry. He wasn’t sure how long he had been sitting there when he heard Ping An call for him from outside the door. “Master…”
Eyes shut in rest, he didn’t move them at all as he asked back, “What is it?”
“Master, the Shamanet is at the entrance… you’ll go to take a look, yes?”
 AKA jinchuang ointment, one of the few TCM things that actually has some efficacy, as it’s used for treating sores and helps accelerate wound healing. Still, go to a doctor.
Chapter 45: Heart Joyed by Thee
With a downlike sigh, Jing Qi reached up and swiped his face hard before sluggishly standing. “What’s the matter with him now?”
Ping An gazed at him awkwardly, and, not long after, Jing Qi understood why, because Wu Xi not only came doggedly barging in, but his steps staggered so that he narrowly plunged headfirst into his arms.
A suffocating whiff of alcohol attacking his face, Jing Qi frowned. Wu Xi swayed as he strived to grab his sleeve in a want to stand up on his own, his half-open eyes appearing to be out of focus.
Nuahar and Ashinlae were chasing after him, but they stopped in their tracks at almost the same time, looking at each other.
Ashinlae extended his finger to point at Wu Xi, giving Nuahar a guileless and inquiring gaze. Nuahar angrily pushed down his know-nothing hand, then took a step forward to speak. “Prince, the Shamanet seems to have something he’s unhappy about today, and he drank a lot. He didn’t come to stir up trouble for you on purpose at all.”
Jing Qi was propping up a drunkard that was incessantly wobbling, and also incessantly attempting to throw him off to stand up by himself. His head swelled to twice its size. Isn’t this trouble enough…? This guy weighs a lot.
“What’s wrong, now?” he asked distractedly while keeping a hand on Wu Xi.
The latter struggled out of it, pushing it aside while simultaneously using all of his strength to snatch his sleeve. “Don’t help me…” he vaguely mumbled. “I’m standing, I can… can walk… myself…” A lot of Nanjiang Vassa words were mixed in together after that in an incoherent mess, leaving whatever he was muttering unknowable.
Jing Qi couldn’t hold him back even when he was sober, to say further nothing of the other currently having an inebriate’s brute strength. Wu Xi was forcefully grabbing the sleeve of his practically-new robe like he was taking it as a banister, and Jing Qi nearly got dragged down to the point that he couldn’t stand. After withdrawing his own hand, there came a ripping sound, and that sleeve was torn open all the way to his elbow.
Rolling his eyes, Jing Qi thought to himself that this ‘cut-sleeve‘ seriously deserved its name this time around.
The sound of splitting silk scared Ashinlae and Nuahar. Wu Xi’s head also seemed to clear up a bit, the look in his eyes not so disordered. He stared at Jing Qi for a long time before he asked, “B…Beiyuan?”
Jing Qi raised a brow, giving him a skin-deep smile. “It must be hard for your esteemed self to keep remembering me all the time.”
Wu Xi stood in place for half the day, still holding his half-torn off sleeve, and looked at him mutely, as if his consciousness was unable to react. Thinking about how the weather wasn’t warm anymore (and also how one unit staring into each other’s eyes while in a group with other people was inappropriate), Jing Qi pat the other on the face. “Wakey, wakey. Ping An, go to the kitchen and bring a sobering brew for the Shamanet.”
Before he could finish saying that, Wu Xi abruptly grabbed his hand. His intoxicated body temperature was quite high, somewhat scalding his palm. “I won’t drink. Don’t bring,” he heard the drunk cat mumble fuzzily. “I got words to say to you.”
Ashinlae inclined his head to look at Nuahar again, faintly having a vague premonition. The latter glared at him — talk less, don’t ruin it.
“Okay, okay, okay. Let’s go to the study to sit, you can say your words then. I’ll have Ping An fetch things for you―”
“You… you, make them all go out. I don’t need anything fetched…” Wu Xi took a step forwards, and his knees went soft, nearly causing him to prostrate himself on the floor.
Jing Qi rapidly hooked his arm to fasten him by the waist, not sure whether to laugh or cry from this madness. “You still need to wait two months for New Year’s. What are you being so polite for? I haven’t even gotten the red envelopes prepared yet, you know.”
“Make them all leave… all leave!” Wu Xi replied, muddleheaded.
Taking into consideration that this disturbance would need physical labor when his mind had already been turning about without rest for a whole day, Jing Qi thus waved towards the ones surrounding them. “You heard, eh? The Shamanet wants you all to leave.” He then turned to talk to the Ashinlae-Nuahar pair. “If you don’t feel at ease, find a place to rest in now ― Ping An, get the kitchen to prepare sobering soup.”
“I said I won’t―”
“Yes, yes, yes, you won’t drink. I’m going to drink it myself, alright?” He took one of Wu Xi’s arms and slung it across his shoulder, his own arm passing beneath his ribs, then helped him into the study to settle onto a chair. By the time he straightened up, the late autumn weather had actually given him a head full of thin sweat.
Wu Xi shrank into the chair, staring at him with a goofy grin.
Jing Qi sighed again. “This is going to be the entirety of what I owe every single one of you… drinking tea is always fine, right?”
Wu Xi huffed lightly out of his nose in apparent response.
“My standard is high, as a matter of fact,” Jing Qi chided as he smiled. “This Lord hasn’t served other people with water yet.”
He turned around, hefted up the teapot to weigh it, picked up a cup, rinsed it, dumped the water onto the floor, poured tea in it anew, tested the temperature with the back of his hand, then turned around again. “Wu―”
This turn scared him; his eyes had been shut in rest just then, and the lighting in the study was dim to begin with, so he had no idea when Wu Xi had soundlessly come up to stand behind him. A pair of pitch-black eyes peered fixedly at him without blinking. His normally somewhat-noticeably pale complexion was even as haggard as a dead man’s; with dark circles under his eyelids and his clothes and hair arranged in a horrible mess, he was the spitting image of one that had crawled out of a graveyard in the middle of the night.
In a moment like that, Jing Qi suddenly felt like he had returned to the netherworld. Once he came back to his senses, he couldn’t resist swatting Wu Xi on the forehead. “What are you standing up for all of a sudden? A more timid person would’ve been half-dead from you scaring them.” He then stuffed the tea cup into his hand. “Drink.”
Wu Xi obediently accepted it, tilted his head back, and drank it down in one gulp, though his gaze didn’t stray from Jing Qi’s face for even a moment. Once he was done, he was still aware enough to place the cup onto the table. All the hairs on Jing Qi’s body were made to stand up due to his staring. Knowing that drunkards had no sort of rationality, he smiled to coax him. “There’s a small bed behind the screen. Go lie down on it for a bit and call for someone when you sober up. What was so terrible that you drank so much wine down over it? Go, go lay down. I’ll call you when the sobering soup comes in a bit, okay?”
Jing Qi shook his head, exercising patience. “Tell me, then; what’s wrong?”
“The Emperor said he was closing you off.”
He wasn’t sure whether the power of the alcohol had come over him completely, or had waned slightly, but his tongue wasn’t as big as it just had been, his words were more succinct, and his expression was straight-browed and blank-eyed. A bit uncomprehending as to what he meant, Jing Qi consequently replied half-heartedly, “It’s only three months. After the New years, it’ll be almost―”
Before he could finish, Wu Xi cut him off. “Because you said you wanted to take a man as a wife.”
…Why did even this guy know about that?
Jing Qi began to suspect that, were he to be let go after three months, that every single citizen all over the capital would know that the Great Qing had produced itself a Prince that was fond of setting up fortune-telling stalls and visiting whorehouses. His smile went stiff automatically. “Uh… I made him mad on purpose,” he said, a bit embarrassed. “Besides, he’s eager for my bloodline to get cut off as soon as possible, so he was pretty relieved…”
Wu Xi’s mind likely wasn’t working too well; it wasn’t clear if he heard him or not, as he simply repeated himself. “You’re going to wed a man. Nuahar told me that the one you talked about was a man.”
Jing Qi gave a dry laugh. “I didn’t say I was going to wed him.”
Wu Xi wobbled, then misstepped. Before Jing Qi could help him, he stood again, and laughed bizarrely a couple of times. “You said… you like…”
Wu Xi didn’t talk much in general, and his cadence was mostly deep and low, but the laughter he emitted was a little like the shrieking of an owl. Hearing it made even Jing Qi feel a bit wary, and he mentally said to himself that he had never met such a hard-to-please child as this before. When he eyed him swaying without any wind once again, he reached out to tug him by the elbow. “You’re not putting proper attention to your studies. Where did you hear such shameful words from? And―”
He didn’t get to the end of his words before Wu Xi suddenly clasped his wrist. He jerked, subconsciously turning his body and bending his own elbow, then bumped into the shanzhong acupoint on the other’s chest. Out of fear of injuring him, he didn’t dare to use too much force, simply giving it a gentle tap that compelled him to let him go with a muffled grunt. Once he rescinded his strength, he took a look; his wrist already had a red ring around it from Wu Xi’s grip.
Jing Qi shook his head, having realized that dealing with this drunk alone was a bit challenging. Right as he opened his mouth to call for someone, Wu Xi caught him off guard by abruptly throwing himself at him, his entire person ramming into him. It made him take three or four steps backwards in succession, then knock the side of his back on a corner of the desk, the pain making him lightly hiss. “You’re a…”
Wu Xi hugged him tightly with both arms, his chin pressed down onto his shoulder. Half of his body weight was entirely hung upon Jing Qi’s, and his arms slowly shifted downwards until they just-so-happened to affix to the area that he had recently made run into the desk corner. Jing Qi didn’t need to see it to know that it had definitely turned green, and he couldn’t help but push him away while cussing him out. “You’re a bastard! Did you eat iron balls growing up or what— sst, let go!”
Wu Xi held him all the more tightly, however, whispering into his ear almost inaudibly. “I’m going to kill him…”
Jing Qi was shocked. “What did you say?”
