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A young man in a long tunic was seen barreling straight in, a few imperial guards hunting him down from behind. The pitiful scholar, with his long hair falling loose and fluttering in the night scene’s breeze, looked just like a living ghost.
The ruckus drew the eyes of everyone on-scene over. Oppositely, Jing Qi raised his head, swept a glance at him, then went to look at Liao Zhendong with a smile. “Which opera is this that’s being sung, Sir Liao?”
Liao Zhendong hurriedly admitted his error (like a yes-man), then turned his head and scolded the guards who hurried in afterwards. “What’s this thing that you’ve let free to come in?! What am I keeping you all around for?!”
In but a moment, the scholar was captured, both arms fastened behind him. The guard that caught him pressed him down like his life depended on it, making the man bend at the waist. Two more then came up and made to tow him outside, but the scholar was witnessed to struggle hard, cursing as he did so. “Such audacious, corrupt officials! What ‘Governor’, what ‘Imperial Envoy’? You two are a snake and rat in a nest, fog and mist colluding with each other! Just look at… at this land today; whose realm actually is it? Is the one seated in the throne room not blind—”
Jing Qi narrowed his eyes slightly, then lifted his face up slightly. “Don’t be hasty. Release him for now.”
After the guards looked at Liao Zhendong, they let go of the tunic-scholar that was laid out on the ground. He actually had no fear, despite the sorry figure he cut, and didn’t neglect to erect his back tall when he stood up, gazing towards Jing Qi with glimmering eyes.
Jing Qi smiled. “Why, you’ve claimed that Governor Liao and I are in a nest together. Which of us would you say is the snake, and which the rat?”
The man straightened his neck. “Governor of the Guangs, Liao Zhendong, makes his living off the fruits of the peoples’ labor. First, he eats the fortune of the salary the monarch affords him, then, he drinks the blood and marrow of the citizenry. He doesn’t fix the government, he nibbles away at the assets of the people, he’s avaricious yet fears humanity; is he not a huge rat? You, majestic Prince Nan’ning, have come from the capital carrying the three-chi-long Sword of Dominion on your back. You do not take pleading on the nation’s behalf into consideration, but are here, losing yourself in song and dance and ambrosia on jade plates like nothing is wrong! You covet the rat’s delicacies and are willing to share a pillow with him, so how are you being accused unjustly when I say that you’re in the same nest?!”
“Impudent!” Ji Xiang was the first to not let this slide.
Jing Qi waved him off. “What is your name and surname, scholar?”
“I, Mu Huaiming, will never alter my given nor my family names!” the scholar said, voice bright.
Jing Qi nodded, picking his wine cup off the table and leisurely taking a light taste. A while after, he asked, “Is anyone still in your household? Haven’t you any classmates or friends?”
“My parents have already passed,” Mu Huaiming replied, loud and clear, “but I have two young servants. We rely on one another for survival, depending upon each other as we scratch out a meager existence. My friends…” His voice faltered, an emotional look appearing on his face, but he repressed it by force, pointing at Liao Zhendong. “The majority of my friends and classmates have already been snatched by this dog official, and the rest are waiting at the entrance with indictments in hand!”
“Indictments?” Jing Qi smiled lightly, looking at Liao Zhendong. “I say, Sir Liao, despite the wealth you have here, you also don’t have much peace.”
Liao Zhendong bowed his head and just said nothing, intending to wait and watch how Jing Qi resolved this.
Yet, against expectations, Jing Qi abruptly set the wine cup down, then knocked moderately against the alcohol table with a crisp sound. Young Prince Nan’ning’s smile was cold as he gave orders to those around him. “What are you still waiting for? This wicked, commoner thug has openly slandered the Dynasty, wildly letting loose a lot of talk. Why are you not arresting him, nor that group of mad apostles at the entrance? If you all dare to let one slip away, this Prince will only have all of you to interrogate about it!”
That bout of shouting just made everyone in the environs freeze for a second. Jing Qi minutely bowed his head and fiddled with his sleeve. “What? This Prince said to do it now,” he continued, bizarrely imitating Helian Qi’s manner of speech. “None of you gents have listened carefully, have you—?”
The guards quickly held up Mu Huaiming, put him in a five-flower bind, and hauled him out. At the same time, someone also took the order to call a group of the Estate’s courtyard guards over, and, not long after, each of the kindred scholars outside had been tied up and brought back.
Mu Huaiming cursed furiously whilst they dragged him like a dead dog. “Corrupt official! Vicious courier! What benefits has Liao Zhendong given you?! Jing Beiyuan, you’re tyrannically preying on the flesh of commoners! There will come a day where you are struck by lightning, and you won’t die a good death—!”
