WHEN Qing was six, his father brought him into the Imperial Palace for the first time. The sheer size of the massive architecture and beauty of the designs were disorientingâ”their own mansion paled in comparison, nowhere near this scale or splendor. The Imperial Palace represented the flourishing Empire of Rong, after all.
âœWell, we have finally arrived,â said Hongguang as he dismounted. He reached for his son and helped Qing off their horse.
Qing stared up, craning his neck painfully. He could barely see what was beyond the white stairs. âœDo we have to climb these stairs ourselves?â he asked, hoping not.
His father gave him a sideways glance, which automatically shut him up; he knew he would only get another long lecture about their familyâ™s pride and glorious history if he so much as uttered another word. Laughing nervously, he corrected himself, âœI mean, this is so exciting!â
By the time they reached the front door, Qing felt like fainting. He could barely stand properly, and he was gasping for breath. Yet, as the eldest son and the heir to the Jiang Family, Qing didnâ™t dare show any sign of weakness in front of his father, so he forced himself to stay on his feet as his father talked to the eunuch at the door.
âœThe Marquis of Shangping Regional has arrived!â announced the eunuchâ™s ear-splitting voice.
âœCome along, Qing,â said Hongguang. âœAnd behave yourself,â he warned, his disapproval like frost over his voice. âœThis is His Imperial Majesty we are meeting, not some lesser noble.â What he didnâ™t say was that Qing was basically going to be held here as a hostage, though Qing knew this without his fatherâ™s reminder. Yet, if Qing survived, the Jiang Familyâ™s future would continue to be bright and successful, perhaps even more so than it was now. In short, a high-risk, high-return task.
As though feeling the weight of his task on his shoulders, Qing slumped and nodded solemnly before he struggled to catch up with his father. He didnâ™t dare glance around, even though he was amazed by the grandeur of the buildingâ™s interior. It was made from the finest wood, the floors glossed from rigorous scrubbing. The plinths of the columns were of imported stone, resembling intricate clouds, no doubt crafted by the finest artisans. Large, bronze incense burners stood five paces apart, their solemn, extravagant carvings emphasizing the power and authority of the Imperial Family. Thin, feathery silk curtains hung down the beams, symmetrically spaced down the seemingly endless grand hall.
Still, Qing knew that all this extravagance was an illusion to the Empireâ™s state. Although Qing was still a child, he had overheard his father expressing his worries about unrest and corruption brewing beneath the flourishing surface.
Once they finally arrived at the end of the grand hall near the Emperorâ™s throne, Qing followed his fatherâ™s cue and got on his knees as Hongguang greeted the Emperor. While Qing stared at the floor, he noticed that the pair of feet beside the Emperor belonged to a child just around his age. Curiosity began to chip away at his patience as he waited for his father to finish that long, boring greeting so he could chime in with what he had rehearsed for nine straight days.
âœYou may rise,â said the Emperor at last, his voice old and raspy.
Finally. Qingâ™s knees were starting to hurt. He stood up straight and met the large, clear eyes of the child beside the Emperor. However, it was only a brief contact, as Qing had to greet the Taizi with his father. When Qing noticed the lady beside the Taizi, he almost thought heâ™d seen a celestial beingâ”Qing had never seen someone so beautiful before. It was as though she were made out of white jade; every feature on her face was so exquisite it was surreal.
While Qing admired the woman, his father spoke up. âœThis must be Your Imperial Majestyâ™s first grandson, I presume? It is an honor to meet you.â
âœIt is an honor to meet you as well, Shangping-hou,â replied a young, clear voice. Upon hearing that voice, Qing tore his eyes away from the pretty lady and turned his attention to the boy beside the Emperor. Now that heâ™d had a better look, the boy seemed like a miniature version of the woman, who could only be his mother. âœI have long admired the Jiang Familyâ™s contribution to our Empire,â the boy said, awkward words when uttered by a childâ™s voice. âœI am pleased to have your son as my study mate to further strengthen the Imperial Familyâ™s ties with the Jiang.â
At this, Qingâ™s father laughed. âœNo, no, the honor is ours,â Hongguang chuckled as he patted Qingâ™s head, urging Qing to say something.
