Edited and Proofread by KitKat
The New Year’s Eve banquet was organized by the Guang Liu Bureau and situated in Qianwen Hall. Not far from Qianwen Hall was the imperial garden which had now been cleaned spotless and covered in draperies. Red lanterns were hung on the plum blossom branches, and below it, cushioned chairs and tables filled with dried fruits and pastries were prepared for the dignitaries to enjoy. Six-legged braziers were installed every two steps along the walkway and burned with the highest grade imperial coal. Apart from not emitting smoke, the coal also gave off a soothing pine fragrance. Traversing this path, one would not even feel a hint of coldness.
The banquet had yet to start so the guests who arrived early stayed in the imperial garden to enjoy the scenery and gossip.
And the hottest topic for this year was the newly wedded Wangfei of the Northern Warlord.
Before the wedding, no one was optimistic about this marriage. The Northern Warlord was known to have a notorious temper but more remarkable was his talent for warfare. When several of the great Generals were approaching retirement, leaving the northern border unguarded, only Xiao Zhige was able to drive the Beidi people back in one fell swoop. As such, no matter how much Emperor An Qing disliked this son, he would still turn a blind eye to his actions.
As those below usually follows the examples of those above and the court was a place filled with people who flowed with the wind, since even the emperor could not do anything to this son, the officials had been doing their best to stay out of his way, lest they incur the wrath of this Death God.
However, in recent days, they had heard the unforeseeable news that the Northern Warlord not only pampered his Wangfei, he even relinquished control of the manor over to him. This had roused a lot of interest.
Those with an agenda were trying to figure out his intentions. After all, he was a prince who commanded a powerful army; they refused to believe that he bore no ambitions for the throne. But with how things had unfolded, they were at a loss for what to believe. Using the banquet as an excuse, these officials took this chance to discuss and observe.
At this point, the central figure of their conversation had just arrived. An Chang Qing got off the sedan and immediately sneezed. It was a snowless day but the frosty wind could still pierce the bones.
Because An Chang Qing had fallen into an ice pond when he was young, he had become susceptible to the cold. Even with a thick fur coat and hand warmers, his hands and feet were still freezing.
Xiao Zhige wrapped his large hand over An Chang Qing’s and frowned, “Drink some hot wine to warm up when we get inside.”
An Chang Qing was not as delicate as he thought. He smiled and said, “It’s nothing. Let’s go over there first.”
The banquet was divided by gender. There were palace maids to guide the guests but they were hesitant to come close to Xiao Zhige. Hearing An Chang Qing’s words, one of them approached them and bowed, “Wangfei’s seat is over here, please follow me.”
An Chang Qing was baffled. He looked back at Xiao Zhige, “I won’t be together with Wangye?”
The maid was at a loss, “The… the madames’ seats are all over there…”
Although An Chang Qing is a man, his status was the Wangfei of the Northern Warlord. Customarily, he should be arranged to sit with the womenfolk.
As An Chang Qing was hesitating, he heard a woman’s voice coming closer, “Let Chang Qing come sit with me.”
The woman looked about thirty-something, well-dressed and had an outstanding appearance. An Chang Qing saw the pattern of her gown and guessed that she was the only daughter of the Empress Dowager and Emperor An Qing’s sister, Grand Princess Xiao You Xi.
The Grand Princess was followed by a man with a muscular build and a handsome face. He was probably the Fu Ma1, Cai Yu.
An Chang Qing bowed, “Greetings to Grand Princess, Fu Ma.”
Xiao Zhige also greeted, “Aunty, uncle.”
A smile appeared on the Grand Princess’s face. She said to An Chang Qing, “Your eyes are sharp. You don’t have to address me so formally, just call me as Zhige does.” She then turned to Xiao Zhige, “Go with your Uncle, I’ll accompany Chang Qing. I won’t let him be bullied.”
The Grand Princess wanted to look after An Chang Qing for him but Xiao Zhige rejected the gesture. With the same cold look, he said, “I dare not bother Aunty, Chang Qing will come with me.”
“I’m afraid this is uncustomary…” The Grand Princess was stunned.
“We’re both men, what is wrong with Chang Qing coming with me? We’ll take our leave.” Xiao Zhige nodded at them before taking An Chang Qing to the other side.
Even after being brushed off, the Grand Princess did not feel insulted. Her eyes fell on their joined hands and after a while, she shook her head and smiled, “He’s very protective of him. Oh well, I don’t have the right to meddle in the first place.”
Her husband scowled and said, “The Northern Warlord’s temperament is simply unreasonable.”
The Grand Princess’s smile faded. She stared back at him and said sternly, “How did he turn out this way, do you not know?”
Cai Yu choked up and stopped talking. The Grand Princess gave him a look of contempt before turning around and leaving.
An Chang Qing was led by Xiao Zhige to the other side while the maid who was supposed to lead the way hurriedly chased after.
Feeling the increased force on his wrist, An Chang Qing looked up at the man’s face and saw that he was brooding.
“Wait!” An Chang Qing called out but the man continued to pull him forward as though he did not hear.
Seeing this, An Chang Qing sulked and deliberately said, “My wrist is hurting.”
Only then did Xiao Zhige stop and loosen his grip. He stared sharply at the maid following them to chase her away before carefully rubbing the red wrist, “Sorry…”
“What’s wrong?” An Chang Qing could sense his mood sinking. He asked with concern, “Does it have something to do with the Grand Princess?”
An Chang Qing had seen the Grand Princess twice in his previous life but they had never had any interaction. He only knew that she was quite popular during her youth. Many of Yejing’s aristocratic bachelors had wanted her hand in marriage but she had refused them all to marry a fourth-grade general, and that was General Cai Yu.
