Chapter 61: The Conspiracy Exposed
Jing Qi didn’t return to his Estate until it was very late. After lying down next to that small mountain stream, he had unwittingly fallen asleep, then woken up a lot more relaxed. Though, once he remembered that he had to go back to the Estate, he immediately started to feel depressed again.
The capital… truly was an oppressive place.
He rode his horse back slowly, starting to ponder the issue of how he was going to accomplish retreating from here.
To stay by Helian Yi’s side was certainly drivel. No matter how many years he had experienced, no matter how much he had already held himself back — he was still him, and Helian Yi was still Helian Yi. When facing that man, Jing Qi would always fall short of avoiding him out of fear, feeling torment every time; but if he didn’t face him, he would ultimately still have him on the mind.
In former days, enmity was there, and affection was there, love and hatred engraved into his soul. Now that he had gotten over it and no longer cared, there was always a remnant sigh left over within him, in tandem with insistently wanting to draw back yet not being allowed to.
If he was going to depart in complete secret while keeping all his parts, he needed a chaotic situation, and the more chaotic, the better, he thought.
Wu Xi followed by his side, watching him in silence. For some reason, he suddenly felt that fortune favored the bold, so he said, “Tell me… if, right before I leave, I secretly kidnap you back to Nanjiang, would Helian Yi want to go to war?”
Jing Qi rolled his eyes. “That won’t work no matter how many times you bring it up.”
Wu Xi laughed. A minute later, he said softly, “I have a way to take you away. Don’t worry.”
Jing Qi smiled, but said nothing, thinking to himself: I haven’t even thought of a way yet. What plan could you have?
“If I return, the Great Qing will inevitably have apprehensions about Nanjiang within three years. I didn’t understand this principle when I was little, but I couldn’t be more clear on it now. When you want something, a white wolf cannot be caught bare-handed; a bargaining chip must be had. At that time, no matter what sort of request I make, the Great Qing’s Emperor will have to ponder it over.”
Jing Qi was stunned upon hearing this, turning his head to take a careful measure of the youth he had watched grow up. That final bit of immaturity on the other’s face had faded completely, and he still didn’t speak or smile the majority of the time. However, as he looked over in this moment, there was a slight smile suspended at the corners of his mouth, the look in his eyes unspeakably tender. Every single one of his motions were no longer those of the insensible, feral child that had made a scene in Court.
An obstinate rock had undergone numerous temperings and smeltings, turning it into beautiful jade.
All of a sudden, Jing Qi had an inexplicable sentiment. It resembled that sort of heart-aching lament, resembled gentle touchingness, resembled… that sense of pride from thinking that he was the one to polish this jade.
He couldn’t help but say, “You’re doing this for—“
“I’m doing this for you, of course,” Wu Xi cut him off, “and I don’t want war.”
Jing Qi burst out laughing. No matter what this kid had turned into, his bluntness still hadn’t changed.
Wu Xi suddenly urged his horse a bit closer to him, then grabbed his arm. “I can do anything for you. You can’t like anyone else,” he said seriously. “I don’t like you going to those brothels, either, or anyone else touching you.” He paused, and then his voice got resentful. “In the Great Qing, I can’t do anything. If this was Nanjiang and someone dared to touch you, I would cut off their hand. If someone dared to look at you too much, I would gouge out their eyes. If someone dared to covet you, I would dig out his heart and throw it into a tree.”
The smile on Jing Qi’s face froze, and he sighed, not knowing how to react. He spurred the horse’s stomach, and it leapt to jog forward… this little toxin always appeared to be pure and good, but was his heart steeped in the red from the crown of a crane?
When he returned to the Estate, Ping An came in close to him and said quietly, “Miss Su s… sent him back.”
Jing Qi had wanted to ask something, but when he looked up, he saw that Ping An’s eyes were red around the rims, and he knew that the ‘him’ that had been sent back was dead. Thus, he sighed softly. “Carry him out and bury him. You can deliberate on how that’s done, don’t let me see… Miss Su sure is honest. Was she wanting to make me inspect the goods?’
The moment he had Ji Xiang go, he knew that his life and death would entirely depend on what he himself chose to say.
In the end, it was what it was…
Hua Yue’s abacus had been ticked well; all she knew was that her Lady was a beautiful human lantern that typically had no big ideas and blindly went with the flow, arranged for viewing and nothing else. She couldn’t be counted on to make up her mind on major events. Watching as Su Qingluan swayed to the Crown Prince’s side like grass at the base of a wall, Hua Yue knew that she wouldn’t act again, and that wouldn’t do.
She plotted that, since Su Qingluan had gotten her to call Ji Xiang over, the other definitely wanted to know more. Ji Xiang would certainly refuse to talk, so she would then have to incite him into it; she thought to use the matter of marrying him as bait to swindle him into coming clean to the Lady.
However, that alone still wouldn’t work. When Su Qingluan knew, her mind would just get even more confused, and even more idealess. If this matter was to be nudged out, a fitting person and a fitting method were needed. That fitting person had to have a close relationship with the Crown Prince’s party, and, at the very least, they couldn’t be someone that would randomly go about killing people to silence them.
After mulling it over, she remembered that one Young Master Zhou that frequently accompanied the Crown Prince, and his little sect-brother.
Ji Xiang had told her a lot of interesting things from inside the Prince Estate; of those mentioned most among them, one was the Shamanet, and one was Liang Jiuxiao. Hua Yue knew that this guy not only had a good relationship with the Prince, but was even much closer to Young Master Zhou. Even the Crown Prince seldom joked around with him, willing to listen to him speak of some tales from jianghu.
What was most important was that he had reportedly hijacked a young lady of the Jiang Estate to go play at the Prince Estate, and had a decent friendship with Jiang Zheng’s family.
Could there ever be a more fitting person under these skies?
Thus, she secretly inquired after Liang Jiuxiao’s whereabouts, and had a younger sister that had come out of her troupe back in the day pass on a letter.
She had believed her own plan to be flawless, yet she didn’t expect… that Su Qingluan would actually want to kill her to keep her quiet.
Hua Yue was only fifteen, a lovely, touching young lady that thought herself to be very clever — and she was genuinely clever, but ultimately too young, as she hadn’t gotten to the age that she would understand the treachery in people’s hearts.
However, it was also precisely because of her youthful ignorance, which caused no one at all to take her tiny thoughts too seriously, that her plan was allowed to half-succeed.
Liang Jiuxiao felt like his soul had been pulled out of his body. He didn’t know how he came out of that place, nor did he know how he left, to the point that he didn’t even have time to hear Su Qingluan order those two people killed.
He was only thinking about how the Crown Prince had personally carried Jiang Xue from Zhou Zishu’s place to the Prince Estate, and that was in order to cajole her into playing. The Prince had liked her at first sight, and nearly accepted her as a goddaughter. Even his sect-brother, in that span of time, would frequently be carrying some candies and toys on him. They all loved that odd little girl so much. How was this possible?
Sir Jiang had been a loyal subject! A loyal subject that the Crown Prince did not hesitate to retreat in order to advance for, calling for Sir Lu to rack his mind for a way to keep him safe by accusing him of mere misconduct!
He suddenly ran like mad. He needed to go back and seek out his sect-brother to ask him for an explanation!
Zhou Zishu was sitting in the study. Seeing him charge in without even saying a hello, he didn’t find it strange, lifted his head a bit, and continued to check the account book he held. “How come you’re so early today?” he asked casually. “That’s rare.”
Liang Jiuxiao stared blankly at him for a minute, suddenly unable to say the words at the edge of his lips. He thus stammered out an affirmation, sat to the side, picked up a cup of tea, and brought it to his mouth.
Zhou Zishu glimpsed that, furrowing his brow. “Call for someone to switch the pot out. That one’s already cold.”
Liang Jiuxiao forced out a smile. “It’s fine, I just ran here in a hurry. I’ll drink it.”
Zhou Zishu put down what he held and looked at him somewhat doubtfully. “Why is your mind not at peace?”
Liang Jiuxiao shifted his line of sight away, not daring to look back at him, and laughed miserably. “It’s nothing, I just… I just caught sight of a fat little girl walking with tanghulu on the wayside, and I thought of…”
Saying so, he lowered his head, yet sneakily examined Zhou Zishu’s expression.
Zhou Zishu sighed. “Jiuxiao, don’t be like this.”
He appeared to have concern on his face, his brows scrunched up, but there was nothing else outside of that. Liang Jiuxiao was abruptly unsure of whether the other’s look was real or fake. This person who cared the most for him, who was closest to him, he no longer understood.
Thinking of Ji Xiang’s words again, he said, “Brother, I’ve… had some trouble sleeping recently. Do you have any incense or medicine that can aid in rest?”
Zhou Zishu had noticed him getting more gaunt as the days went by; no distress or anxiety manifested on his surface, but they weren’t cheapened any. Standing up, he grabbed his wrist, felt his pulse, and looked his complexion over carefully. Thinking that he ought to have some nerve-soothing medicine, he took out a small token from his lapels. “Go to the apothecary and ask for someone to find you some. Make it clear that it’s for your own use. All of the Shamanet’s medicines are great.”
Liang Jiuxiao took his token and headed out.
The one managing the apothecary knew who he was, of course, and when he caught sight of the token in his hand, he solicitously went to find medical materials for him. Arranging a lot of them all about, he presented them one by one, smiling deferentially. “Young Lord Liang, take a look at what sort you’ll want to use. None of them cause harm, and can be used whenever.”
Liang Jiuxiao thought of his experience from that day; all he felt was that the dream he had in the Prince Estate still seemed so lifelike, and he still remembered it after such a long time. “Is there a type… that makes someone have good dreams after it’s taken? I’ve been constantly having nightmares and can’t sleep well.”
The apothecarist was caught off guard, after which he smacked himself on the forehead. “Oi, if you hadn’t said anything, I would’ve forgotten.”
He pulled open a small cabinet, taking a small bottle out of it. “This item is called ‘Dream Stupor’. This humble one has only one bottle here, as it’s extremely rare. I forgot it just then only because it’s a sort of knockout drug with no color or taste, and taking it or inhaling a bit of it can make one lay down unconscious for a long time. The reason why it’s called Dream Stupor is because those who take it will dream of what they think is the happiest thing in their hearts. It’s a truly good item.”
Liang Jiuxiao accepted it dazedly, revealing a smile that was uglier than crying. “So that is…” So it was that the Prince was yet truly a good friend, to have been willing to use something so rare on him.
He took that small bottle of Dream Stupor, and walked out like his soul was missing…
At the end of it all, only he was such a fool. Only such a fool as he was kept in the dark.
He stepped into Zhou Zishu’s study once more, shutting the door with a turn of the hand. “Brother, Sir Jiang’s family… was your doing, right?”
The brush in Zhou Zishu’s hand fell to the ground.
The expression Liang Jiuxiao had was indistinguishable between crying and laughter. He raised up the bottle in his hand. “On the day the Prince let me stay over, he gave me Dream Stupor, right?”
Zhou Zishu opened his mouth, but he was mute, only able to force a smile a long while after. “Have you been possessed? What’s with all this wild imagination?”
“Brother, don’t keep it from me. I want to understand everything,” Liang Jiuxiao replied. “The Second Scion killed Jiang Zheng and got himself imprisoned — who’s the one that benefits from that, in the end? Back in those days of conscientiously guarding the Jiang Estate all the way until he safely left the capital, who was then the least suspicious person? Why did you appear in that ruined temple that night? Even if the Prince sent you a message, you would have been fine with me going out to wherever by myself back then, so why would you instead stubbornly bring people to come look for me on account of a midnight farewell?”
Zhou Zishu’s expression was off. He only listened to Liang Jiuxiao go on. “I’ve finally realized, too, why the Prince was pained every time he carried Jiang Xue and held her hand. He didn’t want to let go, and each time he brought up wanting to accept her as a goddaughter, the Crown Prince would always divert to a different subject.”
…That hadn’t been the Prince wanting to make her his daughter, that was him knowing on the inside what was going to happen! He genuinely liked her! He wanted to protect her life!
“Brother… brother, you…” Liang Jiuxiao’s gaze met with Zhou Zishu’s, and he only felt that his sect-brother’s eyes were as empty as a dead man’s. “How can your heart bear this? What are you all doing this for, anyways? Power? The throne? Glory and wealth? You’re all…” He ultimately couldn’t resist shedding tears, heart aching as if it was being twisted.
Zhou Zishu sat mutely on his chair. This man of a thousand machinations, a hundred changes, and a focused mind was, in that split second, empty-headed, unable to think up even one justifiable reason.
Ages after, Liang Jiuxiao suddenly stood up, wiped his face off, then stared fixedly at Zhou Zishu. “Brother, I can’t hide this! I’m going to tell the world!”
Zhou Zishu snapped out of it then, standing all of a sudden. “What did you say?”
Liang Jiuxiao found himself to be scarily calm. “Brother, you’ve been bewitched by an authority figure and can’t see clearly. The Crown Prince is someone that’s benevolent and virtuous on the surface; one moment, he’s close and indulgent to someone, but the next, he could do… something as vicious as this. You’re all being taken advantage of by him without knowing it! If you keep going on like this, you won’t have a good ending! You need to wake up!”
Zhou Zishu looked ashen. “Do you know what it is that you’re talking about?”
Liang Jiuxiao shook his head. “Brother, isn’t murdering someone to be paid with one’s life, let alone the slaughtering of a loyal devotee?”
Zhou Zishu’s body swayed. “You… you want me to pay with my life?”
“How can you not understand, Brother?” Liang Jiuxiao shouted. “The Crown Prince is just using you! The murderer is him, it’s Helian Yi! He killed Sir Jiang and framed the Second Scion! Such a dishonest, unfilial, heartless, unjust person — up to what point are you going to help him? Until he’s become Emperor? Allowing him to harm our Great Qing’s lands—“
He didn’t keep talking, as he had gotten cut off by a slap from Zhou Zishu. He covered his face, looking at the latter in disbelief. “Brother…”
The one who had cared most about him since he was a child… actually hit him?
The sound from their side immediately attracted the people standing guard at the door, and several shadows noiselessly emerged.
Zhou Zishu squeezed out a couple of words from between the cracks in his teeth: “Take… take him away for me!”
Chapter 62: A Hero of Greatness
Jing Qi’s mood had been awful the whole day. He was awfully fatigued, and slept unsteadily. As soon as he closed his eyes, they would be full of chaotic dreams, in the yang world one minute and the yin world the next. Upon awakening, he only felt dizzy, and couldn’t remember what he had just been dreaming of.
For that reason, he woke up at once from Ping An’s light push.
He squinted as he glanced at the still-dusky sky. Having just woken up, his throat was somewhat relaxed, and his words came out slightly hoarse. “Which shichen is it?”
“It’s at fourth watch(1-3am), Master. Young Master Zhou has come.”
Jing Qi frowned, his mind clearing up before he had even rubbed his eyes. “At this hour? Where is he?”
Ping An paused. “In… the back courtyard.”
While Jing Qi crawled out of bed and had Ping An help him dress, he asked, “What did he go to the back courtyard for?”
“This slave had… the body laid there beforehand.”
In spite of being extraordinarily unwilling to see Ji Xiang’s corpse, he still ended up tidying himself up and rushing to the courtyard. The body was covered in a white cloth, which had a corner of it lifted away. Zhou Zishu was crouched to the side, looking dazed.
Jing Qi had never seen that sort of expression on him before. “What’s… the matter with you?”
Zhou Zishu lifted his head to look at him blankly, then pointed at Ji Xiang. “You brought him along to go to the Guangs, and you didn’t keep him?”
Jing Qi waved his hand, getting Ping An to leave. When only he and Zhou Zishu remained, he gently sighed. “I wanted to keep him, but I couldn’t.”
Zhou Zishu turned his gaze back around, as if he was going to carefully study Ji Xiang’s corpse. “Right. You couldn’t,” he replied absently.
