Edited and Proofread by KitKat
After acquiring the house under Mount Qingyun, An Chang Qing hired a craftsman to renovate and clean up the place. By the time the house was ready to be occupied, it was already the twelfth lunar month.
As the Laba Festival approaches, the Palace sent out a summon, requesting An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige’s presence in the Palace.
According to the royal customs, as a Wangfei, An Chang Qing was supposed to enter the Palace to express their gratitude the day after their wedding. But there weren’t many that liked Xiao Zhige and with An Chang Qing being a male Wangfei, entering the Palace would only invoke discontent. And despite the fact that their marriage was favorable to the Emperor, he had crudely exempted them from this tradition.
This was why An Chang Qing had not been to the Palace even till now.
After seeing the eunuch off, a frown was stuck on An Chang Qing’s face. At this time in his last life, there were no such summons. It was in the following year after their marriage that he and Xiao Zhige were invited to the Palace for the New Year banquet.
The Palace had countless rules. The days before entering it, he had had many sleepless nights, worrying that he would make a fool of himself and incur Xiao Zhige’s wrath. In the Palace, he dared not let his eyes wander and had to spend the New Year’s day in fear.
At that time, the Empress Dowager and Empress had also summoned him but he had only responded with nods and timidly kept his head down. Although he had managed to pull through, he did not even take a good look at their faces.
Now that he had been called to the Palace ahead of time, An Chang Qing was worried that something might have gone wrong. He combed through everything that had happened since his rebirth but still could not figure out what might have caused this.
Without any leads, An Chang Qing could only raise his vigilance. Thinking that there were only two days left, he should at least learn the proper etiquettes of the Palace. The Wang Manor did have a momo who had worked in the Palace but there was no lady in the manor which was why she hadn’t been called forth. Now that An Chang Qing needed her expertise, he had requested her guidance.
“You don’t have to learn all that.” Xiao Zhige stopped Anfu who was about to call for the momo. He looked to An Chang Qing and said, “When the time comes, you can just follow me, they won’t make things difficult for you.”
An Chang Qing frowned, “But… Wouldn’t this leave room for mockery?”
Xiao Zhige smiled and said indifferently, “The more faults I have, the worse my reputation becomes, and the happier they will be.”
An Chang Qing was slightly dismayed. He thought of all the rumors outside that had been blown out of proportion and naturally understood.
A Wangye commandeering a powerful army but did not have any backing or the Emperor’s support, if he were to become a hero with glorious achievements and a splendid reputation, what awaited him would be a swift death.
And the first to put a target on his back would be the current supreme ruler, Emperor An Qing.
Only by having his infamous reputation could Emperor An Qing relinquish any military power to Xiao Zhige and let him guard the Northern border for him.
This was also what the courtiers from different parties wanted to see.
An Chang Qing raised his head and looked at Xiao Zhige. The man was sitting upright and with his back straight as a spear. By just being there, even without speaking, An Chang Qing could feel a sense of dependency strong as a mountain, as though no amount of hardship could crush him.
And yet, An Chang Qing had witnessed his resignation with his own eyes.
Emotions gathered in his eyes and An Chang Qing had finally understood the loneliness felt by the late Emperor of the past. Back then, he clearly could have won but he chose to open the Palace gates; he clearly could have escaped death but he chose to die alone in Qiwu Palace… At that time, Xiao Zhige was probably too tired of it all.
Armed with a weapon in hand, he had defended an entire empire only to be condemned by its people. Even An Chang Qing himself, who should’ve been the one closest to him, had seen him as a monster and avoided him in fear… That was why in the end, he chose to let everything go.
If the nation did not want to be defended by him, then he would not defend it. If the people regarded him as a tyrant, then he will be a tyrant.
Since the world had forsaken him, he had decided to relieve himself of the burden.
Finally, he had died in solitude, just as he had lived.
An Chang Qing heaved a sigh filled with sadness. He pushed down the bitterness in his eyes and approached Xiao Zhige. Kneeling down, he held Xiao Zhige’s hand and looked up at him, “But I do not wish to hear anyone speak ill of you. You’re clearly … a wonderful person.”
Xiao Zhige briefly lost his breath as he looked at An Chang Qing with dark eyes. After a while, his Adam’s apple moved slightly and he said in a hoarse voice, “If you don’t want to hear it, then I won’t allow them to say it.”
His words were always overbearing but An Chang Qing had come to find that Xiao Zhige’s stern looks were quite adorable. He rested his head against his knee and said, “En, that is why I have to be presentable so as not to disgrace you.”
Xiao Zhige’s heart was warmed. He curled his fingers and rigidly placed his hand over An Chang Qing’s head, stroking his black hair, “That’ll not happen.”
“That’s why I should still call for the momo. I have to at least know to avoid violating the more serious offenses.”
An Chang Qing stood up and his hair slipped away from Xiao Zhige’s hand. Feeling a little unwilling to let go, Xiao Zhige touched his hand and said, “Alright, I’ll listen to you.”
On the eighth, An Chang Qing entered the Palace together with Xiao Zhige.
