TTBE 36

Chapter 36

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

As Xiao Zhige was sizing up Li Hai Yun, Li Hai Yun was also quietly doing the same. Whether it was his appearance or behavior, the Northern Warlord had the demeanor of a General. Sullen eyes and a downward arching mouth. A single look and one could tell he was in a bad mood.

He clenched his fists and looked towards An Chang Qing. However, An Chang Qing, sitting next to Xiao Zhige, was not paying attention to him.

Li Hai Yun’s heart sank. In his panic he thought: Is Cousin Chang Qing blaming me? Clearly when they were at the lake discussing poems, An Chang Qing’s eyes had always been on me…

“Cousin Chang Qing…” Li Hai Yun felt his heartthrob and couldn’t hold back his voice.

An Chang Qing was about to introduce him to Xiao Zhige so he casually responded with a nod, “Wangye, this is Madame Li’s nephew, the son of Chang Yang County’s magistrate, Li Ru Qi.”

Xiao Zhige responded without any change in attitude. He asked, “I heard that Nuo Nuo is quite close to Young Master Li.”

His tone was not heavy but his dark face made the two men with hidden intentions shudder.

An Chang Yu covered his face and the corner of his lips rose. Only Li Hai Yun anxiously tried to explain, “We’re not close, we’re just… we’re just…” He couldn’t come up with the right word on the spot and faltered.

“Just what?” Xiao Zhige saw how  eager he was to distinguish and his mood turned worse. Anger filled his voice as he asked, “Why don’t Young Master Li finish your words?”

“We’re just ordinary friends. Wangye, please do not misunderstand.” Li Hai Yun hardened his resolve and dared not look at An Chang Qing. Cousin Chang Qing is now the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei. Since he had no power to protect him, he shouldn’t drag him down with his wishful thinking.

An Chang Qing who had not been speaking could vaguely feel that something was wrong. He frowned and said, “Brother Hai Yun had stayed in the An Manor as a guest for a while so we knew each other.”

Xiao Zhige looked at him carefully but he saw no flaws in his expression. An Chang Qing had an innocent look, as though he could not understand Li Hai Yun’s lovelorn words. There was also no trace of sadness or any sort of emotions at the sight of an ex-lover. Xiao Zhige couldn’t tell whether he was just too good at pretending or he had truly let go of this person.

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Looking at Li Hai Yun again, the discontent in Xiao Zhige’s eyes intensified. He squinted and waved his hands, “Now that you’ve seen each other, it’s time for the both of you to leave.”

“Then we won’t keep Wangye and Wangfei from enjoying the festival.” When An Chang Yu saw that Xiao Zhige was chasing them away without any subtlety, his face changed slightly but he still bowed respectfully and stepped back. Li Hai Yun looked at An Chang Qing with much to be said but he kept quiet.

An Chang Qing did not perceive his gaze as his focus was solely on Xiao Zhige.

Feeling that something was off, An Chang Qing asked after the two had left, “Wangye, is something wrong?”

His temper had been off since just now.

Seeing that An Chang Qing was concerned about him, Xiao Zhige was in a complicated mood. He wanted to ask An Chang Qing about his relationship with Li Hai Yun but feared that he would get an answer he did not wish to hear. He had fought in blood soaked battlefields for many years but he never thought that he could turn into this coward hiding behind a curtain of self-deception as of this moment.

He pursed his lips and responded, “It’s nothing.”

An Chang Qing looked at him from the side and felt that this person was not telling the truth. With the amount of time they had been together, An Chang Qing had a good grasp of Xiao Zhige’s temperament. He would never tell him about his discontentment, preferring to keep everything to himself.

An Chang Qing mulled over and decided that now was not a suitable time to inquire further, he should wait until they got back.

…..

On the other hand, Li Hai Yun returned to Nongxue Pavilion with wandering thoughts. Having not seen An Chang Qing for many years, his appearance and temperament had become refined compared to before, rendering his eyes unable to look away.

He remembered the first time they met. An Chang Qing was still a wide-eyed teenager whose features were delicate and picturesque while his temperament was gentle and reserved. When he first met him, he had politely called him ‘Cousin Hai Yun’.

Li Hai Yun had fallen in love at first sight. He would often invite An Chang Qing to the lakeside and had presented him with many love poems. Although An Chang Qing had been shy and never actively responded, the spark in his eyes had not been faked. If it hadn’t been for his parents prearranging his marriage without his consent, cousin Chang Qing would not have broken off with him. He had even rejected his jade pendant and wished him and his fiancee a blissful marriage.

“In the end, we were not meant to be…” Li Hai Yun sighed remorsefully. He borrowed wine to hide the sourness in his nose and the sting in his heart.

An Xianya couldn’t clearly hear his words and scuttered over to ask, “Cousin Hai Yun, what did you say?”

Li Hai Yun ignored her and continued to drown his sorrows in wine. An Chang Yu glared at her sternly and An Xianya returned to her seat without speaking another word.

“You’ve decided to give up just like that?” An Chang Yu poured Li Hai Yun another cup of wine.

“Other than giving up, what else can I do?” Li Hai Yun said dejectedly, “It was I who had let him down in the first place. Now, The Northern… seems to treat him well. I cannot give him trouble. And just now… he did not even look at me. He obviously hates me…”

An Chang Yu smirked, “Maybe he dared not show it in public.” He lowered his voice and continued, “I heard that the Northern Warlord is incredibly cruel behind closed doors. He also likes to torture others…”

Li Hai Yun’s face turned white. The wine cup in his hand shook lightly, “This…”

“Even if you want to give up, you should at least clear things up. Back then, you had left under the pressure from your parents but you have rejected that marriage. You have, ultimately, not wronged him. Aren’t I right?”

Li Hai Yun was moved by his words and hesitated.

An Chang Yu continued to persuade, “I have a way for you to meet with my third brother but since you don’t want to, then forget it.”

“I want to…” Li Hai Yun responded instantly. His face had already begun to show signs of drunkenness as he proclaimed, “I want to talk to him face to face. If his days are not good, I… I will risk my life to take him away!”

“Good.” An Chang Yu’s eyes brightened. He said softly, “Don’t worry, I will help you both…”

…..

Below, just before the human-size incense was completely burnt, An Xian Yu and Zhou He Lan had correctly answered 125 riddles together.

With the final gong, the Wang Manor’s lantern was hung at the highest position.

Everyone in the Songtao Pavillion was filled with joy. An Chang Qing touched An Xian Yu’s head and praised, “Yu’er is incredible.”

An Xian Yu blushed but the timidity from before was gone. She said delightedly, “It’s also thanks to brother and Zhou gongzi’s help.”

Zhou He Lan’s eyes lit up. He coughed and said humbly, “Miss An is well-equipped with knowledge. Even without me, I’m sure you can solve them by yourself.”

“You two are being modest,” An Chang Qing smiled and said, “Both of your efforts are of merit. Once you get the prize, you can just split it in half.”

At this point, the waiter had brought in the host for the lantern race. The host was holding two boxes as he bowed respectfully, “The first prize for the race, one hundred taels of gold or Sir Dan Mo’s original work, which would you choose?”

An Chang Qing was not familiar with famous painters. He looked towards An Xian Yu but heard Zhou He Lan speak up first, “Miss An was able to answer all the riddles related to Sir Dan Mo effortlessly, are you also a fan of his work?”

An Xian Yu nodded. Sir Dan Mo’s paintings were highly sought after by many throughout Da Ye and she was not excluded. But thinking that she did not win the competition alone and that Zhou He Lan’s family was not well off, she did not want to make things difficult. “The first place was the combined effort of the three of us, it’s hard to share the painting, why don’t we take the gold?”

An Chang Qing could tell that she wanted the painting but as she had always been considerate, had decided to choose the gold for Zhou He Lan’s sake.

He was about to speak up when he heard Zhou He Lan say, “What a coincidence, He Lan is also very fond of Sir Dan Mo’s work. If Miss An doesn’t mind, we can choose the painting. Miss An can have the original copy while He Lan would only like to borrow and make a replica for myself.”

An Xian Yu had wanted the gold so as not to complicate things but unexpectedly, Zhou He Lan, had also wanted the painting. She looked to An Chang Qing for guidance, “Brother?”

An Chang Qing did not give it too much thought and said, “Since the both of you like this painting, let’s pick it then. He Lan shouldn’t have to lose out either, I’ll compensate you with another reward back at the manor.”

Zhou He Lan quickly said his thanks and bowed to An Xian Yu who was tightly holding on to the painting, “I’ll have to trouble Miss An in a few days to borrow the painting.”

An Xian Yu kept her eyes on the painting and gleefully agreed. Xiao Zhige was the only one who looked at Zhou He Lan with a certain conjecture and squinted but ultimately remained silent.

After the race concluded, it was time for the lantern appreciation. Since they have been in the room for too long, An Chang Qing proposed for them to go downstairs and do some sightseeing. Lady Yu and Zhou He Lan’s mother languished to be amongst the crowd so they decided to stay and watch from above. An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige took An Xian Yu to the streets to watch the lanterns.

In the bustling crowd, An Xian Yu went to look at a booth selling feminine products. An Chang Qing was looking around when he thought of something and said to An Xian Yu, “I’m going over there with Wangye. Let Tie Hu and He Lan accompany you. We’ll meet back at the Songtao Pavilion at the Hai1 hour.”

An Xian Yu nodded obediently. An Chang Qing told the accompanying maid to take care of her before pulling Xiao Zhige away.

Xiao Zhige asked puzzledly, “Where are we going?”

An Chang Qing glanced at him from the side with a brilliance in his eyes, “I saw that someone was in a bad mood and thought that I should find a way to coax him.”

Xiao Zhige initially wanted to refute that he was in a bad mood but was enticed by the words ‘coax him’. His feet couldn’t help but spring up to step closer to him and asked, “How do you intend to coax?”

An Chang Qing pulled him towards a mask stall and picked out two colorful bird masks. An Chang Qing wore one and handed the other to Xiao Zhige, “Wangye, wear one too.”

The stall owner looked at them and his eyes lit up. He grinned broadly and said, “You two are… You have great tastes! These masks are perfectly paired!”

An Chang Qing was very pleased with his words. He paid up and dragged Xiao Zhige to the riverbank.

Near the end of the day, vendors would start to sell lanterns along the riverbank. Masked men and women would carefully write down their wishes on the lanterns and release them down the river. Even though Xiao Zhige had never participated in this activity, he knew that this was also for lovers to convey their feelings. Since ancient times, countless couples had used these methods to express their love.

His voice turned uncontrollably hoarse, “What are we doing here?”

An Chang Qing bought a unique looking lantern painted with a carp and a lotus flower and gave Xiao Zhige a pen and paper. The mask had covered his lovely face but its radiance could still be seen in those exposed eyes, “Make a wish. I heard if you make a wish on this day, it will come true.”

Xiao Zhige’s eyes became pensive, “What does Nuo Nuo wish for?”

An Chang Qing shook his head and urged him to write, “It won’t be as effective if I say it out loud.”

Xiao Zhige retracted his gaze and began writing a few words on the piece of paper. After they were done, An Chang Qing rolled up the pieces of paper and stuffed them into the lantern. He then took the lantern and placed it over the water surface to let it flow down the river. His voice carried a smile as he said, “Our wishes will come true.”

“En.” Xiao Zhige was lost in thoughts but his eyes were following the lantern as it drifted away.

The wish he made in that lantern, would it have something to do with Li Hai Yun?

Or… something to do with him?

Xiao Zhige closed his eyes while his Adam’s apple rolled. Finally, he could not suppress his desire to find out the truth. He took a big step towards An Chang Qing and said close to his ear, “Wait here for me. I remembered there’s something I have to do, I’ll be right back.”

Without waiting for An Chang Qing to respond, he turned and walked away in large strides. When An Chang Qing could react and tried to call him back, he saw that Xiao Zhige had already disappeared into the crowd.

