"Zhang Mu came forward and reached a hand out to Li Qingcheng’s forehead, only for Li Qingcheng to shoo him away."
Editor(s): namio, jelly
corporal punishment (brief but it's there)
The end of the year was approaching, and the next day, Li Qingcheng rose late. After eating breakfast, he felt that his head was once again aching faintly. Last night, he had thought about too many things, and as a result he hadn’t slept well for the entire night. When he got up, Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong had both already left to see to matters, and only Zhang Mu was left.
Li Qingcheng said, “Has Sun Cheng already come? Did he have anything to say? Do you have any matters to attend to today?”
Zhang Mu responded, “Yes.”
Li Qingcheng lifted his gaze. “Sun Yan wants us to be his guests?”
Since Sun Cheng had come over with something to say, and the close of the year was coming, more likely than not he came on orders to invite them as guests. Li Qingcheng’s single guess struck the mark, and Zhang Mu could only nod.
Li Qingcheng flipped through the papers on the desk, reading through them. These were the reports that Fang Qingyu and Tang Hong had written for the news they had gathered. He said mildly, “He only invited you, not me, right?”
Zhang Mu was stunned for a moment, before he nodded.
Li Qingcheng said, “If he wanted to invite me, then Sun Cheng would’ve waited until I rose to personally inform me. Since he left as soon as he finished speaking, more likely than not it was because he was inviting you privately. If my predictions aren’t wrong, Sun Yan also wanted you to find a reason to run into him, without letting me know, am I right?”
Zhang Mu hurried to wave his hand. “He didn’t say that.”
“But he has this intent, more or less, to prevent me from growing suspicious,” Li Qingcheng said, smiling slightly. “Sun Yan might even think that I’m very suspicious. You see, I’m indeed such a suspicious person.”
Zhang Mu replied, “I’m not going anymore.”
Li Qingcheng protested, “You go ba, and listen to what he has to say. After you come back, you can pick some words that don’t harm your brotherly relations to report back to me, so you don’t end up offending either side.”
Zhang Mu stood there, unmoving. Li Qingcheng narrowed his eyes for no apparent reason, still a little angry inside.
Words drying up again, in the end, Zhang Mu said, “I won’t go.”
Li Qingcheng insisted. “Go.”
Zhang Mu shook his head. Li Qingcheng said, “I order you to go!”
Saying nothing more, Zhang Mu turned and left.
Li Qingcheng was uneasy and frustrated, and his head hurt. He sat in the hall for the entire morning. It wasn’t until after noon, when he couldn’t hold out any longer, that he tossed the scroll in his hand away, staring unfocused into the empty hall.
He issued an order to the guards outside the hall. “Send someone to fetch Zhang Mu back. I have something to tell him.”
On that winter day, the hall was warm from the brazier. Li Qingcheng leaned in the chair, nodding off in a daze. In his dreams, he seemed to hear a familiar voice.
“Truly loyal subjects cannot even be sent away forcefully,” the Yu emperor’s withered old voice resounded in the great palace hall. “Their hearts will be filled with resentment, not because they are loyal to me, but because they are eternally loyal to the Yu Country.
“Loyalty to the Yu Country, at the bottom of it, is just loyalty to himself in order to gain a reputation of being loyal and righteous.
“No one is allowed to ask for mercy regarding this matter again. Tang Yingzhao, go announce for him to enter the Wu Gates and have the executioners hide themselves.”
Upon hearing that severe, cruel tone, young Li Qingcheng couldn’t help the fear in his heart, and he turned and ran out of the corner of the great hall.
“Qingcheng?!” the Yu emperor exclaimed. “Who let the crown prince come here? Bring him back!”
The little crown prince couldn’t stop panting as he ran out of the corridor, fear filling his gaze as he trembled incessantly. Behind him were the loud pleas of eunuchs who came chasing after him.
The little crown prince immediately bolted, but as he ran, he was so scared that he couldn’t recognize where he was going. He rushed from the side door into the royal palace, and five or six guards raced after him. He couldn’t help running into someone, and when he raised his head, he was so frightened that he began to shout as if he was being murdered.
“Your Highness the crown prince!”
The eunuchs that were waiting on him in the courtyard gathered around.
Standing in the hall, Zhang Mu was wearing a set of shabby robes, covered in the dust of the road. He had a saber strapped to his back, and there was a dark red burn scar on his face.
“All of you… stand down, stand down!” Li Qingcheng came back to himself. He looked left and right, and upon seeing that he had already run to a side palace, he asked, “Who are you?”
“You collided into His Highness! Kneel down quickly!” The five or six guards surrounded Zhang Mu, pulling him away.
