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Jing Qi peered at Liang Jiuxiao, mute, for a good while. Then, he put a hand on his forehead and smiled helplessly. He had believed himself to have witnessed a considerable amount of absolutely absurd events in this vast, complicated world before, but he didn’t expect that, by happenstance, there would be a situation like this that made him feel debilitated as well. Liang Jiuxiao, who caused Prince Nan’ning’s yet-helpless smile, smiled at a bit of a loss.
Ever since he was a child, his natural aptitude hadn’t been very great at all. Whether it was studying, practicing martial arts, or even the technique of face-changing, he was a few beats slower in all of them than his fellow sectmates. Luckily, he was willing to put in painstaking work, and, a long time later, he was contrarily much more solid than those who were naturally gifted but unwilling to try hard. Who he admired most all his life was precisely his omnipotent-seeming eldest sect-brother; on this event of going out on his own to experience the world, he was holding in his power, harboring the inclination of wanting to make a career like Zhou Zishu had. As it happened, he had received a letter from that sect-brother a few days prior that stated that he had a friend coming to the Guangs, and they had been entrusted with an object as proof. So, if they had a need, he was to provide assistance as Zhou Zishu’s allocated local agent.
Vaguely recalling something at this point, he couldn’t help but open his eyes wide.
Jing Qi pulled out a piece of green jade from his lapels, placing it on the table. “This… this is my sect-brother’s…” Liang Jiuxiao exclaimed.
Endlessly astonished, he took the jade into his hand and carefully examined it. Something that he had been accustomed to seeing since he was small would, naturally, not be mistakenly recognized. He then lifted his head to look at Jing Qi, immediately after which he knelt onto the ground with a thunk. “This commoner didn’t know that the Prince was… I have highly offended you. Please forgive me,” he said, unflinching.
His manner of speaking had already gone respectful.
“Don’t do that. This Prince can’t withstand your gracious gesture,” Jing Qi replied cheerfully. “If, by any chance, I’m a villain, wouldn’t you now be suffering a huge loss?”
Liang Jiuxiao bowed deeply. “This commoner has deep knowledge of my eldest sect-brother’s moral character. If you really were a corrupt, fawning official that mowed human lives down like grass, Prince, then he absolutely would not make friends with you. This commoner has treated you rudely; I was alarmed by your handling, and narrowly made a huge misstep…” Following that, he mumbled until no words came out, simply kneeling on the floor and kowtowing on end, refusing to lift his head up.
He was genuinely regretful and repentant, the anxiety even making his eyes go red around the edges. Jing Qi mentally sighed, thinking that Liang Jiuxiao was different from his sect-brother and his bellyful of schemes, being a truly sincere kid — if he didn’t give him a way out of this, he would probably annoy him to death on the spot. As a result, he leaned over and personally helped him up. “Well, then, since you’re Zishu’s brother, I actually do have a little something to trouble you with.”
Liang Jiuxiao’s eyes brightened. “Please state it, Prince!”
Jing Qi took out a brush and paper, then jotted down a string of names at flying speed. “Help me by secretly making contacts to get information about these couple of folks… family background, close paternal relatives, the more details the better. Especially on this Li Yannian.”
Liang Jiuxiao was surprised. “Isn’t he Liao Zhendong’s crony?”
Jing Qi shook his head, not giving him much explanation. “Just having someone research him is fine,” he said simply. “As this Prince is in this place, I’m afraid sending letters to others will be quite inconvenient. I’ll need to rely on you all.”
Since this guy incidentally bumped right into his hand, to not utilize him would be meaningless.
Liang Jiuxiao hurriedly nodded with passion. “Got it!”
“You go on ahead, then, and have a bit of caution in your comings and goings.”
His movements were entirely in the dark. Despite Liang Jiuxiao being a moron, he had some amount of self-awareness. Once he obtained Jing Qi’s instructions, he never acted willfully again, and whatever Jing Qi commanded was what he did, turning him into a legitimately immense help. In the eyes of Liao Zhendong and the others, Prince Nan’ning hadn’t come to investigate the case, but to have fun, apparently.
That day, a few people had been specially invited to ask whether there were any local specialty trinkets, as he claimed that he wanted to take them home with him to give to his little friend in the capital for his amusement.
