After thirty blows, the white marble steps ran scarlet with blood. 

The imperial guards collected the stick and retreated back to the hall to debrief.
Only Xue Yan was left, kneeling alone in front of the steps. 

His head drooped towards the ground and he gasped for breath, but managed to extend one hand out onto the stone step.
Jun Huailang subconsciously wanted to step forward, but Xue Yan had already used that hand to prop himself up and slowly, painfully, stood up.

Jun Huailang suddenly thought of what Xue Yunhuan told him today.

Xue Yan had led several hundred cavalry against the Tujue army until Yan Prefecture fell.
After Yan Prefecture’s total defeat, he stubbornly crawled out of a pile of dead bodies and crossed countless li[1] to return to Chang’an.

Jun Huailang watched helplessly as Xue Yan turned and departed alone.
His steps were slow and lurching, but not a single person helped him.
When he was unsteady, only the white marble handrail caught him.

By the time Jun Huailang came back to his senses, only a scarlet bloodstain was left.

In his education, he had been taught that evil people only had themselves to blame.
But no one ever told him that some evil people could be alone and in desperate straits for many years, yet never encounter a helping hand.

Xue Yan had long become used to it.

The imperial guards reported that the punishment was complete, and the banquet ended in discord.
Consort Shu promptly sent her senior maid Diancui to assist Jun Huailang and return home.

Xue Yunhuan also hurried over with Jun Linghuan.
Seeing Jun Huailang standing alone under a palace lantern, lips pale, Xue Yunhuan had a fright.
He rushed forward and asked, “Did they hit you too?”

Jun Huailang looked at the bloodstain again.
Court eunuchs were already carrying buckets of water to wash the stone step.
The bloodstain dissipated in the fresh water, erased with no difficulty.

Jun Huailang collected his thoughts and replied quietly, “I’m fine.”

Xue Yunhuan was not reassured and personally escorted them to Consort Shu’s Mingluan Palace.
Although he suffered a big incident today, Jun Huailang and Jun Linghuan still had to move into the palace. 

The luxurious Mingluan Palace was in a good location, so they arrived quickly.

Jun Huailang lifted his head in front of the palace gates and saw riches everywhere,[2] even the interlocking beams at the top of the columns were engraved with peonies and finished with gold.
Beyond a small elaborate garden was the main hall of Mingluan Palace.
Four side halls were arranged around it, linked together by corridors.

After Xue Yunhuan left, Jun Huailang and Jun Linghuan were led to the east hall.
This hall was the closest to the main hall with windows facing the sun.
In winter, the dilong[3] linked the two halls.

It was already late at night, Jun Linghuan began to doze off on the walk there.
By the time they entered the room, she was already fast asleep.
Jun Huailang helped her to bed, then returned to his own room.

The palace maids helped him wash up and change clothes before withdrawing.
Jun Huailang was not very sleepy.
He lit a lamp and sat alone under the window, gazing out at the rippling moonlight.

Perhaps because he had never seen anyone tortured, that blood soaked ground flashed through his mind.
For a moment he did not know how he ought to handle his previous life’s grudge with this lonely person.

He thought, I need to calm down.

At that time, someone knocked on the door.
A palace maid announced in a low voice that Consort Shu had arrived.

Jun Huailang rose to welcome her.
Consort Shu had already removed her adornments, and was now dressed in sleeping clothes, over which draped a fox fur silk cloak.
She came in directly.

“So you couldn’t sleep too.
Were you frightened today?” Consort Shu sat with him next to the window and spoke.
“His Majesty, really.
Why did he insist on making you lecture Xue Yan?”

Jun Huailang knew that his paternal aunt, although beautiful and bossy, was not a schemer.
She was very simple-minded.
Perhaps the reason she was able to flourish was not only because of her family’s support and the empress’s protection, but also because she believed everything she heard.
To the emperor she was easy to fool.

Jun Huailang did not speak out of turn, he softly replied, “… certainly I was a little scared.”

But it was not because of Xue Yan getting thrashed, rather he was frightened of those human hearts he had not seen in his previous life.

Consort Shu smoothed his hair and said, “It’s alright.
There’s no need to be afraid here in my palace.”