Zhou Zishu fell backwards into a sit on the ground, both his arms propping him up from behind. The long hair at his temples hung down, his face unspeakably listless in the shadows. He inhaled deeply, slumped his shoulders, and forcefully wiped his face with his hand. Jing Qi walked up in front of him, then discovered that the other had a tangle of red veins in his eyes; he hadn’t seen him for just a day, but he had gotten extremely haggard.
“Jiuxiao went out today…” he heard him say, “and ran into a song-selling girl in a restaurant. After giving her some tip money, she gave him this.” Saying so, he took out a wrinkled, worded piece of paper from his sleeve and passed it to him.
Suspicious, Jing Qi took it, and understood with only one look. His face went white immediately, and he suddenly lifted his head. “Where is she?”
“Who?” Zhou Zishu laughed dourly. “You mean the girl at the restaurant? I’ll handle her. Liang Jiuxiao… he… he said murderers pay with their lives. Told me to pay with my life.”
“I didn’t think this through,” Jing Qi answered quietly. Massive wind and giant waves were both coming, but a little girl had unexpectedly overturned the boat, and he had nothing to say at that moment. “This was my mistake, Zishu. Later, if you want to strike or kill anyone, I’ll go along with how you handle things, but for this matter to be dealt with cleanly, absolutely no one else should be allowed to know. Take me to go see him first — get up.”
Zhou Zishu was pulled to a stand by him, swaying, and quietly watched him call for horses and carriages to be prepared, after which he followed him out.
Zhou Zishu’s residence was hidden behind a large fabric shop, its storefront shut up. Passing through a secret door went to a small back courtyard, where a good many plum trees were planted. Once the plum blossoms bloomed in season, their fragrance could spread far and wide. Going even further in, and past a small veranda, there was another courtyard, but it looked much more heavily-guarded.
Zhou Zishu took Jing Qi all the way to the innermost part, then pushed open a small, shabby door in the corner. The doorway had several people guarding it — inside was a sinister-looking holding area.
“I locked him up in there,” Zhou Zishu said expressionlessly.
Jing Qi gave him a glance, then hurriedly followed after the lamp-leading old servant. The internals of the holding area were like a maze, with someone standing watch at every single turn; it seemed more guarded than the Ministry of Justice’s prison. Upon coming to the furthest point, Zhou Zishu stopped in his tracks, refusing to go inside.
Jing Qi looked at the guard, then said to the old servant, “Leave me a key. All of you, please leave for a short moment.”
Once everyone had withdrawn, he walked over and opened the iron door of the cell.
Liang Jiuxiao was shrunk into a corner. The food at the side hadn’t been touched, already gone cold. Noticing Jing Qi come in, he mutely raised his head to look at him, a bizarre smile coming off the corners of his mouth. “Ah, Prince. Many thanks for your hospitality that day.”
Jing Qi walked over to his side without a word, looking down on him from up on high. The face of someone normally elegant and refined had gone cold, seeming to bring about an oppressive force out of thin air. As a result, Liang Jiuxiao moved his eyes away to stare at the corner, speaking stiffly. “Have you come to be a go-between? I actually forgot that, in this slaughter of a loyal subject, you also had a part—”
All of a sudden, Jing Qi reached out and picked him up by the collar, lifting him off the ground, then viciously pushed him against the wall, following which he smashed his fist into his stomach. Liang Jiuxiao was stunned, having not expected him to hit him so readily, and he didn’t avoid him automatically. With a muffled grunt, he bent over, and Jing Qi punched him again on the chin.
There was not a shred of relent in his fist, beating Liang Jiuxiao’s head into dizziness and turning it to the side. Mouth full with the taste of rust, he opened it to spit out a mouthful of bloodied foam, then staggered back a few steps to the side. Seeing that Jing Qi was about to give his other side a supplementary punch, Liang Jiuxiao quickly held up both his arms to block the front of his head.
Jing Qi slowly took back his fist. Liang Jiuxiao waited a long time before he put down the arms he put up, then blankly used his hand to feel his bruised chin. “Liang Jiuxiao, do you know how to write the word ‘conscience’?” he heard Jing Qi say, a pause between each syllable.
He wanted to ask another person this, as well: Ji Xiang, do you know how to write the word ‘conscience’?
Liang Jiuxiao stared blankly for a short moment, then suddenly recalled that after he had endured that slap, Zhou Zishu’s face was pale, and his heart tightened for no reason. Soon after, though, he calmed back down again, chuckling quietly. “Prince, everyone says… that the throne is propped up by the bones of the dead. I had thought that was just the casual babble of wandering entertainers, but I didn’t expect it to be true.”
Jing Qi’s face didn’t fluctuate even a little bit.
Liang Jiuxiao took a deep breath. “I dare ask, then, Prince; where is your conscience?”
“I had a dog eat it,” Jing Qi replied indifferently.
Liang Jiuxiao looked at him, disoriented, then suddenly started laughing, as if he had heard an immense joke. He folded over, only for that laughter to resemble sobs more and more. “You’re… you’re truly the bluntest person under this sky, Prince.”
Jing Qi paid no mind to this mad look of his, only saying softly, “Jiuxiao, imagine that you’re driving a big carriage with about eight people in it, and the horse is panicked while rushing straight towards a cliff. Not even a god could rescue you all. However, at this moment, another fork in the road appears at the side. If you turn onto it, none of those people will have to die.”
Liang Jiuxiao wasn’t sure what he meant, but he still ultimately had some respect towards Jing Qi in his bones. For that reason, he automatically stopped his laughter to listen to the other continue on. “On that road, though, there is a child that won’t have time to dodge. If you turn the carriage around, he will certainly die. What do you do?”
Liang Jiuxiao opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Jing Qi stared dead at him, his words pressing. “Will you make these eight people die, or make the turn?”
The other was mute for a long time. “I… I would prefer to die myself.”
Jing Qi smiled. “You? You dying does nothing.”
Liang Jiuxiao leaned back against the wall of the holding area. Ages after, he slid down along it until his butt hit the floor, head lowered. “I… would turn.”
“Okay, so you’d turn,” Jing Qi flatly picked up. “Let’s say there’s a carriage with eight people in it about to fall off a cliff, but this time, you’re a bystander. Your hip acupoints are stuck and your legs can’t move, so you can only watch helplessly. In that moment, there’s a passerby beside you. You know he’s a good person, but you also know that if you pushed him forward, the mad horse could be stopped, and those people would be saved. Would you push him?”
Liang Jiuxiao raised his head to look at him, his blood running cold. “What?”
Jing Qi nodded. “Well, you just decided to turn and take this person’s life to save the lives of everyone on the carriage. Therefore, this time, you should push him forward, too…”
“What are you talking about?!” Liang Jiuxiao shouted. “How could I, for no good reason, go and… go and kill a good person?!”
A ponderous smile showed on Jing Qi’s face, causing that handsome, gentle countenance that Liang Jiuxiao was used to seeing to shortly turn harsh, and he heard him say, “When you’re driving the carriage and can only choose one path, you turn, using the life of one in exchange for eight lives, and claim that you had no choice. Yet, when you’re told to kill someone, you would rather watch these people die than be willing to dirty your own hands. Good, good, good…” After those three successive ‘good’s, he laughed coldly. “How awe-inspiringly righteous Hero Liang is. How serving of the nation and its people, how lofty and above the crowd.”
With that, he turned and left, as if he disdained to even look at him.
Liang Jiuxiao gazed at his retreating back, sitting on the ground in a daze.
Striding around the corner, Jing Qi caught sight of Zhou Zishu standing there all by his lonesome. He sighed and reached out to pat him on the shoulder. Zhou Zishu smiled bitterly, grabbing his hand. “I’ll… take you out for a drink later,” he said, voice rough.
Jing Qi shook his head. “I owed you.”
“What did this have to do with you, Prince?” Zhou Zishu asked softly. “You aren’t a god. Are you also not a human?”
Jing Qi’s heart jolted, and he laughed painfully a long while after. “I’m human. I just eat human food, though, and don’t really do human things… take care of yourself.”
He quietly departed. No one brought closing the opened cell door to mind. Liang Jiuxiao sat inside for however long, and Zhou Zishu stood outside for however long.
It was only at daybreak of the following day that Liang Jiuxiao shuffled out from within. Upon seeing Zhou Zishu, he didn’t say anything for a long time, finally calling out, “Brother…”
Zhou Zishu shut his eyes. He said nothing, merely opening his arms to gather him up into his embrace.
The human world’s complications couldn’t be deeply pondered. To deeply ponder them was misery.
Those who could dream big and float through life with a pot of unfiltered wine were greatly wise people, and had to have been greatly fortunate, as well.
Liang Jiuxiao seemed to have become taciturn all of a sudden. Everything he had believed had been overthrown in the span of a night, but he had calmed down anyway. Zhou Zishu and Jing Qi both inwardly sighed in relief, but they couldn’t look after him for the moment — something had happened in the Northwest.
A few years prior, Jiang Zheng had put forward to his superior that the Northwestern Spring Market was a cause for concern. Now, Jiang Zheng was dead, as if a jinx had come true.
Zhao Zhenshu and his group had successively fallen off their horses. In former years, all Spring Markets had been organized by him, so when the Market happened this year, the Northwestern Vakurah people abruptly discovered that the officials handling it had entirely switched to a new batch of faces. Not only that, but this batch of people also didn’t know how things worked around there.
The Northwest had just undergone a purge — who would have dared to defy the law at this current critical juncture? Hence, as far as the commoners of the Great Qing were concerned, forcible taxing and levies were to be scarce. As far as the Vakurah were concerned, then, big-ticket secret business deals and income were cut off. The Vakurah’s ambitions were thriving, and, beyond that, an extraordinary person had come to be. He was a leader named Jeshe; in just a short couple of years, very nearly every part of the Northwestern barbarian clans had already been subdued by him. His domain grew bigger and bigger, and his power grew bigger and bigger, so his ambition naturally also grew bigger and bigger.
And, at last, the opportunity for his ambitions to burst out of his chest had arrived.
At the start of this summer, the Northwest had reported the critical situation of mutiny. The Great Qing’s northern defenses, which had been undisturbed for more than a hundred years, suddenly suffered an attack out of the blue. The defending army that was pretty much half-retired to civilian life retreated in defeat step by step, and in the span of a month, nine cities had been successively lost.
Now, the weather had truly changed.
Helian Pei genuinely understood that something had happened this time around, and even attended Court meetings for a couple of days, always patiently sitting on his throne as he listened to civil officials and generals holler the entire meeting into a hideous quarrel of ten million ducks.
Nevertheless, Jing Qi mentally formed an indistinct, different plan.
Chapter 63: Next-Door Neighbor
Other thoughts arose in Jing Qi’s mind for none other than the sole reason of Helian Zhao’s righteously-spoken set of words in Court; first, he lauded Helian Pei’s military and literary skill, then urged this old man of his that couldn’t do goddamn anything to lead his troops into battle in person, putting it under the glorious name of remedying the army’s low morale.
Helian Zhao and Helian Pei one-hundred-percent resembled the concept of striving to accomplish extraordinary feats, actually looking like flesh and blood kin, which was rare. Whether it was Helian Zhao himself or the group of confidants under him, someone had managed to get the hint, resulting in Helian Pei getting flattered into arrogance.
Naturally, there were people that intensely opposed this, stating that precious progeny could not even exist in an area of danger, so how could the Emperor endanger himself? Moreover, Helian Zhao’s intentions were known to everyone on the streets — excluding his old father, Helian Pei.
Helian Pei thus mulled this over. Thinking himself to be very important, he withdrew from Court in order to go talk it over.
The Vakurahs had created trouble in the previous lifetime, too, after which they went to war and got suppressed, purely being the loud sound of wind with very little rain falling. There was a clamor for the greater half of a year, and then everyone respectively went to do what they ought to be doing.
However, Jing Qi was aware that there were some areas of difference. An example was that, compared to his memories, this unrest came to be much earlier, and much more suddenly.
This was why he had no plan of action.
Nine cities successively lost in a month, the Vakurah entering a no-mans-land — that hadn’t ever happened before, either.
The Dynasty was quarreling chaotically, and he was ruminating mentally.
Helian Zhao was clearly wanting to avail himself of the conflict to put his not-dead-yet Father Emperor to death. The next manner of business was, in his view, likely very easy — for instance, once the old Emperor died, he believed that he would grasp some military powers, and those powers would, in the name of pacifying the insurgency, continue to expand, after which he could rebel out in the open.
No matter how tremendous the Crown Prince was, no matter how much backing he received from major Dynasty officials — that flock of old men had skills in lips and minds, but what real power was there?
Real power had to be fought for using real swords and spears.
Helian Zhao had been suppressed down low by the Crown Prince these years due to the latter having a handle on him. Back in the day, if the Guangs affair had been displayed before the old Emperor, his following fate would likely be even more tragic than that of the one that had entered the Imperial Clan Court. But, if the Emperor tactfully moved to the underworld for his retirement, who would then care if he revolted?
The Crown Prince was a dependable person, so he naturally refused to allow such a huge risk, opposing it at all costs.
How old Helian Pei was, and how many catties he weighed, was something only he himself didn’t understand. Everyone knew well that, were he to go out, he probably wouldn’t really be able to return. At the time that no tigers were on the mountain, the lone monkey that was Helian Zhao would be named tyrant, even though there was going to be a mass of chaos. However…
Was wearing down Helian Zhao like that possible?
Jing Qi was somewhat weary of such a life. Even if Helian Yi genuinely succeeded the throne, then disallowed him from departing the capital, he would, at the maximum, not have that open-world freedom, and, at the minimum, wouldn’t be made to return to dreams every midnight anymore, where his head was filled with these vulgar matters of contending for power, making for a peaceful life.
The citizens of the Great Qing also had hope.
Speaking of caution, he dreaded being more overhead than Helian Yi, lest one step caused a branch off into trouble. Having Liang Jiuxiao’s lesson from last time, he almost thought to think through every single person and every single event; yet, the momentum of a foreign race’s iron hooves coming southwards could not be stopped, and the time remaining for him was getting lesser and lesser, the argument in Court getting intenser and intenser.
For several successive days, he would leave morning Court to go to the East Palace, sometimes only coming back at nightfall, and would lie down to sleep on his return, regardless of whether the sky was bright or dark. Good politicians always made plans for the worst, so a day he got tied up was a day that he was situated within a pessimistic mindset.
In a few days’ time, he had gotten thinner. Consequently, Wu Xi, who had been waiting in the Prince Estate everyday to catch him yet everyday was unable to, couldn’t keep watching this, and straight-up asked someone to put a guest room in order, intending on staying put at the Estate. Ping An appeared to be simple and honest, but he was ultimately a bit more reasonable than Ashinlae and Nuahar’s lot. For such a long time, so many things occurred right under his nose, and the Shamanet’s intent was something he intrinsically knew of very clearly.
It was simply that he understood his own role, and the Master’s affairs were never to be interrupted.
Upon seeing him about to arrive at this moment, he took the initiative to tidy up a guest room that was extremely close to Jing Qi’s bedroom, then explained once Jing Qi came back.
Jing Qi waved his hand. All his words having been exhausted from talking in the outside world, he was a bit disinterested in talking upon his return, and simply replied, “Don’t neglect him.”
Ping An then knew that this was his Master tacitly agreeing to the Shamanet’s approach. At the beginning, he felt that the Shamanet’s thoughts were something of a pipe dream; Nanjiang couldn’t possibly be any further away, and it was impossible for him to remain in the Great Qing, since even if he wanted to, the country wouldn’t dare to let him. Also, what sort of person was his Master? Even though he had casually admitted to the Emperor that he was fond of men, and he dawdled in Yellow Flower when he had free time out of fear that others didn’t know that he was behaving improperly, he was still a Prince of the Great Qing. Keeping some gorgeous pets and messing around was fine, but following a foreigner to leave his homeland for somewhere faraway was unreasonable.
