Edited and Proofread by KitKat
That evening, An Chang Qing finally had a good night’s sleep. For the past few days on the road he was constantly thinking about the situation in Yanzhou. On top of that, whenever he dreamt of his previous life, his mind would tense up, causing him to wake up in the middle of the night.
It was not until he met Xiao Zhige and was reassured that everything would be fine that An Chang Qing could finally rest his mind.
With his hands and feet warmed inside Xiao Zhige’s embrace, An Chang Qing listened to the powerful heartbeat that he was used to and fell into a deep slumber.
By the time he woke up the next morning, it was already the si1 hour. The area next to him had already cooled. Xiao Zhige must have left some time ago. He did not know when but his hands and feet had been wrapped with warmers. No wonder he wasn’t woken up due to the cold.
After stretching his back, An Chang Qing went to get changed. He was capable of taking care of himself even without Anfu. He took a copper basin to fetch some water to wash up. Just as he opened the door, he saw a young soldier standing guard right outside.
When the soldier saw An Chang Qing coming out with a basin, he hurriedly said, “Please allow me. According to the General’s specific orders all the toiletries have already been prepared in the side room.”
The young soldier began to fear that he could not complete his assigned tasks and said nervously, “The General said that before the manor can find suitable servants, it will be my duty to serve Wangfei!”
Seeing that the soldier was still fairly young but trying desperately to repeat Xiao Zhige’s straight-faced instructions to the T, An Chang Qing couldn’t help but chuckle. He began walking towards the rear room while chatting with him, “What’s your name? Are you even old enough to join the army? Have you been to the battlefield?”
“My name is Chen Su. I’m already fourteen this year.” The little soldier blushed seeing An Chang Qing’s friendly expression and continued proudly, “I’ve fought in a battle before and managed to kill two Beidi soldiers!”
An Chang Qing was slightly perplexed. Chen Su looked small and his face was rounded with fleshy cheeks. Clearly he was still a developing child but An Chang Qing did not expect him capable of killing enemies on the battlefield. On the contrary, children his age in Yejing would be studying in school instead.
However, thinking back to what Xiao Zhige had told him, since the people of Yanzhou were under constant threat of a Beidi invasion, it was imminent that he was able to defend himself.
Seeing the child’s boastful spirit, An Chang Qing praised, “Is that so? That’s pretty awesome.”
Chen Su was slightly embarrassed when he was praised. He scratched his head and said, “But when the General saw me, he said that I was too young. I have to wait till I’m older to go on the battlefield. Hence, I was transferred to guard the General’s manor.”
An Chang Qing remembered how he had thought that the soldiers guarding the manor all seemed a little too young. Apparently, Xiao Zhige had specially transferred them to this post. His eyes bent as he discovered another one of Xiao Zhige’s good qualities.
After cleaning up, Chen Su served An Chang Qing a bowl of porridge together with a few side dishes. Although it still looked simple, the taste was a lot more refined. It seemed like it had been cooked by another chef.
An Chang Qing’s heart was sweetened to the core. He finished all the porridge and side dishes before asking for Xiao Zhige’s whereabouts.
Chen Su answered with uncertainty, “Usually at this time, the General will probably be at the barracks.”
An Chang Qing contemplated and felt that Xiao Zhige would be busy and decided to visit him after. He went to look for Zhou He Lan before heading out.
His trip to Yanzhou was decided in haste with him leaving Anfu behind in Yejing. Anfu would travel with Tie Hu after, while he and Zhou He Lan had departed for Yanzhou prior.
The two left the General’s manor without bringing along any guards. Walking on the main road, Zhou He Lan noted that Yanzhou was very different from Yejing but similar to the Xi Wei Empire.
The people on the streets had mostly seen An Chang Qing the day before. Those who recognized him greeted him warmly and An Chang Qing reciprocated with a kind smile.
Along the way, An Chang Qing found that many shops were selling items at incredibly low prices. This included jewelries, various kinds of ointment, etc.
An Chang Qing randomly picked up an emerald green stone with an irregular shape and a lustrous shine. He asked for the price and found that it was only thirty wen2.
“That cheap?” An Chang Qing asked in surprise. Although he did not know much about jade, he could tell that the quality of this stone was no worse than the jade pieces sold in Yejing’s jewelry stores.
“There’s a large supply of these so it’s not worth much.” The peddler continued, “The merchants brought these back from the Xi Wei Empire. They do look beautiful but being this plentiful, the price can’t go any higher.”
“The Xi Wei Empire?”
“A lot of merchants would take goods from Liangzhou and do business along the border. After they had sold everything, they would do some trading with the Xi Wei Empire and bring their goods back.”
“This does look like Xi Wei jade.” Zhou He Lan studied the stones and said, “I’ve seen them before.”
Seeing that An Chang Qing looking puzzled, Zhou He Lan explained, “When I came to Yejing with my mother, we took the route from Liangzhou. There is an abundance of these stones in the mountains along the junction between Xi Wei and Liangzhou. Since they are easily accessible, they aren’t valuable. Only the poorer folks would gather them from the mountains and after a simple polishing, would turn them into beautiful jewelry.”
“Are Xi Wei jade any different from Yejing jade?” An Chang Qing asked.
Zhou He Lan considered and shook his head, “I do not understand jade but looking at it, I do not see a big difference.”
An Chang Qing thought it over and decided to buy all of the store’s stones. He then told Zhou He Lan to bring them back to the General’s manor and seek out a craftsman proficient in jade. Zhou He Lan immediately understood An Chang Qing’s objective and left with the stones in high spirits.