At the same time, An Chang Yu who had been following them from behind saw An Chang Qing standing alone and patted Li Hai Yun on the shoulder, “Cousin, go ahead. Clear things up with him, I’ll help you keep a lookout.”


1亥时(hàishí)- 9-11pm

TTBE 35

Chapter 35 

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Those who had sent gifts to the Wang Manor in previous years were mostly military personnel. The rest were lower ranked officials and nobles without substantial power.

An Chang Qing studied the list and found a few familiar names.

“Are Zhu An Liang and Shi Le Zheng on friendly terms with Wangye?” An Chang Qing was surprised when he saw these names on the list. In his previous life, he had stayed hidden in the Wang Manor and was not informed about the court situation but based on the fact that these two generals had helped the abolished prince besiege Yejing, they should be considered as enemies.

An Chang Qing was on alert but still decided to probe, “This year, should we send gifts to these two Great Generals?”

“No need.”

Xiao Zhige took over the list, drew two big crosses over their names and explained to him patiently, “Our country has six Great Generals. Zhao Xin Chung presides over Qizhou and Suizhou. He’s the Empress Dowager’s brother but he’s now too old to go to battle. Xue Qi presides over Yuzhou and Yongzhou. He is secretly being supported by the Shu family and therefore, sides with Shu guifei. Shen Tu Bei presides over Suzhou and Chenzhou. On the surface, he seems to be neutral but is actually under the Emperor’s command. Zhu An Liang and Shi Le Zheng are like the grass on a wall1. They’re incapable in warfare but skillful in judging the wind’s direction to sail with it.” 

“The two did not want to offend anyone so they sent out gifts to the Wang manor every year. You can ignore them.”

An Chang Qing noticed the disdain in his words for these two generals and knew they were not close. He was relieved but decided that he should still warn Xiao Zhige in the future.

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After taking in what Xiao Zhige had said, An Chang Qing asked, “There’s one more.”

Xiao Zhige smiled, “There’s also the Great General Xia, Xia Hou Shang. He is my mentor. The first battalion I joined was under his command.”

When Xiao Zhige wanted to join the army, Emperor An Qing was furious. He dictated that he could not enlist as a prince and if he died on the battlefield, his corpse would be left there to rot. Xiao Zhige had agreed with the only request that he be allowed to join General Xia’s army.

As General Xia was known for being unbiased and upright, Emperor An Qing agreed on the spot. But who knew that this was the chance Xiao Zhige had been planning for. Since then, he was like a water dragon that entered the sea, soaring to the sky with a leap.

“Then should I prepare additional gifts for General Xia?” An Chang Qing asked.

“There’s no need,” Xiao Zhige shook his head, “Mentor has always been upright, he neither sends gifts nor accepts them. And on the surface, he doesn’t have a good relationship with me. You only have to know this, there’s no need to do anything else.”

An Chang Qing nodded, then pointed to the rest of the list, “What should we do with the rest?”

Xiao Zhige gave the list a quick sweep and circled out several names, “Pay no heed to these people. As for the rest, if they continue to send gifts this year, we can do the same.”

…..

An Chang Qing drew up a new recipients list according to Xiao Zhige’s instructions and passed it to Steward Wang. Xiao Zhige had no other close relatives to visit in person which saved them the trouble. 

When Steward Wang was about to leave, An Chang Qing stopped him and said, “Prepare another portion of gifts and greetings under my name to be sent to the Grand Princess’s Manor.”

The Grand Princess’s words had more or less touched his heart. Even until his death, he had never heard of the Princess doing any harm to Xiao Zhige. Since that’s the case, even if they can’t be close, he should still maintain a good relationship.

It’s just that sending it under the Wang Manor’s name might upset Xiao Zhige once he knew about it so An Chang Qing decided to send it under his name. 

…..

As there was too much idle time during the New Year, time seemed to fly by faster. An Chang Qing spent his free time reading books in the study and occasionally learning a few fighting moves from Xiao Zhige.

In the blink of an eye, the Lantern Festival had arrived.

On this day, Yejing would hold a grand celebration. The whole city had been preparing for it in advance, from small vendors to large businesses, even the palace guards had been dispatched to help with the festivities.

Even at his age, An Chang Qing had never been to the Lantern Festival. Every year, the An family would reserve a place in a restaurant for the elders and youngsters to watch but that never included An Chang Qing and An Xian Yu.

Now that Steward Wang had mentioned it, An Chang Qing was a little excited.

He went to find Xiao Zhige and placed the invitation in front of him, “It’s an invitation from Wang Xian Lou. They’ve left us the best seats, is Wangye going?”

Wang Xian Lou is the biggest restaurant in Yejing. On regular days, it was filled with dignitaries drinking and enjoying the scenery. During the Lantern Festival, its private rooms had long been fully booked by their more important customers. It was hard to believe that they especially reserved a room for them and even sent an invitation. Although An Chang Qing was simply enquiring, his eyes were filled with expectations.

Xiao Zhige had no interest in the Lantern Festival but he could never disappoint An Chang Qing. Thinking of something, he said, “Mother and Yu’er have nothing to do in the house. Let’s ask them to come along.”

An Chang Qing agreed and added, “We should invite He Lan and his mother as well. It’s rare that they get to go out.”

After it had been decided, An Chang Qing told Anfu to send out the message. When it turned dark, the group set out in two carriages and headed for Wang Xian Lou.

…..

An Chang Qing lifted the curtain to watch the scenery and the colorful lights reflected on his face, giving it a childish look instead of the matured front he tried to put up.

Xiao Zhige saw this and said, “If you like it, we’ll go every year.”

“Ok,” An Chang Qing looked back at him. His smile was brilliant against the night lights, “With Wangye accompanying me.”

Xiao Zhige’s fingers that were placed over his knees curled up. He stared at An Chang Qing and made a soft ‘en’.

Carriages stopped in the entrance of Wang Xian Lou while guests were flowing in like clouds, waiting for the waiters to show them their seats. An Chang Qing looked around and found the familiar faces. He passed the invitation to a waiter and was immediately brought upstairs.

Wang Xian Lou had three storeys with six massive private rooms on each floor. The third floor provided the best view overlooking the whole of Yejing.

An Chang Qing’s group was led to Songtao Pavillion to take their seats. After which, a waiter served them tea and exquisite snacks.

An Chang Qing opened the window and reveled in the scenery below. The whole city was submerged in a sea of lights. Lanterns of all colors filled his sight. Among them were two giant revolving lanterns with the towering height of three to four men. They were this year’s lantern king.

“Is the lantern race starting?” An Chang Qing asked.

The waiter serving them replied, “Yes. Do you want me to get you the riddles? The first prize this year is 100 taels of gold or Sir Dan Mo’s original work.”

Whether it was the 100 taels of gold or Sir Dan Mo’s work, they were both attractive prizes.

An Chang Qing beckoned Anfu to give the invitation to the waiter, “Go get the riddles.”

Xiao Zhige was curious, “Nuo Nuo knows how to solve riddles?”

An Chang Qing raised his chin and said proudly, “A little. Even if I can’t, there’s still Yu’er.”

He might not be as good at learning the eight-part essay as others but he was a keen learner and a quick thinker. When he was younger and the other children had gone to the Lantern Festival, the pair of siblings had stayed behind in the manor. In the time that no one was in the house, they went to pick up used lanterns with the riddles still left inside and had managed to solve more than half of them.

The waiter brought up ten riddles and placed them on the table. An Chang Qing browsed through them and did those that he could solve and passed those he couldn’t to An Xian Yu. After they had written down the answers, the waiter proceeded to submit their answers.

There would be a ranking according to how many riddles were solved and the one who had solved the most would win. But the riddles were divided into five stages of difficulty from one being the easiest and each stage had a definite number of riddles. Only by answering the most could you win the competition.

Seeing how quickly they had solved the riddles, the surprised waiter said, “I’ll go fetch more, “ and ran downstairs. He came back shortly with a new batch of riddles and exclaimed, “The previous ten were all correct!”

An Chang Qing and An Xian Yu worked together effortlessly and after a few rounds, they heard the gong sounding and someone shouted, “The Wang Manor, An Chang Qing, 67 correct answers, tenth place!”

An Chang Qing looked down at the ranking board and saw someone placed his name on the last empty spot.

“We’re in tenth place!” An Chang Qing blinked and smiled. Looking at the silent Zhou He Lan, he asked, “Do you want to play? If we win, you can have half the prize.”

Zhou He Lan thought for a bit and said, “He Lan will give it a try.”

An Chang Qing then stopped playing and let Zhou He Lan take over.

…..

In the Nongxue Pavillion on the third floor of Wang Xian Lou, An Xianya rubbed her ear in disbelief, “Did I hear right? What name was called out just now? An Chang Qing?”

An Chang Yu sipped from his cup. He did not look happy, “You’ve heard right, it’s him.”

An Xianya twisted her handkerchief. She then pulled at the handsome man sitting in silence and said flirtatiously, “Cousin Hai Yun, why are you stopping? Quickly solve the riddles. Don’t let that bastard son win or else it’ll be so infuriating!”

In her fury, she did pay attention to Li Hai Yun’s expression.

An Chang Yu glared at her and said in a heavy tone, “Xianya! What happened to the promise you made about your attitude before we left?”

An Chang Yu looked at his cousin who had been in a daze ever since he heard An Chang Qing’s name and whispered, “I’ve ordered someone to ask around. They are now in Songtao Pavillion, right next to us.”

Li Hai Yun’s expression changed. He looked down in a loss and said, “He is now the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei. What can be achieved were we to meet? I can’t cause him any trouble…”

An Chang Yu’s eyes turned dark, “The last time he came back home, his face was quite pale. His days in the Wang Manor might not be good… But cousin is right, since you both are not fated to be, it’s better not to meet.”

Li Hai Yun looked up abruptly and wanted to say something but in the end, he stooped his head and continued to answer the riddles.

…..

In the Songtao Pavillion, An Chang Qing was still unaware that several members of the An family were in the next room. He sat next to Xiao Zhige and watched as An Xian Yu and Zhou He Lan worked together seamlessly to solve the riddles.

The further into the competition, the harder the riddles would get and the slower the rate it could be solved. On the chart below, the rankings had slowly stopped changing but the two were still rolling out answers with proficiency. The waiter serving them was breaking a sweat in the winter as he ran up and down to deliver them the riddles. As he reached their room, he smiled brightly and said, “Fifth, fifth place!”

An Chang Qing gave him a small reward and continued to watch the two speedily solving the riddles.

Unexpectedly, after the waiter had just left, there was a knock on the door.

Anfu went to answer the door and was shocked to see the visitors. He hesitated as to whether he should let them in, “First Young Master, Young Master Li.”

From outside the door came a gentle voice, “I heard that cousin Chang Qing had also joined the Lantern race. It just so happened that we were in the next room so we came to say hello.”

Xiao Zhige’s brows twitched and he looked towards An Chang Qing but there was no change in his expression as he said to Anfu, “Is that big brother and cousin Hai Yun? Invite them in.”

Anfu opened the door and led the two people in.

After they entered the door and saw Xiao Zhige, the two men were stunned briefly before saying their greetings. Xiao Zhige’s eyes landed on Li Hai Yun and the corners of his lips drooped.

As consistent with what he had heard, the An family’s cousin, Li Yun Hai, had a handsome face with a gentleman’s demeanor. He excelled in poetry and was even better at learning the eight-part essay. If it weren’t for the consecutive deaths of his grandparents for which he had to pay filial piety to, he might’ve become the champion scholar to receive the top three prestigious titles in a row. 

After the filial petty period, Young Master Li came to stay at the An Manor as a guest. When he met the Third Young Master for the first time, it was as though he had met with a childhood friend for whom he would often write poems to.


