Chapter 147: Ambition
Ji Bo knew that the third prince would be hesitant. He didn't push him to make a decision now. Instead, Ji Bo continued to drink his tea, glancing at the third prince every once in a while.
The third prince seemed to be deep in thoughts, but he couldn't look more ridiculous doing so. He wasn't made to be a leader. No matter how hard he tried, no matter how ambitious he was, he was no match to Jun Huang and Ji Bo.
After the time for a pot of tea to brew, The third prince said, "The gentleman must have a good reason for what you said, but I'm not sure how I should talk to Royal Father about this. May the gentleman tell me how I can achieve my goal without appearing to be weak?"
"Of course." Ji Bo curved his lips and told the third prince the steps he should take. He was able to convince the third prince.
The next day, the third prince arrived at the palace early in the morning. He happened to run into Qi Chen outside the emperor's room. He paused before entering the door. He greeted the emperor respectfully. When he straightened up, Qi Chen was staring at him.
"Didn't expect second brother to be here already," the third prince said casually. "This brother thought that I've come early."
Qi Chen gave him a cold look and scoffed. "What has third brother come this early for, I wonder."
"I'm here to propose a solution to Royal Father," said the third prince. He turned to the emperor and told him the solution Ji Bo had come up with.
With nervousness in his eyes, the third prince snuck glances at the emperor, worried that the emperor would be unhappy.
The emperor thought that the third prince's proposal was a good one. As Ji Bo had predicted, the emperor visibly brightened and asked the third prince which official should be sent out to deal with the issue. The third prince gave the name of an official who didn't hold a high rank, but was an expert in the field. The emperor approved of his suggestion.
Qi Chen didn't expect an incompetent man like the third prince to be able to propose such intricate plan. He called out for his brother when they were on the stairs leading out of the palace. The third prince stopped in his track. On his face was a grin he had not been able to cover ever since he received the emperor's praises.
"Third brother has been hiding who you really are," Qi Chen sneered. "All these years, I've thought that you are like the koi fish in the pond – of a noble bloodline, but useless. It turns out third brother has an ambition."
The third prince looked at Qi Chen with a sarcastic smile. "That's ironic coming from second brother. Brother Qi Yin must have thought the same about you."
Satisfied with the dark look he had put on Qi Chen's face, the third prince cupped his hands and turned to leave. He had said his piece.
Qi Chen tightened his jaw and clenched his fists, eyes shooting daggers at the third prince's back. Rage boiled inside his chest, but he couldn't let it show. He whipped his sleeves and stomped away.
Qi Yun had witnessed everything from the hallway. His distant expression betrayed none of his thoughts. He thought back to what Jun Huang had told him: It would be wise of him to stay out of the conflicts and watch the two beasts fight. He would be reaping the benefits later.
"The emperor can see you now, Your Highness," said the eunuch who had been serving at the emperor's side. "You may go in."
To serve the emperor personally, one needed to be able to read the emperor's mood. The eunuch could tell that even though Qi Yun appeared to be the least favored royal prince, in reality the emperor liked Qi Yun a lot more than his other sons.
Qi Yun nodded at him. He fixed his robe before entering the room.
The emperor looked up at Qi Yun and greeted him with a smile. Qi Yun walked up to the emperor and bowed at him in greeting.
"Royal Father looks refreshed today," Qi Yun said. He reached out and started massaging the emperor's back with practiced ease. "Did something good happen?"
"Your third brother may not have achieved anything in his life, but he does know a few things about managing a country," said the emperor. He relaxed and let Qi Yun sooth out the knots in his muscles. "The issue with the canal has troubled me for a while. Your third brother has surprised me with a solution."
"That's good," Qi Yun said with his eyes lowered. "Second brother and third brother can both help lessen the burden on Royal Father's shoulders. This son, on the contrary, has not been able to help Royal Father in any way."
The emperor sighed and patted the back of his hand. "While they have offered me their assistance, they have also caused me quite a lot of troubles. How can I not know what their real motives are? They are simply seeking their own interest. I can see that you are the only one I don't need to worry about."
Without a word, Qi Yun continued to massage the emperor's back. The emperor closed his eyes. He had been losing sleep and eating less recently over the issue with the canal. With a concrete plan to follow, he was suddenly hit with a wave of exhaustion.
Once the emperor had fallen asleep, Qi Yun stopped his massage. He sighed at the emperor's tired and old face and retrieve a yellow robe to cover the emperor with. He walked out of the room.
The eunuch came up to him. Qi Yun gestured at the eunuch to stay quiet.
