TTBE 27

Chapter 27

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Carrying the painting back to the main room, An Chang Qing wandered around to find a good spot to hang it. Xiao Zhige followed behind him and frowned, “This painting’s not good. Let’s hang the next one.”

“I think it’s pretty good.” An Chang Qing held the scroll up to an empty stretch of wall and said, “And after you’ve drawn the next one, we can always hang that here as well.” Having said so, he had someone come in to hang up the scroll.

“Too bad I don’t know how to draw,” An Chang Qing said as he directed the servant to the right position to hang the scroll, “Or else, I could draw a portrait of Wangye and hang our pictures together. Or we can find a painter to draw the two of us.”

Watching An Chang Qing speak with glee, Xiao Zhige’s eyes flickered when he heard his words.

After re-adjusting the scroll’s position on the wall several times, An Chang Qing was finally satisfied and told Anfu to serve him and Xiao Zhige tea.

“Did Wangye learn to draw before?” An Chang Qing looked at the habitually quiet man and asked curiously because, adding up two lifetimes, he found that he knew not much about his husband. Take this for example, in his previous life, he had never seen Xiao Zhige draw with a brush. Those rough hands always looked like they were born to wield only weapons; him holding a brush was quite unimaginable.

“I learned it when I was little,” Xiao Zhige looked down and said faintly.

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Although he was spurned by the Emperor, Xiao Zhige could still attend classes with the other princes. The first Emperor of Da Ye was said to have been Heaven’s favored son. He was a wise monarch gifted with both literary and martial skills. As his descendants, it was mandatory for the princes to not disgrace themselves by way of ignorance. In addition to the necessary teachings, they also had to be familiar with playing the qin, chess, calligraphy and painting on top of practicing martial arts.

When he was young and naive, he only knew that his father was not fond of his mother and him but not the reason. After seeing his elder brother being praised for his excellent academics, he did his best to learn, all for the hope that his father would come to visit them. Unfortunately, he did not have the aptitude for these literary pursuits and did not gain a single compliment even after pouring his heart out.

After his mother passed away, he grew to be more sensible, no longer yearning for meaningless attention and focused his efforts on learning the art of war and training his body.

Xiao Zhige did not want to cause An Chang Qing unnecessary grief and simply said, “All the princes had to learn.”

An Chang Qing was indeed spared the heartache. He continued to inquire happily, “What else does Wangye know?”

“Chess, music, painting. A little of everything, nothing extensive.”

It was surprising that the brutish Northern Warlord knew these scholarly skills. An Chang Qing was further convinced that he knew too little about Xiao Zhige. And the more he knew, the more he felt that the man was like a piece of raw jadeite. The surface may have seemed rough and dull but with each layer being polished off, it revealed a stunningly priceless piece of jade.

“As for me, I don’t know anything,” An Chang Qing made a sulking look and said with melancholy, “Other than having done a lot of reading, I don’t know anything else. Will Wangye be displeased with me?”

The An family’s teachings only revolved around the eight-part essay for their main purpose had always been to prevail in the Imperial Exams. If they had wanted to learn something else, a teacher would be invited to personally coach them. However, as an unfavored son, An Chang Qing did not even have the privilege to study in the family classroom, much less have a personal tutor. 

Xiao Zhige frowned. He immediately said ‘no’ followed by, “If you want to learn, I can teach you.”

An Chang Qing was sighing but Xiao Zhige’s words lifted his mood, “Really?”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’.

“Then let’s start with painting,” An Chang Qing beamed, “When I’m able to draw well, I’ll draw a portrait of Wangye.”

Xiao Zhige composed his emotions and smiled, “Ok.”

…..

An Chang Qing went back to the An Manor the day after the Wu family was seized of their properties.

As soon as he entered the door, he met his eldest brother, An Chang Yu who he had not seen in a long time. An Chang Yu was six years his senior and the eldest son of Madame Li. After his marriage, An Zhi Ke had sent him to travel as a means to gain experience and only allowed him back this year. Because his mother-in-law was ill, he had been away to pay her a visit a few days ago.

Coincidentally, he bumped into An Chang Qing when he returned home. 

An Chang Yu smiled and greeted as though he did not know the events that had transpired, “Third brother, oh, I mean Wangfei, hope you’re doing well.”

An Chang Qing also put up a smile and responded, “Everything is well, what about you? How was your trip outside?”

“It’s all well, all well,” An Chang Yu smiled amiably and turned his step to accompany An Chang Qing, “It had been tough living away from home but now that I’m back, I can’t get used to it like before. The place is very different from when I left. I often think back to the days when we were young and free of worries.”

He sighed almost as if he really meant it. An Chang Qing couldn’t tell which direction he was leading this conversation and could only play along. 

In the An family, no one could be more similar to An Zhi Ke than this eldest brother, An Chang Yu. He was slick from young and as the eldest child, he was the most valued grandchild in the family. The only person who could compete with him was An Changqi. Even the younger children of relatives and acquaintances were respectful towards him. 

And An Chang Qing was no exception.

Because he was the oldest, he had never bullied An Chang Qing and his sister like the other children. When they happened to meet, he would even smile at them. At that time, An Chang Qing had naively thought that this big brother did not hate him and had once tried to approach him only to be frightened by the cold look in his eyes. After which, An Chang Qing did not take the initiative to find him anymore.

It was years later that An Chang Qing realized that An Chang Yu had hated him just like everyone else in the An manor. The only difference was that he cared more for his image, having to maintain that pretentious facade.

Just like this time, he must’ve heard of Madame Li’s grievances prior to this but he still chatted with An Chang Qing as though nothing had changed, even reminiscing about the past with him.

An Chang Qing looked at him coldly and said indifferently, “You and I have different opinions. In contrast, I feel a lot more at peace now than ever. I do not miss the days of our childhood.”

An Chang Yu’s smile froze briefly before he went on to say, “What about Hai Yun? Don’t you miss Cousin Hai Yun?”

An Chang Qing blinked, “Brother Hai Yun?”

“That’s right,” An Chang Yu continued in a sappy tone, “After not seeing him for several years, his family is unexpectedly moving to Yejing after the New Year. You don’t know this but after Hai Yun turned down his arranged marriage, he had sworn to make a name for himself in the Imperial Exams and return to marry his sweetheart. It’s just a pity that…”

He stopped his speech halfway and looked at An Chang Qing.

An Chang Qing on the other hand was not particularly interested in his story although he did remember Li Hai Yun. He was the son of Madame Li’s brother who had come to the An Manor to stay for a while. And he was a noble gentleman.

Other than that, the only other thing that An Chang Qing remembered about Li Hai Yun was that he was a very sentimental person. After the two had met by chance, Li Hai Yun would often invite him to enjoy the scenery and write poems. To avoid provoking Madame Li, it was unwise for An Chang Qing to refuse him. And so, An Chang Qing had to sit and listen to him make soapy poems that he could barely understand.

That said, Li Hai Yun had been respectful to him but after the incident with An Changqi, An Chang Qing just could not let his guard down against those who approached him. Therefore, their relationship was not that good.

Now that An Chang Yu had specifically mentioned him, An Chang Qing was a little confused but he still responded politely, “Is that so? Then I hope Brother Hai Yun will pass the Imperial Exam soon and marry his sweetheart.” As for An Chang Yu’s unfinished sentence, An Chang Qing completely ignored it.

An Chang Yu was slightly stumped. He said with a complicated look, “Hai Yun often thinks of you and yet you’ve completely ignored him. You don’t even care about his marriage?”

An Chang Qing was baffled, “Brother Hai Yun’s marriage is arranged by his elders, how can I have a say in that?”

“…” An Chang Yu had wanted to test him but he did not expect that his third brother was this good at concealing his emotions, barring him from finding any flaws. Failing to achieve his goal, An Chang Yu laughed and said, “Wangfei is correct. But when Hai Yun comes to Yejing, Wangfei should at least meet up with him.”

An Chang Qing felt that something was amiss with An Chang Yu’s constant mention of Li Hai Yun but he couldn’t figure out why. 

He replied perfunctorily, “If I’m free, I will.”

The two parted in a corridor. An Chang Yu went to the backyard while An Chang Qing proceeded to find An Zhi Ke.

An Zhi Ke had been waiting for him in the Flower Hall but his expression still darkened when he saw An Chang Qing coming in.

Seeing his face, An Chang Qing calmly sat down. He then said with a smile, “Father requested for my return, is it to discuss Yu’er’s marriage?”

“That is correct,” Although those words were heavy, An Zhi Ke had to persist with this talk, “Wu Juan Shu was immoral in his conduct, now he has been demoted to a commoner with neither merit nor rank and the Wu Manor has been seized, this marriage is not a good match.”

An Chang Qing said, “Good. Then I will let father do the honor of returning the engagement keepsake to the Wu house.” He then took out a piece of jade and passed it to An Zhi Ke.

Looking at An Chang Qing’s smugness after having achieved his goal, An Zhi Ke gnashed his teeth begrudgingly as he received the jade piece. He restrained his emotions and said, “Wangfei does not have to worry, I will handle it.”

An Chang Qing was smirking inside. Seeing his eyes twitching, he could tell that An Zhi Ke was about to explode with anger.

The two families had agreed on this marriage for many years now, even the wedding had been planned. At the time when Wu Juan Shu and his uncle’s scandal broke out, if An Zhi Ke had chosen to withdraw the agreement with the claim that Wu Juan Shu’s character was unprincipled, it would not have caused any raised eyebrows. But now that An Zhi Ke proposed to annul this marriage right after the Wu family had fallen and Wu Juan Shu had lost his status, it would be difficult to avoid being labeled as a snob who despised the poor.

Especially when An Zhi Ke and Marquis Wu had been friends for many years. After the Marquis’s downfall, he did not reach out to help and instead, couldn’t be more eager to sever their ties. As such, it seemed inevitable that An Zhi Ke would receive some damage to his reputation.

And with him being the one to handle this matter, An Xian Yu would not receive too much backlash. An Chang Qing smiled sincerely this time and said, “Thank you father.”

…..

On the way back from the An Manor, An Chang Qing was in a great mood. As they passed by Yong Le Lane, he stopped and went to Sanweizhai to buy some snacks. When the clerk at the store saw him coming, he smiled from ear to ear and insisted on giving him two bottles of plum blossom wine. An Chang Qing tried to pay for it but the clerk refused to accept his money, saying, “If Wangfei likes it, please come and buy it next time.” 

An Chang Qing could only accept and brought the two boxes of pastries and two bottles of wine back to the carriage.

To his surprise, when he returned to the carriage, he saw that the coachman’s hands were stuffed with a pile of goods – from silk flowers and eggs to a block of freshly chopped pork. Not knowing who sent it, An Chang Qing looked around and saw the people on the streets smiling at him. An Chang Qing had no choice but to cup his hand and say, “Thank you for your gifts but don’t send it next time, you should keep it for yourself.”

After all, eggs and meat were not cheap, not every family could afford them. 

An Chang Qing then gathered up the items and placed them inside the carriage before telling the coachman to take him home.

When An Chang Qing’s carriage disappeared into a corner, someone in the crowd gleefully announced, “That’s my family’s pork! Wangfei had accepted it!”

“Old Tu, you’re hopeless! That piece of pork is greasy and bloody, how dare you present it to Wangfei! Wangfei is too kind for not having you beat up!”

The old butcher stubbornly retorted, “What’s the use of silk flowers? Pork is a lot more practical!” It’s also tasty and valuable!

TTBE 26

Chapter 26

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Xiao Zhige was right, in less than two days, no one dared to mention the Marquis’s name in public. The New Year was around the corner but the streets were deserted and cold. No more were the lively scenes of people crowding around the storytellers listening to their tales.

The bookstores hid the scripts that were displayed in the front all the way to the back. If it weren’t a regular customer who came to buy, they would not dare to sell.

On Yong Le Lane, a small modest carriage passed by slowly. The Imperial Supervisor sitting inside had a determined smile on his boney face as he carefully put away a paper fold fully filled with words.

The next day, a testimonial account regarding Marquis Wu was presented before the Emperor.

At the same time, the deng wen drum1 of the Imperial Palace sounded. A ragged old woman knelt before the drum and kowtowed repeatedly. Her tears fell as she cried desperately, “The Wu Manor has no regard for human lives. Is there justice under the Emperor’s reign? The Wu Manor has no regard for human lives. Is there justice under the Emperor’s reign…”

The old woman was disheveled and mournful. With each bow, her head hit harshly onto the stone floor. Not long after, the ground was stained with blood from her forehead.

The drumming eventually spread to the palace hall. Emperor An Qing was holding the testimonial fold in his hand and had a look of discontent, “Who is making all that noise?”

“Your Majesty, it’s an old woman.” The person who responded glanced at Marquis Wu and hesitated. 

“An old woman?”

“… She’s accusing the Wu Manor of disregarding human lives.”

Emperor An Qing flung his hand and threw the lengthy fold onto the floor and demanded angrily, “Marquis Wu, what do you have to say?”

Marquis Wu frantically stepped out and bowed. Picking up the testimonial fold on the ground, he read the first few lines and immediately knelt down and exclaimed, “Your Majesty, this is a setup. I am being framed!”

Emperor An Qing had always disliked complicated matters. He sat back lazily on the dragon throne and pointed to the Imperial Supervisor, “Minister He, you tell me.”

The Imperial Supervisor stepped forward and bowed. He listed slowly and audibly the sins that the Wu Manor was accused of, “The charges for Marquis Wu’s family are as follows: The Marquis’s brother- murdering and stealing someone else’s wife. The Marquis’s son- unlawful seizing of land. The Marquis’s wife- murdering three women from respectable families…”

Marquis Wu’s face turned whiter with each line the Imperial Supervisor read. By the time he had finished reading, his face was as white as a sheet. With much effort, he calmed himself and insisted, “This is all slander! Even if you held a grudge against me for what happened to my first wife, you can’t make such serious accusations!”

The Imperial Supervisor remained indifferent. He lifted his hem and knelt down, “Your Majesty, everyone knows that my daughter died of illness, why would I hold a grudge against Marquis Wu for that? What’s being written here could all be verified and traced, if the Marquis still can’t accept it then please have the Da Li Court investigate!”

Marquis Wu choked up. He looked around and his eyes, filled with expectation, landed on An Zhi Ke.

At this time, Emperor An Qing also addressed An Zhi Ke, “What does Minister An think?”

An Zhi Ke stepped out and weighed in on the matter, “Right or wrong, it’s best to have the Da Li Court decide.”

“Approved,” Emperor An Qing said, “This matter will be left to the Da Li Court and the Imperial Supervisor will oversee the progress on my behalf.”

“I have received my orders.”

…..

The Da Li Court worked with great efficiency under the supervision of the righteous Imperial Supervisor. In no time, the crimes committed by the people in the Marquis’s house were proven and the three were detained. As for the Marquis, his crime of enabling and covering up for his family would be judged by the Emperor after it was reported.

