Pang Xiao gravely accepted the black whip. As he examined the tassel at the end of the whip and the pendant hanging from its handle, he couldn't help feeling a wave of emotion.
"Then... use mine in return." He walked over to Huzi to take his own whip—which he had used for many years—and handed it to Ji Zeyu.
Ji Zeyu took the whip and gave it a few swings. Laughing, he replied, "It's a deal, then. I'll take it as a gift from you. Let us make haste, it's getting late."
Pang Xiao nodded. Suddenly, he spread his arms and gave Ji Zeyu a tight hug. The two were approximately of the same stature and build. Moved by his sworn brother’s camaraderie, he gently patted Ji Zeyu on the back with the hand holding the whip.
The prince consort froze for a moment, then slowly raised his arms to return the embrace. A rare, warm mirth that couldn't be concealed blossomed in his dazzling eyes.
"My good brother, we should go drinking after I return."
"Absolutely. No one’s going home until both of us are drunk." Ji Zeyu clapped Pang Xiao on the shoulder.
Pang Xiao laughed heartily and squeezed Ji Zeyu tightly again; only then did he mount his horse. He gave Ji Zeyu a lively wave. "I'm off."
Pang Xiao's horse whip in hand, Ji Zeyu backed up a few steps with his silvery-white Ferghana horse to make way. Following Pang Xiao, the Elite Tigers rode past Ji Zeyu. It wasn’t long before the group disappeared into the distance.
Only then did Ji Zeyu's face revert to his customary expressionless demeanor, his grip tightening on Pang Xiao's whip. Mounting his horse, he sped back to the capital.
Instead of returning to his own residence, he took a detour to the Qin manor. Worried that scouts were still keeping watch, he didn't dare show his face and elected to take a look from afar.
Little did he know that as soon as he turned the corner, he would see a troop of men on horseback slowing down before the front door of the Qin manor at the end of the alley.
Their leader wore a cloak and embroidered hat made of sable pelt, his steed a tall chestnut. Scowling with a glowering expression, he dismounted his horse with the assistance of a grovelling person dressed in steel-grey cotton robes.
Though it was a great distance apart, Ji Zeyu didn't have to look hard to identify that the man was none other than the emperor who should’ve been meeting with his court in the royal palace—Li Qitian!
Ji Zeyu hastily dismounted and hid behind a wall, cautiously poking his head out, his brows furrowing tightly out of worry.
Li Qitian was approaching the door of the Qin manor with his hands clasped behind his back, his expression somber. Li Guanwen and a group of royal guards tripped over themselves to carefully escort the emperor from all sides.
He’d just been to the residence of the Faithful Prince of the First Rank, only to find that no one was home save for their servants. Apparently, Pang Xiao's maternal grandparents and mother had left at the crack of dawn to visit relatives, and no one knew when they would return.
How was it that they’d just so happened to go visit relatives? This wasn't his first day of being acquainted with Pang Xiao; since when were there any members of the Yao clan left for them to visit?! He clearly meant to toy with the emperor!
Very well then; even if they were visiting relatives, didn't their in-laws primarily consist of the Qins? He was quite looking forward to seeing how the Qins would react to his visit! If Qin Huaiyuan was so bold as to hide things from his emperor like Li Qitian was speculating him to be, then heavens help the old man!
Li Qitian was so furious that he’d lost the capacity for rational thought. In a low voice, he ordered, "Announce Our presence."
Not daring to ignore his command, the guard immediately responded and rushed to knock.
They were received extremely quickly. Seeing the group of hostile visitors before the door, the doorkeeper grew so nervous that he was momentarily unable to respond. "This is the Qin Manor. Who might you be?"
Hands behind his back, Li Qitian straightened up without a word. Li Guanwen turned back to glance at his master for instructions.
Should we announce our identity, considering the current situation? Or shouldn’t they? Since His Majesty didn’t express his intent, the eunuch agonized between a rock and a hard place!
After some inner grumbling, all Li Guanwen could do was guess at what the emperor wished to do. "You are to receive an esteemed guest. Hurry and call for the master of the house."
Perplexed, the servant looked at the anonymous yet lavishly dressed man, then at the rich, middle-aged man who seemed to be suppressing a burning fury beneath a calm facade. All he could do was nod and reply, "This servant will do just that."
Not daring to hesitate, he hastily turned and dashed inside. Compared to the Faithful Prince of the First Rank's underlings, the Qins' servants were evidently much more well-versed in the ways of hospitality.
Li Qitian’s expression remained frosty, but was slightly mollified at how nervous the servant had been just now.
Even so, his ill temper needed to be slaked. He’d already ordered his men to go after Pang Xiao; if they returned empty-handed, he couldn't guarantee he wouldn't take out his frustration on them.
In any case, he had to first see how Qin Huaiyuan responded.
Footsteps soon sounded from inside. The door opened to reveal Qin Huaiyuan, dressed in a navy pongee robe that was neither brand-new nor well-worn. Seeing the visitors outside, he immediately fell to his knees in a grand gesture of greeting.
Li Qitian made no move to stop him, accepting the courtesy with his hands behind his back.
Seeing that the emperor was in casual clothes, Qin Huaiyuan didn't dare address him directly and merely said, "Please hurry inside."
Although the manor servants didn’t know who the visitor was, they could tell he was someone highly prestigious—judging from their master’s response. No one dared slack off, and they scurried off to tidy up the front hall and prepare refreshments.
After entering the manor, Li Qitian hesitated for a moment before electing to order his guards to stay outside and only brought Li Guanwen in with him. Having read the situation, Qin Huaiyuan also dismissed his servants, so as to not disturb his esteemed visitor.
After Li Qitian was seated, Qin Huaiyuan kowtowed deeply yet again; only then did he dare speak. "This humble servant has neglected to properly receive Your Majesty’s gracious presence at my humble abode. I ask for Your Majesty to punish me as is proper."
Li Qitian pursed his lips as he stared at Qin Huaiyuan. "Minister Qin," he inquired in a low voice, "do you know the reason for Our visit?"
Qin Huaiyuan knelt with impeccable posture, but his eyes went cloudy with confusion. After thinking a moment, he replied, "This humble subject guesses His Majesty has personally visited as an indication of empathy for his subject’s efforts. To be so graced His Majesty's favor..."
"Silence!" Li Qitian furiously slammed his hand on the table, then leaned forward with bared teeth. "You wish to play games in Our presence? You know exactly why We are here, yet you continue to play dumb! Minister Qin, We have always valued your talents and have never embarrassed you despite your position as a surrendered citizen. Yet this is how you show your gratitude, hmm?"
Qin Huaiyuan paled and hurried to kotow. "Please quell your anger, Your Majesty! This humble subject truly knows not what Your Majesty means by this. If Your Majesty has any orders for this subject, he need only say the word and I will do everything in my power to carry out your command. This subject has always been well aware of how Your Majesty recognizes my worth, and I have always fulfilled my duties with utmost diligence and care. This subject would not dare to go against Your Majesty's wishes!"
"Run your mouth all you want. We ask you this: do you know that Pang Zhixi has left the capital?" Li Qitian stared unwaveringly at Qin Huaiyuan's face, not wanting to miss any change in his facial expression.
However, the minister’s eyes went round with astonishment. "Your Majesty means to say that the Faithful Prince of the First Rank has left the capital?" he exclaimed in disbelief. "Your Majesty didn’t order him to run any errands, yet he..."
Li Qitian refrained from responding, instead continuing to stare at Qin Huaiyuan as if wanting to frighten the old man into spilling the truth.Previous Chapter Next Chapter