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    Chapter 51: Lotus Pond

    Rong Mo stepped out of the dormitory, listening to the snoring echoing within. He couldn't help but feel a little troubled. Initially, he had chosen to stay in the dormitory temporarily to save money, but he now realized it was too rough for his liking. The place stank, the sleep was restless due to the fleas, and it was far too noisy. There was no time to read, let alone study. His knowledge wasn't solid, and although this trip was merely a formality, he couldn't afford to be careless. The whole family's expectations rested on him, and his sister had sold herself into servitude for his future. He had to take this seriously.

    He wondered if his elder brother had arrived in Jingbei and met with his sister. With the sudden outbreak of war in Jingbei, he hoped she was safe. Did his brother manage to find a way to bring her back?

    In the past few days, Rong Mo had searched every corner, even visiting temples, but none of the available accommodations suited his needs. According to his tutor's instructions, he would need to stay in the capital for almost half a year, perhaps even long enough to catch the imperial examination. As such, his budget was limited. Everything in the capital was expensive. His family had already done their best, and he couldn't touch the money his sister had sent. After searching half the city, he knew he couldn't afford an inn. Renting a house was also too costly, and his fellow townsfolk laughed at his high demands. He had even considered temples, but they were too far away, and the offerings required were expensive...

    Standing at the entrance of the inn, Rong Mo melancholically counted his coins, contemplating whether he should try his luck again at the local association. Suddenly, a servant approached and bowed, "Are you Third Master Rong? My master invites you for a chat."

    Rong Mo was startled. Looking up, he saw a carriage with blue curtains on the side of the road. A young noble slightly lifted the curtain to greet him.

    He returned the bow, "My surname is Rong. May I ask your esteemed name? Have you mistaken me for someone else?"

    The noble alighted from the carriage and returned the gesture, "It's not convenient to talk here. I heard that Third Master Rong is looking for a place to prepare for the examinations. I was entrusted by your younger sister to find you. Please, come with me. I have a small residence, very peaceful, perfect for your studies."

    Rong Mo glanced at him and replied politely, "Thank you, but there's no need. I have other arrangements." With that, he turned and walked away without hesitation or curiosity.

    Jin Anlin was surprised, watching as Rong Mo disappeared inside.

    The following day, it was his turn to attend to his duties, and he entered to report. Yuan Jun inquired and then nodded, saying, "Indeed, I was too hasty in my judgment. Given that Concubine Rong is far away in Jingbei, a noble young man like you suddenly seeking her out, lowering your stance and offering help unprovoked – naturally, he would be concerned about any potential harm to his sister. Without knowing the details, it's only logical for him to refuse. They're all quite perceptive as a family." He couldn't help but feel a touch of sentimentality.

    Shen Anlin was perplexed.

    After some thought, Yuan Jun suggested, "Be more discreet about it. Find an intermediary to arrange a tutoring position for him, with room and board included. You don't need to be involved in this matter. Inform your uncle and ask him to assign a mature family member to take care of it."

    Shen Anlin sighed in relief. "Yes, Your Highness."

    With a chess piece in hand, Yuan Jun focused intently on the game and instructed, "You may leave for now."

    Shen Anlin observed Yuan Jun, whose brows were lowered and face pale with a cold sternness. The hand that held the chess piece appeared slender and wasted. As he bowed to accept the order and stepped back, a sense of melancholic loss pervaded his heart.

    Since the crown prince fell ill, he either studied military texts or engaged in solitary chess games, lost in thought for long periods in front of the board. Occasionally, he would glance out the window at the lake where lotuses grew, resuming his former aura of solitude and aloofness. In the past, when he would pick vegetables, personally make pastries, and invite them to share a hot pot together, although he still spoke sparingly, an air of intimacy and contentment could be felt. It made him seem more down-to-earth.

    Now, the Crown Prince had lost all interest in gardening and cooking. He retrieved numerous military treatises and travelogues, including those of Bei Xi, from the imperial study. He even ordered Bei Xi to directly borrow documents and maps related to pacifying the northern borders from the Ministry of War, along with pertinent materials from Bei Xi's region. These were matters of utmost military secrecy! With trepidation, Bei Xi went to borrow them. The Minister of War, Shi Quan, initially tried every excuse to evade the request but dared not refuse outright, instead directing him to the Vice Minister. Vice Minister of War, Song Yong, had served in the ministry for years and was once under Duke Song's command. He personally met Bei Xi, inquired about the Crown Prince's well-being, and then ordered his staff to meticulously prepare maps, annual garrison plans, records of soldiers' pay, and even copies of battle reports and memorials from the former Northern Pacification Duke's campaigns. He reassured Bei Xi, saying, "Please, General Shen, assure the Crown Prince that Her Highness, being blessed, will surely be safe. The Duke of Northern Pacification, known for his valor, will undoubtedly return unharmed."

