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“The advance-retreat approach consists of retreating after you’ve advanced and advancing after you’ve retreated.” Jing Qi was loosely draped in a light-blue robe, its white collar contrasting with a strand of his uncombed, inkstroke-esque hair that had fallen, since he had just woken up from an afternoon nap. Reclining on a chaise with his eyes half-lidded, he had a slightly nasally tone to his words; clarity in the young man’s voice had already initiated at some unknown interim, gradually getting polished into a deep and low sound by time, which his each and every unhurried word like a strike on one’s heart. “Bystanders all believe that when you advance, you then must take some steps back in retreat, so as to avoid blocking the path of one whose path shouldn’t be blocked. Bystanders all believe that when you retreat, you must advance regardless — that’s what is called ‘pushing forwards despite a hundred thousand people opposing me.'”
Wu Xi watched him mutely, his mind clearly wandering. Jing Qi had babbled on to this point lazily, liable to fall back asleep at any time, so he didn’t notice at first. After not hearing him respond for a long time, though, he tilted his head to look at him. “What are you thinking about?”
Startled, Wu Xi avoided his gaze in a slight panic and lowered his own head a bit. “Just like you, then?” he asked.
“Uh… wha?” Jing Qi opened his eyes some. “What about me?”
“When everyone else thought you shouldn’t go to the Guangs, you went. Once you came back, everyone else thought that you would use that opportunity to do something, yet you’ve done nothing, and are entirely the same as you were before.”
“Going to the Guangs was Helian Qi causing trouble for me. The matter’s settled. If I didn’t play the wealthy idler when I came back, when would I?”
Wu Xi pondered this, then shook his head. “Your words are ingenuine.”
Jing Qi burst out laughing, standing up to loosen up his body and stretch. The peach blossoms in the courtyard were blooming like a pileup of snow, and once the wind blew, frost dropped all over the place, bringing a cool aroma with it. As it fluttered down upon Jing Qi, Wu Xi thought that the other seemed to have walked out of a painting. He couldn’t help but recall a poem he had heard a few days prior and blurt it out. “Humble and modest, a youth nomadic…”
Having not heard that clearly, Jing Qi turned look at him with some skepticism. “What did you say?”
Wu Xi shook his head, inclining his head away frantically to gaze at the mottled courtyard wall. He felt that there was a dampness in his heart akin to the moss growing in that corner of the wall; he was right before his eyes, but some words had to be resisted. Suddenly somewhat wronged, he consequently asked in a low voice, “Can you talk about the Three-Hundred Poems for me today?”
Wu Xi was usually one to focus on pragmatism, typically being only fond of listening to things about historical tactics and peaceful governance, while not very willing to listen to him speak of etiquette and poetry. He wasn’t planning to take the exam for Prime Scorer, nor did he have a need to write works too well — those rhythmic written parables in the Poetry Classic had always gone into his ears, but he wouldn’t set them to heart. As long as he could understand what he heard, that sufficed.
Jing Qi was slightly taken aback. Taking note that the other’s head was tilted so that he could stare blankly at the base of the wall, gaze seeming to drift outwards with the shallow color of devotion suffused amidst his enigmatic and hearty features, he couldn’t resist giving a knowing smile, thinking to himself: this kid’s finally gotten to yearning age, huh? “Which section do you want to hear?”
“The one with ‘to take their hands and grow old with them.'”
Ah, so it was true.
Though jubilant, Jing Qi yet remembered something else. He didn’t point it out, merely saying, “That’s a sorrowful song, yet you’ve remembered the two most heavily heart-breaking lines in it.”
Surprised, Wu Xi turned to look at him uncomprehendingly.
Jing Qi lightly let off the couple of petals that had fallen onto his shoulders, then slowly began to speak. “‘With the noise of the striking drums, we leap out with arms, and a moat is dug out the city wall as we march South alone. We follow Gongsun Zizhong, since peace was made with Chen and Song, yet we were not lead back home, our anxious hearts distressed.’ — There’s fighting a hundred wars in the yellow sand until one’s armor turns gold, as well as meritorious achievements built from countless skeletons. Some people reminisce fondly of Loulan and the attitude of not returning until it had fallen, but the majority of folks would rather hear a song such as Snapped Willow in the nighttime, where the spring wind never waned and pining never stopped. What this says is that, in the landsea, a vast army is rushing forth with gold spears and armored horses, war drums swelling and steeds whinnying, but there was one such person that was turning his head to gaze in the direction of his hometown, and observing the living people surrounding him; one by one, they would march out to attack in the morning, and would not return at night. In his heart, that old friend harbors thoughts about his homeland, then appears to die.”
