Immediately, the atmosphere in the hall became even more frigid.

Emperor Qingping’s eyebrows twitched, and his originally indifferent tone became displeased.
“What did you say? It’s damaged?”

Xue Yan stayed kneeling and said lightly, “Yes.”

He lowered his eyes, and Jun Huailang could not see his expression clearly.
But he saw everyone in the palace hall sizing him up.
The concubines seated across from him covered their mouths with a handkerchief and whispered. 

Xue Yan seemed not to notice.

“Do you know the origin of that jade arrow?” Emperor Qingping asked sharply.
“It was modeled after the weapons my forefather used to establish the dynasty, there is no second pair in the world.
Can you say ‘it’s damaged’ just like that?”

As the emperor talked, he pounded on the carved dragon armrest.
There was not much sound, but the entire hall fell silent.

Even the empress, sitting beside him with worry on her face, dared not speak. 

Xue Yan was silent.

Jun Huailang sat diagonally behind him, and could see his tall and straight back.
He was only a fifteen year old boy, and he was clearly in a bleak and pitiful situation, but there was a strength that could not be suppressed in him.
Like a weed growing through a crack in stone, he was tough and unrestrained.

He didn’t expect that the tyrant who would slaughter innocent people in the future would take the blame for an insignificant little eunuch.

Emperor Qingping waited, but Xue Yan’s apology did not come.
He lowered his head and could only see the young man’s jet black hair.
Xue Yan looked like he was waiting for punishment without regard for the emperor’s anger. 

Emperor Qingping grew even more angry and said, “You still have no intention of repenting? Destroying imperial gifts at will, disrespecting the forefather, today I have no choice but to punish you!”

Jun Huailang couldn’t help but glance at Xue Yan again.

Then he heard Emperor Qingping say, “After the banquet, you will receive twenty blows.
Next time I will not spare you!”

Everyone’s expressions changed.

The sticks used for punishment in the palace were extremely heavy, even a fully grown man would be maimed by fifty blows.
Twenty blows was considered a very severe punishment.
Even the eunuchs who made mistakes before the Son of Heaven would rarely receive such a severe punishment. 

But almost all the concubines seemed to be enjoying the spectacle in their own way.

The empress couldn’t sit still, and wanted to speak out to persuade Emperor Qingping.
But seeing his wrathful expression, she swallowed her words.

“This son receives the imperial decree,” Xue Yan saluted.

Yi Jieyu covered her lips with a handkerchief and calmly said, “Leave after you receive the decree, don’t stay here and make your Imperial Father unhappy.
The palace is not like your Yan Prefecture, you must observe the rules.
Don’t make the same mistakes again.”

Jun Huailang actually found these words a bit harsh.
He couldn’t help raising his eyes and looking at Xue Yan again.

Although Xue Yan was one of many princes in the palace, Jun Huailang had no qualms carrying out his revenge against him.
But seeing him trampled by anyone and everyone, conversely Jun Huailang couldn’t bring himself to do it. 

No gentleman would bully the weak.

Xue Yan rose.
Jun Huailang accidentally met his eyes and froze.
He suddenly felt guilty and broke eye contact, flustered.

He didn’t see Xue Yan’s eyes resting on him for a long moment, and the corner of his mouth lifting imperceptibly into a mocking curve.

A sheltered little master, Xue Yan thought contemptuously. On the path he had glared so arrogantly as if to provoke me, like a fierce and proud peacock.

Xue Yan knew he was born detestable.
Not a single person ever looked at him kindly.
But just then, that little young master stared at him with a complicated expression.
There was pity and guilt, but no malice. 

Was it because he didn’t help earlier and regretted it?

What person in the capital wasn’t an expert at hypocrisy? Who would’ve thought that such a soft-hearted, timid, sticky rice dumpling could sneak in?

He was beautiful.
Without the overbearing attitude he looked very docile.
He was wrapped in a thick overcoat and looked like a cold aristocrat, but he looked quite ill at ease avoiding Xue Yan’s gaze.

Xue Yan turned and left.

His expression was disdainful and his thoughts vile.
Now that he was in the capital, he had a lot of things to do and no time for leisure.
If he were still in Yan Prefecture, he would’ve bullied that little peacock well, until he was too scared to hide from Xue Yan.

The Mid-Autumn feast was quite lively, all the lords feasted to their heart’s content.
Performers played string and woodwind instruments.
They danced gracefully at the center of the hall and seemed to bring a sweet-smelling breeze.

Jun Huailang did not sit with his parents, just with Jun Linghuan.
It was a good thing his sister was well-behaved, it allowed him to be distracted paying attention to the princes’ movement.

Duke Yongning ranked first among the nobility, so Jun Huailang’s seat was near the princes.
At present the emperor had seven sons.
The third prince died of illness and the seventh prince was underage, so in total five princes were seated at the dais. 

The eldest prince was twenty this year.
He already held a position in the court, so he was surrounded by colleagues toasting him.
The second prince was seated next to him.
Jun Enze had left his seat and was stuck closely to the second prince’s side, whispering in his ear.
The fourth prince was conventionally handsome.
Elegant and gentlemanly, he did not speak much but every word was pleasant like a breath of spring.

Next to him, Xue Yunhuan was besieged by a flock of aristocratic sons, toasting and praising him incessantly.
Only Xue Yan was left alone.
The aristocratic sons who passed by gave him a wide berth, and said as little as possible.

At this moment, the second prince suddenly opened his mouth and said to Xue Yunhuan in a loud voice, “The pitch-pot[1] at this year’s Mid-Autumn festival was canceled, did you all know?”

Jun Huailang saw that his smile was smug and full of malicious delight.

