When Han Jiao got off the carriage, the eunuch approached with a courteous expression. He felt unsure about whether he should tip at such a moment and, if so, how much would be appropriate?
Mrs. Han, on the other hand, greeted the eunuch graciously and even invited him to come inside.
After some pleasantries, the eunuch politely declined and took his leave, demonstrating commendable courtesy.
As they watched the royal carriage disappear around the corner, Han Jiao’s aunt and uncle immediately surrounded him, warmly helping him inside.
Han Jiao paid no mind to his family’s somewhat odd behavior. He kept thinking about the military expenses.
When dinner was served, Han Jiao was shocked by the especially unappetizing dishes, which made him look up in bewilderment at his mother.
Only then did he notice that his mother appeared to be holding back a great anger. In the past, when such situations happened, his father might have had to sleep on the floor that night. But now with his father imprisoned, who could have provoked his mother?
He lowered his eyes to the table filled with plain cabbage soup and then glanced at his aunt and uncle with suspicion.
Was it this married couple who had upset his mother?
One thing was certain, it couldn’t have been A’Mo. In his mother’s eyes, A’Mo could do no wrong. Even if the little brother had dismantled the table and chairs with his bare hands, his mother would only think the child was strong and had a bright future.
Noticing the change in his expression, his aunt couldn’t help but appear a bit uneasy. She quickly said, “I forgot to bring any snacks when I came over today. It just so happens that Big Sister has nothing but vegetarian dishes at home. If A’Jiao doesn’t find it to your liking, Aunt can take you to a restaurant, alright?”
Just as Han Jiao was about to respond, his mother’s cold voice interrupted—
“A’Jiao won’t find it unappetizing. If someone else does, they can go to a restaurant and enjoy their meal. Our small household can’t accommodate everyone’s tastes.”
His aunt and uncle immediately paled as the couple exchanged a reproachful glance.
The suggestion to ask for the money back originated from the uncle, but he had warned against causing offense. However, it seemed that his wife had mishandled the matter.
At this moment, Han Jiao was certain that this couple had definitely offended his mother.
This was truly an unprecedented situation. His aunt and mother had always been close, but he couldn’t tell what had happened between them today.
When it came to such matters, Han Jiao typically didn’t interfere, but anyone who dared to offend his mother would have his unwavering support.
This was a habit he had developed from the previous life. After all, in a household where the husband feared his wife, the son would likely fear his mother as well.
Han Jiao immediately set down his chopsticks and said to his uncle, “Today, I have many official matters to attend to. I’m feeling a bit unwell. I need to rest in the back room. Please enjoy your meal.”
After speaking, he got up from the table and caught a fleeting look of satisfaction on his mother’s face.
It seemed like he had buttered up to the right person.
“A’Jiao!” His aunt was in a panic. Her feelings for Han Jiao over the past dozen years were genuine. She had come to advise her elder sister not to waste money on her brother-in-law, aiming to save resources for Han Jiao’s future career.
She believed that Han Jiao would outshine Master Han by a hundredfold. This child had a sense of humanity, and he would surely become their true pillar of support.
Unlike Master Han, who rarely got a government deal and insisted on pushing prices down to the lowest, leaving them with almost no profit, preferring his own family to suffer losses rather than the government.
They were supposed to be their support, but in reality, the couple had long resented the favors the Han family had gained over the years. Master Han kept a close eye on them like guarding against thieves.
However, this attempt to persuade today had unexpectedly triggered such a strong reaction from Mrs. Han. It was beyond her expectations because previously, Mrs. Han had complained a lot about Master Han. Normally, this situation should have been an opportunity for them to part ways.
His aunt led Han Jiao to the back room and explained with a choked voice, “Your mother misunderstood me today. It’s just her quick temper. I only said that your father’s situation is uncertain now and that I will take care of your mother and you in the future. But your mother thought I cursed your father and that I no longer cared about his life. How could she think that way? For so many years, both our families have shared joy and sorrow. We rise and fall together, and we can’t do without each other. A’Jiao, you mustn’t let your mother’s anger freeze Aunt’s heart!”
She spoke while clutching her handkerchief, with tears streaming down her face.
However, she waited in vain for Han Jiao’s gentle consolation. Quietly, she looked up and found Han Jiao staring at her, expressionless, as she wept.
She had never seen Han Jiao wear such an imposing expression. It frightened her, causing her to abruptly stop crying. She lowered her head as if awaiting judgment for her mistake.
“Aunt, please go ahead and have your meal,” Han Jiao responded calmly. “I will get to the bottom of this.”
Han Jiao raised his hand to interrupt her defense and made a gesture towards the main hall.
His aunt wanted to say a few more words but ultimately left quietly.
His aunt and uncle quickly took their leave, and Han Jiao immediately inquired about what had happened from his mother.
Mrs. Han was seething with anger. However, when the words of reprimand were at the tip of her tongue, she swallowed them back.