Wu Xi laughed. It sounded like it was suppressed inside his throat, and it didn’t stop, making his voice hoarse. Yet blended with the sound of weeping, it made goosebumps break out over Jing Qi’s body, who heard him answer in stops and starts. “Whoever you like, is whoever I’ll kill. I… I’m going to take them and go feed them to my snake. Once they’re all nice and dead, you’ll be mine… heh heh heh… you’ll be mine…”
Jing Qi completely forgot to even struggle, then, only feeling his scalp tingling as he was rooted to the spot, like a god of lightning from the highest heaven had struck him.
Unsparingly, Wu Xi continued on. “I want… I want to take you back to Nanjiang. You can’t like anyone else. I’ll treat you really really well. Don’t like anyone else, Beiyuan, don’t like anyone else…”
He sprayed his strongly alcoholic breath onto Jing Qi’s neck. Soon after that, he practically deferred to his instincts, holding him tight in his arms and then frantically, fiercely biting on his neck, the heat of his body seeming to burn. Jing Qi suddenly returned to his senses, forcefully pushing him away.
Wu Xi had been standing somewhat unstably to start with, so his push sent him a good couple of steps back, all the way until he stopped when his back bumped against the study door. His body going limp, he slowly slid down along the wooden boards. His dazed and not-very-sober eyes appeared to be congealing with glimmering tears, but upon a closer look, their rims were dry once more, merely reflecting the light. That pure-black gaze was filled up with sorrow, as if it would be expressed the instant he shut his eyes.
He kept calling out “Beiyuan… Beiyuan…”, following which he became unable to brace himself against the chaos in his mind, closing his eyes with his head lolling to the side.
Jing Qi gradually raised his hand to cover the side of his neck that had been bitten into something of a sorry state. His head hurt like a fight was brewing inside it, and his heart was as tangled as a rope.
A long while later, he came forward, bent over, and picked Wu Xi up with some effort, then lightly placed him upon the small resting couch behind the study screen. After pulling up an embroidered blanket to cover him with, he turned and left. He ordered Ping An to get someone to feed the guy a bowl of sobering soup, then got someone to notify Ashinlae and Nuahar that they could return ahead of time. Returning to his room himself, he changed out of his distressed clothes.
The night was calm, its moonlight dissolving; in usual instances, that youth would currently be gradually expressing laughter throughout his looks. The academic yard was quiet; beneath the poplars and willows, that child looked to be quietly focusing on rumination, his brow knitted in perplexion and anxiety, something shallowly buried at the bottom of his heart. At this moment, a burst of autumn wind blew away the settled dust, as if coming alive before one’s eyes.
He only took him as a magnanimous, composed friend. He had never thought that… he actually had thoughts like this, actually had…
There were clouds of deceit and tides of shrewdness within the Court. None of the party wars had ever made him hesitate even a smidgen, yet, because of that boy’s drunken monologue, he lost sleep for half the evening.
Chapter 46: Mountains Collapsing and Ground Splitting
“One of charming words flatters to portray loyalty. One of ingratiating words quotes from scriptures to portray wisdom. One of just words abandons qualms to portray bravery. One of worrying words presents stratagems to garner trust. One of quiet words―”
“Master.” Ping An was obliged to speak up and cut him off. Jing Qi had been holed up in his bedroom all day long, leaning against the headboard as he sat with an old book in his hands. The interior of the room was cozy warm, even making one a bit drowsy, as well. Both of the eyes of young maid waiting in attendance nearby were already about to slide closed. Ping An was standing to the side, neither leaving nor staying.
“I’m not finished talking yet.” Jing Qi didn’t even look up. “Listen carefully, for these tactical methods are interlinked with commercial and operational methods. Someone else made me lecture on this, and I haven’t yet explained it for him to absorb, you know… there is a saying that goes, ‘one who intends to become desirous must first flatter.’ If you decide to take notice of and want to incur the favor of someone, to make them lay down their heart’s defenses, you first must get them what they want. The methodology of flattery lies in moderation. Be shallow, and it makes them feel that you aren’t sincere enough. Be deep, and it makes them feel you’re being excessively meticulous. When you want to achieve being to someone’s liking, scratch their itch, and then you need to―”
“Master, the Shamanet is still outside, waiting to see you.” Noticing that he was intending to go down quite a lengthy speech, Ping An reached the end of his patience, and could only interrupt him again. In the common past, all of these words had been lectured for the Shamanet to hear; he wasn’t sure what was going on today, but the Shamanet had been shut out by his Master, who was unwilling to see him no matter what.
Jing Qi’s speaking voice paused for a bit. “Say that I’m sick, am taking to bed rest, and am not seeing outside guests.”
Ping An couldn’t tell if it was his misperception or what, but he thought that the way his Master said ‘outside guests’ was bitten out with special clarity. “The Shamanet said he would cure it, and that his medical skills are greater than those of the imperial doctors in the royal hospital,” he replied honestly.
Jing Qi threw the book to the side with a bang, his good-looking brows crinkled up into one lump. “Then say that I’m dead,” he said, miffed.
The young maid, whose bobbing head resembled a chicken pecking at rice, immediately woke up, widening her eyes as she looked this way and that. Ping An, like a wronged little wife, measured Jing Qi’s expression, after which he affirmed and headed out.
Jing Qi sat up by his lonesome for a while, then spoke to the maid. “Go to my study and fetch me the gray ledger and northwestern defense plan. After that, you can go on and play.”
The maid wasn’t very old. She affirmed, then came in bringing things not long after, blinking her big eyes expectantly as she looked at him. Once he nodded, she ran out in high spirits.
He furrowed his brow and opened up the plan, barely managing to tamp down his emotions to view it for a spell. Soon after, he picked up a brush and paper from his side table, wrote a letter, then blew it dry. While he was sealing it, there suddenly came a burst of rustling noises from under his bed, and the sable shortly bored its way out with its face and body covered in dust. It stepped on his shoes when it jumped on the bed, stamping out a string of tiny gray footprints.
He picked it up by the scruff and gently tossed it off.
It wobbled, disoriented, on the ground for an interval, then went to climb up again, undaunted. It got glared at by him, and it crouched unmovingly on the ground, its little paws innocently stretched straight up, with its head raised to watch him.
He patted the dust off of the blanket. “I’m occupied with serious matters, got it? Looking at you is annoying ― go play by yourself, don’t bug me.”
The sable wagged its big tail in aggrievance, then ambled over to the corner and shrank up into a ball, awfully heartbroken.
At this moment, Ping An pushed open the door and came in once more. At a glance, he could tell that Jing Qi’s expression was poor, so he pursed his lips and stood trembling at the entrance without walking fully in. “Master, he says that if you’re alive, he wants to see you, and if you’re dead, he wants to see your corpse…”
Jing Qi huffed. “Why’s he being such a filial son? Go and tell him that he is unneeded for collecting my corpse when I die.”
Ping An looked outside. “With how you’re talking, you got into some sort of dispute with him, yes? You’ve been quarreling since daybreak ’til now, and it’s already noon. How massive is this matter that you can’t speak properly to him?”
“Ask less about things you shouldn’t ask about.” Jing Qi coldly swept his eyes over him, handing the blow-dried, sealed letter over to him. “Find a dependable person to bring this to Sir Lu Shen. Deliver it to his hand in person.”
Ping An affirmed, accepted it, took two steps out, then turned his head back around. “Master, you’re giving the Shamanet such a cold shoulder. Are you not worried that he’ll storm right in in a minute?”
“Doesn’t this Lord keep so very many imperial guards around that all work for their food? To say that someone could storm the Prince Nan’ning estate; are you taking this place as a vegetable garden? I said I won’t see him, so I won’t see him. He’s inclined to wait.”
Once he looked up and caught sight of Ping An still stupidly erected at the doorway, he became even more irascible. “You can scram now, too. Stop taking up space in front of my eyes.”
Ping An frowned, slipping quietly out along the base of the wall.
Jing Qi casually picked up a book. After opening it, he looked at it for a long time, not reading even one word. With a fling of the hand, he threw it to the ground, and it coincidentally tumbled over to the sable’s side. The creature vigilantly jumped back, then came up close to sniff it. Jing Qi let out a long sigh, shutting his eyes as he leaned against the headboard.
Likely sensing that it would be unsuitable to stay here for long, the sable consequently hopped out the window. The interior of the whole room had only Jing Qi breathing like so, being exceptionally peaceful.
He knew that Wu Xi drank too much yesterday night, and he also knew that this was quite a bothersome event. He couldn’t fathom how much Wu Xi would be able to remember once he sobered up at dawn, nor could he figure out how to deal with him, so he intended to hide out of extraordinary cowardice. Once Wu Xi got up that morning, he would then conceal himself in his room; the other going back to his own Estate on his own was just fine.
For something so embarrassing, if Wu Xi came to and still remembered it, he ought to be a bit judicious and silently see himself out.
Unfortunately, the Nanjiang Shamanet was not a bit judicious, and was now plainly a dead pig unafraid of getting burned by boiling water. In spite of everything having come out, he didn’t shy nor hide away from it, and he had been waiting outside since daybreak, wanting to see him.
As soon as Jing Qi heard the fracas when he got up, his head immediately swelled to twice its size, and he unthinkingly made Ping An find an excuse to rebuff him. That suggestion of reluctance to see the other party had already been quite obvious, and Wu Xi had always been deemed a perceptive person ― so, he should’ve gone back, right? No one could’ve known that the Prince would once again underestimate the Shamanet’s stubborn donkey temper.
The guy had the presence of a tax collector; he stood straight as a brush, clearly expressing that if Jing Qi wasn’t coming out, then he wasn’t leaving, and absolutely had to be given an explanation.
Watching the sun already climb up the sky, Ji Xiang gently pushed open the door and entered. “Master, shall I send you a meal?”
Jing Qi’s eyes passed over him. First he nodded, then he shook his head. “Forget it. I hadn’t been up for very long just now, and the stuff I had this morning is still pretty stuck in my chest. All of you can go on and eat yourselves, I don’t need any.”
