"Even if the Suns are bad people, if Mu-ge says they are good people, they must be good people."
Editor(s): Jelly, namio
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Ting Province. The year’s end was around the corner.
The list of yearly tributes had returned and the gifts for all the lords in the court had also been sent out. Their acquaintance with the bloody massacre back in autumn had almost been washed clean as well.
All of the factions in the imperial court, because one child had made a comeback, they must once again start evaluating the pros and cons. Sun Yán looked at the reply, stunned and lost in thought. There were only a few lines in this letter addressed to his residence:
Western Plains' winter is harsh; this younger sister is well, older brother, please do not worry.
Three months ago, he received the news of the emperor's demise and Empress Fang crowning of a new crown prince, Li Gong. People with discerning eyes all knew what was going on, that the empress had actually usurped the throne.
Sun Yān sadly accepted the fact, put on mourning garb, and began to live as Li Qingcheng's widow.
But several days after that, another letter arrived from the capital with four carriages in tow, bringing betrothal gifts —— the royal family bride price, announcing that the marriage would still continue as planned. Although the day the groom would escort the bride, Sun Yān, was to be delayed once more, they still invited the eldest young lady Sun to choose a date to enter the capital.
Although Li Qingcheng had died, the person Sun Yān was to be married off to was still the crown prince. Li Gong was willing to take Sun Yān as his empress.
The Sun family was caught in a predicament. At his knee, Old Sun had one son and two daughters: the one in charge of the family, the eldest son Sun Yán, 25 years old, the second daughter Sun Yān, 17 years old, and the youngest daughter Sun Xin, currently 12 years old. Sun Yán was considering, but Sun Yān knew that she had a great responsibility to bear. Marriages between regional influential families and the imperial household had existed since ancient times. Her elder brother would also take up an official post after that. Since the family's prosperity depended on her, that night, Sun Yān made up her mind. She took off her mourning garment, exchanging it for a gorgeous dress, and set off for the capital.
It was a long road to the Western Plains. Later, once she was conferred as the empress, excluding familial visits, it would be difficult for her to return home to see her father's face. Ever since childhood, Sun Yán had always doted on his younger sister. Although he hated to part with her, he knew that Sun Yān's decision would make the currently wavering standpoint of the family steady once more.
Yet not even three months after that, another news came saying that the crown prince wasn't dead.
Following the report of Li Qingcheng successfully holding the Feng Pass, fighting against the Xiongnus' thousands of men and horses and killing them to the point they retreated with their tails between their legs, was Sun Yán receiving another letter. This time, a piece of huang jade sat alongside it.
Old Sun was already in his seventies. He had let his eldest main son take care of family affairs many years ago, yet for the great matter on this day, Sun Yán really couldn't afford to bear the responsibility. Sun Yán only asked for his father's instructions when absolutely necessary; he presented the letter alongside the jade huang to his father. Old Sun didn't touch the huang jade and merely looked at that letter. He recognized an old friend's cursive writing style he knew so well, and in the end, he dropped a sentence:
"Li Mou united the Central Plains and was named the emperor, reigning for no more than ten years. How about my Sun family? How many years have we lived in this secluded Western Plains?"
From the other side of the misty-azure curtain, Sun Yán replied, "The Sun family's lineage has already been around for 400 years."
The letter was thrown out from the other side of the screen and no more reply came. Sun Yán knew at once; his father's meaning was very clear. Their Sun clan prospered in Ting City, having accumulated some ten generations’ worth of fortune, and had successfully earned a name for themselves. They had witnessed ups and downs of several dynasties. Each time old and new regimes were swapped, nobody ever came to touch the Sun family because they were the main source of policy-makers.
The Sun family was obliged to stand with the final winner, and the person favored by the Sun family, was also certainly qualified to be the emperor. Apart from this, those so-called "mandate of heaven" and "right of succession" were all just complete rubbish. They only needed to choose the right person; the rest were merely excuses to conceal the means.
And thus, the duty to choose was entrusted to Sun Yán's shoulders. If Sun Yán wished to stand on Empress Fang's side, he would marry off his sister, binding the two families by marriage. After a year, the Sun clan would join the court as officials. They would cooperate to root out the crown prince to ensure glory, splendor, riches, and honor for the Suns.
