The Regent’s Secret Chapter 57

Chapter 57

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The shopkeeper continued to explain, “The more delicate and exquisite the erotic paintings are, and the more elegant the coloring is, the higher the price they can fetch. I have a fixed client base here. Not to mention the old gentlemen of the Hanlin Academy, even the sons of wealthy merchants are willing to pay a high price for a good painting.”

Li Yi suddenly understood that the palace had collected quite a few of these paintings, not to mention the homes of literati.

It was indeed rare to find someone who could paint these well. Most of the painters were anonymous, and anyone with some reputation wouldn’t want to lower their status by painting these. If they were recognized, they would lose all their reputation and future prospects.

However, this was a classic case where the greater the risk, the greater the reward. Li Yi thought for a moment and decided to accept the offer. He was currently short on funds and needed to deal with this first. After the New Year, he could slowly look for book merchants to collaborate with and paint some paintings.

The owner of the house was surprised to see that Li Yi had really come, and quickly had the shop assistants bring out a stack of erotic picture books, indicating that Li Yi could take a rough look at them and get an idea of what they were about.

Li Yi had seen such books before in the palace, but those were all refined and elegant works of art. Today, he was seeing what was popular in the streets, and it really opened his eyes.

Not to mention the various positions depicted in the pictures, even the locations were beyond his imagination. Back gardens, rockeries – those were all standard. There were phrases like “a deserted ferry crossing with no one in sight,” “a pearl curtain rolled up at dusk with rain falling on the western mountain,” “the ancient temple of bamboo and cypress trees in the south of the city,” and even “three thousand miles outside of Yumen Pass.”

And then there were the people, old and young, individuals, groups, men and women, women with women, men with men… Wait, men with men? There seemed to be quite a few of those.

Li Yi pointed to a picture and asked the owner of the bookstore, “Do people really want this kind of thing?”

“Of course they do. Many young masters can’t find what they’re looking for,” said the owner, unable to hide his excitement. “Can you draw these?”

Li Yi nodded.

“Then it’s settled. The price will be higher than usual, and I’ll add another ten percent. If it sells well, I won’t shortchange you.”

After leaving Qingteng Bookstore, Li Yi returned to the ink shop to meet Zhao Yuan. On the way back to Pan Palace, Zhao Yuan noticed that Li Yi seemed preoccupied with something.

After spending most of the day out, Li Yi was feeling tired. He and Zhao Yuan had dinner together and didn’t do much more studying that night. Ping An was already waiting to help Li Yi wash and prepare for bed, so Li Yi went to rest early.

When Li Yi was seriously ill before, Zhao Yuan stayed by his side day and night. Now that Li Yi was much better, Zhao Yuan would wait in the outer room for a while, and only leave after Li Yi had fallen asleep and there was no danger.

After flipping through some books for a while, Zhao Yuan estimated that Li Yi had fallen asleep and got up to go into the inner room. When he got to the bed, he was about to pull the canopy down as usual, but he suddenly realized that the person inside was only pretending to be asleep.

Zhao Yuan had been guarding Li Yi for some time now. He knew every expression on his face, whether he was sleeping soundly, restlessly, pretending to be asleep, or even drugged and unconscious. There was no sleeping face that Zhao Yuan didn’t recognize.

He could tell whether Li Yi was truly sleeping or just pretending at a glance, but he didn’t show any sign of it. He worried that Li Yi might have encountered some difficulties during the day, perhaps from the news brought by Chen Banban. He planned to ask him about it when he found him more relaxed tomorrow.

The next day, Li Yi had dark circles under his eyes, obviously not having slept well. Zhao Yuan saw this and asked his young follower, “His Highness did not sleep well last night?”

Ping An replied with a serious face, “His Highness specifically instructed me that if the Shizi asks about his affairs in the near future, I must not say anything.”

Zhao Yuan heard this and not only did he not back down, but he also smiled, “Good job, Ping An. Since you listen to His Highness so well, I will reward you.”

Ping An declined at first, but eventually accepted the reward. He pouted and said, “Your Highness, don’t try to bribe me.”

Zhao Yuan laughed heartily and joked with his young apprentice, “No, no, I won’t. I won’t ask about His Highness’s affairs anymore. I’ll only ask about yours.”

Ping An breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that he wouldn’t be asked about Li Yi’s affairs anymore. He nodded and waited for the Shizi to ask his own questions.

“When did you go to bed yesterday? I noticed that your reaction today wasn’t as agile as usual. If this continues, you won’t be able to improve your martial arts skills.”