Li Qingcheng hurried to assure them that he was alright. Zhang Mu, looking like a youthful teenager, watched Li Qingcheng without a sound.
Li Qingcheng said, “You…”
The young Zhang Mu was bending over to kneel, but Li Qingcheng hurried to say, “Rise, who is he?”
An eunuch responded respectfully, “Answering Your Highness, this person is a mute. He had a note on him; he came from the Western Plains to come into His Majesty’s service, and after he followed the servants in charge of outside purchases through the palace gates, he hasn’t been willing to leave. He has no tokens on him, and all he said was that he was searching for His Majesty. Now, all of the guards have been gathered outside of the Wu Gates, and even if we push him, he won’t leave…”
Li Qingcheng watched Zhang Mu’s eyes, and he suddenly thought of something. When he thought more on it, he dismissed it, and he said, “I probably recognize this person. Go bring him a change of clothes and let him bathe.”
Zhang Mu nodded, and Li Qingcheng said, “Father Emperor… Father Emperor is requesting my presence.”
Finally settling his nerves, Li Qingcheng ordered, “Afterwards, bring him to Longyang Hall… just like that, en, that’s settled then.”
Zhang Mu entered the palace, and after he finished cleaning up, he was still wrapped in a black robe as he stood outside of Longyang Hall.
Eight-year-old Li Qingcheng was standing in the hall, being punished. The Grand Secretariat slapped his palm until the sounds rang throughout the room, and half of his right hand was swollen.
“This teacher had you remain in the study to read,” the Grand Secretariat said. “Why did you run into the Great Hall? You almost ruined an important matter of His Majesty’s today! This beating should make you remember this lesson clearly…”
Li Qingcheng was in so much pain that tears gathered in his eyes. The Grand Secretariat then said, “Switch hands.”
Zhang Mu stood outside the hall, listening in, and Li Qingcheng’s gaze slid in that direction. “Teacher… wait.”
“Find something to eat, so that the person outside can have something in his stomach,” he said, lifting his red, swollen hand as he gave that order to an eunuch. “Find some clothes for him to change into. Last time, the black robes of Fourth Uncle’s bodyguards looked pretty good, give him one of those. That’s it, Teacher, continue ba.”
The Grand Secretariat shook his head, resigned. Zhang Mu went to obtain the guards’ martial robe, which he put on. He was tall, and his shoulders and back were broad, while his limbs were long and slender. He sat in a side room of Longyang Hall, eating a meal.
That same day, outside of the Wu Gates, the Yu emperor Li Mou had sent for a military official that had conquered the country with him to be dragged through the Wu Gates and executed, and his patriarchal clan put to death. That day, Zhang Mu stayed the night in Longyang Hall. The next day, when the little crown prince went to the imperial study to receive his punishment, he timidly brought up this matter. It wasn’t until then that Li Mou personally sent for Zhang Mu, interrogating him in detail in the imperial study.
Li Mou asked many questions which Li Qingcheng couldn’t understand, much less remember. He only remembered that Li Mou asked questions for an entire afternoon, and that the mute called Zhang Mu only nodded sometimes and shook his head at other times.
He thought, since this person is someone Father Emperor knows, then perhaps he’s going to assign him some major official role.
In the end, Li Mou didn’t even look at his proof of identity, much less grant him something. He sent him off to stand outside Longyang Hall to be the crown prince’s bodyguard.
At that moment, Li Qingcheng felt that something was very strange. This person seemed to have gone through a lot of hardship to come into the service of the emperor, so why did he become a bodyguard? Many days later, when he brought this up to the empress, Empress Fang laughed so hard that her usual poise was disturbed.
“Being your bodyguard, isn’t that the highest post an official can hold?” She pinched Li Qingcheng’s face. “You are the crown prince, and in the future, you will be the emperor. There are no other positions in this world that can be closer to you, isn’t that right?”
It was only with this that Li Qingcheng understood, but he held no feelings towards Zhang Mu at all. He just thought that Zhang Mu’s appearance was strange, and he carried a large blade on his back, so he looked very intimidating.
When he first saw Zhang Mu, he was handsome and fearsome, and after getting this person, he initially thought that he had gained another toy who would do whatever he wanted it to.
But as time passed, he grew to regret it. He found out that he was a mute, and he didn’t play with Li Qingcheng either. Whatever Li Qingcheng had him do, he didn’t want to do it, and he would only stand dumbly outside the door like a ghost. He wasn’t even as obedient as other bodyguards, so what was the point?