When the Da Li Court bailiff apprehended the people from the Wu Manor, a large number of people went to watch the excitement. The Marquis could not contain his rage looking at the apathetic Imperial Supervisor. He growled in a low voice, “You should be lenient for future’s sake; it’s unwise to burn all your bridges.”

The Imperial Supervisor gave him a look of contempt, “Marquis Wu thinks that this is the end?”

The Marquis was slightly baffled, “What do you mean?”

The Imperial Supervisor said, “Marquis Wu is the pillar of this family, it won’t fall if you’re still standing.”

Having said those words, he flung his sleeves and left.

The next day, a female corpse was found by the Yejing River. After sending it to be autopsied, the identity of the corpse was revealed to be the widow who had torn up the Wu family. The people were in an uproar. The widow who had abruptly disappeared right after the incident, as it turned out, was already dead.

The head officer from Da Li Court who was about to deliver his report to the Emperor had to rush off to the city court to investigate the woman’s murder. By following the traces before her death, he was able to source out the killer – a man who had the blood of many more victims on his hands.

Under the torturous interrogation of the Da Li Court, the man revealed that he was Marquis Wu’s confidant, tasked with handling his dirty work.

The head officer reported the whole truth to Emperor An Qing, making him furious and demanded severe punishment be passed out.

Marquis Wu was stripped of his title and sentenced to be executed with his brother and wife at noon in the public square. Wu Juan Shu, the son of his concubine, was demoted to become a commoner and would never be permitted to hold a governmental position. All the businesses and properties under the Wu Manor were seized and the remaining family members were evicted from the house…

The storytellers who were previously locked up under the Marquis’s order were released. The chief magistrate who had taken orders from the Marquis was also demoted by three ranks to become a common officer.

With the storytellers back in business, the Wu family’s fall from grace had spread beyond the gates of Yejing and eventually became a famous opera performance.

An Chang Qing sat across Xiao Zhige, snickering away happily while peeling pine nuts. After peeling a full plate, he eagerly passed it to Xiao Zhige, “Thanks to Wangye, there won’t be a turning point for Wu Juan Shu.”

In his original plan, the most that could be accomplished was to give Wu Juan Shu and the Wu family an ugly scandal and nothing more. After all, public opinion tended to sail with the wind. As long as the Marquis still stood, the Wu legacy would live on and Wu Juan Shu would have still been the son of a Marquis.

If Xiao Zhige had not taught him to borrow the Imperial Supervisor’s hand to bring down the Wu family, it would’ve been a very long time before he could avenge this grudge from his previous life.

Xiao Zhige’s eyes carried a smile. He ate one pine nut and passed the plate to An Chang Qing, “You eat.” He then took the plate with unpeeled nuts and continued peeling.

An Chang Qing rested his chin on his hand and gazed at Xiao Zhige. After a while, he moved closer and said, “Can Wangye continue to teach me about warfare?”

After many times being taught by him, An Chang Qing felt that Xiao Zhige was profoundly wise and thoughtful, something that he could not compare to even after two lifetimes. Having such a good teacher as his bedside man, it would be a waste not to learn more.

Being stared at by his bright eyes, Xiao Zhige looked away awkwardly, “I can but military books are long and boring.”

An Chang Qing shook his head, “I don’t mind.”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’ and got up to retrieve three thick books from the bookshelf, “Read these three first. If there is anything you don’t understand, you can ask me.”

The volumes of books when stacked together were as high as the vase next to it. An Chang Qing’s eyes drooped and he casually flipped through a few pages, “…”

He closed the book sharply and looked at Xiao Zhige, “Can’t Wangye just explain to me?”

Xiao Zhige shook his head, “The art of war is based on the path, not the theory. In warfare, the situation is ever changing. I can offer you advice but you have to figure out for yourself the best solution.”

An Chang Qing pouted with an ‘oh’ and decided to figure it out slowly. He called Anfu to take the books to the main room for him to read later.

The books were incredibly thick. When Anfu tried to wrap his arm around them, he accidentally knocked over the vase on the table, causing two painting scrolls inserted inside to fall spread out on the ground.

An Chang Qing went to pick it up and when he saw its content, he raised his eyebrows and asked dubiously, “Why is this painting with Wangye?”

This was the painting Hu Shifei drew of him in exchange for treating his mother.

His eyes were then drawn to the other scroll. It was also a painting of him but when put together, even An Chang Qing, who had no understanding of the arts, could tell the difference in finesse between the two.

Hu Shifei’s painting was clearly more refined, one could tell that he was quite a seasoned painter. The other painting also had a distinct style but the strokes were too rigid.

An Chang Qing transferred his focus from the two paintings to Xiao Zhige who stood there in silence with a dark cloud looming over him. Anfu was shivering like a quail and dared not squeak.

“Anfu, you can leave now.”

After being with Xiao Zhige this long, An Chang Qing could tell whether he was truly angry or simply trying to hide his embarrassment. He spread out the two paintings on the table and pointed to the other one, “This piece is not bad, it looks better than me.”

“…” Xiao Zhige was still brooding but responded a moment later, “The actual person looks a lot better.”

An Chang Qing was beaming. He said to Xiao Zhige, “I still think this painting looks better. I wonder who drew this? Someone in the manor? An artist?”

Xiao Zhige’s eyes subtly sparkled and he replied, “No.”

“Then who?” An Chang Qing made a curious expression and asked deliberately, “Could it be Wangye who drew this?”

“…” Xiao Zhige did not answer.

An Chang Qing remembered the time when he came back to the study and caught Xiao Zhige trying to hide something in a hurry. It was probably this painting. He leaned in close and blinked at him, “Why did Wangye secretly draw a painting of me? And this painting, wasn’t it the one Hu Shifei drew? Why is Wangye keeping it here?”

Xiao Zhige, “…”

Seeing that Xiao Zhige had remained silent and kept averting his eyes, An Chang Qing put the painting away and spoke to him earnestly, “I like this painting very much, why doesn’t Wangye give it to me? You can draw another one for yourself.”

The man who had been keeping quiet looked at him and finally said, “The painting is not good.”

An Chang Qing smiled, “But I like it.”

Xiao Zhige seemed to find his breath again as he watched An Chang Qing admiring the painting that he drew while Hu Shifei’s had long been put back into the vase.

As though there was a gentle stream of warm water flowing into his heart, Xiao Zhige heard himself say, “If you like it, I will draw another for you.”

In fact, Xiao Zhige was not keen on the arts. The hand that was used to handling weapons all these years was inept when it had to pick up the brush. But every time he looked at the painting Hu Shifei drew, he couldn’t help but think that since his Wangfei was so captivating, he should preserve his beauty in a painting so he could still savor it when they were old and grey.

But for some reason, he simply did not like the idea of having someone else draw his Wangfei. And so he had picked up the brush and began drawing his Wangfei from memory. It was just that his drawing skills were rusty and even after finishing it with painstaking effort, he did not have the confidence to show An Chang Qing his final work.

And yet it was as though his Wangfei could never make him feel disappointed, he took his painting and said that he liked it. 

Xiao Zhige only felt a reverberant warmth in his chest.


1↪ 登闻鼓(Dēng wén gǔ) A drum usually placed outside the judicial courtroom in feudal China. Whenever someone had any grievances, they would beat it and have the magistrate mediate.

TTBE 25

Chapter 25

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

The delicacy in his hand had a clear amber surface with crushed pine nuts in the center and emitted a sweetly burnt fragrance. An Chang Qing put one candy in his mouth and felt the mild sugary taste filled with the delectable scent of pine nuts invigorating his taste buds. He closed his eyes briefly and said, “It’s so sweet.”

Xiao Zhige was watching attentively. When he heard his compliments, his brows eased up and he smiled. An Chang Qing saw that he was looking his way and took the opportunity to place a piece to his mouth. Copying him, he said, “Your reward.”

Looking at the candy handed to him, Xiao Zhige hesitated before opening his mouth to eat it. The tasty candy was spreading in his mouth but he only found that the point where the tender finger had touched his tongue was enticingly sweet.

Even after the candy had melted, the sweetness remained.

An Chang Qing carefully stuffed the paper bag into his sachet and hung it at his waist. He then handed Xiao Zhige his sachet, “These are from mother and Yu’er, one for each of us.”

The sachet was embroidered with twin carps, one gold and one red, circling each other. At the bottom right, the word ‘Xiao’ was embroidered on it. Xiao Zhige glanced at the sachet filled with pine nut candies at An Chang Qing’s waist. It also had an ‘An’ word at a corner.

Quietly adjusting the straps, Xiao Zhige also tied his sachet to his waist.

….

Before dawn the next day, An Chang Qing ordered Anfu to find a beggar and wait for the Imperial Supervisor to leave his house to deliver the letter to him. According to the beggar, after receiving the letter, the person did not make any inquiries and went on to attend the court session. 

On the way back from the streets, Anfu found that the story of the Wu uncle and nephew fighting over a widow had spread to every corner of Yejing.

It wasn’t just the general masses who were gossiping, even the storytellers had begun spinning tales with regards to this scandal. In no time, the reputable Wu family was shoved into the mud. How respectable they were before, after this event, they could not escape from being turned into a laughing stock.

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After the court session today, Marquis’s Wu face was three points darker than the bottom of a pot. He did not speak to anyone and grumpily shook his sleeve and left. His adversaries in the court were scoffing while speaking to the Imperial Supervisor, “The mask that had been perfectly erected all these years finally has a crack.”

The Imperial Supervisor, a tall and thin middle-aged man, thought about the covert letter he had received this morning and his eyes lit up, “It’s not over yet, wait and see.”

…..

In less than two days, the Marquis’s house had become the talk of the town.

In the beginning, it was just a spicy gossip about a dispute between an uncle and nephew over a woman. The people were lamenting for the Marquis’s good name which had been ruined by two imbeciles. However, from somewhere came murmurs that offset the discussion into another direction: “You can’t exactly blame everything on the two of them. As the saying goes, the fish rots from the head down. I’ve heard that Marquis Wu himself is not as upright as one would think. Did you know that long ago, he had another wife? People said that his first wife died of an illness but there were also rumors that he had beaten her to death!”

The listeners gasped and looked at one another in surprise. They then went on to spread the story, adding a bit of salt and pepper along the way.

By the time it reached the Marquis’s ears, the story was already bent out of shape. But upon hearing the part about him killing his first wife, the Marquis turned light-headed.

It had been so many years, even the evidence was destroyed, who was it that had dug this up?

Thinking of the Imperial Supervisor’s stoic face, Marquis Wu shuddered with fear. That year, after the funeral of his first wife, his in-laws broke off from him. At that time, his father-in-law was only an Imperial Historian, he was not a threat to him. But now…

The more he thought about it, the more restless he became. He stood up decisively and stomped towards the woodshed with a whip in hand.

Wu Liu and Wu Juan Shu had been locked up in the woodshed for several days now, starting from the time when they were escorted back to the Wu Manor by the officers. Wu Liu’s ear that had been bitten by the crazy woman was wrapped in a bandage.

The duo had been starved for a few days and hence, did not have the strength to argue with each other. They were leaning feebly against a pile of wood when the door opened with a bang. 

Marquis Wu entered forcefully and roared, “Get up!”

Wu Liu and Wu Juan Shu were appalled. They sat up and knelt on the ground. Marquis Wu had a nasty look on his face. He raised the horsewhip in his hand and whipped them mercilessly, “The reputation I’ve built up over the last ten years has been ruined by you ingrates!”

The harsh lashes broke the skin and cut into the flesh. Wu Juan Shu’s body was shaking and his jaw was trembling to the point he couldn’t close his mouth. As his elder, Wu Liu was scared but unconvinced. He hid in a corner and howled, “Get mother here! I want to see her!”

Marquis Wu smiled with ridicule, “Not even mother can save you today!”

…..

When he came out of the woodshed, Marquis Wu had mostly vented his anger. He regained his composure, straightened out his garment, and strode back to the study while his page walked silently behind.

“What happened to that widow?”

“My lord, she has lost the child and is currently at the doctor’s.”

“Find a chance to shut her up, don’t let anyone find out. And one more thing, go tell the chief that it’s about time he deals with those nonsensical storytellers on the street.”

“Understood.”

“Wait…” Marquis Wu stopped walking and said, “Have someone prepare a generous gift for the An Manor and inform them that I will personally bring my sinner of a son to apologize to them in a few days.”

….

After the matters of the Wu family broke out, An Chang Qing had ordered the tailors at Tian Yi Fang to make new garments for Lady Yu and An Xian Yu. The infamous incident regarding the Wu uncle and nephew was widely discussed on the streets but An Chang Qing had given strict orders not to talk about it in the Wang Manor. As such, An Xian Yu was oblivious to whatever that had happened.

Seeing her lively and innocent look, An Chang Qing considered and said, “I will go to father today and ask him to annul the marriage.”

Lady asked with concern, “Will he agree?”

An Zhi Ke and Marquis Wu had a good relationship. Although the Marquis’s household was hit with the nasty scandal, its status remained unchanged. On the other hand, withdrawing from the marriage at this time would create unnecessary tension between the two families.

An Chang Qing had also thought of this but the things that had been happening until now were just appetizers. It would be great if An Zhi Ke complied but if he doesn’t… There were always ways to make him do so afterward. 

He reassured her, “I have a way, just wait for my good news.”

Lady was still doubtful but An Xian Yu held her arm and comforted her, “Since brother has said so then he must’ve had something planned. Mother, you shouldn’t worry anymore.”

…..

After leaving Qingwu court, An Chang Qing had someone prepare the carriage and he departed for the An Manor.

Ever since he took his mother and sister away, he had not returned to the An Manor even once. An Chang Qing got off the wagon and briefly looked at the plaque above before entering.

An Zhi Ke had gotten back from court and was looking through some documents in the study. He heard a servant report that Wangfei was visiting and his mood immediately dampened. Ever since he was married off to The Northern Warlord, every time he came back, disaster would follow.

In the Flower Hall, Madame Li was already hosting An Chang Qing.

An Chang Qing took a closer look and saw that she had a pale complexion. Even in heavy makeup, the fatigue in her eyes couldn’t be hidden.

It seemed… Madame Sun had been giving her quite a bit of trouble.

An Zhi Ke arrived after An Chang Qing’s teacup was half empty. He looked the same as always, upright and elegant, a self-disciplined gentleman.

“Why didn’t Wangfei inform me of your coming so I could better prepare?”

“Don’t bother,” An Chang Qing got straight to the point, “Did father hear of the rumors outside?”

The smile on An Zhi Ke’s face faded, “A little.”

“Since you’ve heard it, then you should know that Wu Juan Shu is not as he seems. His virtue is a cause for concern, this marriage is not a good match. We might as well take this opportunity to annul it,” An Chang Qing appealed, “What does father think?”