Even so, over these several years, Ping An had observed him with a cool eye. At the onset, he thought the Shamanet to be a bit thoughtless, uncommunicative, and thoroughly malicious-feeling when he did things, which was really grotesque. But, slowly, the other had grown — though he still didn’t speak too much to strangers, he had truly been ripened by this foreign land, no longer being that obstinate youth that didn’t know the immensity of the heavens.
The properties Ping An had purchased outside on behalf of the Prince Estate had already gotten quite hefty over the years, and he had extracted the majority of the Estate’s assets outwards without even spirits knowing about it. He was thinking that, if the Prince was truly willing, and truly had the heart to, leaving the capital wasn’t an impossibility.
In any case, the Shamanet was the most reliable person he had ever seen. Whether he was a man or a woman didn’t matter; at the very least, he was someone keeping the Prince company, so he would never be too lonely.
Ping An thought wholeheartedly about Jing Qi. Though he had the capability, his mind didn’t have many twists and turns to it; all he knew was that he was the Prince’s servant, his Master was good, and he was living his life delightfully.
It was still bright outside. Before the hour for dinner to be sent out came, Jing Qi instructed all in the Estate to dine by themselves, and for no one to come bother him. Thus, he hastily tidied himself up and shut his eyes in rest as he laid upon the couch. Right when he was half-asleep, he heard someone speaking in a hushed voice outside the door, and a minute after, that door was pushed open from the outside. He slightly lifted his eyelids to see that it was Wu Xi, and only then did he remember that he was already in the Estate.
He sat up, rubbing his eyes as he smiled. “Is the Shamanet Estate broke, and you’ve come to borrow money?”
Wu Xi voluntarily sat down at the side. “Ping An said that your health was poor recently. I’m here so I can help take care of you.”
The ‘getting taken care of’ Jing Qi didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. “Okay, you can stay then. It just so happens that it’s chaos out there; tell your people not to always be running off outside. You’ll be able to go back to your own territory with a talk’s worth of effort, so don’t grow a new branch out of a knot at this critical juncture.”
Wu Xi nodded. Jing Qi bringing up the matter of his imminent departure gave him an extraordinary amount of words that he wanted to say, but he couldn’t express them. He knew that taking Jing Qi away was unrealistic, and he needed to discuss terms with the Great Qing, as well as wait until he returned to Nanjiang to spread his wings out fully before he could act. For that reason, he wanted to take advantage of the time he was in the capital to see him more.
He sometimes thought himself to be unable to speak well, and unable to incur fondness in people. Before, he had the mind that he needed to slowly pursue Jing Qi, but now, he was afraid that here wasn’t any time left to do that, which was upsetting.
Jing Qi had promised that if he left the capital later on, he would go look for him in Nanjiang; after that day of happiness, though, he felt alarmed once more. He feared that the other might forget, or might come to like someone else in that very long timeframe, and as soon as all the things that followed came to mind, it felt like someone was prodding his heart with a small knife.
However, even with the myriad of thoughts in his mind, he said only one single phrase after firmly composing himself: “Have you eaten anything yet?”
Jing Qi yawned. He had gone to morning Court before daybreak’s light, stood there plotting in a whirl while simultaneously listening to heroes of every path war with their words in Court, then got dragged into the East Palace by the Crown Prince afterwards. Helian Yi wouldn’t go so far as to starve them, but how could anyone still be in the mood to eat right now with all the dark clouds pressing down on the royal capital’s walls?
He had run east and sped west for the whole day, and at this moment, he felt like all his limbs were numb, so he made a half-assed noise. “Mn.”
Ping An spoke up from the doorway, however. “Master quickly had a couple bites of thin congee at dawn, then left. After he came back from a whole day out, he drank half a cup of tea, but didn’t call for dinner to be brought to him.”
Jing Qi laughed. “Why on earth are you defaming your superior again?”
Noticing that he was truly worn-out along with a quite poor complexion, Wu Xi took his pulse. His brows furrowed for an instant, and then he took out a brush and paper, wrote down a prescription, and handed it over to Ping An. “He normally analyzes things heavily, and he hasn’t been eating regularly these days, so his qi and blood are insufficient, and he has no energy. This is for use in nursing health; get someone to decoct it and remember to have him take it on schedule.”
Ping An hurriedly accepted it.
“If one wants to be healthy and energetic, they can’t ruin their routine,” Wu Xi said to Jing Qi again. “When you should be eating, you can’t go hungry. When it’s not the hour for closing your eyes, you can’t be sleeping all the time, either. You claim this is a rest, but once you close your eyes, it’ll likely last until midnight. If midnight passes and you’re tired but can’t sleep, that’s even worse. If you eat something when you get up, you won’t be half-unconscious.”
Jing Qi nodded. “Mm, makes sense.”
His mouth said that it made sense, but that didn’t mean at all that he was going to get off the couch. Wu Xi knew that this gentleman was the model of ‘accepting ideas humbly, but not repenting even in death’, so he was too lazy to jabber with him, turning around and leaving. A short while later, he personally brought in a bowl of steam-emitting congee. Ping An jumped in fright, rushing to go take it. “How could you be the one to get that? This slave—“
“You can go do you your work,” Wu Xi said. “I’ll watch him eat.”
Ping An was taken aback for a moment, a subtle emotion suddenly rising in him. He felt that, after worrying about this lazy-manager-esque Master of theirs for more than ten years, he now finally had a backbone-like Master that was honorable and kept to his words. Hence, utterly touched, he considerately withdrew, closing the door upon his departure.
Wu Xi held the bowl, blew on it to cool, then brought the spoon up to Jing Qi’s mouth, wordlessly and motionlessly waiting for him to open it. Jing Qi’s appetite had never been great, and when he had no energy, he was even more disinclined to eat anything. “I’m not hungry right now,” he said, exercising patience.
“Eat at this exact time every single day, and you’ll naturally get used to it and get hungry.”
Jing Qi wasn’t even tired anymore because of his disturbance, so he said exasperatedly, “I seriously…”
Wu Xi held the bowl and grasped the spoon, watching him silently.
Having grown this big, Jing Qi was always doing whatever he wanted; never had someone compelled him like this before. Going by the norm, he thought that he ought to be unhappy, but for some reason, he instead couldn’t get mad at him. He had a staring match with him for a short while, then ended up conceding defeat under his opponent’s persistence. With a sigh, he got up and took the little porcelain bowl and spoon.
On the inside, he simply couldn’t figure out what special ability this little toxin had, to make him repeatedly make exceptions because of him.
Chapter 64: The Emperor Leads the Army
Alarm smoke billowed. Yellow sand appeared to quickly fill the air over the entire northern half of the Great Qing’s landscape. The Vakurahs were like a pack of beasts that had been plotting for a long time, biding their time and concealing their strength for a hundred and ten years until they finally polished their claws and teeth, arriving on whistling winds.
However, in the Great Qing, there were only celebrations of peace, gold-dusted glory, and a herd of high-class, intellectual conspirators.
At the East Palace, luxurious flowers had already finished falling.
“If it’s true that… Helian Zhao plans to use the military strength he has to force abdication and rebel, I’m afraid this won’t be easy,” Jing Qi suddenly said.
Everyone present knew what his words meant, and they couldn’t resist freezing. They saw him open up the defense schematic of the capital. “The people that Helian Zhao had stuck into the army long ago are now mostly agglutinated in the Northwest. A lesser portion of them had replaced the seat Great General Feng had back in the day in Nanjiang’s border defense. These people are not easy to deploy. If there’s truly any unusual movements, Li Yannian from the Guangs still commands Liao Zhendong’s straggler army that he had previously incorporated, and they overall number fifty to sixty-thousand. There’s still time for them to be transferred over.”
He Yunxing was likely the one who most understood marching formations out of all of them. Hearing this, he took the subject over, pointing at the defenses near the capital. “There are three encampments in the vicinity of the capital. The fifty-thousand Imperial Forest Army is its final defense. Mu Tong of the South Encampment is an old fox, and if any real trouble gets kicked up, he’d likely be as grass that goes whichever side the wind blows. Once he comes to rely on Helian Zhao here, the connection between the capital and the entire South will be cut off. Tie Ru of the East Encampment doesn’t need to be spoken of, since he was born as Helian Zhao’s domestic slave. The North Encampment’s Huang Tianyi… I heard that he’s been walking quite close to Helian Zhao these years, and has accepted six beautiful women from him.”
At the end, He Yunxing sighed. “If the Emperor actually does lead troops himself, I’m almost positive Helian Zhao will rebel. This three-sided siege, Prince, is something this humble official can’t explain in a nice way. You reside in the capital all year round and probably don’t know much about these matters, but the battlefield undergoes a thousand changes a second, and faraway water cannot quench nearby thirst. We cannot get sidetracked from the situation of this chunk of land in the capital; if Helian Zhao’s rebellion doesn’t succeed, that would simply be a miracle.”
Jing Qi shook his head, eyes still fixated onto the map, and spoke with extreme slowness as he thought. “Huang Tianyi is the real grass here. If it weren’t for this, he wouldn’t be all-welcoming, either… you don’t know, Yunxing, but he not only accepted six beauties from the Eldest Scion, he also accepted one of my night pearls and a residence.”
He Yunxing never knew of these privately-done transactions of theirs, and he was tongue-tied.
Helian Yi glared at him. “Last time, the South Sea paid tribute of a sum of such pearls. Aside from you, no one else has even ever seen what those look like. How generous of you to re-gift a present.”
To state the truth, ever since that bout of illness Helian Pei had, he acted very odd towards Jing Qi. Anything delicious or interesting wasn’t arranged for any of his sons, but was instead all sent to the Prince Estate. Jing Qi smiled, thinking to himself: how was His Highness the Crown Prince suddenly speaking with such a peaceful-sounding tone?
Helian Yi skewed a glance at him, then smiled pointedly. “I know that your Estate has ample assets, for you to even give away invaluable Hetian jade at will.”
Jing Qi was silent. These words of Helian Yi’s were needles hidden in silk thread — because he met with Wu Xi so regularly, that was getting tied to him. Speaking of, Ping An had actually hit it off with Wu Xi; every little thing given to whoever made the former distressed, but it was Wu Xi alone that he was rather unperturbed about.
Lu Shen busily pulled back the topic that was about to go off-course. “Huang Tianyi and Mu Tong are two opportunist parties that happen to be in the North and South, with the slave Tie Ru sandwiched in the middle. This subject feels like the royal palace is hemmed in by two white-eyed, ungrateful wolves, along with an evil dog watching its prey.”
When Jing Qi heard that, he started to laugh, turning to exchange glances with Zhou Zishu. “Sir Lu,” the latter said with a smile, “General Mu is an opportunist, but the side he would move to would not be the Eldest Scion’s.”
Lu Shen was taken aback for a moment, asking, “How do you say that?”
“Do you remember old Minister Cai Jianxing, who the Eldest Scion framed at the time? Sir Cai’s wife is also surnamed Mu.”
“Back then, Mu Tong was still only a commandant of the South Encampment,” Jing Qi picked up. “He was intended to be set aside as a chess piece, but had unexpectedly bored himself into the encampment like this, having risen to the rank of General of the Imperial Guards’ South Encampment these years. That’s also considering that Brother Zishu and I had far-reaching sight and could recognize talent at the time.”
“Then… then, Madam Cai is Mu Tong’s…” He Yunxing started.
“His blood older sister, of the same father but different mother.” Jing Qi took a sip of tea. “Mu Tong was born of a concubine. The main wife had no son, with only one young lady at her knees. She had injured her body birthing her and likely wouldn’t be able to do it again, so she got a different inkling, wanting to kill the woman that was pregnant with Mu Tong. Unpredictably, the woman escaped due to a freak series of events. After Mu Tong learned his own background, he once secretly returned for a look, but his old father had died early, and the entire household was dominated by that wicked broad. Only his older sister heard of this and treated him well in private.”
Zhou Zishu laughed coldly. “More than well. It’s practically excessive, and against proper relations.”
Lu Shen and He Yunxing went ah at the same time, then looked at each other, feeling that they had underestimated this aspect of the capital’s hiding of filth. Helian Yi nodded. “This will all depend on tomorrow’s morning Court, then. Even so, a few more preparations still need to be made. There absolutely must not be upheaval in the capital.”
The day after, the debate in Court was the same as before. Helian Zhao argued with high self-conviction, and at a moment like this, the script of predominant war was sounding more compelling than predominant peace, and the ones that instigated the Emperor to personally lead troops were overall more compelling than the ones that instigated him to shrink his head back into his turtle shell for the sake of safety.
The Son of Heaven heading an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands and sweeping peace across the Northwest sounded so awe-inspiring, so blood-pumping. This era had been too smooth-sailing, with nothing to get one’s hot blood roiling within them; Helian Pei nearly couldn’t resist opening his mouth to praise him, but upon looking across the crowd of officials below him, he ultimately swallowed it down.
Jing Qi looked at the man on the dragon throne from lower down — gray hairs were growing on him and his years of splendor were gone, but he was still ruthlessly naive. The Helian family sat tall on the country, while he alone had the say on all its mountains and waters. Citizens could only beg the gods and worship the Buddha, hoping that the firmament could make there be more wise rulers and benevolent officials, with less natural calamities and human-made disasters.
It was simply a pity that disasters were frequent, and wise higher-ups were infrequent.
Jing Qi suddenly recalled the period of his own youth, which was more than three hundred years ago. He believed that this would have vanished from his mind long ago, but, against expectations, it abruptly came up at this time — that year, Helian Pei had held him in his arms, and brought him back to the Prince Estate to see his father.
Everyone else’s features were fuzzy. He only remembered that his father glanced at him, and in that instant, it seemed like a multitude of thoughts rushed to the man, yet also seemed that none did at all. He gave the Emperor a de-emphasized bow, then refused to look at him anymore. Rather, when they left, that Royal Uncle sighed, and patted him on the back with a pair of warm hands. “He is sad on the inside,” he said quietly, “and very pitiful. In his life, you are his sole bit of blood relation left. Don’t… hate him, by any means.”
Now, in the throne room, those words and that sigh started to echo strangely in his ears. That feeling of childish admiration during his youth was recalled with suddenness. He previously believed Helian Pei to be like his blood father, but that was an illusion of childhood, in the end.
Helian Pei was a monarch, and he was a subject. Commonplace feelings would never appear in the imperial family.
Jing Qi’s concentration swayed at an inopportune moment, Helian Zhao’s seconding voice in his ears.
At this moment, Helian Pei suddenly looked towards him. “We remember that, back in the day, Beiyuan had told us that if the Xiongnu were not annihilated, none of us could even think about domestic matters. Why have you now become a gourd with no mouth?”
Jing Qi lowered his eyes. On the inside, he knew that Helian Pei was awaiting even more peoples’ endorsement — he planned to play a hero, not a militaristic, dogmatic, muddle-headed ruler. He also knew how big Helian Pei’s ambition was, and how small his abilities were; outside of this guarded imperial city, where would his means of survival be?
In the span of a flint spark, he made a decision. He slightly inclined his head to look at Helian Yi. That look in his eyes was indescribably frigid, and resolute. The latter thus understood, opening his mouth but ultimately swallowing his words in, making the same decision as him.
“This subject believes that the Eldest Highness speaks the utter truth,” Jing Qi said. “I hope that Your Majesty will be protected well, and pacify the Northwest.”
Jing Qi’s yielding represented the yielding of the entire Crown Prince party, finally expressing that they were supporting it fully. The matter of the Emperor leading the troops was thus settled.
Those who were confused inside continued to be confused. Those who understood inside approved, either actively or passively, the change of Emperors.
The imperial family was the most unfeeling.
This was the first time Helian Pei had become a Great General, and he was very excited, eager to give personally supervising all the arrangements of the Ministry of War a go. Jing Qi, however, called out to stop Zhou Zishu when coming out of the East Palace that day. “You… should get Jiuxiao to leave the capital.”