Ping An became anxious when he heard this and said, “I went to bed late yesterday… but Your Highness, please don’t worry. No matter how late I go to bed, it won’t affect my martial arts practice. If I didn’t do well today, I’ll immediately make it up! Let’s try it again now.”

Zhao Yuan didn’t respond immediately. His face was full of disbelief, “His Highness doesn’t even need you to stand guard, and he’s always concerned that you’re too young and need more sleep. Are you saying that you slept late because you were lazy?”

“How could that be! It was His Highness who wanted to paint, so I followed him for a while. But His Highness refused, and even sent me to bed,” Ping An replied.

As soon as the words left his mouth, Ping An felt that something was not quite right, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

Zhao Yuan continued to ask, “Why did His Highness get up to paint at night?”

Ping An lowered his head and replied, “I don’t know. Perhaps he couldn’t sleep.”

Zhao Yuan spoke softly to comfort him, “What did you see His Highness painting?”

After being asked by Zhao Yuan, Ping An felt even more negligent and quietly admitted his mistake: “His Highness only allows me to grind ink and serve tea, and then sends me off to sleep. Perhaps he thinks I cannot handle calligraphy and painting like the high-ranking officials in the Ministry of Rites. I don’t even know what His Highness is painting…”

Heavens forbid, Li Yi just didn’t want the child to witness him painting an R-rated scene. How could he face himself in the future if he did that?

Zhao Yuan sensed that something was amiss. Although he didn’t know the reason, he could infer a few suspicious points. Li Yi knew he was still recovering from a serious illness and should not be overworked, yet he avoided him and even his own little attendant at night just to paint.

There was something strange going on, and he had to figure it out.

That night, Li Yi used his health as an excuse and went to bed early as usual.

Zhao Yuan stayed in his own room, reading until the third watch of the night. He changed into his night clothes and couldn’t help but laugh at himself before sneaking out of his dormitory like a thief.

A dim light came from afar. Zhao Yuan easily avoided the palace guards and swiftly moved to the back of Li Yi’s house. He cat-like approached the back window of Li Yi’s room, estimating the position of his large painting desk.

Zhao Yuan slowly crouched down and lifted a tile with ease. In the bright candlelight, Li Yi was fully engrossed in his drawing.

The first thing that caught Zhao Yuan’s eye was a large and beautifully colored scene of the Wuling Mountains. The sunset glow shone on the mountains and the nearby Bi Bo Lake where he and Li Yi often visited.

Almost simultaneously, the central figure of the painting suddenly caught his attention. A handsome scholar was being pressed down by a young martial artist at the foot of a waterfall. White waves splashed all over them, soaking their clothes.

The scholar’s hair was scattered and his clothes were torn open. The person pressing down on him lifted his neck with one hand and reached deep into his robes with the other, revealing a seductive and alluring sight…

Zhao Yuan was shocked and almost lost his composure. This excitement was simply too much, and he almost made a sound.

Zhao Yuan didn’t know how he got back to his room. Zhao Xi called him, but he didn’t hear anything. His mind was blank, and when the blankness passed, his mind was filled with the people, scenes, and objects from the painting.

The scholar in the painting was moving his waist and had a reddish face, as if he was drunk and filled with a spring-like charm. His deer-like eyes were slightly closed, and his long eyelashes fluttered like butterfly wings.

Zhao Yuan’s body was already burning like a fire, and he suddenly sat up and started practicing his inner energy to calm down.

The scholar who looked like Li Yi was actually a demon who turned into a monster. He silently sneaked out of the painting and entered Zhao Yuan’s mind. At this moment, he was causing chaos in his mind and wouldn’t stop until he drained him completely.

Zhao Yuan fought with the demon for most of the night before he became exhausted and fell asleep.

He woke up before dawn, and the strong reaction he had in the morning tortured him again for a while.

When Li Yi and Zhao Yuan met in the mountains, both of them looked like they hadn’t slept well. Li Yi wanted to ask Zhao Yuan why he seemed so tired, but he was afraid of being asked the same question.

Zhao Yuan looked at Li Yi with annoyance. He knew exactly what he wanted to ask, and he thought to himself that it was all Li Yi’s fault.

Who could have thought that the gentle and refined gentleman in public would stay up all night drawing erotic pictures in private?

Zhao Yuan was angry that he suffered innocently that day, and he was so exhausted from practicing that his legs were weak when he walked.

At night, as soon as Zhao Yuan returned to his own room, he felt as if countless ants were crawling up his heart. He couldn’t wait for a moment and changed into his night clothes to go to Li Yi’s rooftop again.

