Ah Duo’s palace had the usual feel to it.
“Ah Duo-sama. Please read a book.”
The children gathered around Ah Duo. The scene of them asking her to read a book under the gazebo resembled a western painting.
While it was hard for him to call out to her, Ah Duo seemed to have registered his presence. She gently closed the book and stood, soothing the children.
“Ehh, done already?”
“Haha. It’s already time for dinner. I’ll read before bedtime, so brush your teeth properly beforehand.”
After petting the children’s heads, the beauty in barbarian robes approached Jinshi. She was a youthful person to begin with, but he felt she had aged backwards since moving to the villa.
“Prince of the Moon, it’s been a while.” Ah Duo greeted him like an official, on one knee, hands atop each other. It seemed reverent, but she was probably sticking out her tongue while facing down–Jinshi smiled wryly.
“You haven’t changed.”
Jinshi gently motioned with his hand. Taking that as a sign, Ah Duo, who had stuck out her tongue as expected, raised her face.
For Jinshi, as someone who is often held at arm’s length by others, Ah Duo was one of the few people who treated him as an equal.
He had come whilst leaving behind Basen who was also naggy about escorts.
Although he didn’t bring it up specifically, Basen’s expression didn’t look good.
In that case, Basen should probably take heed of Maamei’s advice exactly because she was his own sister, but he can’t do that at all, being a weak man considering his physical strength. Once he gets married, he would, most definitely, be more henpecked than Gaoshun.
“Well, it also depends on who it is,” Jinshi said.
“What was that?” Ah Duo asked.
He was shown into the palace. A sweet fragrance permeated the air.
There were wine bottles on the table. From the smell, they seemed to be considerably high in alcohol content.
“This is…” He found himself checking once again.
“His majesty gave me Suiren’s pastries. However, I’m more pleased with the alcohol used in it. I’ve specially set aside some for you.”
The guard stayed outside. Only Jinshi and Ah Duo were in the room. Ah Duo’s speech turned even more casual.
“…” He remembered the previous occasion he drank wine with Ah Duo. Was it the night before she left the inner palace? He was summoned and made to drink so much, and in the end, he was told, “Meeting breakup”, and chased out of the palace.
Aside from the wine, there was also a Go board on the table.
Ah Duo picked up a Go stone and fiddled with it. “Didn’t you have an interesting match the other day?”
“Has it become a topic of discussion?” Jinshi averted his eyes. He only had an unpleasant premonition. Their positions suddenly reversed, and Jinshi’s language became polite.
Given the many years of banter in the inner palace between them, this was closer to their natural way of speaking.
The two of them were alone, so their conversation continued down this path.
“Yeah. When I heard that the weirdo tactician was driven to a wall, I found myself laughing. What trick did you use?”
She should’ve already come up with the correct answer, as she was sloshing the wine bottle around.
“I wonder. I lost in the end,” he said.
A loss is a loss.
Winning against Rakan using whatever moves possible. To Jinshi, a win’s a win.
“However, it seemed you had been going well,” Ah Duo said.
“Yeah. I was confident. Who would have thought a comeback was possible even though he was hanging by a thread?”
Even so, he didn’t relax his guard. He had thought of every possible move to prepare for the rematch, but he was completely overthrown.
‘Don’t see your opponent as human’
It was just as the Grandmaster of Go had said.
That’s why, Jinshi had tried to win by combining several moves to bind him as a stopgap measure.
As if Ah Duo had anticipated that, she poured the amber-hued wine into glass containers. A mellow fragrance instantly filled the room.
“Well then, he was an opponent you went to great lengths to defeat. What were you thinking of doing once you defeated him?” Ah Duo asked.
“…well, what I was thinking of doing?” Jinshi responded with a question.
Amused, Ah Duo had Jinshi hold onto the wine she had poured for herself.
“Regardless of how it’s done, if I were to defeat Rakan-dono, there’ll be fewer of the fools who see my appearance as my only redeeming feature, right?” Jinshi said.
“You have so much confidence in solely your appearance as usual. Doesn’t it sound sarcastic now?” Ah Duo replied.
“In that regard, shall I thank my mother who gave birth to me?”
Jinshi’s outward appearance was a weapon, occasionally to the point of annoyance.
Ah Duo was silent. He checked through the glass—could she be surprised by the extent of his confidence in his appearance?
Beyond the amber-hued liquid, was a woman with a bitter expression. For an instant, she looked different from the usual tough beauty in male-garb.
“Are you feeling a little out of it?” he asked.
“No, it’s nothing. This is quite strong.” Ah Duo set down the glass of wine. Her bitter expression was gone, instead, there was the dignified look that gave the impression of a young official.
“You needn’t defeat the weirdo tactician. Even if you don’t become more reputable, from the Shi Clan incident, no one would think that you were the weak, shut-in imperial brother,” she said.