Jun Huailang nodded and smiled faintly. 

“The people and the affairs of the palace are much more complicated than family affairs,” Consort Shu said.
“You were always a cautious child so I don’t need to worry.
It’s just a pity I don’t even have a single child.
I have to involve you and Huan-er and take you away from home for so long.”

She looked down and sighed.
“That woman Yi Jieyu, although her words were loathsome, she was not wrong.” 

Jun Huailang was surprised.
He thought of what Yi Jieyu said so lightly today in the Yongle Rear Hall.
She had said ‘even if the children aren’t yours, it doesn’t matter.’

At that time, Jun Huailang thought that these words had a different meaning.
But the people in the harem always spoke words that took three turns, so he didn’t scrutinize it at the time.
Until now, seeing Consort Shu look pensive, he suddenly understood. 

Those words seemed careless, but were actually extremely deliberate.
She reminded Consort Shu that she could raise another concubine’s son as her own. 

In the previous life, Jun Huailang was not very aware of matters within the palace.
In this year, Consort Shu did indeed raise another concubine’s son at her knee.
But Consort Shu was dissatisfied and threw a tantrum.
Not too long after, she sent that prince back.

Jun Huailang tried to sound her out and asked, “So you[4] mean…”

Consort Shu hesitated.
“This consort wants to ask for the emperor’s favor and raise a young prince in the palace.
I am getting old, someday I may need a son to rely on… 

“Your Diancui-jiejie[5] also advised me on this matter.”

Jun Huailang knew that Consort Shu was not cunning, so she always listened to Diancui’s ideas. He pretended to not really understand and just said “Oh,” but internally he was considering the idea. 

There were not many princes in the palace without their birth mother, or whose birth mother had a low position.
Currently there was only Xue Yan and the seventh prince.
The seventh prince was just born and hadn’t been weaned yet.
Additionally his mother was a lowly palace maid.
The seventh prince was an ideal match, Consort Shu would absolutely not refuse him. 

Could it be that… in the previous life, the prince she had been given to raise was Xue Yan?

That garish scarlet stain appeared in front of his eyes again as he thought of Xue Yan.
He immediately drove the image away from his mind. 

After coming back to his senses, he realized there was something strange.
How could such an absurd match happen? But before determining the true reason for this replacement, his instinct was to speak and block Consort Shu.
Xue Yan was an extremely dangerous person and was also hated by the emperor.
If he were raised at Consort Shu’s side, it would surely only bring harm and no benefit.

Let alone the most dangerous thing – in the previous life Xue Yan must have entered Consort Shu’s palace while Jun Linghuan was here.
It was extremely possible that during this time, Jun Linghuan provoked Xue Yan.

Consort Shu was still considering the matter herself.
She said to him, “The seventh prince is not bad.
He is young and his mother doesn’t have the capability to raise him… What do you think, Lang-er?”

Thus Jun Huailang could not advise Consort Shu to give up this idea.

It’s true that he was afraid the things in his previous life would happen once again, but just blocking Xue Yan from entering Mingluan Palace would not resolve the problem.
In the past he thought it was because his father was set up and Xue Yan was brutal and perverse, that caused the end of his family.
But today, he could clearly see that there was a hand manipulating the situation, pushing them in the direction of the previous life.

The seventh prince suddenly turning into the fifth prince, his own family starting a feud with Xue Yan, the Jun family’s destruction…  The circumstances were too strange for someone to be only taking advantage of the situation.
At every step, someone was pushing the Jun family off the cliffs, without leaving a trace.

He had to find the person behind this, so he had to walk the same path as his previous life in order to find traces of that person.
He could not disrupt the enemy’s plans and bring in new variables for himself.

“Of course it’s good.” Jun Huailang said and smiled gently at Consort Shu.

He was not willing to admit it, but in his subconscious mind there was another reason he was unable to voice his rejection.
That reason was, up until now he could not forget how cold it was at the stone steps in front of Yongle Hall during the Mid-Autumn Festival.

There was a remote palace in the southwest corner of the imperial city.
Maples red as fire surrounded the palace and made it look lively, but the palace itself was shabby.
The traditional red paint was mottled and peeling. 

