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TW: Incest mention.
Alarm smoke billowed. Yellow sand appeared to quickly fill the air over the entire northern half of the Great Qing’s landscape. The Vakurahs were like a pack of beasts that had been plotting for a long time, biding their time and concealing their strength for a hundred and ten years until they finally polished their claws and teeth, arriving on whistling winds.
However, in the Great Qing, there were only celebrations of peace, gold-dusted glory, and a herd of high-class, intellectual conspirators.
At the East Palace, luxurious flowers had already finished falling.
“If it’s true that… Helian Zhao plans to use the military strength he has to force abdication and rebel, I’m afraid this won’t be easy,” Jing Qi suddenly said.
Everyone present knew what his words meant, and they couldn’t resist freezing. They saw him open up the defense schematic of the capital. “The people that Helian Zhao had stuck into the army long ago are now mostly agglutinated in the Northwest. A lesser portion of them had replaced the seat Great General Feng had back in the day in Nanjiang’s border defense. These people are not easy to deploy. If there’s truly any unusual movements, Li Yannian from the Guangs still commands Liao Zhendong’s straggler army that he had previously incorporated, and they overall number fifty to sixty-thousand. There’s still time for them to be transferred over.”
He Yunxing was likely the one who most understood marching formations out of all of them. Hearing this, he took the subject over, pointing at the defenses near the capital. “There are three encampments in the vicinity of the capital. The fifty-thousand Imperial Forest Army is its final defense. Mu Tong of the South Encampment is an old fox, and if any real trouble gets kicked up, he’d likely be as grass that goes whichever side the wind blows. Once he comes to rely on Helian Zhao here, the connection between the capital and the entire South will be cut off. Tie Ru of the East Encampment doesn’t need to be spoken of, since he was born as Helian Zhao’s domestic slave. The North Encampment’s Huang Tianyi… I heard that he’s been walking quite close to Helian Zhao these years, and has accepted six beautiful women from him.”
At the end, He Yunxing sighed. “If the Emperor actually does lead troops himself, I’m almost positive Helian Zhao will rebel. This three-sided siege, Prince, is something this humble official can’t explain in a nice way. You reside in the capital all year round and probably don’t know much about these matters, but the battlefield undergoes a thousand changes a second, and faraway water cannot quench nearby thirst. We cannot get sidetracked from the situation of this chunk of land in the capital; if Helian Zhao’s rebellion doesn’t succeed, that would simply be a miracle.”
Jing Qi shook his head, eyes still fixated onto the map, and spoke with extreme slowness as he thought. “Huang Tianyi is the real grass here. If it weren’t for this, he wouldn’t be all-welcoming, either… you don’t know, Yunxing, but he not only accepted six beauties from the Eldest Scion, he also accepted one of my night pearls and a residence.”
He Yunxing never knew of these privately-done transactions of theirs, and he was tongue-tied.
Helian Yi glared at him. “Last time, the South Sea paid tribute of a sum of such pearls. Aside from you, no one else has even ever seen what those look like. How generous of you to re-gift a present.”
To state the truth, ever since that bout of illness Helian Pei had, he acted very odd towards Jing Qi. Anything delicious or interesting wasn’t arranged for any of his sons, but was instead all sent to the Prince Estate. Jing Qi smiled, thinking to himself: how was His Highness the Crown Prince suddenly speaking with such a peaceful-sounding tone?
Helian Yi skewed a glance at him, then smiled pointedly. “I know that your Estate has ample assets, for you to even give away invaluable Hetian jade at will.”
Jing Qi was silent. These words of Helian Yi’s were needles hidden in silk thread — because he met with Wu Xi so regularly, that was getting tied to him. Speaking of, Ping An had actually hit it off with Wu Xi; every little thing given to whoever made the former distressed, but it was Wu Xi alone that he was rather unperturbed about.
Lu Shen busily pulled back the topic that was about to go off-course. “Huang Tianyi and Mu Tong are two opportunist parties that happen to be in the North and South, with the slave Tie Ru sandwiched in the middle. This subject feels like the royal palace is hemmed in by two white-eyed, ungrateful wolves, along with an evil dog watching its prey.”
When Jing Qi heard that, he started to laugh, turning to exchange glances with Zhou Zishu. “Sir Lu,” the latter said with a smile, “General Mu is an opportunist, but the side he would move to would not be the Eldest Scion’s.”
Lu Shen was taken aback for a moment, asking, “How do you say that?”
“Do you remember old Minister Cai Jianxing, who the Eldest Scion framed at the time? Sir Cai’s wife is also surnamed Mu.”
“Back then, Mu Tong was still only a commandant of the South Encampment,” Jing Qi picked up. “He was intended to be set aside as a chess piece, but had unexpectedly bored himself into the encampment like this, having risen to the rank of General of the Imperial Guards’ South Encampment these years. That’s also considering that Brother Zishu and I had far-reaching sight and could recognize talent at the time.”