1墙头草- people who go with the wind.

TTBE 34

Chapter 34

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

When women gather, there is bound to be bickering, especially when it involves ladies from the Imperial harem. 

Although he did not want to partake in this charade, he couldn’t let himself be trampled over. He trod carefully with each word and pretended not to understand whenever it became unwise to argue. With the Grand Princess guarding by his side, he had managed to get by safely.

The Empress Dowager was getting too old to deal with these petty scuffles. After giving out the New Year gifts, she retreated back to her palace. The people in the hall continued to chatter while waiting for the Emperor’s party to return.

An Chang Qing stepped out of the hall and exhaled a mouthful of heavy air. He was really not fond of having to deal with the snakes in the grass.

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From afar, he saw that Taizi-fei was approaching with her entourage and his goosebumps began to form. Pretending not to see her, he turned and walked in the opposite direction. Unexpectedly, he successfully avoided Taizi-fei but crossed paths with the Grand Princess.

Having met up with her, An Chang Qing had no choice but to greet her politely, “Aunty.”

The Grand Princess looked at him and smiled, “Why are you hiding from me just like Zhige? Did he teach you that?”

An Chang Qing immediately refuted, “That’s not true. Wangye is very respectful of you, and he told me to do the same.”

“You have a nimble mind and are a lot more eloquent than Zhige.” The Grand Princess looked at him but did not reprove him for his fabricated words.

An Chang Qing smiled and accompanied her by her side.

The two walked to a small pavilion and the Grand Princess beckoned for her maid to leave. She looked at the silent An Chang Qing and contemplated her words. Finally, she sighed and said, “I… I feel bad for Zhige, having lost his mother at such a young age, that’s why I’ve been good to him. You don’t have to be cautious with me. I’ve asked you here only to tell you that if you’re ever in trouble, you can come to me.”

She smiled bitterly, “Zhige would never come to me for help but you’re more tactful than him. What I said to you today, keep it in mind.”

“Aunty…” An Chang Qing failed to comprehend as he looked at her. He could tell that her words were sincere but her reason was untenable. The Imperial bloodline had always been ruthless but as the Emperor’s sister, she did not need to take sides. No matter which prince ascended the throne, she would not be harmed. 

Even if she wanted to curry favor in advance, her choice shouldn’t be Xiao Zhige who currently had zero chance of winning.

An Chang Qing pondered thoroughly but he still couldn’t figure out her reason.

“When the time comes, you will know.” The Grand Princess overcame her moment of weakness and said, “But I do not wish for that day to come.”

She turned and looked into the distance to find that the Emperor’s carriage was heading back. 

“They have returned. You should go.”

An Chang Qing bowed and bid her goodbye. Before leaving, he looked at her but only found that he could no longer read her expression.

Praying and offering tribute to the heavens and ancestors were complicated rituals. By the time it was over and the group could leave the Palace, it was already way past noon.

An Chang Qing spotted Xiao Zhige from a distance and smiled at him. As he came closer, he saw that his forehead was sweating and asked, “Are you tired?”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’. He had a sturdy body but the lack of sleep last night and this morning’s rituals had drained his energy considerably. 

“I’m a little hungry as well,” An Chang Qing whispered in his ears, “The women in the Palace are so hard to deal with that I don’t even dare to eat.”

Xiao Zhige lips tilted slightly. He caught sight of the Crown Prince looking over and turned to block An Chang Qing’s view, whispering back to him, “We’ll eat when we get back.”

An Chang Qing did not notice the abnormality. He smiled and nodded while Xiao Zhige led him out of the Palace.

Only after they left did the Crown Prince retract his gaze. He saw Taizi-fei striding over and asked, “Did you give him the wine as I ordered?”

Taizi-fei lowered her head and said, “Yes. But he threw it away after.”

“Oh?” The Crown Prince raised his brows, “He seems to have a backbone.”

“That’s fine. In the future…” He paused and hid his words, “What is there that I can’t have?”

Taizi-fei bowed her head, “Your Highness is absolutely right.”

…..

Back at the Wang Manor, An Chang Qing had ordered for lunch to be made. There were too many rules to follow in the Palace that he hadn’t had the heart to eat. Now, he had to fill his stomach first.

After lunch, An Chang Qing began to hand out New Year money to the servants in the manor before finally going to Qingwu Court to visit Lady Yu and An Xian Yu. When he arrived, he saw Zhou He Lan sitting on a stool in the yard, reading.

An Chang Qing looked at him and questioned, “What are you doing outside?”

Zhou He Lan replied, “Mother is talking with Madame and the young miss. To avoid misunderstandings, I stayed outside to read.”

An Chang Qing chuckled. Thinking that he was about the same age as An Xian Yu, he rejected the thought of asking him to come in and said, “Then you can continue to stay here. I’m going in.”

Zhou He Lan watched as An Chang Qing entered the door before closing his book. He touched his chin and murmured to himself, “I can’t believe he did not ask me to come with him. It seems I’ve miscalculated…”

An Chang Qing went in and found that Mother Zhou was inside, speaking with Lady Yu while An Xian Yu quietly sat and listened. He passed out the presents he had prepared for them and stayed for a while. When he left, Zhou He Lan was no longer in the yard.

…..

After leaving Qingwu Court, An Chang Qing went to the front courtyard. 

He wanted to discuss the gifts they had to send out to Xiao Zhige’s associates with Steward Wang but Xiao Zhige came to look for him at the same time. Steward Wang knowingly excused himself and said he would come back later.

An Chang Qing put aside his work and asked, “Does Wangye need something?”

“Today is the first day of the New Year, the elders would give out lucky money to the juniors.” 

An Chang Qing was clueless as to why he would talk about this.

Xiao Zhige then took out a piece of pixiu1 jade from his sleeve. The jade was attached to a golden woven sash whose color had faded with time. 

“When I was a month old, my mother had personally weaved this for me. She said it could ward off evil and bad luck. After she died, my father said that her death was inauspicious and everything in her palace was burned. Only this piece of jade that had been with me all the time remained. I’ll give it to you on her behalf.”

On a rare occasion, Xiao Zhige spoke a little more, “If mother could see you, she would surely like you.”

An Chang Qing accepted the memento. The jade was warm and smooth, clearly it had been frequently fondled with. An Chang Qing said with some embarrassment, “Wangye gave me a gift but I did not prepare anything for you.”

“Does Wangye have something that you want?” An Chang Qing looked at him with large, serious eyes.

A glint appeared in Xiao Zhige’s eyes. He pondered briefly and pointed to the twin-fish jade pendant hanging on his waist and said, “I see that you always carry that pendant with you. Why don’t you give it to me?”

An Chang Qing held up the piece of jade and rubbed it. This had been a gift from his mother on his tenth birthday. The grade of the jade was nothing outstanding but she had saved for a long time before she could afford to buy it for him. Since then, it had never left his side.

Xiao Zhige looked at his downcasted eyes and thought that he was unwilling to part with it, or rather, unwilling to let go of the person who had given him the pendant.

Xiao Zhige’s mood sank. He said, “If you’re unwilling, that’s fine.”

An Chang Qing was only lost in thought. Seeing that he had misunderstood, he immediately took the jade piece and placed it in his palm, “I wasn’t unwilling. It’s just that my jade piece cannot be compared with Wangye’s. Wangye, won’t you feel that you’ve been ripped off?”

Xiao Zhige looked down at the piece of jade and his mood lifted. There was even a smile in his voice, “No such thing.”

“So can this be considered exchanging keepsakes?” An Chang Qing thought that since Xiao Zhige’s pendant was from his mother and his was also given to him by his mother, giving the item to each other seemed almost like …

Exchanging love tokens…right?

Unexpectedly, Xiao Zhige rejected the idea instantly, “… no.”

An Chang Qing: “???”

An Chang Qing gave him a puzzled look and Xiao Zhige turned away and said, “That’s for next time.”

The twin-fish pendant was given to his Wangfei by another man. Although it had been passed on to him, he was reluctant to use it as a lover’s token.

The Northern Warlord then secretly planned to have Wangfei give him another piece of personal item in the future. But before that, fearing that An Chang Qing would regret and take back the pendant, he said, “I have something to attend to. I’m going to the study,” and hurriedly walked away.

He went to the study holding the pendant. After closing the door, he carefully examined the piece of jade. The quality of the jade was not good and the tassels were delicately made. Xiao Zhige quietly mocked in his heart: That young master was not short of wealth but he gave this piece of inferior jade to An Chang Qing, clearly he did not have An Chang Qing in his heart.

Xiao Zhige paced back and forth holding the pendant. He wanted to throw it away but fearing that An Chang Qing would ask him about it, he placed it in a small box and shoved it into the bottom of the bookshelf. 

Out of sight, out of mind. 

…..

An Chang Qing was at a loss as he stared at the pixiu pendant. He thought for a long time but couldn’t understand what Xiao Zhige was thinking.

Could it be that he really felt that his gift was inferior?

An Chang Qing knew that that was quite unlikely but it still hung over him. He finally decided to find Xiao Zhige a more valuable gift next time. After all, Xiao Zhige’s sullen mindset had always been hard to comprehend.

An Chang Qing put the matter aside and called for Steward Wang in order to resume his previous work.

According to Da Ye’s traditions, on the second day of the New Year, families would visit relatives and friends. However, if there were too many to visit, each house would hang a gift bag on their gate. Just indicate the sender and recipient and the servants would deliver the gifts in the bag in their master’s stead.

Hence, every year, unless it was obligatory to visit or it was an intimate associate, the rest would receive the New Year greetings and gifts this way.

This was the first time An Chang Qing had presided over this practice and asked Steward Wang to assist.

Who knew that after hesitating for a long time, he said, “All these years, Wangye had never sent out gifts.”

“…” An Chang Qing was speechless for a long time and finally understood why the Wang Manor had such a bad reputation.

“Fine. What about those that had sent gifts over?” As the Northern Warlord, it’s impossible that no one would send him gifts, right?

Steward Wang was relieved, “There were quite a few. This is a list from the previous years, please have a look.”

An Chang Qing looked through and it was indeed a long list. But compared to the officials he saw at the banquet, this number was sparse. For many reasons, most officials preferred to not associate with the Wang Manor.

This gift-sending custom should not be taken lightly. An Chang Qing studied the names for a while but still could not decide. He got up and said, “Prepare the items and greetings first. I’ll discuss with Wangye who the recipients should be.”

Steward Wang bowed and retreated while An Chang Qing went to the study to find Xiao Zhige.


1 貔貅(píxiū)-  a mythical creature resembling something between a dragon and a lion, with wings.

TTBE 33

Chapter 33

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

An Chang Qing continued to feel nauseous the whole trip back to the manor. Thinking how Taizi-fei could still oblige the prince and deliver the wine to him, An Chang Qing felt that he was being eyed by a den of poisonous snakes.

Rubbing his arms and pulling a long face, he mumbled, “I have to take a bath, this is making me uncomfortable all over.”

Xiao Zhige smiled but quickly turned gloomy as he thought of something. After a while, he patted An Chang Qing’s hair and said, “Go ahead. You can ignore the crown prince, he wouldn’t dare to do anything for now.”

“What about after?” An Chang Qing asked with a frown.

“After…” Xiao Zhige smiled confidently, “Worry not, there is no after for him.”

An Chang Qing’s eyes turned bright. Thinking of how this man would eventually ascend the throne, there was indeed no future for the crown prince. He happily nodded, “I’ll be taking my bath then.”

The hot water had been prepared the moment the servants saw their return. Soaking in the warm water, An Chang Qing’s body was thoroughly warmed and he began to feel sleepy…

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Xiao Zhige had been waiting in the bedroom for a long time but did not see him come back. Worried, he walked to the bathroom and called out to him but he did not get a response.

He hesitated, but still concerned, pushed the curtain and entered.