"Royal Father has been tired lately. He's asleep now. You should give him some peace and quiet. Later, remember to bring him a bowl of lotus seed soup. He said he's been craving it."
Qi Yun's order was detailed. On his face was the expression of a son caring for his father.
The eunuch sighed. Among the royal princes, Qi Yun was the most easygoing one. He didn't fight for anything with the other princes, but simply did whatever he had to do. "The emperor is missing Your Highness's mother. When the consort was still alive, the emperor's favorite food was the lotus seed soup the consort made. Since her death, the emperor has not had any lotus seed soup. He said that he's worried he would be reminded of her."
A dark look flashed through Qi Yun's face. He put on a smile in lieu of a response. After bidding the eunuch farewell, he left for Nan Xun's manor.
He happened to run into Jun Huang in the garden. She was talking to a group of servants. Once he got closer, he heard that she was making arrangements for Wan'er's wedding.
Jun Huang turned around after finishing talking to the servants and saw Qi Yun standing in the hallway. With a smile, she approached Qi Yun and bowed at him. "Why has Your Highness come?"
Qi Yun told Jun Huang about the conversation between Qi Chen and the third prince. Jun Huang nodded in acknowledgement with her brows furrowed and took a seat at the stone table in the garden. Qi Yun followed her closely.
"Doesn't gentleman Feng think that Mister Ji Bo has been helping third brother rise in power? With both second brother and third brother in the court, our chance of winning becomes even slimmer." Qi Yun's tone was worried. He added, "Because of what the gentleman suggested, I have been doing nothing but visiting Royal Father recently, but… is this really enough?"
"Of course not," said Jun Huang.
"Then why would the gentleman tell me to stay idle?" Qi Yun was starting to panic. He had thought that Jun Huang had future plans for him! She wasn't going to tell him to not get involved in the court from now on, was she?
Seeing his worried look, Jun Huang let out a quiet laugh and poured Qi Yun a cup of tea. She took a sip from her own cup. "Your Highness is staying low and making the emperor think that you are different from all the other royal princes. You're showing the emperor that you are attentive to the emperor not for the throne but for the emperor himself. The rest will fall into place naturally. Your Highness only has to wait to reap the benefits."
"Does the gentleman care to explain?" Qi Yun looked at Jun Huang with a frown. For a moment, he wondered if Jun Huang had only been humoring him.
Jun Huang smiled and met his gaze. "Your Highness only has to show the emperor that you care about him and earn his trust. You'll know what to do later."
Qi Yun was a little upset with the way Jun Huang talked circles around the real issue, but he knew that he shouldn't doubt the people he had decided to trust. He nodded.
Jun Huang didn't miss the flash of frustration in Qi Yun's eyes. She knew that if she didn't give him a good explanation, Qi Yun would be upset even though he wouldn't demand an answer from her. She said after a pause, "This is only the beginning of the feud between Qi Chen and the third prince. We need to let Qi Chen see how big a threat the third prince is to him. Only then will Qi Chen put aside his suspicion for Your Highness."
"The third prince looks as harmless as a domesticated pet, but that's only a pretense. He's ambitious. He will take action soon. It's better that we wait and let these two rabid dogs bite each other's throat off. Even better if they end up destroying each other."
Qi Yun felt as if a fog had lifted in his mind. He nodded in understanding.
Their conversation was interrupted when a servant came to the garden. He said that Qi Chen had asked for Jun Huang's presence.
It was natural for Qi Chen to want to talk to Jun Huang. He had just suffered a defeat against the third prince after all. Jun Huang told the servant that she would leave soon.
Seeing that Jun Huang was going out, Qi Yun asked, "How does the gentleman plan to help second brother fight back?"
Jun Huang tilted her head and quirked her lips. "I'll propose a way to cut off the third prince's escape route, of course."
She walked outside and followed Qi Chen's people back to the crown prince's manor.
Qi Chen was waiting for Jun Huang under a tree. From afar, Jun Huang could feel the dark mood radiating from Qi Chen. She waved her fan as she walked up to him.
"Gentleman Feng is sure in a good mood," Qi Chen scoffed. "I'm troubled and frustrated, and yet you look as if you don't have a care in the world."
"Then does Your Highness have a solution already?" Jun Huang retorted.
Qi Chen fell silent. He knew he had been unnecessarily harsh. He sighed and softened his tone. "Brother Feng must know about what happened in the court already. Originally Royal Father was going to let me take the job. It's frustrating that third brother intervened."
Jun Huang closed her fan and looked at Qi Chen inquisitively. "What does Your Highness need me to do?"