However, Empress Dowager Fang was a daughter of a general’s family from the Northern Border. She also already held a great majority of the factions in the court in her hands. If the Suns wished to get a piece of the pie, not only did Sun Yán need to guard against the empress dowager's plots, he also needed to ensure that his sister would be favored for the rest of her life.
How about the other way around? If they used their full strength to assist the crown prince, to help Li Qingcheng win back the throne, they would hence become loyal subjects with meritorious service of pacifying a disaster; their honor and glory would never go lower than what they had on this day. Sun Yán had already dispatched people to investigate. Li Qingcheng's trusted aides were very straightforward: there were only Fang Qingyu and Zhang Mu, these two people. At this moment, the Sun family's interference would be akin to sending charcoal in snowy weather, while supporting that Fang lady in the court would be no more than an icing on the cake.
Among them, Zhang Mu was also Sun Yán's childhood acquaintance. Both the sentiment and the benefits gave a huge bargaining chip for him to lean on the exiled crown prince's side.
But, the trouble was, trouble had already arrived. Sun Yān had already entered the palace. In a few years, when Li Gong became the emperor, a grand wedding would be held and she would be crowned empress. It would seem that Empress Dowager Fang had all of this planned since a long time ago; she suddenly sounded out an imperial decree, handing over this mess for the Sun clan to deal with.
All the benefits and interests, their personal friendship, the land under heaven, and his official career, everything tangled together and led Sun Yán to his wits' end.
"They've already entered the city?" Sun Yán came back to his senses and put away the letter from his sister.
A young man sitting on the lower right said, "Who are those guys? In Ting City, more than a thousand people come and go every day, why does Eldest Brother only instruct us to keep an eye on these people?"
Sun Yán said, "Don't talk unless it's important. Transmit my order to all tavern landlords in the city: keep an eye out on them."
That young man with the elegant and graceful mannerism drank his tea before standing up and saying, "Should I personally go and see?"
Sun Yán replied, "Sun Cheng, you are really not afraid of death. Even if you go and see for yourself, putting words here and there for Xiong, those people are not ordinary people. They're not like the people you hang out with on normal days."
Sun Cheng grinned and cupped his hands in salute towards his clan brother before turning around and leaving.
Afternoon, Ting Province. Fang Qingyu jumped off the carriage and looked for a place to stay.
Ting City was a big city in the Western Plains; both Jia and Ting City were located in the Western Plains, which had a booming economy that was in no way inferior to the Central Plains. In this place, the people's style was open-minded, the women were all pretty, and its embroidery was well-known all over the world. Compared to the Central Plains, it had its own special, different kind of style and customs.
In the depths of winter, people took a break from their annual jobs and rushed to enter the city with carts of all sizes; they'd sell local products on the bustling markets and exchange new year's merchandise ——it was lively beyond comparison.
After staying in the Northern Border for several months, they had finally returned to a place that most likely had some more people. Li Qingcheng got off his carriage, stretched his body, and stood outside a tavern with his back facing the street corner to pee.
"Oi, Fang," Li Qingcheng carelessly called.
"Ai," Fang Qingyu replied.
While Li Qingcheng respectfully called Zhang Mu "Mu-ge," he nevertheless called Fang Qingyu with various random names. Ever since Fang Qingyu joined their troops, he was entrusted to handle all kinds of matters, big and small. This was because whenever he instructed Zhang Mu to handle affairs, the other party never opened his mouth; he merely nodded before turning around to do said job. Moreover, once he finished, he also didn't report back.
Fang Qingyu, on the other hand, would politely sound out a "yes," while also coming back once he had finished, and he would then give a thorough report. This was a good habit. As a result, Li Qingcheng rarely asked Zhang Mu to do things; he instead let Fang Qingyu run all kinds of errands and do all the hard work. Not to mention, Fang Qingyu was pretty much happy to take all these tasks as well.
And now, Li Qingcheng ordered, "You go sell this fur and give the money to Tang Hong. I'm rewarding you men."
