"Even though I'm not smart, I also want to help you do something."
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"Last night, what time did His Highness go to bed?" Sun Cheng inquired from a soldier outside the room.
Since that soldier on-duty had been instructed by Tang Hong last night, he replied with a smile, "Because the winter was cold, and the night was long, His Highness had gone to rest early. Why do you ask this?"
Sun Cheng smiled. "It's nothing, I’m merely asking whether His Highness has become accustomed to living in this place. How about General Zhang?"
The soldier leaned on his spear and smiled at him. "General Zhang was said to have gone to Jia City yesterday to handle some matters and only returned in the middle of the night."
Sun Cheng nodded his head and once again looked inside the room; the sun had risen as high as three poles, yet no one had woken up yet. He then said, "Once His Highness has woken up, I'll come back," before turning around to take his leave.
Li Qingcheng got up, yawning, and moved to sit in front of the table in a casual, very unconcerned manner; it was as if nothing had happened last night.
"Did he ask?" Li Qingcheng questioned.
Tang Hong nodded before answering, "He came and asked how your sleep was. I suppose he's probably asking around about whether you had lost your temper last night?"
Li Qingcheng sneered. "Sun Yán is even more paranoid than I am. Last night, Mu-ge came back after a while, how could I get angry? Right ba. Sit down and let's eat."
Tang Hong asked, "Last night, you all..."
Fang Qingyu gave a meaningful glance at Tang Hong, which made him stop asking any more questions. Li Qingcheng however, was frank and just said in an easy manner:
"I leaked the news out. At this moment, Sun Yán is still completely in the dark, while the governor already thinks that we're colluding with the Sun family. Next, you go dispatch some people to keep watch on the governor's residence 12 shichen a day. Observe who goes in and out of the residence, where they go, when they leave, and whether they leave the city; all of these must be reported back to me at once."
Tang Hong nodded. Li Qingcheng then added, "Leave the governor be in that place for now. Wait until he passes on the news before we move on to the next step. Fang Qingyu, you go take Tang Hong's place and meet up with our spies inside the city."
Tang Hong and Fang Qingyu finished their breakfast in a hurry and got ready to go out, leaving only Li Qingcheng and Zhang Mu at the table.
Li Qingcheng: "Mu-ge, now is the time for you to step in."
Zhang Mu: "You tell me."
Li Qingcheng said, "Yesterday, I really thought this through. Unlike the governor who has always been siding with Empress Fang's group, the provincial officer was one of Father Emperor's former subordinates during his campaign to unite the land under heaven. Originally, the Western Plains' provincial officer wasn't even him; he was only a common officer promoted to be one by the previous generation's provincial officer at the time he resigned. Whether he's loyal to me or not, it's still hard to say, so I'll go try to probe him out first before making any moves. I'm going to test the water by dispatching someone to bring over a gift to his house."
"Fang Qingyu's reputation isn't good; he had once ditched an army and ran away. If his identity gets revealed, it'll be troublesome. The best candidate is of course Tang Hong, but I have some apprehension since Tang Hong is from a military family; I'm afraid Provincial Officer Lin will suspect that I'm sending someone to seize his military power, so it's also not appropriate."
Zhang Mu: "I'll go. What should I say?"
Li Qingcheng licked his lips and just mused over it, while Zhang Mu just stared blankly at him. Li Qingcheng smiled and said, "Never mind. Since you can't talk, let's go together. Change your clothes into better ones and bring the huang jade with you. I'll disguise myself as a soldier and follow you."
Zhang Mu nodded and went to change his clothes without saying anything else. Outside, a message was passed on that someone had come again; it was, of course, Sun Cheng.
Sun Cheng came in and cupped his hands, smiling. "Did Your Highness sleep well last night?"
Li Qingcheng was in very high spirits; he changed his expression and said with a smile, "Staying by the furnace in the winter night felt very nice and warm. Moreover, I was also worn out. This behavior is truly intolerable na."
Sun Cheng said, "These days, Your HIghness also doesn't seem to go out for a walk."