Ji Xiang was aware that he had recently lost his temper while clashing with Ping An, so he didn’t dare to provoke him. Giving a particularly obedient affirmation, he went to withdraw, but was stopped by Jing Qi calling for him. “Go and talk to the Shamanet. Make him go back and not stay around, okay? Once a few days have passed, I’ll have the energy to talk to him again. In any case, the Emperor is presently in the middle of restricting my movements, so it’s improper for me to be seeing guests all the time.”
Not long after Ji Xiang left, there was a commotion in the courtyard. Brows furrowed, Jing Qi couldn’t help but get off the bed and go to stand at an angle next to the window. From his point of view, he happened to be able to see Wu Xi standing at the entrance of the courtyard alone. As if Ji Xiang had said something to him, he suddenly became agitated, and made to barge inside.
The guards had received their orders, blocking his way and disallowing him from coming in. Unable to do anything to help, Ji Xiang was soothing him from the side.
“Beiyuan! Jing Beiyuan!” Wu Xi bellowed. “Come out and talk to me! Since you know everything, what kind of man are you being by hiding away right now?! Come out!”
The guards watching the courtyard were naturally not his match, but, thankfully, he wasn’t planning on injuring them. He took their weapons and tossed them to the side, then struck their acupoints to make them temporarily incapable of free movement.
Ji Xiang wanted to hinder him, yet also didn’t dare to, so he had no other option than to chase after him. “Shamanet! Shamanet!”
No one was obstructing his path, yet Wu Xi hesitated a bit. He stationed in the courtyard for a time, the lines of his face and fists both drawn tight. With his body wrapped in an ensemble of black clothes, he was standing as ramrod straight as a staff, indescribably obstinate. Fixedly, he gazed towards where Jing Qi was.
That tenacious zeal of his… really made Jing Qi’s head hurt.
He could handle other folks, because they all had weak points, and possessed the capacity to spend recklessly on what charmed their eyes. In his life, there were innumerable devious ones, bootlicking ones, reserved ones, nobles, and peasants, yet there hadn’t ever been a child as direct as Wu Xi, who didn’t falter at all, nor turn around in the face of death.
He kneaded the space between his brows. Sighing, walking out, and leaning against the doorframe, he looked at Wu Xi indifferently.
There was a split second where Wu Xi cowered from coming into contact with his gaze, soon after which he straightened his spine back out again.
“You’ve fussed from dawn until now. What’s such a big deal that you can’t talk about it in a few days? The noise is making my head hurt.” Jing Qi was already accustomed to beginning to perform tai chi with his rambling words as soon as he opened his mouth.
Wu Xi stared blankly for a moment. Unable to appreciate even one bit of Jing Qi’s painstaking effort in thinking up a way for both parties to get out of this, he thus came up and said, “I drank myself drunk yesterday, but I remember all the words I had said to you, and they were my thoughts.”
Jing Qi went quiet for a bit. To this day, he was still fairly incapable of adapting to the other’s brand of excessively unrestrained and straightforward speaking. A long time after, he raised his head, expression calm, but didn’t look at Wu Xi again. “Call for everyone to withdraw. You, as well,” he said to Ji Xiang. “What was said today… if one word of it gets out, don’t blame this Prince for becoming hostile and speaking nothing of sentiment.”
From the tone he raised, Ji Xiang knew that this wasn’t in jest. He nimbly purged the scene, then withdrew himself.
Only after organizing his turns of phrase did Jing Qi turn to Wu Xi. “Whatever words were said last night, I will take as having never heard before. You can go on back.”
Wu Xi was anxious. “Words that have been said are said, and you heard them. How could you take them as having never been said?”
“That’s my business,” Jing Qi said softly. “Shamanet, in a friendship, you mustn’t make things hard for me… nor hard for yourself.”
Wu Xi froze in place, forcing himself to talk ages after. “You… don’t like me even a little?”
He never disguised his emotions towards him, and in that moment, the look in his eyes was so dismal, even a blind person could have seen it. Jing Qi suddenly recalled the night before, and how the youth looked as he laid against the door, limp on the ground while he repeatedly called his name. His heart softened, and all sorts of soft and gentle excuses whirled about in one big circle inside his head, yet he ultimately said nothing.
He believed that, after such a long time, he had some internal understanding of what kind of person Wu Xi was. The kid hadn’t been innately born with the chord of tact, being direct and to the point; it would therefore be better to be blunt to him, so as to avoid giving him an unrealistic hope such as this and contrarily leading him to be persistent in his ignorance. In consequence, he nodded. “You shouldn’t have an overactive imagination.”
With that, he turned to go back in the room. Wu Xi gritted his teeth, shouting from behind him. “There will come a day that you’ll be willing to leave with me!”
Jing Qi abruptly turned his head around. “Nanjiang Shamanet, are you openly persuading this Prince to fraternize with a foreign clan?” he replied, pausing between each word.
Wu Xi’s entire body jolted. The rare red on his face immediately waned to nothing. Jing Qi swung his sleeves, turning back around. “Forgive me for not seeing you off further out.”
Wu Xi stared at the tightly shut door for a long time, after which he spoke to the vacant courtyard as if he was talking to himself. “There will come a day.”
There was no answer. It was unclear whether Jing Qi heard him or not.
Following that day, Jing Qi didn’t see Wu Xi anymore. The latter continued to come and sit at the Estate for a time at noon every day. Jing Qi wasn’t seeing guests, and he didn’t charge inside again. Just like how it was when Jing Qi went to the Guangs, he would wait there on the daily for a spate, then return, come wind, rain, or shine.
And yet, Prince Nan’ning’s era of house arrest was not as long as had been imagined. Less than a month later, he was released from it; because there had been an earthquake at Dongping‘s Mount Tai.
Gold supported foliage, throwing Bixia‘s temples into disarray. Jade inspected mud, unseating the Azure Emperor’s seal. The lord of the Five Peaks ― an important site of the imperial cult where nations coexisted, impressive and arcadian ― had toppled.
The Court and the commonfolk were in uproar.
And conspirators in every faction started to use this opportunity to sharpen their blades.
 From the Guiguzi. I can’t find a good (free) translation of it, unfortunately.
 From Peng Sunyi’s “Mount Tai Earthquake Ballad: A Work Overnight in Du Temple”. Ditto… I can’t find English sources on the Azure Emperor, but he was an ancient deity belonging to the Five Emperors, and eventually got assimilated into different names like Fu Xi and Taihao.
Chapter 47: A Worldly Blizzard
Helian Qi had been feeling unhappy recently. Ever since the scourge that was Prince Nan’ning ― Jing Beiyuan ― had come back from the Guangs, he had been unhappy.
In particular, whenever he bumped into him in Court on occasion, the way Jing Qi would peer at him with a fake smile while giving him respectful well-wishes painfully stuffed up his chest.
He hadn’t thought so before, but, thinking back after a reminder from Daoist Li, it seemed like all the very many events that had happened behind the scenes were the doings of this young Prince.
He had previously thought the guy to be decent-looking, which had faintly aroused his libertine heart. Upon seeing him now, though, he felt that there was an enormous shadow behind that pair of beaming, peach-blossom eyes, no matter what. Even his gaze being stuck upon him gave him a sense of unease from the staring.
Su Qingluan had been planted at the Crown Prince’s side, but that hadn’t born fruit ― the woman had apparently been neatly hidden away by his dear little brother, and getting her out for a trip was too difficult. In addition, the Crown Prince apparently only harbored a tiny, recreational inclination in being with her, and he did nothing but say uninspired words, drink alcohol, and listen to songs. Anything of utter importance wouldn’t be spoken of in her, a songstress’s, presence, either.
If Helian Zhao’s power was claimed to be in the South, and the Guangs were controlled by his hand, then Helian Qi’s power was in the Northwest. Beitun Field’s Zhao Zhenshu was someone who would come with a single look, completely unlike a tall tree that attracted wind like Liao Zhendong had been; he never slacked on giving things to his superior each year, and bribed on all levels appropriately.
For all these years, Jiang Zheng and that gang of not-yet-dead things had been steadily watching the northwest, but Zhao Zhenshu was a true talent, and they couldn’t grab a handle on him. For that reason, starting from the year the eldest procured that dancing, demonic cat out of nowhere, Helian Qi got an idea. The Northwest was considered a border area, and its landscape was naturally quite different from the capital’s. Since it also had a few unusual creatures there, he ordered Zhao Zhenshu to smuggle a lot of them over.
He granted them as they came to curry favor with Helian Pei. In those same intervals, he used the opportunity to color his eyes towards Jing Beiyuan.
Daoist Li and Helian Qi discussed that, prior to watching him, the Crown Prince was unremarkable, and their biggest enemy was Helian Zhao. These years, however, the former had grown, his wings looking to be getting more spread out; Lu Shen was young, but had entered the Military Privy Council, and at assembly that summer, He Yunxing, Marquis Jingjie’s son, had also been nominated into the Ministry of War by Helian Zhao.
Helian Zhao had seemingly joined up with the Crown Prince, suffocating Helian Qi a bit from the pressure, and making him always feel surrounded by enemies; his own territorial power was getting nibbled away bit by bit and swallowed down like a whale, too. Even so, Daoist Li claimed that despite those people looking like they had vast influence, it was nothing more than a meaningless pledge between Shu and Wu. In the meantime, though, there was one person that needed to be removed, and that was Prince Nan’ning.
Even the Eldest Scion could be grasped in his palm. For a moment, there was nothing to be done, as no one had made out a crumb of weakness in him for so many years. The depth of how low he lied was plainly visible.
“He’s a slick person, and his skill at scheming is terrifying. Nevertheless, he is not without weakness. You need only to say a set of words in the presence of the Emperor, Second Highness,” Daoist Li conspired with Helian Qi.
“What words?” the other asked.
Daoist Li beckoned him to lean his ear over, speaking lightly. “You need only say to him: ‘All we brothers have grown up. Even little Beiyuan, who had followed the Crown Prince back in the day while calling him big brother every time he opened his mouth, can act on his own. He smoothed such a terrible mess in the Guangs back out, and there was no objection to it all across the civil and military ranks when speaking of it.’ And so on. He will inevitably know what’s going on.”
