Inside the sleeping chamber, Consort Xi sat gracefully before her ornate mirror while Yiqiu meticulously arranged her ebony tresses and adorned them with delicate hairpins.
Chunfang, a trusted maidservant, stood nearby, reporting the activities in the palace school.
Word had spread that the Third Prince had sought trouble, but Consort Tong’s people intervened midway. Consort Xi’s face didn’t appear as grateful as before. Instead, she let out a bitter laugh. “In the past, Consort Tong constantly worries about the safety of Old Seventh and maintains a certain restraint on the wicked Third Prince. Now, I realize she merely fears his actions might escalate and reach the Emperor’s ears.”
Yiqiu, her eyes fixed on Consort Xi’s reflection said, “The truth can’t remain hidden forever. Why should we let Consort Tong suppress this matter? The Emperor spends more than ten nights each month with Your Highness. A few subtle words from her, and the Third Prince will surely be deterred from further mischief.”
Consort Xi couldn’t help but smile wryly. “Do you think the Emperor’s favor is unshakable? Just last month, I complained about Old Third breaking the wooden horse, but the Emperor took his side. If I persistently go against Old Third, the Emperor may perceive me as a source of trouble.”
“It was indeed the Third Prince who provoked our Seventh Prince.” Yiqiu furrowed her brows. “Moreover, despite recently receiving the Emperor’s reprimand, the Third Prince seems unrepentant. This is an opportune moment to rectify his behavior.”
Consort Xi let out a sigh. “The Emperor will not seriously punish the Third Prince. I am always by his side. It would be too stupid if I couldn’t discern His Majesty’s attitude towards Concubine Tong.”
Consort Xi wasn’t a master of intrigue, but her instincts were sharp enough to deduce that the Emperor’s affectionate words were confined within the harem, while Consort Tong’s brother wielded significant influence that couldn’t be challenged.
She understood that she couldn’t undermine Consort Tong’s status. If she insisted on a direct confrontation, it would only bring harm to herself and her son.
She could only endure.
She knew that wars always had an end, and Consort Tong would have her time of decline as well.
She could only wait for that moment…
A touch of bitterness crossed Consort Xi’s heart, but she was immediately startled by her own emotions.
Thinking about how Consort Tong appeared caring on the surface, but secretly plotted against her and her son, a sense of helpless loneliness enveloped her.
“I’m destined to contend with such heartless people for a lifetime,” Consort Xi’s expression turned desolate as she murmured softly, “In this world, who can truly be trusted?”
Yiqiu, upon hearing this, immediately knelt at Consort Xi’s feet and earnestly said, “Your Highness, please don’t be disheartened. I swear unwavering loyalty to you. We still have Mother Guo, Chunfang, and Xiao Shizi. No matter how fierce the storms outside, your servants are united in purpose. We are ready to face any challenge to shield you from harm!”
Sensing an opportunity, Chunfang knelt as well and choked out, “I swear to serve Your Highness faithfully. There’s just one matter I’m unsure about, whether I should mention it. I fear it might cause you unnecessary doubts and worries.”
Yiqiu turned to look at her. “What’s the matter? We assigned you to keep an eye on the Seventh Prince to prevent any trouble. If there’s something, don’t hide it. Report to Her Highness quickly!”
Chunfang prostrated herself on the ground, her voice trembling as she said, “A few times after school, I noticed that the new reader-in-waiting, Xue Yao… didn’t return to his residence after leaving the palace.”
Consort Xi asked her in confusion, “So where does he go?”
“He has been to Chuxiu Palace several times…”
After school, Xue Yao returned to Qingqiong Hall with the Seventh Prince, seeking an audience with Consort Xi to showcase the educational progress of the past few days.
When the servant went to announce their arrival, Xue Yao rehearsed with the Seventh Prince, “When we see Her Highness shortly, how should you address her?”
The Seventh Prince was engrossed in playing with his tiger plush toy and replied without lifting his head, “I’m very tired.”
Xue Yao glared at him. “Does Your Highness still want to have some milk?”
The Seventh Prince’s tiger-like spirit surged. He lifted his head and answered earnestly, “Your son will tell Your Highness a story!”
Only then did Xue Yao nod in reassurance.
The messenger hurriedly entered the reception hall and reported, “Her Highness isn’t feeling well today. Young Master, please return another day.”
