Edited and Proofread by KitKat
Those who had sent gifts to the Wang Manor in previous years were mostly military personnel. The rest were lower ranked officials and nobles without substantial power.
An Chang Qing studied the list and found a few familiar names.
“Are Zhu An Liang and Shi Le Zheng on friendly terms with Wangye?” An Chang Qing was surprised when he saw these names on the list. In his previous life, he had stayed hidden in the Wang Manor and was not informed about the court situation but based on the fact that these two generals had helped the abolished prince besiege Yejing, they should be considered as enemies.
An Chang Qing was on alert but still decided to probe, “This year, should we send gifts to these two Great Generals?”
Xiao Zhige took over the list, drew two big crosses over their names and explained to him patiently, “Our country has six Great Generals. Zhao Xin Chung presides over Qizhou and Suizhou. He’s the Empress Dowager’s brother but he’s now too old to go to battle. Xue Qi presides over Yuzhou and Yongzhou. He is secretly being supported by the Shu family and therefore, sides with Shu guifei. Shen Tu Bei presides over Suzhou and Chenzhou. On the surface, he seems to be neutral but is actually under the Emperor’s command. Zhu An Liang and Shi Le Zheng are like the grass on a wall1. They’re incapable in warfare but skillful in judging the wind’s direction to sail with it.”
“The two did not want to offend anyone so they sent out gifts to the Wang manor every year. You can ignore them.”
An Chang Qing noticed the disdain in his words for these two generals and knew they were not close. He was relieved but decided that he should still warn Xiao Zhige in the future.
After taking in what Xiao Zhige had said, An Chang Qing asked, “There’s one more.”
Xiao Zhige smiled, “There’s also the Great General Xia, Xia Hou Shang. He is my mentor. The first battalion I joined was under his command.”
When Xiao Zhige wanted to join the army, Emperor An Qing was furious. He dictated that he could not enlist as a prince and if he died on the battlefield, his corpse would be left there to rot. Xiao Zhige had agreed with the only request that he be allowed to join General Xia’s army.
As General Xia was known for being unbiased and upright, Emperor An Qing agreed on the spot. But who knew that this was the chance Xiao Zhige had been planning for. Since then, he was like a water dragon that entered the sea, soaring to the sky with a leap.
“Then should I prepare additional gifts for General Xia?” An Chang Qing asked.
“There’s no need,” Xiao Zhige shook his head, “Mentor has always been upright, he neither sends gifts nor accepts them. And on the surface, he doesn’t have a good relationship with me. You only have to know this, there’s no need to do anything else.”
An Chang Qing nodded, then pointed to the rest of the list, “What should we do with the rest?”
Xiao Zhige gave the list a quick sweep and circled out several names, “Pay no heed to these people. As for the rest, if they continue to send gifts this year, we can do the same.”
An Chang Qing drew up a new recipients list according to Xiao Zhige’s instructions and passed it to Steward Wang. Xiao Zhige had no other close relatives to visit in person which saved them the trouble.
When Steward Wang was about to leave, An Chang Qing stopped him and said, “Prepare another portion of gifts and greetings under my name to be sent to the Grand Princess’s Manor.”
The Grand Princess’s words had more or less touched his heart. Even until his death, he had never heard of the Princess doing any harm to Xiao Zhige. Since that’s the case, even if they can’t be close, he should still maintain a good relationship.
It’s just that sending it under the Wang Manor’s name might upset Xiao Zhige once he knew about it so An Chang Qing decided to send it under his name.
As there was too much idle time during the New Year, time seemed to fly by faster. An Chang Qing spent his free time reading books in the study and occasionally learning a few fighting moves from Xiao Zhige.
In the blink of an eye, the Lantern Festival had arrived.
On this day, Yejing would hold a grand celebration. The whole city had been preparing for it in advance, from small vendors to large businesses, even the palace guards had been dispatched to help with the festivities.