Chapter 148: A Request for Marriage
"It was decided that one of third brother's men would be in charge of the construction. That we cannot change. Still, I'm not willing to let everything go his way…"
"Does Your Highness intends to teach the third prince a lesson?" asked Jun Huang. "Your Highness can report to the emperor that the third prince has taken bribe from the official. That's why he recommended the official to take on the job. You can then tell the emperor that you are willing to complete the construction with money out of your own pocket."
Qi Chen blinked. For a moment, he didn't quite understand what Jun Huang was getting at. He frowned as he went through the whole plan in his head. It was a low blow, but it would be effective.
Anger drained out of his body. With a faint smile, he ordered a servant to bring in the dessert that the cook had prepared as an offering to Jun Huang. Jun Huang wasn't going to let Qi Chen get what he wanted. She glanced at the delicate dessert and said, "This gentleman has not been feeling well recently. The doctor told me to not eat anything sweet. Thank you for your consideration, Your Highness, but this gentleman will have to turn this away."
"Of course," Qi Chen muttered. "Your health is more important."
They shared a few more words before Jun Huang took her leave.
As soon as she left the manor, she saw one of her men waiting for her in an alleyway. Her heart pounded against her ribcage. She had sent this man to look for Yin Yun and Jun Hao. Had he found something?
Jun Huang barely kept herself from bursting in excitement. Once she had left the scrutiny of Qi Chen's people, the man walked up to her and cupped his hands in greeting. "This subordinate has visited many places. I found clues to the whereabout of the men gentleman Feng is looking for – it seems that they are in Yun Town."
Jun Huang tightened her fists and took a deep breath. Her breathing became shallow and quiet. "Are you certain that the information is reliable?"
"This subordinate has not seen them with my own eyes, but from my questioning the information seems to be legitimate."
Jun Huang tried to think about it with a clear head, but she could not form a single coherent thought. Her emotions had gotten the better of her.
She returned to Nan Xun's manor like a lost spirit. Seeing her unfocused eyes, Nan Xun approached her and asked, "What happened? Is there a problem you can't solve?"
Jun Huang had not recovered from the news yet. Her heart soared even higher with Nan Xun here. Inhaling deeply, she tried her best to calm down. "The man I sent out to track down Jun Hao has returned. He and Yin Yun seem to be in Yun Town… Ah, I have to leave for Yun Town at once! I can't sleep easy until I make sure they are safe!"
Jun Huang shot up to her feet and intended to return to her place to pack.
Nan Xun frowned. Jun Huang had completely lost her calm. He didn't have any evidence, but his instinct told him that something was amiss. They had both sent many people to track down her brother to no avail, and now a mere guard came back with concrete lead?
Either the guard had been compromised, or someone had deliberately led the guard to Yun Town for some unknown reason.
Nan Xun grabbed Jun Huang's arm before she could rush out to prepare for the trip. He held Jun Huang's gaze. "Calm down. If you run off to Yun Town without a plan, you may be falling into someone's trap. We have to think about this."
Jun Huang's heart was already in a different place. She had made up her mind to go to Yun Town. She was barely listening. "Calm down? How can I be calm? I've been apart from my only family for too long! I don't know how they are right now. I've never stopped looking for them. Every day I found nothing but dead end. Now that I finally got a clue, I have to go look for them even if it is a trap."
"That's exactly why we have to be careful!" Nan Xun said seriously, holding firm to Jun Huang's arm. "Don't you want to avenge Western Que? If it's really a trap, you'll be losing your chance to achieve your goal."
Jun Huang finally managed to settle her racing heart. She took a deep breath and turned to Nan Xun. "What will you have me do?"
Nan Xun was quiet for a moment. The logical thing to do would be to question the guard who brought her the news.
Jun Huang ordered a servant to retrieve the guard for her without any arguments. Nan Xun took the lead in interrogating the guard.
The guard said that he had followed the breadcrumbs to Yun Town. He heard a local resident say that there were refugees from Western Que in the area. The guard had intended to continue investigating, but Yin Yun was a master in martial art. Every time he felt like he was getting close, he lost the trail. In the end he had no choice but to report back to Jun Huang.
Nan Xun let the guard leave after questioning him. It was difficult to tell if the information was legitimate.
He didn't want to put Jun Huang in danger. He told his own shadowguard to look into the matter, trying to reassure Jun Huang.
Once she had calmed down, Jun Huang agreed with Nan Xun that everything seemed too good to be true. She threw herself back into the wedding preparation and never mentioned Yun Town again.
