Chapter 186: Misfortune
The issue started out simple: in the northern part of Northern Qi, there were merchants who had been found to be selling salt illegally. Salt is the foundation of the country. It was a major source of income for the treasury. Lately, however, illegal salt vendors had sprouted like bamboo shoots. In the beginning, their number was small, and their impact negligible. Now, though, it had become a serious problem.
This could either be really bad, or merely a small nuisance. If the issue was properly dealt with, it would be a great achievement. The fact that the emperor tasked Qi Chen with the responsibility was proof that Qi Chen enjoyed the emperor’s favor.
Nonetheless, that was also where the problem lay. If the issue wasn’t dealt with with a deft hand, people with malicious intents might used the failing as a way to attack Qi Chen. It was a big risk to take on.
Jun Huang read over the report again and again, her brows furrowed. What were the factors at play here? She must be careful. She was no longer at Qi Chen’s side at all time. If she failed to take care of the issue properly, Qi Chen might doubt her loyalty, which would be troublesome.
“Does Your Highness have a hand in this?” Jun Huang asked casually.
Qi Chen cleared his throat and said hesitantly, “I don’t think this is too hard to deal with. I’m just debating over the wording...”
Qi Chen’s reaction was all the confirmation Jun Huang needed. Qi Chen must have been involved. She slammed the report on the desk with a scowl. Qi Chen, who was preoccupied with his guilt, didn’t scold her for forgetting about the rules of propriety between a prince and his subordinate.
“This gentleman knows that there is great profit to be made, but does Your Highness know what will befall Northern Qi if everyone does the same thing? If Your Highness yourself does not follow the rules, how can you make sure that people who were blinded by profit would stop their wrongdoings? How can you be a convincing leader?”
Jun Huang’s tone was harsh and blunt. Her blatant disregard for Qi Chen’s feelings put a dark expression on his face.
Jun Huang was reminded of another thing: Even though selling salt illegally could be profitable, it wasn’t easy to run such an operation. Qi Chen would need a solid network of accomplices to avoid detection. There must be someone powerful making the arrangements for him behind the scene.
“I know what you mean,” Qi Chen tried to defend himself. “At the time I didn’t think too much of it. Now that the issue has grown serious, I don’t have an easy way out anymore. I hope brother Feng can help me come up with a good solution.”
Jun Huang sighed and rubbed at her forehead. She was starting to feel weak because of the burden on her mind. “This issue will lead to the depletion of treasury funds. Once it gets to that point, the emperor will conduct the investigation himself. There will truly be no way out for Your Highness then. You must cut your losses now.”
Meanwhile, in the garden of the manor.
“Have you heard?” Wei Lanying overheard a servant said. “Gentleman Feng has returned, and he’s now in the prince’s room.”
“Yes, yes,” said another servant. “I heard that gentleman Feng is a handsome and graceful man. Even other men can’t help being attracted to him. Do you know Prince Nan Xun? He’s known for being aloof to even the most beautiful woman. Now though, he has fallen under gentleman Feng’s robe despite what the world deems appropriate.”
The two servants were young and had come to the manor only recently. They didn’t know they should have lowered their voices. Wei Lanying’s expression darkened. Her personal maid said in a quiet voice, “This servant thinks they have a point. Gentleman Feng has gone to the prince immediately after his return. Who knows what he’s doing in the prince’s room? The favoritism the prince showed to gentleman Feng alone warrants suspicion. This servant speculates that gentleman Feng has seduced the prince to gain his privileges.”
Wei Lanying huffed and snapped the crabapple flower before her. Her maid backed away in fear and fell silent.
Wei Lanying knew what she was referring to. Jun Huang had always enjoyed Qi Chen’s favor, while Wei Lanying had lost Qi Chen’s affection because of her false pregnancy. She knew how much Qi Chen’s attitude towards her had changed. Of course she was suspicious as well. The servants’ conversation was the last straw to tip her over.
“Don’t forget that Feng Baiyu is the reason for the Wei family’s downfall. Otherwise lady Wei wouldn’t have suffered such terrible treatment from the prince now.” The maid choked out a sob before continuing, “I know that Lady Wei wants the prince to love you genuinely. However, we have to be realistic. Maybe we should do what your mother suggested. Once you’re pregnant, the prince will treat you with care.”