Zhou Zishu was caught off guard. Jing Qi wasn’t a meddling person at all, and it was rare for words like these to come out of his mouth. “Zishu, the capital is a place of quarrel.” Jing Qi looked at him deeply. “Liang Jiuxiao should not have come here back then. Has he gotten anything other than a bellyful of grievance and indignation from doing so? You ought to send him away.”
Zhou Zishu smiled quietly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Many thanks for the suggestion, Prince. Zishu will withdraw.”
He knew that Jing Qi was completely right, but he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear for Liang Jiuxiao to leave.
The Emperor hastened things incessantly, almost wishing that that the two-hundred-thousand strong army could finish assembling by the very next day. Summoning troops, army rations, and armored freight, which people would act as vanguards, how the army would march, how the rear would be arranged, how the Vakurah would be dealt with — he didn’t know anything about these things, but he still thought he knew.
The army actually did complete amassing in a month under his urging. Jing Qi and his group then had some ominous premonitions, but the situation was already out of control. Helian Pei had still previously been happy to wait for the opinions of Court officials in order to flaunt his own willingness to listen to public opinion, but now that he had truly become a ‘Great General’, he got smug, following which he gave no one leeway to speak.
He believed that the two-hundred-thousand-strong army, one foot a person, could stomp the Vakurah tribe back to their place.
With no alternative, He Yunxing requested to be appointed into the army, and then Cui Yingshu, who was posted at Shanxi, moved over. At last, he could support a piece of this whole affair, and not allow the old Emperor to be too over-the-top in the ranks.
Despite this, Jing Qi was getting all the more ill at ease. For that reason, when he was in the Prince Estate that day, he suddenly asked Wu Xi, “You ought to… be going back in autumn of next year, right?”
Wu Xi paused in his actions, giving an mn.
Jing Qi thought for a bit, then suddenly stood up to be by the window, staring at the luscious, densely-shading trees in the courtyard. “The Emperor is preparing to lead troops in person,” he said slowly. “The capital is now in chaos.”
Wu Xi startled. Not knowing what he was going to say, he nodded. “Be at ease. My people have all been told. There won’t be an issue.”
Jing Qi turned, looking deeply at him. In the past, he felt that this man seemed to be right in front of him with a turn of his head, but now, he had abruptly grown up, and might genuinely be leaving for somewhere far away. Those infinitely linked fragments of past events, invisible in typical days, seemed to all flutter vividly in the eyes.
He found himself to be unusually liable to reminisce these days, like an old man suffering seasonal depression. Wu Xi was ineffably stared at by him for a long time, and his heart went soft and ticklish, making him smile out of some uneasiness. “What are you watching me for?”
I’ve watched you not lose your nature after ten years of luxury in the capital, watched you still long for the true purity of old scenery, watched you be magnanimous and affectionate, watched you… Jing Qi thought of how he had secretly called him a little toxin for so many years, but now, all he remembered were his good qualities.
How fortunate he was…
“The present situation is turmoil,” he thus whispered. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but… I always feel faintly bad.”
“Bad about what?” Wu Xi frowned, not understanding. “You’re saying something will happen in the capital? What is it?”
Jing Qi shook his head. “I merely feel that it stands to reason that you should be returning next fall. Just in case… I’m saying, just in case, I’ll find someone to send you all out—”
“What about you, then?” Wu Xi cut him off.
“Me?” Jing Qi grinned. “In the rise and fall of a home and nation, do you still need to ask where this Prince should be?”
Wu Xi suddenly snatched his collar. All he felt was pent-up frustration in his heart, as if his chest was about to burst, and he grit his teeth. “You… you’re saying that, just in case something happens here, you’ll send me away, staying behind yourself?”
You inwardly accepted my approach and didn’t mind my insistence, but why would you push me away at a time like this? Is it that I, in your mind, am an annoying, trouble-making, thoughtless child that needs you to come take care of and pamper me?
Jing Qi was not the slightest bit affected by the influence of his practically flame-shooting gaze, calmly nodding as ever. “Preparations have finished being made these couple of days. I’m afraid it’ll be too late th—“
Wu Xi firmly hauled him into his embrace, lowering his head to block his mouth. Relying wholly on instinct, he grabbed Jing Qi’s chin and kissed him ferociously. It wasn’t clear whether he was kissing him or devouring him, the thought to eat this man alive narrowly stemming up within him.
Chapter 65: With a Gentleman All One’s Life
The breath that struck at his face seemed to bring strong despair with it, the smell of rust spreading outwards. Jing Qi felt that both his lips were pained to numbness, and he wanted to push him away, but his entire person was firmly confined in Wu Xi’s arms.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t kick him away and come to blows, either. Jing Qi knew that his own three-legged-cat-of-all-trades arts weren’t enough, but they weren’t so bad that he had no margin for resistance at all.
Yet, he subconsciously didn’t want to strike and injure him.
Ever since the other was a child, he would speak rudely to him from time to time, and whatever he thought, even Jing Qi, with both his self-restraint and good temper, would occasionally shoot three zhang of fire off of himself, though he always secretly bore with it. But now, with the addition of touching, he still didn’t have the heart to use violence against violence. It was like he had spoiled a child, and presently had to eat his own bitter fruit.
Yet, he contrarily couldn’t resist indulging him.
He couldn’t bear with that regretless infatuation of his, couldn’t bear to keep him outside the door in fully calm, entwined indifference.
A long while later, when both of their breaths were in utter disorder, Jing Qi managed to free up a hand with great difficulty. With his slightly cool palm, he gripped the back of Wu Xi’s neck, forcefully pulled him away by it, then abruptly took a huge step back, bumping his back against the door.
He furrowed his brow, reaching up to feel the corner of his mouth — it really hurt, and the skin had indeed been broken. Thereupon, he furiously wiped the bloodied foam that was coming out of it. “Wu Xi, are you a dog?” he said angrily.
Wu Xi’s breath had not yet been relaxed, but his face’s flush rapidly subsided, and it slowly suffused with white. His eyes landed upon Jing Qi’s slightly red and swollen lips that he had bitten open. His heart somewhat pounded, after which he quickly averted his gaze, hot rage shrinking back and helplessness rising up. “You…”
He thought of how he liked him so much, but was always doing the wrong thing, and always made him unhappy. In that moment, he nearly gained a feeling of sorrow; endless mountains and rivers could be measured, but it was only the path to this person’s heart that was so hidden, so perplexing.
However, when Jing Qi softly sighed, he suddenly gathered Wu Xi in by the waist, whose eyes widened. The man’s face was within reach, his soft breaths falling upon his own, making the color that had just shrunk back rush up once more. He heard Jing Qi chuckle. “Learn well, puppy. If you bite open my lips, how can I go out and meet people?”
Wu Xi’s brains went to paste in an instant, heartbeat quickening like it was exploding. Jing Qi lowered his eyes a bit, then pulled the other’s head down a bit, coming in close to lightly swipe the tip of his tongue against his lips. Wu Xi automatically opened his mouth some, like a confused and ignorant kid learning what bone-deep feelings were for the first time; novel, exciting, and making even his soul shake non-stop in the wake of the other’s minute wanderings.
On top of that, the sensory stimulation he got when he realized who was softly kissing him made it practically difficult to control himself, his final bit of consciousness also sinking into primal chaos.
Time appeared to stand still, for a very, very long while.
By the time Jing Qi let go of him, Wu Xi still couldn’t resist gripping his hand around the other’s shoulder, looking dizzy.
Jing Qi, as a not very moral or clean-living man, suddenly felt like he was taking advantage of him. Thus, he fake-smiled as he lightly patted his face, teasing, “What an inexperienced kid you are.”
Wu Xi’s face — not betraying anyone’s expectations — got even redder.
Inexperienced, as expected; Jing Qi hence curved his eyes along with his smile.
Wu Xi felt his arms suddenly become empty, and couldn’t help but grab Jing Qi’s sleeve, sounding captivated. “Beiyuan.”
“Hmmm?” Jing Qi drew out in answer.
Wu Xi looked at his eyes that were still a bit mischievous, their smile not yet gone, though they appeared to be overflowing with light and color. “In this life, you will be the only one in my heart. In the next life, and the life after that, I will forever remember you, so long as my soul hasn’t scattered.”
Jing Qi suddenly felt like he had plucked a heartstring, abruptly remembering that solemn Bridge of Helplessness, and that immense swathe of blood-like spider lilies. He only hung his eyes and smiled. “I don’t know who I’ll be in the next life.”
“The head won’t remember, but the heart will,” Wu Xi replied. “I must have said something like this in a past life.”
He was abnormally earnest, as if he had remembered something from it. Jing Qi raised his eyes to look at him all of a sudden, and Wu Xi only felt that the look they had was somewhat not-obviously peculiar. “I don’t… recall you saying anything like that in my past life,” he heard him answer.
“Even if I didn’t say it for you to hear, I had to have recited it a million times in my heart as I watched your back.”
Jing Qi couldn’t help but raise a hand to touch himself between the brows, thinking to himself: how was this guy so dumb? He used to don such a papier-mâché-esque face, and was both stubborn and moronic — in this lifetime, that personality was dead-set, and hadn’t changed at all.
“Can you listen to me, Beiyuan?” Wu Xi asked softly.
Jing Qi paused, then nodded silently.
Wu Xi’s voice seemed to get even softer, though the words he said weren’t very soft. “Don’t like anyone else. I would never be willing to hurt you, but if you like anyone else, I’ll kill each and every one of them.” He knew that the next thing Jing Qi would say would be along the lines of ‘don’t talk nonsense’, so he quickly put forth, “I’m not talking nonsense. I will do what I say I will.”
Jing Qi’s speech got stuffed back in. He peered at him rather helplessly. “Ah.”
Wu Xi refused to spare him, though. “I remember.”
Jing Qi pulled his sleeve out of his hand and patted him on the back. “I’m not so old that I’m confused and can’t remember anything,” he scolded with a grin.
Wu Xi finally laughed noiselessly, and gently tugged out the red string hanging on Jing Qi’s neck. Seeing that the ring was still there, he said, “If there’s danger here, I won’t leave. Even if I need to leave, even if I can’t bring you back for the time being, I have to know that you’ll be okay. If I truly can’t take you with me in the future, just carry this with you, and you’ll always be able to find me. This is a sacred relic of our Nanjiang, passed down through generations of Great Shamans. In this life, only one person can be given it for safekeeping.”
Jing Qi was taken aback, only just realizing that the trinket he had worn for years was actually so formidable. His neck immediately felt heavier.
Wu Xi piously kissed that green jade ring, coating it with warmth within his hand, then pushed it back into Jing Qi’s lapels.
Mutual hatred was inferior to tides of trust, and mutual pining made one feel that the sea wasn’t so deep. Without age, feelings were hard to extinguish.
In this year’s midsummer, the Vakurahs were rushing their soldiers down to the city walls with the momentum of predators. Once the Great Qing’s elites finished equipping, the northern city gates were wide open, their ice-cold armor like coverings of fish scales. Crown Prince Helian Yi ascended to take the Emperor’s place on send-off, the limitless-looking army strictly and silently lined up in arrays right before his eyes. His elder brother wore a military uniform and wielded a longsabre, quickly about to set out.
The day was clear and endless, no clouds to be seen in its expanse.
Following the conventional prayer to the gods and wine granted in metal goblets, Helian Zhao prepared to get his horse galloping. However, he paused in his motion all of a sudden, turned his head, looked at his little brother, and smiled, speaking in a volume only they two could hear clearly. “Crown Prince, for this journey, I don’t know whether I’ll live or die. There’s a secret in my mind, and if I don’t say it now, it’ll likely be going to the grave with me.”
There was no change in Helian Yi’s expression, who only said, “You’re on the verge of going into battle, Eldest Brother. Don’t say such ominous words. Fight on the behalf of the Great Qing’s land, but still keep caring for yourself.”
Helian Zhao laughed loudly and brightly, having not expected to be able to receive such brotherly advice while he still lived. Before, they were like enemies, and once he was back from this campaign, the situation would likely be one where no rest was had until death. Only in this instant did he almost genuinely feel himself to be related by blood to the elegant, yet shrewd and profound young man before him.
Even so… feelings were ultimately thin in the heavenly family.
A short moment later, he curbed his smile and quieted his voice even more. “You probably don’t know, but in my youth, I once erroneously bust into Father Emperor’s bedroom, and inadvertently peeped at a secret of his. There’s a hidden compartment beneath his dragon bed.”
He mounted his horse, bending his back to look down on the other. “What secret it is is unsuitable for me to say. If Your Highness wishes to know, you may as well go see it for yourself.”
After that, without waiting for Helian Yi’s response, he reined the horse’s head around and shouted, “Move out!”
Banners flew in the western wind, the smoke and dust dreary.
With the large army sent off, Helian Yi returned to the palace without a word, first going to report to and debrief Helian Pei.
Helian Pei had been scared stiff by that assassin; his hero’s heart got firmly punctured, and that courage all leaked out, making him a coward once more. Suspicious of everyone even in broad daylight and always having nightmares, he only dared to close his eyes upon lighting lanterns at night, then was disgruntled all day long.
He reclined on the bed, narrowing his eyes as he sized up Helian Yi carefully. This son was as extremely filial as ever; not a hint of impudence to be seen, never saying a word more than he should, and never thinking to overstep his bounds in doing something he shouldn’t. Previously, he thought that his youngest son was a bit too upstanding, uncomprehensive of how to be accommodating, and always feeling pain for both himself and others, so he was afraid that he was going to suffer setbacks in the future.
Now, it suddenly became clear that, of the three sons he had in his life, none were as calculative as Helian Yi.
A decade ago, Helian Pei had been worried that his youngest’s power would be seized by his older brothers and he would not be able to survive, which was why he painstakingly wanted to get him close to the Nanjiang Shamanet so he would have a place to take shelter in later. Yet, a decade later, Helian Pei discovered that those older brothers were no longer the other’s match.
He was old and had no strength to manage things, but he understood something on the inside. Not speaking, he listened to Helian Yi’s socially-conforming words, then waved his hand to express that he was aware. Young Eunuch Wang Wu brought medicine, and Helian Yi took it, personally attended to Helian Pei so that he drank it, then pulled out the pillow that was padding his back to help him lay down.
There was something nerve-calming in the medicine. Helian Pei had already been lacking in vigor, and now he was drowsy.
“Both of you withdraw first,” Helian Yi said in a quiet voice to Wang Wu and Eunuch Xi. “I will wait upon Father Emperor alone.”
The two naturally didn’t dare to interfere with the Crown Prince’s filial piety, and tactfully withdrew. Helian Yi sat right at the side, waiting for Helian Pei to fall thoroughly asleep. Hearing his smooth and heavy breathing, he knew the medicine had taken effect, and that the sleep was real.
He then bent down, lightly groping about under the dragon bed with his hand. As expected, he felt out a small mechanism on an unremarkable spot, twisted it, and opened up a small secret compartment. In that split second, he had a bad feeling, like Helian Zhao had laid a trap for him before he left, and that he couldn’t give him that.
He hesitated a bit, then screwed the panel back on. He started reading the memorials next to him, but he couldn’t focus for a long time. A voice inside him was constantly urging him to go look, go look at what secret Father Emperor has hidden for so many years. The more he repressed it, the more curious he got — after a little under half a shichen, he finally couldn’t take the torment in his mind anymore, unscrewing the panel once more.
Cautiously, he reached inside in test, then took out an aged wooden box from it. He was amazed to discover that he and his useless old dad actually had a hard-to-believe aspect of similarity. In the East Palace, the portrait of that man he had drawn long ago and those tiny, trivial things were also packed into box by him, then carefully placed in a secret compartment. His mind abruptly sharpened, vaguely surmising what was inside it.
He opened it up, and there were indeed some sachets, handkerchiefs, and other such baubles inside, along with a scroll painting. Helian Yi smiled silently, thinking to himself that they were still different; from looking at these objects, at least, Father Emperor’s beloved was a woman. He cast a glance at Helian Pei, saw that he was still fast asleep, and gently unfurled the scroll.
