After the classes, Han Jiao first bid farewell to the Expositor-in-waiting and was then taken by the princes to find the palace craftsmen responsible for making cuju.
Xie Jing and Xie An had complete confidence in Master Han and couldn’t wait to see the finished ball immediately.
Although the big boss complained verbally, he continuously followed behind the three of them.
When the eunuchs in charge saw the three princes coming together, they hurriedly summoned the skilled craftsman, Master Qigong.
Upon seeing Han Jiao’s sketch, Master Qigong discreetly inhaled a breath of cool air, wondering if this imaginative Hanlin scholar intended to deceive the young princes.
But after listening to Han Jiao’s detailed description, Master Qigong relaxed slightly.
Since he was the most skilled craftsman in the palace, this area was his forte. While the princes couldn’t grasp the description, Master Qigong comprehended everything after watching Han Jiao’s animated gestures.
Han Jiao’s idea sounded practical, but the sketch was a bit crude.
Especially that “air pump,” the principle was simple. It sounded like it could replace manpower and didn’t restrict the blowing capacity.
If this could be made, it might find a place in the history books, securing a lasting legacy.
Thrilled, Master Qigong quickly urged a young eunuch to bring paper and pen. He personally drew a diagram, breaking down the components, and handed it to the princes for inspection.
The hand-drawn sketch was neat and clear, making the princes even more excited.
Xie An still couldn’t quite grasp what kind of object these components could assemble, but he felt that these blueprints seemed more reliable.
Standing behind him, Xie Duo glanced at the drawings, pondered for a moment, and then surprisedly cast a sidelong glance at the little child prodigy beside him, who wore a smug expression.
Unexpectedly, the big boss suddenly glanced at him. Han Jiao, who had been secretly watching the boss’ reaction, quickly looked up at the sky, a smug smile playing on his lips.
Han Jiao keenly noticed Xie Duo’s momentary change in expression.
Now, you know how amazing your Big Brother is, Little Brother.
After Master Qigong confirmed the sketch, the princes had to go back and wait. It would take at least a day or two to see the finished product.
Aside from the Imperial Crafts Bureau, Xie Jing went to the Tribute Office to help procure rubber.
The boss’ expression remained as cold as ice.
Only Xie An obediently bid farewell to Master Han.
Han Jiao felt very unwilling.
The boss accepted his cuju improvement sketch but still refused to reconcile with him. Without a word, the boss left with Xie An.
Watching the two princes, one tall and one short, walk away, Han Jiao suddenly raised his head and called out loudly, “Please, Your Highness Prince Ling, stay a moment!”
Xie Duo paused but didn’t turn back. He casually asked, “Is there something else?”
Xie An, who hadn’t been named by Master Han, eagerly ran back, tilting his head and asking, “What’s the matter, Master Xiaobai?”
“I suddenly remembered a fantastic idea about cuju.” Han Jiao faced Xie An, keeping an eye on the boss’ retreating figure, and said loudly, “I also have some immature thoughts.”
The boss still didn’t turn around but waited for him to finish.
It was still Xie An, looking expectant, who asked, “What’s your idea, Master?”
“I’ve observed folk cuju matches before. Because there’s only one goal, the cuju players all crowd around it, juggling the ball and passing it. I believe such a game doesn’t fully showcase the agility and physical prowess of cuju players.”
The “goal” in cuju was the net where they score. In ancient times, it was very small, just a few rings larger than the cuju ball itself. It wasn’t placed on the ground but suspended on a railing in mid-air, making it difficult for the ball to get through, so there was no need for a goalkeeper.
The way cuju was played greatly differed from modern soccer. In ancient times, the emphasis was on harmony, and while cuju initially had a competitive aspect when it was first created, it gradually evolved. Even though it had two teams, it didn’t involve things like fighting for the ball.
In formal cuju matches, the focus was on the spectacle. Players from both sides took turns showing off their skills, juggling, passing, and shooting, but there was no direct competition between them.
Getting the first goal was called “gaining a lead,” and subsequent goals were called “gaining a point.” There was almost no competitiveness. It was all about the skill level and precision of juggling and passing.
Knowing the big boss, Han Jiao was sure that modern soccer’s competitive style would definitely excite him.