An Chang Qing got up early that morning. His li pao had been prepared and because he was not a woman, there was no need to put on heavy headdresses and makeup, only a more formal garment was needed for the audience with the royals.
Xiao Zhige had also changed into a li pao for royalties. While his li pao was red and black, An Chang Qing’s was white and red. Between them, one was tall and strong while the other slender and graceful. The two had such contrasting temperaments but standing together, they looked surprisingly harmonious.
Even Anfu had to softly compliment, “Wangye and young master are such a good match.”
An Chang Qing smiled broadly and although Xiao Zhige did not say anything, his expression had softened considerably.
Having everything in place, they left the manor together.
It was snowing outside. A coachman pulled the carriage in for their use. As Xiao Zhige opened the door, he found that the brazier had just been lit and it was still chilly inside. He stepped out and ordered Steward Wang to fetch his fur coat from the warehouse.
This particular coat was made from a rare silver fox that he had hunted in Yanzhou. The root of the fur was snow white while its tip was gray, under the light, the coat shined with a silver glow. As he practiced martial arts all year round and was resistant to the cold, when the artisan had finished making this coat, Xiao Zhige had kept it in the warehouse. Now was the perfect time to let An Chang Qing use it.
When Steward had delivered the coat, Xiao Zhige shook it open and draped it over An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing was indeed feeling cold. Although the li pao was a complicated garment, it was not made to keep out the cold. His fingers were freezing and the coat Xiao Zhige put on him had helped to ease the bitter chill.
After fastening the cord of the coat for An Chang Qing, Xiao Zhige said, “Get in.”
An Chang Qing beamed with delight as he stepped into the carriage. Xiao Zhige was not riding a horse today and sat with him in the carriage. Wrapped in a thick fur coat on top of having his hands warmed by Xiao Zhige, An Chang Qing was escorted to the Palace gate in bliss.
After passing two giant gates, they changed to a sedan carriage to enter the Inner Palace. One in front of the other, they were carried towards Kun Yi Palace where the Empress Dowager resided.
No longer having the brazier with him, An Chang Qing rubbed his hands together before opening up the curtain.
The Palace was just as he remembered, only without the dreariness and a lot livelier. As the New Year was approaching, a grand banquet was about to be held and the maids and eunuchs were seen rushing back and forth to prepare for it.
They sat on the sedan for nearly two-quarters of an hour before arriving at Kun Yi Palace.
An Chang Qing rearranged his attire after alighting the sedan. He took off the fur coat and passed it to a maid then stepped into the hall with Xiao Zhige.
Inside, the fireplace had been lit and a warm air enveloped the place. An Chang Qing walked forward firmly with confidence and bowed in salutation after Xiao Zhige.
“Grant them a seat.” The Empress Dowager raised her hand and the maids brought in two chairs. An Chang Qing sat with Xiao Zhige and at last, he could clearly see the faces of the Empress Dowager and the Empress.
The Empress Dowager was nearly sixty but she bore the look of someone in her fifties. She had a kind face and wore a bodhi bead bracelet on her wrist, seemingly approachable. The Empress sat one step below her, smiling amiably. She had a slim build and an elegant face. She looked at An Chang Qing and said, “A few days ago, considering that you two had just wedded, I didn’t want to trouble you with entering the Palace. Now that you’re here, I have prepared a few gifts for you lest you think that I only care for Taizi Fei1.”
The Empress Dowager cast An Chang Qing an inconspicuous glance, observing him while slowly twisting the Bodhi beads.
An Chang Qing looked down and thought to himself, here it comes.
But this time, he was prepared for it. He pretended to be flustered and said timidly, “Chang Qing dare not think so. Taizi Fei is of noble birth and also my senior, your love for her is as it should be. Chang Qing and Wangye are not bothered by it.”
“That may be so but they’re all children that I raised, I still have to be impartial.” The Empress smiled and beckoned the Palace maid to bring in the gifts, “See if you like it.”
An Chang Qing immediately stood up and expressed his thanks. On the tray that was brought in were a piece of jade pendant, calligraphy brushes and various other items, all of which were items generally used by men.
After accepting the gifts, An Chang Qing sat back in place and heard her say, “I have two sons under my care, one is the crown prince and the other is Zhige. The prince had long been married and his child had also already started to walk, leaving Zhige that still worries me. Now that he’s married, it’s time for him to spread his branches…”
An Chang Qing’s heart sank as she continued, “You were only just wedded and I don’t want to be meddlesome but Zhige can be impetuous at times. Chang Qing, as a Wangfei, you have to know what’s good for him. You can’t let him do as he pleases. No matter what, he needs to continue his bloodline…”
An Chang Qing quickly understood the implications of her words. He immediately came up with a countermeasure.
He abruptly got up, lifted his hem, and knelt firmly on the ground. He bowed and said, “Imperial Grandmother, Empress Mother, pardon Chang Qing as I cannot comply.”
“This child…” The Empress was a little surprised.
She asked the maid to help him up but An Chang Qing refused to get up. He raised his head and said resolutely, “Wangye and I had long made a promise that in this life, we will only have each other, never to part.”
1 Taizi Fei↪Crown prince’s wife