“Big Brother, where did you hear such slander?” Prince Yan looked disdainful. “I’ll tell you the truth. I’ve long had someone investigate Han Jiao. He’s been in the court for less than half a year, and instead of forming any connections with officials, he has antagonized many apprentices at the Hanlin Academy due to his arrogant nature. There’s only one Expositor-in-waiting who appreciates him, and that Expositor-in-waiting, due to a personal tragedy, has had no ambitions in his career. He’s willingly remained at the Hanlin Academy for over a decade, never engaging in any political conflicts. Suspicion that he’s a pawn placed by Senior Minister Li by my side is baseless. Not to mention, he originally ended up here because his father offended Senior Minister Li’s faction and was imprisoned, forcing him to seek refuge with me.”
The Eldest Prince shook his head. “A nobody like him, no one paid attention to him before. Where did you find out who he had private dealings with? I must remind you, it’s precisely because of his father’s situation that I’m cautioning you. Do you know who released his father?”
Prince Yan raised his head and smiled ruefully. “Who else could it be? Of course, I brought him out. Master Han came to me, initially because of his father’s predicament. Given Master Han’s young reputation and his naturally aloof personality, if not for his family’s troubles, I suspect I’d have to coax him to come out of seclusion, and he might not have agreed.”
“Isn’t that all an act put on for your benefit? His father was really released by you? You personally intervened at the Ministry of Justice to get him out?”
“After Zhao Liang confessed and was detained, I had my people work on Han Jiao’s father’s case. But I heard that the Ministry of Justice had already released him. It’s all because I had them over a barrel with evidence. In this game, they’ve already admitted defeat.”
The Eldest Prince firmly stated, “Then, I’ll tell you plainly, that guy’s father wasn’t brought out by your people. It was Zhou Zhaokun who ordered the impeachment of the officials and proactively presented a memorial, claiming that there had been errors in the previous accusations. That’s how Han Yushen, his father, was declared innocent. Otherwise, even if the Ministry of Justice wanted to do you a favor, wouldn’t they still have to follow the proper legal procedures? Could they release him so quickly?”
The Eldest Prince didn’t respond, he just smirked and looked at his youngest brother.
Prince Yan quickly regained his composure and nodded, “That’s right, Zhou Zhaokun knows I have something on him. He’s the one most eager to make amends. No wonder, a few days ago, I was puzzled by the Ministry of Justice being so blatant. Turns out, it was Master Zhou himself who surrendered.”
“You’re quite pleased with yourself!” The Eldest Prince grew impatient. “How do you know Zhou Zhaokun only released Han Jiao’s father because he surrendered? His father was put in there by Zhou Zhaokun, and he was brought out by Zhou Zhaokun! In this game, it’s Zhao Liang who will be the only sacrifice, someone who was bound to die sooner or later. In return, you’ve gained complete trust in Han Jiao! Tell me, since you have something on Zhou Zhaokun, with your character, I doubt you’d spare him easily. So why did you only go after Zhao Liang in the end? Be honest, did that Han Jiao advise you not to touch anyone else beside Zhao Liang?”
Prince Yan’s heart skipped a beat, his expression darkening suddenly.
“Have you figured it out, my naive little brother?” The Eldest Prince shook his head with a look of exasperation.
Prince Yan fell silent for a moment, his expression still not good, but he firmly shook his head, “It was Senior Minister Xu who advised me to hold my hand, and I also felt the timing was wrong.”
He turned to glance at Han Jiao, who was explaining the progress of the investigation to the Third Prince in the distance, and then whispered to the Eldest Prince, “My decision has nothing to do with Master Han.”
“Alright, alright, if you say it has nothing to do with him, then so be it. Big Brother has already explained everything that needs to be said. It’s not like I’m telling you to do anything to that guy. I’m just asking you to be cautious.” The Eldest Prince patted his younger brother on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go inside, the ladies have been waiting for a while.”
“No, Big Brother, I’ve had a bit too much to drink today. I should head back home and rest.”
The Eldest Prince observed his expression intently and, after a pause, smiled, “I won’t force you. One more thing: you know, I care about you the most. Dealing with the Second and Fourth Princes is also to gather information for your benefit. Please be very cautious with that young scholar.”
