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The breath that struck at his face seemed to bring strong despair with it, the smell of rust spreading outwards. Jing Qi felt that both his lips were pained to numbness, and he wanted to push him away, but his entire person was firmly confined in Wu Xi’s arms.
It wasn’t that he couldn’t kick him away and come to blows, either. Jing Qi knew that his own three-legged-cat-of-all-trades arts weren’t enough, but they weren’t so bad that he had no margin for resistance at all.
Yet, he subconsciously didn’t want to strike and injure him.
Ever since the other was a child, he would speak rudely to him from time to time, and whatever he thought, even Jing Qi, with both his self-restraint and good temper, would occasionally shoot three zhang of fire off of himself, though he always secretly bore with it. But now, with the addition of touching, he still didn’t have the heart to use violence against violence. It was like he had spoiled a child, and presently had to eat his own bitter fruit.
Yet, he contrarily couldn’t resist indulging him.
He couldn’t bear with that regretless infatuation of his, couldn’t bear to keep him outside the door in fully calm, entwined indifference.
A long while later, when both of their breaths were in utter disorder, Jing Qi managed to free up a hand with great difficulty. With his slightly cool palm, he gripped the back of Wu Xi’s neck, forcefully pulled him away by it, then abruptly took a huge step back, bumping his back against the door.
He furrowed his brow, reaching up to feel the corner of his mouth — it really hurt, and the skin had indeed been broken. Thereupon, he furiously wiped the bloodied foam that was coming out of it. “Wu Xi, are you a dog?” he said angrily.
Wu Xi’s breath had not yet been relaxed, but his face’s flush rapidly subsided, and it slowly suffused with white. His eyes landed upon Jing Qi’s slightly red and swollen lips that he had bitten open. His heart somewhat pounded, after which he quickly averted his gaze, hot rage shrinking back and helplessness rising up. “You…”
He thought of how he liked him so much, but was always doing the wrong thing, and always made him unhappy. In that moment, he nearly gained a feeling of sorrow; endless mountains and rivers could be measured, but it was only the path to this person’s heart that was so hidden, so perplexing.
However, when Jing Qi softly sighed, he suddenly gathered Wu Xi in by the waist, whose eyes widened. The man’s face was within reach, his soft breaths falling upon his own, making the color that had just shrunk back rush up once more. He heard Jing Qi chuckle. “Learn well, puppy. If you bite open my lips, how can I go out and meet people?”
Wu Xi’s brains went to paste in an instant, heartbeat quickening like it was exploding. Jing Qi lowered his eyes a bit, then pulled the other’s head down a bit, coming in close to lightly swipe the tip of his tongue against his lips. Wu Xi automatically opened his mouth some, like a confused and ignorant kid learning what bone-deep feelings were for the first time; novel, exciting, and making even his soul shake non-stop in the wake of the other’s minute wanderings.
On top of that, the sensory stimulation he got when he realized who was softly kissing him made it practically difficult to control himself, his final bit of consciousness also sinking into primal chaos.
Time appeared to stand still, for a very, very long while.
By the time Jing Qi let go of him, Wu Xi still couldn’t resist gripping his hand around the other’s shoulder, looking dizzy.
Jing Qi, as a not very moral or clean-living man, suddenly felt like he was taking advantage of him. Thus, he fake-smiled as he lightly patted his face, teasing, “What an inexperienced kid you are.”
Wu Xi’s face — not betraying anyone’s expectations — got even redder.
Inexperienced, as expected; Jing Qi hence curved his eyes along with his smile.
Wu Xi felt his arms suddenly become empty, and couldn’t help but grab Jing Qi’s sleeve, sounding captivated. “Beiyuan.”
“Hmmm?” Jing Qi drew out in answer.
Wu Xi looked at his eyes that were still a bit mischievous, their smile not yet gone, though they appeared to be overflowing with light and color. “In this life, you will be the only one in my heart. In the next life, and the life after that, I will forever remember you, so long as my soul hasn’t scattered.”
Jing Qi suddenly felt like he had plucked a heartstring, abruptly remembering that solemn Bridge of Helplessness, and that immense swathe of blood-like spider lilies. He only hung his eyes and smiled. “I don’t know who I’ll be in the next life.”
“The head won’t remember, but the heart will,” Wu Xi replied. “I must have said something like this in a past life.”
He was abnormally earnest, as if he had remembered something from it. Jing Qi raised his eyes to look at him all of a sudden, and Wu Xi only felt that the look they had was somewhat not-obviously peculiar. “I don’t… recall you saying anything like that in my past life,” he heard him answer.