Li Qingcheng smiled. "I've just finished tidying up the residence. It hasn't been long since I started to stay here, so I've been flipping through some books." Saying so, he showed Sun Cheng the Political Records of the Western Plains and other books in his hands before gladly continuing, "In the future, I might be living in the Western Plains for a period of time, so I need to be aware of the situation here."
Sun Cheng: "My elder brother has arranged a banquet for the 15th of the 1st lunar month. He has set up a private platform and is inviting Your Highness to watch the play. This humble one wonders whether Your Highness can do us the honor?"
In a bright tone, Li Qingcheng asked, "Who else is attending?"
Sun Cheng replied, "The city's Provincial Officer Lin and Governor Sun. The rest are some local small traders."
Li Qingcheng frowned. "Aren't you afraid people will see through my identity?"
Sun Cheng thought for a while before replying with a smile, "The remaining guests will be listening to the play in the garden, while Your Highness and my elder brother will sit on the platform upstairs. That matter shouldn't be a hindrance."
Li Qingcheng replied, "Okay. Go back and deliver the message, I'll be there when the time comes." After he said so, numerous thoughts flashed through his mind as fast as lightning.
Sun Yán simply wants to invite me for a drink? Inviting the provincial officer and the governor as well, what kind of conspiracy will unfold?
Sun Cheng smiled once again. "My elder brother is afraid that when staying here, Your HIghness will feel bored. He has specially asked this little brother to bring a few people to come over and serve Your Highness."
"Ai." Li Qingcheng said, still smiling. "I'm an outsider, there's no need to be like this..."
Sun Cheng added, "They're just some common, ordinary women, enough to incur laughter from people. This little bit of kind regards from my elder brother, there is no harm for Your Highness to regard and use them as unofficial concubines."
Li Qingcheng was stunned shortly before his mind at last understood. Just now, without even finishing the discussion about the previous matter, Sun Cheng suddenly raised a new subject of Sun Yán giving him women. He was slightly caught off-guard, and as he didn't have time to think it through, he just said, "Let me take a look?"
After turning around and going out for a moment, Sun Cheng came back bringing four women from the carriage with him. Standing inside the hall in a row with graceful and elegant bearings, each of them had their own charm: either having a slender waist and plump buttocks, a bashful countenance, or delicate and simple looks.
Sun Cheng smiled. "These are songstresses purchased by the manor from one of the Jiang Province's regions a year ago; they're also simultaneously working part-time in the manor. This humble one doesn't know whether they suit Your Highness's taste?"
"Jiang Province ah..." Li Qingcheng narrowed his eyes and saw that among them, there was one woman with a charming, delicate face that was flushing red. Her raven-black hair was flowing beautifully just like a waterfall, and her eyebrows were neatly painted in shapes similar to willow leaves —— which actually looked somewhat similar to himself.
Sun Cheng: "Jiang Province's women are all slender, tall, delicate, and also full of life. They have always been well-known among people of the Central Plains."
Leisurely, Li Qingcheng said, "Fang Qingyu once said that Mother Empress used to be a person of Jiang Province. It's these four?"
Sun Cheng: "Yes, these four people."
Li Qingcheng restrained his expression and ordered, "Go and call over Zhang Mu, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong."
The three people who came in shortly afterward all knew what was going on the instant they saw the songstresses inside the hall.
Li Qingcheng indifferently said, "Presents from Sun-xiong. Each of you choose and take one."
Fang Qingyu was full of delight. "I choose the fat one; steaming it first in the kitchen before eating it is actually pretty good. This one ba, send her to unload and marinate her first."
Leaning on the table, Li Qingcheng laughed out loud while Sun Cheng's complexion kept switching from pale to crimson. Li Qingcheng then sternly said, "She is to be your unofficial concubine. Not for you to eat."
Fang Qingyu: "Is what? As I see it, nobody is as good-looking as me, ne; I don't want any." After saying so, he waved his hand and asked to be excused.