Prince Yan left with an unpleasant look on his face and called for Han Jiao to return to their residence.
Han Jiao had intended to find an opportunity to personally thank the big boss but didn’t expect Prince Yan to suddenly leave. Han Jiao didn’t dare to decline and ended up leaving with him.
Prince Yan appeared grave, as if something urgent had come up. After they boarded the carriage, he fell into silence.
Han Jiao had initially thought about asking, but he restrained himself.
Prince Yan was currently a straightforward person. If he didn’t want to talk, Han Jiao’s attempts to guess his thoughts might backfire.
“Master Han, did the Second Prince’s people offend you at the banquet?” Prince Yan suddenly spoke.
Han Jiao looked at Prince Yan, wondering if he was upset because of an incident involving the Second Prince’s entourage.
“Your Highness, there’s no need to worry. Those guests had a bit too much to drink. They are mostly military officers, so some boisterous behavior is unavoidable. It’s not a big deal.”
“I just noticed that your hair is wet,” Prince Yan showed remorse, “It’s my fault for not taking better care of you.”
Han Jiao smiled. “Is Your Highness getting upset over something as minor as this? It would be unreasonable to make me feel guilty, wouldn’t it?”
Prince Yan fell silent for a moment and whispered, “I’ve had a bit too much to drink tonight. I’ve been bragging to my brothers about having someone as talented as you, and I got carried away.”
Han Jiao couldn’t shake the feeling that something was off about the ironheaded guy. His tone and emotions were quite different from their conversation a few evenings ago when they were discussing profound matters. It was as if there was a hint of deflation.
“Your Highness, your praise is overwhelming. I’m truly unworthy.”
“You are more than deserving. I’m afraid I might not be up to the task of having you as my advisor.”
Han Jiao frowned, increasingly convinced that something wasn’t right. Prince Yan wasn’t typically lacking in confidence.
“Your Highness, why do you say that?”
Prince Yan let out a bitter smile. In the dim carriage, his handsome features took on a hint of weariness. He looked at Han Jiao with a sad expression and asked in a low voice, “Master, in your opinion, what kind of character is worthy of becoming a ruler of a nation?”
Han Jiao fixed his eyes on Prince Yan. After a moment, he softly replied, “The right to rule is heaven-bestowed, and the tradition is to choose the eldest son as the heir. How can subjects like us dare to opine?”
Prince Yan frowned. “Master, why are you so cautious in front of me?”
Han Jiao clenched his fist slightly, feeling that something was definitely amiss.
When he had just uttered that customary response, it wasn’t out of caution but to emphasize his firm stance in supporting Prince Yan as the rightful Crown Prince.
Did he need to display this kind of attitude in front of Prince Yan?
It was very strange. Tonight, Prince Yan’s inexplicable urgency to express himself left him feeling disconcerted.
“So, Your Highness, how would you like me to respond?” Han Jiao adopted an open attitude in response to Prince Yan’s unusually emotional state. “Your Highness has never been one to appreciate flattery. So when you suddenly ask this question, do you want me to argue from various angles that you are destined for greatness? If not, then Your Highness must want to hear my loyalty, isn’t that right?”
Prince Yan’s eyes lit up, admiringly saying, “Master, you’re truly perceptive. I didn’t even realize my own thoughts.”
So, Prince Yan suspected him?
He couldn’t ask that question. Han Jiao’s heart raced.
What’s going on? Did someone sow discord at the banquet just now?
How could that be possible?
Prince Yan was not someone who easily believed in slander. Han Jiao, a mere junior scholar-official, had solved such a significant case, firmly tying himself to Prince Yan’s fate. Was there a need to doubt his loyalty?
For the sake of Prince Yan, he’d made enemies of the entire court full of ruthless and cunning individuals. If he abandoned Prince Yan’s cause, there was no way out. Was there room for suspicion?
More than fear, Han Jiao was nearly infuriated at this moment.
“Your Highness is destined to rule, and my loyalty to you is loyalty to that destiny.” Han Jiao was feeling irritated for being unjustly suspected, and now he had to reassure Prince Yan. “I’ve heard that on the day of Your Highness’ birth, there were celestial signs in the palace…”
“Is it just because of destiny? Because of these celestial omens?” Prince Yan interrupted him, showing a hint of helplessness for the first time. “Do I possess some exceptional qualities that make you loyal to me?”
