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“Qinglian, I've been missing you every day and every night.”
I'm stiff as a board right now. Will I not be able to escape tonight? Without thinking it through at all, my body reflexively pulled my wrist from his grasp.
Shao Qing was a bit stunned, but immediately softened. “Qinglian, are you still feeling unwell today?
I quickly take the opportunity to whack the viper with a stick and nod.
He sighed lightly, letting go of me. “That being so, it's been two days… Qinglian, are you doing this on purpose?
Is there a “the G.o.ddess has desire, but King Xiang doesn't dream” situation between Zhang Qinglian and Shao Qing? He seemed to have a bit of a grudge, looking at him just now.
I speak with some annoyance. “If you think so, I can't do anything about that. What you will decide today, I won't refute.”
His smile fails somewhat. “You said that again. Do you misunderstand why I act the way I do?” His face then turns somewhat strained. “I've heard some rumors only recently saying that you've changed greatly in the last few months. They also said that you're now focused on your toy Yao Jinzi, dismissing the boys in your Residence for him, sharing the same pillow with him, and going out shoulder-to-shoulder with him.”
Ah, I didn't think he would say it so outright. Shao Qing is not a simple man.
I deliberately bite my lip and say nothing. I may as well let him believe that Zhang Qinglian has changed his mind; even if he gets jealous and angry, I can coax him. This gambles my political life, but there should be enough inextricable and non-exclusive intertwining interests between the two for coexistence and shouldn't be a complete break-off, which would endanger my actual life. It's overall better than immediately having to go to bed with him.
Seeing me silent, Shao Qing sighed, “Qinglian, your heart, your person, who knows those better than I? What you feel towards Jinzi, how could I not know it? That day of the Imperial Martial Exam, I saw how you looked at him, and could guess most of it…” He suddenly used a finger to lift up my chin, gazing at me with tenderness. “Qinglian, some things are forgotten, and the only one who remembers is you. Those who hurt you before are dead and gone, only you still refuse to rise from the filth, keeping it in your mind anyways and doing this to yourself… I know you're very envious of Jinzi, yes? Very jealous of him? Even if he had everything you wanted but didn't get to have, does he have anything left now? Don't let yourself keep going like this… At the time, I didn't agree with pulling Sir Yao into it, but you were insistent on doing so, and I knew it was for Jinzi… so I didn't persist in stopping you…”
Hearing these words leaves me truly bewildered. What did Zhang Qinglian suffer through? What tragic things happened before? He's jealous of Jinzi? He only did this for him?
I don't know anything, how can I answer this?
Fortunately, there's a response that can never go wrong. I keep biting my lip and refuse to open my mouth.
Shao Qing sighed in helplessness. “You're never willing to listen to advice, Qinglian, but you must listen to me on this — the two Yao brothers are ones you cannot keep and need to deal with before it's too late, or else you will certainly suffer from them in the future.”
I suddenly raised my head to look at Shao Qing, unable to conceal my astonishment for a moment; regardless of what, Shao Qing has always given me a relative feeling of righteousness. He just now said that he didn't originally approve of dealing with Yao Ganjin, even still calling him Sir Yao — who could have expected him to suggest that I pull out the problem by the roots immediately after? And to say it so naturally, with the same refined and elegant demeanor he's been having, a bit unaware of his own malice and acting as if it's completely rational and the right thing to do.
Shao Qing saw my expression, and laughed bitterly. “Yes, Jinzi is my Junior Brother, and I have no hostility or hatred towards him, but think about yourself, Qinglian. The hatred they have for you is so deep that it will never be reconciled, how would they be willing to let you go? Jinzi isn't an incompetent fool, if you fall into his hands later, what will the end result be? It would be better for a clean break as soon as possible.”
Heavens above, what kind of person is Shao Qing? If he's a bad person, who in the citizenry and courts wouldn't say so? If he's a good person, his methods are vicious and go unmentioned — to not be vicious wouldn't do when in the bureaucratic army, but this is solely indulging in Zhang Qinglian's wanton desires to the point that even his own Junior Brother isn't spared, which is what's hard to understand. Did his fondness for Zhang Qinglian degrade to madness where he can't tell right from wrong?
Is it possible that this would actually have some advantage for him?
What's he scheming?
Does he have grand ambitions?
Is he aiming for the throne the little Emperor sits on?
Xue Yongfu had said that after Shao Qing came back I could take it easier, and I had thought that I was to hand over power, becoming nervous. These few days, I've come to know that I was wrong: following his return, I found that I've been dealing with a lot less trouble in political affairs, things going as smoothly as a sharp sword through bamboo. Only then did I learn that many people were playing dirty tricks on me in secret and shirking responsibilities onto me – now with Shao Qing's practical support, these people have contained themselves quite a lot.
The methods of these bureaucrats are beyond brilliant, with not even a trace of talent to be found. I have been made deeply appreciative of the bureaucracy's exquisite art of closing its doors to go party. I am truly nothing more than a layman in this world.
I've suffered through a lot.