An Zhi Ke’s eyes turned cold as he began to assess An Chang Qing. After a while, he said, “Was this your intention from the start when you insisted on taking Yu’er away?”

He looked at An Chang Qing intensely with his sharp eyes that could pierce through someone’s heart.

“Now that’s just ridiculous,” An Chang Qing was not fazed, “This mistress was kept by Wu Juan Shu. Fighting him for her is also his uncle, Wu Liu, what have they got to do with me?”

An Zhi Ke’s expression turned heavy. He realized he could no longer read this unfavored son of his. An Chang Qing sat there with his back straight and brimming with confidence, a disparate image of the timid son in his memory.

Before, he would never have to doubt anything about An Chang Qing, but now, he found that he had to be constantly alert around him.

He looked at him with a small sense of approval and felt a little pity. His mind floated back to a long time ago. An Chang Qing was his youngest son and was born when his feelings for Lady Yu were the deepest. He was adorable from the moment he was born and An Zhi Ke had once held and doted on him. If it weren’t for what had happened later…

Shaking away the reminiscence of the past, An Zhi Ke gave a reply that aligned with An Chang Qing’s conjecture, “The Wu Manor had sent someone to deliver gifts as an apology. The An and Wu families have been friends for generations, it is unnecessary to wreck this amity over such a minor incident. Juan Shu was a little out of line but which man doesn’t have a fling once in a while? The Wu manor will deal with that woman, Yu’er can peacefully prepare for the marriage.”

Madame Li chimed in, “That’s right. Compared to the other noble children of Yejing, Juan Shu is the most upstanding. As long as he doesn’t bring anyone into the house, no one can usurp the wife’s position.”

The husband and wife continued to sing Wu Juan Shu’s praises as though he was such a good catch that one could never find a better groom if they passed him up.

An Chang Qing sneered and said to Madame Li, “Let me worry about my sister’s marriage. Mother, don’t you have better things to concern yourself with? I heard De Ren Hall has changed ownership?”

From the report that he received, after An Changqi’s funeral, Madame Sun had returned to her maternal home for a few days. After she got back, De Ren Hall’s ownership had changed hands. De Ren Hall was the Li family’s most profitable business. Now that it was taken by Madame Sun, one could guess the heartache that Madame Li had suffered.

On top of that, Madame Sun had given her a serious amount of stress in the house by refusing to provide them with any financial subsidiaries, causing the funds they had left to run dry. No wonder Madame Li had turned this haggard.

Being stabbed at the right nerve, Madame Li had a look of annoyance on her face. She forced a smile and said, “You father and son can talk this out. I have to tend to the kitchen.”

After Madame Li left, An Zhi Ke snorted, “You don’t have to bring this up anymore. The wedding date has been set and will not change.”

An Chang Qing was not roused after hearing his words. He got up and said, “I hope that you will not regret what you’ve said today.”

Looking at his back when he left, An Zhi Ke’s expression changed into that of abhorrence. This child was clearly born to be his bane. If he had had prior knowledge that this day would come, he should’ve just drowned him when he was young.

…..

On the way back, passing by Yong Le Lane, the usually bustling street was a little quiet. Even the teahouses and restaurants were deserted. On the street were several officers marching about.

“What’s going on?” An Chang Qing lifted the sedan curtains and looked out.

Anfu was also curious. He stopped a passerby who was leaving in a hurry and asked, “What happened?”

The passerby was a little annoyed but when he saw the familiar Wang Manor carriage and thinking that Wangfei could be sitting inside, he delightfully answered, “I’m not sure either. This morning, the chief brought several officers to detain people in the teahouses and restaurants. All the storytellers were taken away. The big businesses dared not stay open and everyone left to go home.”

The storytellers? It must be related to the Wu Manor. Looks like the rumors couldn’t be stopped and he could only resort to such drastic measures.

An Chang Qing waved his hand to thank the man and let him leave. He then signaled the carriage to return to the Wang Manor.

Back at the manor, An Chang Qing quickly went to find Xiao Zhige. He pushed open the door and happened to see him speedily hide something under his desk. An Chang Qing stopped and asked suspiciously, “What is Wangye doing?”

Xiao Zhige made eye contact with him briefly before turning away and replied calmly, “Reading.”

After responding, Xiao Zhige saw that An Chang Qing was still eyeing him with doubt. He coughed lightly and tried to divert the topic, “How did it go at the An Manor?”

Even though he knew that Xiao Zhige was trying to avoid the subject, An Chang Qing did not press on as there was a more pressing matter to discuss, “Nothing unexpected. He refused to annul the marriage.”

Xiao Zhige said, “Wait a few days, even without your urging, he will try to cut all ties with the Wu family as soon as possible.”

“But…” An Chang Qing was still doubtful, “There is still no movement from the Imperial Supervisor. When I came back just now, the officers had taken the storytellers away. If this goes on, in two days, no one will dare to speak ill of the Marquis anymore. Will the Imperial Supervisor tread this muddy water?”

“The Marquis was simply digging his own grave.” Xiao Zhige shook his head and said to An Chang Qing, “You’re too impatient. When two armies are at an impasse, what sets them apart is patience.”

The first to panic and make a foolish move would have lost half the battle.

TTBE 24

Chapter 24

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Wu Juan Shu heard someone reporting that the nunnery outside the city was on fire and had rushed there on horseback. To his dismay, when he arrived at the scene, he saw Wu Liu hugging Jiao Ying and his eyes landed on her slightly bulging belly. There was a frown on his face but he still reached out to her and said gently, “Jiao Ying, come here.”

In a panic, Jiao Ying subconsciously took a step forward. Wu Liu on the other hand sneered and grabbed her back, “Where do you think you’re going? You have my child in your belly, you’re not allowed to go anywhere!”

Wu Liu was now forty but only had one daughter. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to leave himself an heir but the doctors who had diagnosed him had said that his manhood was a little lacking, making it very difficult for him to get a woman pregnant. He had long given up hope but who would’ve thought that Jiao Ying had managed to bear his child?

Jiao Ying was formally the wife of a horse breeder in the Wu Manor. He once bumped into her when she was delivering food to her husband. Seeing that the horse breeder was submissive and a lowly worker, Wu Liu brazenly coaxed his wife into bed. 

Since then, Jiao Ying had continued to keep him company. One day, she came to him crying that her husband had found out and wanted to kill her. At that time, he was deep in passion and decided to have someone get rid of the husband. He had planned to make her his concubine after the heat had died. What he did not know was that some time ago, this harlot had hooked up with his nephew. Before he could bring her into the house, Wu Juan Shu had hidden her in the nunnery, costing him much effort just to find her.

But when he finally found her, Wu Liu was no longer in a hurry to bring Jiao Ying back. Instead, he continued their affair in the nunnery, occasionally staying for the night. When he found out that Jiao Ying was pregnant, he calculated the time and knew that the baby was his.

Anxious to have a son, Wu Liu’s attitude turned crude. He pulled her back and passed her to a servant, “Take her away. Be careful with her stomach.”

“Sixth Uncle!” After shouting, Wu Juan Shu realized that there were people watching and quickly lowered his voice, “Do you really want to make a scene right here? What if father finds out…”

At the mention of Marquis Wu, Wu Liu shrunk back. Nonetheless, thinking that Jiao Ying might give birth to a son for him, he straightened up and said with discontentment, “No matter what you say, she is already mine. If you like her so much, after she gives birth, I’ll give her back to you!”

“You!” Wu Juan Shu was tongue-tied. His sixth uncle had always been unscrupulous but he had never dared to go overboard thanks to his father keeping him in check. He grit his teeth and said, “How can I rightfully marry her after she has given birth to your child?!”

Wu Liu scoffed, “Oh? I didn’t know you’re such a devoted lover. Still willing to marry this loose woman.”

Wu Juan Shu turned red at his words but looking at Jiao Ying with her pitiful eyes, he suppressed the thorns in his heart and reached for her. Repressing his anger, he said, “Why don’t we keep her at my place for now and discuss what to do later?”

“That’s impossible!”

Wu Liu was not an idiot. He immediately pulled her back and the two began a round of tug-o-war with Jiao Ying caught in the middle. During the struggle, someone accidentally used too much force, causing Jiao Ying to trip and hit her stomach on the hard ground.

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“My stomach!” She screamed in pain as her hands covered her belly.

Wu Liu hurriedly pulled her up only to find that the ground was stained with blood. His face turned pale, “My son…”

Wu Juan Shu also panicked, “Quick! Someone go get a doctor!”

The villagers were there to watch the excitement of two men competing for a widow at a nunnery but who would’ve thought that things would lead to this?

Someone in the crowd shouted, “Officer! Officer! Over here! Someone’s dead!”

Wu Juan Shu heard the call and knew that it was too risky to stay. He tried to run to the carriage and hide but he was not quick enough. The city chief had brought along some officers and they were approaching fast.

“Who died?” Hearing of the arson outside the city, the chief gathered his officers and got here as fast as possible. Before he could take a breath, someone shouted that there was a casualty, giving him a bigger headache. He did not even take the carriage and decided to run to the scene instead. 

Gasping for air as he arrived only to find a woman lying on the ground, clutching her stomach.

The chief adjusted his official crown and made a more dignified stance before asking, “I heard there’s a casualty, where is it?”

A meddlesome onlooker from the crowd replied, “The two men were fighting over that woman and caused her to fall. She could be having a miscarriage.”

The chief saw that the woman’s skirt did have a lot of blood and immediately told an officer to send her to the clinic. He then shouted sternly at the two men facing their backs to him, “You two, turn around!”

Beads of sweat appeared on Wu Juan Shu’s forehead. He turned and gave Wu Liu a signal but Wu Liu had already withdrawn like a turtle, shrinking back his neck and staying petrified.

The chief was getting impatient with their unresponsive behaviors and motioned the officers to turn them around.

The officers boorishly grabbed the two men and turned them around. They did not struggle but continued to cover their faces with their hands, causing the chief to feel that these two were incredibly strange. Thinking that they were up to something shady, he ordered, “Pull their hands away and let them show their faces! What’s your name…”

His words came to an abrupt stop right after the officers had forcibly pulled their hands away. 

Wu Juan Shu, Wu Liu and the chief looked at each other. The expressions on their faces were hard to put into words.

The chief made a series of convulsions before he could calmly decide the right course of action. He bent down and asked in a whisper, “Sirs, this is…”

Wu Juan Shu mulled over and said, “It’s just a misunderstanding…”

Wu Liu immediately echoed, “Yes, yes, yes, it’s all a misunderstanding.”

Unfortunately for them, these words were heard by the crowd and someone rebuked, “Don’t be fooled by them. They were both fighting for the same woman from the nunnery. It’s unsure whose child is in her belly…”

Someone else then went on to tell the life story of the widow Jiao Ying entering the nunnery. The more the chief heard, the deeper his heart sank knowing that it was now impossible to cover this up.

Everyone in Yejing knew that Marquis Wu’s family was the most upright. Although the children and grandchildren did not make outstanding achievements, they were still more decent than those of most families. The Marquis’s wife and concubines were harmonious and his children were noble, these were the rumors that upheld their respectable reputation.

If word of the Wu uncle and nephew dating the same girl got out, he could pretty well lose his job.

The chief was in hot water but he stayed dignified and ordered, “Let them go for now. Who set the fire?”

When the onlookers saw that he was not going to investigate the two men, they lost interest and dispersed. An officer brought the crazy woman to the chief, “She’s the arsonist.”

The crazy woman was in ragged clothes with hair as messy as a chicken’s nest. She was still giggling when the officers caught her. 

The chief grimaced and said, “She’s the one who set the fire?”

Before the officer could answer, the passive woman suddenly turned violent. She lunged towards Wu Liu and screamed, “Give me back my son!”

Wu Liu could not dodge in time and had his ear bitten by her. He screeched like a pig being butchered.

The officers hurried to pull her away but she refused to let go until she had managed to bite off one of Wu Liu’s ears. The onlookers who were about to leave saw Wu Liu wailing and rolling on the ground and decided to continue watching. 

An anonymous person in the crowd said, “Isn’t that the man who’s seen hooking up with Jiao Ying?”

Another said, “He’s that sixth master of the Wu family! I saw him while working at Ying Chun!”

Once they heard the mention of the Wu family, the crowd was in an uproar.

When the chatter reached the chief’s ears and with fingers being pointed, his heart grew cold. It seemed he could no longer cover up this incident.

He told the officers to escort the men into the carriage and left the scene as fast as he could.

…..

After everyone had scattered, An Chang Qing signaled for the coachman to take them back. Having seen the big scene played out with his own eyes, he was elated thinking that it wouldn’t be long before this was spread all over Yejing. The spotless reputation of the Wu family would finally be torn down.

How much An Chang Qing had hated them in his previous life, now, he was extremely delighted to see what they would become.

Anfu clicked his tongue and pondered, “This Jiao Ying is pretty skillful. How did she manage to wrap both the uncle and nephew around her finger? But when this gets out, I don’t think she’ll have a good ending.”

“The wicked will have a wicked end.”

She was the catalyst for soiling the Wu family’s reputation; it was unlikely that Marquis Wu would let her off.

An Chang Qing lowered his eyes without a trace of sympathy. In his previous life, An Xian Yu had to endure countless hardships only to die with her unborn child. This time, it seemed that Jiao Ying was given a small taste of what his sister had to go through.

….

When he returned to the Wang Manor, he happened to meet An Xian Yu. She was looking for him with two small sachets in her hand. During the days that she lived in the Wang Manor, the freedom and support from the people around her had made her more lively and less timid.

“Mother and I made these, one for you and one for Wangye.”

Seeing her cheerful smile, An Chang Qing couldn’t help rubbing her hair, “Didn’t I tell mom to rest more and not to make herself tired?”

An Xian Yu pouted, “I said the same thing to her but she refused to listen. I could only do my best to help her.”

She did not like needlework and would rather spend the time reading a few more books. But Lady Yu was always saying that every girl should at least know how to do needlework to not be despised when she entered her husband’s house.

“It’d been hard on you, “An Chang Qing said, “The gold shop had sent over some jewelry. I’ve asked Anfu to bring them over so you and mom can pick out a few.”

An Xian Yu happily handed him the sachets and said, “I’ll take my leave then.”

An Chang Qing saw the spring in her step and smiled. He looked at the clear blue sky above and was thankful that everything was moving in a positive direction.

He then took the two sachets and went to find Xiao Zhige. 

Xiao Zhige was training in the main yard when An Chang Qing found him. He did not make a sound and stood to one side. He smiled sweetly while admiring the man. Xiao Zhige had long heard his footsteps. After throwing a few more punches, he ended his workout and went to him, “You’re done?”

An Chang Qing sniggered as he pulled Xiao Zhige back into the room, all the while retelling him the farce that happened at the nunnery. He then merrily gloated, “There’ll be a great show tomorrow.”

