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If anyone had been watching from the sidelines, they would have found the interaction between these two very strange.  The lord had no intention of speaking coaxing words, and the subordinate was equally unwilling to yield gently to his will, and now and again they seemed to exchange cold retorts and sharp words.  But you could not say there was truly any enmity between them, as they laid everything out plainly before the other, and did not hide behind suspicions and doubts.

Fortunately, both of them found their current method of communication rather satisfactory, and had no complaints.

“Your Highness, how has Tingsheng been recently?”  Mei Changsu asked mildly, clasping his hands behind his back.

“Very good, his studies and martial arts have both improved, his spirit is growing steadier by the day, and everyone in the manor is very fond of him.”  Prince Jing glanced at him, and he couldn’t stop himself from asking, “I’ve been meaning to ask you, you care about Tingsheng so much, did you know my eldest royal brother in the past?”

“I care about Tingsheng in order to gain Your Highness’ favour, of course.”

Prince Jing was a little angered by Mei Changsu’s indifferent tone, and his voice was tight as he said, “I am asking you seriously!”

“Hm, His Highness Prince Qi……”  Mei Changsu’s gaze skipped lightly to the black smoke billowing into the sky in the distance.  “I have always admired him, and once thought of striving for great ambitions under his command, it is a pity……”  He suddenly halted, looked meaningfully at Prince Jing, and then turned and walked away quickly.

Prince Jing stared after him, then turned and looked in the direction Mei Changsu had indicated and saw a figure emerging from the tents.  The thirty-eight year old official made his way over to Prince Jing laboriously, waving in greeting.

“Greet, greetings, Your Highness……”  Because he was a little plump, by the time the official arrived before him, he was slightly out of breath.  He cupped his hands in greeting and said, “Such a great tragedy, it is fortunate that Your Highness has arrived to take control of the situation, I was out in the city today so I only just arrived, but the Ministry of Revenue can take over the follow-up work from here, Your Highness does not need to worry.”

“It all concerns the people, there is no need to draw such lines of division.”  Prince Jing smiled faintly, glancing in the direction in which Mei Changsu had disappeared.  ……Had he left because he saw Shen Zhui coming?  Did he not want this loyal and upright official Prince Jing was currently befriending to realize the connection between the two of them?

“Just now, it looked like Your Highness was talking with someone, did he leave?  Who was it?”  Shen Zhui himself had distant relations to the imperial family, and plus he had a certain chemistry with Prince Jing, so the interactions between the two were rather casual, and he often asked whatever came to mind without first considering whether it was strictly appropriate.

Prince Jing hesitated for a moment, but answered finally, “That was Su Zhe, you must have heard of his name, it has gathered some renown in the city recently.”

“Oh?”  Shen Zhui rose to his tiptoes and peered into the distance, but of course he did not see anything.  “So that was the famous qilin prodigy?  It is too bad I couldn’t get a clear look.  I hear he has recently been working for Prince Yu, how come Your Highness also knows him?”

“I don’t just know him, he has been to my residence as well,” Prince Jing said indifferently.  “This person certainly lives up to his name, and is superior to most in both knowledge and conduct.  You have always valued talent, if you have the chance to meet him in the future, you will certainly come to admire him.”

“Talent is well and good, but how is his heart?”  Shen Zhui urged solemnly, “It is said that most of this person’s talent lies in the shifting of power and strategy, Your Highness should employ extra caution when dealing with people like him.”

“Ng, I will take care.” Prince Jing nodded and did not elaborate.

“But what is he doing here in circumstances like these?” Shen Zhui looked around.  “Unless he is here to sound out the situation for His Highness Prince Yu?”

“You don’t know, this Mister Su has always had a thorough grasp of everything that happens in the capital, so it is not surprising that he would come to look around after such a great disturbance occurred.”  Prince Jing’s expression grew more serious.  “Don’t be so curious about him.  This whole situation will reach the Emperor’s ear by tomorrow, have you thought about how to handle it?”

Shen Zhui sobered as well, as he answered, “There isn’t much to think about, I can only report what has occurred.  I have collected Lou Zhijing’s records over the years, and even have in my hands the secret ledger recording the division of profit over the years between him and the Crown Prince.  To tell you the truth, assassins came to my manor just yesterday.”

Prince Jing was a little shaken, and grasped him by the shoulder.  “Are you injured?”

Shen Zhui, touched, laughed as he answered hurriedly, “I was born lucky, and have always been favoured by fortune.  But that assassin really was vicious, and all the guards of my manor, those three-legged cats, were not his match.  Fortunately, a martial arts expert appeared out of nowhere to help us, but he disappeared as soon as he had scared away the assassin and did not even leave behind a name, and so I still do not know who it was that saved my life.”

“Did you see his face?”

“He wore a mask, but his eyes were large and bright, and he looked very young.”

“Then the secret ledger……”

“I handed it over to the Xuanjing Bureau long ago, and asked them to deliver it directly to the Emperor.  At least the evidence is safe, so killing me will not accomplish anything.”  Shen Zhui laughed happily.  “That’s why I still dare to walk around in the open like this.”

