# 176. Telling A Story
*Wei Yuan is really being underhanded here… the price difference is a little too unreasonable. However, this does suggest that if the chicken bouillon can be mass-produced, I’ll be rich beyond measure.*
*Hold on, haven’t I just accidentally walked into the path of a wealthy merchant with concubines and wives galore?*
*The Arcanists are really professionals, if I had known before I wouldn’t have messed around with this stuff myself, rather just give the Sitianjian some guidance, and take the profit from behind the scenes. Unfortunately, it’s too late now…* Xu Qi’an sighed silently.
From the tax silver case to the Sangpo case and to now, he had offended too many powerful people at court, and had already attached himself tightly to Wei Yuan.
Under this situation, all he had to do was cultivate, and help Wei Yuan in any way possible. The more stable Wei Yuan’s position was, the more power he had, the better Xu Qi’an’s life would be. He didn’t have the time nor extra energy to investigate alchemy.
*…mn, not that I don’t have time, perhaps I will later. For now though, I need to focus on achieving Refining Spirit.*
Huaiqing sipped tea, giving her lips a new shine, and said in a calm voice: “Recently the interparty conflict at court has suddenly died down. The reason is that Wei Yuan and Prime Minister Wang has joined forces, intending to conduct a purge on the various cliques at court.”
“That’s good.” Xu Qi’an’s eyes lit up.
Huaiqing shook her head: “Father Emperor has blocked it. Chaos in court is beneficial to him. The more the parties fight amongst themselves, the more he can focus on Daoist cultivation. If one or two cliques form a large majority, then the situation would escape from father’s control.”
*The fact that she’s telling me this, means that Huaiqing is seeing me as her own underling… though why do I feel she’s too trusting in me… even though I’ve simped well enough, but I haven’t exactly done it much…* Xu Qi’an nodded, and agreed:
“Interparty conflict is a double edged sword, it can maintain His Majesty’s position, but can also throw the court into disorder. The more cliques there are, the more heated the conflict, in the long term no one will be bothered with proper affairs, only worrying about this scheme and that scheme… any opposition would be useless.”
Whilst talking, Xu Qi’an was constantly examining Princess Huaiqing’s expression, if she at any time were to show signs of displeasure or disagreement, then Xu Qi’an would immediately stop in his tracks.
Otherwise, Xu Qi’an could use his knowledge as a keyboard historian to have a good conversation with this princess royal. He can build up relations, and get more benefits from her.
The well-read Princess Huaiqing narrowed her eyes slightly, and deliberately rebutted him: “Is not stopping all party conflict removing all unforeseen consequences?”
Xu Qi’an shook his head, “A court without cliques is a fantastical thing.”
*A court without cliques is a fantastical thing…* Princess Huaiqing thought over those words many times, and her eyes lit up, as the corner of her mouth unconsciously curled into a slight smile.
Seeing this, Xu Qi’an continued: “This lowly subordinate has some shallow opinions, if the eldest princess would like to hear them.”
Hearing this, Princess Huaiqing slowly sat up straight, and nodded: “There is no harm in speaking.”
Xu Qi’an said hesitatingly, “In truth, the way His Majesty is controlling his court is not the most proper…”
He saw Huaiqing’s eyes narrow, yet she did not tell him to stop, merely staring at him intently. Thus he continued:
“If he were to control court, he does not need so many cliques, just three equal ones forever in opposition would be enough. As after all a triangle is the strongest shape in any field … um, marriage aside.”
“A Triangle?” Huaiqing thought for a moment, before saying in realisation: “This shape appears commonly in the construction of the palace.”
*The eldest princess is indeed bright…* Xu Qi’an hummed assent, saying: “If there were only cliques, there is the possibility that they could privately come to an alliance, and although still like fire and water on the surface, deep down be in cahoots with each other. However if instead it was like a three legged cauldron, it would be exceedingly hard for the three sides to come to agreement, and thus the situation at court would be very stable, and easy to control.”
Huaiqing thought for a long time, and as if linking something together, laughed lightly, before quickly reining her emotion in, returning to her aloof demeanour:
“The Cloud Deer Academy’s great scholars say that you have a scholar’s mind, yet we had originally thought that you only knew how to write poems well. We did not expect that you had such wise opinions. The number of scholars under heaven that could compare could be counted on one’s fingers; the Cloud Deer Academy scholars’ eyes are bright like torches, whereas we had underestimated you.”