Steam was swirling up in the bathroom. As he walked in, he saw a naked An Chang Qing leaning against the edge of the bathtub. Xiao Zhige called out to him but he remained silent. When Xiao Zhige hurriedly pulled him up, he found that An Chang Qing was sound asleep.

Xiao Zhige was speechless and he couldn’t help raising his lips. He found a large towel to wrap An Chang Qing up and brought him back to their bedroom.

It was probably the alcohol taking effect that no matter how much Xiao Zhige fiddled with him, An Chang Qing continued to slumber away. A red face with trembling eyelashes flickered over his tear-mole, like the flutterings of a butterfly.

Drying his hair and putting on clothes for him had caused Xiao Zhige to break out in a sweat while An Chang Qing had slept all the way through.

Finally, he lifted the blanket and laid down next to him.

A satisfied An Chang Qing rolled into his embrace and buried his face on his chest. Xiao Zhige looked at him warily and sure enough, An Chang Qing raised his head seconds later and asked, “Why hasn’t Wangye read to me yet?”

Clearly, Xiao Zhige had been reading to him to lull him to sleep these past few weeks.

Xiao Zhige had no choice but to start reciting texts from the book on warfare while stroking his back.

An Chang Qing made a few ‘hm hmms’, signifying his satisfaction.

But because he could feel the eyelashes flickering over his skin, Xiao Zhige knew that An Chang Qing was still awake, probably having some strange thoughts or intentions. He regretted for a moment for having let him drink those cups of wine.

He heaved a long sigh. After a while, there was no more movement from the person in his arms. Just as he was about to confirm if he was asleep, he heard him speak softly, “You’ve never kissed me.”

Xiao Zhige, “…” his mind turned blank as he stared at the person in his embrace.

Under the influence of alcohol, An Chang Qing was bolder and a lot more thick-skinned. With blushing cheeks, he complained, “Before, I was the one who kissed you. Now it’s your turn to kiss me.”

He then closed his eyes and waited shyly for Xiao Zhige’s incoming kiss.

Xiao Zhige was frozen in place but his heart was beating many times faster even than when he fought his first battle.

Not getting the kiss he was waiting for, An Chang Qing opened his eyes. Seeing that Xiao Zhige was still not making a move, grievance filled his eyes and he stared at Xiao Zhige with discontent.

Distressed by the look in his eyes, Xiao Zhige’s Adam’s apple rolled and he bent down to kiss An Chang Qing on the forehead.

“Not there!” 

An Chang Qing was not appeased. He pouted his lips and muttered, “All the couples kiss each other on the lips. Do you not like me? That’s why you don’t want to kiss… Hm!”

Before he could finish his sentence, his mouth was blocked by Xiao Zhige.

Xiao Zhige initially wanted to quickly accomplish the act and stop but the lips of the person in his arms were just too sweet and tender, like the finest of wines, once you’d had a taste, you could no longer let go.

The pair locked lips for a long time before they separated due to breathlessness. They looked at each other with blushing faces and frolicking heartbeats. The alcohol had now worn off slightly and reflecting on his previous unreasonable demand, An Chang Qing’s face turned beet red as he buried his head against Xiao Zhige’s chest. In a muffled voice, he said, “I’m sleepy!”

With that, he closed his eyes and eventually dozed off. 

Only Xiao Zhige was left awake with a raging heart beating in his chest. Even the excitement of winning his first battle was nothing compared to having this kiss. He tried to adjust his breathing and suppressed the powerful urge to move. The person in his arms had hidden his face and only the bright red earlobe was exposed. Xiao Zhige wasn’t able to ascertain if he was asleep.

He began to gently stroke An Chang Qing’s hair. His lips slightly hooked as a thought came to his mind uncontrollably: Was it possible that his Wangfei actually liked him a little? 

He lowered his eyes and hid away those rampaging thoughts.

One day, he would make his Wangfei forget everyone else, leaving only himself in his heart.

…..

The next day was New Year.

Before dawn, a sleepy An Chang Qing was woken up by Anfu.

Anfu urged, “Wangye has already risen. Today you still have to go to the Palace.”

Hearing the word ‘palace’, An Chang Qing’s muddled mind woke up. He patted his head and anxiously said, “Help me bathe and get dressed.”

According to Da Ye’s customs, a banquet would be held on New Year’s Eve to award meritorious officials and on New Year’s Day, the Emperor would stay in Feng Tian Hall to receive blessings from his subjects. At the same time, he would also give out rewards and handwritten calligraphies of the word ‘福’1.

After bathing and changing at a rapid pace, An Chang Qing went out to look for Xiao Zhige.

Xiao Zhige saw him approaching and immediately put away his spear to pick up the fox fur coat and draped it over An Chang Qing.

An Chang Qing saw him and turned shy when he thought of the silly things he did during his drunken stupor. 

“Yesterday, Wangye… Did you sleep well?” An Chang Qing asked with some embarrassment.

“It was fine.” Xiao Zhige looked at him enigmatically and replied.

An Chang Qing couldn’t deduce much from his answer so he braced himself and said, “I’ll drink less in the future.”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’ but shortly after, he considered and said, “It’s ok to drink at home. You don’t have to drink when we go out.”

An Chang Qing was feeling guilty so he nodded in compliance. The pair then left for the Palace.

…..

On the first day of the new year, offerings were made to the heavens and ancestors. Officials also went to extend well wishes to the Emperor.

After entering the palace, An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige separated. As a prince, Xiao Zhige had to follow Emperor An Qing to present offerings to the ancestors while An Chang Qing, as a Wangfei, had to pay his respects to the Empress and Empress Dowager.

Before leaving, Xiao Zhige was concerned that An Chang Qing would be picked on and boldly advised, “Today, Taizi-fei and the rest of the concubines will be present. You don’t have to speak much, just be wary of Taizi-fei and Shu-guifei. The Empress Dowager shouldn’t make things difficult for you.”

An Chang Qing nodded and followed the palace maid to the Imperial harem.

It was daybreak and the lights in the palace were still brightly lit. An Chang Qing quickly swept his eyes across the hall as he followed the palace maid. The Empress Dowager was sitting at the highest seat while the Empress, Taizi-fei, Shu-guifei and the other concubines sat one step below to her right. The space on her left was meant for the princesses and Wangfei. An Chang Qing made his salutations before being led to his seat.

The moment he arrived, everyone’s eyes were on him. 

Shu-guifei gave Lady Hui an inconspicuous wink which prompted her to cover her mouth and snort, “I finally get to see Wangfei. Such a busy entity that I couldn’t even get a glimpse of during the banquet.”

An Chang Qing spoke with dignity, “On the day of the banquet, Chang Qing was with Wangye in the East Palace.”

“Oh?” Lady Hui said as her nails dyed in red brushed over her sideburns, “And here I thought Wangfei was too proud to be associated with us women…”

“I dare not.” An Chang Qing bowed and calmly said, “It’s just that even though Chang Qing is a Wangfei, I’m still a man. I did not want to disturb your mood during the banquet and thus had gone with Wangye. This matter, His Majesty is well aware.”

At the mention of the Emperor, Lady Hui’s expression dimmed and she stopped discussing the topic.

Just then, the Grand Princess spoke, “Since His Majesty had approved, Lady Hui should refrain from talking about it lest you want others to think you’re dissatisfied with his decision.”

The look on Lady Hui’s face turned ugly and she couldn’t help but look towards Shu-guifei.

Shu-guifei sipped her tea then said, “The Grand Princess has always been partial to the Northern Warlord but I didn’t think your favoritism extended even to his Wangfei. Lady Hui only made a slight comment and she was already ostracized.”

The Grand Princess gave her a cold look and said with arrogance, “No matter who I choose to protect, it’s not your place to have an opinion.”

Shu-guifei was about to rebuke but at this time, the Empress Dowager patted the table and ordered, “That’s enough.”


1福(fú)- blessings.

TTBE 32

Chapter 32

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

After everyone had been seated, Emperor An Qing finally arrived.

Emperor An Qing was a portly man in his forties. He had fair skin and bore a long ‘八’ shaped beard. The moment he arrived, the crowd immediately stood up and saluted. Emperor An Qing then waved his hand and motioned for them to sit and commenced the start of the banquet.

The eunuch loudly announced for the banquet to begin. The music became lively as the Palace servants formed a line while serving the guests their food. In the center of the hall, a bevy of dancers wearing thin veils over their faces bowed to the emperor before starting their performance.

Emperor An Qing’s interest was piqued. He leaned on the table and tapped along to the music.

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An Chang Qing was not amused by the singing and dancing. Instead, he continued to pour wine for himself, one cup after another. The snow plum wine was mild and not too spicy, leaving a warm and soothing aftertaste. An Chang Qing was very much fond of it but after six drinks, Xiao Zhige took his cup away.

Xiao Zhige then picked up a piece of beef cooked with orange peel and placed it in his bowl. In an indisputable tone, he said, “Don’t just keep drinking, eat something to line your stomach first.”

An Chang Qing eyed the wine pot that was now placed far away from him with reluctance but still obediently ate his food. Seeing that Xiao Zhige had not moved his chopsticks, An Chang Qing served him a piece of jade-green cucumber to return the favor. He smiled smugly and said, “Wangye should eat as well.”

“…” Xiao Zhige stared at the cucumber in his bowl, this was something that he did not like to eat. As An Chang Qing was still smiling like a little fox, he knew that this was revenge for taking away his wine. Xiao Zhige smiled helplessly and picked up the piece of cucumber to eat.

Their interactions had caught the Emperor’s eyes. He squinted at An Chang Qing and said, “Why is the second son squeezed into one table with Wangfei?”

Before they could answer, they heard the Crown Prince laugh and say, “Father doesn’t know this but Wangfei was originally arranged to be seated with the women. It’s just that second brother was reluctant to part his side and had then brought him here.”

“Oh?” Emperor An Qing smirked as he looked at Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing, “If you want to sit together, so be it, but…” His tone suddenly changed, “I’ve heard that Wangfei had been quite daring lately. Didn’t you purchase a vast amount of winter clothes and coal? That must’ve cost a lot, hasn’t it? You’re hoarding all these items when the winter is almost over. Zhige, no matter how much you want to pamper your Wangfei, there should be a limit…”

The Emperor’s smile had now faded. The people present could all tell that he was clearly taunting the tiger and taking the chance to find fault with the Northern Warlord.

It had to be said that among the three princes, the wealthiest one was undoubtedly Xiao Zhige.

From the time Xiao Zhige left the Palace, he had opened many stores and over the years, they had generated a lot of profit. But this was just a trivial amount, after all, which prince did not have businesses under their name?

Xiao Zhige’s most profitable venture was the iron mine in Yanzhou.

Yanzhou was situated along the border of the Northern Desert. It had barren lands and was constantly invaded by the Beidi people, making the province incredibly poor. By some stroke of luck, the Northern Warlord happened to locate an iron mine in Yanzhou. There were currently three iron mines within the whole of Da Ye, now that another was found, Emperor An Qing was naturally overjoyed.

Emperor An Qing had led a life of pleasure and extravagance but the national treasury had been depleting fast year by year. Therefore, he had had his own intentions for the newly discovered iron mine.

But who knew that Xiao Zhige would justify that eighty percent of the income should be used for the soldiers and to reinforce Yanzhou city’s walls. At that time, winter had just passed and the troops had also suffered heavy casualties. As such, when Xiao Zhige had declared this proposal in court, Emperor An Qing had no choice but to cave in. But, at the same time, etched this grudge in his heart.

Years later, every time he thought of this, the Emperor became even more loathful towards Xiao Zhige. And now, hearing that the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei had spent over a million taels in one go, his dissatisfaction escalated. He just couldn’t help but use the banquet to vent his anger on Xiao Zhige.