“Why do you underestimate yourself, Your Highness?” Han Jiao looked steadily at Prince Yan. “Forgive my boldness, among the ten Princes, there are those who are upright and honest like the Third and Eighth Princes. There are those who are valiant and forceful like the Ninth Prince. There are also those with ambitions to govern, but to find someone who embodies integrity, selflessness, courage, ambition, and a deep concern for the people, apart from Your Highness, I see no one.”
The worn-out expression on Prince Yan’s face seemed to be gradually illuminated as he gazed at Han Jiao with hope in his eyes.
Han Jiao also maintained a resolute gaze, speaking with conviction, “Honestly, I’ve never believed in the study of celestial omens. I consider most of those signs of kings’ births mentioned in historical records to be fabrications by those with ulterior motives. These celestial omens are just embellishments for the strong after they’ve succeeded. I believe Your Highness is that kind of strong individual. My lifelong wish is to be the most dazzling accompaniment to this strong individual. I wonder if this strong individual is willing to sincerely give me that opportunity.”
These passionate and honest words moved Prince Yan. His eyes even teared up.
He couldn’t tell if he was moved or if his blood was surging.
For a moment, his voice quivered, but Prince Yan then spoke with unwavering resolve, “I, Xie Guang swears to the Heavens, in this lifetime, I will never let down Master!”
Unexpectedly, Prince Yan gave such a weighty pledge, catching Han Jiao off guard. His eyes hadn’t even reddened when the tears began to fall. He bit his lip, struggling to hold back from sobbing, and his lips trembled.
He actually wanted to respond with “Han Jiao swears to never let down Your Highness in this lifetime,” but he couldn’t say it at this moment.
There was no way around it. He had inherited stubbornness from his father and soft-heartedness from his mother. Once his emotions flared up, he couldn’t control himself!
So, full of passionate enthusiasm, Prince Yan was suddenly amused by Master Han’s adorable expression, and he burst into laughter.
“Hahaha, sorry, hahaha…” Xie Guang wiped a tear from the corner of his eye, unsure if it was from being moved or from laughter. “No wonder my Ninth Brother always said you have an interesting character. Today, I finally got to see your true self… Hahaha, it’s just so hahaha…”
Han Jiao: “……”
Exposing his true self in front of the big boss was already an irreversible situation. Han Jiao had originally planned to act cool in front of the male protagonist, but now that plan was completely ruined.
Suddenly, there was a rapid sound of horse hooves outside the carriage. It seemed like they had come to a stop right behind the wooden board that Han Jiao was leaning against.
The guards outside suddenly spoke in unison, “Greetings, Your Highness Prince Ling…”
Han Jiao was startled by the sound and turned around.
At the same time, the curtain behind him was lifted by a whip from someone on a horse outside.
Caught off guard, Han Jiao looked up and met the eyes of the big boss through the carriage window!
The big boss had actually caught up with them!
Just because he didn’t say thank you and goodbye?
Seeing the little child prodigy silently following Sixth Brother and leaving, Xie Duo’s face turned cold as ice. Without a word, he coiled his whip, lifted the curtain, mounted his horse, and rode away.
It was only then that Han Jiao snapped back to reality and hurriedly signaled the coachman to stop the carriage.
Prince Yan reached out to stop Han Jiao and advised, “If you have something to discuss, you can go to the palace tomorrow. Ninth Brother’s horse is fast, you won’t catch up.”
Han Jiao just said, “I have something to say to His Highness,” and then quickly jumped out of the carriage, calling after the big boss, “Your Highness! Your Highness!”
Listening to the fading sound of the Ninth Prince’s horse hooves and waiting for a while, it was only then that Master Han, with his head down, crawled back into the carriage.
Prince Yan was about to ask him what he did to offend Ninth Brother, but he saw Master Han, looking defiant as he said, “I’ve already spoken with the Ninth Prince. Let’s go.”
“……” Prince of Yan solemnly nodded, determined not to expose the fact that Master Han had been abandoned by Ninth Brother.
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