Sure enough, drawn upon it was an extremely beautiful woman.
Her dress lifted with the wind, her long hair scattered around, her fingertips raised slightly, and the corners of her mouth held a smile, simply a hairsbreadth from lifelike. Helian Yi first gasped in admiration, but felt something was amiss soon after, as the woman in the picture… was kind of familiar.
All of a sudden, someone suddenly flashed past in his mind, and the scroll almost fell out of his hands. He was dumbstruck where he stood, because he had seen this woman before, in his childhood; she was the one whose smile could topple a city, yet also was a beauty that suffered an ill fate — the Prince Consort Nan’ning!
He was still young himself when she passed on, but the reason why he could remember her so clearly was because sons resembled their mothers, and her features, upon a fine look, greatly resembled Jing Qi’s.
Why… was there a portrait of Consort Nan’ning under Father Emperor’s bed? At that moment, a thought instinctively streaked across his mind: was Beiyuan really the Senior Prince’s son? Should his surname… really be Jing?
Chapter 66: Old Matters, Old Relations
Helian Yi’s heart suddenly beat irregularly. If… that man actually was his blood brother, what would happen?
A burst of footsteps was heard. He quickly returned to his senses, rapidly stuffed the scroll and box back into the hidden compartment, then stood up, acting like nothing was wrong as he lowered his head and adjusted his sleeves. The one entering happened to be young Eunuch Wang Wu, who whispered, “Your Highness, Sir Lu of the Ministry of Revenue has come.”
Only then did he remember that he had called Lu Shen over to discuss business, so he composed himself. “I know.” He thus turned and left with slightly hurried steps, like he was itching to get away from Helian Pei’s bedroom.
Wang Wu affirmed obediently, standing to the side like a person made of wood. There were altogether two useful people at Helian Pei’s side — one was Eunuch Xi, and one was Wang Wu. The former was capable of handling affairs and had followed him for a long time now, nearly being considered his right-hand man. The latter was different; he stood next to him, not speaking nor moving, and did not try to make himself likeable. Total inattention could make one overlook the giant living man that he was.
He didn’t bootlick, absolutely never said anything that shouldn’t be said, and did what he was called to do. Back in the day, Eunuch Xi had looked upon his rare dutifulness and had the mind to promote him. For servants in the palace, many were clever, and many were talented, but not many were dutiful.
Coming and going every day, he saw all of the most respectable people, the most priceless things, and the most heart-pumping power. There were those gentlemen that read sacred texts intensively in a place such as this, yet how many of them could still clear-headedly remember how to advance and retreat?
For that reason, Eunuch Xi felt that Wang Wu was gifted.
At this moment in the big, lonely hall, there was only one muddleheaded old Emperor that was sleeping like a dead pig. The imperial guards were all at the doorway, having just been sent out by Helian Yi. After about an incense stick’s amount of time, the eyelids of Wang Wu, who was standing there like he wasn’t alive, lifted, and his eyes turned about once, gaze ultimately landing on the spot Helian Yi had just been standing at.
Under his panic, Helian Yi hadn’t taken good care of that secret compartment. A crack exposed on the outside just so happened to fall into Wang Wu’s sights.
He stared at the small slit, mute for a long while, not even blinking.
In the end, he cautiously surveyed the ordained Son of Heaven on the dragon’s bed. Soon after, he slowly stooped over, his finger feeling about until it got to where the gap was to poke about inside. Then, after a bit more feeling about, he found the mechanism, gently twisted it, and opened the hidden panel. That improperly-placed scroll fell out.
He swiftly seized it, ultimately disallowing it from landing on the ground, and couldn’t help but lightly exhale. Maintaining his stooping posture, he looked at Helian Pei, following which he swiftly opened the scroll to take a look. He paused, brows creased slightly, then scrolled it back up, put it away, and closed the panel up snugly.
Afterwards, he just stood there like a motionless mannequin, as if nothing had just happened.
Ever since business dealings started between Wu Xi and Zhou Zishu, the former had gotten rather busy with some things. Yet, in these days living at the Prince Estate, he had gotten quite a bit of the desire to have fun and forget his job, and Nuahar eventually couldn’t help but drop by to come look for him.
Whatever was happening on the outside, Jing Qi naturally wouldn’t discuss it whenever he returned. So long as the man didn’t leave home, he would read books and paint as ever, occasionally practicing a couple of martial arts moves in the courtyard when the mood arose. There was never any negative emotion on his face, giving him an apparent leisurely and contented look.
…Of course, considering he was missing his important schedule of going out and loitering around, his life seemed to be more relaxed than it had been before.
This Lord had always felt that, in the event that there was collapse on the outside and he had to come shoulder it by himself, he would shed a layer of skin, and not even be able to bring that dead flesh back home.
Home was the place where he used to hear Ping An chatter on as he did his daily chores, and now where he additionally kept Wu Xi and the sable, two toxins of different sizes. There was only one Prince in this estate; other people’s obligations were to eat, drink, have fun, and care for money and family. It wasn’t their duty to listen to those vexing outer matters.
Yet, even if he said he didn’t, it wasn’t like Wu Xi didn’t know of them. He was someone who had experienced the war between the Great Qing and Nanjiang when he was young, after all. In secret, he had an expert he had brought with him from Nanjiang to see off Jing Qi to and from Court on the sly, never showing himself; he followed after him from the time he left in the morning to when he returned to being in front of Wu Xi’s eyes in the Estate.
Satisfied, he believed that the man was now entirely in his line of sight. Even if there was a sky-high flood outside, as long as the Great Qing wasn’t fighting with Nanjiang, he had no feeling of crisis whatsoever.
When it was afternoon. Wu Xi was in the middle of coaching Jing Qi in martial arts. He had a good foundation to begin with, so, with the addition of ten years of hard, relentless training, he had pretty much already left Jing Qi in the dust. His moves were all the more extremely measured. The two had no weapons, merely exchanging blows with bare hands.
Upon getting to it, Wu Xi discovered that the man’s innate talent was still not bad, and he was highly perceptive. That he had put in some real effort before shone through, but it likely wasn’t much, as he put a lot of tricky and opportunity-seeking momentum into his movements. Ping An placed a hand towel down nearby, as well as pickled plum soup pressed down in ice. From the bottom of his heart, Wu Xi felt that since Jing Qi grew up in the forbidden city as a child, he ought to have been taught by a famed, expert master, yet his arts weren’t going anywhere. The other was most likely accustomed to this group, headed by Ping An, making big fusses out of little matters.
Summer in the capital was very stuffy. One slight movement could easily make someone drenched in sweat, but Jing Qi had nonetheless began to train in boxing at this time.
Ping An was already used to his Master’s whimsical behavior and didn’t take it seriously. Wu Xi, however, could see that he was earnest, and likely so at this time due to one thing; the war in the Northwest.
With that in mind, he felt some pain in his heart. Seeing that Jing Qi’s physical strength slightly couldn’t hold up, he suddenly grabbed his wrist and gently pinned it behind his back. The other was just shy of plunging headfirst into his embrace, his steps staggering to a stop, and he bent down slightly, swiftly panting for a couple of breaths.
“No more training today,” Wu Xi said mildly. “Martial arts isn’t like other things, it needs to be built up over time in increments. Doing this last-minute will, at most, make yourself sore for a while, and do nothing to empower you.”
Jing Qi was quiet for a minute. When he picked up the iced plum soup from the side and was about to drink it, Wu Xi quickly stopped him, used internal force to warm it up, then handed it back. “Don’t drink cold stuff. Sudden cold and sudden heat can injure the body. Next time, don’t let them prepare it chilled.”
Jing Qi finally ascertained himself to be useless mud that couldn’t even stick to a wall, so he smiled and said nothing.
Helian Zhao’s army and the Vakurahs unexpectedly clashed in a mountain city of Gansu, attacking and defending. The gridlock had already gone on for quite some days. Helian Zhao relied on the Ministry of Revenue for supplies, but the national treasury had been empty for decades, and encouragement and support were just not enough. The Vakurahs, though, went about burning, killing, and looting, which was a trade of no cost.
This scene of battle forced one to act against their will, and not fighting was not an option, but if it got drawn out, the cost of taxes would make a lot of citizens hang themselves.
Hidden diseases were born early; taking advantage of this juncture, everything exploded out at the same time, and the successively-flooding South already had a calamity of rioting mobs. When Helian Yi dissolved a string of officials that had milked the people’s wealth dry and hurriedly seized their properties to put the money into the treasury, it was still ultimately only a cup of water for burning firewood. The wave of revolting citizens did not pacify before it was raised again, and the Guang troops didn’t have the slightest bit of mobilization, despite everything.
Helian Yi was also overwrought, feeling like he was tearing down the east wall to fix the west wall, but even after half a repair, the country was still leaking air all over the place.
Wu Xi personally picked up the hand towel and wiped his sweat off for him. His hand’s actions were gentle, but the words coming out of his mouth were incredibly blunt. “Look at you. Such a short period of martial arts should have been fine, but it was too much. You didn’t lay a good foundation when you should have worked hard at it as a child, so no matter how much you want to make up for it now, it’ll be nothing but an empty fantasy framework, and won’t make you proficient.”
The soup in Jing Qi’s mouth got stuck in his throat, nearly making him choke to death on the scene.
Wu Xi pat him on the back, smiling. “Hearing me say empty and gentle things won’t be of any use. It’s better to tell you these truths.”
Jing Qi choked for a good while, then squeezed a sentence out from the cracks between his teeth. “Thanks for the advice.”
Wu Xi put down the towel, sighed, and hugged him from behind. “I can’t speak of the matters you all have, but when I’m unhappy, I also like to find things to do; practicing martial arts, trampling the plants in the garden, and so on. It doesn’t matter, anyways, it’d be better to come with—“
Before he got to finish that sentence, Ping An suddenly came in. “Shamanet, Nuahar is here.”
Ping An was a thoughtful one, as he said this phrase swiftly and without even raising his eyelids, seeing no evil. After speaking, there was immediately no longer any trace of him left. Wu Xi had no choice but to let Jing Qi go with some awkwardness, thinking Nuahar to be really annoying.
Nuahar came in with an expression of deep bitterness and hate. In his big string of jargon, there was only one central idea: Shamanet, you haven’t returned to your own home for days, you know? You should be making decisions on things, are you abandoning all your responsibilities?
Wu Xi frowned, but Jing Qi laughed from beside him. “Alright, go on back and take a look. I’ll invite people over and keep myself occupied, not train.”
The other stood up, but still wasn’t at ease, turning to Jing Qi. “If you want to practice martial arts more, keeping fit and healthy is always good, but you need to be accompanied, lest you injure yourself or drink something cold and freezing that ruins your health.”
Although those words were unpleasant to hear, Jing Qi nevertheless accepted his good intention, beaming as he nodded.
Wu Xi walked two steps away, but felt really reluctant to have to part from him for one minute, so he turned back around again, hugged Jing Qi by the neck, and kissed him on the lips at flying speed, all right in front of Nuahar. Only then did he feel he had gotten enough.
Nuahar watched, wide-eyed and dumbstruck, as their Shamanet coolly came over, threw out a “let’s go”, then made to leave first. He busily gave Jing Qi a big, supplementary bow, then chased after the other one in a compliant run.
He thought to himself: what’s that thing Great Qing people said? Not seeing someone for three days gives you a whole new level of respect for them?
The Shamanet was indeed wise and powerful, to have finally succeeded after a good many years.
Jing Qi restrained his grin, bowed his head to look at the lines of his palm for a while, then drank all the warm, not-very-refreshing soup down, after which he ordered, “Ping An, I’m changing clothes. Get someone to prepare a carriage, I want to go out on a trip.”
Ping An affirmed, passing the order down. Jing Qi tidied himself up, switched into an inconspicuous changpao, and got onto the carriage with a scroll from the study carried in his arms.
Once it came to a small restaurant with a worn-out doorsill, air leaking in all over, and a desolate front yard, he came out from the carriage, went to a private room on the second floor, then lightly knocked on it thrice.
The door opened in response. The dark-clothed person inside gave him a quick glance, then promptly let him in, shutting the door behind him.
This so-called ‘private room’ was actually no more than an extremely creaky, shabby door, with windows that could only be half-shut, and no soundproofing.
The dark-clothed person was precisely Wang Wu of the palace. He had been loyally doing his role for many years and possessed his own connections, allowing him to soundlessly drift out of the place.
Neither of them had words. Jing Qi got straight to the main point, silently unfurling the scroll; the painting had been made by the Senior Prince himself, and his personal seal covered the signature spot, the words “Year of the Monkey of Armor, the Seventh of March, a Gift for My Beloved Wife” written on it. He peered up at Wang Wu, looking very solemn. Wang Wu carefully viewed the painting for a short moment, then slowly nodded.
No mood could be deciphered from Jing Qi’s expression, and he looked neither happy nor angry, eyes flashing. He lowered his head, unhurriedly put the scroll away, then fished out a pouch from his sleeve. Stuffing it into Wang Wu’s hand, he gave him a profound look, and clasped his hands in thanks to him.
Wang Wu was a servant, so he of course didn’t dare to accept such a huge gesture, hurriedly side-stepping it. Jing Qi just waved his hand, telling him to go back to the palace on his own, then sat down himself, calling for a pot of wine and minor dishes.
Wang Wu left quickly in the same exact manner as when he arrived, scarcely causing anyone to notice. The weight of the pouch in his hand was quite heavy, feeling different from the gold and silver of the past. After he went out the door, he secretly looked inside it — the bag was filled with cat’s eye gems. He softly exhaled in relief and put it away in trepidation, knowing that the gift really wasn’t that heavy at all — the Prince gave a thank-you gift not to say thanks for the information, but to say thanks for him saving his life.
Jing Qi hugged the scroll as he called for Ping An to wait in the non-eye-catching carriage. He leaned against the decrepit window for a time, with that small dish of slightly burnt peanuts and drinking half a pot of inferior wine. After that, he put down tip money and quietly left.
For the first time in a few hundred years, he learned of the relationship between His Majesty and his mother, whose face he had long been unable to remember clearly. He laughed bitterly like he was mocking himself, thinking: for being as addled as this, Jing Beiyuan can die without it being an injustice.
He mounted the carriage, returning without a sound.
Chapter 67: A Blood-Colored Night
Helian Pei’s consciousness became increasingly lethargic. That previous bout of illness had already hollowed out his barely-existing foundation, and with this fright, it seemed like he was about to die. The time he was awake during the day was lesser, and he had to muster his energy to listen to Helian Yi on the daily. The majority of the time, before the other had finished speaking, he would fall back into sleep.
Everyone could plainly tell that while the Crown Prince was still living in the East Palace right now, it probably wouldn’t be long until places were changed.
For that reason, when he hadn’t even yet ascended the throne, the problems of the nation pressed down on his shoulders in such an unusually intense fashion, not even leaving any cushioning room. It was quite impressive; when the Late Emperor had withered half the country away and passed it to Helian Pei, it was still considered strong enough to hold up. Helian Pei had reigned for thirty-six years, and he withered the other half away, not betraying everyone’s expectations. Coming into Helian Yi’s hands, he simply had no idea what should come next.
It wasn’t clear whether he had an unlucky fate, or whether it was because he had been born into this world to begin with.
However, if these things were considered no big deal, then the scroll he had discovered under Helian Pei’s bed would have become the heaviest stone weighing on Helian Yi’s heart. These days, he was always almost unconsciously going to see Jing Qi, and observing from all angles the visage that he had long since known well.
Perhaps he was looking too much, perhaps he had an inkling inside him all along. Upon examination, he felt like he could make out some hints from the face of the one he could describe with his eyes closed.
Before, he had felt that his brows and eyes resembled the Prince Consort’s, and his mouth and nose resembled the Prince Consort’s, and even the shape of his face followed hers, letting old friends back in the day tell whose son he was with one look. Now, however, Helian Yi inexplicably felt that the man also resembled Helian Pei a bit, especially when he was being impish and lost in thought.
