"My house was burned down. Had nowhere to go."
Both lavish and grand, the Sun manor consisted of more than 70 large courtyards that overlapped with 100 or so smaller ones, impressively occupying four whole main streets in the eastern corner of Ting City —— it was almost comparable to a Yu Country's prince manor.
At dusk, Tang Hong returned to the city after he had finished handling the matter. When he arrived at the Sun manor, he knocked on the gate and was greeted by the family's servant. After entering, they strode past two gates, but since the place had too many layers and was too complex, Tang Hong ended up getting confused and feeling lost as they navigated around the manor. He was led to the main hall of a side courtyard, and in there, he saw Sun Yán sitting on the owner’s seat while Li Qingcheng took the main guest seat on the lower left as he casually put aside his teacup and chatted around.
The hall was packed with about five or six old men, all of whom looked like people one generation above Sun Yán.
Zhang Mu and Fang Qingyu stood silently behind Li Qingcheng.
"Back?" asked Li Qingcheng.
With one hand cupped into a fist and the other holding it, Tang Hong bowed in salute. "I have done as Young Master commanded."
Sun Yán looked at Tang Hong and was about to get up when Li Qingcheng said, "The troops' errand boy. Just now, he went out of the city to do some business."
Sun Yán nodded again and again before saying, "During last autumn's harvest, businesses were all-around better than previous years. But, the war in the Northern Border and the capital pulling back had made the situation turn south. We've waited until winter, yet it still falls shorter than that of some years ago."
Li Qingcheng faintly said, "In any case, it will get better. No matter how many Xiongnus there are, there will be a point in time when all of them are killed. In a few years, the court will become stable and the little Son of Heaven will ascend the throne. This humble brother feels that the court..."
At this, he raised his hands and modestly cupped his hands in salute. "...must also use this time to employ the troops at the border area."
An old man repeatedly nodded his head while stroking his beard. "Where does Young Master Li come from?"
Li Qingcheng smiled. "My late father was from Qin Province, although he hasn't been back for quite some years."
The elders were still discussing with one another when Sun Yán said, "Young Master Li has come a long way here. Anyhow, since there is no problem, he will stay over in my humble home for several days. With a glance, I know you and I are kindred spirits, and Zhang-xiong is also my old friend. Please treat them well."
Li Qingcheng smiled. "If even the Sun family disdains me, then I'll have no place to live in this land under heaven."
Everyone laughed, and Li Qingcheng continued, "All speak of how the imperial palace in the capital city is grand and magnificent, but now that I have seen it, Brother's residence also isn't inferior to the Son of Heaven's."
Sun Yán modestly declined the compliment over and over. Seeing that Li Qingcheng was preparing to get up, he rushed to say, "In that case, may I invite you to dine first?"
Li Qingcheng gladly nodded at this; Sun Yán then led his guests to the eastern wing. The servants had already prepared the meal. Sun Cheng received Zhang Mu, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong and led them to sit at one table, while Sun Yán and Li Qingcheng sat on another with the clan elders to keep them company. All they talked about were the Western Plains' local conditions as well as social customs, the war in the Northern Border, and other casual conversations; Li Qingcheng didn't mention a word about his identity, while Sun Yán also didn't ask any more questions in mutual understanding.
When Sun Yán was introducing him to the clan elders, he simply stated "This is Young Master Li" and didn't elaborate any further. The Suns were all sophisticated people —— how much Li Qingcheng wished to reveal and to what extent, everything was entirely up to him.
After the meal, the clan elders each took their leave and went back to their room. Finally, Li Qingcheng and Sun Yán had a chance to be alone.
There were less than ten days before the New Year Festival. As fine, delicate snow fluttered in the air of this whole city located in the Western Plains, Li Qingcheng and Sun Yán walked side by side through the corridor, while Zhang Mu, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong followed far behind them.
Li Qingcheng halted his steps.
Sun Yán let out a long, drawn out sigh. He shook his head and forced a smile before raising the hem of his robe to salute, yet Li Qingcheng quickly supported Sun Yán up.
"No need to stand on ceremony," Li Qingcheng smiled and said. "You and I call each other brothers."
How could Sun Yán dare to be brothers of equal status with the crown prince? He hurriedly said, "Your Highness is joking. Now that the situation in the Western Plains isn't clear, and since the third and the fourth uncle of this manor are also good friends with the Administrative Assistant and the Prefect of the Western Plains, they simply dare not use the monarch and subject's etiquette when we were seeing them before."