    Shen Anlin was deeply concerned. The Emperor had clearly been at ease with the Crown Prince's previous engagement in farming and culinary pursuits, treating him with great favor. Now that the Crown Prince suddenly showed interest in military affairs, it might arouse the Emperor's suspicion and lead to punishment for the prince. However, Shen Anlin's father had instructed him to follow the Crown Prince's wishes, and indeed, not only did the court not hold the prince accountable, but it was rumored that the Emperor had ordered the cabinet to compile daily military reports for the Crown Prince's perusal in the Baohuan Palace. This move was seen by many court officials as a sign of the Emperor's wisdom, indicating that the Crown Prince's royal heart remained steadfast. Some even speculated that perhaps the prince's supposed illness in the depths of the palace was due to genuine health issues, as the Emperor now spoke of him with great affection and concern.

    If Yuan Jun were aware of Shen Anlin's thoughts, he would probably sneer – only a prince who is entirely under the control of his father, the emperor, can be considered a good heir. Now that his elder sister is like a sacrificial lamb on the altar, the emperor must show leniency and favor towards this crown prince to deceive the heroic conqueror of Bei Xi, Guo Shuji.

    Thus, he treated her with extra indulgence and compassion when she fell ill. In the Emperor's eyes, her attempts to borrow military books, maps, or to manipulate the concubines around her elder sister for support were all futile attempts to save herself from impending doom. As an omnipotent ruler, he pitied his daughter and son from his lofty position, but would never abandon his plans for their sake.

    "Throughout history, many an emperor has refused to become a retired emperor," the ancient poem was indeed correct. The spark of rebellion that flickered before the Jingbei King had now burst into flames within him, confined in the treasured halls of his palace. He even wondered if his soul, miles away, could still influence his mortal body, thus triggering this severe illness filled with anxiety and despair.

    Yuan Jun placed a chess piece on the board. If Jingbei King Guo Shuji were here, he might have noticed that each white piece represented a major city or the royal court of Bei Xi. Now, the black pieces, like sharp blades, pierced through Bei Xi's heart with lightning speed, conquering territory in a matter of weeks and approaching the royal court. At this point, the vanguard cavalry had penetrated deep into enemy lines, and supplies and provisions had become decisive factors for victory. With the troops' morale high and eager for a swift triumph, the extended supply line was disadvantageous for a protracted war. If seized by the enemy, this vanguard force, like a dagger, would be trapped in Bei Xi's heartland.

    Previously, while accompanying the princess on the military campaign, he was unaware of their exact objectives. In recent days, as he pondered over the dates of military reports received by the court and recalled every encampment and terrain, he retraced their route, revealing the entire battle situation in Jingbei in his mind, as clear as a chess game. Jingbei King was indeed a master strategist, every move unpredictable.

    Fingering the chess piece, he tapped it gently before placing it beside a black piece, lost in thought.

    At that moment, a servant announced, "Your Highness, Eunuch Tang Xi requests an audience. He has prepared lotus root soup, claiming it will benefit your health, and also wishes to report on the progress of the lotus cultivation."

    Lotus cultivation? Yuan Jun's heart stirred, and he slowly picked up another black piece. "Let him in."

    In recent days, the designated lake corner for lotus planting had been excavated, exposing layers of mud which were then left to dry under the May sun before being refilled. He had observed closely but found nothing out of the ordinary. Clearly, the imperial guards in charge were vigilant, stationing soldiers every five steps along the lake, watching the laborers digging the mud closely, forbidding any wandering. Under such tight surveillance, it would be challenging to carry out any secret plans. To avoid suspicion, he hadn't ventured near the area, staying indoors to recuperate.

    His confinement to his quarters seemed to have eased the tension among the responsible imperial guards. Initially, they were quite nervous, but their vigilance had visibly slackened over the past few days. After all, it was nearly June, with scorching sunlight. The laborers, accustomed to hard work, were resilient, whereas most of the imperial guards came from noble backgrounds and were not used to such harsh conditions. After a few days of exposure to the sun, dizziness and fatigue were inevitable, leading to inevitable complacency.

    In such circumstances, it would be the perfect time to act if there was any hidden agenda with this lotus. However, it was unknown what agreement Tang Xi had reached with Rong Bi.