On the inside, he became all the more apprehensive.
He thought that, if the other was only Jing Beiyuan, he would still have some hope, though remote. But what if he genuinely was his brother, linked by blood?
In regards to human relationships, could a direct blood relation ever be reversed and ignored? That was his blood brother!
Ancient peoples knew not of yearning from birth, but were tortured with yearning once they began to have it. Such was this feeling.
A thought that was a guess at first finally began to gradually deepen within his repeated pondering. Slowly, it became like the truth, a current of despair generating from his heart.
Even so, that feeling could only exist inside him, not to be said to anyone.
If it was him alone that suffered a mental knot with this, it would be fine; the world was in disorder right now, and others might not notice the Crown Prince’s private mind. Yet, Jing Qi knew. Every single time Helian Yi looked over at him, he noticed.
Watching as the other’s gaze became all the more complex, Jing Qi pretended not to notice, but he had a slow sinking feeling, too. In this life, all of his energy had been spent on getting out of the way. He had long not had even half of an ambitious mind, and had defamed himself for two decades.
In his previous life, he was Prince Nan’ning, shrewd and god-like in everyone’s eyes, but in this one, he had turned into the capital’s number-one preposterous dandy. How was the Crown Prince still thinking about him in such a way?
Even clay figures had some degree of earthly qualities. He had traveled the mortal world once around, doing all of what he shouldn’t have been doing. Could it be that this brand of deliberate plotting still wasn’t ‘pleasing’ enough?
Thus, he was no longer unduly close to Helian Yi. After all, they had a friendship that went from childhood to adulthood, where they shared trials and tribulations for however many years, but due to a painting that might or might not be real, and a bloodline that came out of nowhere, he could no longer tolerate him?
How greatly suspicious His Highness was!
As it was so… he had not been too steady to begin with, thus, upon enduring quite a bit of the present crisis, the tumult in his mind was completely gone. At last, he no longer wavered; he wanted to go far away from this divided land of bone-deep ice. Once the dust had settled on the Great Qing’s crisis and the fire signals of the Northwest had been swept away to empty air, his death would then come, and he was going to die outside of the capital, never to return to the field of heartbreak beside Fullmoon River.
Lamentably, Bai Wuchang had dithered about the underworld for a thousand years, growing accustomed to watching mortal souls float by, but he still hadn’t understood that the most terrifying area of the human heart was none other than the concept of ‘making something where there is nothing, then measuring someone else only on one’s own thoughts.’ Helian Yi and Jing Beiyuan, one paranoid and one mistrustful — between the truths and lies, likely neither of them could distinguish whether their own feelings were real or fake. The one with the obsession kept his obsession to himself, and the one with the suspicion kept his suspicion to himself.
Defeated in the previous life, defeated in this life. Jing Beiyuan had painstakingly waited beside Three-Life Rock for three hundred years, and his incomparably infatuated heart had grown cold, no longer having the ash of being excessively troubled and thoroughly analytical.
In the causation of nature, where were those seven years of predestined affinity? In spite of it all, karma that was produced from some unknown event flickered in response. In several hundred years of entanglement, every debt was paid back, making those spirits of infatuation, insufficiently-witted, able to speculate on ridiculous evidence.
Every night, Helian Yi had to work until deep in the evening, and only then would he close his eyes. In his night-long daze, he dreamed of Jing Qi.
Within his dream, that man was still in that long, wide-sleeved, billowing blue-green robe, his long hair unbound as if he was a teenager, and he smiled at him from a moderate distance away. He took a step forward, and the other took a step back — chasing him urgently made the other draw back, like he was getting blown by wind.
Anxious, he suddenly understood what it meant to be so near, yet so far; it was like he was close at hand, yet also eternally unable to be reached. He could only helplessly watch the man smile so faintly and minimally while he drifted farther away, immense grief inside him, and he couldn’t help but shout, “Beiyuan!”
Immediately afterwards, his foot stepped on air, as if he was falling into an abyss, and then he woke up in the middle of the night. He reached up to feel at the corner of his eye, and was shocked to feel moisture.
The night-guarding Yu Kui was in the middle of sneaking a nap when he got startled awake by him. “Did you have a nightmare, Your Highness?” he said, quickly coming over.
Helian Yi mn’ed, sitting up in bed himself.
That cry of ‘Beiyuan’ was one Yu Kui actually heard. Tense, he didn’t dare to say anything, only quietly waiting by the side.
Helian Yi suddenly couldn’t stay here; perhaps that sorrowful ache from the dream was too real, making him all the more urgently wishing to be able to see and feel Jing Qi. Thus, he stood up. “Change my clothes. I’m leaving the palace.”
Yu Kui was taken aback. “Your Highness… fourth watch(1-3-am) has just passed,” he replied tentatively.
The other paused. “I’m going out,” he insisted.
Helpless, Yu Kui had to help him change. Unexpectedly, right after Helian Yi’s belt had been tied on, a burst of hurried footsteps came from outside the bedroom.
“Your Highness, there’s an emergency message!”
A thousand miles away, the entire northwestern sky was already beginning to burn with the flames of war.
That night, the stars and moon were concealed behind clouds, and the air pressure was extremely low, vague wind blowing and thunder flashing. Some days, the sky appeared to be keeping in heavy rain, but a few days later, it would still be hot and stuffy, no beads of rain to be seen. In the gloomy night, a couple claps of lightning struck, and then a gust was certain to come the next day, blowing the clouds away.
All around were circling mountains, their ends unknown. The Great Qing’s army had been facing off against the Vakurah for more than half a month here, and the fighting spirit it had when leaving the capital had long since gone on steep decline, with everyone unbearably exhausted.
An old soldier standing guard for the encampment’s provisions wiped his sweat off, cursing and damning lowly. All of a sudden, the muffled sound of thunder came from the distance as if it were present here, rumbling. He couldn’t see the weak rays of lightning, even as the noise covered up the sound of a heavy object falling to the ground.
The soldier couldn’t hear it, continuing to diligently patrol.
He traversed once around, but happened to bump into a Great Qing soldier whose clothes were in a bit of disarray. Seeing so, the old soldier startled slightly, then greeted him with a smile on his own initiative. “Up at night?”
He nodded, said no more, took two steps away, then felt that something was fishy — up at night? Why would he get up at night and come here? He halted, called out at the man to stop, and asked, “Which camp are you?”
The man paused in his tracks. “I’m a subordinate of Lieutenant Wang of the cavalry camp.”
The soldier hoisted up his negligible night-patrol light, carefully illuminating the other’s face with it. “Lieutenant Wang’s subordinate?” he said with suspicion. “I got put on watch after getting injured, and I was in the cavalry camp before, so why… don’t you look familiar?”
The other’s smile stiffened. “You’ve been away from the camp for some days, right, brother? I was transferred into it recently.”
He then nodded, looked at him once more, and turned to leave, only to remember something and turn his head. “What’s your name?”
The man was caught off guard. His eyes swept to the old soldier’s back, a crafty smile showing on his face. ”It’s…”
The voice behind him was way too quiet, and the old soldier couldn’t hear it, so he craned his neck. “Wh—“ His voice disappeared all at once, because a hand passed behind him, and then a harsh, cold feeling sliced across his own neck. Before he could even react, he witnessed blood spray out from it. He took two steps back, eyes wide, and wanted to call out, only to discover that his throat had been cut open.
A dragon of fire fell out of thin air. In no more than a moment’s effort, the eastern wind stirred up trouble, and the whole encampment became a sea of flames.
Someone screamed. “Enemy ambush! Enemy ambush!”
Each utterance seemed to be drawn-out and fearful. The tranquil camp instantly went into a flurry. Soon after, the screamer’s voice came to an abrupt stop, as he had been firmly nailed to the ground by a cold arrow shot out of some unknown area, motionless and with his head askew.
Every day, there was the growing glow of battle with the Vakurah army. Under the command of Helian Zhao’s generals and the reliance of numerous people, the army was still capable. In this moment, they got extremely scared, and the normally-pampered, hastily-assembled servicemen finally exposed their original bearings.
Men and horses panicked into a mess. It was unknown how many enemies infiltrated them, but many people were trampled to death by their own on such a chaotic night.
Helian Zhao heard the shouts and came out of his large tent. Upon seeing some general having a hard time scurrying up before his eyes, he couldn’t restrain his anger. “In an incense’s time, whoever can’t assemble the troops together is whoever’s getting executed on the spot!”
“Great… Great General! Your Highness, the enemy army is killing I don’t know how many people from behind, and half the camp has now already turned into an inferno! There’s… there’s such terrible screaming over there, could it be that… the barbarian’s reinforcements have come?”
Helian Zhao coldly observed the conscript that had thrown himself before him, then gazed malevolently at the raging encampment, words squeezing out from between his teeth. “This is no more than a couple of minor night attacks. Transmit the command that those who dare to delude everyone with lies to damage army morale, and those that dare to disregard orders to flee at will, will be killed with no pardon.”
Seeing the General’s expression, his bodyguards immediately hauled up the terror-stricken conscript, nimbly blocked up his mouth, and hauled him away. “Prepare horses!” Helian Zhao shouted.
He had experienced many years in the Northwest in his youth, so the affairs of the army weren’t unfamiliar to him. Hearing the fighting, he knew on the inside that it was definitely not merely a few foes that had set the fire deep in the night. He understood that his conscript was right; the majority of the three-formation-marching Vakurah had amassed together.
However, he also knew that the Great Qing’s army had not been the godly army of descending tigers and wolves that it used to be for a long time now. He himself wasn’t in a panic, still able to control the scene, because if he ever showed a bit of uncertainty, these two-hundred-thousand men would be nothing more than a clamorous and scattered mob.
A horse suddenly stopped in front of him, and the one on it immediately dismounted, his armor covered in bloodstains. Focusing his eyes, Helian Zhao saw that it was He Yunxing. The latter wiped the blood and sweat off his face, voice sullen. “General, the power of the fire looks terrifying, but it’s already come under control. The scout dispatched has just now returned, and he reported that three formations of troops are now coming over. This humble general fears that the barbarians want to take advantage of the chaos to launch a full-strength pincer attack.”
Helian Zhao didn’t move, nor speak.
“Please give your instructions, General!” He Yunxing called again.
Helian Zhao’s warhorse had already been led over. He mounted it, grasped his longsabre in hand, and enunciated himself. “Junior Marquis, looking at the autumn chill, the barbarians have no provisions nor food. They’re worried, afraid that they won’t be able to get through this year’s cold seasons. Now, the Great Qing’s life and death are both in this campaign. If…”
He slightly smiled, an air of unyielding viciousness on his face. “If anyone is defeated and concedes today, they can then commit suicide to make up for it!”
Chapter 68: The Eternal Duty of Loyalty
He Yunxing stepped up onto his own warhorse, following closely behind Helian Zhao. In that instant, the resentment between them suddenly vanished into air, smoke giving off all around them. The Junior Marquis, who had been looking forward to urging on a military horse since his adolescence, had grown up at flying speed in the wake of only a couple months of campaigning.
Blood and fire were cast into an iron-made cradle. The smell of makeup that polluted Fullmoon River had been completely washed off of his flesh.
The man whose horse was in the lead made a beast-like roar from his chest, his iron garments reflecting cold light in the dark night. Moonlight silently casting down upon his head, he disappeared without a sound immediately after.
Do not laugh at those lying down drunk on the battlefield; since time immemorial, few ever return from their expeditions.
Helian Zhao slaughtered all. A predator-esque barbarian was cut down by him, his head severed from his neck. A Great Qing soldier ran into him after fleeing brainlessly in defeat, causing him to raise his hand and use the hilt of his several-dozen-catty sabre to ruthlessly smash down on the other’s head, splattering his brains out on the spot.
In no more than a moment, the original color of that snow-bright armor could not be seen, his entire body bloodied and as filthy as his warhorse, but his expression was as harsh and frigid as ever. A date-red horse shot straight over, and the person coming turned his head; He Yunxing could clearly see that it was Cui Yingshu.
Cui Yingshu panted fiercely. “Your Highness, the right wing can’t hold up!”
Helian Zhao only looked at him. “Call the center army’s archers to the summit,” he replied indifferently. “When there’s no more arrows to shoot, throw rocks. When there’s no more rocks to gather, throw corpses. Even if you have to use carcasses to crush them, the barbarians need to be crushed to death.”
He twisted his head around to stare at Cui Yingshu viciously, his gaze like a venomous snake’s. “Cui Yingshu,” he said, a pause between each syllable, “this isn’t the age when our Great General Feng swept across Nanjiang, understand?”
Cui Yingshu stared at him in a daze, as if Helian Zhao was a visitor from the underworld, only to hear the other laugh coldly. “Back then, his death was planned for. Staking life on his behalf today is how it should be.”
There was an ominous undertone vaguely carried in his words. He Yunxing couldn’t help but interrupt him. “Your Highness.”
Helian Zhao didn’t turn to look at him, merely speaking calmly. “We can hold up. That’s because these troops are still dependent on knowing that our hundreds of thousands of Dynasty elites are here, and that no mistakes can be made. Now, though, if even their hopes are all broken, what would be left?”
Cui Yingshu’s face sank. “Yes. This humble general understands.”
Helian Zhao smiled, forcefully whipping his warhorse with a riding crop, and it charged out on initiative.
While everyone was on alarm, he alone headed the soldiers. All his movements seemed to have a bizarre magic power to them, as the hearts of those who saw him instantly settled down, automatically following him to welcome the sharp claws and teeth of the Vakurah. It was like a hole had torn open in the chaotic crowd, the whirlpool-like land integrating more and more people into coming together and flowing in one direction.
In fear of the earth long being polluted by the stink of livestock, the people run scared! Lead a crowd of heroes to do their utmost to eradicate it, hence! Among this land, those who encroach on the country must be put to death!
Human lives were lost just for him to rake in wealth. He colluded with corrupt officials to use the people as meat, removed dissidents regardless of consequences, brought harm to loyalists, and, even on the point of his departure, didn’t neglect to maliciously plant a seed of alienation between the Crown Prince and Prince Nan’ning… He Yunxing harshly wiped his face, angrily bellowed, and followed closely after Helian Zhao.
In a split second, a cold arrow came out of nowhere and unerringly shot Helian Zhao’s horse’s head. The warhorse immediately let out a long whinny, narrowly bucked him off, rushed two steps forward, then abruptly collapsed to the ground. Helian Zhao rolled off of it, and a prophetic-seeming arrow suddenly came again — with no time to dodge, he almost got hit, but He Yunxing fortunately caught up quickly, swiftly cutting it down.
The very second Helian Zhao fell off his horse, a voice started shouting. “The Great Qing’s worthless Head Commander is dead! He’s dead!”
Helian Zhao cursed, immediately pushing the warhorse away, pulling himself free of it, and getting up again. “The fuck I am.”
He Yunxing’s mind was in a whirl, and he suddenly understood why the other was staking his own life to make himself the target, nearly getting frightened into a cold sweat. Hurriedly, he jumped off his horse as well and grabbed him. “Your Highness, please retreat! If something happens—“
Helian Zhao snatched his collar, stared off with him for a short moment, then let go and pushed him a couple steps back, chuckling. “You can go back and report the good news to my little brother, then!”
Soon after, he mounted another horse, shouting, “Come on, you barbarian dogs!”
He Yunxing’s eyes were blurred. He wiped hard at them, only to discover that, at some unknown point in time, his face had become full of tears.
Helian Zhao was using his life to reinvigorate the Great Qing soldiers that were about to concede defeat. As karma went, a stream of blood turned into a sea.
By the time the morning sun broke dawn, a small gap struggled out of the dense cloud cover, and gloomy sunlight spilled down on the yet-continuing battle. The ground was full of human and horse carcasses. He Yunxing had suffered a cut across the shoulder, and in spite of the armor relieving him of the majority of its force, a lot of blood was flowing out nonetheless, adhering his battle armor tightly to his body.