Anyway, one good thing about this is that my office hours have lessened enormously.
In the afternoon, I've already finished handling my official business. Jinzi had gone to the palace to teach his imperial student, and I kinda don't feel like going back to the Residence so early. In order to avoid Shao Qing these past few days, I haven't been staying in the imperial city too much. After returning, I suddenly had a thought that I'd never had taken a stroll all by myself since I came here. I simply put on a plain lined gown, spread soot all over my face and hands so I had an unsightly appearance, and left the estate from a back door.
The capital is split up by the four cardinal directions into districts, with the boundary of the Imperial Palace as a dividing line.
1) The Northwest side is mostly officials and n.o.bility, and the greater part of it is imperially-gifted homes, with still a good bit of them being homes pa.s.sed on from generation to generation.
2) The Northeast has a lot of parvenu and big-name merchants, with numerous families that own a lot of land.
3) The Southeast is full of glazed-roof brothels, bars, and so on.
4) The Southwest is where civilians normally gather.
The boundaries between them aren't clear-cut at all. My house, for example, is very close to the Palace, but even though it was granted to me, it's more in the Northeast.
I've never had the time to do a real tour of the city since I arrived in this time period – especially not the Southwest, which I haven't been to once. Therefore, it's going to be my primary destination.
I've always felt that, regardless of modern or ancient times, if you want to visit a major city, then you have to look at every level of it. Like if you're visiting Paris, you should visit Le Louvre, the exquisite shops and tea rooms surrounding the Place de la Concorde, and also watch all the tiny bands in the Latin Quarter's streets when night first falls, go to small shops of modern art gathered in Montmartre where the Sacré-Cœur is located. 
A lot of the houses in the civilian area are short and run-down, but I feel that there's more liveliness and even more people on the streets. Colorful clothes are being aired out to dry in the front and backs of homes. From time to time, there'll be an older lady whose voice is as spectacular as her stature hurling profanities at her husband, or a young child screaming and laughing as they run past me. Young women here aren't likely to go past their doors or even step into their courtyards, kept deep and unseen in the women's quarters, though there's no shortage of them stroking their sleeves as they sell vegetables, cloth, and rouge on the streetside, or teasing a lad fetching water from a well, who also laughs and scolds them right back.
Probably because it's not the slums, it doesn't look miserable at all. On the contrary, I can't stop myself from occasionally smiling at it. As I walked along the road, I received many brazen, and many bashful, flattering glances.
Turning a corner, the street became narrower, with several food stalls in between, a throng of people colliding together. I clutch my coin purse tighter, because in situations like this, there will usually be a little brat, or little girl, or little beggar, or little whatever that will b.u.mp into me, then I'll find out that my money is gone, then I'll chase after then, thus leading into a whole ‘nother story. I'm not interested in this sort of chance encounter, though, so I'll put an end to that possibility right now.
Suddenly, loud shouts came from someone among a pile of people circling and watching something in front of me. In a moment of curiosity, I squeezed through to see only to see a food kiosk with the words “Song's Dog Meat” written on it in big letters. There's a big, dark fellow with a face full of beard, and though it's April weather, he's only wearing a single-layer shirt with the front wide open, revealing a chest coated in lush, dark hair. He's clenching his fists in his sleeves and loudly cursing at the doorway.
There are no restaurants of the Taibai House's sort in the civilian area. These food shops are often selling cooked meat and incidentally selling alcohol. A few tables and chairs will be set up in the storeroom so the customers can buy a catty of meat and however much wine, sit down, and have a snack with their drink.
As this place is called Song's Dog Meat, it's naturally selling cooked dog meat, and the proprietor's surname is Song.
The big hairy guy grabbed someone by the clothes, shouting abuses, “A disowned punk who won't open his eyes, coming to Grandpa Song's place without the coin to eat n' drink! Your Grandpa isn't one to be bullied! Get the h.e.l.l outta here!”
The person being grabbed also has a voice like a gong. “You aren't what they boast about in Haikou, Song San, saying things like ‘credit is no harm for a hero of the realm'! This isn't the first time I've come here, so what's with the lack of courtesy? Today is nothing more than an inconvenience, and the next time I'll have it all!”
Hearing that familiar voice, I forced my way through a bit, then stopped and stared: this person's height surpa.s.ses that of the hairy Song man and he's fat and meaty, looking a lot like a Maitreya – is this not my my subordinate, huffy second-in-command, Tian Chun?
But, as far as I know, Tian Chun's salary isn't low. I feel sorry for him, is this guy actually in such dire straits to have to put meat and alcohol on tab here?
I've always thought that his smile held hidden evil, and his scheming was much deeper than Zhu Xianxi's. Why was he having a row in the middle of the street with a market-goer who didn't have martial arts? What is this?