The initial interest had passed. When he heard Empress Fang’s words, he felt a little bit of indescribable dislike.
Li Qingcheng said, “He doesn’t know how to play with me, and he won’t pull out his sword for me to look at. He’s boring, even a pillar is better.”
Empress Fang chuckled. “Yes, isn’t he? Whether or not he can please you is very hard to say.”
Li Qingcheng fixed his gaze attentively on the two spinning red dates in the teacup as his mind wandered. Empress Fang continued, “You like people who know how to wield a sword, is that right?”
Li Qingcheng thought for a bit before nodding. Empress Fang then said, “How about Mother Empress give you one as well? My sister-in-law has a child named Fang whose looks are handsome, and he’s also skilled with the sword. His handwriting is well-formed, and he knows about everything. He’s a young heir of a martial clan, he can play with you.”
Li Qingcheng said, “That’s good. Where is he, why don’t we have him come? This mute can go, I’ll return him to Father Emperor.”
Empress Fang stopped him. “How can you let the bodyguard that your Father Emperor assigned you go just like that? You go talk to your Father Emperor. Just tell him that Mother Empress also picked out a person to follow you around, and see what he says.”
That year, Fang Qingyu successfully entered the palace to accompany the crown prince.
So that’s how it was… Fang Qingyu had also come at that time.
Li Qingcheng woke up from his short rest, to head-splitting pain.
At some point, Zhang Mu had already come to stand inside the hall. Li Qingcheng said, “You’re back? So early?”
Zhang Mu’s expression was very confused, and it was only then that Li Qingcheng remembered that he had summoned Zhang Mu back earlier. Trying to recall what had happened before his brief rest was difficult after that dream.
“It’s nothing,” Li Qingcheng said. “You go ba.”
Zhang Mu asked, “What’s wrong, does your head hurt?”
Li Qingcheng replied, “Again, I forgot what I wanted to say just now.”
Anxious, Zhang Mu came forward and reached a hand out to Li Qingcheng’s forehead, only for Li Qingcheng to shoo him away.
“Sun Yan wants me to go drink wine with him,” Zhang Mu said.
Li Qingcheng responded, “Go drink, don’t come back too late. Just now I was suddenly bored, and I wanted… en, to find someone to keep me company as a diversion, but it’s fine.”
Zhang Mu pulled out a bamboo whistle from the chest area of his robes, lightly testing it with his lips. It made a very quiet sound, and he then placed it on the table.
“For me?” Li Qingcheng picked up the bamboo whistle and turned it over and over, inspecting it. Zhang Mu nodded.
Li Qingcheng blew the whistle, and the arctic gyr flew into the hall, landing in front of the table. Its black eyes appraised Li Qingcheng, before it turned its head to look at Zhang Mu.
Zhang Mu bowed, before once again leaving.
Li Qingcheng hugged the falcon as he stared off into the distance. The arctic gyr liked cleanliness, and it used its beak to ensure that even the space between its feathers was completely cleaned of any speck of dust. Because of that, it also didn’t have any of the poultry smell that normal birds had. After Li Qingcheng thought for a while, he said to the arctic gyr, “What’s going on with me?”
After sitting for a moment more, Li Qingcheng couldn’t resist calling over a guard and commanding him, “Call Zhang Mu back.”
That guard had no words to say to that. Li Qingcheng continued, “Go, tell him not to drink anymore, and as soon as he’s done chatting, to return immediately.”
The guard could only turn to carry out those orders, when Li Qingcheng then said, “Never mind, don’t go. Pretend I didn’t mention it.”
Zhang Mu had only been out of the estate for a single day, but Li Qingcheng suddenly felt an indescribable emptiness. He felt that he couldn’t sit still, and he slumped on the table, saying to the arctic gyr which was ceaselessly turning its head to look at its surroundings, “Why doesn’t Mu-ge like talking? That personality of not liking to talk is really not one that I can afford.”
Burbling sounds came from the arctic gyr’s throat as it fixed its gaze on Li Qingcheng.
“That mute looks really good when he smiles,” Li Qingcheng said absently.
A moment later, Li Qingcheng brought his thoughts back under control. He drank a little of the now-cold tea as he continued to read, and not long after, Fang Qingyu came back.
“Oh?” Fang Qingyu found this scene to be a little odd. “How come it’s just you?”
Li Qingcheng snapped, “Are those words what a bodyguard would say?”
Smiling happily, Fang Qingyu took a seat by Li Qingcheng’s side. “You’ve remembered that I’m a bodyguard?”
Li Qingcheng didn’t respond. Fang Qingyu continued, “Give me something to drink ba, Qing-ge has run around Ting City for three days now for you.”
