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Spring in the imperial city exhaled soundlessly, the bitter cold still present, yet faintly collapsing. The spring’s chill would abruptly turn to warm, then back to cold again, like both were scouting out with advances and retreats.
Jing Qi emerged from the throne room, face gone apathetic, and rode the palanquin straight back to the Estate.
He calculated inwardly that he had indeed been a bit over-the-top the time before. Having kept silent for all these years, the majority of those in Court only took him as a wealthy idler. However, starting from when Jiang Zheng incited unrest, his movements hadn’t been small whether they were open or hidden, and with the Guang incident now, those interested saw through him all the more.
The words of ‘once he wanted to sing, his first song amazed the world’ were said of the King of Chu; if they fell upon his own head, it would be enormously far from encouraging.
Whitewater had to withdraw, one day. Jing Qi dismissed the servants and sat alone in his study for a moment, unconsciously fiddling with the jadeite ring hanging on his neck that Wu Xi had given him. He pondered how, from what Helian Pei had said, it had probably come time for him to need to draw back. This realm was the Helian family’s, in the end. Some things were fine for adding fuel to the fire, but climbing onstage with them to put on a show wasn’t necessary.
“Where is Ping An? Ping An!” he suddenly called out.
A response came from outside, and Ping An pushed open the door and came in. “Master.”
Jing Qi ruminated for a bit. “When the Crown Prince got married, I wasn’t in the capital, and didn’t attend. I’ve oft been close with him, and he hasn’t taken any less care of us these years, so that ultimately doesn’t feel very fitting, when I think about it.”
Ping An was startled, understanding his hidden connotation immediately, after which his face crumbled. “Master, even if you weren’t in the capital, there’s no logic in saying that we servants didn’t carry through for that big event. The gifts for His Highness’s wedding had been delivered long ago, and when they were being prepared, I asked you to look over them, too… what’s more, you can go to the East Palace in person to apologize for your fault with sincerity.”
Peering at him, Jing Qi only felt amusement, and he deliberately teased him. “Go in person? If both my hands are empty, wouldn’t others still say that this Prince is insincere?”
“How could you be insincere?” Ping An quickly replied. “What objects could be comparable to you having the mind to make a personal visit, Master?”
“I still have the self-awareness to know that I’m not that valuable,” Jing Qi followed.
Turning his head to see Ping An’s twisted-up, big-pancake face, he thus got twisted up on the inside as well, and reached out to poke him hard between the brows. “Is our Estate going to run out of money? It’s just a supplementary gift for the Crown Prince, and no one will find the extra courtesy strange. That look of yours is like you’re going to have to go pawn the planks off of coffins. Talk less nonsense and go do whatever it is you should be doing,” he scolded.
There weren’t many people in the Estate. Jing Qi had been born into a noble household, so its daily expenses didn’t need to be announced, but it wasn’t to the extent that it was lavish, and most of it went according to the norm. Despite loving to mess around and be able to live it up some, those were non-excessive occasions set for a fixed amount of time. The majority of the Estate’s expenditure went entirely to socializing and bribes.
Ping An was internally distressed. The one not making the money was the one that didn’t know how to spend it wisely, but there was nothing he could do, either, so he mumbled to himself as he left.
Not staying there for the night, Jing Qi walked to the East Palace himself.
Normally, those who had just gotten married ought to have their countenances glowing with light. For some reason, though, His Highness the Crown Prince was haggard, looking to be more exhausted than him, the one that had barely returned to the capital and been running about all over the place before he even had time to drink a sip of water. Only when he saw him arrive did he have the slightest bit of radiance to his face, and he pulled him over to take a close measure of him, sighing quietly a long while later. “You’ve gotten thinner.”
Not waiting for Jing Qi to say anything, he spoke to those attending. “Go see if that medical meal is done stewing, and have someone serve a bowl for the Prince.”
Jing Qi waved his hand repeatedly. “Don’t do that, don’t. I can’t stand that taste.”
Helian Yi completely ignored his protest, paying it no attention as he questioned him in a pileup of noises. “Did your work go smoothly? I heard that heavy snow fell from the sky there this year, did you freeze?” The look in his eyes was pressing, and he forgot to let go of the hand holding Jing Qi’s wrist, either because he was unaware that he forgot, or he was emotional.