Li Qingcheng said, "At this unusual period, there is no need to adhere to small details. Sun-xiong..."
Sun Yán spoke, "This lowly subject truly dares not."
Li Qingcheng said in an indifferent tone, "Sun Yán."
Sun Yán bowed. "This subject is here."
"Where's your younger sister?" Li Qingcheng asked. "It has been some years since I last heard from her."
Sun Yán answered, his tone sad, "This subject's younger sister has been received by Empress Fang; she is to enter the palace to prepare to be married off next year."
The monarch and subject each had their own thoughts as they stood inside that courtyard filled with dancing snow, neither side uttering a word. Li Qingcheng made a small, low sigh.
Li Qingcheng then opened his mouth. "Sun Yán..."
Sun Yán spoke, "What is Your Highness's command?"
Li Qingcheng shook his head, and Sun Yán continued, "If this subject may be so bold as to offer advice regarding this matter, Your Highness shouldn't act too hastily and without consideration. During this period of time, this subject requests for Your Highness not to get carried away in abandon and stay in this humble residence for a few months."
Li Qingcheng slowly nodded, his eyes reflecting the color of the plum blossoms in the whole garden, red as blood.
"If this news gets leaked, it will implicate your whole clan. It is inappropriate," Li Qingcheng said. "Is there a residence inside the city?"
At this, Sun Yán was at a loss for words. Although Li Qingcheng was penniless through and through, he still lazily said, "I came here from Feng City in the east, and still have some spare silver. This is an inconvenience to you..."
Sun Yán asked, "Does Your Highness think that low of this subject?!"
Li Qingcheng smiled and patted Sun Yán on the shoulder. "Sun Yán, problems gather around me. Your hospitality toward me, for this, I am very grateful. But, since there is no one who can say for sure what will happen in the future, I cannot give you any more trouble."
Zhang Mu stood at a distance and listened. Once this sentence entered his ears, he suddenly opened his mouth. "Sun Yán."
Sun Yán could only say, "That being the case, this subject will pick a spacious residence for Your Highness then."
Li Qingcheng instructed, "There is no need for it to be too far from your Sun family; the western side will do. Remember to make haste at all cost, otherwise, at the end of the year, there will be unending streams of visits from your family's guests; with all of them coming and going. Since Fang Qingyu is also a wanted fugitive, there is no guarantee there won't be people who recognize him."
Sun Yán nodded. Li Qingcheng continued, "About the silver..."
Sun Yán interrupted, "Your Highness, there is no need to mention this matter anymore, lest this subject would really have no face to see the late emperor."
With a glint of a smile in his eyes, Li Qingcheng said, "Since it is like that, there won't be any need to say 'thank you.' What you have done for me today, I will always remember it in my heart. Go ba."
Sun Yán bowed and asked to be excused. Li Qingcheng stood with an expressionless face for a moment before turning around to the guest room.
The Sun family was rich and influential, and they prepared a guest area in the east wing for Li Qingcheng to stay. The courtyard was arranged extremely neat and clean; it had a spacious garden as well as a small pond with rockery, with six rooms in total surrounding it —— it was just like a paradise on earth.
Li Qingcheng let Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong each choose a room, while he remained to share a room with Zhang Mu. There was a screen separating the inside and outside of the room, Li Qingcheng slept inside, while Zhang Mu slept in a small servant bed on the outer side.
Li Qingcheng dismissed the servants sent by Sun Yán and went straight to the room to have a rest.
In the dark, Zhang Mu suddenly opened his mouth. "He..."
Li Qingcheng's voice was smooth as he said, "Mu-ge, sleep."
Zhang Mu didn't utter a single word, and Li Qingcheng continued, "This is not the place to talk, and also not the time to talk."
There were no words spoken all night.
Zhang Mu got up early the next day. He was familiar with the Sun residence; he walked with ease through the corridor and stood for a while in the garden that separated the eastern and western side of the manor.
The fragrance of plum blossoms permeated all over the garden. On this wintry 12th lunar month, the large pond in the area had already been covered with thick ice.
Zhang Mu fixed his lapel and turned to face the long corridor. Standing in an open clearing, he pushed his two palms forward, readying his horse stance.
Sun Yán, who came from the east wing as he led the servants of the manor, personally carried a box of morning meals. He turned his head when he passed through the corridor and stopped moving afterward.
"Young Heir," the housekeeper bowed and spoke.
Sun Yán signaled for them not to disturb Zhang Mu and said in a low voice, "Take this food box to the west wing. You must be respectful when speaking."