*No, they also just think I can write good poetry, you didn’t underestimate me… I mean I’m a keyboard warrior aren’t I, I command mountains and rivers with my walls of text, unbeatable with the sound of keyboard keys.*
Xu Qi’an smiled reservedly in response.
“Although apart from the overwhelming number of cliques at court, there’s one other fatal flaw there… Your Highness, please forgive me, this subordinate did not speak appropriately.”
Princess Huaiqing smiled lightly, “We’re all familiar here, there is no need to take so much care.”
Her clear, pond-like eyes gazed intently at him, expressing a great desire to listen, yet she did not continue talking.
Xu Qi’an was immediately comforted, as he said: “His Majesty can easily control the many lords at court, including their promotions, demotions, et cetera, yet he cannot control the base level officials and civil servants. The latter, especially, are the main offenders in the worsening state of people’s lives.”
This matter seemed to strike at Huaiqing’s weak spot, as she immediately became serious, interrupting: “We have also thought long and hard about this problem.”
“Really there are two reasons why the Great Feng’s civil servants’ corruption has become as bad as it is. First, the interparty conflict in court is extremely fierce, and management is being overlooked. To put it bluntly, they only know to fight, and not to work. Second, His Majesty has cultivated Dao for over twenty one years, and the court’s control over its lowest level officials has declined seriously. What this means is that civil servants think they are above the law.”
Princess Huaiqing nodded: “Your opinions and ours are aligned. We have thought about this numerous times, yet unfortunately have not come to a good answer.”
*You’re a princess, what are you doing thinking about these matters?* Xu Qi’an said: “For the civil servants, your subordinate suggests to centralise state control.”
“Centralise state control?” Princess Huaiqing’s tone unconsciously became one of seeking instruction, as she had never heard such a turn of phrase before.
“Although His Majesty in the present has the court firmly in his grasp, he controls a court which is divided amongst itself, and so needs to dole out appropriate political power everywhere. Thus His Majesty’s political power is far too divided…” Xu Qi’an did not continue. With Huaiqing’s intelligence, he trusted that she could see the meaning behind his words.
In the same vein, how could one change the current situation? One who ties the bell around the tiger’s neck should also untie it, and so either Emperor Yuanjing would emerge onto the world and return to court, diligent in his duty, or he would abdicate.
This was the other reason why Xu Qi’an did not finish off his words. If he continued, then he could not avoid but overstep on forbidden topics.
The two of them continued speaking for a long while, and Princess Huaiqing gained a whole new level of respect for this Bronze Gong. Xu Qi’an felt likewise; not only was this princess clever, she was also erudite, easily quoting on the classics in her points, making talking with her strenuous, but very enjoyable.
Seeing that the conversation was reaching its natural close, Xu Qi’an bade her farewell. *I can’t carry on any longer, there’s not a drop left in me. If we continue down this rabbit hole then I’ll end up debating the merits of socialism with you.*
Princess Huaiqing nodded, though her eyes showed a feeling that she had not finished.
Leaving Princess Huaiqing’s palace, Xu Qi’an immediately went to find Lin’an, and very quickly she was notified, and he was given entry.
It was nine thirty in the morning, and princess Lin’an in a fiery red dress was playing shuttlecock with her palace maids.
If one were to say that Xu Lingyin was a prodigy in eating, then Biaobiao was a prodigy in playing. Her shuttlecock kicking was even better than the martial artist Xu Qi’an.
That fiery red dress rippled through the air, her waist twisted back and forth, and those slender legs seemed to have their own GPS, always colliding perfectly with the shuttlecock, kicking it back up into the air.
And so he would say, if this chick were born in the modern era she would be someone constantly travelling, constantly clubbing, a queen of the dance floor.
*The dress in this era is far too conservative, she’s even wearing trousers under her skirt…* the didn’t-manage-to-see-a-thing Xu Qi’an silently pouted, whilst making a respectful salute: “Your Highness.”
Seeing that Xu Qi’an had come to visit, she handed the shuttlecock over to a maid, and then put her hands on her waist: “Did you not say after the case you would come here every day?”