With a light cough, Jing Qi drew a half-step back to the side and pulled his hand out, feigning insouciance. “What’s this all about? Liao Zhendong treated me with good food and drink. Fearing that I would freeze, he specially erected a few li long canopy in wait for me. My life had been much more comfortable than it had been at the capital.”
For but a short moment, he suddenly sensed that there appeared to be something hidden in Helian Yi’s expression, but he refused to investigate it.
Once one was bit by a snake, they would fear well ropes for ten years. Sometimes, the pain would be difficult to deal with, and the fear, close at hand; upon putting a moment of more thought into things, he felt scared out his wits, and couldn’t wait to get eight zhang away from him.
It was said that, in a foreign land, there was a species of animal known as elephants — huge, long-nosed, and possessing the strength of thirty-thousand catties. If one was chained to a wooden stake when young and grew up bound to it, then, many years later, when it had the ability to wrap around a tree and uproot it, it still wouldn’t be able to struggle free of that tiny little stake.
Jing Qi understood well that instinct could not be resisted, because Helian Yi was, at times, his stake.
Helian Yi’s complexion imperceptibly dulled some, following which he let go of him in coordination, sat down, and sipped his tea like nothing had happened. “I heard that you had only just come back today and debriefed Father Emperor. How come you’re not resting at this moment, but have run off to my place?”
“I have a gift for you, Your Highness,” Jing Qi said with a smile. “I was afraid that you wouldn’t be able to get it if it was any later.”
Helian Yi glimpsed the trunk Jing Qi had someone carry in, and he promptly understood what the ‘gift’ was. Lowering his lashes, he smiled without rushing to speak, then waved his hand to have everyone in the surroundings withdraw before he answered. “Could it be that you’ve gotten inside information on Helian Zhao?”
Jing Qi picked out important words as he explained the entire series of events in his visit to the Guangs, after which he opened the box, displaying a layer of calligraphic works, paintings, brushes, inkstones, and other such stuff; since he had a good eye, everything being gifted to the East Palace was quality goods. In ordinary times, Helian Yi would be fond of fiddling with these baubles, but he didn’t have any inclination to do so at this time. He watched as the other irreverently arranged those masterfully-crafted, strenuously-obtained works of art on the floor like he was setting up shop, noticing thereafter that the trunk was packed full of string-bound ledgers.
Helian Yi stood to reach out and grab a volume, casually flipping it open. The more he read, the more shocked he was, and he quickly picked up another volume in sequence. The eyes of the Crown Prince, who had previously never shown happiness nor anger in his looks, widened into two circles. “Where… where did you get these from?” he asked in a hushed voice.
“Inside here are records of all sorts of illegal dealings that happened between Liao Zhendong and Guang merchants over the years, with copious ledgers of him having sold official’s positions and titles of nobility therein,” Jing Qi responded, grinning. “It was Li Yannian who had written down each and every word of them, as he had been following Liao Zhendong these years. As for the rest… they’re Liao Zhendong’s contacts with other people in Court. Those are from when their steward couldn’t withstand being under torture any longer, and quietly pointed out a hidden room for me to search.”
Immediately hearing something amiss, Helian Yi raised his gaze to look at him with a furrowed brow. “You secretly enacted torture while interrogating the convict?”
The Great Qing hadn’t tolerated cruel methods since its beginning, apart from what was properly endorsed by the Ministry of Justice. Even the Emperor’s Imperial Envoy could only go as far as taking a case to trial, or giving a couple of beatings with a switch — they weren’t allowed to conduct torture in private.
Jing Qi smiled, voice low. “No one will know.”
…Everyone that knew was dead.
Helian Yi’s face underwent a couple of changes. He stared at Jing Qi for a good long while, then sighed. “Beiyuan, you shouldn’t… do stuff like this.”
Jing Qi raised the corner of his mouth into a smile. “I’m willing to toil like a running dog for you, Your Highness. I only request that you don’t forget my assets in the future,” he stated pointedly.
Helian Yi watched him for a bit with a deep look in his eyes, as if he was slightly disappointed, then waved his hand. “What’s done is done, and that’s the end of it. You… should be careful, anyhow.”
He quickly took the out. “Right. Thank you for your guidance, Crown Prince. I will not disturb your rest any further, then.”
With Helian Yi’s visage sickly, Jing Qi ceased talking, and went to bow and withdraw. When he was about to walk out the door, he heard Helian Yi suddenly speak up from behind him. “You refused to even rest for a night, instead sprinting to me. Did Father Emperor say something to you?”
