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Zhou Zishu, who was following behind Helian Yi, took a step back, looking pensively at Wu Xi as he stood beside him, brows lightly furrowed.
Jing Qi was quiet for a long time, still having that sallow complexion and those unmoving eyelids despite his heart flipping around a couple of times. That day in the East Palace, when Helian Yi blurted out those words, which seemed to remain in his ears, prior to his leaving, a slight hint of something different vaguely came through them.
The affairs of life were one big dream. The human world had experienced several bouts of autumn chill, and three hundred years of love and hate had hurtled past. From the beginning to the end, as if happening in the snap of one’s fingers, youthful faces and beautiful hair would both become dried-up bones, warrior’s courage and musician’s essence turning into flying ash.
For sixty-three years, there was an unconventional guest next to the Three-Life Rock. After sixty-three years of hard contemplation, he then realized that there were no characters upon the Rock to begin with. Those alleged several lifetimes of karmic ties; weren’t they laughable?
This world hadn’t changed a bit. It was just fickle.
Jing Qi smiled lightly, closing his palm. “The Explanation of Characters puts the clouds of yun, the bright of jing, and the light of guang together. The sun of ri is associated with it, and the jing of capital sounds like it,” he said, composed. “It’s a good word, but you’ve asked the wrong question, Sir.”
Helian Yi looked at him, eyes sullen. “What have I asked wrong?”
Jing Qi reached out his hand, dipped it into the bit of water in his cracked, coarse porcelain tea cup, and rewrote the character ‘Jing’ onto the table with a slender finger. “The sun rises in the East, daylight sprouting in all directions, and is gradually able to climb the layers and layers of mountains. It misses the Emperor’s head a bit, but the splendorous capital beneath his feet is filled, able to advance yet not retreat. If you ask about this word’s future prospects, Sir, then despite its difficulties and challenges, it will also have sublime affluence.”
Helian Yi chuckled, though there were no laugh lines at the corners of his eyes. “And if I… want to ask about a fated bond, instead?” he asked, voice hushed.
Jing Qi shook his head, chuckling back. “This word has no affinity. Were there to be a three-life-long karmic tie for it, it would only be an empty shadow. There was no need to ask, Sir. You’re well aware of this in your heart.”
Helian Yi lowered his head. A long while later, he forced out a smile and stood up. His shoulders and back seemed to be getting pressed down by something, both of them bent. Lifting his head and narrowing his eyes, he looked at the ostentatious signboard of ‘The Divinations of Lord Seventh’, the expression on his face somewhat irrepressibly miserable. “What you’ve said makes sense, Mister…”
That phrase seemed suppressed inside his throat, each and every word spat out like knives slicing his voice up, until he sounded a little hoarse. “It makes sense.”
He suddenly took out an absolutely exquisite pouch out from his lapels, then tossed it into Jing Qi’s broken bowl for receiving divination payments. It bumped against the less-than-half filling of copper coins with a clinking sound. He turned and left in big strides, as if he didn’t dare to even turn his head back around. Zhou Zishu nodded at Jing Qi and Wu Xi, rushing to follow after him.
The smile on Jing Qi’s face seemed to grow right then and there, and it didn’t recede for a very long time. Afterwards, he picked up the pouch and opened it up for a look; inside was not pieces of silver, but a two-cun sized jade hare. There was a hole drilled through its foot from which an ancient bell hung, making a crisp ring when the wind blew.
He held it in hand, observing it, for half the day, then remembered that it was from that pair of jade hares that Helian Pei had given to him when he was a child. He had deliberately gotten someone to put a bell on one, which he had given to Helian Yi. The other one was likely still in his own Estate, together with those old things that had been accumulated over time.
It had already been more than ten years. Grinning, he put the pouch away, then languidly stood up and stretched his back. “That rich guy spent a generous amount, so it’s time to pack up. Li’l Wu, this Lord invites you to go to the stall across from here and eat wontons.” Saying this, he bent down, collected his ostentatiously deceiving kiosk into its worn-out case, and started moving forwards as he bumped his wooden cane against the ground.
After going a few steps, he realized that Wu Xi wasn’t following him. He looked back with his eyes slightly open a crack and a curl on his lips. “Why aren’t you coming? Do you not want to?”
