The Xia Empire originated from the plains and had a nomadic nature. This caused them to elevate women's social status, giving them the respect they deserved. This was completely different from the Tang and Song Empire. For thousands of years, there were plenty of female generals and officials in the Xia empire. Within the imperial harem, there were also many women that called the shots. They were relatively tolerant of the behavior between the genders. Therefore, within the back palace, other than the Emperor's concubines and princesses, there were many guards stationed there too. Many princes that had not assumed their respective thrones were living there as well.
At this very moment, at the Ying Ge yard inside the back palace, there was a young prince who sat among the sea of bamboo in black robes.
This young man was around 20 years old. He looked handsome with his eyes shining brightly like stars. He had a pointed nose and eyebrows that looked like swords. His jet-black hair lay on his back and was tied loosely together with a black ribbon. His black robes were elegantly embroidered with purple floral Kirin and auspicious clouds that traced the edge of his robes. It was made with cloth from the Song Empire, and his boots were made of deer leather. The bottom of them were engraved with pictures of Qing Yun. He was sitting leisurely in front of a little bluestone table, with the fragrance of incense wafting around him. A sparkling Guqin lay on the table before him with a few scrolls scattered by his side. There was a jade wine pot with a glass cup by its side. Dragons with pearls in their jaws were carved out of glass on both sides of the cup. It was definitely a treasure.
Although it was winter, the areas around Xuan Lang Mountain had warmed up as it was surrounded by hot springs. These hot springs had naturally created a warm sanctuary during the cold winter. When the wind blew, a fresh and cool breeze rustled through the bamboo grove, seeming carefree and content.
The young man's hands were as fair as white jade, and his fingers were slender. He slowly raised his glass cup to his lips, but he paused at that moment. His starry eyes squinted a little. Without looking, he said lightly, "Come out."
"Irritating." A delicate voice sounded instantly as a charming young girl came into view from within the bamboo forest behind him. "You manage to find me every single time, you are no fun!"
The girl was not even 19 years old. She was wearing a purple blouse with a long skirt, embroidered with white butterflies. Around her waist, she wore a light green belt with a lily hanging by her side. Her thick and beautiful hair was tied into a bun, and her fringe reached the tip of her ears. A blood red jade pendant hung between her eyebrows, and she wore an agate necklace and a pair of Ding Lan earrings. Although she looked noble, she did not seem crude. As the girl walked towards him, she took off her fur coat. In a crisp tone, she said, "My father dotes on you the most. I have just returned from Lan Shan court and it was freezing cold there. Look at the place you're in, the snow melted even before it touched the ground."
The young man turned to face her. He grinned calmly and said, "It's the emperor's great love."
"Hehe." The girl snorted. "Then why does he not show great love to me, I am his daughter after all."
"Why are you calling me princess again!" the girl shouted as she threw her coat at her servants while running towards him.
The young man smiled helplessly as he said, "Chun'er."
"Don't you think you can subdue me by doing that," said Princess Chun'er as she sat on the stool opposite him. Puffing up her cheeks angrily, she continued, "Tell me, why did you leave before the banquet ended? You caused me to leave all the guests behind in order to catch you here."
The young man said with a calm smile, "I'm sorry, there was something urgent."
"What important things do you have to do?" the girl cried. As she finished her sentence, she immediately realized how reckless she was. She looked carefully at his expression through the corner of her eyes. Seeing his lack of reaction, she hurriedly said, "Did you leave the banquet because Wei Jing had arrived? He had just returned from the South. Even I did not know he was coming, please don't be mad at me."
The young man raised his head and shook it slowly. "My princess, do not worry, Yan Xun wouldn't dare."
"You're calling me princess again," said Chun'er as she frowned. She stood up suddenly and tugged at Yan Xun's clothes. She said angrily, "Brother Xun, do you not see me as your own?"
Yan Xun lowered his head as he frowned at the girl's fair hand. He could not help but furrow his brow as he silently pulled his clothes free from her grip. "My princess, you worry too much. We have to pay attention to our status within the palace."
"That damned status. It was so much better when we were young. Do you remember the time when we were nine years old and you brought me to a brothel to fight? But now, you even have to hide when addressing me by my nickname."
"I was young and was not sensible at that age. I was too reckless."
"That's hateful!" Chun'er threw the wine flask on the ground as she cried, "I hate you!" As she said that, she turned her body in an attempt to leave.
"May the princess wait for a moment," Yan Xun stood up and said as he handed her a purple silk-wrapped box.
Chun'er furrowed her brow. "What is this?"
"It is the princess' birthday, and this is a little token from me. I wish you would accept it."
Chun'er's tiny face broke into a wide smile as she opened the box happily. After she opened the box, she saw a rabbit's tail, which was a brilliant shade of white. The girl's eyes widened instantly. She cried, "Is this…Yanyan's tail?"
Yan Xun nodded. "A couple of days ago, I heard that Yanyan had bitten your hand, and her Majesty had ordered it to be flogged to death before throwing it out. Because of that, you cried for so long. I then ordered my men to cut off its tail for you to keep as a memento. This does not amount to much but I hope you don't mind."
Zhao Chun'er's eyes turned moist as she shook her head and whispered, "I have countless jewelry in my possession, but this is the best present I have ever received. Brother Xun, thank you, I am very happy." After finishing her sentence, the girl's cheeks flushed red as she held the rabbit's tail in her hand. She ran out of the bamboo forest without her coat.
Yan Xun stood in the same spot. His smile faded as the girl started to disappear from his sight.
"My Crown Prince, Princess Chun has left."