Jing Qi paused in his steps.
In truth, reporting to the Emperor when he had just returned from handling such a huge, outside case was within the norm, but apart from him, it was ill-advised to get in contact with anyone else straightaway, lest people suspected that hidden agendas were had. For example, even if he was allowed to, Helian Zhao wouldn’t be so bold as to go seek him out and hastily gift him stuff. As it happened, the Crown Prince managed the Ministry of Appointments, so if Helian Zhao went looking for him later, it would be regarded as being within decency.
He had anxiously taken a trip to the East Palace in person; on top of the reason for it, he had also faintly made it clear to others that his loyalty was to the Crown Prince’s party.
It had been an implicitly understood thing, but Helian Yi, for some reason, bluntly pointed it out all of a sudden. Jing Qi was stunned where he stood. “What do you mean, Your Highness?”
Helian Yi didn’t look at him, though, only telling him in a quiet voice of unclear implication: “Don’t worry, okay?”
Don’t worry? Don’t worry about what? Don’t worry about Helian Pei, Helian Zhao, or Helian Yi himself?
Amused in secret, Jing Qi played dumb. “Are you okay, Your Highness? What would this subject have to worry about?” With that, he paid him no more mind, departing the East Palace following another bow.
After he was gone, candle flames flickered. Helian Yi abruptly gained a feeling of physical and mental exhaustion.
Once Helian Zhao realized that Jing Qi had him fooled, he already knew that all the things that weren’t on his table had come into the hands of the Crown Prince. Subsequent to being frightened out of his mind, he understood one thing — now, he was truly on the same boat as the Crown Prince. He inwardly issued his fury by mentally chopping Jing Qi to pieces several hundred times.
He shot geese every year, but this time around, a goose pecked his eyes. Against expectations, Jing Beiyuan was so profoundly scheming, he had played a naive follower while actually taking every single person into consideration in his plans.
That old man in the dragon throne had better stay alive. His death awaited otherwise…
If the rebellion plot came true, then the ledgers Helian Yi had would automatically turn into wastepaper.
On a separate side, Jing Qi was talking to Wu Xi. “In this realm, there’s the possibility of enticing the benefits of the Eldest Helian, yes, but I can’t give what’s not in my hand. Since I couldn’t entice him with profit, coercion was necessary to make him sit on the same stool as me… speaking of, I should thank Helian Qi.”
Wu Xi had resumed his habit of reporting daily to the Prince Estate at a set time, but now, he took it even more seriously. He had intentionally bought an entire set of books — ranging all across ones for instructing children, like the Three Character Classic and the Student and Child Standards, to all of the Four Books and Five Classics — and came there every day to bug Jing Qi about explaining them.
Jing Qi was fond of lecturing, and Wu Xi listened to him earnestly; over time, it genuinely came to look like a student reporting back to his teacher. Jing Qi even joked that Wu Xi should show him filial piety and pay for the private tutoring lessons. Unexpectedly, the very next day, Wu Xi had actually made side-inquiries on the proper tutoring fee for tongue-tilling teachers, and gave him a presentable amount of it. Prince Nan’ning, who had just earned money for the first time ever, wasn’t sure how to react.
Ashinlae, a straight-talker, was internally anxious, thinking to himself: didn’t the Shamanet say he liked him? Why doesn’t it look like he’s making any moves? Bearing the energy of an imperial eunuch being anxious while the Emperor was unruffled, he quietly asked Wu Xi, “Shamanet, with you and the Prince always being like this, when would he agree to go back to Nanjiang with you?”
Wu Xi’s line of sight didn’t stray from the book he held, but he paused upon hearing that. “I haven’t spoken to him yet.”
“Why not?” Ashinlae worried. “Are you afraid that he won’t be willing?”
Wu Xi nodded, then shook his head. “Even if he’d be willing, I don’t have the skill right now. How could I not make him worry again, were some incident to happen? It’d be better to train up on my capability first, so that I’m able to protect him someday.”
Ashinlae thought about it, then tested for something. “Then… what will you do if he doesn’t like you?”
Wu Xi was taken aback for a long time. “I’ll treat him well. He will know so, of course.” He spoke no more, turned, and went back to the study, ignoring Ashinlae, who was pulling his hair in distress.
The author says: Classmate Wu Xi, do you believe that good intentions will crack open even rock *clenches fist*?
The translator says: *side-eyes Helian Yi, the pants eater*