He was a bit weak, but he still gritted his teeth and gripped his sabre no matter what thoughts he had, refusing to let go. A huge boom filled his ears, resulting in his mind not being very keen. The web on his right hand was torn open; in extremely short order, the blood and the dust on his utterly rubbed-rough palm mixed into black filth. Dust, dirt, and ash flew freely.
He didn’t know how long he could keep going.
Weapons of fire were finished launching. Arrows had been shot clean. The Vakurah had brought such a devil-may-care-esque extreme, with one wave of them rushing up to meet the Great Qing’s people head-on as soon as the prior one had fallen. His line of sight was fuzzy from excess exhaustion.
All of a sudden, a man frantically hurried over, dismounted, and knelt down with a plop, like a clay monkey. Only after trying to recognize him for a long while could He Yunxing tell that he was Helian Zhao’s personal guard, and his heart promptly sank.
The guard gazed up at him, then abruptly propped both his arms against the ground, and buried his head firmly onto it.
He Yunxing opened his mouth, but his throat was already so dry and rough, he couldn’t talk anymore.
He nearly fell off his horse, body swaying, and rigidly held onto the reins. It took some time before he could force himself to speak. “Send an emergency message. Tell the Emperor… and the Crown Prince…”
In the East Palace, the tea cup in Helian Yi’s hand fell to floor, smashing into three pieces.
The area outside the gates was captured, and the blood-dyed foreigners were coming in like this was a no-mans-land, thinking of their next target — the capital.
Jing Qi had long realized this, and was putting in effort to prepare to flee, so that he could do without it.
At this juncture, Helian Pei had completely fallen into a coma, and was wholly reliant on imperial physicians giving him medicine to extend his breathing, which came in but not out; he was simply the living dead. In the throne room, no one was quarreling at last.
From top to bottom, Helian Yi, looking down upon the sparse Court subjects, wasn’t even sure — who was it that destroyed the country? His Father Emperor? These couple of officials? His two older brothers?
But his predator-like eldest brother had since died on the northwestern battlefield, with not even his corpse able to be put back together, so… was it him?
Thinking back to these years, what all had he done?
Helian Yi realized that, apart from vying for power, he had accomplished nothing. He had been wanting to wait until he ascended to re-organize the old country for certain, but, for some reason, the Heavens were stuck in time and didn’t give him the opportunity. Now, he was finally sitting up high in the Great Hall, but it was far too late.
Suddenly, someone stepped out of the row of officials. Helian Yi woodenly swept his gaze over to see that the man was the former Assistant Minister of Revenue, and now current Minister of Revenue, Zhao Mingji. The dried-out, withered old man bowed deeply, his voice crisp. “Your Highness, this subject has a memorial to put forth.”
Helian Yi raised his hand and motioned to him.
Zhao Mingji took out a manifest, offering it up with both hands. In response, Wang Wu quickly accepted it, and gave it to Helian Yi.
Noiselessly, many others then stepped out of the row to stand behind Zhao Mingji. “Your Highness,” he was heard to say, “this subject had observed night divinations yesterday. The white tiger has overtaken the purple rose’s light. The imperial star is unclear, and now, having come across a chaotic world, the Emperor’s dragon form has taken ill. May this subject be so bold as to request that you, firstly, continue on your great legacy, and ascend the throne as Emperor.”
Helian Yi silently watched all the major ministers that stood up, awaiting his ‘secondly’.
After Zhao Mingji let out a slow breath, he said, “Now, there is no one obstructing the beastly Vakurah race. The northern defense of the capital is entirely broken, the national treasury has long been emptied, and the elite troops have practically been exhausted from losses. Now, this war cannot be fought anymore. I ask that you make a decision soon, Crown Prince.”
“The enemy has invaded my territory and injured my people,” he chuckled, voice low. “If I don’t fight, who can?”
“The plan for the present can only be to send diplomats for peace negotiations and give what is necessary,” Zhao Mingji replied. “You must bear with this now, Your Highness.”
No expression could be seen on Helian Yi’s face. “What you mean, Sir Zhao, is to cut apart the land in reparation, giving half of the whole country to someone else, and to not spare any part of it?” he asked softly.
Zhao Mingji knelt down and kowtowed to him. “Your Highness, this is not the time to put on a brave front,” he articulated. “This subject implores that you impart a decree to shift the country to the south, avoiding their cutting edge! We will likely have another day that we could make a comeback, returning in a whirl of dust!”
Helian Yi nodded emptily, gaze hung low as his hand landed on the manifest. At the spot for signatures, the six ministries and nine ministers had all signed their names. He looked up again, swept a glance over the crowd that knelt behind Zhao Mingji, and sighed. Tossing the manifest into Wang Wu’s arms, he stood up for a minute, back to the crowd, and turned his face up to gaze at the golden plaque atop the Great Hall that was as magnificent as ever.
“Okay.” He gently shook his head, laughing.
Zhao Mingji, believing that he had agreed to it, was about to kowtow and praise him as a wise ruler, but he saw Helian Yi turn around to look at him. “Okay. Sir Zhao has made a good plan for ruining the nation and making its people suffer.”
Immediately following that, he flung out his sleeves. “Arrest Zhao Mingji and all those behind him. Haul them away for me,” he ordered mildly. “If… if anyone brings up moving the capital again, gentlemen, please weigh how heavy the head on your neck is.”
The capital was on wide, level plains. If it was captured, then the final barrier in the northern half of the country would go. What was the difference between that and a dead nation?
Though the members of the Helian family are nothing good, we aren’t cowards. Eldest Brother, big brother* — if your spirit is still here, don’t laugh at your little brother for overestimating his abilities, okay?
Helian Yi successively issued three orders. The capital went into emergency status, the final Imperial Forest Army was densely arranged in wait, and several orders were issued every day to the Guangs and the Nanjiang area. Cruelly, all who dared to bring up half a word of ’moving the capital’ were imprisoned to be dealt with, as he intended to fight with his back to the water.
After the Court meeting, he kept Jing Qi behind.
Helian Yi sighed, then sat down limply, as if his muscles and bones were not enough to support the pressure. “Beiyuan, sit,” he said softly, a long while after.
Wang Wu quickly moved a chair over and asked for Jing Qi to sit down. He did, waiting for Helian Yi to open his mouth, but the man’s mind appeared to be wandering, as he just stared at him blankly for a time without making a sound.
After waiting for ages, Jing Qi gave a quiet cough. “Crown Prince?” he reminded.
Helian Yi seemed to snap out of it, mn’ed, and blinked, his expression clearing up. He reached up to knead the space between his brows, sighing. “I didn’t sleep last night, so my energy is a little lacking.”
Jing Qi was quiet. These days, Helian Yi absolutely wasn’t alone in not sleeping the whole night.
Helian Yi forced a smile, mumbling to himself, though it wasn’t known if it was to Jing Qi or not. “This is the time life and death will be decided. The capital will have a fierce battle. They’ve already stepped onto the farmland, but worry won’t do anything. Motivation needs to be nurtured so that decent soldiers will come to obstruct them.”
Viewing his peculiar expression, Jing Qi couldn’t grasp what he was going to say while he affirmed.
Helian Yi looked at him, voice extremely slow and soft. “The Shamanet is someone of Nanjiang. It’s also about the time we should be returning the hostage. This is a matter of the Great Qing, so it doesn’t make sense to spread harm to him, a foreigner, by making him stay in the capital…”
Jing Qi was taken aback, his peach-blossom eyes promptly widening to stare at Helian Yi incredulously.
He heard him proceed on. “I cannot leave. Avail yourself of the time before the Vakurah soldiers get to our walls, and take my place in… seeing him on his way.”
Chapter 69: In the Red Muslin Canopy
As if he didn’t recognize the man, Jing Qi couldn’t come back to himself for a long time, only staring blankly at Helian Yi.
Helian Yi chucked. “Why do you look so dumb?”
Jing Qi opened his mouth, but before he had time to say anything, Helian Yi raised his hand and motioned it downwards, cutting him off. “I’m not discussing this with you. Though the Shamanet is a hostage, his skills aren’t bad. Since he was received by Father Emperor when he arrived, he shouldn’t be too unpresentable when he leaves. That’s why I’m ordering you to see him off.”
He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. “Father Emperor is this way now, I can’t withdraw, and anyone else like won’t be skilled enough… you need to leave as soon as possible.”
He looked up to shoot the attending Yu Kui a look, who promptly reacted, and offered up an edict. Jing Qi stood up like it was a reflex, then knelt.
Helian Yi personally took the edict in hand, then handed it over to him. “This is Father Emperor’s will, too, to order you to see off the Shamanet on his journey yourself. I didn’t read the old man’s decree out loud because I went back a bit earlier to put everything in order.”
Jing Qi brows lightly wrinkled. “Your Highness…”
Helian Yi lifted the edict expressionlessly. “What? Are you still defying the order, at this point in time?”
Helian Pei had long lost consciousness. What kind of order could he have made?
Helian Yi remembered that moment in the rear courtyard of the Prince Estate, where he heard Wu Xi state that world-shocking declaration, like it had happened yesterday. He had felt it laughable at the time, felt that Wu Xi was daydreaming; what relationship could the stately Prince Nan’ning of the Great Qing have with a foreigner from a remote area?
Back then, all he really believed was that, apart from the edge of Fullmoon River, what place in this realm could be wealthy enough to support this man’s lifestyle, and support it well? Looking at things now, though, that was all nonsense. The ways of the world were fickle. Level land still raised into large waves in normal times, to say nothing of a distraught world in chaos.
The extent of the elite troops the Court could use had been lost in Gansu. Completion of moving over troops stationed at Nanjiang and the Guangs was a long time off, too, wasn’t it? How could the predatory Vakurah division, which could travel a thousand li in a day, give them enough time? The war in the capital was most likely going to be hopeless.
He suddenly came to understand that, regardless of whether the man was related to him by blood or not, he had already placed him into the softest place of his heart; so profound, and yet hard to describe.
But, how could he bear… how could he bear to watch him be ruined by a foreign race’s hands, together with a city of used-up prosperity?
He was such a promising young man, like a mortal banished from heaven, and he ought to easily be able to drink and be happy, living this life with no worries.
Nanjiang was far away, but the Shamanet was still the future Great Shaman, so he shouldn’t treat him too poorly. Though there were plumes of toxic air, he had heard that there were green mountains and beautiful people, too. Helian Yi’s voice was pressed down low out of fear that raising it a bit would bring a hint of him choking up along with it, and he would be unable to control his unaffected tone. “Take the edict,” he said stiffly.
Jing Qi raised his head, expression complicated as he stared at him.
Helian Yi shifted his line of sight away. To be cut off from him — just anticipating that he was about to be cut off from him — felt like his heart was being cut out with a knife. His raised hand began to shake slightly. “Jing Beiyuan, take the edict!”
Jing Qi softly closed his eyes, slowly reached out, and took the edict with both hands.
Helian Yi followed his back with his eyes as he departed for a place unseen, then dropped into the dragon chair like his strength had escaped him. He curled up into a ball, shoulders hunched with his face buried into the crook of his arm. The dragon chair’s wideness, intricacy, and manifested air of jeweled pricelessness were all gloomy, cold, and somber, making him look all the more thin and haggard in comparison.
Yu Kui stood quietly at the side. Looking at him, he swallowed his sigh back into his stomach.
Jing Qi returned to his Estate, went straight to his study, then placed his hand upon an inconspicuous and ancient little cabinet in the corner. After standing there silently for a time, he undid the three locks on it with the key he had on him, tossed the edict inside, and took out a small bottle.
Immediately after that, he turned and walked right out.
In the moment he turned, the imposing, empty, solemn, mask-like look on his face vanished instantaneously with a gentle wipe. Not a trace of it was left behind, making one view it as the same slightly-smiling, thoroughly indecent expression as always.
Following the day that Jing Qi had been ordered to come to the palace in the middle of the night, Wu Xi knew something big had happened without him needing to say anything. The Estate was oddly quiet for the past several days, and Zhou Zishu’s group that occasionally came over to drink had not shown up for some time. Jing Qi himself came in and out in a rush, as well, leaving the Estate very early in the morning and sometimes not even coming back after people had lit up lanterns.
At this moment, the sky hadn’t yet darkened. Wu Xi was in the middle of practicing in the courtyard. Jing Qi dismissed the attendants and entered alone, not making a sound. He just leaned against the big tree, crossed his arms over his chest, and watched.
Wu Xi was utterly concentrated when he practiced. Jing Qi liked this undistracted look of his the most, as if even the sky could be falling down and he’d ignore it. When he did anything, he would have only that thing in mind, and even when doing martial arts, he ineffably gave off a sense of ‘stillness’.
That was because he was calm.
Only after the smaller half of a shichen did he stop in his arts. Raising his head to see Jing Qi, a smile abruptly appeared on his face. It was so genuine, that anyone seeing it couldn’t resist the compulsion to smile together with him.
“Why are you so early today?” Wu Xi asked when he walked over.
Jing Qi raised a brow. “The Crown Prince chopped down everyone who clamored for moving the capital. No one made a fuss.”
Wu Xi was startled, but since he actually quite approved of that, he nodded. “If it was me, I would have chopped them down long ago. The battle hasn’t started yet, what reason is there in running?”
The matters he cared about were finite, restricted solely to those relevant to Nanjiang. The people he cared about were even more finite, restricted solely to the one before him. He only knew that there were encampments in the vicinity of the capital, not understanding the specifics of how many people there were, nor how reliable they were; he was probably one of the very few truly optimistic people left in the capital.
Jing Qi had no intention of explaining things clearly, so he nodded with a smile. “The way the two of you think is pretty identical. The Great Qing and Nanjiang will avoid fighting later on.”
He was speaking, yet his gaze was focused unblinkingly on Wu Xi. He had a pair of peach blossom eyes to begin with, so whenever he casually stared right at someone, it brought an indescribable overtone with it. Wu Xi only felt that the look in them was like a small hook, catching one’s heart and making it gallop. Hence, he gave a dry cough. “…Why are you looking at me like that?”
Jing Qi laughed without sound, his eyes curving up slightly; because his lashes were thick, they were like ink strokes drawn around them. There had been a huge downpour in the capital a few days prior, early autumn had arrived, and the weather was slightly cool, but he was still dressed like it was summer. The button on his neckline had either jumped open on its own or had never been fastened in the first place, revealing an exceptionally fair neck.
Wu Xi paused straightaway, feeling his heart twitch, after which his mouth became noticeably dry.
Jing Qi suddenly reached out. Using two fingers to lift the other’s chin, he leaned in close, as if he were teasing a young lady. “Look at you… how handsome,” he said, voice hushed.
Wu Xi took a step back, not knowing how to react. “Beiyuan, don’t mess around,” he quietly demanded.
Laughing lowly, Jing Qi put his arms around his waist, and then their positions swiftly changed. Wu Xi’s back was pressed against the tree trunk, nowhere for him to retreat to, while Jing Qi was nearly stuck up against him, fingers lightly gripping his chin. “Who was the one who threatened, and with such power, that he would kill everyone that I liked until none were left? What’s making you be this bashful, now?”
Anyone who got pressed up against a tree by their beloved wouldn’t be able to handle a provocation like this. On top of that, he was a young man that had only just recognized what feelings were, but still didn’t understand what desire was. All he felt was his blood surging up in bursts, his words stringing together somewhat awkwardly in no time, and his mind being a blank expanse. He was only able to say one phrase: “Beiyuan… don’t mess around.”
Jing Qi’s gaze wandered, fingertips fiddling with Wu Xi’s hanging locks. Aiming a look at his neckline, he lowered his voice even more, practically plastering to Wu Xi’s ear. “Due to that threat of yours, I feared that fooling around would spill blood three chi around me… this Prince has slept in a cold quilt that no one has warmed for who knows how many days. Are you so uncharitable, Shamanet, that you wouldn’t even compensate me for it?”
An explosion went off in Wu Xi’s head. “B-B… Beiyuan… this isn’t right, we’re not officially married yet, w-we shouldn’t,” he managed to stammer out.