“What did that guy mean just now?” Wu Xi asked. “Was he saying that he likes someone with the surname Jing?”
Jing Qi stood stock-still. Rubbing his nose and thinking that he mustn’t misguide children with messy affairs like these, he replied, “Whether the surname’s ‘Jing’ or ‘He’, it was just a joke making fun of a wealthy Young Master being a wastrel. He was really hoping that he got it right, but he didn’t find me out.”
Wu Xi shook his head. “He wasn’t making fun, he was saying it seriously. I know it.”
“What do you know?” Jing Qi sneered. “You’re a little kid. Studying well is fine and all, but what are you thinking so much for?”
Wu Xi frowned. “I’m not a little kid.”
Jing Qi nodded half-heartedly. “Yeah, yeah, you’re not little, you’re right at the time of your life where your youthful looks are in full bloom and you take neither passion nor woe into account. Hey—” He started mumblingly singing in an imitation of an actor’s intonation, mocking and cracking jokes like nothing at all had happened just then.
Wu Xi remained standing where he was, motionless. “I’m not a little kid,” he insisted.
Jing Qi had since swayed over to the front of the wonton stand, put down his stuff, and begun to strike up a conversation with the owner, too far away to hear what he had said.
There was a vast field of reeds dewed with frost-like white, and a certain someone stood on the other shore, difficult to reach out and touch.
In glory and dust, his native land was a far journey away. Who had the free time to sigh deeply over these sentiments?
Wu Xi suddenly traipsed forward, grabbed Jing Qi’s arm, and looked at him with a cauterizing gaze. “In your heart… has there ever been someone that, whenever you see them, it feels like there’s a flower blooming inside you, and when you don’t see them, you’re restless all the time? But even then, you’re afraid to say it to them, and just feel that you’re unworthy of them? And you think up of all sorts of things on their behalf, refusing to let them have one day of difficulty or one spot of unhappiness even if you died?”
Jing Qi’s hand that was reaching for chopsticks paused. Having seemingly remembered something upon hearing that, he lightly laughed an age later. “Yes.”
Wu Xi jolted, his mouth open with his voice stuck in his throat, neither spitting it out nor swallowing it down. A long time after, he took in a deep breath, then asked in a quiet voice, “What… kind of person are they?”
Two piping-hot bowls of wontons were served, steam assailing their faces. Jing Qi picked up a soy sauce dish from the table and poured some seasoning into his own. “Dead,” he responded casually. “I’ve long since been unable to remember them clearly.”
“If you really had someone, you wouldn’t forget them even if you died. You’re speaking untruthfully again.”
Jing Qi smiled, yet said nothing. Shutting his eyes and lowering his head, he put on a whole slew of affectations in fumbling about to eat the wontons.
The reason why he couldn’t remember clearly wasn’t because the person was dead, but because… his heart was dead.
In Court the next morning, Helian Pei unexpectedly appeared. At departure time, Jing Qi was intentionally made to stay behind, and he called for him to accompany him for tea and xiangqi.
“You little brat, wanting to run off again. What is appealing to you so? Do you not even feel like seeing your Uncle Emperor?”
Jing Qi smiled apologetically. “Ah, how could that be? Am I not… busy with official business?”
Helian Pei lifted his eyes to glare at him. “Busy? You’re entirely busy with setting up a fortune-telling stall in the city’s south, ah?”
“Cough, you see… what’s with the Crown Prince suddenly reporting this subject’s circumstances again?” Jing Qi grumbled with a bitter face. “Is this because his friend extorted him out of a speck of divination money?”
Helian Pei pushed him on the head with a smile. “Troublemaker! When your Father Prince was young, he was a first-rate talent of our capital. How could he have made such a naughty, undisciplined kid as you?!”
“It’s a pity that he passed early,” Jing Qi followed along, “or else you could’ve asked him if he had swaddled the wrong child, right?”
Those words invoked Helian Pei’s nostalgic memories. He looked Jing Qi up and down once. “Mingzhe… has been gone for eight years, yes?” he asked, sorrowful.
“Yes. Answering Your Majesty, it’s been a whole eight years.”
