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Jing Qi didn’t return to his Estate until it was very late. After lying down next to that small mountain stream, he had unwittingly fallen asleep, then woken up a lot more relaxed. Though, once he remembered that he had to go back to the Estate, he immediately started to feel depressed again.
The capital… truly was an oppressive place.
He rode his horse back slowly, starting to ponder the issue of how he was going to accomplish retreating from here.
To stay by Helian Yi’s side was certainly drivel. No matter how many years he had experienced, no matter how much he had already held himself back — he was still him, and Helian Yi was still Helian Yi. When facing that man, Jing Qi would always fall short of avoiding him out of fear, feeling torment every time; but if he didn’t face him, he would ultimately still have him on the mind.
In former days, enmity was there, and affection was there, love and hatred engraved into his soul. Now that he had gotten over it and no longer cared, there was always a remnant sigh left over within him, in tandem with insistently wanting to draw back yet not being allowed to.
If he was going to depart in complete secret while keeping all his parts, he needed a chaotic situation, and the more chaotic, the better, he thought.
Wu Xi followed by his side, watching him in silence. For some reason, he suddenly felt that fortune favored the bold, so he said, “Tell me… if, right before I leave, I secretly kidnap you back to Nanjiang, would Helian Yi want to go to war?”
Jing Qi rolled his eyes. “That won’t work no matter how many times you bring it up.”
Wu Xi laughed. A minute later, he said softly, “I have a way to take you away. Don’t worry.”
Jing Qi smiled, but said nothing, thinking to himself: I haven’t even thought of a way yet. What plan could you have?
“If I return, the Great Qing will inevitably have apprehensions about Nanjiang within three years. I didn’t understand this principle when I was little, but I couldn’t be more clear on it now. When you want something, a white wolf cannot be caught bare-handed; a bargaining chip must be had. At that time, no matter what sort of request I make, the Great Qing’s Emperor will have to ponder it over.”
Jing Qi was stunned upon hearing this, turning his head to take a careful measure of the youth he had watched grow up. That final bit of immaturity on the other’s face had faded completely, and he still didn’t speak or smile the majority of the time. However, as he looked over in this moment, there was a slight smile suspended at the corners of his mouth, the look in his eyes unspeakably tender. Every single one of his motions were no longer those of the insensible, feral child that had made a scene in Court.
An obstinate rock had undergone numerous temperings and smeltings, turning it into beautiful jade.
All of a sudden, Jing Qi had an inexplicable sentiment. It resembled that sort of heart-aching lament, resembled gentle touchingness, resembled… that sense of pride from thinking that he was the one to polish this jade.
He couldn’t help but say, “You’re doing this for—“
“I’m doing this for you, of course,” Wu Xi cut him off, “and I don’t want war.”
Jing Qi burst out laughing. No matter what this kid had turned into, his bluntness still hadn’t changed.
Wu Xi suddenly urged his horse a bit closer to him, then grabbed his arm. “I can do anything for you. You can’t like anyone else,” he said seriously. “I don’t like you going to those brothels, either, or anyone else touching you.” He paused, and then his voice got resentful. “In the Great Qing, I can’t do anything. If this was Nanjiang and someone dared to touch you, I would cut off their hand. If someone dared to look at you too much, I would gouge out their eyes. If someone dared to covet you, I would dig out his heart and throw it into a tree.”
The smile on Jing Qi’s face froze, and he sighed, not knowing how to react. He spurred the horse’s stomach, and it leapt to jog forward… this little toxin always appeared to be pure and good, but was his heart steeped in the red from the crown of a crane?
When he returned to the Estate, Ping An came in close to him and said quietly, “Miss Su s… sent him back.”
Jing Qi had wanted to ask something, but when he looked up, he saw that Ping An’s eyes were red around the rims, and he knew that the ‘him’ that had been sent back was dead. Thus, he sighed softly. “Carry him out and bury him. You can deliberate on how that’s done, don’t let me see… Miss Su sure is honest. Was she wanting to make me inspect the goods?’
The moment he had Ji Xiang go, he knew that his life and death would entirely depend on what he himself chose to say.
In the end, it was what it was…
Hua Yue’s abacus had been ticked well; all she knew was that her Lady was a beautiful human lantern that typically had no big ideas and blindly went with the flow, arranged for viewing and nothing else. She couldn’t be counted on to make up her mind on major events. Watching as Su Qingluan swayed to the Crown Prince’s side like grass at the base of a wall, Hua Yue knew that she wouldn’t act again, and that wouldn’t do.
She plotted that, since Su Qingluan had gotten her to call Ji Xiang over, the other definitely wanted to know more. Ji Xiang would certainly refuse to talk, so she would then have to incite him into it; she thought to use the matter of marrying him as bait to swindle him into coming clean to the Lady.