This went on for four or five days. The desire was so strong that Zhao Yuan was powerless to resist it at first, but gradually it subsided, and he was able to control it like a flat boat floating along.

After the initial shock, Zhao Yuan began to ponder why Li Yi was doing this.

He didn’t believe that Li Yi, who had just recovered from a serious illness, had the strength and energy to think about such things, and even to sneak around and draw them in the middle of the night to avoid being seen.

Moreover, Li Yi was not a wastrel, he was still carrying the heavy burden of the Crown Prince’s family, so how could he waste his time on this?

Thinking of this, Zhao Yuan suddenly realized that Li Yi began drawing after they went to the Spring Blessing Building. Could it be that Chen Banban had said something to him?

Was it for someone, for a certain purpose, or for exchanging something?

Zhao Yuan decided not to guess blindly anymore. Since the painting must have a use, he would wait for Li Yi to finish it and then focus only on where the painting goes.

Finally, the painting was finished, and both Zhao Yuan and Li Yi breathed a sigh of relief. They both laid in their own rooms and slept soundly.

Chapter 57

Li Yi was in a hurry to use the money, and since he still hadn’t recovered from his lack of sleep, he quickly went back to the Sajin Lane on the day of rest.

Zhao Yuan had already instructed Zhao Xi to follow him quietly.

When Li Yi returned, Zhao Xi hesitated and said to Shizi, “His Highness went into a shop called Qingteng Bookstore, talked with the owner for half a day, and came out with a happy face.”

Without waiting for Zhao Yuan to reply, he added, “After His Highness left, he went to a teahouse. I waited at the street corner from a distance, and saw Chen Banban and His Highness leaving the place one after the other.”

Zhao Yuan thought to himself that this matter was indeed related to Chen Banban. But if the painting was to be handed over to him, why not let Chen Banban come to the school to pick it up? Wouldn’t that be more convenient to avoid prying eyes? And why did Li Yi go to the bookstore first when he arrived at Sajin Lane?

To buy books, or to sell books…

Zhao Yuan suddenly had a bold guess. Could it be that Li Yi was there to sell the painting? Chen Banban had come to the palace several times before for the sake of money, and he knew this.

However, Zhao Yuan’s intuition told him to deny this thought. It was simply too outlandish.

Li Yi was a person of noble identity, and when he saw Li Yi’s painting of a spring scene, he was almost dumbfounded. If Li Yi not only painted it, but also intended to sell it to the outside world, it would be a disaster if it really got out…

With a sudden rush, Zhao Yuan stood up. The sun was already slanting westward, and he left Zhao Xi behind, saying, “If His Highness asks, say that I might have caught a slight cold, and won’t be dining with him tonight. I’ll dine with him tomorrow after confirming that I’m okay.”

Before Zhao Xi could even answer, Zhao Yuan had disappeared without a trace.

Riding his Bai Yucong, Zhao Yuan rushed out of the palace and arrived at the Qingteng Bookstore just as the shopkeepers were about to close the door. He quickly took out some small silver pieces, and the shopkeeper took the reward and threw away the door panel, then turned to call the owner.

After exchanging a stack of silver notes for the painting, Zhao Yuan finally felt at ease. Fortunately, Royal Mother had attached a large sum of silver notes to the letter before. Otherwise, he would have had to sell his sword.

Back in the palace, the cold night was filled with the flickering shadows of lamps. Zhao Yuan’s mood was complicated. He opened the scroll and examined the painting, wanting to imprint every detail in his mind. For a long time, he moved his hands slightly, and as he was about to shed tears of blood onto the painting, he moved his hands away.

He knew that it was best to leave no trace. But in the end, he couldn’t bear to destroy it.

Zhao Xi saw the appearance of his master and couldn’t help but say when he was collecting the painting that he had received: “His Highness won’t be going to keep painting this to raise money right? If you had known, you should have just given the silver directly to His Highness.”

Zhao Yuan shook his head. “He knows that I have no means to make a living. If I took out the silver, he would naturally guess that they came from Dian Nan. His Highness would not accept such a source of income.”

“As for the painting…if he hadn’t been forced to the limit, he wouldn’t have resorted to such a plan. Winter arrived early in the capital this year, and I guess that the salary hasn’t been distributed yet, so His Highness can’t round up the deficit.”

Sure enough, Zhao Yuan’s prediction was accurate. After Li Yi resolved his urgent matter, he never painted that obscene picture again. As the twelfth lunar month approached, he began to paint New Year pictures and door gods in earnest.

