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Jing Qi’s mood had been awful the whole day. He was awfully fatigued, and slept unsteadily. As soon as he closed his eyes, they would be full of chaotic dreams, in the yang world one minute and the yin world the next. Upon awakening, he only felt dizzy, and couldn’t remember what he had just been dreaming of.
For that reason, he woke up at once from Ping An’s light push.
He squinted as he glanced at the still-dusky sky. Having just woken up, his throat was somewhat relaxed, and his words came out slightly hoarse. “Which shichen is it?”
“It’s at fourth watch(1-3am), Master. Young Master Zhou has come.”
Jing Qi frowned, his mind clearing up before he had even rubbed his eyes. “At this hour? Where is he?”
Ping An paused. “In… the back courtyard.”
While Jing Qi crawled out of bed and had Ping An help him dress, he asked, “What did he go to the back courtyard for?”
“This slave had… the body laid there beforehand.”
In spite of being extraordinarily unwilling to see Ji Xiang’s corpse, he still ended up tidying himself up and rushing to the courtyard. The body was covered in a white cloth, which had a corner of it lifted away. Zhou Zishu was crouched to the side, looking dazed.
Jing Qi had never seen that sort of expression on him before. “What’s… the matter with you?”
Zhou Zishu lifted his head to look at him blankly, then pointed at Ji Xiang. “You brought him along to go to the Guangs, and you didn’t keep him?”
Jing Qi waved his hand, getting Ping An to leave. When only he and Zhou Zishu remained, he gently sighed. “I wanted to keep him, but I couldn’t.”
Zhou Zishu turned his gaze back around, as if he was going to carefully study Ji Xiang’s corpse. “Right. You couldn’t,” he replied absently.
Zhou Zishu fell backwards into a sit on the ground, both his arms propping him up from behind. The long hair at his temples hung down, his face unspeakably listless in the shadows. He inhaled deeply, slumped his shoulders, and forcefully wiped his face with his hand. Jing Qi walked up in front of him, then discovered that the other had a tangle of red veins in his eyes; he hadn’t seen him for just a day, but he had gotten extremely haggard.
“Jiuxiao went out today…” he heard him say, “and ran into a song-selling girl in a restaurant. After giving her some tip money, she gave him this.” Saying so, he took out a wrinkled, worded piece of paper from his sleeve and passed it to him.
Suspicious, Jing Qi took it, and understood with only one look. His face went white immediately, and he suddenly lifted his head. “Where is she?”
“Who?” Zhou Zishu laughed dourly. “You mean the girl at the restaurant? I’ll handle her. Liang Jiuxiao… he… he said murderers pay with their lives. Told me to pay with my life.”
“I didn’t think this through,” Jing Qi answered quietly. Massive wind and giant waves were both coming, but a little girl had unexpectedly overturned the boat, and he had nothing to say at that moment. “This was my mistake, Zishu. Later, if you want to strike or kill anyone, I’ll go along with how you handle things, but for this matter to be dealt with cleanly, absolutely no one else should be allowed to know. Take me to go see him first — get up.”
Zhou Zishu was pulled to a stand by him, swaying, and quietly watched him call for horses and carriages to be prepared, after which he followed him out.
Zhou Zishu’s residence was hidden behind a large fabric shop, its storefront shut up. Passing through a secret door went to a small back courtyard, where a good many plum trees were planted. Once the plum blossoms bloomed in season, their fragrance could spread far and wide. Going even further in, and past a small veranda, there was another courtyard, but it looked much more heavily-guarded.
Zhou Zishu took Jing Qi all the way to the innermost part, then pushed open a small, shabby door in the corner. The doorway had several people guarding it — inside was a sinister-looking holding area.
“I locked him up in there,” Zhou Zishu said expressionlessly.
Jing Qi gave him a glance, then hurriedly followed after the lamp-leading old servant. The internals of the holding area were like a maze, with someone standing watch at every single turn; it seemed more guarded than the Ministry of Justice’s prison. Upon coming to the furthest point, Zhou Zishu stopped in his tracks, refusing to go inside.
Jing Qi looked at the guard, then said to the old servant, “Leave me a key. All of you, please leave for a short moment.”
Once everyone had withdrawn, he walked over and opened the iron door of the cell.