After he finished saying that, he fastened his belt and turned to Tang Hong. "When you get the money, tell them that those who want to enter the city can enter to rest. Wait for my instruction then."
Tang Hong nodded. Before this, the 80-or-so soldiers he had with him had been made to camp three li outside of Ting City, while he himself had followed Li Qingcheng into the city to wait for his assignment.
Li Qingcheng looked in all directions before entering a tavern at the street corner.
Zhang Mu came in and then sat down. Li Qingcheng's eyebrows moved; he sized him up with a hint of astonishment in his eyes.
Finally realizing something, Zhang Mu looked at Li Qingcheng with an unnatural gaze.
Li Qingcheng suddenly smiled and asked, "Blockhead, why didn't you stick to 'master and servant' this time?"
Zhang Mu immediately stood up once again, his face looking slightly awkward.
Li Qingcheng said, "No, no, just joking, sit down."
Zhang Mu gestured with his hand, indicating that he wouldn't sit. Tang Hong stretched his muscles and bones; throughout the whole journey, he had been riding on a horse and was a bit tired as well. He immediately occupied a bench, sitting down.
Li Qingcheng also let him do whatever. He then called over the waiter and ordered several dishes. "Eat first ba, don't mind Fang Qingyu. What did you want to say?" he shot a glance at Tang Hong as he said so.
Tang Hong bent one of his knees, stepping on the bench, as he said in a low voice, "Are you not afraid the Sun family will arrest us all and hand us over to the Empress Dowager? You're now a wanted criminal after all."
Li Qingcheng sneered. "That just means it's a shitty life; if we die, we die. What does it have to do with this?"
Tang Hong didn't answer. Li Qingcheng pinched Zhang Mu's hand, motioning for him to sit down. Zhang Mu just expressionlessly stood there with a blank look on his face.
Li Qingcheng then said, "Since Mu-ge says the Suns are good people, then they are good people.
"Even if the Suns are bad people, if Mu-ge says they are good people, they must be good people," Li Qingcheng continued his subtle, layered remark.
Both Tang Hong and Zhang Mu didn't catch what Li Qingcheng meant. Li Qingcheng said, "I certainly trust Mu-ge. You still won't sit down?"
Zhang Mu stood there with a blank look. Finally, Li Qingcheng got annoyed. "Sit! You want everyone in this tavern to stare at us?"
With his entire face flushing a deep red, Zhang Mu finally sat down. Li Qingcheng leisurely said, "The Sun family still hasn't picked a side. Do you understand, General Tang?"
Tang Hong nodded his head, though he only understood part of it. In a low voice, Li Qingcheng explained, "They don't give us a reply precisely because their stance still wavers. They wish to see us to test how things stand in my end before deciding to defect to me or surrender to the Empress. Until then, they won't kill us."
Tang Hong finally understood, although the worry in his heart didn't dissipate. "And what if they decide to go to the Empress Dowager's side?"
Li Qingcheng said, "They won't."
He raised his eyebrows in provocation. Tang Hong narrowed his eyes and stared at him. "I said 'what if.'"
Li Qingcheng answered, "There's no 'what if.'"
Tang Hong said, "If there were no 'what-ifs,' you'd be sitting on the dragon chair right now, not here. My father said that there were 'what-ifs' in everything. For a general's people…"
Li Qingcheng faintly said, "That's just generals' 'what-ifs,' not the Son of Heaven's 'what-ifs.' Go back to the very first thing I said: that just means it's a shitty life; if we die, we die. Even if we run into one of those 'what-ifs,' we can just see it as heaven not letting me live."
Zhang Mu suddenly said, "No."
Neither Tang Hong nor Li Qingcheng understood; they both looked at him. Zhang Mu said, "Sun Yán is my old friend."
Li Qingcheng sneered. "Businessmen value profits."
Tang Hong was between tears and laughter. "The word 'friend' can be heard from a businessman's mouth?"
Zhang Mu looked as if he still had something to say, yet he was blocked by these rebuttals and was no longer able to open his mouth.