Xiao Zhige contemplated and said, “It’s not enough.”

An Chang Qing did not understand, “What’s not enough?”

“The heat.” Xiao Zhige explained, “This dispute between uncle and nephew is just a scandal. It’s not enough to topple the Marquis.”

He then handed An Chang Qing an envelope that was prepared some time ago, “You should learn the trick of using someone else’s knife to do your bidding.”

An Chang Qing opened it and found that inside was a letter listing all the crimes that were committed in the Wu Manor. He looked for a signature at the bottom but found nothing, not even the name of the recipient.

“How should this letter be used?”

“Marquis Wu has a deceased wife. She was the second daughter of the Imperial Supervisor- Zhong Cheng. After marrying the Marquis for three years, she passed away due to illness.”

“What is the connection here?” An Chang Qing ventured a guess, “Is there something suspicious in the death of the late Madame Wu?” 

Xiao Zhige looked at him kindly and said, “After her death, the then Imperial Historian Zhong Cheng cut off all contact with Marquis Wu. And even after he had been promoted to Imperial Supervisor, their relationship remained estranged.”

With all the information revealed to him, An Chang Qing pondered for some time then said, “So what you mean is… We send this letter to the Imperial Supervisor and have him deal with the Wu Manor instead?”

The Imperial Supervisor was one of the three State Counsellors with the duty of overlooking the officials. No one could mitigate the cases he brought to court, even if it involved high-ranking officials like Marquis Wu. It was inevitable to pull out a radish without disturbing the dirt. These secrets from the past were finally coming back to haunt the Wu Manor.

An Chang Qing was filled with anticipation as excitement filled his eyes.

“Wait till tomorrow to send the letter,” Xiao Zhige took the envelope away and handed him a paper bag instead, “Your reward.”

An Chang Qing opened the bag and saw that inside were brilliantly glossy and beautifully shaped pine nut candies.

TTBE 23

Chapter 23

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Seeing Xiao Zhige carry his spear back to the main room, Zhou He Lan hesitated before lifting his heels to follow him.

Although he could not figure out what he had done to annoy Wangye, from the days he had stayed in the Wang Manor, he had witnessed that the Northern Warlord was not cruel and unreasonable like what he had heard outside. Moreover, he was Wangfei’s person. With Wangye’s affection towards Wangfei, he was quite certain that Wangye would not dare to cross Wangfei and get rid of him.

After reassuring himself, Zhou He Lan was more confident with his footsteps and briskly walked behind Xiao Zhige.

An Chang Qing had just changed into a dark brocade robe with moon embroidery which was also sent from Tian Yi Fang. The price was not high but the quality and workmanship were excellent. For the winter, the garment was even lined with a layer of wool. Putting it on An Chang Qing, the garment’s elegance was amplified, giving it a stylish look.

Xiao Zhige admired him in silence. He swept a quick look past Zhou He Lan at the door and asked, “Are you going to hand out porridge again today?”

“No,” An Chang Qing straightened the jade pendant at his waist and smiled at him, “Yesterday, we posted a list to recruit new staff. There were many signups and we’re going to the shop to pick a few.”

Xiao Zhige thought and said, “I’ll go with you.”

Hm? An Chang Qing looked at him in surprise then frowned awkwardly. With Xiao Zhige’s intimidating face, An Chang Qing was quite reluctant to take him to the store. Having him there while he was hiring would probably scare the applicants away.

But certain words shouldn’t be too straightforward, so An Chang Qing said, “Wangye is not busy today? I’m afraid there’s too much to be done at the store and it’ll take a while.”

An Chang Qing was hoping that Xiao Zhige would understand that he was trying to tell him to be occupied with something else but Xiao Zhige nodded and said expressionlessly, “It’s no problem. Let’s go.”

An Chang Qing, “…”

Seeing him standing at the door like a warden, An Chang Qing could only relent and take him to Tian Yi Fang with Zhou He Lan.

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At Tian Yi Fang, there was a long line of people waiting, more than they had expected. An Chang Qing told Anfu to open the door and let them in.

The group of people were eagerly whispering, awaiting An Chang Qing’s arrival. Seeing him walk in, they swarmed towards him, hoping to get a chance to talk to Wangfei. But the moment they saw Xiao Zhige standing only a step behind, they froze on the spot and the place turned silent.

An Chang Qing tucked the corner of his mouth. This was why he did not want to bring Xiao Zhige along. But since it had come to this and the person was already sitting down, it was useless to mull over it. An Chang Qing pretended that everything was as usual and had Anfu collect the resumé of the applicants.

A total of fifteen people came to apply for the store manager position but due to what had happened before, his hiring criteria were a lot higher and, in the end, An Chang Qing only picked out five. After which, it was Zhou He Lan’s turn to wiggle down the number.

The five who were chosen were elated. It was just that after the screening, they felt the cold stare from Wangye from time to time and shuddered. Even the hand holding the brush was shivering uncontrollably. They looked at each other and sighed inwardly.

Clearly, Wangye did not come several days ago, why did he have to come today, and cause them to feel so terrified that they dared not say much to Wangfei? What bad luck!

The Wangye sitting high above did not know that he was being complained about. He did not take part in the management of the store and could only sit idly by and listen to An Chang Qing and Zhou He Lan discussing the most suitable candidate to hire.

They each had a personal preference and when it came to business, Zhou He Lan was never shy to speak his mind even if it was not in tune with An Chang Qing’s. He tried to support his case while An Chang Qing adhered to his own opinion. They both entered a heated discussion as The Northern Warlord sat to one side like a redundant piece of furniture.

Xiao Zhige gave Zhou He Lan several unfriendly glances but he remained silent.

Their debate ended in a compromise with two candidates being hired. They would both work in Tian Yi Fang and the one who made better sales would be promoted. 

On the way back, An Chang Qing was particularly happy. Today’s argument with Zhou He Lan had given him new insights. Having two managers at the same time meant that there would always be someone to supervise the other. The one they did not promote would still be trained and could be assigned to manage the other. He would change their assignment every two years and this would prevent a single person from monopolizing all the power, festering ambitions.

Xiao Zhige grimaced seeing that he was still deep in thought with matters regarding the store. His brows creased together and hinted, “There is a candy store ahead that sells pine nut candy.”

“En?” An Chang Qing was pulled back from his thoughts and looked at him questioningly.

Xiao Zhige, “I heard it tastes good. Let me buy it for you.”

“Who did you hear it from?” An Chang Qing asked curiously. Xiao Zhige was not a picky eater but he was always able to buy him all sorts of delicious food. 

“My subordinates.” Seeing that An Chang Qing’s eyes were finally focused on him, his frown eased into a much gentler expression, “Do you want it?”

“Yes,” An Chang Qing smiled sweetly at him, “Will Wangye eat with me?”

Xiao Zhige sat up straight with his hands on his knees, looking majestic. He did not hesitate to answer his Wangfei, “en.”

…..

As they were going to buy the candy, the coachman changed their route. When they crossed an alley, they could vaguely hear the sound of someone arguing.

“The baby in Jiao Ying’s stomach, is it yours?”

“So what if it’s mine?”

“How dare you?! That’s my woman!”

The two men quarreling did not notice the carriage coming from another road and continued to argue softly. An Chang Qing happened to catch the name ‘Jiao Ying’ and opened up the curtain to look. He also ordered the carriage to dock into a corner and signaled for Anfu to go and observe at the other end.

During their argument, the middle-aged man stubbornly said, “If you hadn’t hidden her in the nunnery, I would’ve brought her back a long time ago.”

“Now that my child is in her belly, I’m going to pick a good date and bring her into the house. She might even give me a fat baby boy.”

The younger man breathed heavily with anger and said, “Sixth uncle, you’re being unreasonable!”

The man who was called “sixth uncle” sneered, “Daring to touch my woman, you still have ways to go. You probably don’t know this but even before her husband was dead, I’ve already had a great time with her. You’re the only one who thinks that she’s an untouched treasure…”

The two bickered for a while before parting ways disgruntledly. The younger man was especially riled. He kicked the wall brutally before leaving.

After watching the event, Anfu headed back with a look of amusement on his face, “It’s the fourth young master and the sixth master of the Wu Manor…”

Marquis Wu had five siblings but only one shared the same mother as him named Wu Liu, and who people usually called Liu Ye. 

And the Fourth Young Master was referring to the son born from the Marquis’s concubine, Wu Juan Shu.

Since they had mentioned Jiao Ying, Wu Juan Shu must’ve known that she was pregnant and that the child was not his but his uncle’s.

A pair of uncle and nephew hiding in a corner to argue over a widow. 

Thinking of Wu Juan Shu’s gentlemanly facade, a fire burned in An Chang Qing’s eyes. For a woman who had committed adultery with his uncle, this man had forsaken his sister and after her unfortunate passing, had even made her his legitimate wife. 

This would be the scandal of the century! Uncle and nephew bedding the same girl! This was the righteous and harmonious Wu family? Hah! 

An Chang Qing was filled with fury. He clenched his teeth and said, “Find a chance to spread this matter.”

Let’s see, after he had blown this up, would Wu Juan Shu still have the nerve to come for his sister?

…..

Maybe because even the heavens were angered by the Wu family’s malfeasance, before An Chang Qing had the chance to spread the word, Tie Hu  rushed back to inform him that the nunnery was on fire.

This fire was set by the crazy woman.

“What about Jiao Ying?”

“Jiao Ying happened to be outside when it happened.”

This was what one would consider ‘being handed a pillow when you’re sleepy’.

An Chang Qing tinkered his brain then said, “Tell someone to report this to the Wu Manor. Notify the court and make sure to have an officer sent to the scene.”

Tie Hu left to execute his orders. An Chang Qing told Anfu to prepare the carriage and personally went to the nunnery.

When An Chang Qing arrived, the fire had just been extinguished. The originally simple-looking nunnery was reduced to ruins. The crazy woman was running and waving her hands through the debris, shouting, “The vixen is dead! Son, your mother has avenged you…”

The villagers looked at her inquisitively but none dared to come near.

The coachman picked a shaded place to park the carriage where An Chang Qing lifted the curtain to observe the scene. He saw Jiao Ying holding her stomach and cowering at a corner, probably worrying that the woman would find her. 

An Chang Qing looked at her with scorn and silently estimated when the two men would arrive.

Just in time, a carriage dashed past and before it could come to a complete stop, a middle-aged man jumped out of the carriage and shouted anxiously, “Jiao Ying!” 

He was in such a hurry that he did not see the crowd nearby.

The moment Jiao Ying saw him, her tears fell as she stood up and called feebly, “Liu Ye.” 

Wu Liu rushed towards her and helped her up with care, “Is the child ok? Was he hurt?”

Jiao Ying covered her stomach and said timidly, “No, I made sure to protect our child.”

Right after she finished her sentence, a voice said hesitantly, “… Jiao Ying?”

Jiao Ying’s body turned stiff. She subconsciously pushed Wu Liu away and turned to look at the person calling her. Her facial expression went through several changes before turning into a distorted and strangely off-putting look, “Fourth, fourth young master, why are you here…”

TTBE 22.2

Chapter 22.2

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

On the way back, An Chang Qing was in a good mood and had begun to figure out how to deal with the moles inside.

Whatever happened today had exceeded his expectations. He had wanted to deal with this after the New Year but the other shops were sure to have gotten wind of today’s events. Therefore, it would be better if he dealt with them in one go.

An Chang Qing thought it over and discussed with Xiao Zhige, “Before the year changes, let’s bring in the store managers of all the shops and rough them up. We’ll settle the accounts bit by bit after the New Year.”

Xiao Zhige responded, “Do as you see fit.”

In fact, all these years, he was mostly stationed in Yanzhou. Even when he returned to Yejing, he couldn’t be bothered to deal with these matters and rarely interfered with the management of the manor. All along, it was Steward Wang who overlooked everything.

An Chang Qing observed his expression and continued, “The stores are all under Steward Wang’s charge, it’s not possible he was unaware of Tian Yi Fang’s situation.”

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Xiao Zhige nodded. Of course he had thought of this. Steward Wang was an adept attendant who served him but he was not his confidant. Xiao Zhige’s foundation was in the army of Yanzhou. To him, the Wang Manor in Yejing had always been just a foothold. Steward Wang had been with him for a long time and was well-versed with commerce, this was why Xiao Zhige had relinquished everything to him. It wasn’t as though he hadn’t expected Steward Wang to try and make a profit for himself but he had led many battles and knew that this was similar to looting the place after winning a battle. It was not sanctioned but cannot be fully prevented.

Therefore, he had always turned a blind eye to Steward Wang’s actions.

However, it was obvious that Steward Wang had caused his Wangfei immense dissatisfaction. Xiao Zhige could only coordinate with An Chang Qing and asked, “How do you plan to deal with him?”

“We’re currently short of staff, let’s just put some fear in him but let him continue to work.” Ever since Xiao Zhige had read to him the book on warfare, An Chang Qing had occasionally gone to his study to continue reading up on it. As of now, he had somewhat grasped the concept of psychological warfare. 

“We’ll let him hang first, the more guilt and fear he has, the more dedicated to his work he will be.”

Steward Wang might’ve gone astray but he was a timid person. Based on An Chang Qing’s observations, he only dared to cash in if the opportunity allowed for it but he would not have the guts to deceive Xiao Zhige.

Xiao Zhige looked at him in surprise. He had thought that An Chang Qing would use this chance to get rid of Steward Wang. After all, from the time An Chang Qing entered the Wang Manor, the two had not been harmonious with each other. He would never have expected An Chang Qing to do things this way.

His eyes flickered and he agreed, “Nuo Nuo’s words are very reasonable.”

An Chang Qing, “…”

…..

When the carriage arrived at the Wang Manor, Steward Wang brought the servants to greet them. His face was looking pale. Before An Chang Qing’s return, Anfu had brought the store manager and clerk from Tian Yi Fang back and let Zhao Shi escort them to the cell.

When An Chang Qing took over, he knew that sooner or later, the situation in the shops would be unearthed and had specifically warned the ones in charge to show some restraint. But unfortunately, the year wasn’t even over and they were already caught.

He wiped his sweat and bowed low, “Will Wangye and Wangfei be having dinner?”

An Chang Qing raised the paper bag in his hand and said, “Prepare a few non-greasy side dishes, we’re having roasted duck today.”

….

After dinner, An Chang Qing called Steward Wang and told him to summon all the managers. 

Having spent his days with Xiao Zhige, An Chang Qing was influenced by him and had learned how to be intimidating without having to be aggressive. When the overly delicate face became serious, it now carried a vigor similar to Xiao Zhige’s.

“I happened to witness the situation at Tian Yi Fang, the other stores are most likely to have the same problem,” An Chang Qing tapped a finger on the table at a slow rhythm, “Since Wangye has entrusted me with all the family properties, I have to manage them well so as to live up to his expectation. Steward Wang, don’t you agree?”