Governor Liao didn’t know who the ‘little friend’ he was referring to was, guessing that they were some descendant of nobility. He had sought out a group of four people – Li Yannian and himself included – to take turns entertaining him; Jing Qi was awaiting the triumph of pacifying the riotous army in name, while he enjoyed eating, drinking, and entertainment in reality.
As such, peace and balance were dwelled in.
He was unfettered here, but because he had hurried out of the capital at this critical juncture, he didn’t get to catch up with a grand occasion there — the wedding of the Crown Prince.
The evening before it, Helian Yi dismissed his attendants and sat alone in his study for the night. Beyond the innermost, deeply-buried stack of documents about scriptures, history, religion, and anthologies, he opened a secret compartment, taking a small box out from it. As if he was holding a rare treasure, he opened it very carefully; inside was an oddball pile of faded knick-knacks, as well as a scroll painting.
These things were helter-skelter in quality, some fine and some crude, but they had all been given by one person.
He remembered that when Jing Qi was a boy, he spoke with a kiddie voice while he acted like a little adult, but once he turned around, he would have an evil grin, liable to go up on the roof and tear off its tiles were he to go three days without discipline — there were many times that Grand Tutor Zhou would get so angry, he wouldn’t be able to say anything, his beard shaking all about. He recalled how that tiny ball of fair softness would present a little gift to him like it was a treasure every time, readily putting on a natty intonation like he was wheedling a little girl, which he had learned from who-knew-where.
“Your Highness, this one I brought back specially from a stroll outside the palace. If you’re going to make me mad again, I won’t be wise and kind.”
“Crown Brother, Uncle Emperor gave me a pair of bunnies yesterday. I specifically wanted to leave one for you, but no one let me… Grand Tutor Zhou punished me with copying the Book of Rites, too. Do you… think you can help me with a few pages? Just a few?”
“Quick, look, Crown Brother, I made this little bamboo pig myself… huh? Uncle Emperor’s katydid cage? The… th-the bamboo on this really wasn’t broken off of that one. I already hid the one that I did break it off of.”
The corner of Helian Yi’s mouth unconsciously raised up in a light wisp of a smile, an unspeakable feeling of tender affection suddenly swirling in his eyes.
He then waved his hand to open the scroll. Inside the painting was a teen sitting casually atop bluestone, with his features angled low, hair loosely coiled in a bun, a miscellaneous book on his lap, an attentive grip on the writings, and a faintly discernible, leisurely smile on face — it was lifelike. The one who painted it was of average skill, but beneath his brush was indescribable emotion, as if every single iota of the youth in the picture was seeped into his heart, and once he shut his eyes, all his frowns and smiles would be before him.
Helian Yi abruptly shut his eyes, closed the scroll, then moved it closer to the margin of a candle. He stayed there for a long time, only to extinguish the small, burning flame in a flurry, sighing quietly in the end. Cautiously, he put the scroll and tiny things away once more, then placed them into the deepest depths of the secret compartment.
It’s only because he’s Jing Beiyuan, and I’m Helian Yi…
It’s only because—
The long night was near to over.
The Crown Consort was the granddaughter of Grand Preceptor Song, a young mistress of reported virtue and goodness that also bore the fragrance of orchids and the qualities of osmanthus. This was the first time Wu Xi, who was watching from the sidelines, had seen as majestic a wedding ceremony as this.
The month of the Ox of Man, the day of the Rabbit of Man, and the year of the Rooster of Toil all cut the West off, and thus were suitable for marriage.
Fanciful attire to worship the heavens, divination to announce auspiciousness, maintenance of the gift list of seasonal works and treasure. A hundred officials stood before the Hall of Revered Heaven. The Sacred One sat in dark red robes, overseeing the toast and sacrifice of drink. The royal Crown Prince personally welcomed the Consort outside the main gate, donned in beaded crown and robe with guards guiding, as was tradition.
Each step had particular standards. The sky and earth and yin and yang harmonized, alongside hundreds of things going by unhindered. Fortune was prayed for and peace was sung for, the sound transmitting endlessly for dozens of li. The lyrics were indistinct inside the incomplete noise of the wind, solemn and profound with a bare trace of inviolable isolation faintly suffusing it. Wu Xi listened to it distractedly; he couldn’t understand the majority of the verses, but he suddenly felt somewhat lonesome.