The housekeeper took the box and left with the rest of the servants. Sun Yán walked into the garden, and standing beside Zhang Mu, he also did a horse stance.
Zhang Mu's two palms gathered in one place as he took a large stride forward; this wasn't a part of the Eagle Martial Arts. Sun Yán followed suit and moved in an identical style to Zhang Mu's, their arms drawing circles. They made loops after loops when they raised their hands, the movements of their fists somewhat apt for this garden full of plum blossoms, and when they turned over their palms flat, it was as if their fingers were twirling a flower —— it was too beautiful no words could describe it.
Sun Yán followed Zhang Mu as they finished the palm strikes' routine. He sneered and said, "After so many years, Mu-ge still remembers my Sun family's 'Plum-Shattering Fist.'"
Zhang Mu stood in contemplation and opened his mouth a moment later. "Old Sun has earnestly taught it, so I must remember. Now, I don't know where Old Sun is."
Sun Yán minded his own business as he went to sit in the stone chair to the side of the garden. "My father no longer takes care of family affairs and is now concentrating on studying the Dao in Mt. Wenzhong 10 li outside of Ting City."
Zhang Mu slowly nodded his head. Sun Yán asked, "This life, you're following the crown prince?"
Zhang Mu didn't reply.
Sun Yán: "Mu-ge, you and I have known each other for more than ten years. At that time, you just left as you pleased without saying a word. In the years after you had entered the capital, I also didn't receive any letters from you. You don't think enough of our brotherhood."
Zhang Mu: "My house was burned down. Had nowhere to go."
Sun Yán sighed. "Why didn't you come to the Sun family?"
Zhang Mu was silent, and Sun Yán added, "It's strange how the huge fire suddenly erupted that year, and the fact that the Yu Emperor had also never ordered a thorough investigation..."
Zhang Mu: "No need to say it again."
Sun Yán sneered. "Yes, let's drop it. What's your plan in the future?"
Zhang Mu went quiet again for a moment before abruptly saying, "Sun Yán, you're my friend."
Sun Yán got up. "Mu-ge, I do know what you're going to say. I have been looking for a time to discuss it with you."
"Whether to help His Highness, I cannot individually decide it myself. The old and young of the clan are all watching. Over the years, I have taken over the position of head of the family. I cannot choose a wrong move, I cannot make a mistake for a..." Sun Yán halted. "Although the friendship between you and I is sincere, the clan elders aren't bound to recognize it as well."
Zhang Mu said, "His Highness is a person that cherishes friendships."
Sun Yán shook his head. "His Highness might cherish friendships, but they do not. They only recognize money. Whoever sits on the emperor's throne, be it old or new, the Sun family doesn't actually care..."
Zhang Mu raised his eyebrows, his intention to intimidate the other was clear. He coldly said, "Say that again."
Sun Yán, however, was not afraid in the slightest. Instead, he smiled and said, "Mu-ge, the Sun family has prospered and thrived in the Western Plains for 400 years. And in these past 400 years, we have also experienced many changes in dynasties. Do you understand?
"There is no Son of Heaven who could keep their throne steady all the time," Sun Yán continued. "And there are no rivers and mountains so strong that they could forever avoid destruction. Sixteen years ago, my father had made the right bet; the Suns used everything they had to provide the late emperor with 400,000 liang of silver as well as 1,200,000 jin of iron in exchange for today's honor and favor.
"In just a few years, the moment to choose a side will once again come, and this time, it will be on me, regardless of friendship, regardless of the so-called mandate of heaven, and regardless of the life and death of the common people. Using principle and fact to pressure me won't have any use, because we only talk about future prospects.
"If His Highness wishes to obtain my Sun family's assistance, he has to give enough for the Suns in return, while at the same time proving that he has the ability to become the master of the capital," Sun Yán said.
Zhang Mu said, "He does, and he will."
Sun Yán smiled. "Wait until I personally see it with my own eyes."
The whole yard was quiet when Sun Yán suddenly said, "Although, did Mu-ge plan to draw out his sabre to hack me?"
Zhang Mu said, "Had the idea."
Sun Yán smiled; he took something out of his bosom and put it in Zhang Mu's hand.
That thing was a heavy throwing weapon in a shape of eagle feather and made of pure gold. When Zhang Mu pinched his fingers, a "clink" resounded, and sixteen thin, golden feathers spread out in the shape of a fan. Another pinch, and it closed and turned into a thin stack. Weighing the weight, both the handwork and the additional layer of gold, it was worth at least 3,000 liang of silver.