The Cai Family was glorious generations ago but by his father’s time, the family had declined considerably. By right, marrying the Princess meant that he would have to be banned from taking up any governmental position. However, after the marriage, he personally asked for the Emperor’s blessing and managed to keep his post as a general. And after a few outstanding feats, he was promoted to a first-grade general by Emperor An Qing.
It is said that Cai Yu was deeply in love with the princess and vowed that she would be his only wife. After their marriage, he did not take in any concubines nor step foot in a brothel. Theirs had become quite a popular love story.
Even so, from the two times that he had met them in his past life, An Chang Qing noticed that the Princess’s attitude towards her husband was very stale. They did not seem to be as affectionate as rumored. Furthermore, the couple had been married for nearly ten years but did not have any offspring. Some years later, Cai Yu died on the battlefield and the Princess stayed in her manor to worship Budha and meditate, refusing to take the next step.
At that time, An Chang Qing could only sigh for her.
This time, seeing the Princess again, he felt that something was off. Especially when it came to Xiao Zhige… He remembered that the Xiao Zhige of his previous life was also not close to his aunt. Instead, it was the Grand Princess who would often come to visit him in the palace. But maybe because they did not have a deep bond, the aunt and nephew only exchanged a few words and the Grand Princess would leave shortly after.
Xiao Zhige’s mood was turning strange. He did not know how to explain. After taking a moment to deliberate, he only said, “From young, aunty has been the kindest person to me…”
An Chang Qing was confused.
Xiao Zhige continued, “But her kindness to me was always mixed with guilt and sympathy which makes me incredibly uncomfortable.”
After his mother’s death, Xiao Zhige had lived alone in Qiwu Palace. Only the Grand Princess would often go to visit him. At that time, she would hug him while weeping and saying things like she would take care of him in his mother’s stead. Back then, although he was still young, he could still discern that her actions were quite peculiar. He had asked her many times why she was only kind to him but the Princess never gave him a straight answer. That was also the reason Xiao Zhige refused to be close to her.
Every time he saw her, it would always rouse something in his heart.
“Then we won’t have any contact with them in the future,” An Chang Qing said.
“It’s ok. This is a one-sided sentiment on my part, it has nothing to do with her. You don’t have to be influenced by me.”
An Chang Qing shook his head. He raised his hand to help him rearrange his clothes and said, “They say a married couple is of a single body, we’ll move forward or back together. Since you don’t like the Grand Princess, I will stay away from her as well.”
Xiao Zhige looked at him and An Chang Qing smiled. He took his hand and said, “Wangye, please lead the way or we’re going to be late for the banquet.”
When they arrived at the main hall, the sound of string and woodwind instruments were resonating. Everyone who stood up and saluted Xiao Zhige was in turn astounded when they saw An Chang Qing by his side.
Xiao Zhige nodded indifferently and followed the attendant to his seat.
The sitting arrangement was according to status. To Xiao Zhige’s right should be the Crown Prince, Xiao An Qi, and to his left, the third prince, Xiao Qi Le. As such, there was no place for An Chang Qing.
Xiao Zhige grimaced and said to the palace maid, “Add another chair next to me.”
The layout had always been one person to a table, there had never been two people sitting at the same table. The maid was flustered but seeing Xiao Zhige’s cold eyes, she hurried off to add the extra chair.
And the two sat side by side.
The Crown Prince leisurely poured a cup of wine. He smiled and said, “Second Brother and Wangfei are so much in love that you couldn’t stand to stay apart?”
Xiao Zhige briefly glanced at him in silence. He then picked up the wine on their table and placed it over the wine stove. He said to An Chang Qing, “This wine is warm and has tonic properties, you can drink some later.”
An Chang Qing nodded obediently.
The Crown Prince’s expression changed several times after being ignored. He coughed lightly before sipping from his wine to hide his embarrassment. The Third Prince saw his dampened mood and snickered in secret. He leaned over and conversed with An Chang Qing, “Second Brother seems to treat Wangfei really well when he doesn’t even bother to talk to us brothers. Is this called choosing love over brotherhood?”
The Third Prince was Shu GuiFei’s only son. He had not reached fifteen and still lived in the Palace. His words and expressions were like a child but An Chang Qing knew better. He had heard that when the three princes were fighting for the throne, the third prince’s methods were said to be even crueler than his brothers’.
Such a person, there was no way he was still an innocent child.
An Chang Qing bowed and skillfully responded, “Your Highness has misunderstood. Wangye is a person of few words. The bond between brothers is not something that can be expressed with words. After all, you’re tied by blood, no one can be compared to family ties.”
The third prince’s smile slightly faded. He said, “My second brother has always been enigmatic, it was hard to think that his Wangfei would turn out to be one with a silver tongue.”
“Your Highness’s compliment is exaggerated.” An Chang Qing smiled while pretending not to understand his mockery.
Xiao Zhige then glared at the third prince who was encroaching over to their table and said, “The banquet is about to start, what are you still doing here?”
“…” The Third Prince’s smile froze. He saw the way Xiao Zhige looked at him and could only sit back at his table obediently.
Xiao Zhige retracted his stare, picked up the warmed wine, and poured a cup for An Chang Qing, “See if you like it.”
An Chang Qing accepted the cup and took a sip. His eyes bent with comfort as the slightly spicy and sweet wine warmed his throat. He emptied his cup and raised it towards Xiao Zhige, “I want more.”
With a gentle expression, Xiao Zhige poured another cup for him.
This scene caused quite a stir to everyone present. The Crown Prince who had also witnessed it took a glance at An Chang Qing. He made a derisive snort then turned back to drink in silence.
1 → Emperor’s son-in-law. In this case, he’s the previous Emperor’s son-in-law.