Edited and Proofread by KitKat
The teahouse in Yejing has been quite prosperous these past few days. The ground floor was filled with guests and the upper floor was occupied by a storyteller running out of saliva as he spread his tale.
As his listeners increased, the storyteller knocked on the table with his fan and began, “This took place at sunset, on Yong Le Street where people were bustling by. From afar came a large steed and on that steed were two people– one was illustrious and domineering, the other had the grace of Pan An…”
The storyteller spread his fan, “Can you tell who they are?”
“It’s none other than the Northern Warlord and his newly wedded Wangfei!”
“It is said that this Wangfei is quite something, a man whose beauty trumps that of a woman by three folds. Word has it that when the Northern Warlord first met him, he was so mesmerized that he had to make him his Wangfei at all costs. But Wangfei is after all a man, what kind of logic is this…”
The storyteller continued his narrative but below came a disapproving voice, “The storyteller’s words are nonsensical. Hasn’t the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei long been dead? It was said that on the second day after their marriage, he was quietly pulled out of the city and buried!”
“Where did you hear that from? It’s ridiculous.” Another listener heard his words and rebuked, “Just the other day, the Northern Warlord had taken Wangfei to Sanweizhai. I heard that because Wangfei likes the plum pastries there, Wangye had specially taken him there to buy them.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” A nearby aunty said, “Recently, the plum blossom pastries from Sanweizhai are selling like hotcakes. It is said that if you eat them, you’ll be as beautiful as a fairy, just like Wangfei. If it isn’t always sold-out, I’d love to get my hands on a few!”
Someone else joked, “Lady, even at this age you still want a second spring?”
The aunty let out a pei and said, “Don’t be silly. It’s for my daughter!”
The man who had roused this conversion was surprised by the series of comments. At a loss, he turned back to listen to the storyteller but he was already retelling how Wangfei had rejected The Northern Warlord’s advances and in turn, was taken as a prisoner and locked up in the Wang Manor.
The man: “…”
Although the story was absurd, the teahouse guests were highly intrigued. As the end of the New Year approaches, people tend to want to listen to new and interesting gossip. The story of the notorious Northern Warlord abducting the Wangfei and abusing him into submission was more entertaining than the news of yet another servant’s demise in the Wang Manor.
As the storyteller’s words spiraled into absurdity, a young man dressed in blue sitting at the back stood up to leave. Two men dressed in grey followed behind him.
After exiting the teahouse, one of the men in grey said, “This storyteller’s words are ludicrous.”
The man in blue said, “But the two riding back home on the same horse is true. Say… Do you think that Second Brother really likes that unfavored son or is he just putting on a show for us?”
The man in grey thought for a moment before replying, “I’m afraid he’s only putting on a show. There have never been any whispers of him liking men. And his temperament, it’s not like you don’t know.”
“You’re right,” the man in blue nodded in agreement, “Whether it’s true or not, I’ll ask Empress Mother to summon them into the Palace and test them.”
The man in blue then said with a ruthless smile, “Although he has long been disqualified, we still need to be on guard.”
As it stands, of all the princes in the Palace, including himself, none had any military power. They had all tacitly approved that he would be the one to inherit the throne but didn’t history show that the throne could always be usurped?
Ferocity emerged in the man’s eyes. He ordered, “Return to the Palace.”
At this end in the Wang Manor, the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei was having a headache.
The last time Xiao Zhige came to pick him up from the An Manor and called him by his nickname, he had not changed this form of address since.
Thinking of how this all-powerful General calling him ‘Nuo Nuo’ with a cold expressionless face simply made An Chang Qing’s hair stand on end.
But no matter how much he hinted at his aversion towards the matter, Xiao Zhige refused to change. After being called ‘Nuo Nuo’ a countless number of times, An Chang Qing finally compromised and let it be. But for the time being, he was still not used to it and each time Xiao Zhige called him, he would blush uncontrollably. As a last resort, he decided to avoid Xiao Zhige for the time being.
Fortunately, Xiao Zhige would leave for the barracks early in the morning every day and An Chang Qing was also busy with finding a house, and hence, the two would turn in early at night. This was how An Chang Qing had managed to not drive the dignified Northern Warlord into sleeping in the study.
Today, An Chang Qing had ordered Anfu to prepare the horse carriage; he was planning to leave the city.
After searching for several days, An Chang Qing had finally found a suitable house. It was located just outside the city at the foot of Mount Qingyun. The surroundings were peaceful and it even had a hot spring, perfectly suited for recuperation. An Chang Qing intended to check the place in person and if it was to his liking, he would buy it as soon as possible.
“Going out?” Xiao Zhige asked as he was about to leave the house as well.
“En, I’m going to Mount Qingyun to have a look at a house.”
Xiao Zhige withdrew his foot out the door and sat at one side, “Let’s leave together, it’s on the way.”
An Chang Qing asked, “Wangye is also leaving for Mount Qingyun today?”
Xiao Zhige, “No.”
An Chang Qing eyed him suspiciously. Mount Qingyun was to the south of the city while the barracks were to its north. How was it ‘on the way’? But Xiao Zhige did not seem to be lying so An Chang Qing assumed he might have some other business to attend to and did not question him further.
After some time, Anfu brought over the carriage for them to leave together.
Xiao Zhige looked at the carriage and slightly pursed his lips before asking An Chang Qing, “Would you like to ride the horse?”