However, that alone still wouldn’t work. When Su Qingluan knew, her mind would just get even more confused, and even more idealess. If this matter was to be nudged out, a fitting person and a fitting method were needed. That fitting person had to have a close relationship with the Crown Prince’s party, and, at the very least, they couldn’t be someone that would randomly go about killing people to silence them.
After mulling it over, she remembered that one Young Master Zhou that frequently accompanied the Crown Prince, and his little sect-brother.
Ji Xiang had told her a lot of interesting things from inside the Prince Estate; of those mentioned most among them, one was the Shamanet, and one was Liang Jiuxiao. Hua Yue knew that this guy not only had a good relationship with the Prince, but was even much closer to Young Master Zhou. Even the Crown Prince seldom joked around with him, willing to listen to him speak of some tales from jianghu.
What was most important was that he had reportedly hijacked a young lady of the Jiang Estate to go play at the Prince Estate, and had a decent friendship with Jiang Zheng’s family.
Could there ever be a more fitting person under these skies?
Thus, she secretly inquired after Liang Jiuxiao’s whereabouts, and had a younger sister that had come out of her troupe back in the day pass on a letter.
She had believed her own plan to be flawless, yet she didn’t expect… that Su Qingluan would actually want to kill her to keep her quiet.
Hua Yue was only fifteen, a lovely, touching young lady that thought herself to be very clever — and she was genuinely clever, but ultimately too young, as she hadn’t gotten to the age that she would understand the treachery in people’s hearts.
However, it was also precisely because of her youthful ignorance, which caused no one at all to take her tiny thoughts too seriously, that her plan was allowed to half-succeed.
Liang Jiuxiao felt like his soul had been pulled out of his body. He didn’t know how he came out of that place, nor did he know how he left, to the point that he didn’t even have time to hear Su Qingluan order those two people killed.
He was only thinking about how the Crown Prince had personally carried Jiang Xue from Zhou Zishu’s place to the Prince Estate, and that was in order to cajole her into playing. The Prince had liked her at first sight, and nearly accepted her as a goddaughter. Even his sect-brother, in that span of time, would frequently be carrying some candies and toys on him. They all loved that odd little girl so much. How was this possible?
Sir Jiang had been a loyal subject! A loyal subject that the Crown Prince did not hesitate to retreat in order to advance for, calling for Sir Lu to rack his mind for a way to keep him safe by accusing him of mere misconduct!
He suddenly ran like mad. He needed to go back and seek out his sect-brother to ask him for an explanation!
Zhou Zishu was sitting in the study. Seeing him charge in without even saying a hello, he didn’t find it strange, lifted his head a bit, and continued to check the account book he held. “How come you’re so early today?” he asked casually. “That’s rare.”
Liang Jiuxiao stared blankly at him for a minute, suddenly unable to say the words at the edge of his lips. He thus stammered out an affirmation, sat to the side, picked up a cup of tea, and brought it to his mouth.
Zhou Zishu glimpsed that, furrowing his brow. “Call for someone to switch the pot out. That one’s already cold.”
Liang Jiuxiao forced out a smile. “It’s fine, I just ran here in a hurry. I’ll drink it.”
Zhou Zishu put down what he held and looked at him somewhat doubtfully. “Why is your mind not at peace?”
Liang Jiuxiao shifted his line of sight away, not daring to look back at him, and laughed miserably. “It’s nothing, I just… I just caught sight of a fat little girl walking with tanghulu on the wayside, and I thought of…”
Saying so, he lowered his head, yet sneakily examined Zhou Zishu’s expression.
Zhou Zishu sighed. “Jiuxiao, don’t be like this.”
He appeared to have concern on his face, his brows scrunched up, but there was nothing else outside of that. Liang Jiuxiao was abruptly unsure of whether the other’s look was real or fake. This person who cared the most for him, who was closest to him, he no longer understood.
Thinking of Ji Xiang’s words again, he said, “Brother, I’ve… had some trouble sleeping recently. Do you have any incense or medicine that can aid in rest?”
Zhou Zishu had noticed him getting more gaunt as the days went by; no distress or anxiety manifested on his surface, but they weren’t cheapened any. Standing up, he grabbed his wrist, felt his pulse, and looked his complexion over carefully. Thinking that he ought to have some nerve-soothing medicine, he took out a small token from his lapels. “Go to the apothecary and ask for someone to find you some. Make it clear that it’s for your own use. All of the Shamanet’s medicines are great.”
Liang Jiuxiao took his token and headed out.
The one managing the apothecary knew who he was, of course, and when he caught sight of the token in his hand, he solicitously went to find medical materials for him. Arranging a lot of them all about, he presented them one by one, smiling deferentially. “Young Lord Liang, take a look at what sort you’ll want to use. None of them cause harm, and can be used whenever.”
Liang Jiuxiao thought of his experience from that day; all he felt was that the dream he had in the Prince Estate still seemed so lifelike, and he still remembered it after such a long time. “Is there a type… that makes someone have good dreams after it’s taken? I’ve been constantly having nightmares and can’t sleep well.”