âœIt is my honor to be your study mate,â Qing said, only slightly less awkward than the Emperorâ™s grandson since Qing sounded more unnatural.
Who wouldâ™ve known the Taizi would interrupt the exchange with a loud yawn? âœHow long is this going to last? Iâ™m hungry!â
Everyoneâ™s expressions stiffened, and the Emperor looked furious. âœThis meeting will not end until I say so,â he told his son.
âœThis lowly official also apologizes for his insolence of being too stale,â Hongguang interceded in order to resolve the tension.
âœYou have done no wrong, Hongguang,â the Emperor said, but his voice had lightened a little.
With a few more polite exchanges, the Emperor told Qing to play with his grandson in another room while the adults talked. Qing could only despair. He knew he was far from safe, since his future now lay in the hands of the Emperorâ™s grandson, and he was never going to be able to act freely as long as he stayed in the palace. Worse, he was already starting to itch from being too formal. Why did he have to suffer this torture? He wanted to run around and play with his own friends and servants, not to be someoneâ™s study mate in name and servant in truth! Who knew what kind of evil child was behind that formal mask?
Qing had to find a way to even the odds, or heâ™d go crazy.
With that in mind, Qing followed the Emperorâ™s grandson out of the hall with a happy smile plastered on his face.
As soon as they entered the new room, the Emperorâ™s grandson turned around and stared at Qing as though Qing were some kind of rare animal. His large eyes were bright and watery, curious and intrigued. Being stared at like that was uncomfortable, but Qing kept his smile in place. âœSoâ¦ my name is Qing, Jiang Qing. Pleased to meet you.â
The Emperorâ™s grandson examined Qing for a while before he said somewhat distantly, âœMy name is Lan Yu .â His tone instantly killed the friendly mood Qing had tried to establish. âœI look forward to studying with you,â Yu added.
What was Yu thinking, acting all formal even now? What was the catch? âœSame here,â Qing said as he examined the Emperorâ™s grandson. âœBy the way, is the lady beside the Taizi your mother?â he couldnâ™t help but ask. âœSheâ™s very pretty.â Qingâ™s own mother died giving birth to his younger brother, so he personally didnâ™t have much memory of her. He wished he also had a beautiful mother.
âœYes,â said Yu, his tone even more distant than before. âœThank you.â
Awkward silence ensued, and Qing looked around the spacious room. Eunuchs and guards stood around dutifully, but he could not help but think that they were watching his every move. And he had a feeling that his comment about Yuâ™s mother had probably not been the best thing to say. âœSo, do you want to play games?â he asked, breaking the uncomfortable stillness.
Yuâ™s eyes lit up. âœWhat sort of games? Xiangqi? Weiqi?â
Upon hearing the boring games, Qing almost lost his smile. It wasnâ™t as though he didnâ™t know how to play the board games, but they werenâ™t exactly what he had in mind. But now he thought better of it, perhaps the game of chasing each other that Qing had originally wanted to play was not suitable for the Emperorâ™s grandson. Who knew what the Emperor would think if he were to walk in on them?
âœLetâ™s play xiangqi,â Qing decided to say. One of the six palace eunuchs standing around the room soon put out a board and set the circular, ivory pieces in front of them. Qing would have taken the pieces marked with black characters, but at Yuâ™s command, the eunuch gave him the red pieces instead. Well, this wasnâ™t by Qingâ™s own choice to go first, so he wasnâ™t being rude if he won, right?
âœI have never played with a child my age before,â Yu said, smiling a little.