"Fang Qingyu doesn't want them," Li Qingcheng lazily said. "All yours."
Zhang Mu's eyes were full of complicated emotions while Li Qingcheng looked at him in expectation. Soon, Zhang Mu's lips began to move, but no words came out of his mouth.
"Shall I choose one for you?" Li Qingcheng teased.
Zhang Mu replied, "I have someone in my heart."
After a moment of awkward silence in the hall, Sun Cheng said in a cheerful manner, "General Zhang worries too much. A man needs to build up his achievements, which have ..."
Zhang Mu: "Don't want."
Sun Cheng, who appeared to have been instructed by Sun Yán before, opened his mouth almost without thinking to say, "This humble one doesn't know which family's woman General Zhang admires, but might she be a person of the Western Plains? Wait until I go back and let my family's elder brother visit their family to ask?"
Zhang Mu: "Don't care."
With that, Zhang Mu turned around and walked away, not giving any mercy to Sun Cheng.
Li Qingcheng smiled lazily. "Mu-ge also doesn't want them, I'm afraid Sun-xiong's good intentions... there's no other way but to turn it down."
Tang Hong asked, "I can... pick one?"
Frowning, Li Qingcheng was displeased. Tang Hong hurriedly added, "No need, no need, I just said so in passing."
Li Qingcheng said, "Go pick one."
Tang Hong wanted to say something but hesitated. Li Qingcheng continued, "Take one with you. Let Sun Cheng take the rest back."
Tang Hong said, "Are... are you serious? You also don't want them? I myself want one, but how is this even proper..." While saying so, his eyes kept glancing at the girl with a gentle face. Li Qingcheng impatiently ordered, "Just her then, take the rest away with you."
Sun Cheng was stunned. "Young Master isn't picking one?"
Li Qingcheng, in a refined and polite manner, replied, "No. I've already long had someone in my heart."
Sun Cheng froze before coming to an understanding. He then said with a smile, "A man with three wives and four concubines is not unusual. Eldest Young Lady is also unlikely to..."
Li Qingcheng sneered. "I didn't say it was Eldest Young Lady Sun Yān."
Sun Yán was stunned again; he didn't expect that Li Qingcheng completely didn't adhere to the rules of the game. He was tongue-tied and didn't know how to respond at once, it was totally awkward.
Unenthusiastically, Li Qingcheng said, "I was just joking. Take the other three back with you ba."
Sun Cheng had no choice but to go away with the songstresses.
Sitting, Li Qingcheng was deep in his thoughts. He suddenly realized that he had actually made a wrong move just now; music and women, and hunting and riding horses. Since Sun Yán had brought over women for him, he should've accepted and left them all in the room. But, what was Sun Yán's purpose in making this move? Was it to test him out, or was it just a gesture of goodwill?
"Most likely a test," Li Qingcheng murmured to himself. "But testing what?"
Testing to see whether he had a desire toward a woman's charm? Sun Yán looked forward to marrying his younger sister to him, yet he also presented him with women. No matter how much he racked his brain, the result was all contradictory. If Sun Yán just intended to help him, would he not be afraid of those gentle, charming women's thoughts that could sell people out? If he expressed that he wasn't interested in a woman's charm, what would Sun Yán think? Zhang Mu also didn't want... The moment Li Qingcheng raised his head and saw Zhang Mu standing in the hall, he suddenly understood everything.
Zhang Mu appeared after he had finished changing into a neat uniform; it was indeed true that "fine feathers make fine birds." Li Qingcheng saw that Zhang Mu's body was covered in a neat, close-fitting, embroidered gown with indigo color. His back was broad while his vigorous waist was well-defined, and embroidered golden threads wound themselves around him, looping from his neckline to his waist. A white huang jade pendant was fastened to his belt. In contrast with his glowing demeanor, his features still remained indifferent whether favored or humiliated; even if he was to be rewarded at one moment and had to kneel in the next, nothing seemed to be relevant to him.