Wei Lanying thought back to what she had seen the last time she went back home. Her father had lost his position after Nan Xun found out about his corruption, and he had since been staying at home. The manor was unusually quiet and desolate. Everyone in her family was now relying on her.
After hearing about how she was treated at Prince Chen Manor, her mother had given her an aphrodisiac that would not harm the human body. Once Qi Chen took it, she would be able to become pregnant with Qi Chen’s child. With this child, no one would dare to hurt her.
She had been hesitating. She didn’t want to use tricks such as this to catch Qi Chen’s attention. With Jun Huang back, though, she had to give it another consideration.
“You shouldn’t be hesitant, lady Wei,” the maid pushed when she saw that Wei Lanying was swaying. “You are the prince’s first spouse. You are entitled to spend nights with him.”
Wei Lanying frowned. She couldn’t make the decision.
“Are you going to wait until the princess gives birth to the prince’s child and become more favored?” The maid was getting nervous. She could picture how Wei Lanying would be exorcised from the manor once Nan Guyue’s child was born. “Her status has risen significantly ever since her pregnancy. What are you going to do after she gives Qi Chen his heir?”
Wei Lanying shuddered. She could not imagine the consequences. She had become Nan Guyue’s worst enemy. Nan Guyue wouldn’t let Wei Lanying stay in the manor if she had the choice. She would take the opportunity to take her revenge.
I can’t leave this manor, Wei Lanying thought. I’m the one who helped Qi Chen become the crown prince. I’m the one who came first. How can I let this latecomer take what’s rightfully mine?
Wei Lanying took a deep breath and turned to the maid. “Go prepare a bowl of lotus seed soup,” she said carefully. Her mind was made up. “Put the aphrodisiac inside the soup. Make sure that there’s no noticeable signs. I will bring it to the prince.”
The maid broke into a beam for her master’s change of mind. She let out a relieved sigh and made a sound of agreement before rushing away. Wei Lanying was left standing before the crabapple tree, her eyes dark and vicious.
The lotus soup had been prepared. Wei Lanying fixed her dress and made her way to the study. As the second consort, no one dared to stop her from entering. She knocked on the door and walked in with a bright smile. She came up to the desk, looking at Qi Chen with eyes as tender as water.
“What are you doing here?” Qi Chen asked with a frown.
“Ying’er heard that Your Highness has been busy and hasn’t had anything to eat,” Wei Lanying said, placing the soup on the desk. Her hair fell on Qi Chen’s arm when she bent down. “I happened to be free, so I decided to bring Your Highness a bowl of lotus seed soup in case you’re hungry.”
Qi Chen felt a little awkward. He was in the middle of talking business with Jun Huang. It was inappropriate for Wei Lanying to interrupt them. She was his spouse, though, so he could only let his feelings known with his expression.
Wei Lanying knew at least not to push her luck, but she was worried that she wouldn’t be able to get to Qi Chen when he was hit with the effect of the aphrodisiac. “I have learned how to massage recently,” she said. “Your Highness is going to be tired later. How about I wait for Your Highness in the room inside? It’ll do Your Highness good to have the tension rubbed out of your muscles.”
Qi Chen didn’t want Wei Lanying to stay. He nodded without thinking. Satisfied, Wei Lanying walked into the room, leaving Qi Chen and Jun Huang alone.
Jun Huang looked down at the report without any expressions. Qi Chen could tell that she was getting tired. He moved the bowl of lotus soup to her and said, “Brother Feng doesn’t look too good. You should have some of this.”
Jun Huang wanted to argue, but Qi Chen didn’t give her a chance. He took the report from her with a smile and started reading. Jun Huang didn’t have a choice, and she was hungry. She tucked into the bowl of soup and quickly finished it.
Only after she put down the bowl did Qi Chen return the report to Jun Huang. Jun Huang took it and said, “There are two solutions to this problem. One, Your Highness may delegate some of your business to other people. Then even if the emperor finds out what you’ve done one day, he won’t put all the blame on you. You’ll only have to admit to some of it and apologize. You can then help with the investigation while taking care not to damage the foundation of the country.”
“The other solution is for Your Highness to lead by example. You may give up your business and let the officials see how determined you are. With your demonstration, the officials will follow suit.”
“Then how should I tell Royal Father?” asked Qi Chen.
Jun Huang smiled. “It’s simple. You only need to tell the emperor - ”
She paused. Her body heated up as if a fire was spreading from her lower stomach. Sweats broke out of her forehead and dripped from her chin.
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