Chapter 232: Mind Game

Qi Yun stayed with the emperor every morning. It pained him to see his father’s health deteriorate day by day. Even though the emperor had been absent from his childhood, they were connected by blood. He couldn’t bear seeing the traces time left on the emperor.

The more intense Qi Chen and the third emperor’s conflict became, the more the emperor’s hands shook when he read reports.

A scroll was thrown across the room when Qi Yun entered the emperor’s study. He stood silently for a moment before placing the ceramic bowl on the table and picking up the report. There wasn’t anything new written in it. Another official was getting tired of the clash between Qi Chen and the third prince. He hoped the emperor would address the issue.

Qi Yun put the report away with a sigh and approached the emperor. “Please don’t be angry, Royal Father.”

“How can I not be? Look at these two sons of mine. What have they been doing lately?!” The emperor broke into a coughing fit. Qi Yun hurriedly went up to him and smoothed a hand over his back. Helplessness made Qi Yun’s movement rigid.

“Royal Father has to take care of yourself,” Qi Yun said worriedly, his brows furrowed.

After a lifetime of being in the royal family, the emperor had honed his observation skill. He could tell immediately who among his sons truly cared about him. Qi Yun had been patiently attending to him since he fell ill. Genuine familial love was uncommon in the royal family. He was deeply moved by Qi Yun’s gesture.

With a sigh, he took Qi Yun’s hand and patted the back of his hand. “You are the purest man in this imperial court.”

“Please don’t say that, Royal Father. This son can’t be the only one who cares about Royal Father’s health. There are loyal officials in the court still. Royal Father doesn’t have to be so pessimistic. The most important thing now is for you to recover. The rest will fall into place on its own.” Qi Yun was genuinely trying to comfort his father. He added, “Besides, second brother and third brother would like to share Royal Father’s burden as well. They just want to improve themselves in hope that one day - ”

“Ha, it’ll be best if they can behave themselves,” the emperor cut in. The more he thought about how Qi Chen and the third prince plotted against each other in the court, the angrier he became. His eyebrows drew closer and closer. “In the beginning their arguments were trivial. Now, though, they’re openly attacking each other with no consideration to their familial bond.”

Qi Yun responded with silence. The court was now a chaotic place. However, Jun Huang had told him to not intervene and stay at the emperor’s side. He’d let the two princes fight it out.

The emperor paused. “It’s good for men to be bold and ambitious. It’s good for the two of them to work hard for the throne. However, what they’re doing now isn’t so much working for the throne as treading over their brother’s body for their goal. It’s disheartening.”

“Royal Father’s… concern must have reached them.” Qi Yun wasn’t sure how he could reassure the emperor. There were many things he had to keep to himself. He knew the more he talked, the more he risked making a mistake.

He wondered if Jun Huang and Ji Bo had been facilitating the collapse of order in the court. This wasn’t the way the imperial court should be. It made him feel chilled to the bone thinking of the mastermind pulling the strings.

The emperor got tired after taking the medicine. Qi Yun left once he fell asleep and walked out of the emperor’s bedroom. He went back to his place. 

The man he’d sent out to investigate his mother’s death came. Surprised, he ordered the others to leave and took the man to his study.

“This subordinate has found some clues, Your Highness.” The man handed a letter to Qi Yun.

Qi Yun unfolded the letter. The more he read, the darker his expression became. Veins popped out from his forehead as he gritted his teeth, his hand clutching the sheet of paper. He took a deep breath and forced himself to let go. The letter fell onto the floor, making a soft rustle.

He knew he must control his emotions, but he couldn’t stop himself from shaking. He tightened his jaw without a word. The guard didn’t know what to do, but he didn’t dare to leave.

A long stretch of time passed before Qi Yun waved a hand tiredly to dismiss the guard. He struggled to maintain his balance before he fell to the ground like all his strength had drain out of his body. The letter was within his reach, but he couldn’t muster the courage to pick it up again.

He’d never stopped investigating his mother’s death. He never expected the emperor to be a part of it. It felt like someone had stabbed him in the heart and twisted the knife. He would never forgive the emperor. He swore he’d do whatever it took to take everything the emperor owed his mother back.