"Eat ba," Li Qingcheng instructed. "After we finish, we'll go out and walk around."
Tang Hong passed on the chopsticks while Zhang Mu distributed the bowls.
Tang Hong asked, "When will we pay a visit to the Sun family?"
Li Qingcheng said, "They themselves will come to our door. Don't you see? Someone has been watching us this entire time, ne."
Zhang Mu replied, "Yes."
Li Qingcheng, without much thought, glanced to one side. Immediately, one of the people at the table in the corner turned his head and pretended to indulge in a merry chat.
That sitting person was covered by a screen; half of the seat was behind the screen, while the other half was on the outside.
Tong Hong asked, "Who is it?"
Li Qingcheng answered, "Of course someone from the Sun family, who else? Eat first ba."
People of the Western Plains were fond of spicy food, a flavor both Li Qingcheng and Tang Hong weren't accustomed to. Not a moment after they started eating, their brows were full of sweat, cheeks and temples dripping wet, while their lips turned glossy red.
Li Qingcheng abandoned his chopsticks and drank his tea. Zhang Mu, like the wind sweeping away the remnant of clouds, cleared away all of the leftovers, leaving only a large bowl of deep-red spicy soup.
Fang Qingyu returned after finishing his task, bringing in four silver banknotes, each worth 500 liang, in both hands; he bowed down on the table.
Li Qingcheng praised his quick work in his heart, yet his mouth said, "Why’d you take so long?"
Fang Qingyu replied, "There were too many silver pieces; the silver fragments have all been converted to banknotes, which is why I got delayed for some time."
Li Qingcheng spoke, "I'm giving it all to you, Tang Hong. Take it and exchange them with silvers. There should be some more…" Saying so, he took out a silver piece and some silver fragments from his bosom. "Bring them outside the city and distribute them to the men ba."
Tang Hong asked, "You won't keep some?"
Li Qingcheng replied, "No, someone is going to give me some later. We’ve run out of food; use what we have to get by and eat."
Tang Hong said, "You don't keep even a single cent…"
Li Qingcheng just said, "Just go, what are you nagging me for? Once you've finished, gather at the Sun manor."
Tang Hong had no choice but to turn around and leave; Fang Qingyu also didn't bother with it. When he lifted Li Qingcheng's bowl, Zhang Mu immediately glanced at him.
Fang Qingyu returned the glance, and without much thought, he scooped some rice and tossed them into the spicy soup. "Thanking my liege for this reward. There is someone in the corner watching us, and there is also another group outside; they're most likely waiting for us to finish eating before putting us into trouble."
Li Qingcheng ignored Fang Qingyu; he was drinking his tea while lost in thought. Fang Qingyu said again, "Kill?"
Li Qingcheng said, "Don't kill."
Fang Qingyu wolfed down his meal, jabbing his own cheeks with chopsticks in the process, and immediately pointed at the teacup in Li Qingcheng's hand.
Li Qingcheng put down the teacup and Fang Qingyu took it at once.
"I'm not from the Western Plains; I'm not used to the spicy food," Fang Qingyu said.
"Are you done?" Li Qingcheng asked. "If you're done then let's go."
With that, he carried the chopstick holder on the table and got up to leave.
Fang Qingyu drank his tea and pulled up his sleeves. Together with Zhang Mu, they followed behind Li Qingcheng out of the restaurant.
"Guests!" the waiter hurriedly called. "Sir customers, you haven't paid yet! Please stay, ah! Wei, you three! What are you up to!"
Li Qingcheng turned around. "I just forgot. How much is it?"
The waiter smiled like a ruffian as he arrogantly made a two with his fingers. "2000 liang." While saying so, he gave a meaningful glance at a burly man sticking his head out on the outside of the tavern.
Li Qingcheng muttered to himself a little bit and shook that chopstick holder he was carrying like shaking a lottery poetry. He then walked behind the screen and saw around five or six scholars conversing. Li Qingcheng glanced all around before going to one of them and pressed on their shoulders, warmly asking, "What is this esteemed brother's name?"