The hairy man spit foully. “Pah, 'cause others don't know, I still don't know, Tian? If you're really a hero, don't talk of getting a tab for your eats, and if what you want's this store, ol' Song will offer it up with both hands! Your Tian surname's famous in jianghu! Selling your life to follow a boy pet around! You deserve to be called a hero! You don't hate to lose face, so I'll be terribly shamed on behalf of all 18 generations of your ancestors buried in the ground! Before you come, look at your money – Old Song won't chase out souls with money, yet you have no cash today – I'll give cats and dogs a tab but I won't give one to you!”
Hearing this, Tian Chun became enraged, easily grabbing the hairy man's lapels and roaring, “That this guy'd sell his life to a boy pet, what would you even know?!”
Seeing that the hairy guy is amusingly blunt, I didn't want him to have to suffer a loss, nor did I want Tian Chun to make trouble. I promptly pushed through the crowd and patted him on the shoulder. “Old Tian.”
Tian Chun turned around, saw me, and went bug-eyed. He was just about to say something when I gave him a hard look. Being perceptive as he is, he shut his mouth up tight.
I take out a piece of broken silver and say, “Boss, my older brother has a frank personality, don't take offense. We'll be eating this wine and meat today, but don't worry about a tab, this silver's for you.”
The hairy man took the silver and bit it. He was still seething, “Now that there's money, Old Song's house rules are that wealthy souls aren't to be chased out, so Customer can sit in the main hall —— this is what my ancestors taught me, and ol' Song might just be done with all this!”
I refrained from laughing, dragging Tian Chun to go sit down. Seeing that the fun is over, the people outside all lose interest and scatter.
The interior was dark and narrow. The guests probably all ran off from the ruckus just now. We pick the least unstable tables and chairs to sit at, and the hairy fellow ran to the kitchen to cook the food.
I didn't speak, only smiling at Tian Chun. He was nervous, and spoke with embarra.s.sment, “Sir, Tian Chun is shameful, and caused you to lose face. Please reprimand me and enact punishment.”
I shook my head. “To work for me, you can't be having it easy.”
He scratched his ear and coughed. “Tian is ashamed by Sir's words.”
I speak cheerfully, “I don't want to say anything, but I can't understand something. You get 800 silver a month, which is enough to support eight or ten wives. What are you doing disputing with someone over putting food on a tab?”
Tian Chun is even more embarra.s.sed, replying in a roundabout way. “Umm, this… Tian has no wife or children, and likes to gamble with liang when not on duty and with nothing else to do, or get a few cups of a little something… that guy who sells dog meat loves to wave around a two-handed club, though his martial arts is low and he isn't mixed with jianghu because of his eccentric personality… he's also known far and wide for his good skill in cooking dog meat, and also rather famous in the capital… I pa.s.s by here when I leave the gambling lane I often go to, and I was craving the good wine and meat he has here. Every time I lose a catty of liang, I come to eat and drink here. I didn't have good luck today and lost all my money, then I pa.s.sed by here, and my stomach felt like it had hungry locusts in it… I thought I could put it on a tab this time, but this jerk's a big miser…”
I laugh out loud. “Who could have known that Old Tian could suffer these tragedies!”
“These people of ours might not have much difficulty – I'm still alright, but Old Zhu suffers more… he has a family and only one son, and that kid studied martial arts with his dad, saying he wants to do whatever and travel in jianghu, eating, drinking, and making merry with others everywhere, and doesn't want to actually earn money. He'll only hold out his hand and ask for money from his old man, while Old Zhu himself pinches liang to live by, that joker nearly bleeding him dry! He went to Yangzhou two days ago to visit his lover, with letter after letter coming and asking for money like they were going to pressure him to death. Old Zhu's eyebrows turned white with worry… A heroic man being hounded to death, if not for the sake of money…” He suddenly gulps at the end, a bit awkward.
It's glaringly obvious to me what he didn't get to say: if not for the sake of money, who'd pledge their life to Zhang Qinglian?
I smiled. Tian Chun said, “‘But you haven't been much how you used to be these days, Sir.”
“Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” I reply.
Old Tian thinks about it. “Sometimes I feel that you're less fearful than usual, and sometimes that you're more fearful than usual.”
This guy really has the talent to be a philosopher, hm.
At this moment, Song San came out carrying a plate packed with stewed dog meat, glorious and well-done, its scent long-reaching. I can't help but praise it, “Smells good.”
Just as I was about to move my chopsticks, the doorway suddenly darkened. A figure came in and also said cheerily, “Smells good!”
I narrow my eyes, facing the sunlight to see the person clearly. Oh, it's actually an old friend that I haven't seen in a long time: Yuan Qingyun.
Go away YQY, your name is too similar to Yue Qingyuan and everyone likes him 1000x better.
 From Song Yu's Rhapsody of the G.o.ddess, metaphor for one-sided love. Full-ish quote is “King Xiang dreams, but the G.o.ddess has no desire. The G.o.ddess has desire, but King Xiang doesn't dream.”
 I removed a line here. To be blunt, it was blatantly racist and detracted from the story. China isn't known for its racial sensitivity.
[-] Previous reference to “Imperial Battalion” on chp. 21 changed to the more accurate “Imperial Martial Exam”.