Yan Pingshan saw the faint dark circles under Zhong Wan’s eyes and wanted to say something, but didn’t.
Zhong Wan noticed. He lifted his gaze. “What is it? Speak what you wish.”
Yan Pingshan wasn’t the type that could keep things hidden. He lowered his head to stare at the half-filled bowl of medicine in his hand and lowly said, “If you had just stayed in Prince Yu’s estate back then, you would’ve had a life full of riches and with no worries. You wouldn’t have ruined your own body and ended up in this state…”
Zhong Wan laughed.
“And here I thought you were going to say something else.” Zhong Wan tugged the fox fur coat Xuan Congxin had tailored for him over and put it on. He was unbothered. “I would’ve been comfortable, but they…
“I was born to live a lowly life; to never enjoy life.”
Yan Pingshan couldn’t stand hearing Zhong Wan speak about himself like this. He wanted to refute him, but Zhong Wan didn’t want to dwell on this topic. He stood up and said, “I want to ask you something.”
Yan Pingshan said, “What?”
Zhong Wan got out of bed and sat in front of the coal brazier. He held a hand above the fire and waved it around, casually saying, “Uncle Yan, how many of Prince’s blood relatives still remain? I’m talking about Prince Ning.”
Yan Pingshan didn’t really understand what he was asking. “Prince’s blood relatives? Then aren’t there too many?”
Prince Ning belonged to the imperial family. His blood relatives could be found everywhere in the capital. Disregarding the ones living in the palace but counting all the other dead and living, he was probably related to almost every large noble family.
“I mean… immediate family.” Zhong Wan lowered his voice. “It isn’t easy entering the capital. Who knows when the next time will be. I was thinking, when I’ve recovered from my illness, I can avoid everyone else and visit some of them. Choose those that aren’t as economically well off and help them out. It would be inconvenient for Xuan Rui and them to do this, but fine for me.”
Yan Pingshan thought about it and agreed, but after reconsidering, he also couldn’t come up with anyone.
“Where are the relatives we could visit?” Yan Pingshan sighed. “Prince’s mother’s family, the Zhong estate, became desolate so many years ago. Back then, we worked so hard and only barely managed to find you, who was already five times removed. Where would we find anyone else?”
Zhong Wan slightly furrowed his brows. “Three or four blood-related relatives.”
If talking about relatives, Yan Pingshan wasn’t wrong. Though Zhong Wan’s surname was also Zhong, he was already many times removed from the true Zhong estate. He and Prince Ning couldn’t actually be considered relatives. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have been able to escape the ordeal back then and survive.
Zhong Wan himself definitely wasn’t on the list of three or four blood-related relatives.
He wouldn’t be able to get any answers from Yan Pingshan. With no other choice, Zhong Wan could only lie down again after his legs started hurting from sitting.
Zhong Wan’s health was much worse than it had been in his youth. That year, he had first been interrogated in the Ministry of Justice’s prison for three months. After being let out, he had to persevere and engage Steward Feng in a battle of wits and courage. But no matter how hard things were or how tired he felt, as long as he got a good night’s sleep, all his discomfort would disappear the next day. Now, though, things weren’t the same. A small cold would require six to seven days to fully recover from.
While Zhong Wan was sick, Prince Qian An’s estate closed its doors to visitors. If outsiders asked, they only said that Prince Qian An, Xuan Rui, was sick. Now that he was better, Xuan Rui couldn’t keep pretending. He had to attend the proper courtesy gatherings.
It was a good thing that not a lot of people were in contact with Prince Qian An’s estate. Xuan Rui could still handle things. Those situations that weren’t easy to maneuver and those that could be avoided were avoided.
“But this can’t be avoided,” Zhong Wan said after sending off the young eunuch who had brought them the royal decree. “The empress wants to see Young Miss tomorrow.”
We’re sorry for MTLers or people who like using reading mode, but our translations keep getting stolen by aggregators so we’re going to bring back the copy protection. If you need to MTL please retype the gibberish parts.
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“Because she hasn’t before, so wants to take a look?” Zhong Wan wasn’t sure either. “But I already asked the young eunuch just now. She doesn’t only want to see her, because several other princess consorts and princesses will be entering the palace too. There are also those like Young Miss, the daughters of aristocrats, who will be there as well. Probably… since it’s the end of the year, she wants to see all of them together.”