“Don’t be too careless, even if they cannot kill you to silence you, revenge is still a terrible thing.”  Prince Jing spoke seriously.  “The Ministry of Revenue fell to ruin under Lou Zhijing and it is up to you to restore it, so this is a matter of national importance, with great implication for the people.  If anything happened to you, who could pick up the reins of such a great responsibility?”

“I am endlessly grateful for Your Highness’ great kindness.”  Shen Zhui sighed.  “As a loyal servant of the kingdom, I am not afraid of difficulty, and I will not lightly hand this duty over to another.  It is a pity that those with true power in the court only pay attention to the games of strategy and the forming of camps, and leave the ones who are truly working hard for their country with no way up the ladder, there is only Your Highness……”

“Alright,” Prince Jing cut him off.  “We have said before that we will not discuss these things.  Investigating this case is a great work of labour for you, and may also be the beginning of calamity, I am not satisfied with the guards in your manor, but it would not be appropriate for me to directly transfer some of my people to your residence, so would you mind if I brought in a few people from outside?  Don’t worry, they will all be trustworthy and capable men.”

“What is Your Highness saying, do you think I cannot recognize worthy men when I see them?”  Shen Zhui thanked him gratefully and the two parted after a few more words, both having many things to take care of, and Prince Jing returned to his manor while Shen Zhui took a few of his men with him to take care of matters at the scene of the explosion.

The echoing ripples of the great explosion of the illegal fireworks factory were frightening to behold.  Although there were attempts to play down its ties to the Crown Prince, the facts were the facts.  The Emperor, in a thundering rage, ordered the Crown Prince to move to Guijia Palace and confined him there for self-reflection, forbidding him from so much as hearing news of anything that happened in the court.  Because almost thirty officials were implicated in the case, Shen Zhui was officially raised to the position of Minister of Revenue, and aside from his normal responsibilities, received the imperial order to revise the revenue system in order to prevent future overslights.

This whole case had only lasted five days from explosion to conclusion, but because the evidence was iron-clad, even the Crown Prince himself found it difficult to dispute, and naturally the other ministers could find no opening to argue for him.  Aside from Consort Yue’s wailing in the Inner Palace, no one dared to openly intercede for the Crown Prince.  But in the whole proceedings, one person’s attitude caught everyone’s attention, and that was the Crown Prince’s arch-enemy, Prince Yu.  By all logic, he was the person most delighted with the Crown Prince’s massive fall, and it was completely unlike him not to add insult to injury at every possibly opportunity, but the shocking thing was, this time, he must have received some mysterious advice, as he was acting completely opposite to his normal temperament, and not only refrained from commenting on the case from start to finish, he even restrained his own officials so that the court did not disintegrate into a frenzy of attacks against the Crown Prince.  The genius of this approach was that, on the surface, it made this case appear completely unrelated to the fight for the throne, and it seemed only to concern the corrupted values and stained morals of the Crown Prince’s person, and as the Emperor had no reason to suspect that Prince Yu had played any part in the case, he turned the full force of his wrath onto the Crown Prince alone.

One could only guess who had taught him such a brilliant move, and very few knew that, on the day the Crown Prince relocated to his new dwelling, Prince Yu joyfully hand-picked a selection of new gifts and had them sent over to Su Zhe’s manor, although they were not received in the end.

This repulsive case infuriated the Emperor, but at the same time, it also made this old man who had passed the prime of his years very tired, so that when Meng Zhi came before him at the end of the month to confess his guilt, claiming that he had not been able to complete the investigation of the murder of the internal guards before the deadline, he felt no great emotion, and after fining him three months’ worth of his salary and replacing the two Vice Commander Generals of the Imperial Guard, he let the matter pass and did not speak of it again.

Prince Jing did indeed receive a notice from the Ministry of War accusing him of misusing military supplies without notifying the ministry, and the day after he confessed to his crime in court, the new Minister of Revenue Shen Zhui made a passionate speech, mounting a furious defense on Prince Jing’s behalf.  Although Xiao Jingyan was willful and stubborn by nature, he had always been low-key, and recently his performance had been very good, and the number of those in court who were developing a good impression of him were growing by the day, and even the Emperor’s dislike for him was lessening gradually, as the old dispute had not been raised between them for many years.  In this current matter, the Emperor did not think Prince Jing had committed any great fault and so did not punish him, instead even bestowing a few words of praise for “dealing with the situation in a decisive and timely matter, and lightening the burdens of the court,” and ordered him to write up an official report of the events.  So the Ministry of War had not only failed to strike a blow, they had accidentally showcased the accomplishments of their opponent, and the Crown Prince’s camp was only digging themselves into an even greater hole.

With the passing of the Spring Equinox, the days were growing warmer, and spring was in the air, as flowers began blooming and grass appeared on the ground once more.  Some people began impatiently shedding the thick layers of their winter garments, running out of the city to enjoy the weather.  Xiao Jingrui and Yan Yujin came a few times to visit, but Mei Changsu still couldn’t stand the cold and was not very willing to leave his manor, and so the two could only go out by themselves.