And the eunuch serving behind him looked familiar.
Jun Huailang took a closer look and realized that the eunuch was the same one who led the bullying against Xue Yan earlier.
He was also the culprit who damaged the jade arrow.

… So the second prince caused that?

Jun Huailang had to admire his audacity for a moment.
But on second thought, the second prince was the one who flexed his muscles when Xue Yan first returned to the palace.
It seemed that the more familiar they became, the more confident the second prince felt in his backing.

The group of young aristocrats were not as well-informed as him.
But after looking back and forth, they found that there was indeed no pitch-pot equipment, so they all asked curiously, “It’s really not here! Your Highness, do you know why?” 

The second prince smiled meaningfully.

His appearance was just like his mother’s, insipid and mediocre.
He had a square face and a pair of shifty small eyes that squinted when he smiled.

“Because someone broke the jade arrow!” He said.

The group of aristocratic toadies burst into an uproar, talking over each other.
Jun Huailang looked at Xue Yan out of the corner of his eyes, and saw that he seemed unfazed.
He sat there serenely drinking his tea.

Someone asked, “How could it be broken? Didn’t His Majesty bestow the arrows to one of Your Highnesses?”

“Yes, could it be the Fourth Highness?” Another responded

Ol’ sixth Xue Yunhuan was the son of the empress, but he disliked reading.
If one were to pick the most well-rounded prince, it would certainly be the fourth prince, Xue Yunhong. 

But the fourth prince smiled faintly and said, “Where do I have this ability? Everyone is overestimating me,” and kicked them into a frenzy again.
After speaking, he only cared about eating and said nothing else.

The group of young aristocrats discussed again.

“Who had it?” They asked.

The second prince showed a twisted smile.
“The person with this ability would naturally be a star descended to the mortal world.”

A star descended? This strange phrase could only describe one person in the entire palace, the evil star. 

Everyone’s eyes fell on Xue Yan.

Xue Yan raised his eyes as if inadvertently, and his amber eyes looked at them calmly.
Immediately, the aristocrats acted like they saw some kind of monster and avoided his gaze, as if the gods would strike them down for making eye contact.

The second prince burst into laughter, and Jun Enze followed him and laughed too.

Jun Huailang felt uncomfortable.
He pursed his lips and turned away.

At that moment, Xue Yunhuan, who was sitting in the crowd, did not feel like watching the second prince’s monkey show, and stood up impatiently.
This little bully always did whatever he wanted, he turned around and left without saying a word to anyone.

He went to Jun Huailang, knocked on the table, and said, “Go, let’s go and get some fresh air.”

Jun Huailang naturally wanted to go with him, but Jun Linghuan was still eating at the moment and he couldn’t abandon her.

The fourth prince, Xue Yunhong got up and walked over with a kind and gentle expression.
He smiled as he said to Xue Yunhuan, “Sixth Brother, let me accompany you on a walk.
The sky lanterns[2] will be released soon, and Heir Jun can meet us at Taiye Lake.”[3]

Jun Huailang didn’t have much of an impression of the fourth prince but also didn’t dislike him, so he nodded and smiled.
“Then I’ll trouble you to wait for me,” he agreed.

Xue Yunhuan was eager to get away from that silly windbag of a second prince.
He did not refuse and followed Xue Yunhong out.

Seeing this, Jun Linghuan thought she blocked her brother from going out to play.
She had a piece of pastry in her hand, but quickly stuffed it in her mouth.
“Huan-er is almost done eating!” she said, muffled by the food.

Jun Huailang was amused but was also afraid she would choke.
He hurriedly fed her some tea and asked her to swallow the pastry slowly.
“Don’t rush, be careful of choking,” he said, and gently stroked her back. 

He was ten years older than Jun Linghuan, and his second brother was far away in Yumen Pass.[4] From a young age, he had often taken care of his younger sister, and had long been familiar with this task. 

He did not notice a pair of indifferent amber eyes watching this scene.

By the time Jun Linghuan was full, most officials’ sons had already left their seats.
The princes’ seats were also completely empty.
For children, banquets were boring.
The most enjoyable part of the Mid-Autumn palace banquet were the lanterns at Taiye Lake.

Jun Linghuan also thought this.
After she ate her fill, Jun Huailang took her to Taiye Lake.

It was a cool night.
The two of them wore cloaks and walked through a palace full of lanterns.
With their robes swaying gently, they looked like a painting.

Within an incense stick of time,[5] they arrived at Taiye Lake.
Many people were already standing by it.
The full moon hung in the dark blue sky.
Several sky lanterns drifted towards the heavens and the lake shone with reflected light. 

Jun Linghuan whispered, “Wow!” and tugged Jun Huailang towards the side of the lake.

There was a group of people at the lakeside.
As soon as they approached, Jun Huailang heard the second prince’s voice.

“Isn’t that Old Five? Come here, release a lantern with your geges.”[6]

That voice was like a scoundrel in a market, even a deaf person would be able to tell this person wanted to stir up trouble.
Even someone as gentle as Jun Huailang couldn’t help but feel like this person needed a beating.




[1] 投壶 ancient banquet game of throwing arrows into a pot [2] 孔明灯 a hot air balloon made of paper and bamboo, with an opening at the bottom where a small candle is suspended. [3] 太液池 an artificial lake in the Imperial City during the Jin, Yuan, Ming, and Qing dynasties. [4] 玉门关 aka Jade Gate Pass, western frontier post on the Silk Road in Gansu. [5] In ancient times, incense was one of the methods used to keep time.
Depending on the type of incense used, it could be anywhere from 5 minutes to 30 minutes, but here it’s probably more like 5 minutes. [6] 哥哥 older brother, can also be used to address older men of the same generation not related by blood.

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