Chapter 73: Outshining the Emperor
Qi Chen leveled Jun Huang with a meaningful look. He changed the subject and didn't say another word about Wan'er. "I have been building connections in the imperial court as brother Feng suggested. What should be our next step?"
"I am the crown prince now, but everyone knows that Royal Father still holds the former crown prince dear to his heart. While I do have quite a lot of supporters in the court, Royal Father is still healthy and well and my youngest brother is maturing; I can tell Royal Father likes him. Royal Father has never mentioned anything regarding passing down the throne to me. I'm worried that if we do nothing, I may not be able to ensure my triumph. Tell me, brother Feng, how should I keep my position as the crown prince?"
Jun Huang hummed. "In my opinion, the reason why the emperor never speaks of passing down the throne may not be due to the former crown prince. It's possible that he's worried that Your Royal Highness won't be able to look over the vast Northern Qi well. You have to remember that Qi Yin had been learning the art of ruling a country since his birth. If Your Royal Highness shows the emperor that you can be a good leader, he will trust you to govern Northern Qi."
Jun Huang's words made sense to him. Qi Yin had neither talent nor integrity. Why would the emperor keep him in his mind? Maybe Qi Yin had been long forgotten. Perhaps the emperor didn't believe that he was capable enough to deal with affairs of the state. That was why he never got to do anything important. What he had to do now was to show the emperor what he could achieve and won his approval.
Jun Huang could see that Qi Chen was convinced. A fleeting smile appeared on her face and quickly disappeared before Qi Chen looked up at her.
"Is brother Feng willing to become an official? With your talent, you'll be able to achieve great things. And you will be my greatest asset in the future. You are free to choose whatever position you want. I will make the necessary arrangements."
Jun Huang scoffed inwardly. Qi Chen wanted to make her an official only because he wanted her to be of help to him in the future. She served as a strategist in the manor now, but she had never agreed to be Qi Chen's obedient little pet.
"Thank you, Your Royal Highness, for your recognition. This gentleman is still in mourning, thus I should not take the position of an official. I want only to make up plans for Your Royal Highness. Besides, no one with great ambitions should resort to buying a position. Once my mourning period ends, I will attend the imperial examination and earned a title myself."
Jun Huang spoke with such passion, it was as if this had been her lifelong dream. Qi Chen didn't shy away from showing her his approval. This man I've chosen has such backbone, he thought. He is indeed a rare talent.
"Since brother Feng is so determined, I will not force you to go against your will," Qi Chen said, waving his hand. "You must be tired. Go rest. If one day you want to become an official, just tell me."
Jun Huang bowed at him with dignity and left. The pavilion suddenly quieted down. Nan Guyue showed up with a plate of snacks, supported by a servant.
She looked towards the direction Jun Huang had left in before turning to Qi Chen. "Guyue agrees that gentleman Feng will be of great help to Your Royal Highness if he becomes an official. Has Your Royal Highness really given up on the idea?"
Qi Chen sighed, keeping his eyes on Jun Huang as she walked away. "There's nothing I can do. Feng Baiyu is a man of principles. While he is my honored guest, I cannot control him. We'll see how far he can go on his own. It's not necessarily a bad thing for him to gradually grow stronger on his own."
Nan Guyue chuckled. "Your Royal Highness is testing gentleman Feng for Wan'er, aren't you?"
"Nothing escapes my princess's eyes." Qi Chen turned back to Nan Guyue with a tender smile. He ran a hand down the bridge of her nose in an intimate gesture. Nan Guyue ducked her head shyly and placed the plate of snacks on the table.
"I can tell that Wan'er really adores her," Qi Chen said. "No one has been able to convince her to give up. Brother Feng tried to talk to her today as well, but the result must have been the same. If he marries Wan'er, it'll be worth celebrating. If he wants to gain fame and success on his own first, then so be it. It'll be a learning process for him."
Nan Guyue covered up a smile. "Wan'er is a beautiful woman. Gentleman Feng will fall for her in the end. If he becomes a respected official through his own efforts, Wan'er will lead a happy life after they get married. Your Royal Highness shouldn't worry too much."
Qi Chen nodded and left the pavilion with Nan Guyue at his side. The snacks were left untouched and covered in dirt.
Jun Huang knew that her repeated denials would make Qi Chen unhappy, but there was no other way for her. She didn't want to make a mess out of the imperial court of Northern Qi. She wanted this country to be relatively in order when Qi Yun took over.
No country could be without unrest forever. Just when problems at the border had been resolved and people were satisfied, another administrative zone descended into chaos. The local officials were corrupt, and the people were taken advantages of like fish being sliced open on a cutting board. There were even men from rich families forcing themselves on peasant women. Lives had been lost.
The emperor almost coughed out blood when he read the report. His face was so dark it was terrifying. The eunuchs dared not say anything. They stood by the wall silently.