“Even if I didn’t say it for you to hear, I had to have recited it a million times in my heart as I watched your back.”
Jing Qi couldn’t help but raise a hand to touch himself between the brows, thinking to himself: how was this guy so dumb? He used to don such a papier-mâché-esque face, and was both stubborn and moronic — in this lifetime, that personality was dead-set, and hadn’t changed at all.
“Can you listen to me, Beiyuan?” Wu Xi asked softly.
Jing Qi paused, then nodded silently.
Wu Xi’s voice seemed to get even softer, though the words he said weren’t very soft. “Don’t like anyone else. I would never be willing to hurt you, but if you like anyone else, I’ll kill each and every one of them.” He knew that the next thing Jing Qi would say would be along the lines of ‘don’t talk nonsense’, so he quickly put forth, “I’m not talking nonsense. I will do what I say I will.”
Jing Qi’s speech got stuffed back in. He peered at him rather helplessly. “Ah.”
Wu Xi refused to spare him, though. “I remember.”
Jing Qi pulled his sleeve out of his hand and patted him on the back. “I’m not so old that I’m confused and can’t remember anything,” he scolded with a grin.
Wu Xi finally laughed noiselessly, and gently tugged out the red string hanging on Jing Qi’s neck. Seeing that the ring was still there, he said, “If there’s danger here, I won’t leave. Even if I need to leave, even if I can’t bring you back for the time being, I have to know that you’ll be okay. If I truly can’t take you with me in the future, just carry this with you, and you’ll always be able to find me. This is a sacred relic of our Nanjiang, passed down through generations of Great Shamans. In this life, only one person can be given it for safekeeping.”
Jing Qi was taken aback, only just realizing that the trinket he had worn for years was actually so formidable. His neck immediately felt heavier.
Wu Xi piously kissed that green jade ring, coating it with warmth within his hand, then pushed it back into Jing Qi’s lapels.
Mutual hatred was inferior to tides of trust, and mutual pining made one feel that the sea wasn’t so deep. Without age, feelings were hard to extinguish.
In this year’s midsummer, the Vakurahs were rushing their soldiers down to the city walls with the momentum of predators. Once the Great Qing’s elites finished equipping, the northern city gates were wide open, their ice-cold armor like coverings of fish scales. Crown Prince Helian Yi ascended to take the Emperor’s place on send-off, the limitless-looking army strictly and silently lined up in arrays right before his eyes. His elder brother wore a military uniform and wielded a longsabre, quickly about to set out.
The day was clear and endless, no clouds to be seen in its expanse.
Following the conventional prayer to the gods and wine granted in metal goblets, Helian Zhao prepared to get his horse galloping. However, he paused in his motion all of a sudden, turned his head, looked at his little brother, and smiled, speaking in a volume only they two could hear clearly. “Crown Prince, for this journey, I don’t know whether I’ll live or die. There’s a secret in my mind, and if I don’t say it now, it’ll likely be going to the grave with me.”
There was no change in Helian Yi’s expression, who only said, “You’re on the verge of going into battle, Eldest Brother. Don’t say such ominous words. Fight on the behalf of the Great Qing’s land, but still keep caring for yourself.”
Helian Zhao laughed loudly and brightly, having not expected to be able to receive such brotherly advice while he still lived. Before, they were like enemies, and once he was back from this campaign, the situation would likely be one where no rest was had until death. Only in this instant did he almost genuinely feel himself to be related by blood to the elegant, yet shrewd and profound young man before him.
Even so… feelings were ultimately thin in the heavenly family.
A short moment later, he curbed his smile and quieted his voice even more. “You probably don’t know, but in my youth, I once erroneously bust into Father Emperor’s bedroom, and inadvertently peeped at a secret of his. There’s a hidden compartment beneath his dragon bed.”
He mounted his horse, bending his back to look down on the other. “What secret it is is unsuitable for me to say. If Your Highness wishes to know, you may as well go see it for yourself.”
After that, without waiting for Helian Yi’s response, he reined the horse’s head around and shouted, “Move out!”
Banners flew in the western wind, the smoke and dust dreary.
With the large army sent off, Helian Yi returned to the palace without a word, first going to report to and debrief Helian Pei.
Helian Pei had been scared stiff by that assassin; his hero’s heart got firmly punctured, and that courage all leaked out, making him a coward once more. Suspicious of everyone even in broad daylight and always having nightmares, he only dared to close his eyes upon lighting lanterns at night, then was disgruntled all day long.