Helian Pei narrowed his eyes as he recalled the past. Somewhat emotional, he extended his hand into the air and made a gesture. “Eight years ago, you were only this tall… such a tiny baby. Now you’ve already grown into an adult.”
Jing Qi remained silent.
Helian Pei sighed once more. “Those old friends that we used to talk, jest, drink, and compose with have mostly passed on now. Watching all of you grow big, we have also grown old.”
“You are right in the middle of the prime of your years, Your Majesty, how can you say that you’re old?” Jing Qi countered immediately. “Father Prince… had poor luck, is all.”
The man kept sighing for a while, dragging Jing Qi into jabbering about those times when he was young, and dripping a couple rounds of tears in the midst of them. Jing Qi was obliged to be beside him and listen, having to contort into an outstandingly sad expression as he accompanied him in his anguish. Really, who made the Emperor extend this topic himself?
He knew that His Majesty was someone of deep feelings, and he still wasn’t allowing anything new towards himself these days, so he took this chance to deliberately bring up past events. He hadn’t expected that this gentleman would get distressed and be unable to put a brake on it.
The tea continued for three or four rounds, and only then did Helian Pei stop, wiping his tears. “When people get old, they love to talk about past things. All you young folks certainly don’t love to hear of them.”
“Why do you say that?” Jing Qi said with a smile. “Father Prince had gone early, when this subject was a child. My impression of him is not profound, and sometimes, whenever I think of him, it even feels fuzzy. The more things you say, the more things are jotted down into my heart, and they will remain in the next life for me to be filial towards him.”
Helian Pei shook his head. “Ah, you…”
Suddenly remembering something, he looked up at Jing Qi. “Beiyuan, with that said, you aren’t little, yes? It ought to be time for you to be concerned about major life events. The day of selection is next month, so Uncle Emperor will decide on a noble and virtuous lady for you among the debutantes. Though, if there’s one you take a liking to, you may say so ahead of time. Old man that I am, I mustn’t be hasty, lest I irritate you into unwillingness.”
Jing Qi raised his head to look at him, somewhat stunned.
Helian Pei clapped him on the shoulder with a happy grin. “You’re not little, and should settle down and establish yourself. What will you end up looking like, when you muck about everywhere, anywhere, and all day long? Wouldn’t it make people laugh?”
The forebear of mucking about was now educating someone else. Jing Qi quickly lowered his head. “What is this you’re saying, Uncle Emperor? Beiyuan still feels young,” he whispered. “It’s… still too early to… to settle down.”
“Hah?” The man glared. “Still too early? Tell me, when would not-early be?”
Coughing drily, Jing Qi racked his brains for half the day until he choked out one phrase. “The… the Xi-Xiongnu haven’t been exterminated yet, how could I think about family?!”
Helian Pei guffawed, nearly rocking back and forth, and once again laughed out tears that had just been wiped away. “The Xiongnu aren’t yet exterminated, so how can you think about family? None of your four limbs work hard, and you can’t distinguish between the five crops. If the Xiongnu actually came, what could you do?”
Jing Qi looked pained. “Your Majesty, you say it like that, b-but… but…”
“But what?” Helian Pei cut him off. “Do you avoid taking a wife because it’ll prevent you from playing wild? It’s time to find someone who’s tremendous enough to manage you — right, speaking of tremendous, there’s that girl from Feng Yuanji’s household whose nickname is Shu’r. You’ve seen her once when you were young. Her dad was loyal to the last for the nation, and we looked upon her with pity, accepting her as an adopted daughter. As it happened, Noble Consort Xian had no heirs, so she’s been raised with her this whole time. Indeed, that girl is a lady who doesn’t concede to men, being fond of dancing with blades and toying with spears ever since she was a child, and animated in personality, you see…”
Jing Qi’s heart thumped. Whilst smiling obediently, he gave Helian Pei’s expression a careful investigation.
Great General Feng’s daughter, the later-titled Princess Jing’an? Whoever married her would pretty much receive the General’s crowd of ambitionless former ranks, which were scattered all over the country. Furthermore, didn’t Noble Consort Xian have that high-powered Grand Preceptor Zhao? He and Lu Renqing had a very close personal relationship. Though the bulk of him was ordinarily hidden from view, what scholarly hanger-on didn’t take him as a superior?
What position did marrying Princess Jing’an give within the Court?