An Chang Qing was flustered. He wanted to rise and explain but Xiao Zhige held his hand and shook his head subtly. He then got up and bowed, “Father, please let me clarify that that was entirely my idea.”

Emperor An Qing raised his eyebrows. He slammed his palm on the table, “Then it’s even more outrageous.”

The crowd held their breath as they watched the event play out.

A poised Xiao Zhige went on to explain, “A few days ago, when I was leaving for the barracks outside the city, I came across an eccentric Taoist monk. He claimed that I had killed too many people in my previous life and this would bring misfortune to the people close to me. To atone for the killings, I had to save thousands in order to accumulate good blessings. He foretold that Yejing would soon be hit with a snow disaster and that I should prepare for the sake of the people.

The man may sound crazy but he did not seem ordinary. I wanted to bring him back for further questioning but he disappeared without a trace. I had a strange feeling and half believing what he said, I ordered Wangfei to hoard the items for winter.”

Emperor An Qing was a devout believer in Taoism. All these years, in search of immortality, he had invited countless Taoist priests to Yejing. There was even a Taoist master in the Palace to refine and concoct elixirs. Upon hearing Xiao Zhige’s words, Emperor An Qing was a little hesitant to discredit.

At this point, the Crown Prince smiled and said, “A Taoist monk who comes and goes without a shadow and could even foresee a major disaster, such a powerful person, why didn’t he go directly to father but look for second brother instead?”

Emperor An Qing was indeed swayed by his words.

Xiao Zhige calmly responded, “The sin of killing is on me, naturally, I should be the one to atone. There is no need to burden father.”

The Third Prince smirked and interjected, “But what the monk said might not be true, there’s also the possibility that he was just a lunatic.”

“It’s better to be safe than sorry,” Xiao Zhige looked at him, “How would I dare to take the safety of Yejing lightly?”

Seeing that all three of them had a point, Emperor An Qing waved his hand and said, “Forget it. Now that Zhige has already prepared the items, let’s just wait for the winter to pass.”

At his words, the princes could only back down and Xiao Zhige also sat back at his place.

An Chang Qing was surprised that Xiao Zhige would come up with such a story to cover up for him and even had to shoulder all the mockeries. An Chang Qing was both touched and concerned but it was not convenient for him to talk at the moment. He could only place food into his bowl to show his support.

…..

An hour later, Emperor An Qing brought a beautiful dancer with him to rest and dismissed the crowd.

As Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing were leaving, they met with An Zhi Ke and Madame Li. Previously, they had arrived later and did not bother to talk to the couple but now that they had locked eyes, An Chang Qing couldn’t just ignore them.

An Chang Qing greeted, “Father, Mother.”

An Zhi Ke cast him a look of contempt before responding with an ‘um’. In contrast, Madame Li beamed and said, “You weren’t there during the banquet. Many of the Madames had heard that Xian Yu’s marriage was annulled and they were very interested.”

“A few of them seemed like suitable families, what does Wangfei think?”

An Chang Qing nudged his brows, he did not believe that Madame Li would find a good husband for his sister. “Oh? Which ones?”

Madame Li began recalling the names.

The list was of children who had a good family background but according to the memories of his previous life, he knew that Madame Li had picked those who were good for nothing and had a habit of frequenting brothels.

“Thank you, Mother, for going through the trouble of selecting only the spendthrift playboys,” An Chang Qing said with a forced smile.

Madame Li continued to smile and said, “Which family’s young master doesn’t want to have fun? They’ll change after marriage.”

An Zhi Ke snorted, “I told you not to bother. Wangfei is now a person with grand ideas, even his sister’s marriage should be for him to decide.”

An Chang Qing did not back down, he sneered, “I don’t care. What if it’s another Zhang Juan Shu or Li Juan Shu? Who would Yu’er cry to after the wedding? I don’t need her husband to be illustrious, I only want her to find someone who can protect her. If Mother is not free, you shouldn’t bother.”

There was a crack in Madame Li’s dignified face while An Zhi Ke’s complexion was turning dark. He glared at Madame Li before flinging his sleeves and leaving.

The people watching nearby were stretching out their necks to listen but when they saw Xiao Zhige’s cold eyes, they retracted their gaze and pretended to look at the scenery.

Taizifei (crown prince’s wife, for anyone who has forgotten) was watching them from not far away. She gathered her thoughts and walked towards them. An Chang Qing saw her approaching and promptly saluted.

She smiled and said, “No need for the formality. I thought I could have a talk with Wangfei today but unexpectedly, you had gone with Wangye.”

An Chang Qing was unsure of her intentions so he could only try to get along, “Wangye was only concerned that I would inconvenience the ladies with my presence.”

Taizifei’s eyes wandered as she examined him briefly. She said, “As your senior, I should’ve brought a gift. According to the Crown Prince, Wangfei liked the winter plum wine from the banquet and had ordered a bottle to be prepared for you.” She then took over a basket from her maid and handed it to An Chang Qing.

An Chang Qing thanked her but his thoughts were stuck with the words ‘according to the Crown Prince’.

What has this got to do with the prince?

The two exchanged a few more words and Taizifei left.

An Chang Qing’s brows were creased tight as he carried the basket of wine in hand. Like a hot potato, he threw it to one side once they got on the carriage. He asked Xiao Zhige with great confusion, “What is the meaning of this?”

Why did she deliberately mention the prince? And why did the prince care if he liked this wine?

Seeing An Chang Qing throwing the wine bottle aside, the gloom over Xiao Zhige’s face was lifted. His eyes darkened as he said, “The Crown Prince is lecherous. He’s most fond of collecting beauties of all kinds.”

An Chang Qing did not immediately understand, “I couldn’t tell at all. I’ve even heard that the Crown Prince and Taizifei are very much in love.”

A scorn appeared on Xiao Zhige’s, “He’s good at hiding. And Taizifei is there to cover it up for him. Naturally, no one would suspect.”

An Chang Qing wanted to say something else when he finally came to the realization and his face wrinkled up. He asked in disbelief, “You mean… The Crown Prince… He has taken a fancy to me?”

Xiao Zhige did not give him a definitive answer. He only looked at him and said, “Stay away from the Crown Prince in the future. He has a twisted mind.”

An Chang Qing was beginning to have goosebumps as he looked at the wine from Taizifei. He picked up the basket and threw it out the window with disgust, “I will not be drinking this wine again.”

It’s simply disturbing just to think about it.

TTBE 31

Chapter 31

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

The New Year’s Eve banquet was organized by the Guang Liu Bureau and situated in Qianwen Hall. Not far from Qianwen Hall was the imperial garden which had now been cleaned spotless and covered in draperies. Red lanterns were hung on the plum blossom branches, and below it, cushioned chairs and tables filled with dried fruits and pastries were prepared for the dignitaries to enjoy. Six-legged braziers were installed every two steps along the walkway and burned with the highest grade imperial coal. Apart from not emitting smoke, the coal also gave off a soothing pine fragrance. Traversing this path, one would not even feel a hint of coldness.

The banquet had yet to start so the guests who arrived early stayed in the imperial garden to enjoy the scenery and gossip. 

And the hottest topic for this year was the newly wedded Wangfei of the Northern Warlord.

Before the wedding, no one was optimistic about this marriage. The Northern Warlord was known to have a notorious temper but more remarkable was his talent for warfare. When several of the great Generals were approaching retirement, leaving the northern border unguarded, only Xiao Zhige was able to drive the Beidi people back in one fell swoop. As such, no matter how much Emperor An Qing disliked this son, he would still turn a blind eye to his actions.

As those below usually follows the examples of those above and the court was a place filled with people who flowed with the wind, since even the emperor could not do anything to this son, the officials had been doing their best to stay out of his way, lest they incur the wrath of this Death God. 

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However, in recent days, they had heard the unforeseeable news that the Northern Warlord not only pampered his Wangfei, he even relinquished control of the manor over to him. This had roused a lot of interest.

Those with an agenda were trying to figure out his intentions. After all, he was a prince who commanded a powerful army; they refused to believe that he bore no ambitions for the throne. But with how things had unfolded, they were at a loss for what to believe. Using the banquet as an excuse, these officials took this chance to discuss and observe.

At this point, the central figure of their conversation had just arrived. An Chang Qing got off the sedan and immediately sneezed. It was a snowless day but the frosty wind could still pierce the bones.

Because An Chang Qing had fallen into an ice pond when he was young, he had become susceptible to the cold. Even with a thick fur coat and hand warmers, his hands and feet were still freezing. 

Xiao Zhige wrapped his large hand over An Chang Qing’s and frowned, “Drink some hot wine to warm up when we get inside.”

An Chang Qing was not as delicate as he thought. He smiled and said, “It’s nothing. Let’s go over there first.”

The banquet was divided by gender. There were palace maids to guide the guests but they were hesitant to come close to Xiao Zhige. Hearing An Chang Qing’s words, one of them approached them and bowed, “Wangfei’s seat is over here, please follow me.”

An Chang Qing was baffled. He looked back at Xiao Zhige, “I won’t be together with Wangye?”

The maid was at a loss, “The… the madames’ seats are all over there…”

Although An Chang Qing is a man, his status was the Wangfei of the Northern Warlord. Customarily, he should be arranged to sit with the womenfolk.

As An Chang Qing was hesitating, he heard a woman’s voice coming closer, “Let Chang Qing come sit with me.”

The woman looked about thirty-something, well-dressed and had an outstanding appearance. An Chang Qing saw the pattern of her gown and guessed that she was the only daughter of the Empress Dowager and Emperor An Qing’s sister, Grand Princess Xiao You Xi.

The Grand Princess was followed by a man with a muscular build and a handsome face. He was probably the Fu Ma1, Cai Yu.

An Chang Qing bowed, “Greetings to Grand Princess, Fu Ma.”

Xiao Zhige also greeted, “Aunty, uncle.”

A smile appeared on the Grand Princess’s face. She said to An Chang Qing, “Your eyes are sharp. You don’t have to address me so formally, just call me as Zhige does.” She then turned to Xiao Zhige, “Go with your Uncle, I’ll accompany Chang Qing. I won’t let him be bullied.”

The Grand Princess wanted to look after An Chang Qing for him but Xiao Zhige rejected the gesture. With the same cold look, he said, “I dare not bother Aunty, Chang Qing will come with me.”

“I’m afraid this is uncustomary…” The Grand Princess was stunned.

“We’re both men, what is wrong with Chang Qing coming with me? We’ll take our leave.” Xiao Zhige nodded at them before taking An Chang Qing to the other side.

Even after being brushed off, the Grand Princess did not feel insulted. Her eyes fell on their joined hands and after a while, she shook her head and smiled, “He’s very protective of him. Oh well, I don’t have the right to meddle in the first place.”

Her husband scowled and said, “The Northern Warlord’s temperament is simply unreasonable.”

The Grand Princess’s smile faded. She stared back at him and said sternly, “How did he turn out this way, do you not know?”

Cai Yu choked up and stopped talking. The Grand Princess gave him a look of contempt before turning around and leaving.

…..

An Chang Qing was led by Xiao Zhige to the other side while the maid who was supposed to lead the way hurriedly chased after.

Feeling the increased force on his wrist, An Chang Qing looked up at the man’s face and saw that he was brooding. 

“Wait!” An Chang Qing called out but the man continued to pull him forward as though he did not hear.

Seeing this, An Chang Qing sulked and deliberately said, “My wrist is hurting.”

Only then did Xiao Zhige stop and loosen his grip. He stared sharply at the maid following them to chase her away before carefully rubbing the red wrist, “Sorry…”

“What’s wrong?” An Chang Qing could sense his mood sinking. He asked with concern, “Does it have something to do with the Grand Princess?”

An Chang Qing had seen the Grand Princess twice in his previous life but they had never had any interaction. He only knew that she was quite popular during her youth. Many of Yejing’s aristocratic bachelors had wanted her hand in marriage but she had refused them all to marry a fourth-grade general, and that was General Cai Yu.