Butler Wang’s back arched further and his face was filled with bitterness. Wangfei’s words were clearly aimed at him and even a fool could tell that he was trying to stir him up. After the staff of Tiann Yi Fang was taken into custody, he knew not what they had revealed, only that An Chang Qing would not easily let this matter rest.

And as expected, the other managers were being summoned as well. It seemed An Chang Qing was determined to get to the bottom of this.

Although he was not directly involved, turning a blind eye was akin to abetting. An Chang Qing had not addressed his mistake but his every action had caused him to feel aggravating distress.

Steward Wang replied with caution, “Wangfei’s words are very true.”

Having acquired the desired result, An Chang Qing waved his hand, “Go make the arrangements.”

…..

In the blink of an eye, two days passed and Steward Wang had scheduled for the store managers to meet on the twentieth of this month. And in the middle, Tie Hu returned with news of the nunnery. 

This nunnery was unknown to most. Unless one traveled outside the city, they would not have even heard of the place.

Tie Hu’s investigation found that this nunnery’s ideology had been far removed from its religious roots. The people of Da Ye followed Taoism, so naturally, not many would burn incense for Buddhist Temples, much less this remote nunnery. And as the number of visitors waned, the nature of this place began to change. It was no longer a place for worshipping but a prostitution lair in disguise.

Because of its remote location and arduous condition, most of the women sent there were sinners or widows with nowhere else to go. 

As the place lacked many things from the materialistic world and the women living there weren’t exactly virtuous to begin with, they eventually charmed men into visiting the nunnery and obtained ‘incense money’ in return. The woman that the little beggar mentioned was called Jiao Ying. She was one of the best earners in the nunnery. It was said that she had long been booked by a nobleman and did not serve anyone else.

Due to the time constraint, Tie Hu could not verify who this nobleman was but judging from the little beggar’s words, this person was most likely Wu Juan Shu. Furthermore, he had also made two other unexpected discoveries.

“The woman named Jiao Ying had sent her maid to get some aborticide. I saw that her stomach is also slightly bulging, she’s probably pregnant.”

An Chang Qing raised his eyebrows. In his last life, when she had entered the Marquis’s house, there was no mention of any children. If this child was Wu Juan Shu’s, she could use this to rightfully become his wife and enter the Marquis’s house. Even if the Marquis refused to accept her, they would still have to compensate her for the abortion.

Why did she secretly have to buy aborticide?

An Chang Qing felt that something was amiss but for the time being, he still couldn’t put a finger on it. He moved on, “What else did you discover?”

“I managed to track down the crazy woman.”

The crazy woman was spotted while he was watching the nunnery. She lived in a village near the nunnery and was in constant babbles about how a vixen had killed her son. Tie Hu had accidentally heard the villagers discussing her and decided to investigate. Much to his surprise, he made another useful discovery.

“This woman was not always crazy. Her husband’s surname was Qian and had died early, leaving her with one son, Qian Yun. Qian Yun was born short and unsightly but being skilled at grooming horses eventually landed him a job in the Wu Manor. A few years later, when he had saved enough money, he married a girl from the neighboring village and that was Jiao Ying.

In contrast to Qian Yun, Jiao Ying was beautiful and charming. After marrying him, she would stay home to serve her mother-in-law and occasionally brought food to the Wu Manor for him. Life was peaceful until one day, Qian Yun came home and gave Jiao Ying a slap. People in the village suspected that Jiao Ying was having an affair with someone outside but before they could confirm their conjecture, Qian Yun fell into a pond on his way home and drowned.

Qian Yun’s death caused his mother to go mad, cursing at Jiao Ying and blaming her adultery for his death. But Jiao Ying was no pushover, every day, the two would quarrel and fight like cats and dogs. After some time, it was said that Jiao Ying had run off and the woman’s insanity worsened, swearing at Jiao Ying on sight of anyone willing to listen.”

“The Marquis’s house again…” An Chang Qing contemplated, “Then the adulterer is most likely Wu Juan Shu. Is it possible that he killed Qian Yun then hid Jiao Ying in the nunnery?”

Tie Hu said, “It seemed so but I’ve checked with several of the villagers and they said that they saw Jiao Ying boarding a carriage and getting intimate with a man in his late thirties. There is some discrepancy between his age and Wu Juan Shu’s…”

“…”

This news was quite pleasing to his ears. An Chang Qing said while thinking, “Maybe Jiao Ying has more than one ‘patron’. Her child, it is possible that it’s not Wu Juan Shu’s. That is why she had to get an abortion?”

Tie Hu also came to the same conclusion. But as a brute who had only fought on the battlefield, this type of hammy affairs was confusing to him.

After strategizing up a plan, An Chang Qing said, “Continue to watch the nunnery. Also, is there a way to swap Jiao Ying’s aborticide?”

Tie Hu thought it over and replied, “I can try.”

“Then give it a shot,” An Chang Qing continued, “Change it to maternity medicine. One more thing… find a way to divulge this news to Wu Juan Shu.”

Tie Hu glanced at him in surprise, thinking that Wangfei can be cruel when he needs to be. If the baby in Jiao Ying’s belly is not Wu Juan Shu’s, there’s going to be a big show for everyone to see.

Tie Hu left after receiving his orders. 

An Chang Qing then called for Zhou He Lan and they went to the cell to question the store manager and clerk.

When the store manager and clerk were brought back to the manor, An Chang Qing did not use force against them. He only kept them locked up in separate cells, no matter how much they begged and admitted their mistakes, he refused to grant them an audience. And today had already been the third day.

It was time to put them on trial.

Zhao Shi led them to the interrogation room. Although the rumors stated that the Wang Manor was like purgatory, the truth was that ever since the prison was built, it was rarely put to use. That said, the place was complete with torture instruments in accordance with the military specifications for interrogating spies.

When the store manager and clerk saw the gruesome apparatus, they immediately turned frail due to fear.

Zhao Shi brought a chair for An Chang Qing to sit on and dragged the clerk out first.

The clerk was incredibly terrified. When he saw An Chang Qing, he knelt down and banged his head on the ground, begging for mercy.

Zhou He Lan was in charge of the interrogation and after a few questions, he was able to get a clear idea of what was going on in Tian Yi Fang.

It turned out that the manager from Tian Yi Fang had colluded with the Zhan Family’s garment shop. In the beginning, Tian Yi Fang had a good reputation and was quite popular in Yejing. To steal their business, the Zhan family had first poached their tailors then paid the manager to inflate the prices. As a result, many customers eventually preferred to buy from the cheaper priced Zhan family stores.

Consequentially, the manager got bolder with the increasing money he received from the Zhan family. He not only overpriced the items but also sold Tian Yi Fang’s clothes to them at a slightly higher price than the cost. Even the profit was put into his pocket. When he had to give a report, he claimed that the garments weren’t selling and had to sell them cheaply.

An Chang Qing was simply enraged to the point of almost laughing, “When did it start?”

The clerk’s lips were shaking as he said, “About two to three years ago.”

An Chang Qing’s expression went through several different changes before finally calming down. After the interrogation, Zhou He Lan made the man sign a confession and then proceeded to bring the store manager up.

Seeing the fingerprint on the confession paper, the manager had a look of distress. The story he came up with earlier was now useless, he could only confess honestly. Word by word, he recorded down every meeting and transaction he had had with the Zhan family.

After his confession, An Chang Qing inquired about the situations of the other stores. These managers tended to socialize with each other to exchange information and goods that the other lacked. The manager could only comply and write down what he knew.

In the cold winter, the manager’s face was filled with sweat after he finished writing down his statement. Just as he was about to feel relieved, he heard An Chang Qing say, “After this, send him to the judicial court.”

The manager’s face turned ash pale; he knew that his future was over.

…..

An Chang Qing personally tallied up the amount of silver Tian Yi Fang had lost and how much of it had flowed into the Zhan family’s pocket.

He smiled coldly thinking of the lump of dough that he had let escape. He patted the table twice and said to Zhou He Lan, “Bring Tie Hu along. We’re going to requisition money from the Zhan family.”

Such a large sum of money, he couldn’t let it go just like that.

Zhou He Lan could see that he was brooding. He considered briefly then advised, “Why don’t you ask Wangye to come with us? This way, things will go faster and easier, we might be able to reacquire more than we expect.”

An Chang Qing was on the same wavelength. He looked at Zhou He Lan with appreciation and they set off to find Xiao Zhige.

The barracks outside the city were on hiatus, allowing Xiao Zhige to remain in the manor. Seeing An Chang Qing coming with a stack of documents, he could somewhat guess, “You’re done with the interrogation?”

“En, they’ve been sent to the court. But the amount we’ve lost is not small, I’m going to the Zhan house to get it back.” An Chang Qing looked at him heatedly, “Can Wangye come with me?”

Looking at his expectant eyes, Xiao Zhige did not have to think twice before agreeing. 

An Chang Qing blissfully walked ahead, “I’ll go have the carriage called.”

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And so, on this afternoon, the people of Yejing saw a magnificent carriage coming out of the Wang Manor’s big gate. The large ‘Xiao’ carved into the carriage was hard to miss.

The carriage headed straight to the Zhan family’s garment store without stopping. The clerk who was still unknowing went out to greet them nervously.

With trembling legs, he invited An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige who got off the carriage with two abominable bodyguards by their side into the store.

After sitting down, An Chang Qing sipped his tea leisurely before stating his purpose, “Wangye and I are here to collect certain debts.”

“Debts?” The shopkeeper had steam coming out of his head. He carefully phrased his words, “This… The Zhan family couldn’t possibly owe Wangye any debts, could it?”

An Chang Qing motioned for Anfu to present the confession slip and account book for him to see while An Chang Qing continued to drink his tea.

The shopkeeper flipped through the account book and his face changed drastically. He looked up at the two imposing bigshots then back at the item in his hand and said, “Wangye, Wangfei, please wait, I’m going to fetch my master.”

The Northern Warlord’s reputation was indeed useful. The store owner not only arrived promptly, he even brought along several boxes of silver.

The head of the Zhan family resembled a lump of dough with hair and a figure larger than the Zhan Young Master. He came forward and saluted, “I’ve brought the silver, Wangye, Wangfei, please take a look.”

The servants then went on to open the chests. Inside was bright shiny silver. Anfu counted and it amounted to a whopping forty thousand taels of silver, almost twice as much as the money they were hoping to collect.

Looking at the spectacular silver, An Chang Qing’s eyes sparkled and he smiled satisfyingly, “Good, that seems like the right amount.”

Seeing An Chang Qing bluntly accepting all the silver, Master Zhan was bleeding inside. However, he knew that they were at fault and what was more terrifying was that the God Killer Northern Warlord had come in person. He could only force a smile and say, “That’s good, that’s good.”

An Chang Qing was delighted to have acquired double the amount and decided to let them off. The bodyguards carried the silver chests into the carriage and they left as mightily as they had come.

Master Zhan heaved a sigh as though he had just escaped death. But after being relieved for only one day, he got wind of news that Wangfei was handing out porridge for the poor in front of Tian Yi Fang.

The Northern Warlord’s Wangfei was wearing a cotton-padded robe from Tian Yi Fang and stood at the door with an air of nobility. On him was only a simple cotton robe but it looked more elegant and exquisite than the stuff made of colorful brocade.

The people of Yejing were thrilled to be able to witness Wangfei’s face for the first time. Even if it weren’t for the porridge, buying the same garment as Wangfei from Tian Yi Fang to share a hint of his grace was still worth it!

Adding in those who loved to watch the excitement, a large number of people gathered in front of Tian Yi Fang. 

And anyone who could spare Master Zhan a glimpse could tell that he was about to have a heart attack.

…..

Lately, the people of the Wang Manor were in constant fear. None dared to go close to Wangye’s study.

Wangye would practice his spear here every day but for some reason, recently, his expression during these sessions was incredibly intimidating, like he was out for blood. Everyone in the Wang Manor would take a detour just to avoid the place.

This morning, An Chang Qing got up early again. He changed into a new robe sent by Tian Yi Fang and got ready to leave. Even after retrieving the silver from the Zhan family, An Chang Qing did not become complacent. The silver is dead while the shop is alive. A prosperous Tian Yi Fang could earn him much more than forty thousand silver taels.

He discussed with Zhou He Lan and they came up with a solution to save Tian Yi Fang from its decline – let An Chang Qing hand out porridge at the storefront.

Tian Yi Fang’s reputation had been soiled for over two years, this could not be fixed overnight. Accidentally, Zhou He Lan recalled the well-received scripts of Wangfei and Wangye and decided to go out on a limb and let An Chang Qing promote their clothes by wearing them and doing charity right in front of Tian Yi Fang.

On one hand, they could acquire a good reputation, on the other, this would attract people to Tian Yi Fang. This efficient method of killing two birds with one stone, of course An Chang Qing readily accepted.

Unexpectedly, the result was better than they had anticipated. Not only was Tian Yi Fang’s business booming again, but the Wang Manor’s reputation was also rectified.

The only downside was the increase in the number of scripts being circulated and the storytellers’ improving business.

And due to Wangfei’s busy schedule, leaving early and returning late, the Northern Warlord’s mood was getting worse.

When Zhou He Lan came to the main yard early today to look for An Chang Qing, a black and golden spear struck right past him. He stumbled two steps back in shock. Looking in the direction from where the spear came from, he saw the person approaching and quickly saluted, “Wangye.”

Xiao Zhige looked at him in silence and went to retrieve his spear. 

That one look caused Zhou He Lan’s hair to stand up. 

He just couldn’t understand what he had done to incur Wangye’s anger. 

Why did he look so menacing?!

TTBE 22.1

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Chapter 22.1

The clerk ‘pei’d at An Chang Qing and chased the three of them out of the store rudely. 

Seeing his bold and skillful behavior when hushing them out without any guilt, An Chang Qing could guess that this was not his first time doing so. An Chang Qing frowned and said to the clerk, “If you continue to do business this way, I’m afraid this store won’t last.”

The clerk sneered, “You’re such a busybody. I don’t have time to deal with you. Leave, leave, leave!”

Just as he had stopped talking, the store manager was coming down the stairs while laughing and chatting with a man dressed in expensive clothes. Seeing that the clerk was still at the door, he urged, “Zhang Si, what are you doing? There’s still a batch of clothes in the warehouse, go and clear it up…”

The clerk lowered his head and complained, “I’m going now. These people here say that our clothes are too expensive.”

He then ignored the three and scurried to the back room.

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The store manager sized them up before coming close and cupped his hands, “So you think that our clothes are expensive?” 

Seeing that the manager’s attitude was a lot better than the clerk’s, An Chang Qing was slightly relieved, thinking that it was probably just the clerk who was unruly. He nodded and said, “That’s right. Two silver taels for a cotton-padded robe is too expensive.”

“Then there’s something that you don’t know,” the store manager stroked his beard and proudly continued, “Tian Yi Fang is not like other stores, our tailors made clothes for dignitaries all over Yejing, so naturally, our price should be higher.”