“The Shi Clan incident wasn’t my achievement.”
He was shouldering it instead. For the vixen who was no longer around.
Wine had been passed to him, but he had yet to taste it. He had to broach the main topic before that.
“More importantly, Ah Duo-dono. I heard that your palace was set on fire.”
“Oh, you have sharp ears,” she replied indifferently.
“What do you mean sharp. Hasn’t it already been ten days since then?”
Why didn’t you report it? he emphasised.
“Report what. It was a small fire. Besides, nothing was stolen.”
“Why didn’t you lodge a report?”
Ah Duo grinned.
“Please don’t hide it behind a smile,” he said.
“It’s impossible, huh. It would seduce the palace ladies and eunuchs though,” she said.
“I am neither of those. More importantly, did you seduce them?”
“You can’t speak for yourself either, right?”
Jinshi was stuck for words.
Rather, during his time in the inner palace, he used it so much. Even now, he made use of it occasionally.
“So, the reason you remained silent?” he asked.
“You’re smart. You have an idea of it, right?” Ah Duo brought over some grilled ham as a side dish. She picked it up with both hands, and played with it, peeling off the thin slices.
That behaviour would make Suiren discipline him immediately if she ever saw it.
“The intruder seemed to be looking for Suirei.”
It was mostly as he had predicted.
Suirei. The previous emperor’s grandchild and one of the survivors of the Shi Clan.
The person who, under normal circumstances, should have been executed was in Ah Duo’s palace. This was a serious topic.
“What about the children?” he asked.
She was also raising orphans along with the surviving Shi Clan children.
“They are living here soundly. They hadn’t noticed since the small fire happened in the middle of the night. Everyone is young and they’re all good kids. Their past memories are being overwritten by new memories from now on, to erase the sad ones.”
It was better to completely forget they were from the Shi Clan. If they did so, Jinshi and the others can take care of it without a hassle.
If there’s anything amiss, they will immediately be executed.
Due to that promise, he had extended the lives of the children.
One of them, a child called Chou’u, had lost all his memories. So, as a special treatment, he was left in the care of Rokushoukan who had looked after Maomao in town.
He had no idea what to think of leaving a child in a brothel, but from a certain standpoint, that was the first place to send him.
“She is pestered by the children to read books. She is sleeping in the children’s room now.”
Jinshi inadvertently made a look of incomprehension. Suirei was the tall woman who dressed as a man most of the time. It was difficult for Jinshi to imagine. He could hardly imagine her looking after the children expressionlessly.
“She’s probably tired since she was entrusted to prune the trees in the garden during the day. Every time there was a caterpillar, she screamed, you see.”
Making someone who was originally confined do gardening—it was just like Ah Duo.
To think she would treat the woman, who once caused trouble to the imperial court, in this way.
I am no match for Ah Duo, Jinshi thought wholeheartedly.
“In other words, am I to take it that you didn’t obtain evidence, although you escaped from harm.”
“That’s right. Also, the reason I kept quiet…” Ah Duo gently took out a pouch from her bosom. It contained something like rods the length of the tip of nails.
“This was dropped at the scene of the fire. It’s covered in soot, but once you feel it, you’ll know.”
“….” He checked with his fingers. Could the cool material be glass? It seemed to be glass that had been stretched thinly and cut, but it was hollow inside. “They’re beads.”
Beads weren’t unusual as an ornament, but as far as Jinshi could see, these beads were quite small. It wasn’t something to be strung together as a single article, but something that can be sewn onto clothes and shoes.
And Jinshi, who had lived in the inner palace for a long time, remembered what kind of consort wore clothes that were sewn on with beads.
“Could it be someone who hails from the West?”
In the West, women were required to study embroidery for marriage. All their clothes were embroidered and sewn with beads.
“This is why I stayed quiet.”
Someone from the West. How many would react to this?
Currently, while the emperor was in the middle of strengthening ties with the West, there was also a lot of backlash.
“I am suspicious of Gyoku’en-dono’s relatives, but what do you think?”
(T/N: 玉袁, Yu Yuan.)
Gyoku’en, Gyokuyou’s father, presided over Rii’s west. He should be currently staying in the capital.
“I’m not in a position to comment on this lightly.”
“I know right.”
Ah Duo split the ham she had been playing with right in half and put it in her mouth. Jinshi also took some ham and brought it to his mouth. It was nicely salted meat. Suiren prepared a lot of sweet foods as side dishes, so this wasn’t bad, once in a while.
“Anyway, it can’t be helped if we’ve already noticed.”
Ah Duo wiped her fingers with a towel and swallowed the glass of wine.
“You are too kind. So take care,” she said and set the glass down on the table.
The contents of Jinishi’s untouched cup shook from the action. The rippling amber-hued surface distorted and reflected Jinshi’s expression.