Li Qingcheng handed over that cup of cold tea that he himself had drunk half of. Fang Qingyu ducked his head and drank it, before saying, “I received a bit of news. Tonight, Governor Li’s son Li Keng is going to the Hall of Brimming Spring.”
Li Qingcheng: “What use is this?”
Even after thinking about it, Li Qingcheng felt that it was no use, so he could only put it aside for now.
Fang Qingyu: “Are you bored of staying inside all the time? Thankfully I finished my matters early today, so I could come back to keep you company.”
“Who wants you as company?” Li Qingcheng pushed Fang Qingyu’s head away, drawling, “Move aside a little, don’t stick this close to me. Watch out so that my son doesn’t find you annoying. See, its feathers are puffing up.”
The arctic gyr eyed Fang Qingyu with fierce hostility, its entire body of feathers puffing up aggressively.
Fang Qingyu: “Where did that mute go?”
Li Qingcheng: “To the Sun family to drink wine.”
Fang Qingyu narrowed his eyes slightly. “In this period of time from New Year’s Day to the fifteenth, Sun Yan may invite you to drink wine and watch a play.”
Li Qingcheng thought for a moment before he spoke. “It’s possible.”
Fang Qingyu: “What do you plan to do?”
Li Qingcheng: “I haven’t decided yet. I need to use this opportunity to drive a wedge between the provincial officer and the governor. And, in regards to the relationship between them and the Sun family, to foster mutual distrust between them, making each of them feel that the other is hiding something.”
Fang Qingyu thought for a moment, before speaking. “How about letting them both know that you’ve come, but make Provincial Officer Lin and the governor both think that you’re colluding with the Sun family, and the Sun family think that you’re colluding with the provincial officer?”
Li Qingcheng nodded. “Yes. The governor’s loyalty lies with the imperial court, the Sun family hasn’t yet decided, and the provincial officer does not know at all that I’ve come. Let’s first think of a way to let the governor know of our presence at the Sun family manor. As long as it’s believable, the governor will report it to the court.”
Fang Qingyu asked, “And then what?”
Li Qingcheng didn’t say anything more. Fang Qingyu said, “You want my aunt to know that you’re in the Western Plains, so that even if the Sun family didn’t want to pledge their loyalty to you, they would be forced to.”
Li Qingcheng nodded slightly, and Fang Qingyu continued, “You’re not afraid of Sun Yan sinking his own ship and selling you out to the provincial officer?”
Li Qingcheng responded, “I’ve been thinking about this matter in recent days, about how to make this happen without any gaps, however minute; how we’ll have the governor send a letter to the imperial court, and how to keep that a secret from Sun Yan, to prevent him from growing suspicious.
“The best result would be for the people from the court to come, remove Provincial Officer Lin’s command over the troops, and force the Sun family to turn us over. With this, Sun Yan would immediately have to make his stance known.”
Fang Qingyu said, “I do have a method, but it’s somewhat risky.”
Fang Qingyu explained for a long while, and Li Qingcheng came up with a plan. He said, “Now it’s all settled. Sun Keng is right there in the brothel, so we shouldn’t delay this any longer. You go make your preparations with your people, and we’ll go right to the Hall of Brimming Spring to enact a chance encounter.”
The Hall of Brimming Spring had been in business for decades, and it was originally a business that a Jianghu person from Jia City had started up in their old age to pass the time. It catered to both men and women, and the young male and female prostitutes were separated by a single wall. It was split into the eastern and western towers, which had tens of private rooms and hundreds of prostitutes. Right now, it was time for the lanterns to be lit, and large red lanterns hung in the street outside.
It was the end of the year, and there was an endless stream of rich people into the establishment. There were quite a few officials’ carriages stopped outside the Hall of Brimming Spring. Li Qingcheng first had the carriage stop in a neighboring alley, before he and Fang Qingyu trod on the street slick with snow as they entered the hall.
Just as Fang Qingyu, holding Li Qingcheng’s hand, walked through the doors, the women came crowding around them. Li Qingcheng asked quietly, “Who have you been in contact with?”
Fang Qingyu waved his hand, and a madam put down her silken fan and came over.
“She’s called Qiu’niang,” Fang Qingyu explained. “That day, she didn’t enter the hall, she was waiting outside in the yard.”
Some days before, Qiu’niang had peeked into the hall from outside and gotten a general gist of things. She knew of Li Qingcheng’s identity, and now she hurried to bow. “Greetings, Young Master Li.”
This was the first time that Li Qingcheng had come to such a place, and he was a little curious, so he peered around curiously.
