Edited and Proofread by KitKat
After An Chang Qing had said his piece, the hall was in dead silence. The palace attendants all held their breaths and dared not look up.
“Nonsense!” The Empress Dowager clutched the bodhi beads and pounded on the table with adequate strength to make a faint thud.
The Empress also showed a worried expression, almost like a mother who was truly concerned about her son. She looked at An Chang Qing and said, “Your marriage was fairly recent, it’s natural for you to reject good-intentioned meddling. I understand that but Chang Qing, you’re a man after all and it’s detrimental that Zhige continues his heritage. If you both do not like it, I’ll pick someone for you and after she has given birth, you can always send her away. It won’t cause any hindrance to your relationship.”
“… What do you two think?”
Although her words were aimed at the pair, the Empress’s eyes were solely focused on An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing returned her gaze with an earnest look. The hand that was hidden under his sleeve harshly pinched his thigh until his eyes were bright red with tears forming. Even so, he kept his gaze straight and began to sob, “It’s not like that, Wangye promised me…”
An Chang Qing turned and looked at Xiao Zhige with tears in his eyes, “Wangye had promised to treat me well and in this life, there’ll only be the two of us…”
“Was that a lie? Does Wangye also want to have a concubine who can bear your child?”
Kneeling on the ground with a straight back, An Chang Qing looked like a small tree shivering in the cold winter while refusing to give up. With a desperate look in his eyes, no one would doubt the feelings of this lovelorn young man.
The Empress decided against confronting An Chang Qing and changed her focus to Xiao Zhige instead.
Xiao Zhige’s eyes were frozen as he clenched his hands, seemingly stunned by the turn of events. He stood up and went over to help An Chang Qing up and comforted him, “I did not lie to you.”
“I will not take in a concubine… Nor will I have children… With other women.”
Xiao Zhige’s voice was strong and adamant; it resonated throughout the hall. The Empress observed him for a while before exchanging glances with the Empress Dowager. She then masked her emotions with a look of slight dissatisfaction and said, “Zhige, why are you this disobedient? Although I did not give birth to you, you’re still raised by me. If you do not have an heir, how could I face your late mother?”
Xiao Zhige’s eyes flickered at the mention of his mother. He lowered his eyes and collected his emotions, “I know my wrong but I really have no interest in women.”
“You… hai…” Seeing them like a pair of desolate mandarin ducks, the Empress sighed, “Alright. You’re all grown up, I can’t control you anymore.”
The Empress Dowager raised her gaze and continued to turn the bodhi beads, “It’s fine that you don’t like women but an heir is a must. If you can’t have children then adopt one to keep any more rumors from spreading. Don’t you think that there’s already enough gossip circulating?”
There was no change in Xiao Zhige’s expression. He simply knelt beside An Chang Qing and said, “Thank you for your grace. In a few years, if we are to find a suitable child, we will adopt him.”
“That’s good. Let the Empress assist you with looking out for any outstanding children,” the Empress Dowager waved her hand, “I’ll take my leave now, you both can go to the Empress’s place.”
After leaving Kun Yi Palace, An Chang Qing heaved a long sigh. Seeing that the Empress was walking way ahead of them, he secretly winked at Xiao Zhige. Having just cried, An Chang Qing’s eyes were slightly tainted with a red hue, making his current expression both pitiful and mischievous. Xiao Zhige was rather helpless remembering the scene of his crying while questioning him.
If he was not certain that he clearly had never said such words, he would probably think of himself as a heartless scum.
What a little liar.
The two managed to exchange a few glances before they reached Chaofeng Palace led by the Empress.
They had lunch and spent some time with her. After hearing several perfunctory motherly pieces of advice, the pair could finally leave Chaofeng palace.
An Chang Qing was bored after having to sit for too long and hence, they decided to stroll back to the palace gate instead of riding the sedan.
The snow that had fallen in the early morning was nowhere to be seen on the blue stone floor path. The only signs of snow were left on the tall branches and high roofs. An Chang Qing stretched out his neck and looked back but he could only see a range of white roofs.
He couldn’t tell which was Qiwu Palace, the place where he had resided in his previous life.
After Xiao Zhige had ascended the throne, regardless of the persistent opposition from the courtiers, he still insisted on making An Chang Qing his Hou [TN: I know I used ‘Empress’ in the title but it still irks me a little to call him Empress so I’ll be using the Chinese pinyin for it instead.] But An Chang Qing was not one bit happy, he only felt unrest. He simply wanted to hide away from Xiao Zhige and the courtiers’ attention, allowing him to live his days in peace. That was why when Xiao Zhige had pointed to the entire royal palace and let him pick his own palace, he did not choose to live in the Empress’s Chaofeng Palace but instead picked the remote Qiwu Palace.
And peculiarly, Xiao Zhige was not upset by it. In fact, he seemed vaguely happy. Since then, An Chang Qing had lived in Qiwu Palace for a long time until his death.