Sure enough, Helian Pei actually did drift apart from Jing Beiyuan. Helian Qi was briefly unknowing of what he was feeling on the inside.
Luckily, Daoist Li had a genuinely accurate hold on the monarch’s designs ― Jing Beiyuan was a flunky that Helian Pei had set aside for Crown Prince Helian Yi. Now that this ‘chamberlain’ had gotten too precociously wise in his youth, there was a vague feeling that the Crown Prince could no longer steer him, so he inevitably became unsanctioned in the Emperor’s heart.
Sadly, he had excavated his thoughts like so to curry favor for his Father Emperor, yet the other was still single-mindedly plotting for the sake of that fame-angling Helian Yi.
Unpredictably, that Jing Beiyuan was quite intense. In order to pacify the Emperor’s heart, he deliberately labelled himself as a ‘cut-sleeve’, and had now admitted such before the Emperor; he would never take a wife nor sire children in the future, and if he didn’t say so, he would then be deceiving the monarch. Daoist Li couldn’t refrain from being stunned for a very long time, shaking his head and sighing once he was done. “This guy is really…”
When one could not tolerate tolerating someone anymore, they would then scheme against them in a way they hadn’t dared to scheme before. However, Helian Qi didn’t foresee that he would cut off his own family line, so what else could he even scheme?
Shameless people indeed constantly thought that every person in the land was as shameless as them.
Even more unfortunately, Mount Tai had suddenly suffered an earthquake and landslide, putting every level of the Court and society into one mass of chaos. The Emperor’s anger was vanished and let go of once this critical event overtook them, and he released Prince Nan’ning from his house arrest. The day after Jing Beiyuan came to Court, an imperial censor’s manifest once again brought up an old matter, seizing the topic of the Northwest’s instability and insinuating that the Spring Market in Beitun Field was unclean.
Before Helian Qi had any time to rage out of shame, the disaster that was Jing Beiyuan tossed out some bad ideas again, saying crap like “why the Eastern Emperor toppled is unclear, Your Majesty should lead all the officials in fasting and praying for blessings” and such.
[T/N: Mt. Tai is in the East, icyww]
In guilty conscience, Helian Pei hastily agreed, proclaiming that there would be a three-month fast; no meat was to be eaten, no illness was to be inquired after, no marriage was to be had, no regard was to be given for criminal law, and no merrymaking was to be had.
Jing Qi was great at smacking a horse’s butt, and happened to jibe with Helian Pei being older, as compared to when the man was younger, he was more liable to respect the supernatural. The Mount Tai earthquake was baffling, and his imperial heart was unsettled; he wasn’t like Helian Qi, where he was obsessed with pills and Daoist techniques, but his health had been getting increasingly worse these years, and he feared old age and death. Had Jing Qi not said anything, Helian Pei would express something to that extent anyways, so, with his statement, the man merely felt that it honestly wasn’t easy for a young child to have this level of sincerity.
His previous spot of hard feelings also subsequently went away. Seeing how Jing Qi had gotten a lot noticeably thinner over this one month, both his cheeks looking like they were getting slightly concave, some compassion and affection was born within him, and he felt that the kid was like Mingzhe way back when: an infatuated and passionate person. It was said that the wise would inevitably be hurt, and deep feelings would not last, which Jing Lianyu had already set a precedent for. This child was of the same inclination, making him feel that his previous suspicion was somewhat excessive, as well as somewhat apologetic to him, and his mien was pleasant towards him.
Helian Qi observed at the side. Thinking about how this and that wasn’t being allowed for three months, and that all his days were going to be spent with no taste in his mouth, his mood got ever more worse. Following Court’s end, he didn’t return to his Estate, but directly brought a couple of attendants with him to an extremely remote location in the northwest of the capital. He entered the alleys, and after turning a couple of bends, he arrived at an ordinary little residence, after which he discarded his servants and walked in alone.
In a short time, an awfully beautiful youth came out from inside to welcome him, pouncing headfirst into his embrace and attaching to him coquettishly. “You haven’t come to see me in some days, Your Highness.”
Helian Qi gathered him in his arms, reaching into the other’s lapels. Snow fell from the sky, cold wind coming in bursts; his ice-cold hand extending into the boy’s clothes made the latter jolt from the chill, then giggle and shrink into his hold. “You really don’t know how to cherish treasures.”
Helian Qi chuckled, rubbing him up and down. Only after making the teen pant faintly over and over again did he release him, quite a bit proud of himself, and smacked him lightly on the ass. “Little slut, getting loose like this after not seeing men for a couple of days. Has the one I gave you a few days ago been trained properly for your Lord?”
The pretty boy gave a bit of a ‘pouty’ flavor as he glared at him, the look in his eyes no different than that of a girl’s. “You never think about us old ones and only keep your new flames in mind. What’s so great about that little mute?”
These good-looking kids that Helian Qi was fond of keeping would fight each other for his attention. Upon hearing him grumble in discontent, he didn’t get angry, and snatched the youth over, pinching him hard on the chest. The teen let out a soft cry. The moan coming out of his mouth got blocked off, and all he heard was Helian Qi laughing next to his ear. “Don’t get mad at me. Wash yourself up at night and wait in your room. It’ll be your perk.”
Only then did the boy get himself out of his arms, happily leading the way in front.
The weather was all the more overcast. The first blanket of snow began to fall.
Helian Qi was unaware that, at the mouth of a street two lanes away from him, there was a run-down carriage that had been parked there for ages. Someone inside it gave an order, and the coachman cracked his whip, driving it away.
There was a stove making tiny flames inside it, but it was still cold. Jing Qi stretched out his legs, relaxedly leaning against the cushions. Slightly lifting the carriage curtain, he peered at the dark sky and increasingly heavier snowfall, yet remained silent. The one sitting beside him was in the middle of warming wine, its fragrance suffusing outward, as if it were delving deep into one’s heart.
That was Zhou Zishu.
Noticing that he hadn’t said anything for a long while, he gently asked him, “What is it? Do you think I’ve made a mistake, Prince?”
Jing Qi’s face was indifferent, but the color of his glass-like eyes appeared to deepen a bit, answering what he heard like he was sleeptalking. “Many acts of injustice will bring ruin to oneself… Zishu, are you not afraid of meeting with retribution?”
Zhou Zishu grinned. “Prince, you believe in that supernatural stuff?”
Feeling a bit cold, Jing Qi let the curtain down and gathered his hands into his sleeves. “In my life, I don’t believe in anything but the supernatural.”
Zhou Zishu poured the warmed wine into two small cups, passing one over to Jing Qi first. “Here you are, Prince.”
Jing Qi took it, placed it under his nose, and lightly sniffed. Eyes hooded, his handsome profile was encircled by dim light, like it was made of porcelain.
Zhou Zishu took a shallow sip like he was living it up, enjoyment all across his face. “Alcohol is banned during a fast. Today is our last drink. Tch, you flapping your lips in the throne room made us drunks of all sizes suffer.”
The smile on Zhou Zishu’s face paused. “Be at ease, Prince. I confiscated everything off of Young Lord Zhang, searched him over a good couple of times, switched out his clothes inside and out, and gave him a muting drug so that he can’t talk for three months,” he said, grave. “It was done in absolute secret, so even he himself is in a haze about it. No matter how one looks at it, this is Helian Qi drooling over another’s charms and being in a rush to snatch them back to his place, not bringing anyone else to mind at all…” He picked up the corner of his thin mouth. “Once this is all over, I’ll guarantee that Young Lord Zhang will cut his own life short, of course. When the time comes, the dead will give no testimony, and it’ll be all the better.”
Zhou Zishu privately came out to this meeting with Jing Qi wearing no mask, his original appearance exposed. The outline of his features was distinct and profound, and his nose was tall and straight; he could be described as handsome, despite those abnormally thin lips. There was a saying that people with thin lips had thin emotions; decent at origin, they were the utmost of clear-headed, and the utmost of unfeeling, in the world.
What a shame that Liang Jiuxiao, the fool boy, believed with all his heart that his eldest sect-brother was a figure of indomitable-esque will and noble-like character.
Jing Qi sighed. “Zhang Tingyu, son of Zhang Jin, Provincial Coordinator of Gansu. He’s isolated in the capital, and his family background is all the talent he has. I’m not acquainted with him, but I know that he’s a bit mediocre in other aspects, and his prospects for the future can’t be weighed. Is… is destroying him for no reason like this not moving your conscience in the least?”
Zhou Zishu smiled. “No reason? Those words can’t be used like that. What good deeds has Zhang Jin done with Zhao Zhenshu these years? With a father like that, Littlest Master Zhang dying isn’t an injustice. His old man is Helian Qi’s lackey, and I delivered him to Helian Qi’s rear courtyard. Isn’t that just a son continuing his father’s legacy? Besides…” He lowered his voice, looking at Jing Qi. “If I truly did handle this in a way that violated Heaven’s law, would you be able to look on blankly and only admonish me a bit in private like so, Prince?”
In just a few words, he specifically implicated Jing Qi in this, as well.
Jing Qi abruptly realized that he had nothing to say. He drew back the corner of his mouth with some weariness. At this moment, the carriage stopped, and the driver quietly spoke up from outside it. “Manor Lord, the Prince’s coach is up ahead.”
Jing Qi downed the wine in one gulp, setting the cup down. “Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. I can’t denounce you on anything, either. Zishu, as a friend, I’ll give you a bit of advice; perform less immoral acts, and take care to repent in the future.”
With that, he tunneled out of the carriage, and left without turning back.
“Immoral acts?” Zhou Zishu smiled and shook his head, then poured himself a glass. Once he drank it up on his own, he shortly knocked on the coach door and ordered, “The Prince is gone, so we’re going back, too.”
If one wanted to accomplish first-rate deeds, they had to be first-rate cruel — cruel towards others, and even crueler towards themself…
Immoral? How many people in the world were moral, really?