Even at his age, An Chang Qing had never been to the Lantern Festival. Every year, the An family would reserve a place in a restaurant for the elders and youngsters to watch but that never included An Chang Qing and An Xian Yu.
Now that Steward Wang had mentioned it, An Chang Qing was a little excited.
He went to find Xiao Zhige and placed the invitation in front of him, “It’s an invitation from Wang Xian Lou. They’ve left us the best seats, is Wangye going?”
Wang Xian Lou is the biggest restaurant in Yejing. On regular days, it was filled with dignitaries drinking and enjoying the scenery. During the Lantern Festival, its private rooms had long been fully booked by their more important customers. It was hard to believe that they especially reserved a room for them and even sent an invitation. Although An Chang Qing was simply enquiring, his eyes were filled with expectations.
Xiao Zhige had no interest in the Lantern Festival but he could never disappoint An Chang Qing. Thinking of something, he said, “Mother and Yu’er have nothing to do in the house. Let’s ask them to come along.”
An Chang Qing agreed and added, “We should invite He Lan and his mother as well. It’s rare that they get to go out.”
After it had been decided, An Chang Qing told Anfu to send out the message. When it turned dark, the group set out in two carriages and headed for Wang Xian Lou.
An Chang Qing lifted the curtain to watch the scenery and the colorful lights reflected on his face, giving it a childish look instead of the matured front he tried to put up.
Xiao Zhige saw this and said, “If you like it, we’ll go every year.”
“Ok,” An Chang Qing looked back at him. His smile was brilliant against the night lights, “With Wangye accompanying me.”
Xiao Zhige’s fingers that were placed over his knees curled up. He stared at An Chang Qing and made a soft ‘en’.
Carriages stopped in the entrance of Wang Xian Lou while guests were flowing in like clouds, waiting for the waiters to show them their seats. An Chang Qing looked around and found the familiar faces. He passed the invitation to a waiter and was immediately brought upstairs.
Wang Xian Lou had three storeys with six massive private rooms on each floor. The third floor provided the best view overlooking the whole of Yejing.
An Chang Qing’s group was led to Songtao Pavillion to take their seats. After which, a waiter served them tea and exquisite snacks.
An Chang Qing opened the window and reveled in the scenery below. The whole city was submerged in a sea of lights. Lanterns of all colors filled his sight. Among them were two giant revolving lanterns with the towering height of three to four men. They were this year’s lantern king.
“Is the lantern race starting?” An Chang Qing asked.
The waiter serving them replied, “Yes. Do you want me to get you the riddles? The first prize this year is 100 taels of gold or Sir Dan Mo’s original work.”
Whether it was the 100 taels of gold or Sir Dan Mo’s work, they were both attractive prizes.
An Chang Qing beckoned Anfu to give the invitation to the waiter, “Go get the riddles.”
Xiao Zhige was curious, “Nuo Nuo knows how to solve riddles?”
An Chang Qing raised his chin and said proudly, “A little. Even if I can’t, there’s still Yu’er.”
He might not be as good at learning the eight-part essay as others but he was a keen learner and a quick thinker. When he was younger and the other children had gone to the Lantern Festival, the pair of siblings had stayed behind in the manor. In the time that no one was in the house, they went to pick up used lanterns with the riddles still left inside and had managed to solve more than half of them.
The waiter brought up ten riddles and placed them on the table. An Chang Qing browsed through them and did those that he could solve and passed those he couldn’t to An Xian Yu. After they had written down the answers, the waiter proceeded to submit their answers.
There would be a ranking according to how many riddles were solved and the one who had solved the most would win. But the riddles were divided into five stages of difficulty from one being the easiest and each stage had a definite number of riddles. Only by answering the most could you win the competition.
Seeing how quickly they had solved the riddles, the surprised waiter said, “I’ll go fetch more, “ and ran downstairs. He came back shortly with a new batch of riddles and exclaimed, “The previous ten were all correct!”
