Since the old Northern Ji officials had come from voluntary surrender, they were no patriotic loyalists either. They were fence-sitters who’d seen which way the wind was blowing. Even if they hadn’t ravaged a good sum from the citizens, they undoubtedly still had a vast fortune on their hands.
The Faithful Prince of the First Rank was rather poor in comparison, and the emperor naturally knew of this social order.
If he wanted money, everyone would have to empty their pockets, not just Pang Xiao.
The crowd relaxed when their thoughts travelled here.
Having discussed these issues, Pang Xiao was much more at ease. After a moment’s thought, he commented, “You are all highly intelligent people, and there are those among you with a penchant for literary flair. You will write the poem for fetching the bride, and write it well! Also, think of the questions that they might ask at the door. Write out a list of them. This prince will memorize them later.”
Xu Weizhi and Xie Yue rose, standing at the head of the crowd to lead them in a bow. “Understood.”
Homework duly assigned, Pang Xiao left.
The strategists looked at each other, all holding in laughter. Those with talent for prose gathered together to study the best poem they could craft. A few others pooled their experiences of attending previous weddings and listed out questions and answers, creating a final review guide before their prince’s exam.
Xu Weizhi headed to the inner residence to discuss with Yao Chenggu and née Ma regarding adding two more litters of little gold fish.
Pang Xiao gave orders for his horse to be readied and slipped outside the city for a ride.
Following orders, Huzi snuck over to the prince consort’s manor and set up a meeting with Ji Zeyu.
The prince consort came as requested, glimpsing his sworn brother in inky brocade robes, a belt with a jade buckle, and a small crown of pure gold in his hair. The prince was racing Thundercloud, his prized battle stallion with an equally dark coat, along the moat of the capital.
Thundercloud’s gleaming fur sparkled beneath the sunlight. Its rider seemed to be one with the horse. Crouched low over its back, they sped across the prince consort’s line of sight and vanished into a verdant copse of trees and shadow.
Ji Zeyu hadn’t brought his fiery chestnut today, opting instead for the snow white battlesteed that he’d intercepted from Qin Yining. The silvery-white horse, named Whitecloud, had once been a gift to the Qin fourth miss. Ever since coming into Ji Zeyu’s hands, the prince consort had devoted time and care to it. It was now very close to its newest owner.
Clad in flaming red fighting robes, Ji Zeyu sat primly on the light-colored battle horse. His hair wrapped up in a topknot, it trailed down in a ponytail that fluttered in the light breeze. His back ramrod straight, a removed expression graced his unparalleled looks. The bright red shade on him didn’t appear girlish at all; it only served to reinforce a severe air of aloofness.
Pang Xiao took a lap around the willow-graced banks of the city moat and came thundering back soon thereafter. He flashed a grin when he saw Ji Zeyu and raised the whip in his hand. “Ah Lan, let’s do a circle?”
A slight curve quirked Ji Zeyu’s lips and he nodded. He raised his whip in answer. “Giddyup!”
Whitecloud transformed into a streak of silver light and bolted forward. Pang Xiao also urged Thundercloud on. The two Ferghana horses surged to the fore as the two Great Zhou war gods on their backs snapped their whips in the air, carefree glee filling their hearts.
They could rarely be themselves at court. Such indulgence and joy in sheer speed was often lacking in their lives.
The two did a few laps before finding a small path to walk their horses.
“Zhixi, what do you need me for?”
“I have a favor to ask of you.” Pang Xiao smiled faintly. “At my wedding next month, I’m worried that troublemakers will pay a visit. I’d like to borrow your manor’s soldiers to help keep the peace.”
Ji Zeyu raised surprised eyes and met his brother’s humorous phoenix-shaped ones. He grinned. “I’ll bring my men in person.”
Not having anticipated that the prince consort would agree so readily, Pang Xiao remarked worriedly, “His Majesty will undoubtedly think too much when that happens.”
“No matter. If he asks, I’ll say that I was worried your troops might rebel, so brought mine to keep yours in order,” responded the prince consort without a moment’s thought.
Touched, Pang Xiao stretched out his arm and clapped Ji Zeyu’s shoulder.
“Thank you, my good brother.”
Ji Zeyu looked at the large hand on his shoulder and smiled. “Lord Guan saw my kowtow, clear as day, all those years ago. Brothers once, brothers for life.” 
Pang Xiao’s own smile widened as he looked into his brother’s merry, handsome face.
“You’re my brother alright. We fetch the bride on the tenth day of the month—you have to come with me.”
Ji Zeyu nodded with a warm smile. “Of course. I also want to see what kind of family’s raised what kind of daughter that’s snared your heart so.”
When his thoughts travelled here, the prince consort’s tone turned a bit lost. “Zhixi, have you really accepted this marriage and put down your hatred?”
That day in court, Ji Zeyu had gone back and fumed for multiple days after Qin Huaiyuan’s wailing fit resulted in an imperial decree.
“Minister Qin was too wily. He forced the emperor into making an imperial edict. This way, it’s either a punishment on you so that you don’t have the room to take revenge, or it’s to recruit you so that you won’t take revenge because you’re his son-in-law. This man is unfathomably shrewd. I’m really worried that you’ll fall into one of his plots.”
Ji Zeyu could tell that Pang Xiao really did like Qin Yining, so there was another concern he didn’t voice. What if the girl was just a honey trap that her father was using on Pang Xiao?
That particular concern seemed absolutely extraneous now, however.
Judging from how happy Pang Xiao was, he’d obviously put down the feud of his father’s generation and was thoroughly enjoying being plotted against, as if he were eating sugarplums.
What else could they do, with how things were now?
The imperial edict had been given and the beautiful trap sprung—yet his brother was so utterly delighted that it seemed he was someone else entirely.
They were friends since young, and it was the first time in all these years that Ji Zeyu had seen Pang Xiao lay aside his anger and bitterness to smile with such carefree lightness.
“Your marriage is no small matter. Now that I’m commanding your old troops and the Tartars are too busy with their internal conflict to invade the south, you’re very likely to be sent north with the Dragon Riders if war flares anew. I’m the emperor’s brother-in-law now and he trusts me. He’ll naturally want me to stay in the capital to protect him. It’s more probable that you’ll be sent out.”
“I agree.” Pang Xiao nodded earnestly after hearing the analysis. “I’m thinking His Majesty will make that sort of arrangement as well. Switching between you and me is a good plan for him.”
“Therefore, the Tartars will definitely take note of your marriage. You’re so happy now that you seem like a different person, so you might be off your guard during the wedding as well. The Tartars are wary of me and even more frightened of your vicious reputation. They’re very cunning, so they might take advantage of the occasion to get up to no good. With both our troops there, we’ll be able to exercise vigilance against any developments.”
“You’re as thorough as ever.” Pang Xiao smiled gratefully at his brother. “With how things are, I no longer wish to dwell on old feuds. I admit that I do like née Qin. Perhaps this is all a joke from the heavens. Because of her, I can let go of past hurts. Our situation now is also tense, so there’s no effort to spare for days gone by. We should look ahead to the future.”
LOL ahem ahem, our prince is a slight tyrant here eh!
And aw, Ji bro is SUCH a bro. Patrons -- no advance chapter just yet because I'm doing a double release today. Please bear with me!