Though Scholar Mu was a bookworm, he still had quite a great voice. His holler of ‘won’t die a good death’ had cadence, which was felt to reverberate around the rafters for three days.
Jing Qi smiled faintly. How a bad death comes about isn’t something you can call. You can have your own conscience clear for hundreds of years, yet still never experience a good death.
Liao Zhendong was the first to get up from his seat. “This humble official has handled things unfavorably. Please issue punishment, Prince,” he said, as if he was fearful before royalty.
Even with that, his heart settled. No matter what was said, Jing Qi’s yelling had clearly demonstrated where he stood. Prince Nan’ning and he could now be considered grasshoppers crawling the same rope.
Superintendent Li Yannian was even quicker to take notice of the opportunity, and with one clap, a pack of plain-clothed beauties came in single-file from the end of the veranda. No brightly-colored jewels or hair ornaments were to be seen, just qins and xiaos matched with them. The one leading was all the more stunning, almost on par with the capital’s Miss Moon Su Qingluan in terms of looks, with quite a bit of similarity between them; she was somewhat more remote than Su Qingluan’s loveliness, though.
Jing Qi inwardly smiled. They were going straight for the weak points, alright. The Two Guangs were far away, but these gentlemen’s information hadn’t been cut off in the least. They even thoroughly scouted out his preferences.
Li Yannian first cupped his hands towards Provincial Coordinator Zhang Xun, then spoke to Jing Qi. “These are nothing more than a few women from ordinary families. They can’t be claimed as national beauties, but Sir Zhang did go to a lot of trouble to look for them. You are a refined one, Prince, so, out of fear that you would disdain their plain adornment, he had them specially instructed with care. Those with us here are all considered to be the apex of looks, and there’s hope that they’ll be able to catch your eye, Prince.”
He had just applauded his superior, then applauded his superior’s superior. Jing Qi tilted his head to sweep his eyes over him. He had met this man on the road when he arrived, and his impression of him was rather deep; though he was a Superintendent at present, it was still a slight waste of talent.
“That’s right. So to speak, they indeed can’t compare to the capital’s Miss Qingluan that you’re familiar with, Prince. They’re not that bad, though, and each have their own unique style,” Zhang Xun said with a smile.
The corner of Jing Qi’s mouth bent. He tried desperately not to laugh. Upon getting it under control only an age later, he raised his head to aim a look at Zhang Xun, not making a sound. No wonder this Late Emperor Initiate Scholar of twenty-three years had gotten to a fully white beard, yet was only acting as a Coordinator out in the hinterland. He probably had to spend money in bribes to get the position, too.
Even Liao Zhendong glared at him, thinking to himself: aren’t you undermining this? You’ve just started talking, yet explicitly told him ‘we know every trend that goes on in your capital, no one’s business is too small’.
It was most taboo for others to make inquiries on the whereabouts of the capital’s nobility. Zhang Xun had said nothing for such a long time, but as soon as he opened his mouth, he committed a faux-pas, acting the lead opera star in the process.
That the beauties sung and danced during the banquet went without saying. After the party dissolved, Liao Zhendong gave a signal with his eyes, and someone sent the leading beauty to Jing Qi’s room. Thus, it came to the event that once Jing Qi pushed open his door, he caught sight of a grand, beautiful woman sitting inside, her swaying figure under the lamplight inspiring words that were put a stop to, which narrowly caused him to retrace the step he had just taken out of fright.
Coincidentally, as if he had telepathy, Wu Xi was in the capital, listening to Nuahar informing him of what he had scouted out. Nuahar couldn’t investigate every thought of every everyman, naturally, so he could only divulge the general idea of what everyone knew.
“You’re saying it’s because he was dispatched to go investigate a rebellion?” Wu Xi asked.
Ashinlae added spice to the story. “I heard that the officials over there are really rotten. Commonfolk will only create a disturbance if they don’t have the means to keep living. Though, I think that rotten officials are the Great Qing’s specialty, so those ones might be the pinnacle of rotten.”
Wu Xi creased his brow in worry. Weighing the other’s body language, Nuahar quickly said, “But you don’t need to be too concerned either, Shamanet. Zyale is intelligent, nothing will happen.”
‘Zyale’, in Nanjiang, meant ‘good friend’. Wu Xi cast him a look. “He’s not zyale, he’s the one I like. I’m going to take him back to Nanjiang later,” he retorted like this was no big deal.