The flame of a single candle flickered inside the main hall.
It lit the old fashioned room and made it look eerie and strange.

There was stifled sob that trembled along with the dancing flame. 

From behind the bed curtain came a voice, hoarse and somewhat weak, but still composed.
It brought an unignorable pressure. 

“If you’re done crying, shut up.
So noisy,” he said.
“Those sacrificial soldiers are people I brought from Yan Prefecture.
Without my order, they won’t touch a single person in your family.”

It was Xue Yan.

He laid on the bed, back exposed.
The lines of his shoulders were strong and smooth, and the small of his back a resilient arc.
But dreadful wounds criss-crossed his back and it reeked of blood and acrid medicine.

Emperor Qingping had not sent an imperial doctor, the medicine used was what Xue Yan had brought back from Yan Prefecture. 

Xue Yan inclined his head and narrowed his eyes like a languid cheetah, sizing up the little eunuch paralyzed on the floor.

This little eunuch was the same one who dropped the jade arrow.
His name was Jinbao.
Previously he had been doing unskilled labor in Yong Alley,[6] but was assigned to serve Xue Yan.

Jinbao already thought he was unlucky to be assigned to such an unwelcomed master who was treated even worse than a servant.
He didn’t expect this master to show his true colors and be such a terrifying demon.

Jinbao was an ordinary person, greedy for life and afraid of death.
He earned money in the palace so he could return home and open two shops for his retirement plan.
Unexpectedly, this demon had subordinates hidden in the capital, who found his family.
Xue Yan threatened his family to force Jinbao to do things for him.

This master couldn’t even protect himself; if Jinbao handled his affairs, wouldn’t he be the first to die?! If he extended his head he’d be killed, but if he withdrew, his entire family would be put to the sword. 

Jinbao was paralyzed on the ground and dared not cry out.
He was shivering so hard that he almost collapsed. 

How could his life be this hard!

Xue Yan calmly watched him for a while, but Jinbao couldn’t stop crying.
Xue Yan clicked his tongue impatiently and said, “Cry again and tomorrow your younger brother will die.” 

He was the family’s only hope for continuing the family line!

A whimper squeezed its way up his throat but Jinbao swallowed it back down.

“You have no choice.
It’s better to handle my affairs well, and perhaps you can preserve your own life.” Xue Yan moved his stiff neck and shoulders, and the wounds on his back immediately opened, causing him to frown and tsk.

As soon as he frowned, Jinbao’s tears began to fall.

“Okay,” Xue Yan continued impatiently.
“I know you’re rubbish, but right now I lack people.
I’ll use you for the time being and won’t have you do anything important.”

Jinbao had no escape.
He could only whimper, “Master, please give me an order.”

Xue Yan said slowly and lightly, “Every time I get humiliated in the palace, someone sends a letter out.
Find out where the letter is sent to.”

Jinbao thought it didn’t seem too difficult.
After all, there were only so many people in the palace and he crossed paths with everyone regularly.
All he had to do was keep an eye out.

Jinbao breathed a sigh of relief and quickly got up.
Although he was timid, he was also clever.
Now that his whole family was in the hands of another, naturally he was more attentive.
“Then this servant will go fetch water,” he said, bustling off.

“Stop.” Xue Yan said coldly, rubbing his brows. What an idiot, he thought.

Jinbao promptly froze, not daring to move.

“What you were like in the past, continue to be like that in the future.” Xue Yan forced his temper down and warned him.
“Just do what you are told to do, and don’t do anything you’re not told to do.” 

Jinbao nodded again and again.

“Get lost,” Xue Yan said succinctly.




[1] 里 traditional unit of distance, about 500 meters [2] 堆金积玉 lit.
pile up gold and jade, very rich. [3] 地龙 underground heating system in the imperial city but due to the amount of resources needed to build and use, only implemented in important places such as the emperor and empress’s palaces. [4] 您 respectful form of you [5] 姐姐 older sister, can also be used to address older girls who are not related by blood. [6] 永巷 a long and narrow alley in the imperial palace where unassigned maids were located and where out of favor concubines were assigned.

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