Qing tried to maintain his smile. What was the child implying? Arrogant snob! He moved his soldier piece, and Yu moved his cannon piece. Qingâ™s brow twitched. If Yu was the aggressive type, he sure had a lot of confidence. Yet, what could Qing expect from the Emperorâ™s grandson? The child was in charge here. However, a few moves into the match, Qing found himself unable to control the game as he usually did. Yuâ™s gameplay seemed recklessly aggressive, but all his pieces were backed by other pieces, so Qing was forced into taking defensive actions. Even though Qing was better at defense and trickery, Yu was the toughest opponent he had ever faced. For that, Yu deserved some respect.
âœThe Emperor has arrived!â announced the eunuch outside the door.
Qing straightened his back and turned to greet the Emperor; he could see his fatherâ™s shoes behind the Emperorâ™s robes.
âœPlaying xiangqi, eh?â the wizened man said as he patted Yuâ™s head.
âœYes, Exalted Grandfather,â Yu replied dutifully.
The Emperor chuckled and examined the progress. âœWell, carry on, you two,â he said.
Qing wanted to wail in despair. How was he going to carry on if the Emperor was here? And he was really getting tired of acting so formally! Now he was going to have to lose on purposeâ¦ not as though he had been winning before, but he definitely couldnâ™t win now. Qing caught his fatherâ™s gaze and Hongguangâ™s nod confirmed the action he should take. With three increasingly sloppy moves, he lost.
While the Emperor laughed and praised his own grandson, Qing snuck a glance at Yu and found the child glaring at him. Qing shrank back a little, though he kept his smile plastered to his face. What was Yu so angry about, anyway? He should be pleased with his victory! âœIt was a fun game,â he said weakly. âœYou were really good, Highness.â He dreaded the next time they were alone, feeling he was going to suffer for his withdrawal.
As he had feared, the first thing Yu did when the Emperor left was to accuse him: âœYou lost on purpose!â
No kidding. Of course Qing would have to lose! Who in their right mind would dent the pride of the Emperorâ™s favorite grandson in front of the Emperor? No doubt this was an excuse to find a way to torture Qing. He wondered if there was any way to turn the tables, yet his young mind could not give him any ideas. âœIâ¦ I didnâ™t,â he stammered, deciding to give up on his original plan to gain the upper hand. The only way to go was to lower Yuâ™s defenses by taking a passive stance. Hm. Qing wondered if his servants had thought the same thing when they were dealing with him. He was only sure that his closest servant, Zhao Wenjie, was honest and true with him. âœI got nervous when His Imperial Majesty arrived, andâ¦ and really wanted to win all of a suddenâ¦.â
Yu gave Qing a long, thorough look. âœWell, youâ™re not nervous anymore, are you? Another game!â He motioned for the eunuchs to reset the pieces.
That was all? Qing stared at Yu, unable to believe what had happened. He had expected some sort of punishment, but maybe Yu wasnâ™t as bad as he had assumed.
They tied on the second game. When they did, Yu laughed, and with that laughter, Qingâ™s plans to manipulate the Emperorâ™s grandson flew out the window. Even though they werenâ™t truly equals, Yu would treat him as oneâ”that much Qing was sure of.
LIFE in the Palace was not easy. It did not take long for Qing to understand this, especially five days after his father left for home. Although it was Qingâ™s responsibility to become closer to Yu, half a month had already passed by and yet he felt as if he was hitting a solid wall.
Silence occupied the room when the two practiced writing, and Qingâ™s eyelids were already heavy from boredom. He had always prided himself in being able to write many characters, which was amazing when compared to many children his age, but Yu could already write the âœThousand Character Classicâ out of memory without error. Merely being able to comprehend the materials that Yu was currently assigned to study was already difficult enough for Qing. Not to mention, he hated how their teacher always narrowed his eyes whenever Qing could not recognize a character. He had never felt stupid in his life before, and he hated how sour the feeling tasted.
Worse, there simply was no privacy. Eunuchs waited on standby everywhere, watching everything. Yu never laughed at him, but Qing always felt that the eunuchs talked about how poorly he compared to Yu behind his back.