The apothecarist was caught off guard, after which he smacked himself on the forehead. “Oi, if you hadn’t said anything, I would’ve forgotten.”
He pulled open a small cabinet, taking a small bottle out of it. “This item is called ‘Dream Stupor’. This humble one has only one bottle here, as it’s extremely rare. I forgot it just then only because it’s a sort of knockout drug with no color or taste, and taking it or inhaling a bit of it can make one lay down unconscious for a long time. The reason why it’s called Dream Stupor is because those who take it will dream of what they think is the happiest thing in their hearts. It’s a truly good item.”
Liang Jiuxiao accepted it dazedly, revealing a smile that was uglier than crying. “So that is…” So it was that the Prince was yet truly a good friend, to have been willing to use something so rare on him.
He took that small bottle of Dream Stupor, and walked out like his soul was missing…
At the end of it all, only he was such a fool. Only such a fool as he was kept in the dark.
He stepped into Zhou Zishu’s study once more, shutting the door with a turn of the hand. “Brother, Sir Jiang’s family… was your doing, right?”
The brush in Zhou Zishu’s hand fell to the ground.
The expression Liang Jiuxiao had was indistinguishable between crying and laughter. He raised up the bottle in his hand. “On the day the Prince let me stay over, he gave me Dream Stupor, right?”
Zhou Zishu opened his mouth, but he was mute, only able to force a smile a long while after. “Have you been possessed? What’s with all this wild imagination?”
“Brother, don’t keep it from me. I want to understand everything,” Liang Jiuxiao replied. “The Second Scion killed Jiang Zheng and got himself imprisoned — who’s the one that benefits from that, in the end? Back in those days of conscientiously guarding the Jiang Estate all the way until he safely left the capital, who was then the least suspicious person? Why did you appear in that ruined temple that night? Even if the Prince sent you a message, you would have been fine with me going out to wherever by myself back then, so why would you instead stubbornly bring people to come look for me on account of a midnight farewell?”
Zhou Zishu’s expression was off. He only listened to Liang Jiuxiao go on. “I’ve finally realized, too, why the Prince was pained every time he carried Jiang Xue and held her hand. He didn’t want to let go, and each time he brought up wanting to accept her as a goddaughter, the Crown Prince would always divert to a different subject.”
…That hadn’t been the Prince wanting to make her his daughter, that was him knowing on the inside what was going to happen! He genuinely liked her! He wanted to protect her life!
“Brother… brother, you…” Liang Jiuxiao’s gaze met with Zhou Zishu’s, and he only felt that his sect-brother’s eyes were as empty as a dead man’s. “How can your heart bear this? What are you all doing this for, anyways? Power? The throne? Glory and wealth? You’re all…” He ultimately couldn’t resist shedding tears, heart aching as if it was being twisted.
Zhou Zishu sat mutely on his chair. This man of a thousand machinations, a hundred changes, and a focused mind was, in that split second, empty-headed, unable to think up even one justifiable reason.
Ages after, Liang Jiuxiao suddenly stood up, wiped his face off, then stared fixedly at Zhou Zishu. “Brother, I can’t hide this! I’m going to tell the world!”
Zhou Zishu snapped out of it then, standing all of a sudden. “What did you say?”
Liang Jiuxiao found himself to be scarily calm. “Brother, you’ve been bewitched by an authority figure and can’t see clearly. The Crown Prince is someone that’s benevolent and virtuous on the surface; one moment, he’s close and indulgent to someone, but the next, he could do… something as vicious as this. You’re all being taken advantage of by him without knowing it! If you keep going on like this, you won’t have a good ending! You need to wake up!”
Zhou Zishu looked ashen. “Do you know what it is that you’re talking about?”
Liang Jiuxiao shook his head. “Brother, isn’t murdering someone to be paid with one’s life, let alone the slaughtering of a loyal devotee?”
Zhou Zishu’s body swayed. “You… you want me to pay with my life?”
“How can you not understand, Brother?” Liang Jiuxiao shouted. “The Crown Prince is just using you! The murderer is him, it’s Helian Yi! He killed Sir Jiang and framed the Second Scion! Such a dishonest, unfilial, heartless, unjust person — up to what point are you going to help him? Until he’s become Emperor? Allowing him to harm our Great Qing’s lands—“
He didn’t keep talking, as he had gotten cut off by a slap from Zhou Zishu. He covered his face, looking at the latter in disbelief. “Brother…”
The one who had cared most about him since he was a child… actually hit him?
The sound from their side immediately attracted the people standing guard at the door, and several shadows noiselessly emerged.
Zhou Zishu squeezed out a couple of words from between the cracks in his teeth: “Take… take him away for me!”
The translator says: *toots on a trumpet* Here they come! The consequences of your actions! Sucks for you, pal!