“Your subordinate can’t just walk into the imperial palace every day…” Xu Qi’an walked towards the pavilion, and Lin’an followed.
She took a towel from an attendant, and wiped her round face, ruffling up her originally delicately done brows.
“Recently we have wished to go outside and play, you shall accompany.” Lin’an handed the towel back to the maid, and then washed her hands.
Xu Qi’an gave her a sidelong glance: “No.”
Lin’an immediately stared at him: “Running dog.”
The two of them started again to play the hawk training game[^1]; Biaobiao tried to use her own charming eyes to overcome Xu Qi’an, whilst the latter would look back with a deadpan gaze in resistance.
As expected, Lin’an was the first to admit defeat, as her round oval face showed a slight bashfulness. She averted her gaze, and said angrily: “If it were Huaiqing, you wouldn’t refuse would you?”
*Huaiqing won’t make me do anything as suicidal alright… to go lead a princess around is grounds for beheading…* Xu Qi’an pulled out a porcelain bottle from his robe, “Recently I’ve come across a curious thing, when you add it to food, it can improve the savouriness. It’s called chicken bouillon.”
In front of Biaobiao, he was more relaxed, not always calling himself “your subordinate”. The second princess never cared much about this kind of formality.
“Chicken bouillon, what a strange name.” Lin’an giggled, “Are you out of silver again? We’ll give you another piece of artwork, oh, recently we received an ivory brush, apparently it’s really expensive, and I don’t like writing characters anyway, so you can have it.”
Xu Qi’an immediately said: “Your Highness, you’re mistaken, your subordinate is not here for any reward, your subordinate whole-heartedly wants to work like an ox for you.”
This kind of flattery was Lin’an’s favourite, and she immediately became quite happy: “Then what do you want?”
“If Your Highness finds it convenient to convert to silver.”
“You can have silver…” Biaobiao leant her cheek on her hand, and looked at him deeply, face full of smiles. It was as if those entrancing almond-shaped eyes were looking at their lover.
“We have felt really stuffy recently, and shuttlecock is getting boring. Tell me a story, continue on from last time — with that Journey to the West.”
“Of course, Your Highness, this time I’ll talk about the *Three Attempts at Borrowing the Plantain Fan.*” Xu Qi’an sipped on the tea served by the maids, wetting his throat:
“One day, the monk Xuanzang came to the Mountain of Flames. Its fires were burning tall, and he couldn’t even fly over it. The local god told Sun Wukong that if he wanted to extinguish the flames on the mountain, he would have to go to Princess Iron-fan to borrow her plantain fan. That Princess Iron-fan was the ox-demon king.”
“The Ox demon king? That’s Sun Wukong’s sworn brother.” Biaobiao’s memory was excellent, and immediately piped up.
“Exactly, thus Sun Wukong and Madam Ox had had a secret relationship.”
“What kind of relationship?”
“That’s coming up shortly…” Xu Qi’an glanced at the maid: “Go wait outside the pavillion.”
The maid obediently left.
Xu Qi’an was immediately more at ease, and he continued: “Sun Wukong came to plantain cave, and was warmly welcomed inside by Princess Iron-fan, yet she would not lend him her plantain fan. Thus the two of them began a fiery brawl.
“Sun Wukong turned into a bug, and flew into Princess Iron-fan’s stomach, saying: ‘sister, I’m inside you now.’
“Princess Iron-fan was in so much pain that she was rolling around on the floor in pain. Finally, she relented, and if Sun Wukong would come out, she would give him the fan.
“Sun Wukong said: ‘open your moth sis, old Sun is coming out.’
“Just then, the ox-demon king came back, and saw everything.”
“Who did he help?” Lin’an, vexed, asked. “One person is his sworn brother, the other is his wife. It’s a really awful dilemma.”
“Well, the Ox-demon king and Princess Iron-fan got divorced.”
[^1]: 熬鹰 “pressuring hawks”, old Beijing dialect word, refers to a now illegal practice done in medieval times by hawk trainers, where to train and tame hawks (specifically northern goshawks) they would prevent them from sleeping and constantly harass them, to tire the animal out and wear down its wild spirit. Now used metaphorically for many things.