He turned his head to once again gaze towards the infinitely-important palace that had lasted through countless ages, determining that the entire capital was a four-sided cell. During his daze, his seven-ish year situation was like a short flash, passing by with such pressing. He had believed himself the prisoner at the start, but, as it turned out, everybody was a prisoner.
He recalled dreamland Jing Beiyuan; his body so cold with only that one thread of warmth even on his lips, a fuzzy haze always seeming to have shrouded his features, and that head of shocking white hair, too. The idea in his mind of bringing the other back to Nanjiang suddenly became stronger than ever; he didn’t want to have him ruminate on things day and night, fawning on people contrary to his will, nor to have him exhaust his mind for every scheme, eternally having difficulty with finding peace.
He contemplated on the nearly-vanished Su Qingluan, who was currently in a tiny courtyard waiting to sing for one person alone every day. Today, that person got his own wife, and every single official and commoner in the whole city had gathered together for the excitement. Was she mixed in with the crowd and wandering about by herself, or was she silently polishing her qin inside her own little yard?
He couldn’t understand it, really. That woman had handed her entire life over to Helian Yi, so why would she want to betray him? Or, in the event that her heart was awry to begin with, what was she even thinking right now?
Getting a frustrated knot in his heart all of a sudden, he thus wordlessly turned around and returned.
Life had no roots, floating like dust above a path. Yet, there were forever quite many lovesick children that thought of someone more than a thousand li away: concealing them in their heart, yearning for them in both waking or sleeping, dreaming about them, reflecting on them like mad.
Because he had been a newborn calf, he hadn’t been afraid of the world’s ways that were vicious as a tiger, constantly believing that there would be a day that he’d be able to return to the mountains and forests of nature, fleeing the confinement of the human realm. Following very many people and very many years, the wind from the overgrown gate of heaven blew and dispersed his youthful hesitation, and his heart’s boulder turned into a huge amount of sand, scattering with a light bump.
How many people were there that could die without cowering back, die without turning their head, die without yielding?
If one really could, then the Heavens would obey their will. However, that logic was something the majority of people would not understand.
In any case, Jing Qi, who had gotten reminisced about by two people, just had other things to do. The insurrection had already been fully quelled with the Dynasty troops returning victorious in a few days’ time, as was foreseen when they were coming over. Jing Qi used this moment to quietly call Liao Zhendong over, who was confused over his intent. “Prince, this is…”
Cracking melon seeds in his teeth, Jing Qi crooked his fingers at Ji Xiang, who tacitly understood to take a letter out of his lapels. Not saying anything, Jing Qi simply passed the letter over so that Liao Zhendong could read it for himself. The latter accepted it, his bewilderment boundless, but one glance told that it was in Helian Zhao’s handwriting. Obscurely hinted on it was that there were several fairly major figures that were within the Eldest Scion’s scope of influence in the Guangs, the implication glaringly obvious.
Liao Zhendong lifted his eyes to look at Jing Qi, merely listening to him speak. “Sir Liao, open people don’t speak in veiled words. This Prince had come on this trip and will, nevertheless, have to give an explanation to the Emperor and those gentlemen. How this will be explained, however, is up to you.”
The man firmed up, cupping his fist. “I request your pointers, Prince.”
“Ah, Sir Liao…” Jing Qi sighed, swiping his hands clean of seed shell debris. “You’re silly. Are you aware of why the Guang mob riot came to be?”
Liao Zhendong was caught off guard, only to hear him continue on. “Let me ask you this; how much money do those couple of big local merchants and landlords pay you each year, and how many benefits have they given you?”
The other’s eyes widened into circles. “Prince, nonsense mustn’t be spoken.”
Jing Qi smiled slightly. “But, Sir Liao, regardless of whether it’s officialdom or merchantdom, there’s no getting up early if there’s no profit in it, everyone comes out to idle away their days, double-crossing is most taboo, and words are uncalculated. Since they’ve spent money to buy security, in what way did you then stretch out your hand aboard the ship others were ferrying? Sitting on the ground and divvying up the spoils can still get your human head beat into a dog’s one. This treachery of yours…”
He chuckled, stopping there. Liao Zhendong, of course, internally understood that inside this was the interference of local wealthy households, which were taking advantage of the disarray to blacken him. He couldn’t help but show distress on his face. “Prince…” Following that, he used his eyes to signal at Jing Qi’s Helian Zhao letter, voice subdued. “The appetite of those mentioned gets greater and greater. This humble official has many difficulties that I have no choice in, as well.”