After all, these were the family members she had relied on the most in the past. Strong-willed by nature, Mrs. Han didn’t want to admit that she had misjudged the ungrateful couple, not even in front of her son. She just shook her head and turned to ask her son if Prince Yan had promised to save Master Han.
Actually, when Mrs. Han saw her son return in a carriage from Prince Yan’s residence, she had already guessed that her son had succeeded. Now, she received confirmation from her son’s own words. The tension that had been gripping her finally relaxed, and she went to rest in a daze.
Han Jiao, who had been mentally tense all day, went to bed early. There was still a tough battle ahead.
The next morning, just as dawn broke, Prince Yan indeed kept his promise and dispatched officials to deliver the records of military expenses for the last five years at the Liaodong border to the Han’s residence.
The account books were piled up in the study. The table couldn’t hold them all, so they were stacked on the floor like small mounds, reaching a height of more than half a person.
Despite being mentally prepared, Han Jiao was still taken aback by the volume of the account books.
After a quick glance through a few of them, he realized that these records contained the logistical supplies for every soldier at the Liaodong border in meticulous detail, even more so than he had expected.
Fortunately, Prince Yan had promised to help him obtain a three-day leave from Hanlin Academy yesterday, giving Han Jiao enough time to sift through the useful data.
After dismissing the officials, Han Jiao immediately began sorting the account books, categorizing those that required careful calculations, a quick review, or retrieval. In the blink of an eye, he had worked past noon.
Anxious to confirm his suspicions, Han Jiao was so engrossed in his work that he forgot everything else.
It wasn’t until his little brother approached, his short legs running to his side and making pitiful sounds.
“Don’t be naughty,” Han Jiao scolded sternly as he lifted his brother. “Big Brother has important work to do these days. A’Mo, be good, and go play with Mother.”
“Mother is sleeping.” A’Mo pouted, raising his chubby little face, tears welling up as he sniffled. “A’Mo is so hungry!”
Only then did Han Jiao realize that he, too, had become quite hungry.
He looked out the window. It seemed to be past noon. He then glanced at his brother. “Is Mother still asleep?”
Feeling somewhat uneasy, Han Jiao went to the main room, knocked on the door, and, receiving no response, became alarmed and pushed the door open, waking up his soundly sleeping mother.
“What’s wrong?” Mrs. Han, in a dazed state, propped herself up as she saw her son stride to her bedside.
Han Jiao noticed his mother’s pale lips. He reached out to touch her forehead and exclaimed, “Mother, why didn’t you tell me you weren’t feeling well?”
Mrs. Han had indeed been upset yesterday, and when she woke up in the morning, she felt weak all over, thinking it was just fatigue. She hurriedly comforted her son, “Mother is fine. What time is it outside? Are you hungry?”
Little Han Mo, perched at the edge of the bed, immediately began nodding vigorously. Nearly starving!
Mrs. Han rushed to get up to prepare some food, but her son gently pressed her back.
“You lie down quickly.” Han Jiao, seeing his mother looking guilty but regaining his patience, comforted her gently. “You continue to rest. I’ll go get some medicine.”
Mrs. Han insisted, “I’m fine! We need to hurry and buy food supplies. There’s nothing to eat at home!”
“I’ll go buy.” Han Jiao assured his mother to rest and took his little brother with him as he went out to buy medicine. He planned to get some steamed buns and pancakes to make do for a meal.
The marketplace was as lively and crowded as usual. Han Jiao held the medicine bag in one hand and his brother’s hand in the other, walking to a bakery to queue up.
“Brother! Candy figurines!” The little brother’s sharp eyes spotted a candy figurine stall not far away and tugged at Han Jiao’s clothes, wanting to go to the candy figurine booth.
“Let’s buy the steamed buns first. There’s a queue!” Han Jiao sternly advised, reaching into his pocket and quickly taking out some copper coins. He ordered four meat buns and two pancakes from the shop assistant.
Just as he reached out to pay, he was suddenly pushed hard from behind. Han Jiao almost had his hand plunged into the steaming hot steamer, but he was fortunately caught by an old man nearby.
“Stop pushing!” Han Jiao turned around and scolded. However, when he turned back, he suddenly felt something was wrong. He lowered his head and realized that his little brother wasn’t by his side!
“A’Mo?” Han Jiao hastily paid the bill, almost forgetting to take the buns, and rushed towards the candy figurine stall. He was a bit annoyed, thinking he needed to teach the little wanderer a lesson. However, he didn’t find his brother in front of the candy figurine stall.
He turned around quickly, looking back at the steamed bun stall. He widened his eyes, and spun in place, unable to find his brother anywhere!
It felt as if his heart had been gripped by a vice in an instant. Han Jiao shouted loudly, “A’Mo!”
Han Jiao jostled through the crowd, darting in all directions. The buns and medicinal herbs in his hands were long gone. He frantically searched for his little brother’s small figure, feeling like his blood had turned to ice.
How could a child just disappear in the blink of an eye?
After Han Jiao regained his composure, he returned to the vicinity of the steamed bun stall and asked people while searching.