She spared some time to offer advice to Qi Chen on how he could undermine the third prince. It was as if she was playing a chess match against Ji Bo through the two princes. Qi Chen and the third prince were locked in a vicious fight. Neither had the efforts to spare for Qi Yun.
The mood in the palace, on the contrary, was light and warm. Wan'er was going to get married. She was reluctant to leave the emperor and her mother. Therefore she would visit the emperor whenever she had the time.
Today, she happened upon a meeting between the emperor and the Grand Chancellor. Wan'er was going to walk away, but the emperor told her to stay.
A servant brought in some pastries. Wan'er handed one to the emperor out of consideration. The emperor patted her hand with a warm smile. "You have grown up to be a fine lady. You're not going to have as much time for me after your wedding."
"That's not true," Wan'er said in a sweet voice, holding onto the emperor's elbow like a child. "Even after I'm married, I'll still come visit Royal Father often. Besides, Wan'er feels like the wedding has been too sudden. I haven't had the time to prepare myself."
The emperor touched the tip of her nose lightly and let out a fond sigh. "Our Wan'er always acts like a child. You are a woman already. You have to get married sooner or later."
"Sister Shangguan Yue is a year older than I am," muttered Wan'er. "I'm getting married, but sister Shangguan Yue is still waiting for the day she gets her courtesy name1."
The emperor looked up at Sir Shangguan and asked, "Yue'er still doesn't have a husband?"
Sir Shangguan responded respectfully, "That is true. My daughter has not married yet."
"Does the official have someone in mind?" the emperor asked out of politeness. He didn't really expect an answer.
Something flashed through Sir Shangguan's eyes. After a moment of silence, he dropped down to his knees and bowed at the emperor. "My daughter is at the age when women are at their most beautiful. Many have asked for my daughter's hand. She, however, has too high a standard. There's someone she is in love with. This official doesn't know what I should do."
Surprised, the emperor hurriedly helped Sir Shangguan up and asked, "What do you mean? Who is it that Yue'er is in love with?"
"Yue'er is in love with the prince who bears a different surname – Prince Nan Xun."
The emperor blinked. He didn't expect Shangguan Yue to fall for Nan Xun. Nan Xun had always been cold and aloof to other people. Why would anyone love him?
He thought back to the banquet of a hundred families a few months ago. He had left early. Later he heard that Shangguan Yue performed a graceful dance for Nan Xun and Nan Xun only. He had thought it was merely a rumor. It turned out it was the truth.
The emperor had not responded. Sir Shangguan was reminded of Nan Xun, who could not be convinced through either force or emotional plea.
Nonetheless, Shangguan Yue refused to marry anyone but Nan Xun. His beloved daughter finally ran into something she wanted but could not get. As a father, Sir Shangguan couldn't give up without doing anything.
He bowed down until his head touched the floor and said, "Yue'er said she would not marry anyone unless it's Prince Nan Xun. At first I thought she didn't mean it, but she did. She wishes every day for the prince to spare her a glance. It made my heart ache."
"This old official has been serving the court for decades. If Your Majesty remembers what I've done for this country, please arrange a marriage for my daughter. That will be my only wish before my eventual death."
He kowtowed hard against the floor, making a loud thud. The emperor was at a loss of what to say to deny him his wish.
Seeing the dark look on the emperor's face, Wan'er could tell that the emperor didn't want Nan Xun to gain the support of the Shangguan family. She approached Sir Shangguan with a polite smile. "It's natural for Sir Shangguan to make such request. Parents are always worried about finding their daughters a good spouse. And sister Shangguan does like brother Nan a lot… But Wan'er thinks that it's better to first ask brother Nan himself about what he feels."
Wan'er was offering an olive branch to both the emperor and Sir Shangguan, but Sir Shangguan would not take no for an answer. He disregarded Wan'er's words and looked up at the emperor.
"Your Majesty, throughout history there are many cases where members of the royal family married children of an official. This official knows what Your Majesty is worried about, but there's something this official would like to explain."
The emperor hesitated. He didn't expect Sir Shangguan to bring up his concerns so openly. He paused and gestured for Sir Shangguan to continue.
"Prince Nan Xun was given the command of the army by the last emperor," said Sir Shangguan. "Your Majesty can't recover the power without going against the last emperor's order. Nan Xun has the potential to overthrow this country at will. Without some check and balance, he may become the most powerful man in this country."
The emperor gave him a sideway glance. There was some truth to what Sir Shangguan had said. The Shangguan family, however, was a powerful family in Northern Qi. If they came together with Nan Xun, it might pose an even bigger threat to the emperor.
Women could only get a courtesy name/style name after they get married. ↩