Difficulties, my ass. Your greed is insatiable…
Jing Qi pat the back of his hand, his next words heartfelt. “Sir Liao, the midday sun will shift, and the full moon will wane. Stop everything while you’re ahead, have both leniency and strictness, and then thin water can flow as a long stream; why trouble yourself with digging your own grave? I’ll ask you again. Counting up every type of idle operative in the Guangs, how many positions are there in sum, and how many were sold by you? It was with great difficulty that they had accumulated a bit of an estate, and then they contributed for rank on behalf of their heirs, so even if a position is idle, it still has an official’s salary. You’ve made an uncountable hash of things like this, giving them both empty power and wealth; are you aware of how many below will hate you so much that their teeth itch?”
Liao Zhendong wiped his sweat off. “Th… this humble official didn’t think things through enough.”
“Now that something bad has happened, you still want to cover things up, which just makes it worse,” Jing Qi said with a sigh, shaking his head. “This Prince really doesn’t know what to even say to you. If it weren’t for the Eldest Highness… tch!”
The other knelt down, trembling. “Prince, please save this humble official’s life!”
Jing Qi grinned and crooked his fingers. “Bring your ear closer.”
Once the briefing for this and that was given, Liao Zhendong withdrew, his heart filled with anxiety.
Jing Qi sat idly about, alone in the pavilion, for a full half-day. Beside him was fresh, unfiltered wine with green foam, a little red clay stove, and brilliant snow outside the pavilion. All of a sudden, he horribly crooned out a discordant rendition of the Song of Resentment. “Newly-made qi silk, shining bright as snow, cut to make an embroidered fan, round as the bright moon. In and out of the cradle of the lord’s sleeve, it sways to create light wind, ever fearing the autumn festival’s coming… heh-heh, ever fearing the autumn festival’s coming, eh…”
At that moment, Ji Xiang came in close and said a few things into his ear. He nodded. “Call him in,” he said, his mood quite good.
Ji Xiang turned and left. A short while after, he brought Li Yannian over the small veranda and into the snow-viewing pavilion, who gave an obsequious smile. “You truly are someone of refinement, Prince. Now could be said to be the exact right time for snow viewing. What a pity that we rarely see this white here in average years, look at how clean it is.”
Jing Qi smiled. “Have a seat, Sir Li.”
Li Yannian thanked him and did so. Ji Xiang poured wine out for the both of them, then retreated soundlessly to the side.
Li Yannian took a taste, only to detect a heart-penetrating fragrance shoot right up to the crown of his head. He couldn’t help but cry out that it was great, though Jing Qi was unmoved. After downing it in one breath, the latter spoke unhurriedly to him. “Sir Li, the first thing this Prince invited you here for today was for wine-tasting, and the second…”
He drew out a yellow-saturated letter from his sleeve, passing it before Li Yannian with a grin. “The second, I found something a bit interesting. Please, look it over.”
The man took it, and, right when he opened it, his expression changed drastically at once.
The translator says: me, in a stroke of non-genius: Brother Crown Prince is too long and Crown Brother definitely isn’t stupid-sounding
 *eagle screeches in pain* Okay. Bear with me. This is all in reference to old calendrical yearkeeping; the sexagenary cycle. The Twelve Heavenly Branches (the zodiac animals) and Ten Heavenly Stems (the attributes) are crossed with each other to label 60 different years (even though 10 x 12 = 120, they only use half of the combos), after which the cycle resets, kind of like how there’s multiple zodiac years of the Horse and whatever. On top of that, they label months and days the same way, though with different formulas… honestly, it’s a big goddamn mess, and they calculate auspicious days with it, somehow. (Here’s a table that illustrates it better than I can – xin you is the Rooster of Toil year, the 58th.) The West is typically a euphemism for death, hence why cutting it off is a good thing, though hell if I know why a date would do that.
 From Bai Juyi‘s Inviting Liu Shijiu. (Read it here.)
 Written by Consort Ban, comparing herself to a tossed-away autumn fan after losing favor with the Emperor. (Read the rest here.)