Chapter 378: His Highness Duke of Qin embezzles
Han Yunxi and company received some bad news before the silver from the Ministry of Revenue arrived. All across the country, rumors were flying that His Highness Duke of Qin was incapable of quelling the famine in the disaster areas. That's why he was tarrying on the road on purpose instead of heading straight to the troubled places. The news was the wildest at the three major disaster areas. What's more, there were even smears against His Highness Duke of Qin, claiming him to have embezzled the funds from the charity auction. Instead of using the silver to buy grain, he was drinking, eating, and enjoying himself on his road trip while paying for all sorts of extravagant expenses for the conniving Qin Wangfei.
Han Yunxi's mouth couldn't stop twitching at the news. They're rather impatient with their hearsay, aren't they? A total of 7,400,000 taels had been raised from the charity auction, with 5,000,000 taels coming from Long Feiye's own pockets. Moreover, the imperial uncle's estate still hadn't sent over half their silver! Accusing us of embezzling the funds? That was a direct insult to His Highness Duke of Qin! Was it worth it for the loss of 1,200,000 taels on their end? Han Yunxi didn't even know whether she should feel unlucky or honored by the attention.
Fine. She ended up smiling optimistically at Long Feiye. "Your Highness, it seems chenqie is a femme fatale who endangers the country and its people."
Long Feiye gave her a cold look, showing his disdain for public opinion. A single bracelet on Han Yunxi's wrist was already equivalent to the wealth of an entire nation. Would embezzling a mere 1,200,000 taels be enough to take Han Yunxi drinking, eating, and playing? It was obvious that the people in charge of the smear campaign had vastly underestimated his financial resources.
Although they'd avoided the disaster areas in favor of the black market, Long Feiye had sent people to spread false news the entire time to fabricate an itinerary for Emperor Tianhui's eyes. The only ones who could spread such rumors across the nation in such a short time would be either the emperor or the imperial uncle.
"Your Highness, it's laughable that they're accusing us of embezzling such a paltry sum, isn't it? Who's going to believe it?" Even Chu Xifeng knew how to do math like that!
But Wu Shu was more solemn. "Your Highness, it'd be best if the peasants knew how to do arithmetic. Spreading such unfounded rumors was ruthless on their part!"
Wu Shu didn't mean to look down upon the peasants, but the fact was that their access to the factual truth was limited. It'd be hard for them to learn of the real facts behind the stories. Humans were natural-born to echo each others' opinions. That's why even the most preposterous of rumors found a willing audience to spread its lies. Eventually, lies became truth and finally, lies became history itself. The mouths of the commoners and the brushes of the scholars were both knives that could kill people without a trace.
It was already no secret that the imperial court hadn't done its very best to relieve the people in the disaster areas, or that much of its grain stores had been embezzled away. Under these circumstances, the discontent peasants wouldn't care a whit about the feud between His Highness Duke of Qin or Emperor Tianhui. In their eyes, His Highness Duke of Qin was simply the imperial envoy sent to relieve them, a representative of the imperial court. If rumors of his embezzlement spread, it was very likely that riots and revolts would break out.
As soon as Chu Xifeng heard Wu Shu's words, he cried, "Your Highness, as this subordinate sees it, their next step will be them instigating the disaster victims into an uprising!"
Han Yunxi nodded in agreement. The struggle for the people's hearts had just begun! "Your Highness, as chenqie sees it, the famine is most severe in the three main disaster areas in the south. The people there will be the fiercest as well."
"You knew?" Long Feiye was caught off-guard.
"Chenqie didn't know where Your Highness would go first, so I did a little investigating of my own," Han Yunxi admitted.
This woman is indeed an exceptional assistant. Although he hadn't given her anything to do, she'd thought of everything anyways. Long Feiye gave Han Yunxi a deep look, enough to make her self-conscious.
"Chu Xifeng, starting from tomorrow you'll hide all signs of your lordship's movements! Head to the southern regions in secret with the 1,500,000 dan of grain. The rest shall be divided evenly between the other two major disaster areas. Everything will be transported undercover!" Long Feiye ordered.
Han Yunxi grew amused. Long Feiye was truly the craftiest one of the bunch! Even though the rumors were flying left and right, he had even chosen to hide his falsified travel records. Once he covered up everything regarding himself so that Emperor Tianhui couldn't find a hint of his whereabouts, Heaven only knows how much the rumors would grow! In short, Long Feiye was helping to embellish his own story. Without a doubt, he'd soon become the center of attention for all the people across the country. Imagine the effects he'd cause if he personally delivered grain to the various regions in order to clear his name. Long Feiye was an expert at self-promotion, but this time he chose to borrow Emperor Tianhui's work and create an even bigger name for himself.
"Your subordinate understands! This subordinate will start on it right away!" Chu Xifeng left in high spirits. He couldn't want to see the scene of His Highness Duke of Qin personally giving away his grain! Even the mere thought of it cheered him up!