    Tang Xi entered, already bent over and holding a tray. "Your Highness, this servant pays his respects. You mentioned before that you enjoyed the fragrance of the lotus seed pods and missed the dishes made by the late Empress. Today, by chance, I obtained some excellent mandarin fish, which I used to make a soup noodle dish. I've also prepared some fresh water chestnuts and candied osmanthus to accompany it, all for Your Highness to savor."

    Yuan Jun observed the white pearl-like lotus seeds in the porcelain dish. He took a spoonful, tasting their soft, crisp, and slightly sweet flavor. He nodded slightly. "Being sick has dulled my taste buds, but your thoughtfulness is appreciated."

    Tang Xi's face lit up with a warm smile. "As long as Your Highness is satisfied, that's all that matters. The lotus planting task you assigned me the other day is also completed. The lotuses here have almost all been planted. They're all thousand-leaf lotus seeds sourced from the White Horse Temple in Jiangnan, called 'Bodhi Flower.' The abbot personally blessed them, and they were rushed to the capital on horseback during the night. In about a month, they'll bloom, and their flowers will be a fiery red. It's said that when they open, it's as if flames are burning on the water, a magnificent sight."

    Yuan Jun was surprised. "I heard that the White Horse Temple treasures these lotus seeds and rarely gives them away. How did they end up giving them to you?"

    Tang Xi whispered, "Your Highness may not know, but they're currently in a predicament. Now that His Majesty is fond of Daoism, they can only cling to the idea of Buddhism and Daoism sharing the same source and strive to maintain their position. At the end of the day, they still want to promote Buddhism. Since Your Highness wants to plant lotuses, how could they not comply? If Your Highness were to give the order, they'd willingly move their entire pond to the capital."

    Yuan Jun couldn't help but smile at Tang Xi's words. "The 'Essential Explanations of All Sutras' says: All Buddhas are born from the muddy depths, and upon attaining enlightenment, they all sit on lotus thrones. That's why the lotus is the most precious treasure in Buddhism. Yet, you make it sound like a place for those seeking fame and profit."

    Tang Xi chuckled. "Your Highness, in this world, everyone is driven by gain. The bustling crowds come and go for the same reason. Even high-ranking Buddhist monks need to eat and rely on alms. The land under the temple's name is tax-exempt, supported by donations from believers. With people now turning to Daoism, who will make offerings?"

    Yuan Jun replied, "It seems I'm the one being too rigid. You have a clearer understanding."

    Tang Xi said, "Your Highness is of noble status, kind, and righteous. Naturally, there will be those willing to follow in your footsteps, ready to serve."

    Yuan Jun observed Tang Xi's earnest and straightforward speech, utterly astonished by what Rong Bi had promised him and also puzzled about the mysterious "lotus planting." He cautiously inquired, "Since you've taken care of everything, when can this lotus pond be put to use?"

    Tang Xi chuckled. "Your Highness just needs to wait for good news. The lotus seeds have already been planted. Once the lake is filled, the lotus leaves will soon sprout, and Your Highness can enjoy boating on the lake, admiring the lotus, and composing poems to escape the summer heat."

    Yuan Jun nodded slightly. "Thank you, Eunuch Tang. I'll await your news patiently."

    Tang Xi smiled warmly. "I'm glad I didn't disappoint. Please enjoy this knife fish noodle soup. If it gets too thick, it won't taste as good. These noodles are made from finely minced knife fish mixed with egg whites and rolled out. It's a traditional dish from the south. Try it with the green chive paste; they complement each other perfectly. Enjoy at your leisure, and I'll take my leave."

    Yuan Jun spoke softly, "Very well, reward those who served you." He picked up the bowl of knife fish noodles and slowly slid the slippery strands into his mouth, savoring their smooth texture and delightful flavor. The combination with the dark green chive paste created an even more delectable taste.

    Knife fish was delicate and rich but had many bones, especially the variety from Minghou. Removing them was a tedious task. Preparing this bowl of knife fish noodles must have required considerable effort. Yet, he had never been one to indulge in culinary pleasures. It seemed that Rong Bi genuinely enjoyed cooking and took pleasure in it, which led to Eunuch Tang's dedication to teaching and preparing this exquisite dish. His meticulous explanation and sincere intentions were truly touching.

    However, he was clueless about how the clever little court lady had managed to establish contact with Eunuch Tang behind the watchful eyes of the palace. The emperor still treated him with leniency and affection, suggesting that no suspicions had been aroused. Now, he longed to return to the battlefield, yet could only sit here, feeling the intense desire for power burning within him. If not for some breakthrough from Tang Xi's side, his illness might never have improved.