“Then… then, Madam Cai is Mu Tong’s…” He Yunxing started.
“His blood older sister, of the same father but different mother.” Jing Qi took a sip of tea. “Mu Tong was born of a concubine. The main wife had no son, with only one young lady at her knees. She had injured her body birthing her and likely wouldn’t be able to do it again, so she got a different inkling, wanting to kill the woman that was pregnant with Mu Tong. Unpredictably, the woman escaped due to a freak series of events. After Mu Tong learned his own background, he once secretly returned for a look, but his old father had died early, and the entire household was dominated by that wicked broad. Only his older sister heard of this and treated him well in private.”
Zhou Zishu laughed coldly. “More than well. It’s practically excessive, and against proper relations.”
Lu Shen and He Yunxing went ah at the same time, then looked at each other, feeling that they had underestimated this aspect of the capital’s hiding of filth. Helian Yi nodded. “This will all depend on tomorrow’s morning Court, then. Even so, a few more preparations still need to be made. There absolutely must not be upheaval in the capital.”
The day after, the debate in Court was the same as before. Helian Zhao argued with high self-conviction, and at a moment like this, the script of predominant war was sounding more compelling than predominant peace, and the ones that instigated the Emperor to personally lead troops were overall more compelling than the ones that instigated him to shrink his head back into his turtle shell for the sake of safety.
The Son of Heaven heading an army numbering in the hundreds of thousands and sweeping peace across the Northwest sounded so awe-inspiring, so blood-pumping. This era had been too smooth-sailing, with nothing to get one’s hot blood roiling within them; Helian Pei nearly couldn’t resist opening his mouth to praise him, but upon looking across the crowd of officials below him, he ultimately swallowed it down.
Jing Qi looked at the man on the dragon throne from lower down — gray hairs were growing on him and his years of splendor were gone, but he was still ruthlessly naive. The Helian family sat tall on the country, while he alone had the say on all its mountains and waters. Citizens could only beg the gods and worship the Buddha, hoping that the firmament could make there be more wise rulers and benevolent officials, with less natural calamities and human-made disasters.
It was simply a pity that disasters were frequent, and wise higher-ups were infrequent.
Jing Qi suddenly recalled the period of his own youth, which was more than three hundred years ago. He believed that this would have vanished from his mind long ago, but, against expectations, it abruptly came up at this time — that year, Helian Pei had held him in his arms, and brought him back to the Prince Estate to see his father.
Everyone else’s features were fuzzy. He only remembered that his father glanced at him, and in that instant, it seemed like a multitude of thoughts rushed to the man, yet also seemed that none did at all. He gave the Emperor a de-emphasized bow, then refused to look at him anymore. Rather, when they left, that Royal Uncle sighed, and patted him on the back with a pair of warm hands. “He is sad on the inside,” he said quietly, “and very pitiful. In his life, you are his sole bit of blood relation left. Don’t… hate him, by any means.”
Now, in the throne room, those words and that sigh started to echo strangely in his ears. That feeling of childish admiration during his youth was recalled with suddenness. He previously believed Helian Pei to be like his blood father, but that was an illusion of childhood, in the end.
Helian Pei was a monarch, and he was a subject. Commonplace feelings would never appear in the imperial family.
Jing Qi’s concentration swayed at an inopportune moment, Helian Zhao’s seconding voice in his ears.
At this moment, Helian Pei suddenly looked towards him. “We remember that, back in the day, Beiyuan had told us that if the Xiongnu were not annihilated, none of us could even think about domestic matters. Why have you now become a gourd with no mouth?”
Jing Qi lowered his eyes. On the inside, he knew that Helian Pei was awaiting even more peoples’ endorsement — he planned to play a hero, not a militaristic, dogmatic, muddle-headed ruler. He also knew how big Helian Pei’s ambition was, and how small his abilities were; outside of this guarded imperial city, where would his means of survival be?
In the span of a flint spark, he made a decision. He slightly inclined his head to look at Helian Yi. That look in his eyes was indescribably frigid, and resolute. The latter thus understood, opening his mouth but ultimately swallowing his words in, making the same decision as him.
“This subject believes that the Eldest Highness speaks the utter truth,” Jing Qi said. “I hope that Your Majesty will be protected well, and pacify the Northwest.”
Jing Qi’s yielding represented the yielding of the entire Crown Prince party, finally expressing that they were supporting it fully. The matter of the Emperor leading the troops was thus settled.
Those who were confused inside continued to be confused. Those who understood inside approved, either actively or passively, the change of Emperors.
The imperial family was the most unfeeling.