Jing Qi rode back to the Estate in the heavy snow. Unexpectedly, once he pushed open the gate, there was a snowperson presently waiting for him in the courtyard. Wu Xi was standing there, flanked by Ping An and several servants that were holding umbrellas for him. In the continuing wind and snow, however, they blocked nothing, making him quickly turn into a snowman.
Jing Qi was stunned.
Wu Xi nonetheless scrambled to speak first. “I… just noticed today that a shichen passed and you didn’t come back. I came to see you. I was scared something happened…”
Jing Qi’s heart warmed. “You’ve been waiting here, then?” he couldn’t help but ask.
“I came in from the side gate. I wouldn’t cause trouble for you,” Wu Xi said carefully.
Jing Qi pursed his lips, but didn’t know what he ought to say to him, so he had to go glare at Ping An. “Did you grow your eyes to breathe out of, or what? You hung the Shamanet out to dry on such a windy and snowy day? Is this how you treat guests? You’re getting more and more brainless, to have still not brought him to change out his clothes and get him ginger soup from the kitchen.”
Chapter 48: Reconciliation
Looking at him deeply, Wu Xi shook his head. “No need. I’ll leave.”
Jing Qi’s brows lightly scrunched, which Wu Xi noticed. “Don’t frown,” he said softly. “If you don’t want me to, I won’t show up before you much. I—“
Jing Qi sighed, grabbing his wrist. “Come with me.”
First, Wu Xi startled, after which a virtually over-the-moon expression showed on his face. Jing Qi glimpsed so out of the corner of his eyes, and his heart couldn’t help but warm, but he merely turned away and acted like he didn’t see.
Thinking of how an unfeeling person like Zhou Zishu seemed to still be able to scrape his heart for goodness towards his dimwit little sect-brother, his heart had the same feeling. It appeared that whenever an even more dangerous road was pried open from within this dangerous world, one wouldn’t be allowed a moment of rest; for that reason, catching sight of these honest-eyed kids felt unusually emotional, and unusually precious.
They entered the study on their front step, and Ping An was ordered to get someone to come bring two bowls of ginger soup on their back step. Once they were set down, everyone tactfully and quietly withdrew.
Jing Qi threw a dainty handwarmer pot into Wu Xi’s arms, sitting down silently and drinking the soup absently. Between the two of them, Jing Qi would speak frankly, while Wu Xi would listen obediently more in comparison. In consequence, since he wasn’t talking right now, there was a current of awkward, painful, deathly silence spreading out.
He didn’t say anything, and Wu Xi didn’t move. After finishing the brew in a couple of mouthfuls, the latter faintly exhaled a warm breath, watching him intently as he sat there. He recalled how, when he had last seen him, fall wind had just begun to sweep past leaves, yet this time, a blizzard had coated buildings.
Not seeing him one day was akin to being separated for three autumns; this month, for Wu Xi, was akin to gut-wretching agony. Upon seeing him now at last, he felt like every missed look would be a waste, as if he wanted to install him right into his eyes.
Jing Qi’s mind wandered. As soon as he raised his head, he came into contact with that pair of pitch-dark, lonesome eyes. He put the bowl to the side, leaned back, and leisurely crossed one leg over the other, thinking for a time with both hands folded in his lap. “You’re not small anymore,” he said, slowing down his words. “Don’t act willfully.”
Wu Xi shook his head. “I never act willfully. If I did, I wouldn’t wait for you here for a month. If I did, I wouldn’t wait for you for most of last year.”
Jing Qi smiled stiffly. “How old are you now? What do you know? You’ve just got a mouth full of ‘like’ and ‘dislike’… it would be perfectly logical were you to say that a girl from a good family would be going back to Nanjiang to be your Great Witch. What would it look like, if you to get stirred up with a man?”
Wu Xi looked at him placidly. “I’m not a child. I know that I should forget about you and like someone else, but I can’t forget you, and I won’t marry someone else. You want to leave this place later on anyway. Why can’t you leave with me?”
Shocked, Jing Qi shot him a hesitant look. “How do you know I want to leave?”
The other smiled gently. “You said you feared the Crown Prince, and yet you do things on his behalf, knowing his very many secrets. If he assumes being the Emperor in the future, wouldn’t that make you even more afraid? You also told His Majesty that you weren’t going to take a wife. If you hadn’t made plans to leave later, how could you say that so firmly?”
Jing Qi couldn’t answer him for a long time, thinking that this tiny toxin was neither simple nor dull, to be able to still be quite astute after making such a scene for half the day. He had detected even his thoughts that had been pushed to the bottom of the box, making him wonder — was he acting too obvious? If even Wu Xi could see it, what would others think? If there actually came a day that he needed to disengage, wouldn’t there be a massive hassle…? Out of habit, his thoughts floated off to other matters.
Some people were born to live a life like this of back and forth calculation. Outsiders would feel his past-and-present deliberation tiresome, yet could scarcely imagine that his deliberation defect had already grown deep-rooted, and that he was as used to doing it as others were used to eating and drinking.
As his attention was wandering, by the time he reacted, Wu Xi had since come to stand straight before him. The youth was looking at him with some captivation. “Beiyuan…”
Jing Qi blinked.
“I really missed you,” Wu Xi said, voice low. “It felt in my heart… like I haven’t seen you for a lifetime. Can I hug you?”
Jing Qi widened his eyes slightly, watching him in silence.
Wu Xi waited for a bit. Seeing that he wasn’t responding, the hopefulness on his face cooled down piece by piece. A long while after, his hands were hanging down, and though he had no particularly visible heartbroken expression, his eyes were looking at the ground. The corners of his mouth tried to curve up, but the arc wasn’t great, and it turned into a fairly lopsided, failed grin. He pursed his lips, wanting to try again, then squeezed a smile out.
Jing Qi, in all his several lifetimes, had never been treated this carefully before. A bit of a peculiar emotion arose in his heart all of a sudden, slightly bizarre, and slightly uncomfortable; back in the time he was together with Helian Yi, their relationship was mostly equal in private. At the start, feeling that he, a several-centuries-old elder man, was getting coveted after like a lady by a young man, he was indeed a bit angered on the inside — yet this kid always had the ability to make him soften his heart over and over again.
That initial, meager resentment gradually quelled, and now, he was more along the lines of dearly touched.
He mentally mocked himself for being so old. If he was this softhearted a couple hundred years ago, he would have long been dead with nothing left behind. That in mind, he stood up, drew Wu Xi’s shoulders in, and hugged the teen that was apparently a bit taller than him, gently patting his back like he was comforting a child.
Wu Xi, however, seemed to have a full-body shudder. Once he snapped out of it, he buried his whole face into Jing Qi’s shoulder, and said kind of incoherent things into his ear. “I… I actually wanted to hold you in my arms as soon as I saw you, but the northwestern wind had been blowing for so long, that I was too cold, and I was afraid of freezing you, heh-heh. Now I’m warm…”
Jing Qi slightly suspected that he was doing this on purpose. How else could each and every word he said specially incite warmth within him?
After a good long time, Wu Xi reluctantly let go of him. “I’ll come find you later. You won’t refuse to see me?” he whispered.
Jing Qi smiled, nodding.
“Then… I said I wanted to bring you back to Nanjiang. Do you agree?” he asked probingly again.
Brow raised, Jing Qi hit him on the shoulder in both annoyance and amusement, then sat down anew, shaking his head. “Don’t ask for a li when you’re giving a cun, brat.”
…Whether he’d be able to live to that point was still an issue, eh.
“Mn,” Wu Xi answered, not especially surprised by that answer. “Explain a book for me this afternoon, then?”
Jing Qi sighed, waving his hand and not bothering to fight anymore. “What do you want to hear?”
Wu Xi gave a big grin.
The fast began. Drinking, singing, and dancing were completely banned. The entire capital looked to be seated inside a depressing atmosphere. After a few days passed with such a dark cloud overhead, a lightning bolt finally struck when it was close to the year’s end, and turmoil came knocking.
Helian Qi had just acquired an untamed, wild beauty; though he was focusing attention on him, due to it being in the middle of a fast, he exercised thorough caution. The three bros were all looking forward to their old man’s premature demise, but they couldn’t express so out in the open; the accusation of being unfilial was one no one could endure, after all.
For that reason, either by human effort or ‘Heaven’s Will’, the ‘beauty’ he was hiding in a little decorated house north of the city, Zhang Tingyu, took advantage of a day the guards were slacking off, and fled.
With the Zhang’s Young Lord gone missing, his family had long been searching like mad, narrowly overturning the whole capital. The perfectly good Young Lord had entered the city for imperial exams, and after going out for a stroll, he had simply vanished, with no one assuming responsibility to return him. Right when all hope was about to be lost, he found his own way back.
He was already no longer human-looking. His legs were almost entirely crippled, and he had crawled all the way there, falling down unconscious beside the entrance. He froze for most of the night before someone found him, and by the time he was lifted inside in a furor, his breaths were coming in, yet not going out. The Zhang family, hopping like ants on a hot pan, called for doctors from all directions, then took great effort in peeling his bloodied clothes off.
At a glance, even a fool would know what had happened to him.
Shortly following, there was blackness before the eyes of Zhang Tingyu’s old steward, and he nearly passed away right then. Only after a long period of pinching acupoints and whatnot did he let out a sluggish breath, throw himself onto Zhang Tingyu, and burst into wails.
Whether out of illness or suffering from hysteria, Zhang Tingyu’s consciousness was already clouded. His black bean-like eyes were open, empty and soulless, and he didn’t react to anyone’s calls; once two shichens passed, they were peering into his oncoming death.
The old Zhang steward had watched him grow up and loved him like his own half-son. After crying until he fainted several times, he would shout one phrase as soon as he opened his mouth: “This is the capital, this is right under the Son of Heaven’s feet — what beast dared to do such a thing?!”