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“Pa’v yf yfra cba ab.” Itbcu Qjc qjerfv obg j wbwfca. “Ktf fwqgfrr vbfr atlcur lc j kfii-gbecvfv wjccfg. Po ja atlr alwf kf rjs rtf’r rlmx, atf fwqgfrr klii wbra ilxfis ugjca er j vbmabg jcv wfvlmlcf. Qtfc rtf gfmbnfgr, kbeivc’a rtf cffv ab atjcx atf fwqgfrr? Po atf fwqgfrr lr gfwlcvfv bo tfg, kbeivc’a rtf rewwbc tfg jujlc?”
Zhong Wan shook his head. “Then, it would be a one-on-one meeting. That’s worse than being seen while mixed in with a whole crowd of people. Don’t worry, I’ll bring her over myself tomorrow.”
Xuan Rui thought about it and realized that Zhong Wan wasn’t wrong. He nodded in exasperation.
The next day, Zhong Wan personally brought Xuan Congxin to the palace.
Like last time, Zhong Wan got out of the horse drawn carriage early. He walked over to Xuan Congxin’s palanquin to give her a few reminders. Xuan Congxin was much calmer than her two brothers. She agreed to what he said from inside the palanquin, and even told Zhong Wan to hurry back to his carriage. She then ordered him to leave if he found it too cold; there was no need for him to keep waiting listlessly.
Zhong Wan chuckled. He rubbed the purse in his sleeves and made to bribe the servant in charge of leading Xuan Congxin inside.
But before he could say anything, the servant bowed and politely said, “I’d also like to invite Young Master Zhong to enter the palace as well. His Majesty wants to see you.”
Zhong Wan slightly narrowed his eyes.
Last time after Xuan Rui and Xuan Yu had entered the palace, Xuan Yu had given Zhong Wan a play-by-play of everything they had said and done. Zhong Wan had also realized that Emperor Chongan probably still hadn’t completely let down his guard. He probably wanted to see him to warn and test him.
Certain things couldn’t be avoided. Zhong Wan helped up the servant who was bowing to him and stuffed the purse in his hand into the other’s. He smiled lightly. “This is our Young Miss’ first time in the palace. If she does something wrong, I hope you’ll help keep an eye out for her.”
Ten years in the palace passed like only one day. Nothing had changed. Zhong Wan was led down the familiar route to see Emperor Chongan.
In the warmroom, the kowloon incense burner quietly spat out furls of fragrant air. Behind the slightly swaying curtain, Emperor Chongan sat cross-legged on his seat. He was in the middle of reading reports.
Zhong Wan knelt in greeting.
Emperor Chongan ordered the servant to draw the curtain.
For a moment, all was silent.
With Xuan Rui and Xuan Yu, he could still act like nothing had happened and casually show some concern. But with Zhong Wan, even Emperor Chongan couldn’t pretend anymore.
“These years, you’ve been well?”
Zhong Wan knelt on the ground, gaze lowered. He didn’t lift his head. For a moment, he went over Emperor Chongan’s words in his heart over and over. Since Emperor Chongan wasn’t using any flowery language, Zhong Wan had to acclimate to him. He took some time to think, then softly said, “I’ve been alright. At first, we couldn’t adjust to the weather in the south, but after enough time, we’ve come to accept it. But I didn’t expect that coming back to the capital this time would reveal that we’re now unaccustomed to the severe cold of the north. We’ve only been here for a short while, but half of the estate has already fallen sick.”
Emperor Chongan paused for a moment. He said, “Understandable for the others, but you were born and raised here. You’re unaccustomed too?”
Zhong Wan replied, “I’ve grown unaccustomed. Since moving to the south, I’ve constantly been plagued by illness. My immune system is already quite frail. I can no longer stand the cold.”
Another bout of endless silence.
“Back then…” Emperor Chongan couldn’t quite remember. He asked, “Right now, are you still a slave?”
Zhong Wan lowered his head. “Yes.”
Thinking of how glorious Young Master Zhong had been back in the day, even Emperor Chongan felt that things had gone down a ridiculous path. He shook his head. “Later I’ll give an order. You, your self-selling contract…”
Emperor Chongan thought about it and inquired, “Is it with Ziyou?”
Zhong Wan paused, then nodded. “Most likely.”
“He’s going to enter the palace today too. When he comes, I’ll have him bring it to you.” Emperor Chong An sighed. “I’ll have someone remove your slave classification. In the future you… When you’re in Qian An, things will be more convenient.”
At this time, he couldn’t act like he was surprised by this. That would truly imply that he was mocking Emperor Chongan. Zhong Wan lowered his gaze and calmly said, “Thank you, Your Majesty.”