From start to finish, that man had never shown his face in front of Li Qingcheng; he was confused and didn't know how Li Qingcheng was able to find him. He was first stunned, though he then got up and smiled. "This humble person has one-character name, which is 'Cheng.'"
Li Qingcheng nodded his head and ordered, "Sun Cheng it is. Settle the bill and go back; tell Sun Yán there is no need to watch us. Also, withdraw that man outside."
That man was indeed Sun Cheng, who currently looked as if he was struck by thunder on a clear day because his secret arrangement was laid out in the open without a chance for him to refute. However, in the twinkle of an eye, he resumed his smile. "What is Young Master talking about? I am unable to discern the meaning of this."
Li Qingcheng fiddled with the chopstick holder, moving it back and forth in front of Sun Cheng, making a clatter sound in the process. He then gave a smile. "Really do not understand? Did I get it wrong? It has nothing to do with you?"
Sun Cheng was also startled. Li Qingcheng cupped his hands and saluted. "Since I've admitted the wrong person, please excuse me. We'll meet again one day; I shall take my leave."
There were barrages of questions popping on Sun Cheng's head in a span of a short moment. He had still yet come back to his senses when he subconsciously cupped his hands to reply to the salute. His eyes followed Li Qingcheng once more as he turned around and took a step out of the tavern. The waiter shouted, "Son of a bitch! He won't pay! Beat him up!"
Li Qingcheng ordered, "Don't kill, use this ba. Here." Saying that, he handed the chopstick holder to Zhang Mu.
Then, more than ten local ruffians rushed in, each holding a wooden stick, shouting insults while they're at it. Looking at that, it looked like there would be a fight in the middle of the street.
Fang Qingyu casually weighed a bench before lifting it horizontally. He scored a hit and made that man spurt out blood all over his mouth.
Zhang Mu took that bamboo tube full of wooden chopsticks. He turned his palm over and used the "Flower Rain All Over The Sky" technique to shoot more than a dozen wooden chopsticks. In an instant, with no sound and no breath, a man was knocked out onto the ground.
For a brief moment, silence filled the whole street. Li Qingcheng, with two subordinates in tow, swaggered off.
Li Qingcheng was broke with not a single cent on his person, yet he didn't care anyway. He strolled around the market as he pleased but didn't buy a single thing. The Western Plains' products were poles apart from the capital; Li Qingcheng checked around and tasted many things. Whatever he could eat, he would eat, never mentioning the matter of paying for them.
After an afternoon stroll, Li Qingcheng looked for a place to sit down by the river joining the east and west side of the city. The river channel had frozen over, and Li Qingcheng threw a pebble at the ice surface and asked, "What shichen?"
"You," Zhang Mu said.
The sky was getting dark, and Fang Qingyu stretched his body. "Go back to the inn?"
Li Qingcheng said, "To the Sun manor."
In the afternoon, Sun Cheng rented a cart to send back those knocked-out ruffians to the Sun manor.
Sun Cheng spoke, "They… looked like they had guessed it, but…"
Sun Yán put down the ledger in his hands and asked, "What are you talking about?"
Sun Cheng gave a detailed account of the situation. Sun Yán didn't know whether to laugh or cry; he threw the ledger to one side and ordered, "Get the whole family ready outside the entrance to respectfully welcome Young Master Li."
It was already dusk when Li Qingcheng passed through the main street and walked to the main entrance of the Sun manor.
The place was already filled with people. Sun Yán was leading the whole family, both old and young in person as they waited respectfully at the entrance.
Li Qingcheng smiled. "They really are smart people."
Zhang Mu said, "Should've been waiting all afternoon."
Li Qingcheng nodded and dusted off the sleeves of his robe. He cupped his hands in greeting and smiled as he said, "Brother-in-law."
Sun Yán was neither fond nor angry with the address. He faintly smiled and said, "Young Master Li, I have been discourteous." After saying this, he made a "please" gesture, and more than 20 men outside the entrance saluted, sandwiching Sun Yán and Li Qingcheng as they entered the Sun manor.
Each time Qing-ge shows up I WANT TO SMACK HIM
20/02/2021: Forgot to say we were taking a break last week… Updates will resume in a few days!
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.