Those words were said no less than three hundred times upside-down and backwards, and the Emperor of Heaven ultimately didn’t turn his back on resolute folks. Young Lord Zhang Tingyu seemed to have reacted a bit, and, as if in a dying flash, grabbed onto the steward’s deadwood-like arm. His mouth opened wide, but no sound came out, and he only mouthed something equivalent to ‘Helian’.
All the others were frightened into silence, leaving the steward by himself to not return to his senses from excessive grief. He held him ardently, old tears winding down his face as he harped on, “Young Lord, if you can’t talk— if you can’t talk, write! Write it!”
Zhang Tingyu reached out a finger, used the extremes of his effort to draw the word ‘two’ onto his palm, and strongly grasped his hand soon after. Eyes wide open, his lips trembled for a long time, then his head listed to the side — he breathed his last, not shutting his eyes even in death.
While Helian Qi was over there hurriedly combing the whole city with beads of sweat on his forehead due to having lost such a person during fasting, Zhou Zishu, who was in the middle of drinking tea at Jing Qi’s place with the Crown Prince and crew, had already received the message. Hearing it, he lightly smiled, and spoke to Helian Yi as he chatted with Lu Shen. “Your Highness, the matter is settled. Wait and see how loyal slave Zhang Jin bites his owner back.”
The news hadn’t yet spread, which was because Helian Qi had no idea that the little toy he had fucked for so long was Zhang Jin’s son; not one member of the Zhang household would be able to get away, otherwise. Zhang Jin had taken ten different concubines, but still hadn’t had even half an heir for so many years. It was with extreme difficultly that he got a son in his old fifties, and that handsome, intelligent individual was as precious to him as life itself.
Lu Shen glanced at Helian Yi, not knowing what was going on, since Zhou Zishu generally didn’t share unpresentable stuff like this with him. Thankfully, despite Lu Shen being an upright person, he wasn’t inflexible. He knew the score when it came to things he wasn’t made to know, and didn’t ask much of them.
The benevolent, honorable Crown Prince Helian Yi was silent for a long time, noiselessly nodding in the end.
Jing Qi was seriously daydreaming, however. Everyone was used to him talking a mental walk from time to time and typically didn’t bother him, but this time, he slightly furrowed his brow, as if he suddenly remembered something. “All of a sudden… I feel like there’s something unresolved.”
Zhou Zishu smiled. “What about this isn’t resolved? Helian Qi is now fearful because he thinks he smells fishy during the fast. There hasn’t been any movement from the Zhang family’s end yet. If there comes a time that Zhang Jin realizes the betrayal, how could he not risk his old life to incriminate the Second Highness on all his actions in the Northwest these many years?”
Jing Qi still thought that this had progressed too quickly. Zhou Zishu and he had originally been the same type of character, being both reliable and ruthless when they set to task, leaving no margin for error; however, he had, in the end, experienced many things, being prone to indecisiveness at times despite being even more dependable. Hearing this, he lowered his head, pondering the matter carefully from its start to its finish.
Helian Yi landed a piece, suddenly opening his mouth. “Zishu, outsiders cannot separate kin. This isn’t so simple. Don’t be lax.”
Zhou Zishu was startled, not at all as clear on the workings of a regent as these two were. “…Cannot separate?”
Jing Qi lifted his head to speak to Helian Yi then. “I still expect that you and Sir Jiang will strike up a hello, Your Highness.”
Helian Yi dropped a playing piece and looked at him.
“The Northwest is a tumor, but if we want to cut it off effectively, it needs to be plotted for slowly. Especially when… implicating people in the capital.”
Once he heard that, Helian Yi understood him implicitly.
They thought about and talked about it here, but, sometimes, human calculations were forever inferior to celestial calculations.
Chapter 49: A Dead End Road
Zhou Zishu always completed tasks tidily, with no room for error. Those who should die died, those who should live lived, and things that shouldn’t get out would not even be known by the dead.
One month passed. While Helian Qi had already forgotten about the Lord Leveret he had been keeping and was starting to look for new pleasures, the northwestern Zhang family had already overturned the heavens.
Once Zhang Jin’s concubine, Zhang Tingyu’s birth mother, heard the news that was brought back, she nearly died. It was with great difficulty that she was brought to life with strong medicine, only for her to take gravely ill and accompany her son not even a few days later. The old steward found a rope and hung himself is his own room the very next day, the body already gone cold by the time others discovered him. Zhang Jin spurted a mouthful of blood more than three chi out, and went terribly mad for over half a month, getting rigidly shaken out of it later by someone’s howling voice saying, “Master, if you die, who will avenge the Young Master?!”
Zhang Jin, while in his dying gasps, came to an understanding. He had no sons or daughters, and was watching helplessly as his familial line was being cut off, with no hope left for it; if he actually died too, the old Zhang family would disappear. He then thought of how he had given the absolute of his effort to that punk, Helian Qi, for the greater part of his lifetime, only to be given such a conclusion. It hadn’t been worth it. It really hadn’t been worth it at all.
For that reason, he no longer wanted to die. With strength gone to his head, he decided to struggle until the net split or the fish died. He could not merely be alone in having his family ruined and its members gone. He had to pull someone down to share his fate of death.
A fruit growing worms was no big matter, but if its core was spoiled, it was then completely inedible.
Zhao Zhenshu had greedily raked in wealth for decades like it was one day, bribing up and down to obtain fealty. He had just one secret: he followed his pockets, not his sky-high, faraway Emperor, and would do anything he could for them in his locality.
On the tough side, he had a division of Vakurah troops under his command, all of which were brutes that ate raw meat and drank blood — whoever had the material assets was whoever they followed to work for, and every single one of them was as robust as a small mountain, and several mortals at once wouldn’t be their match. On the soft side, in the line from the northwestern Spring Market to the capital, all of the merchant caravans, if not suppressed by him, were headed by his people, giving him endless profits in the northwest.
Provincial Governor of Gansu, Zhang Jin, and Zhao Zhenshu were close enough to wear the same pair of pants. The two had been partners in crime for decades, there was no individual distinction between them, and they were as close as a pair of hands or feet, just shy of being extra-charitable bosom friends. In the end, from Helian Qi’s impressive feat of overstepping his bounds, the overthrowing of royalty silently went on under the condition that Zhao Zhenshu had no idea what was going on at all.
Zhang Jin knew that there would be no gain in calling on Zhao Zhenshu for this matter. No matter how good of friends they were, the other was still Helian Qi’s person, and was lead along by who knew how many threads of benefits by the man, a grasshopper tied to the same rope. Furthermore, Zhao Zhenshu had a wife and children, a large family, and a large industry, so he wouldn’t commit to this risk for the sake of their so-called ‘friendship’.
As was said, whores had no feelings, and performers had no morals. This crowd of gentlemen had no feelings and morals, being no lesser than those whores and performers that roamed jianghu and leaned against banisters.
Zhang Jin hid the body of his beloved son inside their icehouse, keeping it a secret and not even having a funeral. He spent three days and nights hustling out all those filthy, reeking, sealed-up things from over the years, ledgers placed to one side and letters to the other. After that, he sat down and wrote a manifest, then prepared a good many portions of rat poison. He left one for himself, as well as one to every concubine he had — he couldn’t make them live the hardship of being widows.
When he finished writing, he pondered over one more thing. For the Emperor to be able to see the manifest when it was sent up, someone in the capital needed to help him out, or it would be unclear whose hands it would ultimately fall into. Over so very many years, the entirety of the connections Sir Zhang had in the capital were people he wanted to go against now, so the first one he thought of was Eldest Scion Helian Zhao.
To outsiders, he only mentioned that he had grown a malignant sore, following which he snuck into the capital to go meet Helian Zhao. Firstly, he put on a display of indiscriminately crying hard over his unfortunate son, and only when he had cried even Helian Zhao’s face green did he bring everything out, giving an explanation for this and that.
As soon as Helian Zhao understood what Zhang Jin meant to do, his eyes went totally blue, and he was more excited than if he had caught sight of a beautiful woman. Before he could state his position, he heard Zhuo Silai cough a couple of times next to him, and managed to tamp down his emotions to get someone to take Zhang Jin away for hospitality. Following that, Zhuo Silai came in close and said to him in a hushed voice, “Your Highness, have you forgotten the lesson given by Jing Beiyuan?”
Helian Zhao was startled. Back then, he had been banging his own drum while Jing Qi used him as a tool. Having loosened his vigilance, he thus allowed that little bastard to get a handle on him, and was unable to free himself from it for many years, ever itching to do something like peel Jing Qi’s skin off of him. Could this Sir Zhang be more of the same?
For that reason, he sat himself down, mulled it over for a short time, then let out a cold laugh. “I won’t stick out this time around, but simply watch the excitement of them biting mouthfuls off each other.”
The following day, Zhang Jin met Helian Zhao again, but he discovered that the Eldest Highness was beginning to trend towards ignoring him or dancing around his words. With the sort of person Zhang Jin was, he understood body language the most, so, once he saw this scenario, he knew that Helian Zhao was going to pull back, and consequently started to covertly think of other connections to be had.
The Crown Prince? No… Zhang Jin knew his own worth in catties and taels. The Crown Prince, in his impression, was an ethics pedant that consumed ancient texts without absorbing them, and had a clique of babbling, sagely rich kids under his command. Him not flaying him for being a ‘corrupt, fawning official with a cushy national job’ would be good enough; hoping for collaboration was an impossibility.
He thought and thought about it, then remembered another person — Jiang Zheng.
That old man had been clear on things for decades. The way he spoke was unpleasant, but since the Emperor kept him around, he clearly knew his stuff on some matters, and rubbed sand in his eyes the least. Zhang Jin hadn’t dealt with him himself, but at this point in time, he nevertheless had to try.
That same evening, he stealthily paid a nighttime visit to Jiang Zheng.
The man didn’t fail his expectations, either. Once he figured things out, he went pale with shock on the spot. The northwest’s privately-stationed Vakurah troops, the Spring Market’s forgery, the official-bandit collusion to mow human lives down like grass, the abuse of the law to sell nobility and officialdom, the rape and humiliation of a serving official’s son during a fast: any one of these would be sufficient to sully the Second Highness for a lifetime.
