Edited and Proofread by KitKat
The Xi Wei Empire stood to the west of Da Ye. It was established by Xue Chang, one of the founding Great Generals of Da Ye at that time, in collaboration with the Xi Wei tribes. Xue Chang had then later turned his back against the Xi Wei natives by suppressing them and deeming them as less than livestock. This was the current state of the Xi Wei Empire.
At present, although the country was still called Xi Wei, the one that truly held power was the Xue Clan. As the previous Emperor died early, his successor was the only son he had had, Xue Zhi. And because Xue Zhi was still a child, the previous Emperor had decreed for the Prime Minister, Xue Wu Yi, to be the regent in order to assist the boy.
Mighty as his title, Prime Minister Xue Wu Yi had actually come from a lowly background. He was a beggar whom the Emperor had met by chance and decided to take him in. Later, when the Emperor had discovered that he was a highly gifted individual, he had adopted him as his son. He had also let him take the surname Xue and had ordered for him to be taught.
It was said that before the age of 10, Xue Wu Yi was already capable of debating with the officials in court with his unique political views. By the age of 16, he was inaugurated by the Emperor as the Prime Minister without any objections from the court.
Ten years from the time the late Emperor entrusted his son to him, Xue Wu Yi had taken charge of every aspect of the court with ruthlessness and ingenuity, making Xi Wei the strong and stable country that it currently was.
And, Shang Que, the Commander of the Northern Garrison was his most capable right-hand man.
Having Shang Que mobilize his troops this promptly only showed how much weight Xi Wei had placed in obtaining these two jade mines.
The group gathered in Xiao Zhige’s study while a guard was ordered to watch the door.
Xiao Zhige began, “How did this get out? You have a spy on your side?”
The smiling Chang Zai Cang’s face was now filled with dread, “I was too lax with the people around me. The spy has been found and I will personally deal with him once this matter is solved!” Only then did Chang Zai Cang look less of a scholar and more like a general.
Xiao Zhige was not surprised, “I will discuss this with the Xi Wei Empire. After that, since you are responsible for the leak, we’ll split it by 8-2, I’ll take 8 and you 2.”
Chang Zai Cang was wide-eyed, “You’re too evil! No way! I have to get at least 4 shares or there’s no deal!”
Xiao Zhige smirked, “I have yet to settle scores with you regarding the fake news you sent me when you were in Yejing.”
“When did I ever send you…” Chang Zai Cang stopped and wondered about his statement. Once he had figured it out, he quickly glanced at An Chang Qing and argued, “It was all for your own good. If I didn’t motivate you, you would never have taken any actions. Come to think of it, shouldn’t you be thanking me instead?”
An Chang Qing listened to their bickering and knew that their conversation had something to do with him. He tried to figure out the details but the two were speaking in codes.
Xiao Zhige said in an assertive tone, “Don’t try to be clever with me. 8-2 or else, you’ll get nothing.”
Chang Zai Cang clicked his tongue and frowned, “Wait wait wait, let me reconsider!”
If anyone else from the Xi Wei Empire had come to fight for the mines, Chang Zai Cang would not have had this headache. But it just had to be Shang Que, the powerhouse of the Xi Wei Garrison. He was a Xi Wei aborigin who was born with incredible strength. No one knew how Xue Wu Yi was able to make this mighty man do all his bidding.
Naturally, Chang Zai Cang was not his opponent. In the whole of Da Ye, other than the young version of the Great General Xia Hou Shang, the person capable of defeating Shang Que was only Xiao Zhige.
Clenching his teeth, Chang Zai Cang made his decision, “8-2 is really not enough to share with my team. 7-3, at least make it 7-3!”
Xiao Zhige’s eyes lit up, “Deal. Tomorrow, I’ll depart with you to Liangzhou.”
Chang Zai Cang, “…” Such a quick reply, was I being duped again?
When the discussion had ended, Chang Zai Cang winked at An Chang Qing several times in want of starting a conversation with him but was caught by Xiao Zhige. He gave him a threatening look and Chang Zai Cang could only give up and leave. Since he was a frequent visitor, he knew his way to the guest room without needing help with directions.
After Chang Zai Cang left, An Chang Qing asked with some concern, “You’re leaving for Liangzhou? Didn’t Dr. Hu say that you have to rest your wounds?”
Xiao Zhige smiled and whispered in his ears, “Don’t worry, there won’t be a fight. I was only trying to scare Chang Zai Cang.”
Chang Zai Cang and Xiao Zhige were under the command of Xia Hou Shang and the two had known each other for a long time. Chang Zai Cang was quite talented at leading his men and this had allowed Liangzhou to stay safe and secure. However, Xiao Zhige knew that he had a fatal weakness – Chang Zai Cang did not have a lot of guts, he preferred stability and seldom took risks.
He knew that he couldn’t win Shang Que in a fight and rushed to Xiao Zhige for help but he never considered that Shang Que might not even want to engage in battle.
Da Ye and Xi Wei had been on friendly terms all these years, they would not risk war over a jade mine. As far as he could tell, the Xi Wei government may seem steady but in fact, it was about to get turbulent. Xue Wu Yi had taken control over the court for so long but the young Xi Wei Emperor was also coming of age, it was high time that he would get involved in the matters of the court. Over the years, the royal family who had been waiting patiently to regain power were also aiming for Xue Wu Yi’s downfall. And during his reign, Xue Wu Yi had also made many enemies by ruining their ill-gotten gains with his iron-fisted regulations.
As such, Xue Wu Yi would definitely not risk stirring up a hornet’s nest at this juncture. Sending Shang Que was probably just a scare tactic.