Unfortunately, Chaofeng Palace and Qiwu Palace were too far apart. An Chang Qing tried to seek it out but to no avail. In the end, he could only sigh and casually asked Xiao Zhige, “In which Palace did Wangye use to live in?”
Xiao Zhige did not expect this question from An Chang Qing. After a brief silence, he pointed to an area to the left and said, “I used to live there. When mother was still alive, we had lived together in Qiwu Palace.”
After his mother’s death, Xiao Zhige continued to live in Qiwu Palace all alone until he was brought to Chaofeng Palace to be placed under the Empress’s heed.
“Qiwu Palace?” An Chang Qing looked at him in shock.
Xiao Zhige faced him and asked, “What is it?”
An Chang Qing recovered and shook his head. His eyes followed Xiao Zhige’s finger and landed on a familiar gable. The building was a long distance away and its name plaque could not be seen but An Chang Qing could clearly make out the words from his memory.
No wonder… No wonder Xiao Zhige was not angry at all when he chose to live in Qiwu Palace.
So that was the place he and his mother had lived together.
An Chang Qing felt a tinge of remorse. He had overlooked too many things and never did he once try to consider this person next to him.
Xiao Zhige did not know what he was thinking about but he could sense that An Chang Qing was in a low mood. He hesitated momentarily before reaching out to hold his hand, “Let’s go, it’s getting dark.”
An Chang Qing felt the warm grasp which slowly dissipated the coldness of his hand. He was about to say something when a crisp voice was heard as it approached them, “It seems the rumors are true, Second Brother’s relationship with Wangfei is indeed harmonious. How envious!”
At the source of the voice was a handsome young man standing on the snow. He donned a four-clawed dragon robe and behind him was a group of eunuchs and maids. His eyes stayed on An Chang Qing for a moment before smilingly saying, “I’m not bothering you two, am I?”
Xiao Zhige nodded lightly, “Imperial Brother.”
An Chang Qing followed suit and saluted, “Imperial Brother.”
The Crown Prince Xiao Qi An was an articulate person, cheerfully conversing even without an answer. And as he was familiar with Xiao Zhige’s enigmatic personality, he could only engage An Chang Qing in conversation.
An Chang Qing did not know much about the Crown Prince except that he was deposed by Emperor An Qing after a drunken immoral conduct. Although the incident was not exposed to the public, it was self-evident that his friendliness was just a facade.
Raising his guard, An Chang Qing refrained himself from speaking to him. He pretended to be timid and shrunk back with his head down, only responding with the occasional nods.
After the Crown Prince was bored with this seemingly monologous conversation, he announced that he was going to visit the Empress and excused himself.
The group parted ways with Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing heading for the palace gate while the Crown Prince proceeded to Chaofeng palace.
As their distance increased, Xiao Qi An looked back at the dimming silhouettes of Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing. Retracting his focus, Xiao Qi An blurted, “Say, is he just acting, or has he really taken a fancy?”
The eunuch by his side thought and said, “I’m afraid it’s just a show. I heard that on their wedding night, Wangye had slept in the study…”
Xiao Qi An smiled, “Haven’t you heard of the rumors outside the Palace? My ruthless second brother actually went riding in the street with his Wangfei. Now their relationship has been cooked into various versions and spread across the city, which one of it doesn’t depict how much they love each other…”
The eunuch was confused, not knowing what to think, “In that case… does this mean that the Northern Warlord really likes this unfavored son?”
Xiao Qi An withdrew his smile and looked at him emotionlessly, “Have you ever seen my second brother behave like that? There was never any tale of them having any prior interactions, how can love sprout within a few short days?”
The eunuch was in a cold sweat, not knowing how else to respond.
Lucky for him, Xiao Qi An was not expecting an answer. He placed one hand behind his back and strode slowly over the stone pavement, speaking softly in a bone-chilling voice, “But with that appearance, it’s not surprising that second brother has fallen for him… If it were me… I won’t be able to leave him alone as well…”
The eunuch exclaimed, “Your Highness!”
Xiao Qi An glared at him in warning, “I’m aware of the rules, you don’t have to report this to the Empress.”
The eunuch wiped his sweat-filled forehead and replied, “Yes.”
After exiting the palace gate, An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige returned home in a carriage.
There was adequate heat in the carriage so An Chang Qing took off his fur coat only to feel chilly after a while. His eyes looked around and landed on Xiao Zhige. He naturally moved in and glued his body to Xiao Zhige’s, stuffing his hand into his palm at the same time saying, “It’s cold.”
Xiao Zhige heard his words and wrapped his fingers around his hand, warming him with care.
An Chang Qing pursed his lips and smiled to himself. He leaned in and asked, “What does Wangye think of my performance today?”
Xiao Zhige looked at him, “Very good.”
An Chang Qing pouted, thinking that this person had absolutely no finesse. He had put so much effort and yet he couldn’t sing a few more praises.
“What’s good about it?” An Chang Qing squinted his eyes and asked deliberately.
As expected, Xiao Zhige was instantly stumped. He fumbled for a moment before responding, “Everything was good.” To the point that he had almost believed it to be true.