An Chang Qing continued to tour the city until much later. When he thought that Xiao Zhige should already be free, he headed for the barracks.
At the military camp, Xiao Zhige sent everyone out before handing Li An Ming the written testimonies of the censor officer and those involved.
Li An Ming was known for his impartiality and righteousness. Emperor An Qing’s decision in appointing Li An Ming to investigate this case was within Xiao Zhige’s speculation. He had long assembled all the evidence and had only been waiting for Li An Ming to take the bait.
As expected, after reading the stack of evidence in his hands, Li An Ming’s expression gradually turned morbid.
Xiao Zhige gave Li An Ming a dejected look and said, “The censor officer is the Crown Prince’s man. He acted under His Royal Highness’ command to burn the grains. But the grains with pebbles mixed in from Taifu Temple was the work of someone else. The newly wedded bride of the Taifu Temple secretary hails from Shu Guifei’s family.”
“The Third Prince conspired with the secretary of Taifu Temple while the Crown Prince used His Majesty to place the censor officer into my camp. It’s reasonable to say that they both wanted me to fail, wouldn’t Minister Li agree?”
Li An Ming turned pale, “Wangye wanted to speak to me in private not because you intended to expose the two Princes…”
If Xiao Zhige had wanted to expose the two Princes, he wouldn’t have killed everyone involved. Furthermore, he could’ve simply sent the evidence straight to Yejing instead of waiting for him in Yanzhou.
Xiao Zhige scoffed and turned his back to Li An Ming, “What would I gain from exposing the two Princes?”
Li An Ming thought thoroughly and said, “If the Third Prince and Crown Prince were to fall… amongst His Majesty’s sons, there’ll only be Wangye left. It’s a fine opportunity for Wangye to fight for the throne.”
“If Minister Li can think of this, so can my father and the rest of the court.” Xiao Zhige looked into the distance and continued, “After I expose their crimes, who do you think His Majesty will side with, the two sons that he favors or me?”
Based on Li An Ming’s understanding of Emperor An Qing, he knew that the Emperor would choose to cover for the Third and Crown Prince. One was the eldest son supported by the Empress and Empress Dowager, and the other, his beloved youngest son. Even if they made a mistake, in Emperor An Qing’s eyes, everything could be forgiven.
Moreover, this matter involved the ill-favored Northern Warlord. If this matter was brought to light, the bigger possibility was Emperor An Qing thinking that Xiao Zhige had fabricated the evidence to frame his brothers in order to claim the throne.
And if Li An Ming were to return with the evidence and pursue the case, he would be suspected of siding with Xiao Zhige and ultimately be persecuted by the other two Princes.
Li An Ming thought of the head that was urgently sent back to Yejing and realized that Xiao Zhige had surmised this from the beginning. After this realization, he felt another layer of fear towards Xiao Zhige. Everyone said that the Northern Warlord could read the battlefield like an open book but what they did not know was that he could do the same towards the person sitting on the dragon throne.
Li An Ming looked up at Xiao Zhige’s dignified posture by the window with his hand behind his back. He thought of the portrait of the First Emperor and could vaguely sense his legacy in Xiao Zhige.
“I understand Wangye’s intentions.” Li An Ming bowed, “I know what I should report to His Majesty.”
He straightened his back and added, “This is also to repay Wangye for the letter from before.”
Back then, to bring down Marquis Wu, Xiao Zhige had suggested that An Chang Qing anonymously send Li An Ming a secret letter detailing the crimes committed by the Wu Manor. With Li An Ming’s help, the Wu Manor had been destroyed in one fell swoop, leaving Wu Juan Shu no room to turn around and Li An Ming had also had the chance to avenge his daughter.
Li An Ming had always remembered this debt. He tried to figure out who the sender was but could never be sure. Now he was ascertained that it had indeed been Xiao Zhige.
Xiao Zhige did not deny it either. He said, “I’ll have to trouble Minister Li then.”
Li An Ming cupped his hands and smiled. He turned to leave but before exiting, he couldn’t help but inquire, “In a time where the country is deteriorating and monarchs and leaders do not have the people at heart, has Wangye ever thought… of taking over the throne?”
Li An Ming had always been a neutral party. Whether it was the offer from the Crown Prince or Shu Guifei, he remained loyal only to the Emperor. An ideal he hoped would benefit the people of Da Ye.
A leader should think of his people and in turn, the people should be mindful for their leader.3
But the reality was that the court was filled with crafty and calculating officials stepping on each others’ tails whenever they could. Even as the Imperial Censor himself, he still had to tread carefully everyday to figure out his king’s and colleagues’ intentions.
Emperor An Qing was muddle-headed and prodigal; The Crown Prince was only obsessed with power and disregarded the people; The Third Prince’s immaturity had caused him to be a puppet under Shu Guifei’s control.
This land that the First Emperor had fought for had once been an impenetrable iron wall. Now, it was a barren bucket with leaking holes.
Only the infamous Northern Warlord left behind in the shadows had been doing his part to protect the people.
Li An Ming couldn’t hold back his thoughts and had to ask. Unexpectedly, his treasonable words did not garner any reaction from Xiao Zhige.
He simply glanced at Li An Ming and said lightly, “Since the country is falling apart, instead of taking over, why not let it rise again from the ashes?”
1 ↪ 巳时 9-11 a.m.
2 ↪ copper coins3 ↪ 居庙堂之高则忧其民，处江湖之远则忧其君. From the heights of his temple, one should consider the worries of his people, the people of jiang hu should be mindful of their leaders. Meaning as an official, one should think of the welfare of the common people and in return, the people will do their part to help the country.