Emperor Chongan made a noise of acknowledgment, then stopped talking again.
Since he wasn’t speaking, Zhong Wan only knelt there quietly.
“Imperial Preceptor Shi…” Emperor Chongan suddenly said, “Died the second year after you left. Did you hear?”
After Old Imperial Preceptor Shi had passed, Zhong Wan had observed a year of mourning in Qian An. How could he not have heard?
But he shook his head. “Qian An is far away and does not receive the most timely news updates. I didn’t hear about his passing until long after it had happened. I was quite sad… for several days.”
Emperor Chongan turned a judging stare onto Zhong Wan, as if trying to figure out whether or not he was telling the truth.
Emperor Chongan said, “Imperial Preceptor Shi… adored you greatly.”
Zhong Wan took a deep breath in, but didn’t speak.
Emperor Chongan leaned against the kang table and reminisced past events. He slowly stated, “Before he left, Shi Jin told me… ‘Guiyuan is naturally intelligent and should have gotten first in the Imperial Exams, becoming famous throughout all the land. Back then, if he hadn’t been dragged down by those events, his name most definitely would have been noted by the historical records of future generations.’”
Zhong Wan’s expression was calm, as if they weren’t discussing him.
Emperor Chongan continued, “‘Guiyuan encountered difficulties in his youth. These years, he has suffered too much. In the future, if he does wrong in some way or other, I hope that Your Majesty may be more forgiving with him, since this child’s life has been hard…’”
Zhong Wan’s lips slightly trembled. He refused to let Emperor Chongan see this, so lowered his body and rested his forehead against the back of his hands. When he got up again, his expression was normal once more.
It were as if he had only been thanking the emperor for his grace.
Emperor Chongan sighed deeply.
“I have nothing else to say. You may leave.” Emperor Chongan waved his hand in fatigue. “There are still some of Shi Jin’s handwritten documents, calligraphy samples, and paintings left in the library. If you want them, go pick one or two out before you leave.”
Zhong Wan kowtowed, then stood up and followed the servant out.
Zhong Wan rubbed the spot between his eyebrows. He remembered the times in his youth when Shi Jin had locked him up in his estate to write essays and faintly smiled.
The servant took Zhong Wan into a side hall of the library and guided him towards a group of bookshelves inside. “Most of Old Imperial Preceptor Shi’s previous handwritten documents are kept here. Only, us slaves can’t read, so if we were to look for them in a rush, we wouldn’t be able to tell which ones were by the Old Imperial Preceptor’s hand. We’ll have to trouble Young Master Zhong to find them yourself.”
Zhong Wan nodded. “Okay.”
It would be difficult to sort through a bunch of ancient texts placed together. After the servant passed on the message, he left. Zhong Wan walked along the shelf, picking out books to look over. He intended to take all of Imperial Preceptor Shi’s handwritten documents with him.
After looking through book after book, he had gone through the first two shelves and only found two or three books. He rubbed his sore eyes and advanced further into the library. He had just picked up another book when he suddenly noticed abnormal movement behind him. Before he could turn around, someone had already grabbed him by the waist. As soon as the arm around his waist tugged, Zhong Wan’s entire form crashed into that person’s arms.
Zhong Wan smelled a familiar scent. His heart started pounding.
Zhong Wan shifted. Yu She instantly added more pressure, trapping him completely.
Yu She narrowed his eyes. “You want your self-selling contract?”
Zhong Wan froze, but didn’t explain.
Thus, Yu She simply pressed Zhong Wan against the bookshelf. He asked, “Anxious? Don’t want to have any connection to me anymore?”
Yu She’s breaths brushed against Zhong Wan’s ear. Zhong Wan’s ear turned red. He lowly said, “Let go… don’t let anyone else see. I’d be happy, but you’d never be able to clear your name!”
Yu She froze. He sneered, “This again… do you think I’ll feel bad?”
Yu She softly said, “Do you want to know how I replied to the emperor?”
Zhong Wan reflexively asked, “How?”
Yu She’s voice was tinted with amusement. “I said… no.”
Zhong Wan couldn’t handle Yu She being glued to him while speaking. He vigorously struggled and slammed into the bookshelf. The bookshelf shook, causing a few books to fall onto the ground in a flutter.
“Make a fuss.” Yu She maintained his firm grip on Zhong Wan. He faintly smiled. “Continue making a fuss. I’m not afraid of causing a scene.”