Xue Yao was taken aback, not expecting to be turned away.
This was quite unusual. Consort Xi had always been especially warm towards him, eager for him to accompany Old Seventh during meals.
Even if she wasn’t feeling well, everyone had to socialize. Xue Yao didn’t require Consort Xi to make an effort to host him, so why the refusal to meet him in person?
He was naturally cautious and suspicious, having spent a long time in the palace “nursery.” In recent days, his vigilance had slightly waned. He worried that he might have inadvertently offended Consort Xi.
Now that the Emperor could bring up the upcoming tour of Bashu with Consort Xi at any moment, it was urgent for Xue Yao to remind her.
Once she agreed to the Emperor, there would be no turning back.
Regardless, if Consort Xi refused to see him now, he couldn’t force the issue. Before leaving, Xue Yao instructed the Seventh Prince to wait until they could see Her Highness together before telling a story.
Back at his residence, a servant girl from the main house came to lead Xue Yao to the main hall, mentioning that the Zhuang family had sent fresh snails and crabs.
Xue Qiong was also sitting in the hall, listening and swallowing saliva as he expressed his desire to have some.
Madam Chen gave him a cold glare that immediately silenced him. She then switched to a more pleasant tone, saw Xue Yao and the Old Madam’s servant girl off with a smile, and turned to grab Xue Qiong’s ear. “You useless boy, always fooling around, laughing with everyone you see. When it’s time to smile in front of the Old Madam, you’re as stiff as a board! You want to eat crab? If you had half of Xue Yao’s potential, I’d thank the heavens!”
Xue Qiong, holding his ear in pain, grumbled, “That boy is so two-faced! He acts as sly as a fox around me, but as soon as he sees the Old Madam, he plays the innocent fool!”
Madam Chen was taken aback. Thoughts of Xue Yao’s behavior over the past month raced through her mind.
She had already noticed that this boy was sharper than she remembered. She initially thought she had misjudged him in the past. But now, even her young son’s impression of Xue Yao had changed.
Xue Yao was dining with the Old Madam and Old Master. His Second Uncle was also present, discussing family matters with Old Master.
Servants were on hand, scooping crab meat for Xue Yao to eat, while Old Madam personally served him dishes and ladled soup.
The Second Uncle was in the midst of discussing the rural estate affairs of the Xue family with the Old Master.
“Those tenants who refuse to pay their land rents are all relatives of the Zhao family. Even if we report them to the local authorities or the district magistrate, they seem immune to any action against them. Some of them have owed rent for two years, and since we can’t pressure the local power players, we are practically powerless against the Zhao family’s ruffians,” the Second Uncle explained.
The Old Master, calmly and methodically, peeled crab shells, speaking with little emotion, “Just drive those hooligans away. In the future, before signing land deeds, have someone thoroughly investigate the backgrounds of the tenants. When you were overseeing the estate, you never encountered such problems. You need to be more vigilant from now on.”
Second Uncle immediately lowered his head in shame and responded, “Yes,” before adding, “The Zhao family’s relatives have rented quite a bit of our fertile land. If we can’t recover that rent, it will be a significant loss. Coincidentally, the Liu family from the village has a newly of-age young man who is interested in marrying Third Uncle’s daughter. For some reason, Third Uncle’s family has been hesitant to agree to this proposal.”
The Old Master glanced at him and nodded, signaling him to continue.
Second Uncle then revealed his idea, “The Liu family is a prominent local landowner. If their family marries into ours, we may be able to recover the Zhao family’s rent. However, Third Uncle’s family seems unaware of the potential benefits and has been indecisive in their response to the Liu family. Now, it’s entirely up to you to give the word and persuade Third Uncle’s family to accept this proposal.”
Xue Yao was so engrossed in the gossip that he could hardly finish his meal.
How could Second Uncle be as conniving as Third Master Xue!
It sounded like the Xue family was dealing with unruly tenants on their rural estate, unable to collect rent.
Second Uncle intended to pressure a female relative into marrying a powerful local figure, using the influence of a prominent local landowner to recover the debt.
The relatives surely had their reasons for not agreeing to the marriage. If it were a respectable family, who wouldn’t eagerly marry their daughter into such an influential household? There might be hidden issues.
