Chapter 360: Counterplot (II)

“Indeed. I’ve heard his deeds of daring and valor mentioned many times at court. He was a remarkable man. It’s an absolute shame that he was taken from us so early.” Qin Huaiyuan sighed, quite regretful of the loss.

Having heard all of the rumors and gossip of the man’s heartbroken death after taking such a wife, Qin Yining also felt that it was a sad waste of a perfectly wonderful person.

“My daughter, do you know why the marchioness is targeting you?”

“She’s good friends with the Princess of Anyang. The princess hates me, so therefore the madame hates me too.”

Her father nodded. “What else?”

The fourth miss thought for a moment. “With her personality, there’s also probably the frustration and resentment of continuously failing to entice Pang Zhixi.”

“That’s one of the reasons too. What else?”

Some more ideas flashed through the girl’s mind, but she wasn’t entirely certain of them.

Qin Huaiyuan took over the conversation. “Back in the day, His Majesty took down Northern Ji with the support of the aristocracy. But when peace descended after the war, the existence of the aristocracy was at odds with imperial power. These families have deep roots and foundations, so the emperor didn’t dare make any careless moves. But neither do the great clans dare step out of bounds. The two forces have been engaged in a tug-of-war all these years. Endless clashes have occurred in the shadows, but all seems fine on the surface. Though there have been plenty of scrapes and scuffles, it hasn’t gotten to the point of all out hostilities.”

Qin Yining nodded, seeming to grasp a few things.

Her father smiled to see the look of understanding.

“His Majesty have been able to vie with the aristocracy for so long because of the military power that his trusted nobles hold. That’s allowed him to hold his own in the struggle. However, the emperor is a suspicious sort and doesn’t fully trust his own officials either. We can see that from how he stripped military command from Pang Zhixi.

"The emperor is also well aware that not all of his nobles are of one heart with him either. With all the times that swords have been crossed, the scales of balance between the His Majesty and the aristocracy have been oscillating. There is an urgent vacuum at court for another new force to balance out the aristocracy, Great Zhou officials, and former Northern Ji officials triumvirate. At the same time, the emperor doesn’t want this new force to become as untamed as his nobles holding military power have become.”

Enlightenment washed over Qin Yining when she heard her father’s words.

“I understand, father! A surrendered Yan officials such as you is precisely the new force that the emperor needs! I’d only known before of the web between the old Northern Ji officials and the emperor’s own nobles. I hadn’t realized that the aristocracy existed behind the scenes.”

“You’re yet unmarried, so the amount of people you’ve come in contact with is still limited. You don’t know the full picture.” Qin Huaiyuan smiled. “But you’re always quick to have some insights once I tell you all of the details.”

The girl’s face burned slightly with the high regard. “Given how the aristocracy has weathered hundreds of years, their foundations may be as strong as an entire dynasty like Northern Ji. Their descendants are plentiful and scattered across various industries. Surely they have a very broad network at court.”

“You’re right.” Her father nodded. “This is precisely the strength of the aristocratic families, and why His Majesty is wary of them. It’s only been a scant three to four years since Great Zhou’s founding. He also took over the leaky sieve that was the Northern Ji national treasury, and the revolutionaries that he first raised are no orthodox soldiers either. An army of farmers causes plenty of headaches when it comes to politics.

“Yet these aristocracies have stood for hundreds of years and formed their own faction. Even the emperor needs to show them respect when running into each other, to say nothing of the original Northern Ji officials and nobles like Pang Zhixi.”

“Is this why the Princess of Anyang calls Madame Lu big sister and is so polite towards her?”

“Exactly.” Qin Huaiyuan lowered his voice. “Though His Majesty is the emperor, he isn’t comfortable on the dragon throne at all. His prestige and support in even his own troops fall short of Pang Zhixi and Ji Lan’s.

“The Valiant Tigers and Dragon Riders are equally stunning in battle, but the Valiant Tigers are a bigger issue because Pang Zhixi is simply too charismatic. Many of the Valiant Tigers are Pang Zhixi’s confidantes, and an unknown amount are willing to die for the prince. We can already see that from how he was able to deploy his men to go searching for you even without the command token.

“In comparison, Ji Lan is a coldly remote sort. Though he’s very renowned in the army, he isn’t as charismatic. The Dragon Riders are loyal and follow all of his orders, but they won’t be that easily deployed for personal use.”

Qin Yining nodded. “I see. The emperor’s confidantes are two nobles who hold military power, but both of them retain a lot of unstable factors, particularly Pang Zhixi. That’s why the emperor suppresses Pang Zhixi in whatever way he can—stripping him of his command, redefining his battlefield among the civil officials so as to cage an eagle, fraying relations between him and Ji Lan, and making Ji Lan a royal son in law.”

“You’re absolutely right,” affirmed her father. “Therefore, with how much trouble that’s visited the emperor’s confidantes, it goes without saying how much stress is being levied on the aristocracy who once supplied vast sums of money to the emperor.

“In their eyes, they probably think that the revolutionaries wouldn’t have stood a chance without their help. Then we throw the Northern Ji grudges into the mix. Though they’ve surrendered, how would they possibly not feel one whit of regret for being unable to save their former home and country? Though peace exists on the surface between these powers, it’s not hard to understand why the emperor wants to make the surrendered Great Yan officials his own.

“So you’re right. His Majesty wants to wants to fully grasp us. Even if he can’t immediately bring us in full under his banner, he can at least buy our hearts. Giving timely assistance will leave a deeper impression that making perfection even more perfect.”

Qin Huaiyuan raised his teacup for a sip. The room quieted down with only the red candle in the embroidered lamp popping loudly.

Qin Yining mused silently for a long time. “Father, my plan for the marchioness wasn’t very appropriate. I wasn’t thinking clearly. It’s easy enough to tell my people not to sell the manor to her, but that would be slapping Madame Lu and the Lu clan’s face. That’s more of a loss than a gain. I think we need to think of a way that both avoids offending the Lus and punishes Madame Lu at the same time.”

“We’re newly arrived in town and really shouldn’t offend the Lus with our opening act,” assented Qin Huaiyuan. “But allowing a widow to run all over us from the beginning means that we’ll be looked down on. She’ll inspire copycats.”

“Father’s right.” Qin Yining nodded in agreement and had a sudden stroke of brilliance. She lowered her voice. “Father, do you think the emperor could’ve arranged for all this?”

Levity rose in the minister’s eyes as he looked down as his daughter. “Now that is exactly what I came to discuss with you tonight.”

The more Qin Yining thought about this, the more suspicious she found everything and the faster she spoke.

“The emperor wants nothing more than to make you his trusted confidante. He knows that our foundations are weak, since we’re newly arrived in Great Zhou. We’ll have a very tough time of things if we clash with the Lus. Therefore, His Majesty might have ordered the princess to incite Madame Lu, creating conflict between the two of us. After watching things with a cold, impartial eye over these days, I can tell that the emperor is immensely skilled at fomenting dissension.”

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