The conflict in the imperial court was building to a crescendo. Jun Huang and her allies stayed at a safe distance, calmly watching the two factions fight each other.

The two princes had not gone easy on the other. They criticized and made put undue attention on every mistake the other had made. In response, the emperor calmly replaced officials who were on the two princes’ side. Many of the new officials were loyal and headstrong men who cared nothing about taking sides.

The emperor would consult Qi Yun about who should be assigned to what position. Even though Qi Yun now harbored hatred for his father for getting his mother killed, he knew he must not let it show. He’d worked hard to win the emperor’s affection. He would not let his and other people’s hard work be in vain.

He was debating if he should build a faction of his own using this opportunity, but Jun Huang shot him down as soon as he brought it up. She told him to be objective, to put competent men to important tasks and give those who could improve an opportunity to learn.

As a result, Qi Yun would learn about an official’s strength and other information before suggesting a position that was most suitable to the official.

The emperor was happy with his pragmatic method. Qi Yun had a keen eye for character and talent. People recommended by him respected him, and they treated their jobs seriously. It didn’t take long before they showed others why they were right for the job.

Qi Yun never got involved in the conflicts between different factions. He stood alone in the court, untainted by corruption and infighting. It was admirable. Many officials had approved of him.

Some volunteered their assistance to Qi Yun, but he wasn’t someone who’d lose his composure because of this. He was calm and collected when the officials invited him to talk. He didn’t talk about garnering their support in their conversation. His responses to their discussion on political matters impressed the officials.

Qi Yun continued to stay at the emperor’s side. Whenever he had the time, he’d picked a topic and discussed with someone from the field.

The emperor was pleased. Qi Yun was the only son he didn’t have to worry about.

When Nan Xun returned to his manor, Jun Huang and Ji Bo were arguing - it wasn’t really an argument. They were simply stubbornly holding on to their opinions. They often had debate such as this. Afterwards, they’d each think about if they had said something inappropriate. If they had, they’d apologize.

“I don’t think that’s wise,” Jun Huang said. “Qi Yun has finally managed to stand out from the princes. If he recruits courtiers like Qi Chen does, he may lose himself in the process.”

“No, no,” responded Ji Bo. “This is an opportunity for us to see if he’s the real deal. If he can’t stay true to himself, he’ll never be a good leader no matter how much effort we put in him. We might as well part ways.”

Their conversation was sensitive. Nan Xun made sure there was no one around before he let himself relax. He approached them with a smile. “What are you arguing about now?”

Jun Huang waited a moment before she answered, “There are courtiers who are willing to follow Qi Yun, but I don’t think it’s the right time for him to approach them. It’ll be unwise for Qi Yun to try talking the officials into helping him. They value Qi Yun for his wisdom. They aren’t trying to get on his good side because he’s favored by the emperor. I believe we can just let the officials be and let others know that Qi Yun doesn’t care about sides.”

“This gentleman believes that Qi Yun should get to know the officials,” said Ji Bo. “If nothing’s done, they may think that Qi Yun is incapable of judging the situation, and that he’s not sensitive to the political climate enough to be a good leader. It’ll be our loss if the officials throw themselves under our enemies’ banners.”

Jun Huang smiled at him. “Then it’s the perfect time to test if those courtiers truly want to assist Qi Yun.”

It didn’t seem like they’d stop arguing anytime soon. Nan Xun interrupted them. “Why waste time debating among yourselves? You should talk to Qi Yun. You shouldn’t be making every decision for him. If he’s to be a good emperor, he must learn how to make judgement himself. If you’re going to take on all the responsibilities, anyone can be an emperor.”

Jun Huang and Ji Bo fell silent. Nan Xun was right. They felt a little embarrassed letting go of the issue after debating for so long. Before Ji Bo could say anything, Nan Xun ordered a servant to send him back.

Now they could finally have some peace and quiet. When Nan Xun turned to Jun Huang, she was looking at him as well. He could see the tired lines on her face. It made his heart ache.

She had been busy plotting recently, trying to predict how Qi Chen and the others would act when she made a move. She thought through every action of hers and didn’t dare relax her guard. She was more and more exhausted from the mental effort required to play the game. However, she refused to take a rest. If only there were replicates of her. Then she could mold the country to her will day and night.

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