Sun Yán was trying to probe whether his feelings toward Zhang Mu were merely that of master and servant or contained something else, for fear that his younger sister was to be married to the wrong husband.
Li Qingcheng couldn't help but smile bitterly. Sun Yán really had gone through a lot of trouble. It was just, this problem, even he himself couldn't make it clear either.
"Very good-looking," Li Qingcheng said. "It's really not like the previous you."
Zhang Mu replied, "You are also not like the previous you."
Li Qingcheng asked, "Who do you have in your heart?"
Zhang Mu just fixed his gaze at Li Qingcheng, not answering at all.
"Let's go," Zhang Mu earnestly said while extending his hand. "I'll talk more."
Putting his hand on Zhang Mu's broad palm, Li Qingcheng let him lead him; it was exactly like that moment they left Jia City, hand-in-hand as they went on their journey.
"It's really difficult to carry on an important responsibility." Sun Yán shook his head. "Only that Tang boy accepted it?"
Sun Cheng said, "Yes, why do you say that?"
Sun Yán put down his brush and sighed. "This man is indeed a bit quick-witted, but he's unable to do any major undertaking. You see, ever since he arrived in Ting City, he hasn't done anything after he had entered the residence other than flip through a few books in his hands and wait for an opportunity to come to his door... What are his men doing every day?"
Sun Cheng said, "The soldiers under him are either playing or strolling around. They loiter on both sides of the city, be it western or eastern part, and use the money we've given them to buy things as well as to drink and eat."
Sun Yán smiled bitterly. Sun Cheng continued, "Our dispatched people dare not observe too keenly because Zhang Mu often patrols outside the residence. Moreover, a falcon is being raised inside the house, and it constantly flies all over the place. It's easy to be discovered."
Sun Yán nodded his head and didn't speak. After a while, he opened his mouth. "He can't even control his own soldiers. At his side, the only ones he can rely on are those three people: Zhang Mu, Fang Qingyu, and Tang Hong.
"Tang Hong is lustful, while Fang Qingyu is greedy. Now is the time for him to conceal his strengths and bide his time, to lay low and wait for an opportunity, but doing nothing all day long will make it difficult for him to achieve great things. He's wholeheartedly attached to Zhang Mu, yet also never uses any means to win him over and even wants to eat vinegar from a slave girl. Fortunately, Zhang Mu is an obedient individual with a one-track mind. In the future, even if he marries Yān'er, she'll absolutely be given the cold shoulder, which won't do."
Sun Cheng slowly nodded.
Sun Yán said, "On the 15th of the 1st lunar month, we'll invite the governor and the provincial officer to the banquet. At that time, let's ask everyone to put their cards on the table."
Sun Cheng's expression shifted. Sun Yán smiled. "What?"
Sun Cheng replied, "In case Zhang Mu knows..."
Sun Yán raised his hand and said, "No, with Li Qingcheng's temper, I believe I have enough means to rope those two people in..."
On the main street during the New Year Festival, Ting City's streets were all bustling with extraordinary excitement. The carriage kept moving and stopping, which was exactly what Li Qingcheng had hoped for.
"Say, Mu-ge, Sun Yán has arranged a banquet for the Lantern Festival and wishes to invite both the provincial officer and the governor. What's his plan?"
Zhang Mu shook his head, making Li Qingcheng feel annoyed. "Turning to a stake again."
Zhang Mu seriously said, "I can't see through him. My heart is also very worried, but I too want to offer you some advice."
Li Qingcheng didn't know whether to laugh or cry. Out of options, he pondered for a while before saying, "What kind of person is Sun Yán?"
Zhang Mu said, "Cunning, I can't say for sure. Smarter than me, not as smart as you."
Li Qingcheng said, "I feel merchants who can establish their businesses are all very far-sighted. They know how to today's bargaining chips to gamble for tomorrow. When they feel it'll most likely cause them to lose money, just like how lizards cut off their tails to survive, they're also willing to abandon it halfway and won't continue laying a bet."
Zhang Mu nodded. "Yes."