This was the first time Helian Pei had become a Great General, and he was very excited, eager to give personally supervising all the arrangements of the Ministry of War a go. Jing Qi, however, called out to stop Zhou Zishu when coming out of the East Palace that day. “You… should get Jiuxiao to leave the capital.”
Zhou Zishu was caught off guard. Jing Qi wasn’t a meddling person at all, and it was rare for words like these to come out of his mouth. “Zishu, the capital is a place of quarrel.” Jing Qi looked at him deeply. “Liang Jiuxiao should not have come here back then. Has he gotten anything other than a bellyful of grievance and indignation from doing so? You ought to send him away.”
Zhou Zishu smiled quietly, neither agreeing nor disagreeing. “Many thanks for the suggestion, Prince. Zishu will withdraw.”
He knew that Jing Qi was completely right, but he couldn’t bear it. He couldn’t bear for Liang Jiuxiao to leave.
The Emperor hastened things incessantly, almost wishing that that the two-hundred-thousand strong army could finish assembling by the very next day. Summoning troops, army rations, and armored freight, which people would act as vanguards, how the army would march, how the rear would be arranged, how the Vakurah would be dealt with — he didn’t know anything about these things, but he still thought he knew.
The army actually did complete amassing in a month under his urging. Jing Qi and his group then had some ominous premonitions, but the situation was already out of control. Helian Pei had still previously been happy to wait for the opinions of Court officials in order to flaunt his own willingness to listen to public opinion, but now that he had truly become a ‘Great General’, he got smug, following which he gave no one leeway to speak.
He believed that the two-hundred-thousand-strong army, one foot a person, could stomp the Vakurah tribe back to their place.
With no alternative, He Yunxing requested to be appointed into the army, and then Cui Yingshu, who was posted at Shanxi, moved over. At last, he could support a piece of this whole affair, and not allow the old Emperor to be too over-the-top in the ranks.
Despite this, Jing Qi was getting all the more ill at ease. For that reason, when he was in the Prince Estate that day, he suddenly asked Wu Xi, “You ought to… be going back in autumn of next year, right?”
Wu Xi paused in his actions, giving an mn.
Jing Qi thought for a bit, then suddenly stood up to be by the window, staring at the luscious, densely-shading trees in the courtyard. “The Emperor is preparing to lead troops in person,” he said slowly. “The capital is now in chaos.”
Wu Xi startled. Not knowing what he was going to say, he nodded. “Be at ease. My people have all been told. There won’t be an issue.”
Jing Qi turned, looking deeply at him. In the past, he felt that this man seemed to be right in front of him with a turn of his head, but now, he had abruptly grown up, and might genuinely be leaving for somewhere far away. Those infinitely linked fragments of past events, invisible in typical days, seemed to all flutter vividly in the eyes.
He found himself to be unusually liable to reminisce these days, like an old man suffering seasonal depression. Wu Xi was ineffably stared at by him for a long time, and his heart went soft and ticklish, making him smile out of some uneasiness. “What are you watching me for?”
I’ve watched you not lose your nature after ten years of luxury in the capital, watched you still long for the true purity of old scenery, watched you be magnanimous and affectionate, watched you… Jing Qi thought of how he had secretly called him a little toxin for so many years, but now, all he remembered were his good qualities.
How fortunate he was…
“The present situation is turmoil,” he thus whispered. “I don’t know what’s going to happen, but… I always feel faintly bad.”
“Bad about what?” Wu Xi frowned, not understanding. “You’re saying something will happen in the capital? What is it?”
Jing Qi shook his head. “I merely feel that it stands to reason that you should be returning next fall. Just in case… I’m saying, just in case, I’ll find someone to send you all out—”
“What about you, then?” Wu Xi cut him off.
“Me?” Jing Qi grinned. “In the rise and fall of a home and nation, do you still need to ask where this Prince should be?”
Wu Xi suddenly snatched his collar. All he felt was pent-up frustration in his heart, as if his chest was about to burst, and he grit his teeth. “You… you’re saying that, just in case something happens here, you’ll send me away, staying behind yourself?”
You inwardly accepted my approach and didn’t mind my insistence, but why would you push me away at a time like this? Is it that I, in your mind, am an annoying, trouble-making, thoughtless child that needs you to come take care of and pamper me?
Jing Qi was not the slightest bit affected by the influence of his practically flame-shooting gaze, calmly nodding as ever. “Preparations have finished being made these couple of days. I’m afraid it’ll be too late th—“
Wu Xi firmly hauled him into his embrace, lowering his head to block his mouth. Relying wholly on instinct, he grabbed Jing Qi’s chin and kissed him ferociously. It wasn’t clear whether he was kissing him or devouring him, the thought to eat this man alive narrowly stemming up within him.
The translator says: om nom nom nom