Jinling was very beautiful, with plenty of natural scenery nearby perfectly suited to springtime viewing – there were the weeping willow-covered shores of Fuxian Lake, the pear blossom slopes of Manyu Hill, and the peach blossom valleys of Haishen Town.  All three of these scenic areas were to the south of the city, and as a result, the road leading out of the southern Nanyue Gate was very busy, with temporary marketplaces set up to both sides of the road selling snacks, tea, crafts and toys, and business was doing very well.

On the road back to the city, Xiao Jingrui saw a group of plump little dolls made out of glazed clay, and, finding their expressions rather cute, decided to buy them for his little sister, who was becoming a little low-spirited in her pregnancy.  The stall owner carefully wrapped each in paper and placed them into a small box, and Yan Yujin, who was feeling thirsty, went ahead first to a tea stall for some tea.

A few minutes later, Xiao Jingrui came over with the small box, carefully setting it down on the table before sitting down and picking up his own cup of tea.  Yan Yujin eyed the box and propped his chin on his hands, smiling.  “Will Qi jie like it?”

“These dolls are so cute, even I like them, so xiao Qi will certainly like them.”

“You’re such a good brother, thinking of your little sister even on an outing like this.  Xie Xu is going back to the academy tomorrow, why don’t you buy something for him to bring back?”

“He likes jade, I already picked out a piece for him at the jade shop and had it sent directly to our home, it’s probably reached his hands by now.”

Yan Yujin clicked his tongue.  “There’s just no fault to be found with you.  Actually, don’t you want Xie Xu to stay past your birthday before leaving?”

“It’s right for third brother to value his studies, and it’s only for these few years.”  Xiao Jingrui looked at Yan Yujin, teasing, “You’re the one who wants him to stay, so you can keep bullying him around, isn’t that right?”

“He’s going crazy from all that studying, what with that sour air of his, always looking down his nose at everyone around him.  If I don’t bully him from time to time, he’ll turn into a little fool.  If he turns out to have even half of your warmth, that would be something.”

“All three of us brothers have different temperaments, it would be a strange thing indeed if we were all alike.”  Xiao Jingrui picked up the teapot and refilled Yan Yujin’s cup.  “Aren’t we drinking tea?  So drink then, he’s not your brother, why are you so worried?”

Yan Yujin thumped his friend’s shoulder vigorously.  “He’s not my brother, you are!  If he turns out to be good for nothing in the future, the one who will be most worried will definitely be you, this dage!”

“Xie Xu, good for nothing?” Xiao Jingrui laughed in spite of himself.  “He’s the one with the best prospects.  Amongst the three of us brothers, I am the most unremarkable, without talent or accomplishment in the scholarly or martial arts, and with no plans for an official career.  I’ve passed most of my life in such an idle manner, I won’t bring much glory to the Xie clan.”

“Why is the runner-up of the Gentlemen’s List suddenly being so humble?  Are you fishing for compliments?”  Yan Yujin pursed his lips.

“Before, I did have the heart to strive for a name and reputation for myself in jianghu.  But now, I only want peace and quiet, and I have lost much of that passion, so the Gentlemen’s List will certainly not have my name on it next year.”

“It doesn’t matter if it has you or not, so long as it still has me, I rather like having such a reputation, it’s so cool……”

Xiao Jingrui couldn’t hold back his laughter and was about to retort when the guest at the table beside him got up, the large bag on his back swinging around and almost knocking the box of clay dolls onto the ground.  Fortunately, Xiao Jingrui’s hands were as quick as his eyes, and he grabbed them just in time, murmuring to himself, “Lucky catch, lucky catch.”

“They’re only clay dolls, and the stall is just over there, if they break, you can just go buy another set, why are you so worked up?”

“This was the last set, if they break, where would I find another?”  Xiao Jingrui carefully placed the box aside.  “Xiao Qi has been unhappy for some time, I want her to see these dolls and be happy for awhile.”

“Unhappy for some time?”  Yan Yujin’s pupils seemed to darken slightly.  “Is it because of…Brother Qingyao’s illness?”

“Yes,” Xiao Jingrui let out a sigh.  “Ever since Qingyao dage suddenly fell ill last month, it has taken him until now to show some improvement, and though we all persuaded her to relax, and that everything would turn out alright, it is still difficult for xiao Qi not to worry.”

“Just what…illness does Brother Qingyao really have?  I remember he looked fine one day, and then the next day, I heard he was seriously ill.”

“The physician said it was a stagnation of the blood, and that he would recover with careful rest.”

Yan Yujin looked at him deeply, and spat out three words.  “You believe that?”

Xiao Jingrui stared at him.  “What do you mean?”

“A stagnation of the blood…”  Yan Yujin smiled to himself.  “I have also visited Brother Qingyao a few times, and to tell the truth, you are the only one who hasn’t gotten suspicious……”

“He is my own brother, what is there to be suspicious about?  Should I suspect Qingyao dage of faking his illness?”

Yan Yujin looked at him impatiently and went straight to the point, saying crisply, “Jingrui, that’s not an illness, it’s an injury!”

Translator’s Notes:

I love these two so much.  They remind me of that bro meme on tumblr, .

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