The next day, the emperor still held a severe expression on his face when he attended the court meeting. He told the courtiers about this issue, but the they ended up arguing among themselves without giving him a good solution.
"What the hell do you think your job is?" yelled the emperor. "You useless people can never figure out anything when real problems arise. Is it so difficult for you to personally attend to this matter?"
Qi Chen looked around. No one was willing to volunteer themselves. He remembered what Jun Huang had said. The emperor would approve of him if he could solve this problem. Perhaps the emperor would then be willing to pass down the throne to him.
Having made the decision, Qi Chen took a step forward and looked up at the emperor. He bowed. "Royal Father, this son is willing to go."
That got a reaction out of the courtiers. Nan Xun frowned, his expression indiscernible. It was clear that he wasn't pleased.
Looking at Qi Chen, the emperor saw no other options. After a moment of silence, he announced that the crown prince was going to take the responsibility. The rest of the meeting was spent discussing trivial matters that made no impact.
After the meeting, Qi Chen left with a pleased expression on his face. He was stopped by one of his supporters.
"You have done something foolish, Your Royal Highness," the official said.
Qi Chen frowned. "What do you mean?"
"Those people aren't merely men from rich families," the official said seriously. "They are related to people with great power. If you don't cover up their crimes for them, you'll become their enemies."
Qi Chen snorted. "People with great power? Ha! I will show them what power is and take care of them."
He was a young man after all. He could be clever and thoughtful, but he still had many rough edges. Now he was trying to win the emperor's recognition. He had forgotten that he should be trying to gather more supporters rather than suppressing potential allies.
He turned away and walked out. Nan Xun watched him leave with dark eyes. He needed to talk to Jun Huang.
Jun Huang wasn't surprised when Nan Xun asked her to meet him. She knew Qi Chen had volunteered to take care of this can of worms no one wanted to deal with. She didn't really care that much.
Seeing that Jun Huang was still enjoying tea as if nothing had happened, Nan Xun lost his usual calm and growled, "Don't you know that Qi Chen is making troubles for you? He will take you with him. There is no telling what those powerful families will do when cornered. What's more, I can't go with you this time. What if you get hurt?"
Jun Huang took a sip of her tea and threw him a glance. "Why are you so worried?" she said with a chuckle, her expression calm. "I know what I'm doing. I was trying to find a way to diminish Qi Chen's influence. I didn't expect him to bring me the perfect opportunity himself. It's a good thing. Besides, will those people really dare to hurt Qi Chen?"
Nan Xun didn't know what to say. He sighed and looked at Jun Huang. She was always so stubborn. With potent poison in her system, she still insisted on putting herself in danger.
As Nan Xun expected, Qi Chen brought Jun Huang with him, which was exactly what she had wanted. Things were much simpler this way. They traveled to the county town closest to the imperial city to find out what exactly had happened. Qi Chen did not show anyone mercy. Everyone who was part of the crimes committed was thrown into prison. Relatives of the royal family and people of great power were no exception.
The local residents rejoiced and cheered, while the people in power cowered. They were worried that they would be the next one punished.
Jun Huang had asked Rou'er to send some of their own people to the town. They were tasked to spread songs praising Qi Chen among the peasants. Those songs soon made their way to the emperor's ears.
The courtiers were now split into two factions. One thought that Qi Chen was only trying to better the country as the crown prince, so he was merely fulfilling his responsibility. The other thought that it was a threat to the emperor's authority for people to praise Qi Chen as if he was their savior. If things remained unchanged, Qi Chen's reputation would exceed that of the emperor one day.
The emperor watched the arguing courtiers with a dark expression, his fingers wrapped tightly around the chair arms. Qi Chen, however, was the crown prince he had chosen. He couldn't do anything even though the people respected and supported Qi Chen more than him. He swallowed his pride and praised Qi Chen for a job well done. He even stated that he would reward Qi Chen heavily once he returned. Passing down the throne, however, was still left out of the agenda.
After the meeting, a eunuch who had been serving the emperor for decades accompanied the emperor on a walk in the royal garden. He could tell the emperor was not in a good mood.
"Is Your Majesty worried about the crown prince?" the eunuch asked.
The emperor stopped in his track and turned to look at the eunuch. "Scholar officials and military officials alike are saying that Chen'er's reputation has exceeded mine, that the crown prince is more well-loved by the people than the emperor. Chen'er is the crown prince, yes. But I am still the emperor."
He didn't shy away from telling the eunuch what he thought. The eunuch had been with the emperor for many years. He knew it was better for him to not be decisive with his words and avoid speaking his thoughts on a matter that was far above his station. He offered some words of comfort with a smile. "The crown prince is nothing more than the crown prince. It's true no matter how well-known and loved he is outside the imperial city. If Your Majesty is truly bothered, you can always put some distance between you once the prince returns. Don't let anger harm your health."
"Is that truly what you think?" the emperor asked.
The eunuch only smiled in response. There were things that didn't need to be said. The emperor looked away, ruminating on his words.