The year is drawing to a close, and the palace is bustling with preparations for the end-of-year ceremony. In the past, Prince Qi has always been the representative to stand on the altar with the emperor and empress, touching their hems in a filial gesture. However, this year he has been away in other provinces to direct efforts for disaster relief, and may not make it back in time for the ceremony.
The Minister of Rites originally planned to delay the ceremony for a few days to wait for Prince Qi’s return, but today he’s suddenly been summoned by the emperor regarding this matter. He keeps his head low as he enters the hall, and in his peripheral vision sees that both Prince Xian and Prince Yu are also present. Slightly surprised, he feels like he’s been caught amidst a dilemma.
Even if the emperor hasn’t said anything, the empress knows that he is displeased with Prince Qi’s delay. What has irked him further, though, is that the Ministry of Rites has taken Prince Qi’s participation for granted in the ceremony; no one even bothered to ask him if he had another candidate in mind. So the empress has called in her son, Prince Yu, and told him that it’s time to start planning for themselves.
When Jingyan arrives in the hall, the discussion has already grown heated between two officials. One says that as the adopted son of the empress, Prince Yu should be the one standing on the altar; the other one argues that Prince Xian is the second eldest son, and should rightly take Prince Qi’s place in his absence.
The emperor is in an exceptionally good mood today. He watches the scene in front of him unfold from his raised dais, an amused curve on his lips.
In the midst of argument, a servant comes in to report that the royal tutor Master Li Chong is asking for an audience. The emperor frowns in annoyance, knowing that the strict and proper man is a stickler for rules and would definitely speak in Prince Qi’s favor, but he cannot refuse to see him, given his respected status.
“Let him in,” he bits out reluctantly.
Unsurprisingly, Master Li immediately zeros onto the heart of the argument, quoting several classic philosophical theories to support Prince Qi’s rightful place in the ceremony as the first born son. The two officials who were at each other’s throats just moments ago are dumbfounded by his flawless logic, and cannot utter a single word of rebuttal.
Jingyan is mesmerized by Li Chong’s masterful manipulation when the latter falls into a formal kneel to the emperor.
“I beg Your Majesty’s pardon, if I may ask for permission to retire of old age. Your humble servant would like to spend the rest of his days in quietude, traveling the country with a friend and writing for leisure,” he intones, head bowed low.
This request comes at a complete surprise to the emperor, as he knows perfectly well that the old fox is asking for permission on both matters he mentioned today. After a brief pause, he nods his assent and then turns to Jingyan, “Your Brother Qi and Lin Shu are both away from the capital, you should go send off the Royal Tutor in their stead.”
He then returns his attention to the two officials and a ashen-faced Prince Yu, waving a hand, “You are all dismissed. We shall wait for Prince Qi’s return.”
Three days later, Jingyan bids goodbye to his tutor on a small hill just outside the capital gates. The carriage is already prepared with understated comfort: the windows are lined with fur and a steaming pot of tea on the small table. Li Chong knows with just one glance that Jingyan has personally arranged for its accommodations, since only his students would know his small habits like that.
“I thank Your Highness for your generosity,” he smiles, grateful.
“Master Li, I bid you farewell in place of my Brother Qi and Lin Shu. Wish you a safe journey.”
Jingyan never asked about why Li Chong would choose to retire now, and the other has not shared. They give a bow to each other, and Li Chong turns to leave.
Jingyan watches Li Chong’s figure become smaller and smaller. In the distance, there is another elderly man with flowing long beards, clearly waiting for his friend. Jingyan bows to the man he’s only seen once in the past life, that time when Mei Changsu had requested his presence with the jade cicada to lend his hand in the court debate.
The man helps Li Chong into the carriage, then turns around and bows deeply to Jingyan.
It isn’t until the carriage becomes an invisible dot on the horizon that Jingyan snaps out of his stupor and walks down the hill.
That bow just now was the proper courtesy from subject to emperor.
Prince Qi’s manor.
“If it wasn’t for the Royal Tutor, His Highness would’ve been in trouble again.” Two maids have their heads together, walking with their purchases from the market.
“I heard that Prince Yu was so sure he could land the job this time, then the Royal Tutor came and turned the whole situation around. Prince Yu really made a fool of himself!”