This was no small affair in the least. Jiang Zheng was stabilizing Zhang Jin in his Estate on one hand and mulling this event over in the other. It took a good couple of days to secretly send people to investigate Zhang Tingyu’s place of imprisonment, where it was declared true — and he really couldn’t sit still.
The day after, he summoned several trustworthy people together to speak over things on the sly, with Lu Shen included among them.
Helian Yi greeted him ahead of time. He didn’t plainly inform him of what Zhou Zishu had done, but Lu Shen had some idea of it, and thus comprehended the whole of the events as soon as he heard Jiang Zheng’s call. Even with he and Zhou Zishu being familiar friends, a layer of cold air scampered across his back. All he thought was that the heart the man had behind his thousand faces was malicious to an immeasurable degree, after which he became a bit worried; if a day came that this guy couldn’t be utilized by the Crown Prince, what would happen, then?
After a flash of mental effort, he bounced back to witness everyone, together with Jiang Zheng, being beyond mad. This gang of old scholars had scolded people their entire lives, the lifelong goal they strived for being to break their heads open on a pillar in the Great Hall. Jiang Zheng was old and stable; at the start, he felt that this matter was too massive, and feared that there were spots of uncertainty in it, but he had a fiery temper at his foundation that couldn’t withstand everyone’s clamor.
What a mob…
Lu Shen shook his head. Recalling Helian Yi’s entrustment, he stood up and spoke to Jiang Zheng. “Sir Jiang, this humble official thinks that this affair should be considered at length, and must not be acted upon hastily.”
Jiang Zheng had always been quite appreciative of Prime Scorer Lu. The young man had talent when talent was needed and knowledge when knowledge was needed, with neither his background nor moral quality able to be nitpicked. He was a smidgen precocious, but it contrarily made everyone else think him steadfast. Upon hearing him speak, he paused, looking like he wanted to hear his case.
“Sir, Mount Tai had an earthquake, and all classes of society are in a panic at present. Recently, the Emperor has been sacrificing to the heavens in sincerity, and diligent in politics for the love of the people even more, both reviewing his own noted faults and rectifying harem affairs, granting amnesty to the realm. Were you to speak out against the Second Highness’s acts at this moment, the Emperor will find it hard to take—”
Before he could finish, he got interrupted by an individual beside him. The interrupter happened to be Jiang Zheng’s son, Jiang Yuqing, who, also by coincidence, had taken the same examination as him. Nowadays, however, Lu Shen was already sitting in the storm of the Court, while Jiang Zheng was still a mere editor in the Hanlin Academy; that notion of negligible schoolmate rapport had also more or less dispersed. He looked mostly like Jiang Zheng, but didn’t have half his presence.
At the time Lu Shen spoke up, he couldn’t resist cutting him off to talk to Jiang Zheng and the rest. “Sir Lu’s words are lacking. Since ancient times, civil officials risking death to criticize the Emperor, and martial officials risking death to fight in wars, are common events. To die for the sake of the country and its people is a death in its proper place. If we’re all yes-men like Sir Lu that dare not to admonish, who will come preside over justice?”
Lu Shen knew the personality of his former classmate, and was disinclined to wrangle with him, looking only at Jiang Zheng. “Speak cautiously, Sir. Strangers cannot separate kin. The heir at His Majesty’s knee can be regarded as frail, and the Second Highness is in the middle of receiving favor. I’m afraid that…”
Had Zhang Jin sought out Jing Qi, the latter definitely would have suppressed this event. Helian Qi naturally had to be involved, but how he would be involved was an issue. He needed to be managed right now, and the best way to do that was to grasp the issue of ‘drinking, partying, and raping a citizen during a fast’; this would be the crime of unfilialness, but it wouldn’t result in death.
The Emperor was currently finding this second of son of his, who procured strange curiosities, pleasing to the eye. To carelessly fasten him with a crime as big as ‘treason’, even if the evidence for it was conclusive, would be impossible for Helian Pei to accept — it was forcing an Emperor to kill his own son. To bring Helian Qi under complete control, this needed to be simmered over a small fire, and with the effort extended over several years, Helian Pei would be made to spurn this son all on his own, and he could be eliminated in a single move.
Governing a large country was like boiling a small fish alive — everything seemed to be in a violent tempest, and there would inevitably be a bit of negligence, but with that bit of negligence, the opposite result would likely come to fruition. Helian Pei could calculate and induce, but he couldn’t reveal any tracks. A monarch’s mentality was something gods and ghosts wouldn’t speak of; it couldn’t be explained nor investigated, else it violated major taboo.
Zhou Zishu didn’t necessarily understand that principle, but Jing Qi and Helian Yi were very clear on it.
Lu Shen patiently conversed with Jiang Zheng and the rest for a good while. When the sun was tilted to the west, Jiang Zheng nodded in endorsement. Lu Shen sighed in relief and returned to his Estate, believing the matter was over with.
Against expectation, on the day after in Court, Jiang Zheng abruptly went back on his word, kowtowed hard, then presented each and every gathered clause of Zhang Jin’s testimony, his own research, and material evidence before Helian Pei, stirring up every single official. Lu Shen looked at the righteous-appearing Jiang Zheng in shock. The latter didn’t avoid it, the utmost of calm on his face; he clearly looked like he possessed the will to die.
Afterwards, one person after the other stood up to support Jiang Zheng.
Thus, the atmosphere was ultimately out-of-control, and the crowd’s emotions were incited. Helian Qi’s face was wretchedly pale, and his knees were as soft as noodles, unable to even get up from his kneel on the ground. Helian Pei nearly went mad as he sat atop the dragon throne, unable to say even a word.
Even He Yunxing, who had just begun hearings, was almost riled up by this ambience. When he about to stand up for reconsideration, Lu Shen thankfully moved quickly to pull him to a stop, and he didn’t count as an emerging head.
Jiang Zheng had been upright his whole life. Unfortunately, he was too upright.
It wasn’t that he had no tact, nor that he didn’t listen to what Lu Shen had said. From rousing this amount of people, he was banking on an Emperor that ruled the nation with humanity, and had never applied punishment to a whole crowd at once.
Jing Qi’s face nonetheless paled.
He raised his head noiselessly, and happened to meet Helian Yi’s gaze. He closed his eyes, quietly saying to him, “This is a rebellion…”
Punishment didn’t apply to a crowd… this, however, was a rebellion, Sir Jiang.
Chapter 50: The Surrounding Army Must Leave an Out
Helian Yi and Jing Qi shot each other crisscrossing looks at flying speed, both quickly getting their own plans. Jing Qi took a step back, playing deaf and dumb and not getting involved, while Helian Yi knelt onto the ground with a plop, taking the lead in making his standpoint known. “Father Emperor is as insightful as a clear mirror; how could second brother do such a thing as this? This serving son is the first to disbelieve it!”
It stood to reason that, under these circumstances and as the heir apparent, it was best for Helian Yi to play deaf and dumb as well — he knew well on the inside that Helian Qi’s vile affairs were all true, and also understood that if he spoke up to aid him in this instance, it would be excessively stupid, and circumvential of the law on behalf of a relative. If he aided Jiang Zheng, though, things would be even more grave; he would obviously be seizing the chance to do away with a dissident, and thus was thinking about eradicating his own brother without even being the Emperor yet.
And they all knew that the one sitting on the throne was poles removed from words like ‘wise ruler’.
Helian Pei didn’t want to hear of a bit of whose son was dead and whose son was alive, nor of who was sneaking funds or who was keeping private troops. Those things were immensely important, of course, and would normally be enough for him to smack the table, stand up, and bellow for a thorough investigation, but there was only one thing remaining in his eyes at present — that Jiang Zheng and his group of not-dead-yet things joined up to force him to punish his own son.
This was compulsion! This was rebellion!
In response to this, Helian Zhao immediately came back to his senses. Knowing that he had been a step slower, he had hidden regret in his heart, but could only follow the Crown Prince in agreement. “Father Emperor, what the Crown Prince said is quite correct. This serving son doesn’t believe this, either. This is no small matter, and I hope that everyone will speak and act cautiously to take our time in making a decision.”
Jiang Zheng was evidently a dead pig that didn’t fear going into boiling water, speaking up in a methodical matter upon hearing this. “Wise Emperor, this subject has Sir Zhang Jin’s personally-written blood letter here, and all sorts of ledgers and contact letters. His Second Highness had detained Young Master Zhang in a small courtyard in the northwest of the capital, which I have already investigated and verified from capturing more than thirty attendants and such. I would not dare to deceive the sovereign. Whether this is true or false can be known from one investigation by the Imperial Clan Court.”
Helian Pei had a rumbling noise in his head straight from the beginning, and it was only after Helian Yi spoke that he lightly tasted the betrayal. He hung his eyelids, looking at his disappointing son, Helian Qi. As soon as he saw how he was, he understood almost everything, and knew that the majority of what Jiang Zheng had said was true. Half of his heart went cold, his qi and blood billowing; he wished that he could push his son back into his mother’s womb and act like he had never been born.
In the blink of an eye, he then noticed that Jiang Zheng and the rest were kneeling, but with extraordinarily straight backs and almighty, motionless expressions. The old Emperor got another idea, coldly thinking: Ah, okay. Today, they compel us to punish a Scion, so tomorrow, they’ll compel us to vacate this throne, yes? Great!
He was silent for a long time before he managed to steady his voice. Knowing that this matter necessitated an explanation, he thus had to stifle his anger. “Come, arrest unfilial son Helian Qi,” he forced out. “We decree… that the Imperial Clan Court investigate.”
Today’s morning Court was swiftly over. After Helian Pei finished speaking, he appeared disinclined to look much at anyone else. Every time he announced that he was withdrawing from Court, he would get up and leave in stride; when he stood up now, his body uncontrollably swayed. Luckily, Eunuch Xi acted quickly and held him up, disallowing the Dynasty’s Son of Heaven from prostrating himself on the ground.