    Finishing the knife fish noodles, he distributed the remaining water chestnuts and lotus seeds among his attendants. He then unfolded a map on the table, deep in thought, rehearsing strategies in his mind. A general never fought unprepared. He could now sense the careful planning and strategic maneuvers that the Prince of Jingbei had executed over the past decade. This was not a reckless endeavor; victory in this battle would bring prosperity for generations and ensure peace in the Central Plains for a hundred years!

    ===

    Yuan Zixu, casually perusing military reports, asked, "Has Third Brother not arrived in Jingbei yet?"

    Prime Minister Wang Shenfu, standing nearby, replied cautiously, "The journey is long, and even if there are no setbacks, it would still take half a month. Moreover, it's said that the Prince of Jingbei has ventured deep into the heartland. As Third Prince is of great value, it wouldn't be wise for him to accompany the troops to Bei Xi and potentially cause problems. Thus, the military department has replied that Duke Ding's report suggests he should stay in Ju Lu, the closest location to Bei Xi, and send a message to the Prince of Jingbei. If convenient, the princess should be brought back."

    Yuan Zixu nodded. "Song Shixuan is an experienced general. I trust his arrangements." He put down the military report and asked, "What about the second prince? Has he been obedient while reading at home as I commanded?"

    Prime Minister Wang replied, "The second prince is now focusing on his studies and also preparing to welcome Princess Bei Xi by renovating his residence. He has met with the Minister of Rites several times and shown great respect. The Bei Xi envoys are quite satisfied, but they have still repeatedly submitted requests for Your Majesty to personally order Prince Jingbei to withdraw his troops."

    Yuan Zixu said nonchalantly, "Let's just prolong this. As long as Guo Shuji hasn't reached our royal court, we won't gain any advantage by retreating. We should wait until our court is in peril; then they'll be more willing to make greater concessions. The Bei Xi people are greedy and cunning. Only under a surrender agreement made at their feet will we see their sincerity."

    Prime Minister Wang expressed concern, "But what if Prince Jingbei ignores the imperial command...the benefits might all go to him."

    Yuan Zixu reassured, "There's no need to worry."

    The prime minister continued, "The crown prince sent someone again today to request documents and introductions regarding the officials and generals from Bei Xi."

    Yuan Zixu responded, "The crown prince is still concerned about state affairs despite his illness. This is a blessing for our nation. Although his body is weak, the royal physician advises him to stay calm and worry less, allowing him to recover peacefully. However, he shares a deep bond with the princess. Denying him this information would only cause him distress and hinder his recovery. If the crown prince wishes to see something, let him see it."

    Prime Minister Wang's eyes shimmered as he bowed and praised, "Your Majesty's fatherly kindness will surely ensure the crown prince's swift recovery and abundant blessings."

    Yuan Zixu sighed, "I often feel drained these days, and with the crown prince's condition, I'm truly worried."

    The prime minister hastily comforted, "Your subjects observe Your Majesty's robust health, Your Majesty's divine spirit is full, and your majestic presence inspires awe. You will undoubtedly live forever. Please do not speak of such matters lightly. The crown prince is still young and needs Your Majesty's guidance and protection."

    Yuan Zixu's face lit up with pleasure. After giving a few more instructions, he dismissed Prime Minister Wang and summoned the commander of the Qinghou Guards to inquire, "How is the Crown Prince today?"

    The commander, dressed in black, knelt on the ground and reported, "Your Highness remains indoors for his recovery and has not ventured out. After studying military texts for half an hour this morning, he engaged in chess contemplation. Later, Commander Shen Anlin came to deliver a book, and they exchanged some casual conversation. Eunuch Tang Xi from the Imperial Kitchen brought knife fish noodles as a tribute and reported on the progress of the lotus pond. The details of their conversation have been transcribed." With that, he presented the transcript to Yuan Zixu.

    Yuan Zixu perused it and chuckled. "It seems the Crown Prince is feeling anxious. He's even trying to win over Yi Yang's sister-in-law who's preparing for the exams."

    He paid no heed to the matter of the lotus pond. Originally, the Crown Prince cultivated vegetables and cooked meals to demonstrate his disinterest in power, seeking lotus seeds from Buddhist temples as a symbol of detachment. Now, for the sake of his elder sister, he was focusing on military strategies and ingratiating himself with female officials. His interest in the lotus pond waned, revealing his lack of depth and excessive attachment to emotions. As for Tang Xi, he had been frustrated in the Imperial Kitchen for years and sought advancement through the Crown Prince. Such was the case with many petty courtiers. Unfortunately, he had misjudged this time. His son was still too young and inexperienced.

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