Edited and Proofread by KitKat
After everyone had been seated, Emperor An Qing finally arrived.
Emperor An Qing was a portly man in his forties. He had fair skin and bore a long ‘八’ shaped beard. The moment he arrived, the crowd immediately stood up and saluted. Emperor An Qing then waved his hand and motioned for them to sit and commenced the start of the banquet.
The eunuch loudly announced for the banquet to begin. The music became lively as the Palace servants formed a line while serving the guests their food. In the center of the hall, a bevy of dancers wearing thin veils over their faces bowed to the emperor before starting their performance.
Emperor An Qing’s interest was piqued. He leaned on the table and tapped along to the music.
An Chang Qing was not amused by the singing and dancing. Instead, he continued to pour wine for himself, one cup after another. The snow plum wine was mild and not too spicy, leaving a warm and soothing aftertaste. An Chang Qing was very much fond of it but after six drinks, Xiao Zhige took his cup away.
Xiao Zhige then picked up a piece of beef cooked with orange peel and placed it in his bowl. In an indisputable tone, he said, “Don’t just keep drinking, eat something to line your stomach first.”
An Chang Qing eyed the wine pot that was now placed far away from him with reluctance but still obediently ate his food. Seeing that Xiao Zhige had not moved his chopsticks, An Chang Qing served him a piece of jade-green cucumber to return the favor. He smiled smugly and said, “Wangye should eat as well.”
“…” Xiao Zhige stared at the cucumber in his bowl, this was something that he did not like to eat. As An Chang Qing was still smiling like a little fox, he knew that this was revenge for taking away his wine. Xiao Zhige smiled helplessly and picked up the piece of cucumber to eat.
Their interactions had caught the Emperor’s eyes. He squinted at An Chang Qing and said, “Why is the second son squeezed into one table with Wangfei?”
Before they could answer, they heard the Crown Prince laugh and say, “Father doesn’t know this but Wangfei was originally arranged to be seated with the women. It’s just that second brother was reluctant to part his side and had then brought him here.”
“Oh?” Emperor An Qing smirked as he looked at Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing, “If you want to sit together, so be it, but…” His tone suddenly changed, “I’ve heard that Wangfei had been quite daring lately. Didn’t you purchase a vast amount of winter clothes and coal? That must’ve cost a lot, hasn’t it? You’re hoarding all these items when the winter is almost over. Zhige, no matter how much you want to pamper your Wangfei, there should be a limit…”
The Emperor’s smile had now faded. The people present could all tell that he was clearly taunting the tiger and taking the chance to find fault with the Northern Warlord.
It had to be said that among the three princes, the wealthiest one was undoubtedly Xiao Zhige.
From the time Xiao Zhige left the Palace, he had opened many stores and over the years, they had generated a lot of profit. But this was just a trivial amount, after all, which prince did not have businesses under their name?
Xiao Zhige’s most profitable venture was the iron mine in Yanzhou.
Yanzhou was situated along the border of the Northern Desert. It had barren lands and was constantly invaded by the Beidi people, making the province incredibly poor. By some stroke of luck, the Northern Warlord happened to locate an iron mine in Yanzhou. There were currently three iron mines within the whole of Da Ye, now that another was found, Emperor An Qing was naturally overjoyed.
Emperor An Qing had led a life of pleasure and extravagance but the national treasury had been depleting fast year by year. Therefore, he had had his own intentions for the newly discovered iron mine.
But who knew that Xiao Zhige would justify that eighty percent of the income should be used for the soldiers and to reinforce Yanzhou city’s walls. At that time, winter had just passed and the troops had also suffered heavy casualties. As such, when Xiao Zhige had declared this proposal in court, Emperor An Qing had no choice but to cave in. But, at the same time, etched this grudge in his heart.
Years later, every time he thought of this, the Emperor became even more loathful towards Xiao Zhige. And now, hearing that the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei had spent over a million taels in one go, his dissatisfaction escalated. He just couldn’t help but use the banquet to vent his anger on Xiao Zhige.
An Chang Qing was flustered. He wanted to rise and explain but Xiao Zhige held his hand and shook his head subtly. He then got up and bowed, “Father, please let me clarify that that was entirely my idea.”
Emperor An Qing raised his eyebrows. He slammed his palm on the table, “Then it’s even more outrageous.”
The crowd held their breath as they watched the event play out.
A poised Xiao Zhige went on to explain, “A few days ago, when I was leaving for the barracks outside the city, I came across an eccentric Taoist monk. He claimed that I had killed too many people in my previous life and this would bring misfortune to the people close to me. To atone for the killings, I had to save thousands in order to accumulate good blessings. He foretold that Yejing would soon be hit with a snow disaster and that I should prepare for the sake of the people.
The man may sound crazy but he did not seem ordinary. I wanted to bring him back for further questioning but he disappeared without a trace. I had a strange feeling and half believing what he said, I ordered Wangfei to hoard the items for winter.”
Emperor An Qing was a devout believer in Taoism. All these years, in search of immortality, he had invited countless Taoist priests to Yejing. There was even a Taoist master in the Palace to refine and concoct elixirs. Upon hearing Xiao Zhige’s words, Emperor An Qing was a little hesitant to discredit.