Listening to his explanation, An Chang Qing was in awe. Xiao Zhige was truly insightful.
He then remembered something and asked, “Wangye has spoken about me with General Chang?”
Xiao Zhige did not expect the topic to change so suddenly and almost blurted out a ‘yes’. He looked back at An Chang Qing and asked, “Why do you ask?”
An Chang Qing had been with Xiao Zhige for this long so he naturally knew that since he did not deny it, then it must’ve been true.
“Wangye just have to tell me if you’ve spoken about me or not.”
Xiao Zhige glanced at him and thought about how he had promised not to keep anything from him. His Adam’s apple rolled twice and he nodded awkwardly, “Yes.”
Without waiting for An Chang Qing to ask, Xiao Zhige sighed and went on to explain, “When Chang Zai Cang was stationed in Yejing, I told him to watch over the An Manor and send me news of you.”
“Didn’t you ask me where the misunderstanding I had of you and Li Hai Yun comes from? It was Chang Zai Cang who told me.”
“…” There was some information to digest and An Chang Qing did not know which to be surprised at first.
After deliberating, he stammered, “Then… you’ve known me long before? How…”
Xiao Zhige saw An Chang Qing’s ears turning a shade redder and his lips arced with glee. He reached out to touch his earlobe and thought about where to begin, “It should be when I was around nine. You were about seven at the time, probably still too small to remember.”
An Chang Qing looked at him speaking in earnest and frowned, he had no memories of Xiao Zhige before this.
Xiao Zhige continued, “That autumn during the Emperor’s birthday, he organized a hunting expedition in the Spring Mountain outer palace. The Crown Prince had stayed behind and on a rare chance, I was allowed to go. It was there that I met you.”
At that time, Xiao Zhige’s mother was still around. Although he was not favored, he was still a child pampered by his mother. He happened to see the young An Chang Qing’s round little jaded face and liked it very much.
The ministers’ children that attended were mostly around his younger brother’s age but they had obviously learned the art of flattery. Only An Chang Qing was indifferent and stayed in one place, not trying to draw attention or give out pretentious praises. Xiao Zhige found him extremely cute.
Xiao Zhige saw him sitting by himself and went to talk to him. Only then did he find out that An Chang Qing was Minister An’s third son. Everyone knew of the Minister’s capable eldest son and mischievous second son but very few knew the existence of his third son.
Xiao Zhige could tell that he was a little timid so he gave him a piece of pastry.
Two weeks into the expedition, An Chang Qing had often come to find him. At a certain point, An Chang Qing was late and Xiao Zhige went to find him. It was then that he saw him being bullied by the second young master An and several other young masters. The Third Prince was also watching with excitement.
The young An Chang Qing had cowered into a ball, seemingly adept in dealing with this type of situation. Even in the face of insults and abuse, he still kept his head low and stayed small, looking pitiful and helpless.
Xiao Zhige was furious. He rushed over and fought with them. In the end, even the Third Prince joined the fight. Although Xiao Zhige had been practicing martial arts, his body was still that of a boy’s. When the brawl was over, Xiao Zhige had countless bruises and scratches on his body.
Later, Xiao Zhige brought An Chang Qing back to his room and asked him angrily why he did not fight back or hide.
The small An Chang Qing then gave him a serious answer, “If you hide or retaliate this time, the next time will be more severe.”
Xiao Zhige did not understand his words back then but he made him a promise: When he returned to the palace, he would ask his father to let An Chang Qing become his reading companion so he could prevent him from getting bullied.
At that time, he only thought that since An Chang Qing was also not favored, it shouldn’t be too hard to get approval. However, fate is always inconsistent and many things never go according to one’s wishes.
Upon his return, before he had the chance to speak to his father, the Empress had told him that his mother had committed suicide.
After that came years of struggles and extraordinary hardships. Without his mother’s protection, Xiao Zhige realized that his life would only turn arduous. And he finally understood what An Chang Qing had said to him: ‘If you hide or retaliate this time, the next time will be more severe.’
Xiao Zhige had to grow up fast. In order to break away from the Empress and Crown Prince’s control, by the age of twelve, Xiao Zhige requested for his enrolment into the military.
When he returned many years later and remembered his oath, he found that An Chang Qing had already forgotten this childish promise. But Xiao Zhige still felt guilty for not being able to keep his promise.
Afterwards, he could only try to pay attention to his news every now and then. Once he knew that An Chang Qing was having a hard time at the An Manor, it was then that he requested Chang Zai Cang’s help.
Later, in order to hamper suspicions in the palace, he announced that he did not like women and asked the Empress Dowager to decree for their marriage.
“… That’s all there is. I saw that you have forgotten so I did not bring it up.”
An Chang Qing widened his eyes. He recalled that in the winters, when their allowance was skimmed, every few days, someone would leave a basket of charcoal in their yard; whenever he went to refill his mother’s prescriptions without enough money, the store clerk would always charge him less…
After he grew up and found out that the pharmacy was under Madame Li’s name, he had thought that it was Madame Li being kind to them.
As it turned out, it was all thanks to Xiao Zhige’s attentiveness towards him.
An Chang Qing scoured his brains to remember Xiao Zhige in his childhood but it was no use. In the winter when he had turned ten, he had jumped into an ice cold pond to save his sister who had been pushed in. The incident had caused him to subsequently suffer from a severe fever. After he had recovered, he seemed to have forgotten many things.
“I’m sorry…” An Chang Qing said forlorn yet longingly, “I can’t remember…”