As he heard that, he silently took off the robes which the girl had touched. He threw them onto the table and turned to take his leave as he said in a deep voice, "Burn it."
"Yes," his servants answered in a heavy tone. When they raised their head, Yan Xun was no longer there.
The afternoon sun was shining brilliantly. Yan Xun sat in his study, flipping through the tax documents that had been submitted for the winter, making comments as he read each line carefully. Feng Zhi came into the room thrice to invite Yan Xun to have his lunch, but was chased out of the room each time by the guard, AhJing. He could only wait patiently at the door.
The wind blew gently through the room, gently swaying the incense on the desk. All of a sudden, a fresh fragrance wafted into the room. It neither smelt like it was from the palace, nor did it smell like the orchid incense from Ying Ge Court. It also did not smell like the sea of bamboo. It was a unique smell that had a tinge of sand and mud mixed in with it. It even had the smell of a sharp blade.
Yan Xun frowned as he raised his head. He saw the person that came and his gaze softened. He wanted to say something funny but he could not hold in his laughter. He tried to suppress it in by looking away, but the corners of his mouth curled into a smile.
"Are you done laughing?" The person that came in did not look like she was even 16 years old, still a young teenager. Her skin was fair and her eyes were watery. She was dressed in black leather armor. She looked increasingly heroic. As she leaned on the door with her hands across her chest, her eyes sparkled with a tinge of laughter. She stubbornly said, "It is still cold outside."
"When did you come back?" Yan Xun's voice was as gentle as water, as if he had gotten rid of his flair in an instant. He gazed into the warm eyes of the teenager at the door as he laughed gently.
The teenager laughed as well. She tilted her head and answered, "Just now."
"Why don't you come in?"
The teenager pouted as she said disdainfully, "Someone said to not allow anyone in, even if it was a matter of great importance."
Yan Xun nodded. "I did? Since I made such an order, they still dared to let you in. They should be punished by death."
"Aren't I still outside the door?" The teenager raised her eyebrows. "Who would dare to violate the rules that the Crown Prince of Yan had set?"
When Yan Xun was about to speak, the little child behind the teenager could not help but speak up, "I must say, Miss, stop speaking so guilefully to the Crown Prince. I have already asked the kitchen to heat up this meal for him more than ten times. Please have a bite."
"Okay then." Chu Qiao took the lunchbox and walked in. She smiled and said, "I give in only because of Feng Zhi."
The little boy wiped his sweat as he took his leave.
Yan Xun stood up from the back of his desk. He walked up to Chu Qiao to untie her cloak, then set it on a chair. He sat in front of his desk, looking at Chu Qiao lay out the dishes in front of him. Only then did he close his eyes to take a whiff. As if he was in a trance, he said, "How fragrant! How did I not smell this?"
"Your nose is no longer working. You would have starved to death if I had not returned." Serving a bowl of rice to Yan Xun, Chu Qiao sat up straight beside him and shoved in a mouthful of rice. "Lady Yu still makes the best dishes."
Yan Xun's expression changed slightly, showing a rare glimmer of sorrow as he lowered his gaze to the teenager. He asked, "Was it tough?"
"It was okay." Chu Qiao shook her head and continued, "It was just too cold."
"Are your feet frozen again?"
"Nope, the boots that you gave me were very warm and comfortable."
Yan Xun nodded and said in a deep tone, "Next time, let AhJing and the rest handle things like this. Don't keep running around."
"I also wish to stay in this house, but how could I be assured that things would be completed?" Chu Qiao let out a long sigh. "Luckily we do not have to do this for long. Six more months and life will never be as tough."
Yan Xun's gaze brightened as a gust of wind blew through the windows that were slightly open, bringing in the fragrance of the bamboo forest from afar.
"Did you see Mr. Wu?"
"Nope." Chu Qiao shook her head. "But I saw Xi Hua. He said that Mr. Wu had already entered the capital and is in the process of collating the data for winter taxes. He asked you not to worry."
Yan Xun nodded and let out a long sigh. "That's good, it has been many nights since I have had a good rest. I have been doing the taxes all this time. Now that Mr. Wu is back, it will save me a lot of effort."
"Is everything peaceful in the palace?"
Yan Xun laughed coldly and was unable to hide the sarcasm from the edge of his lips. "It's still the same old thing. But I don't know if you heard that Wu Jing is back. I just met him earlier today."
"I heard." Chu Qiao nodded as she replied, "The mausoleum at Nan Ji Mountain had collapsed, and Wu Jing could hardly absolve himself of the blame. I heard that he had been dismissed from his role, but I never expected him to return so quickly."
Yan Xun put down his chopsticks and raised his teacup to take a sip. "Your method of removing the root of the problem had been going so well. Wei Shuye had been implicated by Wei Jing, and has been removed as the Capital's magistrate. There are rumors within the palace saying that Wei Guang did this on purpose in order to get out of the position. Although he had not commented on it, the elders had always been critical about Wei Guang. Just a few days ago, they eliminated the Wei family from the picture. Although Muhe Xifeng is good for nothing, and Muhe Yunting is no longer around, Muhe Rongcheng is not a vegetarian. When he is back from Xi Ling, the Grand Elder's Council will become a whole lot livelier."
Chu Qiao's had stuffed her mouth with food. However, she managed to say in a solemn tone, "We must continue to follow up on this matter; we must not be careless. Don't worry, I will deal with it."
Yan Xun nodded. "I can count on you." When he said that, he laughed all of a sudden as he raised his slender finger, rubbing it on Chu Qiao's face.