Xie An curiously asked, “Isn’t cuju flexible enough? My Ninth Brother is really good at juggling and shooting.”
“This style doesn’t involve juggling or fighting for the ball. It’s not as flexible.”
“Then let’s have a match,” Xie Duo turned back, accepting the little child prodigy’s challenge. “Let this Prince see how agile Master Cotton is.”
“I didn’t mean to say I’m more agile…” Han Jiao realized there was a misunderstanding in his words and hurried to clarify, “I meant that some of the old cuju rules don’t fully showcase the skills of cuju experts.”
“So, how do you want to compete?” Xie Duo’s lips curved up as he stepped closer to the little child prodigy. “You get to set the rules. If you win, I’ll grant you any reward you want, but if you lose…”
Seeing the boss’ eyes take on a mischievous look, Han Jiao quickly cut him off and firmly stated, “I never said I wanted to compete with Your Highness!”
The boss immediately showed a disappointed expression.
He actually just wanted to use this as an opportunity to get rid of this stinky little brother!
You, a naughty student who wants to skip classes and play soccer every day, dare to compete with me, a well-read academic overachiever? Are you shameless?
Suppressing his frustration, Han Jiao patiently explained, “I just wanted to suggest some more interesting rules for Your Highness. For example, both teams could compete for the cuju, but without physical collisions.”
“We’ve been playing this way, us brothers!” Xie An said with pride. “Master Han and my Ninth Brother had the same idea years ago. We modified the cuju rules privately. In our version, we can pass the ball and compete for it, making it much more fun than the cuju you watched in the past!”
Han Jiao was taken aback and looked in surprise at the big boss.
This guy clearly preferred more competitive game rules, which made things easier.
“Just competing for the ball isn’t enough,” Han Jiao said. “Don’t you think the field is too small to fully display skills? I propose setting up two goals, one for each team, with some distance between them, and cuju players passing, competing, and attacking. Scoring in the opponent’s goal counts as one point. This not only tests agility but also the players’ stamina as they run back and forth competing.”
Xie An pondered for a moment and found it hard to accept. “This… this is too challenging. Master Xiaobai, do you play cuju regularly? Just getting the ball into the goal during competition is quite difficult, let alone juggling and passing back and forth…”
“I understand, the difficulty is too high with that setup. So, here’s another suggestion: place the goals on the ground to make scoring easier.”
“Goals on the ground?” Xie An had a hard time imagining it.
Han Jiao nodded.
“Goals on the ground?” Xie Duo asked. “Or should I help you enlarge the holes tenfold?”
Han Jiao’s eyes lit up. “That’s what I was thinking!”
Seeing the big boss flash a mischievous smile, Han Jiao realized that this stinky little brother was teasing him about his “novice ideas.”
“I’m serious,” Han Jiao argued logically, “If we make scoring too difficult, it would lower the level of skill for cuju players when they compete. With such a small goal suspended in mid-air, requiring ball possession and passing, can they still score?”
“That depends on who’s kicking,” the cheeky boss replied with a smug look.
Han Jiao: “……”
“The idea of having two goals is feasible.” Xie Duo locked eyes with the little child prodigy. “Tomorrow, at the first stroke of the hour, come to the cuju field and find me.”
Startled, Han Jiao asked warily, “Your Highness, what do you plan to do?”
Xie Duo chuckled softly, lowered his head, and looked up to meet the slightly nervous Master Cotton. “What do you think I plan to do?”
Han Jiao swallowed hard. “I agreed to just provide suggestions and not play cuju against you! Besides, I won’t accept any punishment if I lose!”
Nearby, Xie An rushed to reassure him, “Don’t be afraid, Master Han. If we lose, there won’t be any punishment! Just be careful not to get injured by Ninth Brother.”
“……” Han Jiao seemed to sense the big boss’ revenge plot.
If the big boss intended to collide with him, could he dodge it? He’d probably end up getting smashed into a pile of body parts!
Recognizing the situation, Han Jiao promptly chose to decline the challenge, “I’m actually not very skilled at cuju.”
Xie Duo raised an eyebrow. “Not very skilled?”