Qing shook his head and tried to focus. He didnâ™t want to make his family look bad. He had to memorize this chapter before the next day. When he heard footsteps, he jumped a littleâ”was it the Emperor? However, when he looked up, he saw an unfamiliar man.
âœThis nephew greets Qiwu-wang,â said Yu, his shoulders stiff and his back straight. Qing immediately took the cue and greeted the visitor as well.
The middle-aged man laughed and walked toward Yu while he stroked his beard, completely ignoring Qing. âœHow many times do I have to tell you to just call me san-shu ? Iâ™m your uncle, not a stranger,â he chuckled, patting Yuâ™s head.
Qing immediately decided that he did not like the man. Were all members of the Imperial Family this annoying?
âœYes, san-shu,â said Yu with a polite smile.
âœItâ™s wonderful to know that my nephew is still studying very hard as usual,â continued Yuâ™s uncle as he eyed the material before Yu. âœOur Great Empireâ™s future is in your hands, Yu-er. I hear His Imperial Majesty just gave you the title of Pingling-wang. Pingling is said to be an auspicious region according to fortune-tellers, with fifty thousand taxpayers, no less. Congratulations!â
âœThank you, san-shu,â Yu said. âœI will do my best not to disappoint you.â
The smile on Qiwu-wangâ™s face stiffened, and Qing noticed his fists tightening. âœThat is good to know. Which reminds meâ”Iâ™ve just paid your father a visit. I see my brother is stillâ¦ enjoying life.â The last words were particularly strained. âœHas he started toâ¦ involve himself in politics yet?â
âœFather rarely talks to me about adult business,â said Yu.
âœHa!â laughed Qiwu-wang. âœI bet he doesnâ™t participate in any business other than self-entertainment. Heâ™s rather good at composing music, however. Heâ™d make a better musician than politician, donâ™t you think?â
Yu remained expressionless.
Laughing heartily, Qiwu-wangpatted Yuâ™s head again. âœWhatâ™s with that expression? Iâ™m only jesting. Of course I did not mean it. I respect His Imperial Majestyâ™s decision. So, donâ™t tell His Imperial Majesty I said this, all right? Itâ™s just a friendly conversation between you and me.â
âœOf course, san-shu,â said Yu methodically.
âœWonderful. As expected of my favorite nephew, eh?â said Qiwu-wang. He turned to leave the room. âœWell, work hard. Iâ™d hate to be disappointed!â
Qing let out a sigh of relief once the man had left. Well, now he knew that, compared to others, Yu was actually not so distant around him. Was it because Qing was his age? Before he could make any remarks about Qiwu-wang, he was interrupted by a eunuch who scuttled into the room with a basket.
âœYour Highness,â reported the eunuchâ”he looked only about fifteen. âœYour revered mother sends a few snacks for you from the Taiziâ™s harem.â
Yu nodded. âœAnd you are?â
âœThis unworthy servant is called Lin Zheweiâ”just newly accepted to work in the harem, Highness.â
âœAnd did my mother personally hand you this basket, or did a palace maiden do so?â said Yu.
Zhewei scratched his head. âœAh, I think one of her handmaidens passed the basket onto me. Her surname is Guo.â
âœI see. Thank you, Lin Zhewei. Please send Maiden Guo my appreciation. You are dismissed,â said Yu. He stood up and met Qingâ™s gaze. âœQing, letâ™s go play a game of weiqi while we eat the snacks.â
âœAll right,â said Qing, relieved that he could finally take a break from studying and the watch of eunuchs. After all, Yu had ordered the eunuchs to give him privacy when he played board games with Qing so that Qing did not have to hold back.
Qingâ™s stomach grumbled loudly when he saw that Yuâ™s mother had prepared tofu pudding. But there was only one bowl. He hated being a mere study mate; he had thought that Yuâ™s mother would also prepare his share. He sighed, wishing he had a mother who would personally make desserts for him as well.
âœBring another bowl,â said Yu, and Qing had never felt more like hugging his study mate.