Fortunately, a roadside auntie informed him that a little child in apricot-colored clothing had been calling for his brother, and some kind-hearted people had taken him to the largest inn at the other end of the street, waiting for his parents to claim him.
Without time to express his gratitude, he rushed towards the inn. Inside, he urgently asked the innkeeper if anyone had brought a five-year-old child in apricot-colored clothing to the establishment. The innkeeper immediately had a server lead him upstairs to find the child.
Anxious to confirm if the child was indeed his brother, Han Jiao rushed into the private room and came face to face with two men dressed as merchants.
“Gentlemen, where’s the child?” Han Jiao urgently inquired.
The two men smiled and gestured for him to sit. “Master Han, don’t worry, your little brother is perfectly fine.”
Upon hearing this, Han Jiao’s heart skipped a beat. He looked towards the middle-aged man sitting behind the Eight Immortals table.
“What are you up to? Where’s my brother?”
“No need to rush, Master Han. We’re from the Ministry of War, all serving His Majesty. There’s nothing to fear,” the man sitting behind the Eight Immortals table said with a smile. “Early this morning, Prince Yan sent someone here to retrieve the confidential account books. They say they’ve all been delivered to your residence. We just wanted to clarify things and, besides, we were hoping to make the acquaintance of such a talented individual as yourself. Please have a seat, Master.”
Han Jiao’s face darkened. “Where’s my brother? If you don’t tell me, I can have Prince Yan ask on my behalf.”
Today was the second day of the Princes’ hunting trip.
The midday sun was scorching. Xie An tossed his bow and arrows to a eunuch accompanying him, feeling too hot to bother with hunting.
His older brothers each had their own business to attend to, leaving only the Third Prince with some free time to train in archery with his younger siblings.
Xie Duo, who had skipped his lessons for a few days, didn’t skip the hunting trip, but his left hand was injured, making it difficult for him to grasp a bow. He had to use a crossbow instead.
Xie Jing, with a sly grin, repeatedly drew his bow and nocked an arrow, hoping to make his martially skilled younger brother envious.
Suddenly, the bushes nearby rustled. Several Princes all focused their attention on searching for prey.
Swish, a few arrows and a crossbow bolt were released, all aimed in the same direction.
The bushes twitched, clearly indicating that they had hit some prey.
The Princes quickly approached, parting the underbrush, only to be disappointed as they found that all three projectiles had hit a gray wild rabbit.
Although this round ended without a clear winner, the location of the hits still mattered.
Xie Jing lifted the wild rabbit, showing off, “Look, this arrow hit right in the vital spot, it’s mine.”
The Third Prince looked at him disdainfully. “Is the vital spot located in the hindquarters?”
Xie Jing hurriedly defended himself, “No, it’s the hind leg! Can’t you see properly?”
Xie Jing turned to his ninth brother and asked proudly, “Old Ninth, be honest, how do you rate the accuracy and strength of this shot?”
Xie Duo, in a humble manner, honestly evaluated, “It’s rubbish.”
“You don’t need to be that honest,” the Third Prince playfully said. “In your seven parts honesty, you should mix in three parts flattery, got it, Old Nine?”
Xie Duo nodded.
Third Prince: “Now, reevaluate.”
Xie Duo: “It’s about as accurate and strong as shooting with my feet.”
“Hahahahahaha!” Third Prince praised, patting his ninth brother’s shoulder.
“Big Brother!” Xie An, who had no interest in hunting, pouted. “I’m starving. Can we return to the palace?”
“I’m feeling hungry too.” The Third Prince rubbed his stomach and turned to look down the mountain. “Let’s go. I’ll take you all to try the spicy fish head at that Zuixin Inn.”
When they reached the entrance of the inn, the four Princes dismounted their horses, and the accompanying eunuchs were about to enter the inn ahead to clear the area. However, the Third Prince stopped them.
“It’s lively with lots of people. You guys stay here and wait,” he said, taking his three younger brothers into the inn and reserving a private room on the second floor.
The young Princes rarely had the opportunity to “enjoy with the common people,” so when they went upstairs, they curiously looked around.
The private rooms were semi-open. It seemed that there was a lady accompanying each set of diners in the private rooms.
A curious Xie An asked, “When you dine here, do you have to bring a lady with you?”
The older brothers suddenly looked at him with mischievous smiles.
“What’s so funny?” Xie An pointed at every private room they passed by. “Every one of them has a lady with them!”
“Such a sharp eye at such a young age,” Xie Jing, while hugging his youngest brother, ruffled his hair. “Unlimited potential, little one!”
Xie Duo also smiled, his gaze curiously scanning each private room.
Unexpectedly, Xie Duo’s gaze collided with a pair of familiar peach blossom eyes in one of the private rooms.
Coincidentally, it was at this very moment that Han Jiao glanced outside and thought his eyes were playing tricks on him when he saw the big boss suddenly passing by!
Sensing that Han Jiao wanted to get up, the man firmly grasped his arm and threatened in a low voice, “We haven’t finished our business yet. If Master Han insists on this, we might forget where your little brother is.”