Zhao Xi felt fortunate and silently recited the Amitabha Buddha. As the heavy snow began to block the mountain passes and the palace grew colder with each passing day, the coal distributed by Pan Palace to the children was barely sufficient and not of good quality.

Li Yi had just recovered from an illness and was spending his first winter outside the palace. When it snowed earlier, he was already freezing, and now that it was the season of heavy snow, the charcoal was almost gone.

It was only early in the twelfth lunar month, but Zhao Yuan knew what Li Yi needed and gave him his own share of charcoal.

“I spend most of my time in your room now, and there’s no need to keep it in my room when I don’t use it. It’s better to keep it together and use it.”

Li Yi was happy that Zhao Yuan was spending more time in his room and readily agreed.

After the 8th day of the 12th lunar month, classes in Pan Palace were completely suspended, allowing students who lived far away to go home for the Lunar New Year.

For a while, the entire Pan Palace was deserted. Even Pan lake was covered with a thick layer of ice. Soon, only Li Yi and Zhao Yuan were left in their dormitories. 

Li Yi didn’t want to go back to the Eastern Palace, and Zhao Yuan had nowhere else to go. 

As the Winter Solstice approached, snow fell continuously in the capital. By the third night, just looking out from the room, one could see the snow shining a faint gray light, and the world was filled with white fluttering snowflakes. 

Occasionally, one could hear the sound of snow weighing down and breaking tree branches.

The fire in the room was deep red, and the candlelight was warm and melting. Li Yi listened to the sound of the wind and snow hitting the window and said, “Why don’t you stay here tonight instead of going back?”

Zhao Yuan was surprised by this suggestion.

Li Yi continued, “Why go back to that cold house in this heavy snow? Just stay here with me for the night.” 

When Li Yi was ill, Zhao Yuan had stayed by his bedside many nights. 

“Alright,” Zhao Yuan agreed. 

Seeing that he agreed, Li Yi smiled and asked a servant to bring some bedding. 

After everything was arranged, the two laid down to sleep. They listened to the north wind blowing outside, but Li Yi couldn’t fall asleep. He was very sensitive to the cold and had trouble sleeping if he wasn’t warm enough. 

Zhao Yuan noticed that Li Yi was restless and asked, “Is it because you feel cold?” 

Li Yi hesitated for a moment before admitting that he was. But soon after, someone lifted up his quilt, and Li Yi looked up to see Zhao Yuan standing by his bed. 

Zhao Yuan bent down and whispered, “Don’t move, I’ll keep you warm.” 

As he spoke, he lifted the covers and snuggled in close to Li Yi. 

“Why are your hands and feet so cold? Is it like this every day? Why didn’t you tell me earlier?” Zhao Yuan asked. 

Li Yi only made some vague noises in response. Zhao Yuan’s body was very warm, and as he laid beside Li Yi like a little heater, Li Yi thought to himself that he was indeed a martial artist, full of youthful vigor. 

Li Yi’s face turned red, but fortunately, it was pitch black in the room, and no one could see him. 

Li Yi didn’t dare to get too close to Zhao Yuan, and Zhao Yuan also laid very still, with his hands and feet tightly tucked in. He just asked Li Yi to tuck the covers in tighter. 

After a while, the bedding became warmer, and Zhao Yuan went back to his own bed, while Li Yi moved over to the warmer spot. Without saying a word, Li Yi and Zhao Yuan began to spend their days together in the empty and desolate Pan Palace, where no one could be seen except for the two of them. 

As the New Year approached, even the palace officials had left, and Chen Banban had come out of the palace early to pay their respects to Li Yi and bring some New Year’s goods for him.

Li Yi knew that he couldn’t stay long, and he didn’t have much to reward his subordinates with. He specially left two New Year’s paintings drawn by himself and gave them to Chen Banban. 

Chen Banban tearfully accepted them, and Li Yi waved to him with a smile. “I’m doing well now, Banban is getting older, so take care of yourself.”

“Old slave, old slave…” Chen Banban was so excited that he could hardly control himself. But he managed to hold back his emotions because it was against the rules to cry in the palace. He took two disciples with him and left.

Early on the morning of New Year’s Eve, Li Yi set up an altar in the Dacheng Hall and offered a simple but solemn sacrifice to Emperor Guanghua and the Crown Prince.

Zhao Yuan knelt outside the hall in the snow, accompanying Li Yi in this solitary rite.