“Even if it’s sewn by the palace’s tailors, isn’t it still a cotton-padded robe?” Anfu couldn’t hold back and said, “The price is too high compared to any other stores, how can you do business this way?”

The manager’s face slightly twitched. He restrained himself and smiled reluctantly, “This is simply buying and selling. You’re willing to buy, we’re willing to sell. You can’t blame us for our pricey products just because you can’t afford them.”

An Chang Qing initially thought that since the store manager was polite towards them, he must be different from the clerk but now it seemed that the management of this store had turned into a nest of snakes and mice. 

Anfu was about to retort but An Chang Qing waved his hand, “Forget it, let’s go have a look at another store.”

He was only here to inspect the store and inadvertently bumped into this situation. However, he had no intention of rectifying this problem on the spot and therefore, did not disclose his identity. Rather, it was imminent he used this opportunity to survey the other stores.

Unexpectedly, even when he did not want to cause trouble, trouble came to him. The man who came down with the manager had been silent all this while but when he saw that An Chang Qing was about to leave, he smiled and said, “Wait a moment, young sir.”

An Chang Qing turned and looked at him, “Is there something wrong?”

The man who spoke was roughly over twenty. He had a round build with big and fleshy arms. The large body was squeezed into a red brocade robe like a piece of white dough wrapped in regal fabric. The man had a folding fan with him even in the winter, trying to look scholarly. He opened his fan and said, “The clothes of Tian Yi Fang are really good. If you want, you can just pick any and I will pay for it.”

“I don’t accept rewards without merit,” An Chang Qing could tell from his eyes that the man bore evil intentions. He gave him an unfriendly look before turning to leave.

Unfortunately, when the lump of dough saw that he was leaving, he went over and blocked his way, “Don’t worry, you’re very pleasing to my eyes and I only wanted to be friends. My store is also on this street, why don’t you come back with me and pick whatever you like?”

His words were getting disrespectful. He even reached out his hand to grab An Chang Qing. An Chang Qing was about to fend him off but Zhou He Lan was faster than him. He stood in front of An Chang Qing and gave the plump white face a big fist.

The dough lump covered his eyes and howled grievously, “How dare you hit me! Are you all dead?! Come out here and tie them up!”

Suddenly, six or seven sturdy men from nowhere dressed in servant uniforms came and surrounded the trio.

The people on the streets saw the crowd and gathered to watch the excitement. 

Worrying that this might invite unwanted troubles, the store manager hesitated before trying to dissuade the man, “Young Master Zhao, this is a public place after all, we shouldn’t make a big scene, let’s forget this.”

Young Master Zhao looked at him angrily, “Forget this? The person who has the guts to hit me has not been born yet!”

“Bring me the good-looking one,” he rolled up his sleeves and said viciously, “I will personally teach him a lesson.”

The henchman heard the order and approached An Chang Qing. An Chang Qing was not going to stand there and be a sitting duck, he was about to announce his identity when he heard the henchman screaming while writhing on the ground in pain.

Xiao Zhige arrived in the nick of time and guarded An Chang Qing behind him. A cold light flashed in his eyes, “Who was it that dared to make a move on my Wangfei?”

His everyday expressionless face was already terrifying enough, now that he was angered, he looked all the more violent. His cold eyes seemed to hide daggers that could stab through anyone he looked at.

The white lump of dough had now turned whiter. His legs gave in and he fell to the ground begging, “Wang, Wang Ye… It, it’s all a misunderstanding…”

Xiao Zhige put on a murderous smile. His military boots with a nail-studded sole trampled on the man’s hand, “Is it also a misunderstanding if I kill you today?”

The man was terrified beyond words. He shook like a pendulum and could not even muster the strength to beg for mercy. The store manager and clerk were also panic-stricken. They fell to their knees and dared not speak up.

Someone in the crowd suddenly said, “Wangye is going to kill…”

The onlookers who had been watching the commotion immediately dispersed. As for those who were still curious, they stayed hidden far away and continued to watch the scene.

Xiao Zhige was indifferent to his surroundings and continued to stare coldly at the Young Master Zhao whose limbs had now turned into mush.

Clearly there were many people present but the entire street had turned so quiet that one could hear a pin dropping.

Zhou He Lan had heard of the rumors before and looking at Xiao Zhige who now resembled a death god, whatever he had wanted to say could only be kept inside.

Only An Chang Qing was not afraid. He turned to look at the people watching from far away then back at the intimidating Xiao Zhige. He pursed his lips and tugged at Xiao Zhige’s sleeve.

Xiao Zhige looked at him without speaking.

An Chang Qing was not going to do any persuading. He scanned the area and his eyes landed on a large vase which he went over to fetch. He then returned to Xiao Zhige and said solemnly, “Let me do it.”

Xiao Zhige did not respond and only frowned. But in the end, he still stepped aside.

Before the lump of dough even had time to feel relieved, he saw a large vase hanging over his head. By the time he could register fear, the sound of porcelain breaking boomed and the dough lump who had just escaped death was rendered unconscious on the spot.

An Chang Qing dusted his hands and gave him a kick. Satisfied, he said, “How dare you flirt with me?! You’re simply asking for trouble.”

The sight of An Chang Qing baring his fangs and brandishing his claws caused the anger in Xiao Zhige’s chest to dissipate, giving place to a feeling of tenderness and heartthrob. An Chang Qing looked at him and raised his chin proudly. He then said to the frightened servants, “Take him away. Don’t leave him here to be an eyesore.”

The group of servants snapped out of their daze and scurried off with the unconscious lump.

In the end, only the ghastly pale store manager and clerk were left.

An Chang Qing paced a few steps in front of them and said with a smile, “As for you two, I will settle the scores with you later. Anfu, take them back to the manor and lock them up.”

Anfu complied with glee. He kicked the clerk and said fiercely, “Stand up and follow me.”

The duo dared not disobey. They stood up feebly and followed him quickly as though running for their lives.

Anfu escorted the duo away and only Zhou He Lan remained. He glanced at An Chang Qing and promptly made the decision to tag behind Anfu, “I’ll go get the carriage.”

When only An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige were left at the storefront, An Chang Qing squinted at Xiao Zhige and asked, “Does Wangye recognize this store?”

Xiao Zhige replied, “Yes. It’s mine.”

“And I thought you’d forgotten about it,” An Chang Qing complained, “None of the employees are any good and the clothes are ridiculously overpriced, no wonder Steward Wang said that the shop is getting worse. In the long run, don’t talk about earning, we could incur heavy losses. And the person in charge is so treacherous, I suspect that something shifty is going on behind our backs.”

“It was all under Steward Wang’s care.” Feeling as though he was being accused of something by An Chang Qing’s wave of complaints, Xiao Zhige immediately threw Steward Wang under the bus, “I do not have the time.”

“I’ll deal with them after I’ve combed through the accounts once more.” An Chang Qing was outraged. With Xiao Zhige’s negligence of the businesses, he was certain that this was not the only shop with problems. People like the store manager tend to sail with the wind, if the boss was watching, they would not dare to make any bold moves. Nonetheless, once they were left unattended, these slippery fellows would come up with ideas to reap some profit for themselves.

Tian Yi Fang did not start out this way but due to the long-term managerial laxity, its workers had become insolent.

“Everything is as you say.”

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Only when he was appeased did An Chang Qing remember that this morning Xiao Zhige had left for the barracks. He questioned, “Why is Wangye here?”

“Having a drink with some colleagues,” Xiao Zhige answered.

Finally hearing Xiao Zhige mention them, He Lao San who had been watching in silence with the others poked his head out and said, “Wangye was drinking with us in the restaurant over there.”

He Lao San’s charcoal face smiled like a blooming flower, “If Wangfei is free, you can join us. Lao San would like to treat you to some wine.”

When the others heard his bold invitation, they looked at Xiao Zhige and mentally lamented for He Lao San.

As expected, Xiao Zhige’s briefly calmed expression immediately turned dreary. He said with a slight annoyance, “Wangfei can’t drink.”

He Lao San was still unaware of the danger and continued to insist, “If you can’t drink, you can still join us for food. We haven’t had the chance to… umm!”

Before he could provoke Xiao Zhige any further, his colleagues hurriedly covered his mouth and held him down, “We haven’t settled the bill yet, let’s go back and do so. Wangye and Wangfei, please take your time.”

They then dragged He Lao San away and ran off like the wind.

Back at the restaurant, He Lao San was brimming with dissatisfaction. He stared at his colleagues like an angry bull and complained, “What were you guys thinking, I wasn’t finished talking yet!”

The others rolled their eyes at him thinking if they’d let him run his mouth, their days in the barracks for the upcoming year would be a hell pit.

“But I have to say that Wangfei was indeed good-looking. No wonder Wangye rejected all the women just to be with him. And he even hid him so well…” He Lao San smacked his lips and said with envy, “If a beauty like that was willing to be with me, I wouldn’t mind if it was a man.”

“Can you please be quiet? Haven’t you got into enough trouble with that mouth of yours? And don’t forget that Wangfei just threw a vase at someone.”

My good man, that vase was as tall as a kid and he did not even bat an eye when dropping it on the man. And with Wangye’s terrifying temper, no one had ever dared to confront him except the seemingly fragile Wangfei.

What surprised them the most was that Wangye’s anger had instantly vanished. It was about time the tiger found its tamer.

After having his colleagues simplify the matter for him, He Lao San was finally enlightened. At the same time, he also felt a chill at the back of his neck. Oh no, what has he done?

…..

Zhou He Lan came back with the carriage and An Chang Qing got on. Xiao Zhige hesitated momentarily and finally decided to ditch his horse to ride the carriage with An Chang Qing. 

In the far distance, the people of Yejing had begun to whisper. 

“Wangye’s ferocity is too frightening. Was that the young master of the Zhao family? What rotten luck…”

“But the young master of the Zhao family was asking for it. Even if Wangye ended up killing him on the spot, it’s nothing…”

When someone said this, other listeners also agreed and chimed in. Whoever is not mad when their wife is being harassed and bullied in public?! Wangye was too kind in sparing his life!

They were too used to hearing about Xiao Zhige indiscriminate killings that someone had to bring up this point to deter them from their usual train of thought.

“That’s right! Young Master Zhao had also done many evil things, he deserved it. Even if Wangye had killed him, it’s a blessing to the people!”

“Speaking of which, Wangfei was quite incredible. He had a scholar’s body but is actually quite powerful when hitting someone!”

“Did you get to see Wangfei’s appearance?”

“No, I was too far away but I can tell that he was very charming. Wasn’t all that written in the scripts…”

…..

The people continued to chat happily while the central figure of their discussion was currently buying roast duck at Jufuzhai. Even after the unpleasant incident, he still insisted on buying the delicacy.

When the carriage stopped in front of Jufuzhai, Xiao Zhige alighted and went to order a serving of roast duck. The waiter peered at the carriage while wrapping the duck in oil paper. He said with flattery, “This duck is blessed to be eaten by Wangfei. The manager said that whenever Wangfei wants to eat from our store, just send someone here and we’ll have a freshly roasted duck delivered to the manor.”

The waiter’s bold and enthusiastic banter was unfamiliar to Xiao Zhige who was used to being feared. He frowned slightly and after a few seconds of silence, threw him a silver ingot and returned to the carriage with the roasted duck.

The waiter looked at the payment and hoped: Wangfei, please come again, Jufuzhai’s business will depend on you from now on.

…..

“Why did you want to buy roast duck out of the blue?” An Chang Qing sniffed as he looked at the paper bag in his hand. 

“It’s good,” Xiao Zhige handed him the bag and said, “Eat some when we get back.”

An Chang Qing was still filled with curiosity as to why Xiao Zhige suddenly went out of his way to buy the roasted duck but the smell of the duck was truly enticing that he gladly accepted it, “We’ll eat together when we get back.”

Seeing that he liked it, Xiao Zhige’s expression softened considerably, “If you like it, I’ll buy it again for you next time.”

An Chang Qing turned to look at him and their eyes happened to meet. Suddenly, An Chang Qing was able to connect the dots, “Did you buy this especially for me?”

Xiao Zhige responded bluntly with an ‘en’.

An Chang Qing moved in closer to him and concentrated his eyes on him, “Just like the plum pastries?”

The man being stared at answered with another ‘en’.

The smile in An Chang Qing’s face widened and he whispered softly to himself, “Looks like you’re not entirely made of wood.”

TTBE 21

Chapter 21

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

The next day, An Chang Qing went out with Zhou He Lan and Tie Hu. Xiao Zhige left with them before parting ways at Yong Le lane. When the people saw him on the street, they did not scatter like before. Instead, they stayed and snooped around the Wang Manor’s carriage, hoping to catch a glimpse of the good-looking Wangfei and his interactions with Wangye.

Wangfei and Wangye had not been out on the street together for several days, causing a decline in new story scripts for the masses to read. Even San Wei Zhai’s plum blossom cakes were not selling well like before.

Unfortunately, Wangfei had stayed in the carriage and only opened up the curtain to wave goodbye to the Northern Warlord. 

Rumor has it that Wangfei was like a fairy and catching a few glimpses of him could bless your offspring with beauty!

It was just that the coachman had such a menacing look that it deterred away the lingering eyes of any onlookers.

Under the stares of the people of Yejing, the carriage slowly made its way to the Western Lane.

Unbeknownst to An Chang Qing, due to the spread of those creative scripts, he had been hailed as an immortal descended from above and all over Yejing, people would grab any chance they could to have  a look at him.

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Arriving at the teahouse, the group was led by a waiter to the second floor. An Chang Qing sat and waited through a cup of tea before Anfu came in with two beggars, one was an old beggar he was familiar with while the other one was a newcomer in his teens.

Just like their previous meeting, An Chang Qing sat behind a screen, only allowing them to make out his silhouette. Without making idle talk, An Chang Qing went straight to the point, “What did you find?”

Previously, the old beggar would relay messages through Anfu. The information he gathered were either which of the Wu Marquis’s young masters were taking in a concubine or trivial things like thieving servants. Until a few days prior, he suddenly claimed that he had found something incredible and requested an audience with An Chang Qing to tell him in person. Thus, An Chang Qing made this trip today.

The old beggar bowed and said, “Ah Jiu is the one who discovered this, he should be the one to tell you about it.”

An Chang Qing nodded.

The young beggar called Ah Jiu stepped forward, cleared his throat and spoke clearly, “I had been the one keeping watch on the Marquis’s manor for several days. Nothing was out of the ordinary except for a few nights ago when Young Master Wu, the person we were told to keep an eye on, sneaked out of the manor. I traced the carriage’s prints and found that it had stopped at the gates of a nunnery.”

The young beggar changed his tone and continued, “I couldn’t find the carriage so I waited outside all night. Only when the sound of roosters crowing was heard that I saw the carriage coming out of the nunnery.”