The Cai Family was glorious generations ago but by his father’s time, the family had declined considerably. By right, marrying the Princess meant that he would have to be banned from taking up any governmental position. However, after the marriage, he personally asked for the Emperor’s blessing and managed to keep his post as a general. And after a few outstanding feats, he was promoted to a first-grade general by Emperor An Qing.

It is said that Cai Yu was deeply in love with the princess and vowed that she would be his only wife. After their marriage, he did not take in any concubines nor step foot in a brothel. Theirs had become quite a popular love story. 

Even so, from the two times that he had met them in his past life, An Chang Qing noticed that the Princess’s attitude towards her husband was very stale. They did not seem to be as affectionate as rumored. Furthermore, the couple had been married for nearly ten years but did not have any offspring. Some years later, Cai Yu died on the battlefield and the Princess stayed in her manor to worship Budha and meditate, refusing to take the next step.

At that time, An Chang Qing could only sigh for her.

This time, seeing the Princess again, he felt that something was off. Especially when it came to Xiao Zhige… He remembered that the Xiao Zhige of his previous life was also not close to his aunt. Instead, it was the Grand Princess who would often come to visit him in the palace. But maybe because they did not have a deep bond, the aunt and nephew only exchanged a few words and the Grand Princess would leave shortly after.

Xiao Zhige’s mood was turning strange. He did not know how to explain. After taking a moment to deliberate, he only said, “From young, aunty has been the kindest person to me…”

An Chang Qing was confused.

Xiao Zhige continued, “But her kindness to me was always mixed with guilt and sympathy which makes me incredibly uncomfortable.”

After his mother’s death, Xiao Zhige had lived alone in Qiwu Palace. Only the Grand Princess would often go to visit him. At that time, she would hug him while weeping and saying things like she would take care of him in his mother’s stead. Back then, although he was still young, he could still discern that her actions were quite peculiar. He had asked her many times why she was only kind to him but the Princess never gave him a straight answer. That was also the reason Xiao Zhige refused to be close to her.

Every time he saw her, it would always rouse something in his heart.

“Then we won’t have any contact with them in the future,” An Chang Qing said.

“It’s ok. This is a one-sided sentiment on my part, it has nothing to do with her. You don’t have to be influenced by me.” 

An Chang Qing shook his head. He raised his hand to help him rearrange his clothes and said, “They say a married couple is of a single body, we’ll move forward or back together. Since you don’t like the Grand Princess, I will stay away from her as well.”

Xiao Zhige looked at him and An Chang Qing smiled. He took his hand and said, “Wangye, please lead the way or we’re going to be late for the banquet.”

…..

When they arrived at the main hall, the sound of string and woodwind instruments were resonating. Everyone who stood up and saluted Xiao Zhige was in turn astounded when they saw An Chang Qing by his side.

Xiao Zhige nodded indifferently and followed the attendant to his seat.

The sitting arrangement was according to status. To Xiao Zhige’s right should be the Crown Prince, Xiao An Qi, and to his left, the third prince, Xiao Qi Le. As such, there was no place for An Chang Qing.

Xiao Zhige grimaced and said to the palace maid, “Add another chair next to me.”

The layout had always been one person to a table, there had never been two people sitting at the same table. The maid was flustered but seeing Xiao Zhige’s cold eyes, she hurried off to add the extra chair.

And the two sat side by side.

The Crown Prince leisurely poured a cup of wine. He smiled and said, “Second Brother and Wangfei are so much in love that you couldn’t stand to stay apart?”

Xiao Zhige briefly glanced at him in silence. He then picked up the wine on their table and placed it over the wine stove. He said to An Chang Qing, “This wine is warm and has tonic properties, you can drink some later.”

An Chang Qing nodded obediently.

The Crown Prince’s expression changed several times after being ignored. He coughed lightly before sipping from his wine to hide his embarrassment. The Third Prince saw his dampened mood and snickered in secret. He leaned over and conversed with An Chang Qing, “Second Brother seems to treat Wangfei really well when he doesn’t even bother to talk to us brothers. Is this called choosing love over brotherhood?”

The Third Prince was Shu GuiFei’s only son. He had not reached fifteen and still lived in the Palace. His words and expressions were like a child but An Chang Qing knew better. He had heard that when the three princes were fighting for the throne, the third prince’s methods were said to be even crueler than his brothers’.

Such a person, there was no way he was still an innocent child. 

An Chang Qing bowed and skillfully responded, “Your Highness has misunderstood. Wangye is a person of few words. The bond between brothers is not something that can be expressed with words. After all, you’re tied by blood, no one can be compared to family ties.”

The third prince’s smile slightly faded. He said, “My second brother has always been enigmatic, it was hard to think that his Wangfei would turn out to be one with a silver tongue.”

“Your Highness’s compliment is exaggerated.” An Chang Qing smiled while pretending not to understand his mockery.

Xiao Zhige then glared at the third prince who was encroaching over to their table and said, “The banquet is about to start, what are you still doing here?”

“…” The Third Prince’s smile froze. He saw the way Xiao Zhige looked at him and could only sit back at his table obediently.

Xiao Zhige retracted his stare, picked up the warmed wine, and poured a cup for An Chang Qing, “See if you like it.”

An Chang Qing accepted the cup and took a sip. His eyes bent with comfort as the slightly spicy and sweet wine warmed his throat. He emptied his cup and raised it towards Xiao Zhige, “I want more.”

With a gentle expression, Xiao Zhige poured another cup for him.

This scene caused quite a stir to everyone present. The Crown Prince who had also witnessed it took a glance at An Chang Qing. He made a derisive snort then turned back to drink in silence.


1 → Emperor’s son-in-law. In this case, he’s the previous Emperor’s son-in-law.

TTBE 30

Chapter 30

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

Curious passersby began to gather around but they did not plead for Wu Juan Shu as he had expected. Instead, they all started pointing at him.

“How dare you stop Wangfei’s carriage, don’t you want to live?”

“That’s right. Wangfei is so kind, he wouldn’t force lovers to part.”

“That’s a decent-looking man. He seems familiar though. Which family’s young master is that?”

“If he’s a young master with those clothes then I can also be called a young master! Hahaha…”

As things did not go as he had planned, Wu Juan Shu puffed his face. He looked at the carriage with enmity and bowed, “Wangfei, please have mercy. Xian Yu and I, we… we have long been…”

Before he could finish, An Chang Qing raised the curtain and said sternly, “Tie Hu! Slap his mouth!”

Tie Hu had been bothered by his words from the start. At An Chang Qing’s order, he jumped off the carriage, grabbed Wu Juan Shu’s collar, and gave him two powerful slaps over his mouth.

Wu Juan Shu could not believe that they would publicly lay hands on him. He covered his mouth and mumbled in pain.

“Wangfei, how could you be this unruly!” A woman suddenly rushed over to help Wu Juan Shu, “Juan Shu and your sister have long been engaged; it was a mutual agreement. Even if you refused to let them be together, you shouldn’t be using violence!”

An Chang Qing sneered, “Other than the fact that my sister’s marriage to you was decided by my father, from the beginning, my sister has never even met you. Besides, haven’t you been fighting with your uncle over a widow since some time ago? Now that she’s dead, did Young Master Wu have a change of heart?”

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Wu Juan Shu looked embarrassed but he could only cover his mouth and mumble incoherently.

An Chang Qing raised his voice and spoke, “Everyone here, please be my witness. This person is the third son of the Wu family to whom my sister was indeed engaged to. However, not long ago, he was involved in a shameful scandal. I wanted to annul the engagement but my father did not want to quash the relationship between the two families and refused. I can’t disobey my father and had to agree to this marriage. But who knew that Wu Juan Shu is not only unfaithful and lacks virtues, he is also corrupted and has committed many crimes. When the Wu family’s crimes were being investigated, Wu Juan Shu was exposed to have abused his Magistrate’s position and subjugated people, causing him to be stripped of his status and title. Such a crooked man, how can I allow my sister to be married to him? A few days ago, my father had personally gone to dissolve this marriage. He had returned the engagement keepsake which the Wu family had accepted, cutting off any ties my sister had with Wu Juan Shu. Who would’ve thought that the Wu family only pretended to agree and now they’re trying to publicly ruin my sister’s reputation! How vile!”

The woman kneeling next to Wu Juan Shu said, “It’s not like that… we…”

“You’re Wu Juan Shu’s birth mother, aren’t you?” An Chang Qing cut her off, “You are a concubine and before that, a servant. Moreover, now that the Wu family has fallen, you are not qualified to discuss this marriage.”

The woman had a sour look and turned speechless.

After listening to An Chang Qing’s words, everyone at the scene finally understood. The man who had previously mentioned that Wu Juan Shu looked familiar quickly said, “Told you I’ve seen him before. Turns out it’s someone from the Wu family! When they were evicted by the Da Li officers, I was watching right outside the Marquis’s house!”

“Pei! That whole family is nothing good! If it were my daughter, I also would not allow her to marry such a person! How dare he even make a scene on the street!”

“Shameless!”

“Truly shameless!”

“How dare you sully a lady’s innocence! A wolf in sheep’s clothing!”

The angry civilians picked up rotten vegetables and stones to throw at them. Wu Juan Shu was enraged but rendered speechless. His birth mother was never tolerant to begin with but she could only swallow her pride as she stared at the ground under the public’s wrathful scoldings.

An Chang Qing cast them a disdainful look before going back into the carriage, “Let’s go.”

The Wang Manor’s carriage slowly drove past them. The onlookers gave the duo one last pei before going back to their daily routines.

Only after the crowd dispersed could the mother and son finally look up. They quickly scurried away and hid in a nearby alley. But to their dismay, An Chang Qing had been waiting to catch them.

He had his hands behind his back while he looked at them with indifference. 

Wu Juan Shu instinctively wanted to run but his escape had been blocked by Tie Hu. Tie Hu gave his leg a kick and dragged them both towards An Chang Qing, “Wangfei, how would you like to deal with these two?”

An Chang Qing cast his eyes downwards at the frightened duo. 

He had wanted to do this just now but he was in public after all and had to do things by the books. Why else would he have let these two leave unscathed?

Wu Juan Shu was shocked by the hatred in his eyes. He retreated backward but could not avoid An Chang Qing’s kick to his chest. He wailed in pain. To prevent them from attracting any attention, Tie Hu tore off a piece of cloth and tied it across their mouths. 

“Who are you to call Xian Yu by her name? How dare you try to ruin her reputation?!”

The anguish of being powerless from his last life was being channeled at this moment. An Chang Qing kicked him again, “You seem to like that widow a lot, should I send you to be united with her?”

“Wu … ah ahh….” Wu Juan Shu shivered as he kowtowed frantically, begging for mercy.

He deeply regretted it. He shouldn’t have messed with An Xian Yu. That person had told him that as long as he destroyed An Xian Yu’s reputation and married her, with An Chang Qing’s status, he would have been able to receive a large number of dowries. Even if he could not become an official, he would still be able to live in luxury for life.

Who knew that the submissive An Chang Qing from before would change to become this ruthless? It was indeed true that being close to ink will turn you black.

Wu Juan Shu gnashed his teeth as he continued to kowtow and begged in-between tearful sobs.

An Chang Qing withdrew his foot in disgust and said to Tie Hu, “Is there a place where they can have a life worse than death?”

Tie Hu scratched his head, “The torture chamber? There are all sorts of methods there.”

An Chang Qing shook his head. He did not want to keep them near, “Anywhere else?”

“Then what about the mine in Yanzhou? There is an iron mine there where many convicted criminals are sent to do labor.”

“Send them there. Don’t let them escape.”

“Yes.” Tie Hu replied, “Wangfei does not have to worry. The mine is heavily guarded and no one can leave before they have served their sentence.”