Wu Xi hadn’t expected that he would turn the subject matter to this, and he didn’t react for a moment, simply listening to him in a daze.
With a sigh, Jing Qi continued on. “‘A promise in life and death made with our beloveds, to take their hands and grow old with them.’ These words were not said by a General that had pledged to accomplish his mission, nor an Emperor that could lay millions of corpses low in a second of anger, but a minor soldier. In his life, he was doomed to not have outstanding aptitude, and only hoped that he could live it with his needs met, together with his plain-clothed, poor, ordinary wife: waiting for her makeup and splendor to wash away completely, waiting for her youthful beauty to age, waiting for her to fall deathly ill. After that, he would find a three-chi grave to lie both of them in, and if they were fated in the next life, they would see each other around again. If not…”
He suddenly paused. After a long time had passed, he reiterated, “Flourish, and the commoners suffer. Lose, and the commoners suffer. I shouldn’t say this to begin with, but dare I ask, Shamanet — if you return to Nanjiang, how will you then act?”
Wu Xi witnessed his typically slipshod look presently go completely serious, with a certain indescribable, deep feeling inside the peaceful lament of his gaze. In that instant, he felt that a distance, going from Nanjiang to the capital, had opened between him and the one he was normally close and familiar with. Sour in his heart, his eyes swiftly dulled. “…I get your meaning.”
You’re guarded against me, so why are you good to me?
Jing Qi was accustomed to watching others’ facial cues and body language. Upon sweeping his eyes in a circle across Wu Xi’s face, he knew that he was thinking of something, so he paused. Sitting down across from him, he poured the herbal tea on the table, and replenished it anew for both him and Wu Xi. He interlaced his fingers, placed them atop the desk, then exhaled. “How do you feel about the Crown Prince?”
Wu Xi was stunned, promptly after which he ached a bit. “He isn’t bad, of course. You wouldn’t do everything in thought of him otherwise.”
Jing Qi smiled. “I fear him, though. His Highness is in the most challenging space in Court, and he likes to escape to my place because the Prince Estate is tranquil. In truth, I don’t dare to speak much with him, so I annoy him less.”
Wu Xi’s brows furrowed. In his impression, Jing Qi seemingly hadn’t been afraid of anything previously, since he never saw him have any special reaction to even the most terrifying toxic creatures at his own Estate, and could talk and laugh with anyone without a care there. When he looked at him before, he felt that the guy didn’t take anything seriously. Later on, he gradually understood his strain, but after feeling sorry for him, he still believed that the other was executing things with ease and skill. “Why do you fear him?” he couldn’t help but ask.
“He’s the Crown Prince, and Helian Zhao has never once bowed to him upon meeting him in twenty years, yet he didn’t mind it at all, still giving him brotherly respect.” Jing Qi shook his head. “Helian Zhao is courageous and accomplished. Helian Qi is insatiably greedy, vicious, narrow-minded, and heterodox. Only the Crown Prince… after his coming-of-age, even someone who grew up with him since childhood, like me, can no longer discern his emotions. Even so, nobody else knows his scheming and shrewdness better than I. Tell me, how could I not be afraid of him?”
Wu Xi’s brows scrunched even tighter together. “Since you dislike him, why do you aid him?”
Jing Qi smirked. “I didn’t say that I dislike him. His Highness has the power to hold up the world, having achievements both political and martial, I have no reason to dislike him — if I don’t aid him, then who could I? In the realm of the Great Qing, who could support it aside from him? Helian Zhao, or Helian Qi?”
Racking his brains, Wu Xi discovered that he still couldn’t get a grasp on a state of mind like that: revering, admiring, and able to do his utmost for someone else, yet also fearing them to the point that he wasn’t even willing to converse with them much.
He had always distinguished between love and hate; he liked what he liked and disliked what he disliked, unaware that there were many further specious feelings in the world. Left unable to understand this for a moment, he merely listened to Jing Qi go on. “Let’s talk about me going to the East Palace the same day I came back from the Guangs. The final words he said to me upon my departure… what he meant, and what was going on in his head, are things I still feel like I can’t figure out even now. The more I can’t figure them out, the more I’ll think about them, and after thinking back and forth on it, I’ll get terror-stricken.”