Li Qingcheng was silent and deep in his thoughts. Since the Sun family was hosting a banquet for the Lantern Festival, how could Sun Yán not accompany other guests and only keep him company then? If, at that time, they put their cards on the table and revealed this matter out in the open, he would certainly make a good sale in the name of assisting the crown prince to win over local officials. As a matter of fact, neither side would get offended this way.
A jolt in the carriage made Li Qingcheng return to his senses. "Don't mention that matter first. Wait for a while and bring it up later on."
The carriage stopped outside the provincial officer's residence. Zhang Mu handed over his name card for an official visit, while Li Qingcheng, dressed in a soldier's garb, stood behind Zhang Mu.
Provincial Officer Lin sat inside the hall, and Zhang Mu indifferently took a seat.
"This virtuous nephew is..." Provincial Officer Lin was nearly fifty, but he was in excellent spirits. Wearing a golden robe with black lapels and holding a copper cane in his hand, he was awe-inspiring and looked exactly like an old ruffian of the army.
"My father is Zhang Xin," Zhang Mu got straight to the point. "I hope Uncle is well." Saying so, he got up and was going to pay respect when Lin Xi hurriedly said, "Nephew, please get up! I dare not, I dare not!" while reaching out his hand to support him. However, Zhang Mu's internal force was simply strong, and Lin Xi couldn't support him at all. In his heart, he became even more apprehensive.
After Zhang Mu paid his respects to him, Lin Xi said, "Those years, Zhang-xiong followed Taizu to conquer the land under heaven, and the Wulin families of the Central Plains all answered to his one call. Back then, I was still a foot soldier under the old provincial officer's command. I've always admired him very much. Now, more than ten years later, I didn't expect to see the son of an old friend here. How fortunate!"
Li Qingcheng poked Zhang Mu's back with his finger. Zhang Mu understood what he meant, and after much difficulty, he managed to squeeze out a difficult smile. "Uncle, Mu can't really talk since he was a kid, please forgive this poor performance. This younger generation came here this time because there is a letter that needs to be delivered to Uncle."
Zhang Mu took out a letter that Li Qingcheng had properly written and respectfully handed it over to him with both hands.
After Provincial Officer Lin opened the letter, he became even more alarmed and said in a trembling voice, "His Highness the Crown Prince is still alive at this moment?"
Zhang Mu nodded slightly and said, "After the great victory in the Feng Pass, His Highness has moved to the Central Plains. To avoid people's eyes and ears, he's currently staying in his maternal uncle's place for the time being in Jiang Province. He entrusted me to hand over this letter to Lord Provincial Officer. When the opportunity arrives, the crown prince will make a public declaration, and the sixteen provinces will respond one after another, each of them sending out troops to attack the capital in order to help His Highness restore his rightful position. The time is just around the corner."
Provincial Officer Lin was no different than someone who had been struck by a bolt of thunder. He repeatedly gasped for breath before squeezing out, "Truly fortunate, heaven blesses my Great Yu."
Zhang Mu looked at Provincial Officer Lin whose eyes were full of apprehension. While he was at it, Li Qingcheng was also busy poking Zhang Mu's back, prompting Zhang Mu to pull the corners of his mouth in a forced manner.
"Who else knows about this matter?" asked Lin Xi.
Zhang Mu got up and replied, "There's also my childhood friend Sun Yán. The Sun family has already cooperated by providing 100,000 jin of iron and 100,000 liang of silver necessary for His Highness the Crown Prince's efforts to regain the throne. He will certainly raise troops in the future, and when the time comes, he also requests and will be most grateful for Uncle's valuable assistance. That is the crown prince's wish." After he said so, Zhang Mu took out a heavy token made of sterling silver with two words "Qinwang" written on it and handed it over to Lin Xi.
Lin Xi slowly nodded and somewhat calmed down. Zhang Mu continued, "Sun Yán will hold a banquet in his residence at this year's Lantern Festival, and he'll explain the matter in detail to Uncle. If Uncle asks at that time, he'll get the answer. Before then, in order not to let the governor find out, please do not leak this news by any means. This younger generation still has to go to Qin Province, Mengze, and six more provinces, he'll take his leave now."