Wu Juan Shu and his mother turned pale. However, there was nothing they could do against Tie Hu’s immense strength. Tie Hu dragged them away and ordered his subordinates to send them to the Yanzhou iron mine.

After resolving the grudge from his previous life, An Chang Qing exhaled a deep breath. He then resumed his trip to Tian Yi Fang.

Tian Yi Fang’s shipment of winter clothes had all arrived on time and accounted for. The store clerks have neatly packed and sealed them in the warehouse before handing over the keys as their last assignment of the year.

Looking at the seals and knowing that the warehouse was filled with winter clothes, An Chang Qing could finally feel relieved at the coming winter. He was powerless in his last life but in this life, at least, he could be a little more helpful.

…..

Three days passed by in the blink of an eye and New Year’s Eve had arrived.

A banquet would be held at the Palace that evening and anyone of royal blood and relations and senior officials was obligated to attend; this included Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing.

Because they could not spend New Year’s Eve at home, An Chang Qing arranged for the reunion celebration to be carried out at noon. There were An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige, Lady Yu and An Xian Yu, along with Zhou He Lan and his mother, that made six people in total.

The kitchen had prepared many dishes but since there were only a few of them, they sat together at one table to have the reunion meal together.

The servants who had been busy all year round were also given their rewards and a small banquet, giving the usually solemn manor a breath of liveliness.

In the evening, An Chang Qing put on a ceremonial robe and left for the Palace with Xiao Zhige.

The number of people entering the Palace on this day wasn’t small. Many were royal relatives and imperial court officials who An Chang Qing was not familiar with. When the carriage arrived at the Inner Palace gates, the people waiting in line to enter moved aside and bowed as they saw Xiao Zhige and An Chang Qing alighting.

Even on this festive day, there was not a hint of joy on Xiao Zhige’s face. It was An Chang Qing who smiled and greeted the officials and their families, “Are you all waiting for the sedan to the Inner Palace?”

The people present had only heard the big name of the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei but had yet to meet him in person. Laying eyes on An Chang Qing for the first time, they did not know how to react.

A moment of silence entailed before someone finally spoke, “That’s right. But one has just left, I’m afraid we’ll have to wait a little.” 

After answering, no one spoke again. They stood silently to the side while An Chang Qing and Xiao Zhige stood in the center. Seeing this, An Chang Qing did not want to bother them. He stood next to Xiao Zhige and enquired in whispers the identities of those people.

He had seen the list of officials who would be present but as he had never met them before, he couldn’t match their faces to the names.

The silent crowd watched as the never-smiling Northern Warlord lowered his head and whispered to his Wangfei. They looked at each other with skepticism in their eyes.

After waiting for half an hour, the sedan finally came. The crowd respectfully let them go first and Xiao Zhige thankfully nodded. They saw An Chang Qing boarding the sedan while Xiao Zhige looked around before turning back to his carriage and retrieving a hand warmer. 

Next, they saw him lift the curtain of the sedan and hand the warmer to An Chang Qing while speaking gently, “Take this to warm your hands.”

An Chang Qing took the hand warmer and smiled at him. He then urged him to get on the sedan. It was hard not to see the intimacy in their words.

The wife of Nobleman Xiao cast her husband a look, “I find Wangye very considerate. Indeed a pair of newlyweds, unlike an old couple like us. I’ve been standing in the cold for so long but nobody even bothered to ask me how I’m doing.”

Nobleman Xiao Wen’s face turned red, “You…”

Madame Xiao rolled her eyes. She pulled her skirt and walked towards the sedan, “Let’s go.”

TTBE 29

Chapter 29

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

An Chang Qing was feeling anxious but Xiao Zhige’s reassuring words calmed him. He thought and said, “In that case, I have to get to work as well. I have tallied up the money for all the shops with He Lan. We’ll withdraw them to buy more padded clothes, grains, and coal for the winter.”

In his last life, he had heard the servants talk about how the price of coal had risen sharply. The coal stored by wealthy families could normally last up to the end of January and they would not need to restock till next winter. But the winter this year was harsher and lasted longer than expected, causing many households to run out of coal quickly. As a consequence, coal prices went up and the coal business boomed.

Xiao Zhige said, “There are still funds in the general accounts; let Steward Wang to withdraw them for you, though, I’m afraid that there’s not much left to buy.”

“We’ll just buy as much as we can,” An Chang Qing said.

After they finished their discussion, the two had dinner together. The next day, An Chang Qing had Steward Wang summon all the store managers to talk about the procurement of goods. They were supposed to come on the twentieth but as things were urgent, An Chang Qing asked them to come 2 days in advance.

Lately, An Chang Qing had been occupied with one thing after another and did not have the time to figure out how he should deal with these managers. 

On the other hand, the managers who were left hanging had gotten more anxious with each passing day. After hearing that An Chang Qing had sent the manager from Tian Yi Fang to jail followed by Steward Wang’s intimidating warning, they would’ve preferred to come to the Wang Manor and beg for mercy instead. Other than the few who had been honest, the rest had gone down a few garment sizes due to the loss of sleep and appetite.

Being summoned to the Wang Manor was actually a relief for them, even if it was a death sentence, they were simply glad that they no longer had to live in fear.

Unexpectedly, Wangfei did not drag them into the torture chamber to interrogate them as they had imagined. He only smiled at them pleasantly and enquired about the situation of each store. After they had answered honestly, they heard him say, “I’ve asked you to come here today for an important matter. Wangye and I want to purchase a batch of winter clothes, grains, and coal but due to the lack of manpower, I’m wondering if you’ll be able to help.”

All the managers felt as though they had just escaped from hell when they heard his words. They understood that as long as they could accomplish this task, they would be able to redeem themselves.

Among the several guilty managers, one of them stepped up and spoke, “How many does Wangfei want?”

An Chang Qing thought it over and asked, “How many can you buy?”

The managers considered briefly before they could give a definite answer. They had a wide range of contacts and a variety of channels to make the purchases but how many they could acquire still had to be calculated.

Someone answered, “We’ll have to go back and confirm.”

An Chang Qing said, “Please do so and report to me by tomorrow.”

They did not know why An Chang Qing wanted to buy this large supply of goods but since they bore a guilty conscience, they dared not question him and could only comply. 

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After talking about the purchase, An Chang Qing saw that they still looked worried and said, “One more thing- You must already know that the manager of Tian Yi Fang has been locked up by the magistrate for the crime of colluding with outsiders and embezzling from the store.”

The managers turned pale.

An Chang Qing swept his gaze over the group and continued, “I’ve only recently taken over the shops. There are things I’m still not familiar with and would require your help. That said… Although I’m kind, I will not tolerate dishonesty and greed!”

The abrupt change in tone caused some of the timider managers to shiver. 

Seeing that he had achieved the desired result, An Chang Qing let up his expression and softened his voice, “But since you all are long-time employees and as the saying goes, a clear pond has no fish, I will let bygones be bygones. And to prevent something similar to Tian Yi Fang from happening again, I have drawn up a new constitution. Have a look. If you have any objection, we will discuss it over.”

Steward Wang then proceeded to hand out a scroll of the newly drafted regulations to the managers.

An Chang Qing and Zhou He Lan had brainstormed about this in detail. Each shop would have one manager, an assistant, and two clerks. In addition to reassigning them every three years, many other clauses had been added. They were not harsh rules but it would still prevent the managers from lining their pockets with the store’s money.

After reading through the list, the managers looked at each other thoughtfully and bowed, “We have no objection.”

In the past, they would have made a fuss at this new legislation but now that An Chang Qing had grasped their weaknesses, they had to press down any objections they harbored.

“Since no one objects, we will abide by these regulations in the future.” After passing out the ‘stick’, An Chang Qing went on to give out the ‘carrot’, “For your troubles today and since the year-end is approaching, I have had Steward Wang prepare gifts for each of you.”

Steward Wang brought in a tray of red pouches and handed out one to each of the managers.

After being dismissed, they opened the pouch to find several pieces of silver drafts. Their previous misgivings towards Wangfei disappeared instantly. Even with Wangfei’s dissatisfactions towards them, if they could receive such a generous bonus every year, they would not take the risk of trying to steal that petty cash.

Being treated with both rigidity and graciousness, the managers were very prompt with their work. By the next day, they submitted the quantity they could acquire. An Chang Qing and Zhou He Lan spent the night crunching numbers and finalized the procurement of 30,000 pieces of winter clothes, 300,000 buckets of rice, 100,000 buckets of low-grade coal and 50,000 buckets of silver coal. Due to massive purchases, the prices had been greatly reduced. But even so, a total of 1.3million taels were spent, emptying every penny they had left in the manor’s accounts.

Having spent a large sum of money all at once, An Chang Qing was a little distressed. After tossing and turning in bed for a long time, he sat up and grabbed Xiao Zhige, “We’ve spent so much, what to do if we can’t earn it back?”

An Chang Qing had come up with a plan for when the disaster struck. The prices of the items that he hoarded were sure to skyrocket. The winter clothes and food were necessities for the commoners. After being enlightened by Xiao Zhige’s words, he did not intend to make any profit from them. The coal was that which would help him earn back the money.

As coal was a rather expensive commodity, the commoners used it sparingly. But this was not true for the nobles. When the prices began to rise, he would sell them and double the profit.

That was the plan and the preparations had been made. Steward Wang’s face was wrinkled like a dried orange peel when he made the payment. But Xiao Zhige had trusted An Chang Qing and did not even blink twice. He lightly stated that all was up to Wangfei’s decision and dismissed any and all objections.

An Chang Qing had been gratified with his trust but as things progressed to this point, worries began to sweep over him. What if this life was different from the last? What if the news he had heard in his last life wasn’t true? What if… all these items became excess stock, what would he do then?

Xiao Zhige wanted to ease his concerns and after thinking it through, he comforted, “There is still silver in the general’s manor in Yanzhou. Even if those items can’t be sold, you can still transport them to Yanzhou as rations and clothes for the soldiers.”

An Chang Qing was still frowning. Seeing how composed Xiao Zhige was, he couldn’t help but ask, “That was a lot of silver, how could you be so calm?”

Xiao Zhige hesitated before whispering a few words into his ears. After which, An Chang Qing’s eyes widened, “That much…”

“Shh.” Xiao Zhige pressed his finger on his lips and shook his head.

An Chang Qing pursed his lips and placed his hand over his chest. Seeing that the amount he had just spent was a drop in the bucket compared to what Xiao Zhige just whispered to him, he was finally able to stop worrying that he might have squandered all of the Northern Warlord’s gold.

When Xiao Zhige saw that he was finally appeased, he pulled up the blanket and wrapped him in his arms, “Think in the morning, it’s time to sleep.”

An Chang Qing curled his body and rested his head on Xiao Zhige’s warm chest, gradually falling asleep.

With such a large shipment of goods, An Chang Qing would prefer it if the matter was not publicized. He ordered for the goods to be divided and transported to the warehouses over a span of several days. 

However, walls were bound to have ears. Those who got wind of the news all laughed contemptuously, saying that the Warlord’s Wangfei was indeed an unfavored son without a vision, insisting on using porcelain when you can’t get diamonds1. Stocking up all those useless inventories was bound to incur a great loss.

The words had also reached the crown prince in the East Palace. With a curious expression, he spoke to his attendant, “Could second brother be truly in love? All those goods are sure to empty out the entire manor’s gold, and yet he just let the unfavored son do as he pleases?”

“That is correct,” the attendant observed his mood carefully before responding, “I was told that Wangye had given Wangfei complete control over the Wang Manor, even his trusted caretaker had to step aside.”

“Like the timeless saying, even heroes are conquered by beauty…” The crown prince smiled, “It seems that second brother has really fallen, the only question is, will he be able to get back up?”

The attendant flattered, “A Wangye who married a man. Without an offspring, how could he possibly rise up? It’s a pit he would never be able to get out of.”