Zhang Mu handed it over to Sun Yán, indicating that he wouldn't accept it, but Sun Yán insisted. "Even if dynasties each have their own master, you and I have known each other since childhood. The camaraderie built when we were following my father to learn his fist technique and martial arts in this garden of plums will never change."
Zhang Mu accepted the golden feathers and slightly nodded. He went past the corridor and back to the side wing.
After sitting in the garden for another half of a shichen, Sun Yán went to see Li Qingcheng.
Li Qingcheng had finished his morning meal and was currently flipping through the record regarding the Western Plains' products, when Sun Yán stepped forward and informed him about the purchase of the residence. Li Qingcheng raised his head. "Mu-ge, since you two are on good terms, you go with him. No need to purchase the bigger one, keep everything simple."
At this, Zhang Mu's expression turned a little stiff. He nodded a moment later, albeit unnaturally, and went along with Sun Yán to the west of the city to handle the matter.
"How did you know those two got along well?" Fang Qingyu asked.
"Didn't you see?" Li Qingcheng slightly frowned. "Mu-ge mentioned Sun Yán three or four times in one day, and the Zhang family was said to be an influential family in the Western Plains..."
Tang Hong was sitting in a chair, bending over as he wiped his halberd; ever since receiving the Xiongnu King's Fanhai Halberd, he indeed loved it to the point he couldn't put it down. He replied, "I heard they were a prominent family among the Wulin circles of Jia City. From the Western Plains to Jiang Province, and even Donghai and Qin Province, the Wulin sects were all under the Zhang family's control."
Li Qingcheng said, "Precisely, I think Sun Yán's household is also a practitioner."
Fang Qingyu sneered. "The Sun family? The martial arts handed down in a family are all invented by women. The 25 forms of the 'Plum-Shattering Fist' are not bad for self-defense, but they cannot be used to kill the enemy."
Li Qingcheng: "It's also natural and to be expected for them to have old friendships."
Fang Qingyu asked, "What do you plan to do?"
Li Qingcheng carelessly said, "You should ask him what he plans to do."
Fang Qingyu smiled and asked back, "Then, Your Highness, please point out to this subject of what the Sun family's plan might be?"
Li Qingcheng replied, "The Sun family wants to wait and see."
"See?" Tang Hong looked up.
Li Qingcheng closed the record. "See everything he can see; he wants to observe us. That is why we can't let him see through everything. If we live here, it won't be convenient to both talk and send letters since he has eyes and ears everywhere. We have to move out."
Not even a shichen later, Zhang Mu returned.
Zhang Mu said, "We've selected a residence."
Li Qingcheng nodded and instructed Tang Hong, "Bring along the servant sent over by the Suns. Move our things from the camp outside of the city and the tavern in the city to the residence."
In the afternoon, Li Qingcheng moved out from the side gate of the Sun manor. The residence chosen by Sun Yán was a former house of a salt merchant who had "donated" to become an official. He went to assume the post in the capital, going together with his wife and children. But, before the year ended, Empress Fang usurped the throne and washed the capital in blood. There was no more news from that salt merchant thereafter. In all likelihood, he must've been buried together with the rest of the fallen court. Only two old servants were watching over the mansion at the moment; Sun Yán gave them some silver and privately took possession of the residence, but still ordered the two servants to watch over the front.
The moment Li Qingcheng came, Sun Yán conveniently gave the residence to him.
Li Qingcheng didn't have much furniture, so Sun Yán opened his private warehouse and brought some furnishings and appliances; they were piled up in the courtyard. Li Qingcheng went out of the carriage and saw that even though the residence hadn't been tidied up for ages, the wealthy family's atmosphere still somewhat lingered inside, which immediately made his heart content.
In the backyard, Sun Yán stood with his hands behind his back while having a casual conversation with Fang Qingyu.
Sun Yán: "General Fang has worked hard these days."
Fang Qingyu sneered. "It's our duty as subjects. What 'work hard'?"
Sun Yán sighed. "If another subject was in your position, other people might not dare to say it out loud, but this humble brother would never be able to do the same thing." Saying so, he took an envelope out of his bosom and put it in Fang Qingyu's hand before adding, "Ting City's New Year Festival is bustling, and Fang-xiong has nothing to do. Might as well go out for a walk. Think of it as this humble brother's small regard and spend it whenever. Fang-xiong, please don't refuse."
Fang Qingyu nodded and actually wasn't modest as he took the envelope and put it into his bosom.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.