The Princess was a sweetcake, but when it came to him, she was a hand-burning sweet potato.
Was this another testing maneuver, Helian Pei? He let out a breath of relief, taking in another one anew. With a sudden idea in mind, he knelt down with a plop. “Your Majesty, this subject wholly doesn’t dare to follow this order!”
Helian Pei swept his eyes over him. “Why? Is our Princess undeserving of you, Prince?” he questioned mildly.
Jing Qi merely knocked his head against the floor in kowtow, soundless with his teeth gritted. A chunk was bashed off of his forehead, yet he seemed to not feel it at all. Helian Pei’s face morphed. “Enough! What does this look like?!” he bellowed, then laughed coldly. “Since you dislike our Princess, and we are not an incompetent ruler lacking in reason, how could we force you?”
“This subject deserves infinite deaths,” Jing Qi replied, voice low. “May I atone for my sin, Your Majesty, but I have someone else I’ve fallen for. I absolutely do not dare to tarnish the Princess’s clean reputation.”
Helian Pei paused, raising his eyes to look at him. “Which family’s Young Miss has such magical talent as to enrapture our Prince Nan’ning into not even wanting a Princess?”
After being silent for half the day, Jing Qi began slowly. “Answering Your Majesty, Ming Hua is… a man.”
Helian Pei nearly sprayed out the mouthful of tea he was drinking. Witnessing this, Eunuch Xi quickly stepped forward to pat him on the back, and he choked for ages before slowly breathing out. “What did you say?” he questioned, raising his voice.
Jing Qi knelt on the ground without rise, head lowered. “Answering Your Majesty, although Ming Hua is someone from brothel grounds, his heart is not that of a lowly person, and he’s mutually fallen in love with me. We’ve both known it for a long time, I… I…”
As soon as the words ‘brothel grounds’ were said, Helian Pei’s brain exploded. He pointed at Jing Qi with a trembling finger, ‘you’ing for half the day because he forgot words.
“Quell your anger, Your Majesty, it’s only… an affair of passion. Restraining oneself is most difficult,” Jing Qi stopped and started. “Like old willows and purple jade, I just know that it’s a matter of vowing to be with each other in life and death—”
“Scoundrel!” Helian Pei furiously chastised, interrupting him. “There are three ways to be unfilial, and having no descendants is the greatest; do you want no heirs? Do you want to make the first outer-surname Prince title in our Great Qing have its bloodline cut off from now on?!”
Reticent, Jing Qi looked forlorn.
“Jing Beiyuan, you will return to your Estate and be on house arrest, not to come out of it for three months!” Helian Pei raged. “If… if we come to know that you’ve gone off to someplace as ridiculous as a brothel again, w-we’ll break your leg on Mingzhe’s behalf!”
Jing Qi prostrated himself, and Helian Pei suddenly threw his tea cup onto the ground. “Get up and get out! You make us angry just looking at you! Get out, go back, and don’t you dare leave from there!”
Jing Qi stumbled a bit when he stood up, with Eunuch Xi hurriedly ordering Wang Wu to support him, and ended it with a barely-squeezed-out smile. “This subject will obey the decree.” Then, he withdrew with a slight curve to his back. He was a thin person to begin with, and this bow gave his retreating figure an emaciated feeling. Helian Pei watched him, dazed, and couldn’t resist turning his head away.
He walked all the way out of the palace in this dried-wood-god manner, after which he straightened up his spine, a minor smile exposed on his marginally pathetic-looking face.
The Great Qing’s first outer-surname Prince? Might as well cut off those authoritative roots, then, and save that gang of top-seaters the time of being overly suspicious all day long. Three months of house arrest… well, after three months, the Emperor wouldn’t have reason to not be worried anymore.
When the time came, someone would be waiting to make their move.
The translator says: Remember not to feel bad for Helian Yi. Being heartbroken is his karma.
(Because someone’s going to say something if I don’t say something: the flip-flopping between ‘Old Seventh’ and ‘Lord Seventh’ isn’t me.)
 From the poem “The Reeds”, author unknown. (Read in full here.)
 An ancient version of a female talent show, except it consisted purely of noblewomen, and was for the purpose of selecting women to marry into the royal family to one person or another.