Jing Qi was stumped for a moment before he realized what he meant. Bravado finally broken, he leaned into Wu Xi’s neck and laughed heartily.
How could such a rare flower exist in this world? And how did he manage to come across someone like this? He started to believe that the Heavens were making things right for him, but when he thought carefully about it, he then believed that the Heavens had changed to a different tactic for messing with him:
It wasn’t seeking, yet not receiving, it was loving, but then separating.
The sound of his laughter stopped all at once, and he lowered his head. Wu Xi couldn’t see his expression and felt a bit panicky, so, after hesitating, he grabbed Jing Qi’s shoulder to question, “What is it, Beiyuan?”
Jing Qi shook his head, wiping the tears at the corner of his eyes that had come out due to laughter. All of a sudden, he turned his head, bluntly asking, “I want you. Can you give yourself to me?”
Wu Xi’s throat bobbed unnaturally, dazed for a minute. There was a voice in his head saying that this was wrong the whole time, but under the attentive look in Jing Qi’s eyes that seemed to be entrancing, the voice grew weaker and weaker, until he slowly nodded his head.
Laughing, Jing Qi bit his ear. “I’ll come to your room tonight.” After that, he let go of him, turning around and leaving of his own accord.
Wu Xi remained standing there for a moment. Thinking that this all was an illusion, he airily walked away like he was sleepwalking, his arms matching the pace of his legs. When he was eating dinner, due to his mind wandering so terribly, he dropped two pairs of chopsticks in succession, and even ended up accidentally smashing the bowl. Nuahar, who he had intentionally brought to wait upon him out of fear that staying at the Estate would be an inconvenience, merely thought their Shamanet was possessed. The other’s face was dignified at times, suffused with red at times, and revealed an indescribably dumb smile at times. It was exceptionally strange.
The hair-raising meal was eaten with great difficulty. He likely didn’t even know what he was eating at all. After, he had Nuahar draw hot water for him to take an early bath. “Shamanet, don’t you practice at night? You want to rest this early?” the latter questioned in horror.
“Go and retire earlier tonight yourself,” Wu Xi answered irrelevantly. “No need to attend to me.”
Nuahar blinked, then blinked again, and thus determined that this guy was possessed.
The moon was above the branches of willows. Not at ease, Wu Xi picked up a book and flipped through it from start to finish, but didn’t know what he had read, his mind like a racing carriage. The darker the sky got, the further away he got from reality. It was unknown how long had passed until the door was pushed open from the outside all of a sudden, and he immediately looked up.
He caught sight of Jing Qi sporting a pearl-white robe, his hair loose, looking like he had just finished bathing and drying off. The other calmly blinked at him, pushed the door closed from behind, then walked towards him. With every step closer he got, Wu Xi’s heartbeat quickened incrementally.
When Jing Qi leaned in close, picked up the book he held, and threw it to the side, Wu Xi felt that his heart was going so fast, it wasn’t beating anymore.
Chapter 70: Apart in Life and Death
Jing Qi curled one leg up to kneel on the bed, lifting Wu Xi’s chin to look down at him. Peering into those eyes that were nervous about something unknown, he felt like they resembled the rarest black pearls that propagated the ocean. With no mottled colors, staring at them for a long time seemed to be able to suck people in, and he couldn’t resist reaching up to brush against Wu Xi’s lashes.
All of Wu Xi’s fingers clutched the bedsheet tightly, his body rigid. The man’s light fragrance from his recent bath hit him in the face, as if it was going to enshroud his entire body. While his heart fluttered away, he did everything he could to control himself.
Nanjiang was much more straightforward than the convoluted Great Qing — the one he liked was the one he wanted. Even so, he still felt that this wasn’t how it should be. Having read Great Qing books, he knew that ‘etiquette’ was the topmost important thing to them, and that before an unmarried couple took part in wedding ceremonies, they weren’t even supposed to take one look too many at each other.
Well… he was a man, but…
He grabbed Jing Qi’s fingers that were already getting into his collar, shaking his head with enormous-looking determination. “Beiyuan… I still think this isn’t proper.”
In previous times, Jing Qi had always considered himself to be someone that, despite messing around once in a while, was clean and moral the majority of the time. Yet, he abruptly found out that, compared to the Shamanet, his youthful, cluttered life of napping with flowers could practically be described as rancid.
Even though he had no strong feelings about sensuality, his methods for playing the part were not few. Jing Qi’s fingertips were like a slippery fish that slid out of the hand, Wu Xi felt, and they easily left his palm. Pulling open his lapels, they softly stroked along his collarbone, seeming to ignite a series of invisible little sparks along his skin.
“How isn’t it proper?” Jing Qi asked, unconcerned.
He deliberately slowed himself, both of his lewd hands caressing Wu Xi from top to bottom. Seeing the man flustered and incessantly nervous, he enjoyed the delight of feeling him up, and slowly stoked the fire within himself.
With his one knee on the bed, his entire body was practically pressed down on Wu Xi. Out of options, the latter had to prop one arm behind himself, and embraced him with the other. Getting the majority of his clothes peeled off by him, he was endlessly embarrassed, and rambled on in desperation. “Didn’t your Confucius say that… relations without marriage, are indecent—“
Jing Qi pinched his chest, shocking him into nearly jumping upwards. The arm supporting him went soft, and he laid down directly on his back, hearing only Jing Qi’s quiet laugh. “Does that refer to being with a woman, or with a man?”
Wu Xi had no response — Confucius hadn’t been specific.
He sensed something flash before his eyes, then saw Jing Qi’s loosely-draped white robe fall to the floor. The other leaned forward to casually let the bedcurtain fall, hazy light passing through it. He hadn’t been wearing anything under that robe, his skin looking to be finer than the best brocade, and that fragile ring hung off his neck, his long hair landing next to Wu Xi’s ears when he lowered his head.
Wu Xi couldn’t say a thing at all.
“Beautiful Wu Xi, will you be screaming out indecently for this gentleman to hear?” Jing Qi asked in a low voice, eyes curved in a smile.
Reason finally flying away, Wu Xi pulled him down by the neck, blocking off his scoundrel laughter.
The man’s body heat and sweet scent both encompassed him. His arms were full, yet he was still duped into thinking that this was unreal.
The Prince was, of course, an old hat at romance, and had patience, fluent in both the skill of flowery words off the bed and the skill of sweet-talking someone on the bed. Now, upon coming across such a hatchling, he wanted to make him nice and comfortable all the more kindly.
Wu Xi detected something faintly amiss, but couldn’t tell what exactly it was. Mind a ball of paste, he endured his actions, until Jing Qi’s burning, meandering hand reached behind him and rubbed down along his spine. He didn’t understand at first, but he did, now. He struggled with some discomfort, but looked up just in time to catch sight of Jing Qi’s gaze — the look in the man’s eyes was unspeakably tender, yet inside that tenderness were the depths of lust starting to burn.
He believed that Jing Qi, at this very moment, had at last thrown everything and everyone in his eyes to the side, leaving only him behind. It made him feel like he would be okay with anything the other did; even if he died for him right now, he would have no regrets.
For that, he smiled gently, and closed his eyes.
His smile was abnormally happy, but it made Jing Qi pause for a short instant. Stopping his hand, he thought: if this really did go all the way, wouldn’t the little toxin hate him to death, once he learned what was on his mind? In line with the man’s intense and obstinate nature, wouldn’t there be a lifetime of having no margin to come back from this?
In his experience, he had to leave himself an escape route in everything he did, or else he might be out of luck in the future, and die for the country or something. If he instead was left breathing, where would he be able to find a person like this again? He lightly frowned for a second’s time, making a decision…
The stab of pain Wu Xi imagined did not come, but he felt the body heat covering him retract slightly, quickly following which his hot dick was slowly engulfed in tight warmth. He suddenly opened his eyes. “…”
Jing Qi quickly pressed down on his shoulders with his hands, voice trembling a bit. “Don’t move… don’t move.”
Gritting his teeth hard, he slowly sat down, the dull pain akin to his flesh getting cut into a thousand pieces. Nobody had ever dared Prince Nan’ning to do something like this. He had been the one pushing Wu Xi down at the start, but it had gradually turned into relying on him to hold him up.
The pressing pain made his arms go soft, and he fell upon Wu Xi, the two of them giving muffled grunts at the same time. Wu Xi quickly caught him, feeling that the other’s entire body was shaking slightly. Unable to tell what emotion was inside him, he only embraced him with care, soothing his body with kisses almost piously.
The red luan star in the night sky quietly ascended, then quietly fell.
On the morrow, Wu Xi awoke as early as ever. The split second he opened his eyes, he almost couldn’t clearly tell whether that poignant evening was a dream or reality. He cautiously turned his head only after ages had passed, and saw Jing Qi’s slightly-messed hair lying beside him, half a shoulder having slipped out of the embroidered sheets.
He laughed noiselessly, gently pulled the blanket up for him, and was in no rush to get up, inclining his head to look at him.
He wouldn’t get enough of looking at him in all his life.
This wasn’t a dream. The most beautiful thing ever had not come from a dream; the inside of one wouldn’t have such genuine happiness that soaked into the soul.
Maybe his gaze was too emotional, as Jing Qi was ‘watched’ awake. The latter open his eyes groggily, looked at him, mumbled out an unclear “it’s not even bright out yet,” then went to turn over and continue sleeping. Upon moving, however, he found out that there was an indescribable ache in his body, and he lightly huffed, brows scrunching up.
Wu Xi promptly turned and sat up, nervously asking, “Does it hurt? Where?”
Jing Qi inhaled deeply and rolled his eyes. “Water,” he impolitely ordered.
Wu Xi immediately threw something on, got up, poured a bowl of water for him, carried it over, and fed it to him personally. Jing Qi drank two sips and then refused to drink any more, taking the cup in hand. “Bring— cough, bring me clothes.”
Wu Xi hurriedly picked up his robe that had fallen to the ground last night, but didn’t immediately hand it to him, stuffing it into the blanket. “They’re cold, warm them up before you wear them,” he said softly. “Is there anything else? …Did I injure you yesterday?”
Leaning against the headboard, Jing Qi skewed a glance at him. Seeing that he looked bewildered and distinctly resembled a kid that had gotten into trouble, he couldn’t resist a chuckle. Wu Xi wasn’t sure what he was laughing at, but he saw the gleam in his eyes; whenever he laughed, they billowed with water exceptionally beautifully, making him uncontrollably laugh with him, too.
Jing Qi smacked him on the back of his head. “What are you laughing at? Go. Get someone to draw hot water, I want to bathe.”
Wu Xi accepted his order, giddily ran off, then got the hot water for him himself.
After that, Jing Qi sighed a bit, restraining the smile on his face. He looked down at the half-bowl of water that slightly rippled along with his movements, mind wandering for a minute, and soon after pulled out the robe that Wu Xi had stuffed under the blanket. Taking a small bottle out of it, he smiled painfully, and poured all of its contents into the tea — it melted in the liquid, colorless and tasteless.
Wu Xi was happy to attend to him personally. Setting the hot water down and turning his head, Jing Qi had since put his robe on, and was in the middle of lowering his head to drink. He walked over and sat at the edge of the bed. “Beiyuan, the water is ready.”
Yet, Jing Qi smiled at him, unexpectedly wrapped his arms around his neck, and tangled their lips together. Passing him the whole mouthful of water like he was messing around, he forced him to swallow it down, then let him go.
Wu Xi spluttered, tone exasperated. “Why did—“
He didn’t get to finish, because he sensed that something was off, blankly watching the smiling expression on Jing Qi’s face vanish. The other sat there calmly, looking at him like he wanted to squeeze out a grin, but, for some reason, the curves of his face held sorrow.
Wu Xi realized it in an instant, but felt his body get weighed down by something, eyes struggling to stay open.
He swiftly stood up, stumbling a half-step back. “…”
Jing Qi avoided his eyes. In that instant, the man’s handsome, lowered brows made a drowning desperation arise in his heart. His legs apparently couldn’t support his weight, his knees went limp, and he fell, getting taken into Jing Qi’s arms.
“Jing Beiyuan… Jing… Bei… yuan…” He exhausted the last of his strength, firmly clutching Jing Qi’s sleeve and fighting hard to open his eyes that had since gone slack. “I’ll… hate… hate… you forever… hate… for…”
Consciousness at last unable to keep struggling, he slowly shut his eyes, relaxed his fingers, and collapsed powerlessly.
Jing Qi picked him up, gently placed him on the bed, then reached out to delicately trace his facial features. All of a sudden, he smiled, fragmented rays appearing inside of his slightly raised peach blossom eyes. In that second, every type of prosperity didn’t matter, and both the previous life and this one disappeared without a trace.
Only that voice was in his ears: Jing Beiyuan, I will hate you forever.
There was a run-down restaurant in the outskirts called a rest pavilion. Parting people would hereunto go their separate ways. Mortal sounds that resonated on Xianyang Road were unheard both here, and on the other side of the world.
Ashinlae turned to gaze at the back of the figure seated atop the horse innumerable times, while the Shamanet was in the carriage, dreaming deeply without waking. He had many suspicions in mind, but didn’t understand. He asked Nuahar, but he didn’t understand, either.
The Prince had only said that the Great Qing was going to war and the Vakurah were going to strike the capital, so they had to return to Nanjiang for safety.
Ashinlae wanted to interrogate him on why he wasn’t coming with them, but Nuahar grabbed him to stop. The latter seemed to have just come back from weeping at a funeral, numb grief on his face. Questions not to be said, he merely shook his head and sighed.
At the city gate, the horses and carriages filed out, the setting sun now about to ebb.
Jing Qi reined his horse to a stop, dismounted, lifted the carriage curtain, and stared fixedly at Wu Xi for a time. No emotion was visible on him, making one think that he was no different from usual, and yet not the same at all. “It’s a long road. Take care of yourselves, gentlemen,” he soon quietly said. “I put all the Dream Stupor leftover from last time into that water. This sleep of his will likely last ten fortnights. If you all spur your horses a bit faster… you might be able to make it.”
“Prince…” Nuahar uttered quietly.
Jing Qi looked at him, exposing a shallow grin that rapidly disappeared, then released the curtain. “Alright, no more drivel. Go on.”
Nuahar’s eyes went red, yet Jing Qi didn’t look at him anymore, leading his horse back over regardless. Nuahar jumped out of the carriage and shouted, “Prince!”
Not looking back, Jing Qi simply lightly waved his hand. “Once your Shamanet awakens, tell him… that I owe him for today. If there’s another day that we meet again, I’ll definitely repay him. Go.”
Ah, to tread a trail on Xianyang Road…
He led his horse back into the city alone, walking extremely slowly. The sound of carriages and horses was behind him. The sound of rolling wheels rolled into the distance. It was unknown how long had passed until he eventually couldn’t resist turning his head, only to discover that all the Nanjiang folk had long become invisible. The sound of wheels was nothing more than an illusion of the mind, as if that man was still there, as if…
He smiled bitterly, mounting the horse.
When he passed the rest pavilion, he noticed that a familiar carriage was parked at the entrance of the restaurant for who knew how long. Startled, he reined the horse to a stop, and shortly saw someone come out of the carriage.
Helian Yi stared off with him for a long time. “Why didn’t you go with him?” he asked quietly.
Jing Qi smiled. “This subject has obeyed the edict to send the Shamanet out of the capital. It’s merely that these are extraordinary times, so I had to lack some courtesy this once. Don’t blame me for not seeing him off further on.”
The other stood there mutely for a while, then sighed deeply. “What use could there be in remaining behind?”
“There isn’t any. I just have to stay.”
He was only in the everyday outfit of a sapphire robe, silver rolling on the edges of his wide sleeves, which rose with the breeze. His back and shoulders were exceptionally straight, like bamboo that refused to bend in any way within the wind.
Then, inside the sunset, he explained himself clearly.
“I, Jing Beiyuan, was born a person of the Great Qing, and will die a ghost of the Great Qing.”