An Chang Qing blinked twice looking at the only horse he was riding and understood what he wanted. He gave him a hard look and said “I’m sitting in the carriage!” before stomping into the sedan.
He could still remember that after the last time they rode together back to the Manor, he had become a popular appearance in many of the stories circulating the city. He refused to be looked at like some kind of spectacle.
The lonely Wangye who rode by the carriage had his lips pursed as he followed the carriage with a blank expression.
The carriage went past the main road and out of the city gate. As it was about to turn left towards the south, a group of people was seen running in the path ahead. At the forefront was a tall and scrawny boy and behind him was a group of farmers chasing him with sticks and hoes in hand.
The youth had exhausted his strength. He staggered for a few more steps before falling to the ground. The group of farmers ran up and encircled him, then began to kick and punch the boy.
Seeing that the group was about to beat the boy to death, Xiao Zhige spurred the horse and commanded, “Stop!”
The farmers saw Xiao Zhige’s intimidating stature and instinctively backed away. The boy had now laid motionless on the ground. Fearing of being charged with murder, the farmers yelled in defense, “He’s a thief!”
Xiao Zhige ignored them. He looked at the boy from high above and threw him his canteen and a medicinal ointment. He then rode back to the carriage and said to the coachman, “Let’s go.”
“Is it ok to leave him lying there?” An Chang Qing opened the curtain and asked.
Xiao Zhige replied, “He’ll live.”
An Chang Qing hesitated. He looked at the boy lying on the ground with his exposed hands and feet filled with scars and frostbite. As he wavered, the carriage began to move again. Through the window, he saw the boy struggling to gain consciousness as he murmured the word ‘mother’.
The word incited An Chang Qing’s sympathy and he called for the carriage to stop. He looked at Xiao Zhige, “Why don’t we take him back…”
“He’s still a kid…” An Chang Qing explained without much thought, “At least send him to see a doctor.”
Xiao Zhige saw him frown while trying to figure out a suitable reason, probably worrying that he would not agree. Without him noticing, his hardened spirit softened. He called for Zhao Shi, “Bring him over.”
Zhao Shi took a quick glance at Xiao Zhige then at An Chang Qing’s smiling face. Thinking back, he really had to agree with Dr. Hu that Wangye would only listen to Wangfei for he had never seen Wangye meddling in someone else’s business before.
Zhao Shi carried the youth over and An Chang Qing could see that he was shivering. He told Zhao Shi to place him in the carriage and gave him his heating pot. As there was no village, shops, or doctors anywhere nearby, An Chang Qing decided to take him with them to the house at the foot of Mount Qingyun.
There was a barefoot doctor in the hamlet and An Chang Qing told Zhao Shi to bring the boy there while he checked out the house.
Xiao Zhige followed him to the house only to depart again.
An Chang Qing asked curiously, “Where is Wangye going?”
Xiao Zhige replied, “The barracks.”
An Chang Qing thought about it and it finally dawned on him that Xiao Zhige had specially come to accompany him. His heart warmed and he couldn’t help muttering to himself, “Isn’t it troublesome running back and forth?”
Xiao Zhige did not hear his murmurs. He nodded and said that he would pick him up later before riding off.
An Chang Qing looked through the house and was quite satisfied with everything, concluding that he would sign the deed of sale when he got back. After accomplishing what he came here to do, he remembered the boy and inquired about the doctor’s residence to look for him.
Zhao Shi was at the door when he arrived and reported, “The doctor has already examined the boy, there’s nothing serious, only minor injuries.”
An Chang Qing nodded. He entered the room and saw the boy sitting on the bed drinking a bowl of medicine. He already had a change of clothes, most likely provided by the doctor, making him look a lot brighter. Seeing An Chang Qing, he quickly kneeled down and bowed, “Thank you savior, this debt, I’ll never forget.”
Although he had tried to disguise it, An Chang Qing could still tell that he did not have a Yejing accent. Taking a closer look at his face, An Chang Qing found that it was a little familiar.
An Chang Qing helped him up while observing him and inquiring, “What’s your name?”
“Zhou He Lan,” the boy lifted his head, showing a youthful face with a high nose and deep eyes, features of someone from a foreign land.
To think it was really him. An Chang Qing was bewildered and did not respond for quite some time.
Zhou He Lan, Yuze Empire’s Chaplain, was someone he had met in his previous life in the mass grave where Xiao Zhige’s body lay.
At that time, after Xiao Zhige’s death, he had roamed the mass grave without any knowledge of time. One day, two people visited the grave, the one in the lead was Zhou He Lan.
Zhou He Lan donned a black gown and had a grim expression. He had with him a pot of wine as an offering – an offering dedicated to Xiao Zhige.
Xiao Zhige lived his life on the battlefield and died without a complete body. Before and after his death, he had been called many hateful names, this was the first time An Chang Qing saw someone come to worship him. He then followed him back to Yejing and discovered that many things had happened since Xiao Zhige died.
One example was that Xiao Qi An, the dethroned prince, had died of poisoning only one month after his ascension to the throne. The two remaining Great Generals each had their own interests at heart and began to dispute against each other, plunging the country into chaos right after the short-lived peace. At this time, the Yuze Empire, a neighboring country, had taken advantage of this situation and launched a massive attack. Like a knife through butter, the capital city was conquered in one fell swoop.
The Emperor of Yuze, Huang Ru Yu, came to rule over Yejing and honored Zhou He Lan as the National Chaplain.