It went quiet for a short moment. Nuahar and Ashinlae, whose smiles were frozen on their faces, looked at each other, narrowly believing that they had heard wrong.
The Shamanet, who wanted their lives, said further, “I didn’t lie, and neither of you heard wrong. It’s true. I like him.”
Of course it was true, their Shamanet had never told a lie… Nuahar’s rump sat on air, and he fell from the small stool. Ashinlae opened his mouth, “th-that”ing and “th-this”ing for half the day, yet could not organize his words into a full sentence.
“However, I will request that you two don’t let anyone else know. If Beiyuan knew now, he wouldn’t agree to it, and might not want to see me again,” Wu Xi said mildly. “Wait… wait for a while to pass to speak further on it.”
Saying so, he disregarded them, stood up without prior consultance, picked up the little snake that had curled up into a ball in his arms, then went towards the back courtyard.
He pondered on how those rotten officials Ashinlae spoke of might want to exhaust their means to buy off Jing Qi. The guy once said that what people sought out was nothing more than the few words of riches, beauty, power, and lust. Power and riches and whatever were things he might not attach much importance to, but… what about beauty?
Of course, he might not attach much importance to that, either. Based on what Wu Xi understood of him, he believed that the guy, at most, would like it on the inside while feigning that he didn’t on the outside, and not care too much. To use his words, he had ‘come across a stage and was putting on a play’, and would not actually get bought off.
However, once he brought Jing Qi’s casual attitude to mind, in joint with ‘like it on the inside’ and ‘come across a stage’ and such, he felt the roots of his teeth itching, making him urgently want to go find something to grind them on.
He was truly accusing Jing Qi unfairly, though, as he was one of devotion and infatuation in this world again, absolutely no different from the Lord Seventh that had previously sat tall beside the Three-Life Rock for over sixty years; he just did too many regular, perfunctory social niceties. Wu Xi, the earnest and opinionated one, could not distinguish between putting on a play and taking genuine pleasure in something, so he always viewed the other’s heart to be quite flower-like.
After the riches came the beauty, Jing Qi jested to himself. That Sir Liao really hadn’t spared any effort. Being only vaguely shocked at the doorway, he thus stepped foot into the room, then shut the door offhand. The beauty stood and bowed respectfully. It was far from obvious just now, but it seemed that the makeup she had on was very unusual; there appeared to be just a touch of it, meticulous and in good taste, yet, with a closer look, one would detect some other mysterious element at play.
Zhou Zishu and Jing Qi had been associating for a long time. The former was a national expert in face-changing, which entailed the latter coming to understand a small amount of its various techniques. He couldn’t do them himself, but he could make out a thing or two by looking.
He marginally froze, thinking to himself that Liao Zhendong really didn’t know when to quit. Why was one thing happening after another? He came this whole way to feel him out, then a huge scene was just kicked up. How was that still not enough? Somewhat impatient, he tamped his temper down and asked her with indifference, “Who had you come here?”
“Governor Liao,” the beauty whispered back, head lowered.
“Hm. What are you called?”
What he asked was what she answered, no honorifics. Her eyes were constantly cast downwards, every sentence was truncated extremely short, and her voice was pressed down into her throat, extraordinarily tender… yet vaguely having a sense of disharmony. He frowned, glanced at her again, then discovered that this beauty… was a bit tall.
He reached out to grab “Miss Jiu”‘s chin, narrowed his eyes as he sized her up carefully, then let her go, unable to glimpse any emotions from her charming face. “I don’t need you to attend to me, then. Go on out,” he said while waving her off.
With that, he turned around and paid her no more mind. A long time passed, but he didn’t hear sounds of movement. “Why haven’t you left yet?” he thus asked in some displeasure.
An arm abruptly reached out and hugged him from behind, the puff of a fine fragrance wafting with it. Miss Jiu’s warm body was almost plastered onto his back. “Am I not good enough, Prince?” the beauty asked delicately.
He knocked her arm off, flinging her away. “This Prince dislikes people who are ill-behaved. Scram,” he expressionlessly replied.
Miss Jiu raised her gaze to look at him, complete coldness inside the gorgeous drawn lines of her eyes, with a cold glint of light suddenly within her sleeve…
The authors says that the Guang section doesn’t last long, and Uncle Seventh will explain later if it’s unclear.
The translator says: There’s so many assassins in this world. Everyone needs to chill out.
I had been hoping that ‘zyale’ would have clarified which ethnicity Nanjiang was, but it didn’t, because mass comparison to known Asian languages yielded nothing similar. So, I’m going to officially chalk it up as a made-up culture, call it a day, and continue to make pseudo-language transliterations.