After the board and game pieces were prepared for the two, the eunuchs excused themselves. Yu did not seem interested in eating the pudding, but Qing couldnâ™t start eating before Yu.
âœAre you going to eat the pudding?â Qing finally asked after a moment of silence.
âœNo. And donâ™t eat it, either,â said Yu, still staring pensively at the dessert.
âœWhat?â Then why ask for another bowl? Qing wanted to ask. He was really hungry right now, and it was torture to have food in front of him.
âœIt is not like my mother to send me food through a eunuch, much less through another palace maiden,â Yu explained. âœNot to mention through a newly hired eunuch.â
âœThis dessert is unsafe,â Yu concluded.
âœHave you ever talked to your mother about this?â Qing asked, feeling weary all of a sudden. Just watching Yu was tiring. He had initially assumed that Yu would have an easy, fun life as the Emperorâ™s favorite grandson, but it seemed that was not the case.
âœNo. If I did, Iâ™d just give her more problems. She has enough to worry about.â Yu paused and stirred the pudding absently. âœWho is this from? One of my fatherâ™s concubines or my grandfatherâ™s?â he mused softly. Then, he sighed and let go of the spoon.
âœWhy not just tell His Imperial Majesty?â It seemed like the quickest way to put an end to all the tiresome plotting.
âœAnd what happens after I lose that protection?â Yu asked in return. âœI cannot rely on my grandfatherâ™s favoritismâ”that is weak, and my enemies will see that weakness. They will think I am easy to defeat. If I donâ™t rely on myself, I will be easy to defeat.â
Was Yu really five years old? No wonder the Emperor liked him so much. âœWellâ¦,â Qing said, feeling a bit sorry for someone with no joy in his life, âœYou can rely on me, if you want.â As soon as he said it, he felt like a complete idiot. Who was he, but a mere child with less power than Yu?
However, Yu looked up from the bowl and examined Qing with a strange expression, and it was not that of belittlement or ridicule. He seemed more curious, if anything, and it made Qing feel a bit more confident in his claim. âœUh, I know you still donâ™t trust me entirely, but Iâ™m really here to be your friend,â he explained. âœOf course, to be honest, I do hope that you will support the Jiang in return as well, but there is no harm in having each otherâ™s backs, is there?â
Yu nodded slowly. âœButâ¦ I thought we were already friends. You sound like you donâ™t agree.â
Qing grinned. âœWell, first of all, you need to loosen up a bit.â
âœITâ™S not fair,â complained Yu, his milky cheeks colored with pink frustrationâ”Qing had to admit, he loved frustrating Yu just to see this expression. âœHow could you do that to Xiujuan? You know sheâ™s scared of bugs!â
It had been two years since Qing had entered the Imperial Palace to be Yuâ™s study mate. Despite his initial formality and distance, Yu was just as playful and mischievous as Qingâ”he just needed some encouragement, which Qing happily provided. To everyoneâ™s distress, the two were constantly on the prowl to play pranks on the guards, eunuchs, and palace maidens. Most of all, they plotted against each other, constantly trying to outsmart each other. However, Yu lacked determination in following through with his plans, and that softness often cost him.
âœWhatâ™s the difference?â Qing asked, smiling innocently. âœI just tricked her into messing your plans up, nothing harmful.â
The corners of Yuâ™s lips twitched. âœBy putting a bug down her neck? Worse, she thought it was I who did it!â he argued, though that wasnâ™t really his point. The point was that he had lost their bet, and Qing knew that Yu hated losing.
âœWhat, you have a crush on her?â Qing teased, deciding to keep his analysis to himself. He was still dealing with the Emperorâ™s grandson, after allâ”he hadnâ™t forgotten his place. âœArenâ™t you a little too young for her?â
Yuâ™s blush spread farther, which was pretty funny. âœWhat are youâ”?â
A cough sounded behind them. âœYou two, break time is over,â said their Confucianism teacher, Cai Mengpei, the most revered scholar in the Empire. âœGo back to the study room.â
Yu shot Qing an angry glare and stomped after their teacher.