When Zhang Mu left, Lin Xi hurriedly went to send him off on the door. Turning around, Zhang Mu cupped his hands in obeisance before the two people got into the carriage. After moving a long way, Li Qingcheng instructed the soldier driving the carriage, "Leave the city by going south."
"How is it?" Zhang Mu asked.
Li Qingcheng hesitantly shook his head.
Zhang Mu: "Go back immediately?"
Li Qingcheng answered, "No, we have to leave the city first. After we leave, that old man will most likely cross-check between the four gates to see which direction we're leaving the city from, all in order to determine where you're going next. After we've left and re-entered the city later, only then can we go back."
Zhang Mu said, "It's me who said it poorly."
Li Qingcheng smiled and said, "You spoke very well, many times better than usual."
Zhang Mu looked as if he had just been relieved from a burden and just nodded his head. Li Qingcheng leaned on him and, putting Zhang Mu's hand around himself, he casually said, "That old man can't stay."
Letting his fingers be played around by Li Qingcheng, Zhang Mu opened his mouth and asked, "Why?"
"With one look, I can see he's an unreliable commodity," Li Qingcheng explained. "You saw how he agreed so quickly and straightforwardly. Why didn't he ask about the crown prince's daily life first in order to confirm the authenticity? If his mind was really set on assisting me, he should've inquired about my current circumstances. Because what if, by any chance, it was a fake crown prince just as the court had said ne?
"He didn't say a word about the matter of the battle to guard the Feng Pass, but it was obvious that he knew the inside story. Moreover, he actually didn't voice it out first either; so it was very likely that the imperial court had informed him in advance. I thought about a cartload of things to say, yet all went naught because there was no room to say them. Moreover, he also didn't write any sealed letters to show his loyalty to the crown prince and just let you go. It can clearly be seen that this man has no intentions to raise troops for Qinwang. Hence, he cannot remain."
The carriage rocked as it went through the western street. Li Qingcheng took out the eagle whistle and, putting it on his lips, he blew it. The arctic gyr heard the sound from afar and flew in, perching inside the carriage.
Li Qingcheng asked the driving soldier for a charcoal twig used by the army to write characters and tore a section off the curtain. After writing a few lines, he rolled it up and tied it on the gyrfalcon's black talon before saying, "Go find Fang Qingyu. Understand?"
The gyr just blankly stared at Li Qingcheng and then at Zhang Mu, not understanding his words.
When he was having difficulty, Li Qingcheng suddenly remembered and took something out of his bosom. It was a small object that Fang Qingyu had bought for him last night. He first let the gyr take a look at it before pointing outside. The arctic gyr immediately flew out of the carriage.
"Very smart." Li QIngcheng smiled.
Zhang Mu: "I'm going to kill Lin Xi at once."
Li Qingcheng said, "We can't kill him. If we did, how could you take over the soldiers under his command? I have an idea."
Zhang Mu: "What is it?"
Li Qingcheng: "Do you really want to know?"
Zhang Mu said, "Even though I'm not smart, I also want to help you do something."
Li Qingcheng replied, "Let me ask you first then. Yesterday night, what did Sun Yán say to you?"
Zhang Mu remained silent, and the inside of the carriage was all quiet; there was only the sound of firecrackers and the happy laughter of children coming from the street outside.
Li Qingcheng: "You see, I am not averse to you, you are not averse to me. Yet I am averse to you, and you also are averse to me; people need not say it out loud."
There was a faint hint of alienation in his words.
Zhang Mu: "I still haven't figured it out."
Li Qingcheng: "What have you not figured out?"
Zhang Mu: "I'll talk the day I figure it out."
Li Qingcheng casually said, "In that case, wait until that day your good brother Sun Yán hosts a banquet, you'll get to know it all then."
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), Elestrea.