He reclined on the bed, narrowing his eyes as he sized up Helian Yi carefully. This son was as extremely filial as ever; not a hint of impudence to be seen, never saying a word more than he should, and never thinking to overstep his bounds in doing something he shouldn’t. Previously, he thought that his youngest son was a bit too upstanding, uncomprehensive of how to be accommodating, and always feeling pain for both himself and others, so he was afraid that he was going to suffer setbacks in the future.
Now, it suddenly became clear that, of the three sons he had in his life, none were as calculative as Helian Yi.
A decade ago, Helian Pei had been worried that his youngest’s power would be seized by his older brothers and he would not be able to survive, which was why he painstakingly wanted to get him close to the Nanjiang Shamanet so he would have a place to take shelter in later. Yet, a decade later, Helian Pei discovered that those older brothers were no longer the other’s match.
He was old and had no strength to manage things, but he understood something on the inside. Not speaking, he listened to Helian Yi’s socially-conforming words, then waved his hand to express that he was aware. Young Eunuch Wang Wu brought medicine, and Helian Yi took it, personally attended to Helian Pei so that he drank it, then pulled out the pillow that was padding his back to help him lay down.
There was something nerve-calming in the medicine. Helian Pei had already been lacking in vigor, and now he was drowsy.
“Both of you withdraw first,” Helian Yi said in a quiet voice to Wang Wu and Eunuch Xi. “I will wait upon Father Emperor alone.”
The two naturally didn’t dare to interfere with the Crown Prince’s filial piety, and tactfully withdrew. Helian Yi sat right at the side, waiting for Helian Pei to fall thoroughly asleep. Hearing his smooth and heavy breathing, he knew the medicine had taken effect, and that the sleep was real.
He then bent down, lightly groping about under the dragon bed with his hand. As expected, he felt out a small mechanism on an unremarkable spot, twisted it, and opened up a small secret compartment. In that split second, he had a bad feeling, like Helian Zhao had laid a trap for him before he left, and that he couldn’t give him that.
He hesitated a bit, then screwed the panel back on. He started reading the memorials next to him, but he couldn’t focus for a long time. A voice inside him was constantly urging him to go look, go look at what secret Father Emperor has hidden for so many years. The more he repressed it, the more curious he got — after a little under half a shichen, he finally couldn’t take the torment in his mind anymore, unscrewing the panel once more.
Cautiously, he reached inside in test, then took out an aged wooden box from it. He was amazed to discover that he and his useless old dad actually had a hard-to-believe aspect of similarity. In the East Palace, the portrait of that man he had drawn long ago and those tiny, trivial things were also packed into box by him, then carefully placed in a secret compartment. His mind abruptly sharpened, vaguely surmising what was inside it.
He opened it up, and there were indeed some sachets, handkerchiefs, and other such baubles inside, along with a scroll painting. Helian Yi smiled silently, thinking to himself that they were still different; from looking at these objects, at least, Father Emperor’s beloved was a woman. He cast a glance at Helian Pei, saw that he was still fast asleep, and gently unfurled the scroll.
Sure enough, drawn upon it was an extremely beautiful woman.
Her dress lifted with the wind, her long hair scattered around, her fingertips raised slightly, and the corners of her mouth held a smile, simply a hairsbreadth from lifelike. Helian Yi first gasped in admiration, but felt something was amiss soon after, as the woman in the picture… was kind of familiar.
All of a sudden, someone suddenly flashed past in his mind, and the scroll almost fell out of his hands. He was dumbstruck where he stood, because he had seen this woman before, in his childhood; she was the one whose smile could topple a city, yet also was a beauty that suffered an ill fate — the Prince Consort Nan’ning!
He was still young himself when she passed on, but the reason why he could remember her so clearly was because sons resembled their mothers, and her features, upon a fine look, greatly resembled Jing Qi’s.
Why… was there a portrait of Consort Nan’ning under Father Emperor’s bed? At that moment, a thought instinctively streaked across his mind: was Beiyuan really the Senior Prince’s son? Should his surname… really be Jing?
The translator says: Listen. Listen. You can’t give me Cute Stuff and then go ‘you probably banged your half-brother in your past life’ in the same chapter, okay. I’m getting whiplash.
(This chapter is locked on jjwxc because China doesn’t have its shit together and thinks two guys kissing is icky.)
 From the poem “May I Ask the River’s Tides and Sea’s Waters?” by Bai Juyi.