As usual, Yu was able to recite and interpret their homework without any effort. Normally, children their age shouldnâ™t have started on the Analects yet, much less be halfway through it.
âœHey,â Qing said while their teacher left to deal with an important matter in the Imperial Chancellery, âœshouldnâ™t you compliment me for being able to keep up with you? Does that mean Iâ™m a genius too?â
âœThis is the twelfth time youâ™ve asked me that question this year, Qing,â Yu growled.
âœStill angry about Xiujuan?â Qing chuckled. âœI didnâ™t know you liked her that much.â
âœOho, I never said that,â Yu said, now returning the smile. âœI didnâ™t know you were so into her. If you want her attention so much, you shouldâ™ve just told meâ”even though youâ™re also too young for her.â
The two stared at each other, laughing mockingly, until a female voice interrupted them. âœI didnâ™t know that my brotherâ™s son liked to pass his time laughing like a lunatic.â
Yuâ™s smile disappeared immediately. âœRevered Aunt!â he gasped, though he quickly retrieved his signature polite, distant smile.
The legendary ice queen had returned! Losing his smile as well, Qing turned around and straightened his back, staring at the princessâ™s feet. âœThis untalented one greets Wuheng-gongzhu,â he said.
âœHn,â the Princess of Wuheng snorted softly, her beautiful features unmoving. She glanced at the book on the desk and then looked into Yuâ™s eyes. âœWhat should be done in order to secure the submission of the people?â
âœAdvance the upright and set aside the crooked, then the people will submit. Advance the crooked and set aside the upright, then the people will not submit ,â Yu answered.
âœWhat did Confucius tell Zi Xia about governing?â she continued, expressionless.
âœDo not be desirous to have things done quickly; do not look at small advantages. Desire to have things done quickly prevents their being done thoroughly. Looking at small advantages prevents great affairs from being accomplished ,â Yu recited without skipping a beat.
âœWhat is a similar quote in the Chapter of Wei Ling Gong?â
Yu smiled. âœSpecious words upsets virtue, and lack of forbearance in small matters upsets great plans .â
Qianhan narrowed her eyes. âœJust being able to memorize the Analects is useless,â she said coldly. Then she turned around and left the room, her handmaidens following after her.
After the princess left, Yu let out a long breath. âœShe never fails to scare me,â he said.
âœDonâ™t take what she says too seriously,â Qing said. âœShe just hates you becauseââ”he lowered his voiceâ”âœshe hates your grandmother, and, no offense, with good reason.â Being the daughter of a concubine, the Princess of Wuheng was unable to really have any power, as the Empress was a jealous woman who hated any descendant who wasnâ™t related to her and consequently suppressed them. It was also one of the reasons the current Emperor had made Yuâ™s father the Taizi, as he was the Empressâ™s only son. Worse, despite being the Emperorâ™s most beautiful and able daughter, the princess was unable to conceive children, which made her the laughingstock of the gossip mill. In short, she was just a bitter, mean lady.
âœNo, she was right,â Yu said as he picked up his red sandalwood ink brush. âœBeing able to memorize the Analects is useless unless one keeps the teachings in mind in practice. Aunt Qianhan is just reminding me not to get ahead of myself.â
It took Qing a few blinks to respond. âœArgh, why did you have to say that and seem mature? That is so out of character for you!â
Yu smirked. âœHas it not occurred to you that itâ™s because I am mature?â
Qing rolled his eyes. âœI take back what I said. Youâ™re just an arrogant, boring brat!â he said with a smile.
âœWho says Iâ™m boring?â Yu demanded, his cheeks reddening a little.
âœYou donâ™t even have the guts to confess to Xiujuan, and youâ™re the Emperorâ™s grandson!â Qing argued.