After staying up all night, when Li Yi and Zhao Yuan finished their New Year’s meal, they went outside. Li Yi leaned against the corridor and watched as Zhao Yuan set off several strings of firecrackers, leaving a bright red glow in the snow, which looked festive.

Inside the room, Zhao Xi led the servants to clear the table and moved to the inner room, where he laid out tea, wine, dried fruits, and pastries on a small round table.

The inner room was not spacious, so Ping An and Zhao Xi were pushed out to the outside room to enjoy the New Year’s Eve together, breaking the rules for once in the whole year.

Zhao Yuan did not know how much alcohol Li Yi could handle, so he was not vigilant.

Judging by his own capacity, Zhao Yuan thought Li Yi would be fine after drinking seven or eight cups of Imperial Brew, with the fragrance of blooming begonia flowers permeating the air, which was the best time to drink.

But the next moment, Li Yi started to talk nonsense, Zhao Yuan realized that Li Yi got drunk after only a few drinks.

“Your Highness, you can’t drink anymore,” Zhao Yuan stopped the wine cup, preventing Li Yi from drinking more.

Li Yi took the wine jar and shook his head, “Call me Huan An, it sounds better.”

Zhao Yuan chuckled and went along with Li Yi’s request, “Huan An, listen to your elder brother, okay?”

“How dare you! I am the legitimate heir to the Crown Prince, where did you get the elder brother from?” Li Yi protested.

Zhao Yuan thought that Li Yi was not completely confused yet, so he didn’t argue with him. He took advantage of the situation and took the wine jar from Li Yi’s hand.

Unexpectedly, Li Yi smiled at him, his eyes full of affection, and he leaned towards Zhao Yuan.

“If I call you elder brother in private, it would still be acceptable.”

Zhao Yuan laughed incessantly upon hearing this, and even more mischievously urged Li Yi to speak, “Who was depicted in the erotic paintings?”

“What erotic paintings?” Li Yi shook his head like a rattle drum. “Where did you get erotic paintings? Don’t ruin my reputation.”

The wine was not bad, but he made sure to keep his mind clear on important matters and not loosen his tongue.

Zhao Yuan embraced Li Yi, who was gradually slipping into his arms, and breathed lightly into his ear.

“Huan An, do you like me?”

Li Yi laid on his back, and he could almost touch Zhao Yuan’s face with his outstretched hand, but he just couldn’t reach it.

“More than like…” Li Yi sighed. “I can’t walk when I see you.”

Zhao Yuan’s expression froze, and he slowly lowered his head, kissing Li Yi’s lips gently.

It was as sweet as a peach, intoxicating and fragrant.

The next morning, Li Yi felt a slight headache, and Zhao Yuan simply said he had drunk too much.

Li Yi nodded, “At banquets in the palace in the past, the king knew I couldn’t hold my liquor and often ordered me to be served wine from a Mandarin duck pot. I only drank a bellyful of water and never got into trouble.”

Zhao Yuan agreed, “Your Highness keeps a tight lip, never speaking a word when it comes to important matters.”

Li Yi smiled and leaned over to ask Zhao Yuan, “What did you make me say?”

Zhao Yuan pretended to think for a moment, and then said, “Your Highness said that with me by your side, you wouldn’t have nightmares at night.”

Li Yi’s face turned red all of a sudden, afraid that he might have said something more outrageous.

Zhao Yuan was in a good mood, with a sincere look, he comforted Li Yi: “Your Highness has excellent taste in wine, and is by no means a person who speaks without thinking.”

Li Yi believed him.

They exchanged New Year’s greetings and went outside to see the snowy scenery. While walking, Li Yi suddenly picked up a handful of snow from a pine branch and threw it at Zhao Yuan before turning around.

Zhao Yuan dodged halfway but intentionally slowed down, and was hit on the left shoulder. He shook his head and looked at Li Yi, silently mouthing the words, “Be careful!”

Li Yi ran away, and Zhao Yuan chased after him like a playful rabbit for about ten steps before tackling him down in the snow.

Zhao Xi stopped Ping An who was about to run over and quietly pulled him away.

Li Yi rolled over and panted for mercy, “Alright, alright, I won’t do it anymore.”

Zhao Yuan sneered, “You provoked me and ran away. It’s too late now.” He grabbed a handful of snow and stuffed it into Li Yi’s neck.

Li Yi yelled in the cold but couldn’t stop laughing.

The two of them continued to play and laugh, their laughter echoing in the Pan Palace, causing the snow on the dead branches to tremble and fall.

In the spring of the second year of Chengqian, Zhao Yuan and Li Yi spent their time together.

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