“Still in the end no decision was reached……”
“No decision is good decision! Didn’t you see that messenger from the palace that came earlier to inquire His Highness’ possible return date?”
“Actually there is a pretty good chance that His Highness can make it back for the ceremony.”
“I also heard that Prince Jing was present during the discussion, yet he didn’t even say anything in our Prince’s favor,” one of the maids complains in a hushed voice.
“Humph, what good is he anyway?” the other one scoffs, “we should thank the gods if he is not opposing His Highness.”
“Shhh, His Highness doesn’t like us gossiping,” the earlier maid quickly shushes her companion. “This time when His Highness is out in the field doing disaster relief, Prince Jing is the one arranging for financial support in collaboration with the Ministry of Revenue. I thought he’d use this chance to hamper His Highness’ work behind his back, but actually he got everything done with surprising efficiency.”
“He’s just trying to do his job to please His Majesty. Our Prince is so gentle-hearted that he wouldn’t suspect him one way or another. I--- Who’s there?” A noise behind them draws both maids’ attention as they hastily turn around, only to release a sigh of relief when they see Prince Qi’s young son.
The toddler is wrapped in layers of clothing, his small hand barely visible as he holds it out, “Cookies?”
“Of course, Your Highness!” the maids laugh in fond amusement, fishing for the package of cookies they bought for him from Yipin Bakery. The child loves their pastries, but neither the prince nor the princess allows him to eat too much, so he’d always beg the servants to smuggle him some at every chance he gets. And they all spoil him rotten, so he gets his way every time.
“We know Your Highness loves those cookies, but remember not too many at a time, okay? Just one a day please?” They say to the happy child, watching as he skips away with the goodies in hand.
When he is well away from prying eyes, the three-year-old opens the package and carefully picks out the hazelnut cookie, then tosses the rest unceremoniously onto the frozen ground. He looks up to the walls surrounding their manor, walls that are way too high for his current small stature, too high to see anything beyond them. He takes a bite from the cookie, its roasted sweetness a distant familiar taste in his mouth.
He’s never liked sweets, but it’s been too long since he last saw that person.
...There needs to be something to remember him by, however small.
In the end Prince Qi couldn’t make it to the ceremony. He and his men were already on their way back to the capital when they encountered a group of refugees from another province. Canals that hadn’t been repaired in years finally gave out and many farmlands were flooded. Apparently news of the disaster were intentionally withheld by the local official in charge of civil construction there, clearly fearing imperial punishment. Prince Qi swiftly arrested the official in question, and filed a request to the emperor for more funds.
The court is already scrambling to get through normal operations during this busy time of the year, so Jingyan takes upon himself to make all the necessary arrangements to meet Prince Qi’s needs. He and a team of officials from the Ministry of Revenue have worked endlessly for a couple of weeks, and when they finally wrap up, it’s already been decided that Prince Yu would take Prince Qi’s place at the end-of-year ceremony.
The emperor knows that he cannot scold Prince Qi for this unexpected incident and his subsequent absence, so instead he has vented his irritations on Noble Consort Chen. In the pretense of a harsh journey from the country mansion back to the capital, he has requested her not to come back for the New Year’s.
Consort Jing replies in her letter that she would also like to stay in the mansion with the Noble Consort to take care of her ill health in the bleak weather, and that she would personally tender a formal apology to His Majesty once the spring comes.
In the Inner Palace, Noble Consort Yue’s good mood from her archrivals’ absence dims significantly when she thinks of the empress’ smug face at the end-of-year ceremony.
Prince Xian glances at his mother’s sullen expression and hurries to add, “I thought Prince Yu was smart enough to accept our offer to join forces temporarily against Prince Qi and Prince Jing, but he shoved his pompous refusal in our face and snatched up the nice gig at the ceremony!”
“The empress and I are constantly at each other’s throats in the Inner Palace, she’d never agree to a deal like that anyway. Now there are about four groups of officials in the court: the first is comprised of the most senior officials who are firm supporters of Prince Qi, including Commander General Lin Xie. Although in the past couple of years Prince Jing has gotten rid of a few of them through the scandals he’s uncovered, and the Royal Tutor has retired, there is still a sizable number of them left, and we cannot underestimate their influence in the court. Now even the Imperial Guards have fallen into the hands of the Lin family!” Noble Consort Yue sighs in annoyance.