Currently, the profitability of the estate primarily fell under Second Uncle’s purview, and he seemed eager to recover rent from several tenants. Having failed to coerce his cousin into marriage, he sought the Old Master’s intervention to arrange the marriage and force his cousin to marry the local influential figure, providing a backing for the Xue family’s estate.
It was shameless.
While secretly observing, Xue Yao continued to eat crab.
The Old Master seemed to have no intention of refusing and was contemplating the pros and cons of the matter.
Seizing the moment, Xue Yao played dumb and asked the Old Madam, “Is Big Sister getting married?”
The Old Madam didn’t mind his interjection and kindly smiled. “She’s your distant cousin, so you might not recognize her.”
Pretending to be curious, Xue Yao inquired, “Who is cousin going to marry?”
The Old Master cleared his throat and used a stern gaze to signal the child not to interrupt further. Eavesdropping on adults was already impolite, but openly voicing opinions in front of them was an even greater breach of manners.
However, ever since the young boy had saved her life at the temple, the Old Madam had spoiled him to no end. Even in this situation, she refrained from scolding him. Instead, she patiently answered Xue Yao’s question, “She’s marrying into a respectable family, a wealthy household. She won’t be mistreated.”
Xue Yao responded with an “Oh” and excitedly said, “A wealthy family with an estate too? So they will be our family from now on? Will our estate become larger? It will all belong to our family!”
While others were still catching up, the astute Old Master was suddenly awakened by Xue Yao’s words!
Indeed, agreeing to this marriage meant relying on the local prominent landowner’s influence to protect the estate. In that case, the local landowner’s family would undoubtedly have a say in the estate’s affairs.
The Xue family’s influence was primarily in the capital city, and they couldn’t control even unruly ruffians like the Zhao family, let alone withstand the Liu family’s intervention.
Eventually, the Xue family’s estate would fall under the control of the Liu family.
The startled Old Master broke into a cold sweat, almost being led astray by his son. Fortunately, his outspoken grandson’s words inadvertently alerted him.
“We can’t agree to this marriage,” the Old Master stated firmly. “If we can’t recover the rent, we won’t pursue it. Before signing any land deeds in the future, we will thoroughly investigate the backgrounds of the tenants.”
Second Master Xue was dumbfounded. He hadn’t fully grasped the implications, but after a moment of confusion, he reluctantly bowed his head in agreement.
Xue Yao breathed a sigh of relief.
It seemed that Second Master Xue was quite foolish. No wonder he couldn’t pass the imperial examinations and had trouble managing the estate.
Since he understood the principle of not challenging local power players and couldn’t even handle the local “worms,” it was absurd that he considered forming an alliance with a local influential figure to deal with the “worms.” This was like inviting a wolf into the house!
Fortunately, Old Master Xue was shrewd, as he had experience in high-ranking government positions. He grasped the point immediately.
Xue Yao had been concerned that his words might be misconstrued, but he hadn’t expected the Old Master to change his stance so quickly.
Just as he was feeling relieved, he suddenly heard a notification sound in his mind: 【Whitewashing Points+115.】
Xue Yao: “? ? ?”
Where did this large sum come from?
Could helping the Xue family retain their estate really earn him so many Whitewashing Points?
Upon careful consideration, there must have been a loss of human life involved to account for such an influx of Whitewashing Points.
It was highly likely that his relative, the young lady from the countryside, had met a tragic fate due to this proposed marriage.
Old Master Xue’s change of mind had altered the fate of his relative, creating a chain reaction that had resulted in the accumulation of these Whitewashing Points.
With 115 Whitewashing Points credited to his account, Xue Yao suddenly felt financially comfortable. His first thought was surprisingly, “I can afford to buy better food for the chubby cub.”
Something was not right.
Xue Yao sensed that he had unintentionally developed the heart of a caring old father under the influence of the Seventh Prince. How annoying!
He couldn’t afford to invest genuine emotions in that Long Aotian cub. It would cloud his judgment, and if he couldn’t navigate the palace intrigues, staying by the Seventh Prince’s side might lead to a much earlier demise!
The next day at school, Xue Yao exhibited greater restraint.
He didn’t even pinch the Seventh Prince’s chubby cheeks.
The Seventh Prince felt a bit dejected, and started to doubt the source of his charm.
In his brief three-year existence, he experienced a crisis for the first time.
He no longer had the affection he once had! His Highness wouldn’t be getting any more milk!
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