An Chang Qing and An Xian Yu worked together effortlessly and after a few rounds, they heard the gong sounding and someone shouted, “The Wang Manor, An Chang Qing, 67 correct answers, tenth place!”
An Chang Qing looked down at the ranking board and saw someone placed his name on the last empty spot.
“We’re in tenth place!” An Chang Qing blinked and smiled. Looking at the silent Zhou He Lan, he asked, “Do you want to play? If we win, you can have half the prize.”
Zhou He Lan thought for a bit and said, “He Lan will give it a try.”
An Chang Qing then stopped playing and let Zhou He Lan take over.
In the Nongxue Pavillion on the third floor of Wang Xian Lou, An Xianya rubbed her ear in disbelief, “Did I hear right? What name was called out just now? An Chang Qing?”
An Chang Yu sipped from his cup. He did not look happy, “You’ve heard right, it’s him.”
An Xianya twisted her handkerchief. She then pulled at the handsome man sitting in silence and said flirtatiously, “Cousin Hai Yun, why are you stopping? Quickly solve the riddles. Don’t let that bastard son win or else it’ll be so infuriating!”
In her fury, she did pay attention to Li Hai Yun’s expression.
An Chang Yu glared at her and said in a heavy tone, “Xianya! What happened to the promise you made about your attitude before we left?”
An Chang Yu looked at his cousin who had been in a daze ever since he heard An Chang Qing’s name and whispered, “I’ve ordered someone to ask around. They are now in Songtao Pavillion, right next to us.”
Li Hai Yun’s expression changed. He looked down in a loss and said, “He is now the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei. What can be achieved were we to meet? I can’t cause him any trouble…”
An Chang Yu’s eyes turned dark, “The last time he came back home, his face was quite pale. His days in the Wang Manor might not be good… But cousin is right, since you both are not fated to be, it’s better not to meet.”
Li Hai Yun looked up abruptly and wanted to say something but in the end, he stooped his head and continued to answer the riddles.
In the Songtao Pavillion, An Chang Qing was still unaware that several members of the An family were in the next room. He sat next to Xiao Zhige and watched as An Xian Yu and Zhou He Lan worked together seamlessly to solve the riddles.
The further into the competition, the harder the riddles would get and the slower the rate it could be solved. On the chart below, the rankings had slowly stopped changing but the two were still rolling out answers with proficiency. The waiter serving them was breaking a sweat in the winter as he ran up and down to deliver them the riddles. As he reached their room, he smiled brightly and said, “Fifth, fifth place!”
An Chang Qing gave him a small reward and continued to watch the two speedily solving the riddles.
Unexpectedly, after the waiter had just left, there was a knock on the door.
Anfu went to answer the door and was shocked to see the visitors. He hesitated as to whether he should let them in, “First Young Master, Young Master Li.”
From outside the door came a gentle voice, “I heard that cousin Chang Qing had also joined the Lantern race. It just so happened that we were in the next room so we came to say hello.”
Xiao Zhige’s brows twitched and he looked towards An Chang Qing but there was no change in his expression as he said to Anfu, “Is that big brother and cousin Hai Yun? Invite them in.”
Anfu opened the door and led the two people in.
After they entered the door and saw Xiao Zhige, the two men were stunned briefly before saying their greetings. Xiao Zhige’s eyes landed on Li Hai Yun and the corners of his lips drooped.
As consistent with what he had heard, the An family’s cousin, Li Yun Hai, had a handsome face with a gentleman’s demeanor. He excelled in poetry and was even better at learning the eight-part essay. If it weren’t for the consecutive deaths of his grandparents for which he had to pay filial piety to, he might’ve become the champion scholar to receive the top three prestigious titles in a row.
After the filial petty period, Young Master Li came to stay at the An Manor as a guest. When he met the Third Young Master for the first time, it was as though he had met with a childhood friend for whom he would often write poems to.
1墙头草- people who go with the wind.