At this point, the Crown Prince smiled and said, “A Taoist monk who comes and goes without a shadow and could even foresee a major disaster, such a powerful person, why didn’t he go directly to father but look for second brother instead?”
Emperor An Qing was indeed swayed by his words.
Xiao Zhige calmly responded, “The sin of killing is on me, naturally, I should be the one to atone. There is no need to burden father.”
The Third Prince smirked and interjected, “But what the monk said might not be true, there’s also the possibility that he was just a lunatic.”
“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Xiao Zhige looked at him, “How would I dare to take the safety of Yejing lightly?”
Seeing that all three of them had a point, Emperor An Qing waved his hand and said, “Forget it. Now that Zhige has already prepared the items, let’s just wait for the winter to pass.”
At his words, the princes could only back down and Xiao Zhige also sat back at his place.
An Chang Qing was surprised that Xiao Zhige would come up with such a story to cover up for him and even had to shoulder all the mockeries. An Chang Qing was both touched and concerned but it was not convenient for him to talk at the moment. He could only place food into his bowl to show his support.
An hour later, Emperor An Qing brought a beautiful dancer with him to rest and dismissed the crowd.
As Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing were leaving, they met with An Zhi Ke and Madame Li. Previously, they had arrived later and did not bother to talk to the couple but now that they had locked eyes, An Chang Qing couldn’t just ignore them.
An Chang Qing greeted, “Father, Mother.”
An Zhi Ke cast him a look of contempt before responding with an ‘um’. In contrast, Madame Li beamed and said, “You weren’t there during the banquet. Many of the Madames had heard that Xian Yu’s marriage was annulled and they were very interested.”
“A few of them seemed like suitable families, what does Wangfei think?”
An Chang Qing nudged his brows, he did not believe that Madame Li would find a good husband for his sister. “Oh? Which ones?”
Madame Li began recalling the names.
The list was of children who had a good family background but according to the memories of his previous life, he knew that Madame Li had picked those who were good for nothing and had a habit of frequenting brothels.
“Thank you, Mother, for going through the trouble of selecting only the spendthrift playboys,” An Chang Qing said with a forced smile.
Madame Li continued to smile and said, “Which family’s young master doesn’t want to have fun? They’ll change after marriage.”
An Zhi Ke snorted, “I told you not to bother. Wangfei is now a person with grand ideas, even his sister’s marriage should be for him to decide.”
An Chang Qing did not back down, he sneered, “I don’t care. What if it’s another Zhang Juan Shu or Li Juan Shu? Who would Yu’er cry to after the wedding? I don’t need her husband to be illustrious, I only want her to find someone who can protect her. If Mother is not free, you shouldn’t bother.”
There was a crack in Madame Li’s dignified face while An Zhi Ke’s complexion was turning dark. He glared at Madame Li before flinging his sleeves and leaving.
The people watching nearby were stretching out their necks to listen but when they saw Xiao Zhige’s cold eyes, they retracted their gaze and pretended to look at the scenery.
Taizifei (crown prince’s wife, for anyone who has forgotten) was watching them from not far away. She gathered her thoughts and walked towards them. An Chang Qing saw her approaching and promptly saluted.
She smiled and said, “No need for the formality. I thought I could have a talk with Wangfei today but unexpectedly, you had gone with Wangye.”
An Chang Qing was unsure of her intentions so he could only try to get along, “Wangye was only concerned that I would inconvenience the ladies with my presence.”
Taizifei’s eyes wandered as she examined him briefly. She said, “As your senior, I should’ve brought a gift. According to the Crown Prince, Wangfei liked the winter plum wine from the banquet and had ordered a bottle to be prepared for you.” She then took over a basket from her maid and handed it to An Chang Qing.
An Chang Qing thanked her but his thoughts were stuck with the words ‘according to the Crown Prince’.
What has this got to do with the prince?
The two exchanged a few more words and Taizifei left.
An Chang Qing’s brows were creased tight as he carried the basket of wine in hand. Like a hot potato, he threw it to one side once they got on the carriage. He asked Xiao Zhige with great confusion, “What is the meaning of this?”
Why did she deliberately mention the prince? And why did the prince care if he liked this wine?
Seeing An Chang Qing throwing the wine bottle aside, the gloom over Xiao Zhige’s face was lifted. His eyes darkened as he said, “The Crown Prince is lecherous. He’s most fond of collecting beauties of all kinds.”
An Chang Qing did not immediately understand, “I couldn’t tell at all. I’ve even heard that the Crown Prince and Taizifei are very much in love.”
A scorn appeared on Xiao Zhige’s, “He’s good at hiding. And Taizifei is there to cover it up for him. Naturally, no one would suspect.”
An Chang Qing wanted to say something else when he finally came to the realization and his face wrinkled up. He asked in disbelief, “You mean… The Crown Prince… He has taken a fancy to me?”
Xiao Zhige did not give him a definitive answer. He only looked at him and said, “Stay away from the Crown Prince in the future. He has a twisted mind.”
An Chang Qing was beginning to have goosebumps as he looked at the wine from Taizifei. He picked up the basket and threw it out the window with disgust, “I will not be drinking this wine again.”
It’s simply disturbing just to think about it.