The crown prince stood up and took two steps with a smiling face, “Even so, we shouldn’t be negligent.”

…..

When the last shipment arrived at Tian Yi Fang’s warehouse, New Year’s Eve was only three days away. After having spent the past few days running about to ensure that the shipments were flawless, they could finally spend the New Year in peace.

As always, the carriage passed through Yong Le Street on the way to Tian Yi Fang. By now, the buildings on both sides had been decorated with red silk and lanterns while the people on the street were filled with joy. An Chang Qing was looking out the window when he saw a man rushing over to stop the carriage. 

“Wangfei, Xian Yu and I are deeply in love. We have been engaged for a long time. Although my family is in decline, I will do my best to care for her. I only ask that Wangfei not come in between our marriage!”

The man spoke sincerely as he kneeled on the ground. Raising his head, An Chang Qing saw that it was Wu Juan Shu.

He was dressed in plain cotton, a big difference from the noble image in the past but his face still carried an air of gentleness. At a quick glance, it would seem as though An Chang Qing was a villain who had come between a pair of lovebirds.


1↪  没有金刚钻,不要揽瓷器活 directly translates to if you don’t have diamonds, do not substitute it with porcelain; meaning if you don’t have the talent for something, do not do it.

TTBE 28

Chapter 28

Edited and Proofread by KitKat

An Chang Qing returned home with a carriage full of gifts. Steward Wang was stunned to see the cluster of items when he went to greet him and was even more confused when he noticed the piece of fresh meat.

“Wangfei, this is…”

“They’re gifts from the people,” An Chang Qing said, “Send the edibles to the kitchen and divide the rest among the servants. It’s part of their sincerity, don’t waste it.”

Steward Wang was clearly surprised when he heard that the items were from the commoners of Yejing. After all, his master was the Northern Warlord, there had never been an instance where someone would send them gifts. He had heard the stories of respected officials being handed flowers and the likes on the street but until now, it had been a farfetched concept to them. This was the first time he had seen this with his eyes.

For some reason, he began to feel a little joy and pride in his heart. He happily complied and had someone send the food items to the kitchen. They could be used to make dinner after they had been inspected.

….

Xiao Zhige heard that Wangfei had returned and went to look for him. On the way, he heard several maids chatting:

“So many silk flowers. No one in Yejing has received as many as Wangfei.”

“That’s right, that’s right. Wangfei is so good-looking and kind hearted. When I saw him deal with Yan Hong before, I thought he would be difficult to serve.”

“Yan Hong and that bunch were clearly at fault. Which master would tolerate being bad mouthed? Wangfei was kind enough to only kick her out. Just look at us, when has Wangfei ever mistreated us?”

The other maid nodded in agreement. They looked at the colorful silk flowers and wondered if there would be more in the future. Although they’re not worth a lot of money, they were still happy to receive the gifts.

Xiao Zhige listened but could not fully understand their story. He approached them and asked, “What are you talking about?”

The group of maids were startled. When they turned around and saw Xiao Zhige, they immediately knelt down, “Wang, Wang Ye…”

Xiao Zhige frowned, “Are you talking about Wangfei? What happened to Wangfei?”

The senior maid bowed and dared not look up. She said in a trembling voice, “We, we were saying that Wangfei is very kind. Steward Wang told us that Wangfei had received gifts from people on the street and had shared some with us.”

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Seeing the silk flowers in her hand, Xiao Zhige finally understood.

Yejing had a custom of casting silk flowers at beautiful people on the streets. When the first Emperor ascended the throne, he had thrived to make Da Ye a powerful nation with prosperous citizens. As the nation flourished and its citizens’ livelihood improved, the people became free enough to appreciate worldly aspects. One of them was the pursuit of beauty. Whether it was male or female, a good-looking person walking down the streets was sure to get attention. Gradually, this developed into a custom of throwing flowers towards these stunning people. And as the ladies were less prone to go outside, the majority of those who received these flowers were men.

To think that his Wangfei also received this treatment.

Xiao Zhige was not sure how he felt. There was pride but also a tinge of sourness. After all, this was his Wangfei, his goodness and beauty only needed to be known by him.

Xiao Zhige let the maids rise and went to find An Chang Qing.

The maids sighed with relief before speaking with a little more volume, “Do you find that after Wangfei’s arrival, Wangye seems to have a better temper?”

The other two nodded in agreement. It had been a long time since she last saw Wangye losing his temper.

…..

Xiao Zhige went to the front yard and found An Chang Qing listening to Steward Wang’s report on the arrangements for the New Year festival. When Steward Wang saw Xiao Zhige, he knowingly handed An Chang Qing the report and excused himself.

An Chang Qing poured Xiao Zhige some tea, “Wangye is not going out today?”

Xiao Zhige responded with an ‘en’. After mulling it over for a while, he said, “I heard the commoners were giving you flowers on the street?”

An Chang Qing smiled, “Not really, they gave it to the coachman when I was away.”

Xiao Zhige said with a wooden look on his face, “Next time you go out, take Tie Hu and Zhao Shi with you. Although Yejing is peaceful, there are always people who are up to no good…”

An Chang Qing was stunned by what he said. He hesitated and said, “They’re just being passionate, I don’t think anything will happen…”

Xiao Zhige insisted, “It’s just a precaution.”

He then went on to ask, “Do you like these people?”

An Chang Qing contemplated this question in earnest. Frankly, he did not really like them. He used to stay inside all the time and had very little contact with these commoners. After he was reborn and thought about how the rumors regarding Xiao Zhige were spread by them, he found them a little dull. He did not like them but it couldn’t be said that he hated them.

After all, it was someone else who started the rumors, they were just being used.

But after interacting with them, he was able to see them on another level. The commoners might not be well-educated and ignorant even, but they were not evil at heart. They were honest about their joy and sorrows and all they wanted was to live peaceful lives.

“I just feel that they’re actually… pretty nice.” An Chang Qing thought and continued, “It’s not bad if things could stay this way.”

To work and live peacefully without being in constant fear that war will break out. In addition to making a living, the commoners could also have the leisure of reading and going to the teahouses for a chat or listen to the storytellers – an ordinary but stable life.

Xiao Zhige looked at him thoughtfully.

An Chang Qing smiled awkwardly, “Am I too naive?” Just because they gave him flowers and gifts, he had changed his mind about them, was he being too shallow?

“No.” Xiao Zhige said affectionately, “The first Emperor once said that his lifelong wish was for our nation to be free of war and the people to have plenty of food and clothes. He spent his whole life to make the nation prosper while driving the Bei Di people to the depths of the Northern Desert…”

To give the people peace and a future, it had taken the entire span of his reign with blood and sweat to achieve it. Unfortunately, the subsequent emperors were one generation worse than the next and could not uphold the foundation established by the first Emperor. By the time his father, Emperor An Qing, came into power, not only were the Bei Di people constantly trying to invade their land, even the dormant states of Yuze and Xi Wei were beginning to move.

An Chang Qing was touched as he listened to Xiao Zhige. He used to care only for his small piece of land, never thinking about the problems of the country and its people. It wasn’t until Xiao Zhige raised the topic that it seemed to awaken him and allowed him to come to a certain understanding.

He began to reminisce about his past life and an event that happened in the North came to mind.

It began with a natural disaster that snowballed and turned into a man-made one. There had always been foreboding signs but everyone failed to notice.

This time in his previous life, the winter had also come abnormally early and lasted till late February. The Northern provinces were used to the cold and were complacent with the thought that when the spring arrived, it would warm up. But as February came, the temperature did not rise but instead, they were hit with a hailstorm the size of a fist. It not only destroyed many homes but also claimed countless lives. Only then did the people realize that the winter that year was calamitous. Nonetheless, it had been too late. The hailstorm was followed by continuous days of heavy snow. From January to March, the cold had not let up. The food stored for the winter had been running out as the prices of grains and winter clothes soared. Those who were homeless from the storm and had not been able to afford these necessities ended up sleeping on the street and quietly passed away due to the cold and hunger.

The North had been hit with a disaster and the Beidi people who lived further north were no better. They had brought heavy cavalry and headed south to plunder, burn, and kill, causing the situation to aggravate.

After considerable effort in relieving the disaster, however, Emperor An Qing had thoughtlessly wanted to build a ninety-nine-story tall longevity pagoda for the Empress Dowager’s sixtieth birthday. He had sanctioned forced labor and increased taxes, plunging the commoners into poverty. The little grains and seeds that the people had left after surviving the disaster were looted due to the increased crime rate.

In the following year, banditries and uprising had been a constant occurrence. Even An Chang Qing who had stayed in the manor all the time had often heard the unfortunate news. And Xiao Zhige at that time had been sent to the North to defend against the Beidi people. It had been a long time before he returned to Yejing again.

These events did not affect him much as he stayed in the manor safe and sound, only sighing that the world was getting harder to live in. 

Even now that he was reborn, he initially did not give much thought to this disaster. The court and the people were not in his immediate circle of concern. He only had himself and his family in mind and couldn’t care less about other people. Even with the knowledge of the prolonged winter, all he could think of was to hoard more goods to sell once their prices began to soar.

But the people he met today in Yong Le Lane and the conversation he had with Xiao Zhige had woken him. 

He was no longer the ignorant and muddle-headed unfavored son but the Northern Warlord’s Wangfei. He had to support Xiao Zhige and gain the love of the people. Unknowingly, he had allowed himself to be tasked with a responsibility.

He did not wish for Xiao Zhige to turn into a tyrant nor did he want to see the lively streets of Yejing being trampled by warhorses. 

Taking a deep breath, An Chang Qing finally made up his mind and slowly spoke, “I had a dream last night…”

“In the dream, the winter this year was dragged out until February. Then followed a big hailstorm that destroyed houses. Many people had nowhere to go and froze to death by the roadside…”

“… the Beidi people were also hit with the disaster and they started to invade the Northern border. Wangye was ordered to go to the north…”

After retelling what had happened in his previous life, An Chang Qing fixed his gaze at Xiao Zhige and asked, “Does Wangye believe me?”

Xiao Zhige slightly frowned. He caressed his head and said, “It’s only a dream, don’t be scared.”

An Chang Qing shook his head. He did not dare to speak of unbelievable things like rebirth and could only think of another way. He spoke nervously, “It’s not just a dream. I… This was not the first time I’ve had dreams like this, dreams which came true in the end.”

An Chang Qing was racking his brain and tried to convince Xiao Zhige, “Do you remember Wu Juan Shu? When I told mother that he had a mistress and said that Wangye was the one who discovered it, it was actually a dream that I had…”

“I saw that Wu Juan Shu had hidden his mistress really well. After Yu’er had married him, he brought the mistress into the house. Since then, Yu’er’s life in the Wu Manor began to turn for the worse and she eventually died of miscarriage under the mistress’s scheme…”

“Before this, I also had a few other dreams, it had all come true.”

Xiao Zhige’s frown was turning deeper. He clenched his hand and asked, “Who else knows about this?”

An Chang Qing was stunned. He shook his head.

“Do not tell this to anyone else,” Xiao Zhige looked worried for the first time. He said to An Chang Qing in a serious tone, “Other than me, do not talk about this to anyone else, understand?”

An Chang Qing nodded and asked eagerly, “And the snow disaster?”

“This is after all a dream you had…”

An Chang Qing turned white, thinking that Xiao Zhige did not believe him when he heard him say, “… We cannot report this to the court nor can we announce it publicly. The crops harvested from the fields have not been sold, I will order for them to be preserved. In addition, we should start procuring more winter clothes and dried food just in case.”

An Chang Qing eased from his nervousness. He couldn’t help but ask, “Wangye really believed me? Don’t you think that this is a little baseless?”

Xiao Zhige softened his expression and touched his face, “Your eyes will not lie to me. Besides, the climate is indeed odd this year. It never hurts to take precautions.”

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!