“A nunnery?”

“Yes.”

An Chang Qing was in deep thought. There was indeed a nunnery right outside the city but because of its remote location and the fact that majority of Da Ye citizens believed in Taoism, the place was scarce of visitors. This would be the perfect place to hide someone.

“In addition, I’ve also found something else…” The young beggar bowed low and dared not speak.

“What is it? You can speak,” An Chang Qing said gently.

“After my trip to the nunnery that day, I’ve asked my friend stationed nearby to watch the place. The day before yesterday, he told me about a crazy old woman who went to the nunnery and caused trouble. She was berating a woman, claiming that she was a vixen and had caused her son’s death after hooking up with someone from a noble family.”

This story which his friend had told him out of amusement had nothing to do with the Marquis’s house but strangely enough, after they parted that day, he was nowhere to be found.

Although the beggars each have their own territory, the place they sleep at night would not change. He had gone to his friend’s ‘home’ to find him but no one was there. Others had also said that they had not seen him in two days.

His intuition told him that something must’ve happened, most likely linked to the happenings of the nunnery. They were vagabonds without families or relatives, it was not unusual for them to stumble upon things they shouldn’t see, only to pay dearly for it.

This was why he had insisted on meeting with An Chang Qing. Maybe the information he provided could help him find his friend.

After hearing his story, An Chang Qing deeply pondered.

Wu Juan Shu’s concubine was probably hidden inside the nunnery. The crazy woman who had made a ruckus and accused someone there of colluding with a nobleman and killing her son… That person was most likely to be Wu Juan Shu.

And this matter might even involve a life.

But whether it was his last life or this one, An Chang Qing had never heard of the Wu Manor being involved in any murder cases. After all, they were under the Emperor’s jurisdiction, no matter how powerful, they still would not dare to commit murder.

Unless the woman was spouting nonsense or that the nobleman was not someone from the Marquis’s manor… Or another possibility was that the Marquis himself had managed to bury this crime.

Just like the beggar who had disappeared into thin air.

An Chang Qing fidgeted his fingers, thinking back to Xiao Zhige’s words to him, ‘always strike where it hurts’, he wittily formed a plan in his head. 

An Chang Qing said to Anfu, “Pay the rest of the money and reward each of them another ten silver taels. Let this matter regarding the Wu Manor from now on be sealed in your memories.”

The old beggar thanked An Chang Qing repetitively but the young boy hesitated before lowering his head and begged, “I do not want the reward, I only hope that your grace will help me find my friend.”

This matter nevertheless was triggered by him. Seeing that he was still young and exhibited comradeship, An Chang Qing agreed, “Keep the money, it’s your just reward. As for your friend, I will help you look for him but I cannot guarantee any results.”

“Thank you sir,” The little beggar shook his head, “Your willingness to help is already a great kindness. If he can’t be found… then that is his fate.”

After sending them away, Zhou He Lan said, “Is your grace investigating the affairs of Marquis Wu?”

An Chang Qing was surprised, “You know of the Marquis’s Manor?”

“I’ve heard a little about them. It’s all praise for the Marquis’s righteous ways in regulating his family and also for how generous and virtuous his wives are.”

Marquis Wu had eight concubines, over ten sons and seven or eight daughters. His wife and concubines were harmonious and even his children were friendly with each other, much unlike most other families who would bicker and compete for favors. As such, the Marquis’s family dynamic was the envy of many.

The Marquis had many wives and children. That, An Chang Qing was well aware of but hearing this from Zhou He Lan, he was quite skeptical. Take his father for example, he had one wife and only two concubines with a handful of children and they were already at each other’s throats. Therefore, with that many wives and children, having no enmity was realistically impossible.

Moreover, any family would have their own share of squabbling, and yet, the Wu manor was just overly harmonious.

With something this abnormal, there ought to be misgivings hidden underneath. An Chang Qing tapped on the table twice then instructed Tie Hu, “Have someone investigate that nunnery. Also, keep an eye on it.”

…..

Leaving the teahouse, An Chang Qing did not return to the Wang Manor right away. Instead, he took Zhou He Lan and Anfu to inspect the shops.

So far, all the shops’ accounts under the Wang Manor from the previous years till now had been submitted to him. By the New Year, each store manager would come to the manor to pay respects and receive their bonus. An Chang Qing did not want to outrightly admonish these store managers but knowing thy enemy is half the battle won. If he wanted to manage these shops effectively, he would have to find out the current situation of each of them.

Due to the conspicuity of the Wang Manor’s carriage, An Chang Qing thought it over and decided to change into regular clothing and ditched the carriage. He then strolled the streets with Anfu and Zhou He Lan.

Along the way, many passersby looked at him inquisitively.

An Chang Qing rarely showed his face whenever he went out so not everyone in Yejing was familiar with Wangfei’s looks. No one recognized him and despite having two servants behind him, he was dressed in regular clothes, unlikely of being someone from a rich family. Many wondered where he came from and why this was the first time they’d seen him.

The Da Ye Empire revered beauty. Whether it was male or female, anyone attractive was sure to get attention. And thus, this trip had caused An Chang Qing to garner a lot of unwanted oglings, even the ladies were bold enough to throw flowers his way.

A few who had seen Wangfei from afar whispered, “Doesn’t this person look a bit like Wangfei?”

Others immediately refuted, “Nonsense. How’s it possible that Wangfei is dressed in such a shabby outfit? And walks by himself?”

From the tales, Wangfei was personified to be an immortal flying through the clouds and dressed in rainbow-colored clothes made of feathers. Even if he had descended, he should still ride in a magnificent carriage and clothed in silk and brocade. Wangye would be with him and not let him traverse the streets on foot.

How could this person in modest clothes be Wangfei? It’s simply nonsense!

…..

First off, An Chang Qing went to the nearest garment store.

There were many shops under Xiao Zhige’s name and he remembered that this one was well managed and had a decent reputation. Many dignitaries would send their fabric there to be tailored. However, according to Steward Wang, in recent years, its business had been robbed by other stores and also due to the declining demand for ready-made garments, the store’s sales had dwindled.

When An Chang Qing arrived, he saw that there were indeed very few people in the store.

The store was located on the most bustling street of Eastern Yejing. By right, as the New Year drew closer, the store should have been teeming with customers as new clothes would be on demand, much unlike the current uncrowded state of it.

An Chang Qing cast aside his suspicions and entered the place. A store clerk saw him and immediately went to welcome him.

“Sir, would you like to buy clothes? Whether it’s ready-made or tailor-made, we have it all.”

An Chang Qing browsed the store and casually pointed to a padded robe and asked, “What’s the price for this?”

“Two silver taels a piece.”

“That expensive?” An Chang Qing did not expect the price to be so high.

In the Da Ye Empire, one silver tael is equivalent to one hundred wen (copper coin). A single wen is enough to buy three meat buns, and ten wen- a bucket of rice. Two silver taels can buy twenty rice buckets and when rationed properly, these twenty rice buckets could feed a person for half a year.

No commoner would pay half a year’s grains to buy a padded robe.

An Chang Qing never bought clothes for himself but he still knew that the price was outrageous. He glanced at Zhou He Lan and saw him shake his head subtly.

“It’s a cotton padded robe, why is it so expensive?”

Who knew that when he raised the question, the clerk immediately changed his attitude. He looked at An Chang Qing from head to toe and said with contempt, “Raise your head and look at our plaque. This is Tian Yi Fang. There are no cheap clothes in Tian Yi Fang’s stores. If you want something cheap, go somewhere else.”

If a customer was served with this attitude, they would leave in anger or dispute with him. An Chang Qing frowned, “Even if it’s Tian Yi Fang, doesn’t mean it’s reasonable to charge two silver taels for a cotton padded robe.”

Cotton and hemp fabrics were bountiful and inexpensive in Da Ye, even the peasants could afford them.

The clerk sneered and waved his hand impatiently, “If you can’t afford it, then don’t come here. You have a good face but dress like a pauper. Your beauty is a waste on you.”

An Chang Qing was driven out of the store like a pest. Anfu was enraged. He was about to confront the clerk but was stopped by Zhou He Lan who shook his head at him.

…..

“Hey look! There’s a beauty over there!”

On the second floor of a restaurant diagonally opposite Tian Yi Fang, Xiao Zhige was having a drink with several members of his platoon. Towards the end of the year, the barracks outside the city were on hiatus. Several generals decided to have some fun and dragged Xiao Zhige along.

Xiao Zhige was not a sociable person but these generals had been with him for many years and they had formed a close bond. Even when he couldn’t care less for the drinking, he still agreed to come. However, while the others were loud and rowdy, Xiao Zhige was drinking in silence.

Hearing He Lao San’s exclamation, Xiao Zhige did not even lift an eyelid. He was thinking in his heart that on the way home later, he should drop by Jufuzhai and buy back a roast duck. He had heard that the roast duck from Jufuzhai was particularly good.

Just when he was deep in thought, someone beside him said excitedly, “Wangye look, is that person’s beauty comparable to Wangfei?”

They had long heard of the rumors and read the scripts. Knowing that Wangfei’s beauty was a sight to behold, they were envious of Xiao Zhige and at the same time felt happy for him. Unfortunately, Xiao Zhige put on a straight face everyday and kept his Wangfei well hidden, none of them were able to have a glimpse of this dazzling figure.

Now that they had spotted this rare beauty, they couldn’t help but compare.

Xiao Zhige turned sullen when he heard their words and when he was about to have a word with them, he caught sight of a familiar figure. He squinted and found that there was a commotion happening in the streets below. With haste, he got up and left the place without a word.

Everyone at the table was stupefied as they stared at the empty seat.

After snapping out of their daze, He Lao San whined loudly, “Oh mother! Wangye just ran off to find the little beauty!”

TTBE 20

Chapter 20

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

The night had An Chang Qing turning and tossing and by the time he woke up the next day, sunlight had slipped into the room through the windows. It had snowed the night before and outside was a vast expanse of white, causing the sun rays to be particularly glaring to the eyes.

An Chang Qing opened his eyes in a daze and yawned. Anfu who was waiting outside heard the noise and entered to inquire if he wanted to wake up.

“What time is it?” An Chang Qing saw the daylight and asked.

“It’s a little past noon.” 

“It’s that late?” An Chang Qing was surprised as he raised his neck and looked out, “Why didn’t you wake me?”

“Wangye had ordered when he left.” Anfu blinked and replied, “He said that Master is tired from last night and to let you sleep a little longer.”

An Chang Qing: “…”

He looked at Anfu and said, “Fetch some water, I want to take a bath.”

Anfu let out a giggle and left to make the preparations.

An Chang Qing opened the blanket to get out of bed and found that the pain in his legs had disappeared. He lifted his pants to take a look and found that the bruises had turned into a more terrifying shade. Last night, Xiao Zhige had rubbed the bruises with medicinal wine for a long time, causing it to spread and dispel the swelling. Only by pressing hard against the bruise would the pain emerge.

As he was looking, Anfu came back with the water. Seeing his injury, Anfu was like a nosy goose being grabbed by the neck, he gasped and said, “M, m, m, Master… How did you get injured this badly…”

After asking, a sudden realization dawned and he knocked his head, feeling silly for blurting out the question.

How else did the Master get those bruises, of course it’s from last night…

Looking at An Chang Qing with heartache and anxiety, he asked cautiously, “Would you like to call for a doctor?”

Wangye must’ve been too rough last night. He had thought that those were just baseless rumors but it seemed there was some truth to it. His master had very delicate skin, how could he bear to toss him around this much?

Lady Yu would have a heartache should she find out about this.

“…” An Chang Qing saw his face and immediately knew what he was thinking. “Stop thinking nonsense! This is nothing and you’re not allowed to tell mother.”

Anfu reluctantly responded with an ‘oh’ and began assisting him with washing up.

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After his bath, Steward Wang came to give a report regarding the two things that An Chang Qing requested.

One was to gather the accounts of all the shops and properties under Xiao Zhige, the other was the completion of the renovation for the house under Mt. Qin Yun and several maids had also been sent there.

“Move the account books to Wangye’s study. Just place them in the empty side room. Have the maids trained then send them to Qingwu Courtyard.”

Qingwu Courtyard was where Lady Yu and An Xianyu currently resided.

Steward Wang quickly said yes.

An Chang Qing asked, “How are Zhou He Lan and his mother?”

Steward Wang replied, “Dr. Hu had prescribed some medication for Lady Zhou. She’s taking it now and her complexion has improved considerably. Mr. Zhou came to look for you twice but you weren’t in. He made a request to this servant but thinking that he is your guest, I dare not arrange it rashly.”

After he brought them back from Mt. Qin Yun, An Chang Qing let the mother and son live in the guest courtyard and also requested Hu Shifei’s help with their treatment. But after that, he was busy with the trip to the Palace and managed to visit them only once and had left Steward Wang to take care of their hospitality.

An Chang Qing contemplated and said, “I’ll go take a look.”

An Chang Qing went to the courtyard and saw an unexpected scene.

“Mother? Yu’er? Why are you here?”

When An Chang Qing entered the yard, he saw Lady Yu and An Xianyu sitting together with Lady Zhou embroidering. Lady Zhou’s movements were a little clumsy.

The three stood up to welcome him. Lady Yu said, “We were bored so we came to have a sit. What are you doing here?”

“I came to look for He Lan.” An Chang Qing looked at Lady Zhou, “Aunty, how are you feeling?”

Lady Zhou frantically waved her hand and spoke in unfluent Chinese, “I’m called Mu La. Young Master can just call me by my name.”

The Xi Wei aborigines were nomadic. They had no surnames, only first names.

An Chang Qing smiled and shook his head. Although he had helped them and also wanted to reel in Zhou He Lan, he never intended for them to work as servants for the Wang Manor. Zhou He Lan was by no means a man of mediocre talents, it’d be best if he could be his right-hand man. And if this position was too shabby for Zhou He Lan in the future, he could still be of assistance to Xiao Zhige, this way, he could keep the rich water from flowing into an outsider’s field1.

This was why he wanted to treat the mother and son well from the start. 

Lady Zhou saw that he was unwilling and did not force him, “He Lan is reading in the back. I’ll go get him.”

“Let me go to him.” An Chang Qing did not want to disturb them and went to find Zhou He Lan by himself.

Zhou He Lan was indeed reading and only noticed An Chang Qing’s arrival when he had reached the door. He quickly put down the book and went to greet him.

“You don’t have to greet me as such in the future.” An Chang Qing said, “Steward Wang said that you came to look for me?”

Zhou He Lan straightened up and said, “Yes. Young Master had invited a doctor for my mother and even gave us a place to stay. He Lan feels guilty for staying idle all day.”

An Chang Qing smiled and said, “I now have something for you to do.”

Zhou He Lan was filled with enthusiasm, “I’m at your service!”

An Chang Qing asked, “Do you know anything about bookkeeping?”