“Why do you have to think about it? Can’t you go ask him directly?” Wu Xi asked, confused.
Jing Qi went mute, finally looked at Wu Xi, then uncontrollably bust out in a loud laugh. The haze and shade on his face were entirely washed clean by his ear-to-ear smile, like a light wind, cloudless moon, and bright, clear sky.
Despite not internally getting it, Wu Xi nevertheless really liked to see him briskly belly-laughing to his heart’s content like this. A long while later, Jing Qi wiped off the tears he got from laughing, reaching out to clap Wu Xi’s shoulder. “No suspicion exists in your heart; I’ve forever admired that about you. I talked to you about Nanjiang just now, and you didn’t get worried. You’re the Nanjiang Shamanet, the future Great Shaman — how could you, in a moment of whimsy, privately make friends with me… when I’m yet the Great Qing’s Prince Nan’ning, and will naturally conspire on its peoples’ behalf? It’s tantamount to me plotting step-by-step for the Crown Prince to get the throne, yet refusing to be close him, and you’re ultimately a foreigner, yet I recognize you as a friend.”
That was to say… in his heart, the Crown Prince was way less close to him than he was? Wu Xi suddenly felt light, like his entire body was about to float out of joy.
At that point, Jing Qi suddenly appeared to remember something, though. He gathered up close to him, the look on his face obscene. “The topic veered off just then, so I almost forgot. You specially asked me to talk about poetry today, Shamanet, and once you opened your mouth, it was ‘to take their hands and grow old with them’, which is super curious. Could it be… that there’s some Young Miss you fancy?”
With him suddenly coming near and sticking close, his neckline, embroidered exquisitely and complexly with silver thread, thereupon seemed to faintly give off a subdued fragrance. Wu Xi knew that the scent came from the clothes being placed within an incensed closet after they got washed, but he always felt that it came off the other’s body, and it smelled a bit subtly distinct-like. Heart quickly skipping a couple of beats, he zigzagged his eyes in fear of looking inside the other’s slightly-drooping collar.
In spite of that, Jing Qi believed himself to have the right idea even more; it was rare to see this kid be so flustered. His teasing heart promptly started up again, and he put his elbow on the youth’s shoulder with a grin. “Well, we have to talk about it — what kind of friendship do we have, eh? If you fancy the Emperor’s Princess, I can tell you this; he might be willing to have a marriage connection with your Nanjiang.”
Wu Xi flung his hand away and stood up with a boom. Whether out of anger or anxiety, his face was permeated with a thin layer of blush, and he stared dead at Jing Qi for a while before turning his head and leaving without a word.
“Hey, I really can’t help but tease.” Jing Qi sat down and picked up his tea cup, unruffled. “That dumb kid. We talk and talk he still gets nervous with me.” He smiled, then called out, “Ping An, prepare a carriage for me. I’m going out.”
Ping An affirmed, passing the order down. “Where are you going today, Master?” he questioned off-hand.
“Yellow Flower. I haven’t gone in several days, and I miss Ming Hua’s tea. Go look for him.”
Ping An’s face crumbled immediately, wrinkling up to be bun-like. “Why are you going to that filthy place again, Master?”
“How is it a filthy place?” Jing Qi asked heedlessly as he let Ji Xiang take care of his hair. “There’s wine, tea, and beauties. Is there any better place for a debauchee like me? The Emperor’s word is paramount; he told me to act as a wealthy idler, so how could I dare to disobey my orders?”
Ping An was severely anguished.
Yellow Flower — that was male prostitute territory, and in the minds of ordinary folks, it was probably more unbearable than Jadeite and Finemist and other such places. The magnificent Prince, going to see a… a catamite practically every day, what did that look like?
Why was the Prince’s deviancy getting worse?
The translator says: Just, like… don’t google what a catamite is, if you don’t know. (Also, that poetry section was an absolutely landfill of quotes from military poems…)
 From “Flagged Mound”, author unknown. (Read it here.)
 From “Drum Strike”, author unknown. (Read the full version here, under Ji Gu.)
 Not going to lie; I have no idea which specific poem of the 50+ that are based on the extremely common ancient practice of ‘snapping off willow branches to say goodbye’ this is referring to.