Liang Jiuxiao was shrunk into a corner. The food at the side hadn’t been touched, already gone cold. Noticing Jing Qi come in, he mutely raised his head to look at him, a bizarre smile coming off the corners of his mouth. “Ah, Prince. Many thanks for your hospitality that day.”
Jing Qi walked over to his side without a word, looking down on him from up on high. The face of someone normally elegant and refined had gone cold, seeming to bring about an oppressive force out of thin air. As a result, Liang Jiuxiao moved his eyes away to stare at the corner, speaking stiffly. “Have you come to be a go-between? I actually forgot that, in this slaughter of a loyal subject, you also had a part—”
All of a sudden, Jing Qi reached out and picked him up by the collar, lifting him off the ground, then viciously pushed him against the wall, following which he smashed his fist into his stomach. Liang Jiuxiao was stunned, having not expected him to hit him so readily, and he didn’t avoid him automatically. With a muffled grunt, he bent over, and Jing Qi punched him again on the chin.
There was not a shred of relent in his fist, beating Liang Jiuxiao’s head into dizziness and turning it to the side. Mouth full with the taste of rust, he opened it to spit out a mouthful of bloodied foam, then staggered back a few steps to the side. Seeing that Jing Qi was about to give his other side a supplementary punch, Liang Jiuxiao quickly held up both his arms to block the front of his head.
Jing Qi slowly took back his fist. Liang Jiuxiao waited a long time before he put down the arms he put up, then blankly used his hand to feel his bruised chin. “Liang Jiuxiao, do you know how to write the word ‘conscience’?” he heard Jing Qi say, a pause between each syllable.
He wanted to ask another person this, as well: Ji Xiang, do you know how to write the word ‘conscience’?
Liang Jiuxiao stared blankly for a short moment, then suddenly recalled that after he had endured that slap, Zhou Zishu’s face was pale, and his heart tightened for no reason. Soon after, though, he calmed back down again, chuckling quietly. “Prince, everyone says… that the throne is propped up by the bones of the dead. I had thought that was just the casual babble of wandering entertainers, but I didn’t expect it to be true.”
Jing Qi’s face didn’t fluctuate even a little bit.
Liang Jiuxiao took a deep breath. “I dare ask, then, Prince; where is your conscience?”
“I had a dog eat it,” Jing Qi replied indifferently.
Liang Jiuxiao looked at him, disoriented, then suddenly started laughing, as if he had heard an immense joke. He folded over, only for that laughter to resemble sobs more and more. “You’re… you’re truly the bluntest person under this sky, Prince.”
Jing Qi paid no mind to this mad look of his, only saying softly, “Jiuxiao, imagine that you’re driving a big carriage with about eight people in it, and the horse is panicked while rushing straight towards a cliff. Not even a god could rescue you all. However, at this moment, another fork in the road appears at the side. If you turn onto it, none of those people will have to die.”
Liang Jiuxiao wasn’t sure what he meant, but he still ultimately had some respect towards Jing Qi in his bones. For that reason, he automatically stopped his laughter to listen to the other continue on. “On that road, though, there is a child that won’t have time to dodge. If you turn the carriage around, he will certainly die. What do you do?”
Liang Jiuxiao opened his mouth, but no words came out.
Jing Qi stared dead at him, his words pressing. “Will you make these eight people die, or make the turn?”
The other was mute for a long time. “I… I would prefer to die myself.”
Jing Qi smiled. “You? You dying does nothing.”
Liang Jiuxiao leaned back against the wall of the holding area. Ages after, he slid down along it until his butt hit the floor, head lowered. “I… would turn.”
“Okay, so you’d turn,” Jing Qi flatly picked up. “Let’s say there’s a carriage with eight people in it about to fall off a cliff, but this time, you’re a bystander. Your hip acupoints are stuck and your legs can’t move, so you can only watch helplessly. In that moment, there’s a passerby beside you. You know he’s a good person, but you also know that if you pushed him forward, the mad horse could be stopped, and those people would be saved. Would you push him?”
Liang Jiuxiao raised his head to look at him, his blood running cold. “What?”