âœNot this again!â Yu growled. âœStop accusing me of your own cowardice!â
âœOh? Cowardice? You call me a coward? You canâ™t even pull off a real prank!â
A cough interrupted them. âœChildren,â said Mengpei, his voice strained. âœDonâ™t tell me you havenâ™t made any progress while I was away.â
Both Qing and Yu laughed awkwardly, and their teacherâ™s expression darkened. âœBoth of you will be copying the Chapter of Studying twenty times!â
âœWhat?â the two wailed in despair.
Before they could start, however, a eunuch scrambled into the room. âœYour Highness!â he gasped, his voice full of urgency. âœHis Imperial Majesty requests your presence, it cannot wait!â
Immediately, Yuâ™s pink face turned sheet-white. Judging from the tone of the eunuch, this wasnâ™t good news at all. The Emperor had been weakened by old age and heart problems, so this could only mean one thing.
Qing could only frown, because he was powerless, so pathetically powerless. As in all the times Yu had been in danger, Qing could only call for help.
Yet who could help stop death?
That day, the Emperor passed away. Yuâ™s father became the Emperor, and Yu was made the Taizi, even though his mother wasnâ™t the Empress. As the final decision was announced by the Head Eunuch, many gazes fell on Yu, but Yu remained expressionless throughout the announcement, as though he did not feel any pressure. Yu was always like this. Qing had no idea how Yu could be so childish and full of vulnerabilities when the two were alone, and so emotionless and impassive in public. It was as though the Yu in private and the Yu in public were two different people. Qing would probably never understand what it was like to be in Yuâ™s place, even though he knew why Yu acted that way.
Looking at Yuâ™s small shoulders, Qing once again strengthened his desire to be Yuâ™s strongest supporter when he grew up.
WITH a blink of an eye, another three years had gone by. Just a year earlier, Yuâ™s last protection, the Empress Dowager, had passed away.
Despite being surrounded by lavish wealth, Qing could still sense the impending doom of Rong from information alone. The previous Emperor, although an adequate ruler, had started to slack off on his duties more than fifteen years ago, and the new Emperor only knew how to entertain himself in a lavish and wasteful manner while the Empress and her relatives wreaked chaos in the Court . Corruption already ran deep in the government, where officials were broken into two opposing factions that viciously fought each other, stripping the government of any efficiency. What was more, unrest raged outside the palace walls. Qingâ™s father had just put down a civil war led by one of Yuâ™s uncles, and although Hongguang had been victorious, peace seemed like a distant ideal.
As usual, with the help of an unwilling eunuch, Yu had dragged Qing along with him to sneak into the hall where the morning assemblies were held.
âœEven though we won the war against Qiwu-wangfor now, many men were lost in the process,â an official was saying. âœI propose that we bring in more barbarians from the Northern Kingdom of Ji, lend them some land to farm and tax them heavily to replenish our treasury.â
âœYes, yes, do that,â Yuâ™s father said eagerly, most likely only concerned about how a shrinking treasury would affect his lavish expenditures.
âœBut I hear that Dongyue-wangâ™s army includes some of the barbarians that immigrated to our Empire,â argued another. âœIs it really a good idea to let so many barbarians into our borders? They have not sworn loyalty to Your Imperial Majesty and they are too different from us. Their presence might be an element of instability.â
âœOur Empire is so much better than that barbaric country, so they should be grateful that weâ™re giving them such great opportunity!â the Emperor replied.
âœWhile weâ™re still on the subject of war,â spoke up the Duke of Xu, the Empressâ™s brother, âœperhaps it is a good idea not to deploy Shangping-hou anymore? He has dared to request men from the Central Army! At this rate, weâ™ll be giving him too much power.â
Qing held his breath. They were talking about his father! This was bad. The Emperor almost always listened to every suggestion Liu Kuang made, since he personally did not care about politics.