“There are handsome young men too?” Li Qingcheng asked, unrestrained. “Are you the owner?”
Qiu’niang smiled. “Young Master is unaware, but this humble lady merely makes reservations for guests. The Hall of Brimming Spring is a flower hall, but it also serves as a willow hall. If any of the customers in the tower ask for a girl or a lad, they all find this humble one to arrange matters appropriately.”
Seeing that Qiu’niang seemed to be a cultured, reasonable person, unlike the old proprietresses he had heard of in passing, Li Qingcheng smiled gently. “You all even have different parts you’re in charge of? When will the young master of Governor Sun’s family arrive?”
Qiu’niang replied quietly, “I only heard that he had reserved a seat, but he has not yet come. As is customary, he usually only arrives after the lanterns are lit.”
Fang Qingyu said, “Let’s first find a room and get some wine and food so that we can eat first before discussing. You come up in a bit once you’re done with your matters. If there’s anything we need, we’ll send for you. We won’t need any girls to keep us company.”
Qiu’niang replied, “Alright, please come this way, Young Master.”
And with that, she circled around the front of the great hall and led the two of them to an inner room. Within that brothel three stories tall, there was a lively customer and a young male prostitute chasing each other around, before they ducked into a room.
Li Qingcheng was brought into a room on the third floor, which had a bed behind a curtain. He sat down on the side of the bed.
“Why don’t I see any enthusiasm at all?” Li Qingcheng said, smiling.
Fang Qingyu responded, “She’s treating us as one of her own, who have come to do nothing more than carry out a task. Why would she try to sell her coquettish charms to her master? You rest here, Qing-ge will go make preparations first.”
Fang Qingyu went out and peered down, only to see that Qiu’niang had changed her demeanor entirely, and she walked towards the Flower Hall in the midst of a crowd of beauties.
A person was currently standing there. That was Sun Cheng.
Sun Cheng smiled. “Today it’s not me, it’s my lord who wants to entertain his guests here.”
Qiu’niang said, mock-angrily, “Look at what time it is now. The lords that come at the end of the year are many, and Governor Sun’s young master should have also booked his position long in advance.”
Sun Cheng said helplessly, “This is also a hastily organized banquet. If the Hall of Brimming Spring can’t do it, then I’ll go elsewhere.”
A smile blossomed across Qiu’niang’s face. “Since you’ve come personally to ask, then I’ll leave you a space. When will they come?”
Sun Cheng said relievedly, as if he had just shed a heavy burden, “Thank you very much. Bring all of your hall’s male prostitutes here to the side hall, I’ll pick one.”
Qiu’niang said, “Today’s matter…”
Sun Cheng smiled apologetically. “Of course I’ll remember it…” And saying this, he used his finger to poke the powder-covered face of Qiu’niang, who scoffed at him before she led Sun Cheng towards the inner hall.
Not even a moment later, Sun Cheng came out, leading a male prostitute. Fang Qingyu stopped on the second floor, torn between laughing and crying, thinking today I’ve really won the grand prize. That prostitute was only fifteen or sixteen, and he looked delicate from head to toe. Though he didn’t have the sharpness and bravery that Li Qingcheng had, the space between his eyebrows held some of that charm of seeming to be in love, but actually being merciless.
Sun Cheng said, “He will do. Keep him. In a bit, my family’s eldest young heir is going to come.”
Qiu’niang nodded and saw the guests off. At that time, there was currently a servant carrying a pot of tea, as well as wine and dishes, heading towards the third floor. Fang Qingyu’s emotions were complicated and hard to describe, so he could only turn and follow him up the stairs.
The author has words to say: Today, after seeing the comments, I found quite a few who brought up questions about Sun Yan’s IQ
Let me explain it here
This work, until today, has all been written using the third person POV of Li Qingcheng, so everyone already has an initial understanding and opinion of Li Qingcheng
But Sun Yan basically doesn’t have that, and even his knowledge of Li Qingcheng is relatively blurry
Let’s give an example. Imagine, and this is only a fantasy:
Imagine if your previous company’s boss went bankrupt, and he also died. The company was reorganized, and all the funds were seized
One day, the boss’s son (a person you’ve never met) brought two of the security officers that stand at the door of the company to your house to freeload off you for meals and housing
Sitting on the couch to smoke and watch TV, and at night he goes out to nightclubs to play
And he even brings up the idea of you giving up all your family assets to provide him with financing, because he wants to stage a comeback
As for how he’s going to repay you if he succeeds on a fluke, he doesn’t mention anything about it at all.
How would you react? That is the difficult question facing Sun Yan
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.