Captain Nie Feng has stayed in the capital ever since Commander General Lin Xie took half of the Chiyan army with him to the Western borders. At the beginning of this year, due to shortage in military funding, many of Nie Feng’s men have been reassigned to the capital guards instead, leaving him with a very small number of Chiyan soldiers.
Soon after, the Commander of the Imperial Guards retired due to illness. Prince Qi quickly filed a request to promote Nie Feng to take over the position. Many of Prince Qi’s supporters immediately voiced their support for the motion, some of whom upset over the unjust treatments of the Chiyan army. The emperor acquiesced under pressure.
“The second group of officials are mostly men personally picked by Prince Jing. Although they don’t have noble births, they are a highly competent team,” continues the Noble Consort Yue with her analysis.
Prince Xian nods in agreement, “Indeed. A while back Prince Qi asked for so much money for disaster relief, everyone thought it was going to take Jingyan months to get it ready, who could have guessed that he and his men got it done in just a few weeks! Now not only does Prince Qi owe him a favor, His Majesty is also praising his talent!”
“The third group consists of officials who have left Prince Qi’s camp ever since he’s been losing favor with His Majesty. They are mostly a bunch of simpering idiots that Jingyan wouldn’t want under his wing, so they’ve gone and sided with Prince Yu,” she picks at her perfectly manicured fingers in boredom.
Prince Xian sneers, “Right, Jingyan’s ego is certainly off the roof. When he was first gaining His Majesty’s attention a couple of years ago, so many people were lining up outside his door with gifts in hand, and he didn’t even let them in!”
“Although Prince Jing is no longer on the same affectionate terms with his Brother Qi, they share the same contempt for simpletons and sycophants. Those bootlickers are not the brightest, but they are not useless either; they get the easy and mediocre jobs, leaving the controversial and difficult ones to others who are too eager to prove their worth. That’s what Prince Yu had in mind when he welcomed these people into his faction, and true enough, he has carved a spot for himself in court now,” she then adds. “On political matters, Prince Yu has been learning from Jingyan, putting on a scrupulous yet firm front in court and recruiting capable officials in his free time. It’s not surprising that those who don’t like Jingyan have joined Prince Yu instead. Adding his participation in the end-of-year ceremony into the equation, he is at an unparalleled height right now.
“And the last group of officials are those who are firmly against forming factions with any Prince,” concludes the Noble Consort.
“But I cannot get their support either,” counters Prince Xian, baffled.
“I am not telling you to get their support,” his mother sighs impatiently.
“Then who else is there?”
“The South, House of Mu.”
“Mother means...the young Lord Mu Qing?”
“No,” she shakes her head, “I once thought about getting custody of him since he is in the capital, but apparently Princess Nihuang has asked the Grand Empress to take care of him, even His Majesty cannot say otherwise.”
“Then...Mother means to say…?”
“Well, the princess is at a marriageable age, if she can marry someone from our side, that would cement her family’s support for you.”
“But...but isn’t Princess Nihuang already betrothed to that Lin Shu?”
“A betrothal means nothing if they aren’t married yet,” Noble Consort Yue grins smugly, “I shall arrange for something to happen on New Year’s Eve. If the Princess is proven to be unchaste, then the betrothal would not be valid anymore.”
“B--But,” Prince Xian is still hesitant, he stutters, “wouldn’t that be a huge affront to the Lin family? They would despise us! To lose the Lin family for the Mu, Mother, I don’t think that’s wise!”
“So? Even if we do nothing, the Lin family would never support you anyway. Commander General Lin Xie has always been in Prince Qi’s camp, and Lin Shu is the childhood best friend of Jingyan, you think you have a chance?” Noble Consort Yue pauses at her son’s suddenly pale face, then pats his hand in a comforting gesture, “Don’t worry, as long as the Princess does not marry Lin Shu, rest assured that His Majesty would be happy. You have one thing that neither Prince Qi nor Prince Jing have-- me. Their mothers are far away from the palace, but you have me here to watch your back.”
She adds finally, “His Majesty told me that Princess Nihuang would be taking Mu Qing back to the South after the New Year’s celebrations. Once she leaves the capital, our hands are tied. So we must act fast.”