“I don’t know how to play it at all,” Han Jiao immediately provided a more accurate description.
Xie Duo tilted his head, assessing the child prodigy, and asked in confusion, “Are you afraid of me?”
Han Jiao: “……”
Xie Duo: “Then why do you always follow me?”
Han Jiao: “……”
It’s all a misunderstanding.
Xie Duo: “Why aren’t you afraid of Sixth Brother?”
Han Jiao: “……”
Because the male lead doesn’t harm good people.
“Come find me at the appointed time tomorrow.” Xie Duo, now more magnanimous, no longer intimidated the little child prodigy. “I don’t have to play. Bring some of your Hanlin Academy colleagues to demonstrate the new cuju rules you’ve imagined.”
With the big boss’ orders, he returned to the Hanlin Academy.
Han Jiao was feeling a bit uneasy.
If he had known the boss only wanted him to demonstrate the rules, he wouldn’t have stopped the boss from playing himself. Hanlin Academy didn’t have many colleagues willing to practice cuju with him.
Although their relationships were not as bad as when they first entered the academy, these junior scholar-officials had gained some political savvy in the court during the past half year. They were aware that Han Jiao had joined Prince Yan’s faction, so colleagues loyal to Senior Minister Li were keeping their distance.
He had only two close friends and a few colleagues who had recently tried to curry favor. That added up to only six people. He needed at least four more.
“The cuju field behind Nansan Hall?”
Surprisingly, even the six good friends were hesitant. “Xiaobai, if you want to play cuju, we can go outside the palace after class to find a cuju field. Why make a fuss on the princes’ turf?”
Han Jiao explained, “I’m going to the cuju field behind Nansan Hall tomorrow to demonstrate for the princes. Today, after class, let’s go practice somewhere outside the palace.”
Han Jiao’s best buddy, Zhou Hao, asked, “Which prince are you planning to showcase your skills to?”
“His Highness the Ninth Prince.”
“Haha…” Chen Yuzheng, who had been eavesdropping, mocked, “You have no idea how skilled Prince Ling is at cuju, do you, Master Han? Do you really need your meager skills to embarrass yourself in front of him?”
Han Jiao couldn’t be bothered to explain and casually replied, “It’s His Highness’ orders for me to find some colleagues and practice at the cuju field tomorrow at the appointed time.”
Hearing this, the colleagues who had been eavesdropping turned to look at him.
“His Highness wants to watch us play?”
“Prince Ling will really be there?!”
Han Jiao hadn’t realized how effective the boss’ name could be. It seemed that the entire court had only one person who feared the boss, while everyone else was eager to please.
The Ninth Prince’s situation was quite unique. Although he hadn’t cultivated his own power base, his favor from the Emperor was his most significant strength.
They didn’t get involved in the struggle for Prince Yan’s favor, so currying favor with the Ninth Prince carried no risk. Moreover, His Highness’ act of taking full responsibility for Han Jiao’s mistakes, a widely known “deed of valor,” made everyone in the court eager to establish a connection with him. However, this prince’s character was unpredictable, and this crafty Han Jiao refused to reveal the secret of currying favor with him.
Unbelievably, Han Jiao had taken the initiative to invite others to join him and showcase their skills before the Ninth Prince – a golden opportunity!
Chaos errupted as over twenty junior scholar-officials swarmed around Han Jiao.
“Take me with you, Xiaobai, dear brother!”
“What will you do? Do you know how to play cuju?”
“Even if I don’t, I can learn. Brother Xiaobai just said we would go to the cuju field after class!”
“Is cuju so easy to learn? Master Han, take me with you. I’ve loved cuju since I was a child. I won’t let you down in front of His Highness!”
“I know how to play too! Master Han, take me with you!”
“What are you crowding for? Don’t crowd our dear Xiaobai!”
“You’re the worst at crowding!”
“Master Han, take me with you! I know the best cuju field in the capital. As soon as we finish class, I’ll arrange to book it!”
“Stop crowding! Let Master Han choose on his own!”
Squeezed to the point of breathlessness, Han Jiao leaned against the desk and urged everyone to calm down.
What was the point of arguing about this? These people had no idea about the danger of dealing with the big boss.
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