Jing Qi nodded. “Well, you just decided to turn and take this person’s life to save the lives of everyone on the carriage. Therefore, this time, you should push him forward, too…”
“What are you talking about?!” Liang Jiuxiao shouted. “How could I, for no good reason, go and… go and kill a good person?!”
A ponderous smile showed on Jing Qi’s face, causing that handsome, gentle countenance that Liang Jiuxiao was used to seeing to shortly turn harsh, and he heard him say, “When you’re driving the carriage and can only choose one path, you turn, using the life of one in exchange for eight lives, and claim that you had no choice. Yet, when you’re told to kill someone, you would rather watch these people die than be willing to dirty your own hands. Good, good, good…” After those three successive ‘good’s, he laughed coldly. “How awe-inspiringly righteous Hero Liang is. How serving of the nation and its people, how lofty and above the crowd.”
With that, he turned and left, as if he disdained to even look at him.
Liang Jiuxiao gazed at his retreating back, sitting on the ground in a daze.
Striding around the corner, Jing Qi caught sight of Zhou Zishu standing there all by his lonesome. He sighed and reached out to pat him on the shoulder. Zhou Zishu smiled bitterly, grabbing his hand. “I’ll… take you out for a drink later,” he said, voice rough.
Jing Qi shook his head. “I owed you.”
“What did this have to do with you, Prince?” Zhou Zishu asked softly. “You aren’t a god. Are you also not a human?”
Jing Qi’s heart jolted, and he laughed painfully a long while after. “I’m human. I just eat human food, though, and don’t really do human things… take care of yourself.”
He quietly departed. No one brought closing the opened cell door to mind. Liang Jiuxiao sat inside for however long, and Zhou Zishu stood outside for however long.
It was only at daybreak of the following day that Liang Jiuxiao shuffled out from within. Upon seeing Zhou Zishu, he didn’t say anything for a long time, finally calling out, “Brother…”
Zhou Zishu shut his eyes. He said nothing, merely opening his arms to gather him up into his embrace.
The human world’s complications couldn’t be deeply pondered. To deeply ponder them was misery.
Those who could dream big and float through life with a pot of unfiltered wine were greatly wise people, and had to have been greatly fortunate, as well.
Liang Jiuxiao seemed to have become taciturn all of a sudden. Everything he had believed had been overthrown in the span of a night, but he had calmed down anyway. Zhou Zishu and Jing Qi both inwardly sighed in relief, but they couldn’t look after him for the moment — something had happened in the Northwest.
A few years prior, Jiang Zheng had put forward to his superior that the Northwestern Spring Market was a cause for concern. Now, Jiang Zheng was dead, as if a jinx had come true.
Zhao Zhenshu and his group had successively fallen off their horses. In former years, all Spring Markets had been organized by him, so when the Market happened this year, the Northwestern Vakurah people abruptly discovered that the officials handling it had entirely switched to a new batch of faces. Not only that, but this batch of people also didn’t know how things worked around there.
The Northwest had just undergone a purge — who would have dared to defy the law at this current critical juncture? Hence, as far as the commoners of the Great Qing were concerned, forcible taxing and levies were to be scarce. As far as the Vakurah were concerned, then, big-ticket secret business deals and income were cut off. The Vakurah’s ambitions were thriving, and, beyond that, an extraordinary person had come to be. He was a leader named Jeshe; in just a short couple of years, very nearly every part of the Northwestern barbarian clans had already been subdued by him. His domain grew bigger and bigger, and his power grew bigger and bigger, so his ambition naturally also grew bigger and bigger.
And, at last, the opportunity for his ambitions to burst out of his chest had arrived.
At the start of this summer, the Northwest had reported the critical situation of mutiny. The Great Qing’s northern defenses, which had been undisturbed for more than a hundred years, suddenly suffered an attack out of the blue. The defending army that was pretty much half-retired to civilian life retreated in defeat step by step, and in the span of a month, nine cities had been successively lost.
Now, the weather had truly changed.
Helian Pei genuinely understood that something had happened this time around, and even attended Court meetings for a couple of days, always patiently sitting on his throne as he listened to civil officials and generals holler the entire meeting into a hideous quarrel of ten million ducks.
Nevertheless, Jing Qi mentally formed an indistinct, different plan.
The translator says: Uh… why was ‘unhitching the horse’ not an option? Is doing that hard?