Zhou He Lan nodded, “Yes!”

“That’s great.” An Chang Qing had assumed that he wouldn’t know and planned to have an accountant show him the ropes. Now that he said he knew, it would be a lot faster. “Come to the main courtyard tomorrow and work out the account books with me.”

After they finished the discussion, An Chang Qing and Zhou He Lan went out together. In the courtyard, they saw Lady Yu showing Lady Zhou some embroidery tactics. Although Lady Zhou still had a pale complexion, she was in good spirits, smiling as she followed Lady Yu’s instructions. An Xianyu sat next to them and occasionally chimed in. The scene was of great harmony.

Zhou He Lan stopped and looked at them for quite a while. He said softly to An Chang Qing, “I have not seen my mother this happy in a long time.”

After he turned ten, his father suddenly disappeared, forcing his mother to take him to Da Ye in search of him. Since then, he had not seen his mother’s smiling face. Having searched for him these many years to no avail, she probably knew that there was little hope and began to turn seriously ill. Not wanting to burden him, she was prepared to die. 

Although An Chang Qing did not know what he had been through, he could somewhat empathize with his feelings. He patted him on the shoulders and said, “Things’ll get better in the future.”

Zhou He Lan smiled and stepped forward, calling out his mother.

An Chang Qing stayed for a while before accompanying Lady Yu back to Qing Wu Courtyard. 

There, An Xianyu left to unbind the embroidery frame. Lady Yu then told the maids to leave and dragged An Chang Qing to one side. She asked in a whisper, “Are you and Wangye… alright?”

An Chang Qing did not grasp the underlying meaning and replied naturally, “Yes, what’s there to worry about?”

Lady Yu patted him and said with concern, “Mother is asking you about that aspect…”

It’s her son’s privacy, she shouldn’t be nosy but there was a worry in her heart and she would not be relieved not knowing.

An Chang Qing’s skin was thin and he blushed immediately. He was too embarrassed to tell her that they had not done it yet and grumbled, “Mother, why are you asking this all of sudden?”

Lady Yu was anxious, “When you’re… together, is there anything unusual?”

“Unusual?” An Chang Qing was stumped, “How can there be anything unusual?”

Judging by his reaction, he was indeed confused. Only then was she reassured, “Nothing… I heard the rumors from outside and was worried that you’re hiding your grievances from me.”

“The rumors are all made up.” An Chang Qing was unhappy every time he heard those rumors, “Please don’t believe whatever they spread outside. Wangye is a good person and he treats me very well.”

Lady Yu smiled and said, “Right, I won’t pay attention to them anymore.”

The two spoke until An Xianyu came in. As the topic was not suitable for girls, they talked about something else.

An Chang Qing, “There’s something that I forgot to mention. I’ve sent several maids for mother and Yu’er. Pick a few to serve by your side and the rest to do housework. After the New Year, I will send you both to live in the house under Mt. Qing Yun.”

“After the New Year?” Lady Yu hesitated, “We’ve stayed here long enough that people are beginning to talk, why not move there earlier?”

An Chang Qing had considered this but he couldn’t bear to leave his mother and sister alone in the house for the New Year. After talking over with Xiao Zhige, they decided to send them there only after the New Year.

“Wangye does not object, who would dare say otherwise?” An Chang Qing said lovingly, “Please don’t worry, everything’ll be fine.”

“And Yu’er should be bored being idle all day. I’ll find a female teacher for you to learn and she’ll continue to teach when you leave.”

The quiet An Xianyu’s face lit up and she enthusiastically agreed.

Lady Yu saw her daughter’s expression and teased, “Your sister is happy as long as she can study. What happens when she gets married in the future?”

An Xianyu blushed and kept her head down.

An Chang Qing remembered the news from Anfu and said, “Now that you mentioned marriage… There is news regarding the Wu Manor.”

The cheerful atmosphere immediately turned stagnant. Lady Yu frowned and said, “What did you find out?”

An Xianyu also looked at him solemnly.

“I’ll know by tomorrow.” An Chang Qing shook his head, “Don’t worry, this marriage will not happen. But Yu’er would have to suffer being slandered for a few days.”

Lady Yu sighed and patted An Xianyu’s head with heartache. But as it turned out, An Xianyu deviated from her timid nature and said firmly, “I’m not afraid of being talked about…I, I don’t want to marry him.”

 Ever since An Chang Qing revealed that Wu Juan Shu might be keeping a mistress outside, An Xianyu’s girlish fantasy about marriage had shattered. Although she had always been submissive and quiet, the support from her brother and mother had given her courage. This was the first time she had dared to speak her mind.

She refused to get married.

An Chang Qing looked at her and thought for a long time. He then rubbed her head and said, “Alright, if you don’t wish to marry, then you don’t have to. Anyhow, I will not let you be wronged again.”


1↪肥水不流外人田(Féishuǐ bù liú wàirén tián) means the good water shouldn’t flow into another’s field to fertilize it, something like keeping the goodies for oneself.

TTBE 19

Chapter 19

Edited and proofread by KitKat

An Chang Qing was not appeased. The man was such a sawed-mouth gourd, it takes a beating just to get a word out of him. If he did not take the initiative, the man would’ve stayed quiet for as long as he could. Had he been a little more eloquent, they wouldn’t have ended up as they did in their previous lives.

Why is there such a silly person in this world who simply does not gloat about all the things that he has done?

An Chang Qing sighed in his heart, thinking that he couldn’t let this go on. He looked at Xiao Zhige with an expression filled with grievances and said in a pitiful tone, “Wangye, can you be frank with me? If Chang Qing was not good enough, you can tell me.”

“I was being frank…” Xiao Zhige never thought that his reticence could upset the person beside him. His Wangfei was facing away from him, half of his face was hidden from view while the other half showed drooping eyelashes like a listless butterfly.

“You did great. The Empress and Empress Dowager both believed it.”

“What about you?” An Chang Qing suddenly turned to look at him, there was a certain sparkle in his black pupils, “Did you believe it?”

Xiao Zhige’s heart softened looking into his eyes. He reached out and placed a loose strand of hair over his ear, “I believe you.”

No matter if it was only to butter him up, as long as it was An Chang Qing’s words, he would believe them.

An Chang Qing’s eyes shone brighter. He rubbed his hand against his palm and said enthusiastically, “Then whatever Wangye had said… I’ll take it for real.”

“The part about you not taking in concubines and having children with another woman.”

“En.”

Xiao Zhige was not a man who would make empty promises. Whatever he had said, he would keep true to his words.

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An Chang Qing felt a rush of happiness like never before. His heart was beating wildly and his body was heating up. He had to bite on his inner cheek to hide the surging joy but even so, his eyes were still shining bright, more beautiful than any star Xiao Zhige had ever seen.

“In this life, it’ll be just the two of us.” An Chang Qing couldn’t help but embrace Xiao Zhige. He rubbed his cheek against his neck before burying his face into it due to embarrassment. He then whispered a promise into Xiao Zhige’s ear, “I will always be with you.”

He will not watch him tread alone on the cold path towards the throne. This time, he’ll accompany him.

Whether it was a glorious life that would leave their names etched in history or a cursed one with a tragic end, as long as Xiao Zhige didn’t let go, he would walk that path with him.

Xiao Zhige was left in a trance. In his mind, a young voice resounded, it had said: “I will keep you company in the future.”

Letting out a soft smile, Xiao Zhige replied as he had many years ago, “Ok.”

But at the same time, the several reports that he had gotten from the spy left in the An manor also came flooding in:

“The third young master is very close to Young Master Li of the in-law family…”

“Young Master Li sent a poem to the third young master…”

“Young Master Li sent a painting to the third young master…”

“Young Master Li is about to return to his hometown to be engaged. Before he left, he gave the third young master a jade pendant. The third young master accepted it and seemed quite upset…”

Xiao Zhige’s eyes fixated on the double-fish jade pendant on An Chang Qing’s waist that had never left his side. His mood sank but he couldn’t help tightening his embrace. Whoever it was that resided in his heart, at least for now, An Chang Qing was his.

He did not long for much, only this illusory affection was something he refused to let go of. From his childhood till now, he was like a moth involuntarily drawn to the fire, unable to take his eyes away.

Now that he was in his arms, even saying that he would accompany him for life, even if he knew it was mere flattery, even if he knew that it would soon be forgotten, he still wouldn’t let go.

…..

By the time they reached the Wang Manor, the sky had turned dark.

An Chang Qing unwillingly pulled his hand from Xiao Zhige’s warm palm to put on the heated fur coat. Even so, the drop in temperature at night still made him shiver the moment he exited the carriage. On the other hand, Xiao Zhige was wearing that thin piece of clothing and stood in the wind like it was nothing.

Eyeing him with jealousy, An Chang Qing devilishly stuck his ice-cold hands to Xiao Zhige’s neck. As expected, Xiao Zhige stiffened momentarily, after which, he pulled his hands down and warmed them thoroughly in his palms, “Behave, it’s cold out here.”

An Chang Qing pouted and allowed himself to be led into the house.

The group of servants held their heads low, whispering to themselves how Wangfei was the only one around who dared to tease Wangye like so.

An Chang Qing did not give much thought to this. Since they had promised to spend the rest of their lives together, he was not going to be a stranger. Having experienced Xiao Zhige’s permissiveness the last few days, An Chang Qing’s behavior was becoming all the more unmindful. To him, Xiao Zhige was simply a wooden post who rarely spoke, there was nothing to be scared of.

Because they had not had dinner, the pair called for several small dishes to be delivered to their room. 

Loathing that his clothes were drenched with sweat from all the crying and kneeling earlier, An Chang Qing changed into a lighter garment and went to take a bath.

Entering the bathroom and taking off his clothes, An Chang Qing realized that his thighs and knees were badly bruised. The bruises on the knees were from kneeling and those on the thighs were from him pinching himself to induce tears.

It did not hurt when he was ignoring it before but now that he had seen the dark patches, the pain had begun to emerge. A tiny movement could easily cause him to ache.

An Chang Qing took a deep breath and slowly eased himself into the bathtub, deciding to clean up before applying the medicine.

He spent almost half an hour soaking in the tub and by the time he was ready to stand up, he found that it was too painful to exert any amount of strength into his legs. He tried to use his arms to prop himself out but accidentally hit his knee against the tub wall and sank back down.

After splashing in the water for some time, An Chang Qing was almost in tears due to the pain. His face turned red and finally, he had no choice but to call for Xiao Zhige.

Xiao Zhige was just in the bedroom and after hearing him call, he came in with a slight hesitation in his footsteps.

There was a brazier burning in the bathroom, creating a layer of vapor. An Chang Qing was sitting inside a tall tub with his hair behind him, only exposing his slender and beautiful neck. Because of the steam, his skin had turned bright pink.

Xiao Zhige had to pull his eyes away and approached with unnatural footsteps. He asked in a slightly strained voice, “What’s wrong?”

“My legs hurt and I can’t get up.” An Chang Qing was also embarrassed. He looked down and said in a soft voice, “Can you carry me out…”

Xiao Zhige instantly felt the string called ‘reason’ tighten in his head as his eyes gazed into the water uncontrollably. He stepped back and cleared his throat, “Wait.”

He hurried to get a clean cloth and wiped An Chang Qing’s hair till it was partially dry then averted his eyes and carefully carried him out of the tub. He then wrapped An Chang Qing in a large towel and brought him back into the bedroom.

After tucking him into the blanket, Xiao Zhige left as though fleeing from a battle.

He stood and took in the cold wind for a few moments before ordering Anfu to bring in another brazier. When he returned, An Chang Qing was still wrapped up under the blanket. He stretched out his neck and looked at him, “Where did Wangye go?”

“To get Anfu to bring in another heater.” Xiao Zhige’s Adam’s apple rolled as he answered. He then took a new towel and continued to wipe An Chang Qing’s hair.

Just as he was almost done, Anfu was at the door with the brazier. Burning in it was high-grade silver charcoal without soot or sparks. Xiao Zhige placed the brazier beside the bed and let it dry An Chang Qing’s hair while he lifted the blanket, “Where is it that’s injured?”

An Chang Qing stretched out his legs and pointed with a pout, “My knees and thighs, they’re all green.”

The bruises now looked a lot more frightening than before. They had turned purplish and slightly swollen. Xiao Zhige only touched it gently and An Chang Qing was already contorting in pain.

Xiao Zhige creased his brows and dispersed the previous mesmerizing thoughts, all that remained were guilt and pity. He softened his touch and said gently, “Bruises have to be rubbed for them to heal. I’m going to get the medicinal wine.”

The thought itself already gave An Chang Qing the jitters. These types of injuries, An Chang Qing was quite familiar with. He was born with sensitive skin and delicate flesh. Back when he was often bullied by his relatives, causing his body to be littered with bruises, he could only endure silently for fear of worrying his mother. 

There were more serious injuries than this which he had braved through but now it seemed he was no longer able to withstand it.

When Xiao Zhige returned with the medicinal wine, An Chang Qing pulled back his legs and curled up into the blanket. He said in a muffled voice, “There’s no need to rub, it’ll be fine in a few days.”

“It’ll get worse if you don’t rub.” Xiao Zhige frowned with disapproval but feeling heartache for his injuries, he dared not speak harshly and could only coax him, “I’ll be very gentle, it won’t hurt.”

An Chang Qing was skeptical but he did not want his injuries to worsen so he stretched out his legs again and said pitifully, “Then do it gently, I’m afraid of pain.”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’ and poured the medicinal wine into his palm before rubbing it on his knee.

He only used one-tenth of his strength but An Chang Qing was already complaining in a sobbing tone, “You lied…”

Xiao Zhige had to harden his heart to keep his hand from stopping. Seeing his eyes turning red while biting his lips to endure, Xiao Zhige began blowing unskillfully at his wound and tried to coax him clumsily, “Hubby will blow and your pain will fly away…”

An Chang Qing who was on the verge of tears suddenly burst into laughter. He nudged his other foot on Xiao Zhige’s shoulder and muttered, “I’m not a three-year old. My mother only said that to me when I was young.”

“Is that so?” Xiao Zhige was briefly dazed. He said softly to himself, “So it was learned from his mother…”

“What?” An Chang Qing could not hear what he said and asked.

“Nothing.” Xiao Zhige shook his head and his frown disappeared. He continued to blow gently and said, “Bear with it a little longer.”

With the distraction, An Chang Qing’s pain was alleviated. He rested his chin on the thick blanket as he watched Xiao Zhige attentively rubbing the bruises with utmost care.

The man was kneeling by the bed and had on a serious expression; his downcast eyelashes covered up his sharp eyes. Under the dim candlelight, his rigid features were blurred, bringing out a gentler side to him.

The more he looked, the more An Chang Qing felt satisfied and happy. Such a good person was going to be his. 

Why did he think that he was terrifying before?

How blinded was he?!

Clearly this person is incredibly caring.