âœBut he has a high chance of victory,â someone said. âœThis civil war is far from over. Weâ™ve only defeated two of the six rebelling lords.â
âœAnd who knows what is Jiang Hongguangâ™s ultimate goal, why he listens to the Court? If we let him command our Central Army, there is no telling of the consequences!â
âœSuch discussions will only harm Shangping-houâ™s loyalty to us,â said an old, wizened voice. âœWe should wait and observe. I agree that we should not let him lead the Central Army, but it would not be a good idea to make him subordinate to the General of the Central Army, either. Perhaps we should give him special privileges.â
Thankfully, the Emperor took the old manâ™s suggestion, but Qing was still shaken from the fact that his father had been subjected to such doubts.
âœWait,â Yu said when the assembly ended. âœLetâ™s follow Liu Kuang.â
âœYour Highness,â protested Jiancheng, the eunuch Yu had forced to help him, âœthis is not a good idea!â
âœI need to know what is on his mind,â Yu insisted. âœWhat if Qingâ™s father is in danger?â
Qing stared at Yu, unable to describe how warm and thankful he felt.
âœYou should worry more about yourself, Highness!â implored Jiancheng. âœIf you are caughtâ¦ Please, at least just send this one to spy, if you must.â
âœNo, if you are discovered, Liu Kuang will have you killed,â Yu said. âœHe canâ™t do anything about me, at least not in the open. And in the dark, he is already trying to get me killed, so me spying on him wonâ™t make any difference.â
Even though Qing was grateful, he still had common sense. âœItâ™s still too dangerous,â he said, agreeing with Jiancheng. âœIf he happens to talk about such confidential subjects, you can bet that the discussion will take place somewhere surrounded by his supporters. If you follow him there, who knows what he can do? Donâ™t be rash, Yu. Heâ™s already trying to convince your father to name another Taizi. Donâ™t give him the ammunition he needs.â
âœBut I have to do something!â Yu growled, his usual logic nowhere to be found.
Like escape? Qing wanted to say, but in the end, he decided it wasnâ™t an appropriate time to joke. âœWhat are you planning to do?â he asked instead.
âœOf course Iâ™m planning to bring stability back to this Empire if my father is not going to do it! The first thing I have to do is to find a way to get rid of Liu Kuang. He is the greatest threat right now. Then Iâ™m going to get rid of all the corrupt officials when I have the power to!â Yu answered, his voice shaking with anger. âœI suspect there is more to bringing those Xianbei in from the Kingdom of Ji, as the profit for those officials must be ludicrous. They must be overtaxing the Xianbei and reaping the benefits for themselves, but theyâ™re just making this Empire even more unstable! The Xianbei are people too. Theyâ™re not idiots, and if weâ™re taxing them, we should treat them as humans and our equalsâ”this way, they will be encouraged to blend in with our society, which will prevent any needless friction.â
Qing didnâ™t know what else he could say. He also wanted to do something, but they were just children. No one would listen to them right nowâ”they had no power or authority. Not even Yu had much power; how could Qing hope to have any, when his support was to the distant north of this city? His own father was too busy fighting civil wars and fending off invasions to participate in politics, though his opinions held a lot of weight in the Court. Qingâ™s uncle rarely visited the Imperial Palace either, preferring to govern the Jiang Familyâ™s own land.
âœQing,â Yu said after a while, strangely serious. âœWill you help me?â
âœHm?â Qingâ™s attention was pulled back to reality.
Yu lowered his eyes, which were a little watery. Then, he looked up, determination shining brightly in them. âœI knowâ¦ I know youâ™re going back to Shangping next year, but, weâ™re still friends, right?â
Qing laughed, though this situation was too awkward for him to laugh naturally. Sometimes, Yu gave him butterflies in his stomach, especially when his gaze was filled with pleading. âœOf course I am, you idiot. Iâ™m your best friend, right?â
A smile formed on Yuâ™s lips. âœSo, youâ™ll help me, right? When I ascend the throne, youâ™ll help me revive this Empireâ™s glory, right? Youâ™ll help me make the lives of our people better, right?â
âœYou bet I will,â Qing promised with a grin. âœIâ™ll always be there for you!â
Who wouldâ™ve known that promise would turn out to be empty.