Helian Zhao viewed Helian Yi from a distance, bowed to him compliantly — his intention unclear — and then turned and left. Jing Qi stood to the side, pensive. Helian Yi lightly grabbed him. “We’ll go to your place.”
Their group exited the palace quietly. Jing Qi and Helian Yi were respectively taciturn. Lu Shen was some amount of apprehensive. Only He Yunxing was in the midst of jumping up and down with passion, having quite an air of a newborn calf that wasn’t afraid of tigers, and also wanted the world to burn. It wasn’t until Jing Qi’s head hurt from his hubbub that the former sighed. “Junior Marquis, could you not for a while?”
Only then did He Yunxing realize that he was the only one present that was blindly pumped up. He couldn’t help but be a bit embarrassed, after which he felt it was wrong to be, and thus spoke in full confidence. “You all saw how Helian Qi looked today, too. I think even the Emperor mostly believes it. One who sins cannot live, and he went walking at night too much, finally bumping into an old hanged ghost like Sir Jiang. Isn’t that a good thing?”
Jing Qi glanced at him, very sensibly electing to shut up.
Seeing as absolutely no one was paying him mind, He Yunxing blinked, then thought hard about it for a good spell, followed by him slapping his thigh in enlightenment. “You’re all worried for Sir Jiang, right? As I see it, he hasn’t said a word into people’s ears for so many years, and wouldn’t make life hard for the Emperor over anything trifling just to get arrested then chastised by him. Besides, Helian Qi provoked the anger of the crowd this time around, lots of gentlemen accused him of misconduct, and the Emperor is angry. Can he still deal with so many of them together?”
Helian Yi turned a deaf ear to him, wholly pretending someone like him didn’t exist. Arriving at the Prince Estate, he asked Jing Qi, “In your regard, what is the most serious result of this?”
Jing Qi brought them to sit in the study. At this moment, Ping An snuck over to speak into his ear. “Young Master Zhou has come. The Shamanet is also here, and this servant took him to the garden.”
“Bring Young Master Zhou in,” Jing Qi ordered in a low voice. “The Shamanet… let him entertain himself for now…”
Ping An accepted his orders and left. Jing Qi returned to Helian Yi’s question, muttering out, “Stopping free speech is worse than stopping flowing waters, but faithful advice is ultimately grating on the ear… and those that listen to it are rare. I’m afraid that, since the Emperor has been bitten by a snake, he will overcompensate for it in the future, then truly refuse to be lenient.”
He paused there, and in that moment, even He Yunxing understood his meaning — the Emperor disliked censors to begin with, so, in the case that he was shamed to anger after going through this, there might no longer be speaking censors in Court in the future.
He Yunxing was taken aback. “That… can’t be, right?”
No one said anything, including Zhou Zishu who had just come in, as each of them were ruminating on Jing Qi’s hypothesis. They all knew that this wasn’t an impossibility. Anyone else wouldn’t have done it, but that didn’t mean that their long-lived lord that sealed a bird as a Great General wouldn’t.
A long white later, Helian Yi sighed. “A step forward is a step forward, I guess…”
“This is exceedingly treacherous to Helian Qi,” Jing Qi picked up, “but it isn’t without a route of survival.”
Zhou Zishu was shocked. “Where are you going with this, Prince?”
Jing Qi unconsciously rapped on the table as he carefully explained to him, his enunciation very slow. “Zishu, do you understand what it means to ‘open one side of the net’ when allegedly doing things?”
A person as intelligent as Zhou Zishu went mute for short moment, promptly after which he got a grasp on it — the ‘net’ that came out of his mouth naturally wasn’t referring to nonsense like ‘the Heavens cherishing life’ or whatever, but the particularly-chosen military tactic of ‘a cornered enemy cannot be pressed; the surrounding army must leave an out.’ If an opponent was placed in a mortal position, they would inevitably resist in a desperate struggle. When the time came, it would certainly be easy to sink their boats and make them fight with their backs to the water, but the losses would instead outweigh the gains, as it was also easy for the opponent to go in for making a destructive last stand.
For instance, Helian Qi presently looked absolutely horrible, but the fact that the previously-mentioned long-lived lord, His Majesty, suffered his face getting thrown away in Court couldn’t be forgotten, and the main culprit behind that was Helian Qi. Were the Emperor slated to hate Jiang Zheng to the bone, then, for his second son that had done something like this, his spot of father-son affection was likely also in approaching peril.
If the higher officials compelled him too urgently, however, the Emperor would have quite a sense of crisis, and a sense of crisis related to authority was deadlier than anything else. If his heart flipped over completely, and then he looked at his son’s current sorry state, he likely would not only not spurn him, but also have a subtle feeling of sympathy.
Lu Shen couldn’t resist looking at Helian Yi, who was mumbling to himself, and mentally prostrated all the more towards the Crown Prince; he had come to see through this layer in such a short period of time, then made the prompt decision to stand by Helian Qi, irrespective of right and wrong or black and white. He thereupon opened his mouth to ask, “Your Highness, what should we do now?”
Helian Yi didn’t answer at first, instead asking Jing Qi, “Beiyuan, what do you think?”
Not waiting to formulate a proper response, Jing Qi subconsciously kicked the ball back to him. “This will entirely rely on your decision, Your Highness.”
Helian Yi glared at him. “You’re still a sneaky little… Shenru, send a manifest up tomorrow—“
Upon calling Lu Shen over, he debriefed such and such to him once through.
Once he understood, Lu Shen instantly took his orders and left with He Yunxing, going back to draft a manifest.
Helian Yi sat for a moment. Noticing that Jing Qi and Zhou Zishu both looked to be absent-minded, he also thought that this was boring, and hence remembered that it was still the middle of fasting months. Were he to leave the palace for too long at this critical juncture, it would be easy for people to denounce him, so he brought his guards back with him to the East Palace.
Prior to his departure, he cast Zhou Zishu a glance, who immediately understood, said goodbye to Jing Qi, then caught up with him. Once out of the Prince Estate, Helian Yi gave him a hushed order. “I had him send a manifest up for the purpose of safeguarding Old Jiang. For so many years, there hasn’t been many people that can handle things practically.”
Jiang Zheng had never before mixed in with the business of wresting power from the legitimate son, not relying on several sides. Not understanding what he was going to say, Zhou Zishu had no choice but to nod.
Helian Yi suppressed his voice even lower. “However, if it’s no use, and we’ve exhausted our human resources, then we still need to obey the mandate of heaven…”
He paused, tilting his head to look at Zhou Zishu. Helian Yi didn’t resemble an heir apparent at all, as he looked not awe-inspiring, but bookwormish, cultured, and refined, always having a bit of a smile that made one feel like they were cleansed in a spring wind — but the look in his eyes made Zhou Zishu feel a chill in his heart. “If it’s no use,” he heard him continue, “the blame of slaughtering a loyal subject needs to be carried on Father Emperor’s behalf by my filial second brother.”
Zhou Zishu knew what he meant. “This subordinate understands,” he quietly responded.
They said nothing the whole road.
The incense stick in the Prince Estate’s study noiselessly burned, visibly shortening piece by piece. Jing Qi reclined against the chair, eyes slightly closed and fingers still rapping against the table unconsciously. He could nearly envision what Helian Yi would say to Zhou Zishu in the middle of their journey. Others wouldn’t have heard it, but he understood. The order Helian Yi gave Lu Shen was, on the surface, trying hard to protect Jiang Zheng, yet he knew the reality thoroughly; no one could protect Sir Jiang this time around…
Looked like the Crown Prince had already set his plan. Since Sir Jiang insisted on showing loyalty to the nation to his very end, he would make the fullest use of that.
He was in the middle of being lost in thought. Once he wasn’t paying attention, he suddenly felt two fingers lightly press on his temples. Jumping in fright, he opened his eyes, only to find out that Wu Xi had come in to silently stand behind him at some unknown point in time, and was now rubbing his temples.
Jing Qi felt somewhat ill at ease, thereupon giving him a glossing-over smile. “When did you come in? Why do you make no sound, like a cat?”
Wu Xi hushed him. “Don’t move.”
He rapidly reached out to push him to stop, then massaged several spots on his temples.
Jing Qi hissed, feeling that the areas he pressed on seemed to have a force that was boring into his body, unendingly sore and numb. He went to dodge it, but was held firmly down by Wu Xi. “Focus. Remember what I say.”
Immediately after that, he started to recite a set of simple mantras. Jing Qi had also practiced some amount of martial arts, so, once he heard them, he knew that this set was for arts of exercising qi and resting, and thought it quite novel. Following along his mantra plus the strength of the acupoint massage, he opened his eyes not long after, yet his whole body felt awfully comfortable, more so than if he had woken up from a nap.
Only then did Wu Xi release him, the remnant, crisp fragrance from Jing Qi’s clothes seeming to be on his fingers. The grandeur he had just now from scrupulously giving a lesson suddenly vanished like smoke. Inexplicably getting the feeling that he had taken a small advantage of the other, then fearing that Jing Qi would harbor a grudge, he gave him an explanation while slightly blushing with shame. “You… were thinking too hard. Your qi and blood stagnated. I was just alleviating it for you…”
That pure-hearted, cautious look of his abruptly amused the Prince, whose mind had been in an abominable mess a moment ago. Jing Qi wasn’t sure why, but he couldn’t resist laughing. He’d been extremely good-looking to start with, though his jaw was a bit pointed, he always looked a little thin, and the color of his lips was meagre, which made his appearance seem ill-starred. In this moment, as he laughed, both his eyes and brows curved, and there was a bit more flush to his cheeks.
Wu Xi was right at the age of being young and spirited. Watching him blankly, his brain was an out-of-control mess, and he thought obsessively: He really does look good. What if, in the future, a lot of people like him, and he refuses to leave with me? Then… then I’ll knock him out, tie him up, and bring him back. Once past the miasmatic forest, not even any birds can fly away. I’ll see where he can run to, then.