Despite this, both Han Yunxi and Long Feiye remained perfectly self-possessed. Long Feiye personally poured her a cup of tea as they silently sat tasting their drinks. Wu Shu watched them from off to the side and couldn't help but secretly sigh with feeling. In truth, each of this duo was more black-bellied than the other. It would be best to never face against them. Otherwise, the victim would be played to death.
The next day, Long Feiye and Han Yunxi headed covertly to the southern regions at the same time the carriage that was assuming their identity elsewhere suddenly disappeared. Emperor Tianhui and the imperial uncle got wind of the disappearance very swiftly.
"Your Majesty, His Highness Duke of Qin and esteemed wangfei suddenly vanished this morning. Their carriage was abandoned by the side of the road, and even the footman and retainers are missing," reported the scout.
A complicated look flickered past the imperial uncle's eyes. "The Duke of Qin, what is he..."
"Heheh, he's stuck no matter what he does this time! The disaster victims want grain, their livelihood! The Duke of Qin can fool around all he wants, but it's useless!" Emperor Tianhui uttered a cold laugh. He wasn't being flippant, because he'd ascertained that Long Feiye couldn't possibly have enough grain on hand to feed the disaster areas. There would be no way for him to transfer more grain, either, especially when his own stock in Jiangnan was just about emptied. The grain left in Tianning Country itself had all been transferred away to different regions or long bought off by grain merchants. Even if Long Feiye had heavenly skills and endless silver, he still wouldn't be able to produce such a vast amount of grain!
"Your Majesty, this official is simply curious as to why the Duke of Qin would chose to disappear now of all times?" The imperial uncle had always been a cautious type, and he'd only grown more prudent after paying off his silver yesterday. He couldn't help but feel that the Duke of Qin was a formidable foe in all circumstances.
"Someone come, spread the news!" Emperor Tianhui wasn't worried at all. Originally, he felt it a pity that rumors of the Duke of Qin's misconduct couldn't spread farther. This time, he was going to let all of Tianning Country know of his misdeeds. From time immemorial, the words 'Duke of Qin' had always being held in a position of immovable respect to the civil and military officials, nobles from the imperial clan, and in the hearts of the common people. Now he was going to thoroughly ruin Long Feiye's reputation! Let him taste the consequences of making an enemy out of imperial might!
The imperial uncle didn't say much in reply. He had already sold off all the grain he had embezzled. Though he took a financial loss, it was probably better to clear out his stock under these circumstances. This way, he'd be able to beat a retreat should Long Feiye have gone missing to investigate his grain. Meanwhile, Long Tianmo had kept silent the entire time as he sat on one side.
"Brother-in-law, you haven't drank with Zhen for a while," Emperor Tianhui had to be in a good mood to refer to the imperial uncle so familiarly. Aside from news of Long Feiye's disappearance, he was also happy because of Chu Qingge. The Chu Clan and the emperor of Western Zhou had already agreed on a wedding date in half a year's time. He had also promised to make Chu Qingge a Noble Consort-the highest rank of imperial concubine only a level lower than the empress herself. First off, Chu Qingge was someone he fancied; secondly, she came from the strongest military family in Western Zhou. Her marriage to him would prove to be a great source of power for him!
"Your Majesty's favor is something this humble official shall accept deferentially instead of declining courteously!" the imperial uncle still spoke respectfully while shooting the silent Long Tianmo a look. Unfortunately, Long Tianmo only pretended not to have seen it. Technically, a crown prince like him should try to curry favor while his imperial father was in a good mood. But Long Tianmo wasn't feeling particularly happy today.
"Imperial father, erchen still has some business to take care of. I shan't disturb your mood further," he said simply.
"Any news from General Mu's estate recently?" Emperor Tianhui asked.
"Everything is as usual. Just yesterday, erchen went with the young general to the training grounds together," Long Tianmo replied truthfully.
Thanks to the issues with the betrothal gifts and wedding ceremony, Mu Qingwu had been left in a sour mood for days. He'd only agreed to meet with Long Tianmo yesterday. Emperor Tianhui didn't probe, but waved his hand to dismiss his son. Long Tianmo left just like that, leaving a trace of unhappiness in the imperial uncle's eyes. However, it was too awkward for him to stop the boy. After the charity auction, he'd not only taught his son a lesson, but the crown prince as well. Although the crown prince ranked above a subject like him, he still had to call him his uncle in private. He was the crown prince's sole source of support, and the only reason he'd be able to rise up again and marry Mu Liuyue. Of course, the imperial uncle didn't support the crown prince because they were related, but because the crown prince was his safeguard for the future. Otherwise, my family would be the first to fall when the reins of power switched hands!
The imperial uncle accompanied Emperor Tianhui with his drinking while musing over Chu Qingge's upcoming wedding. Of the four Noble Consorts in the imperial harem, only two were left currently. One was Noble Consort Xue from the imperial uncle's estate, while the other was the cavalry General Ning's young sister, Noble Consort Ning. Once Chu Qingge arrived, the power struggles in the harem would start up again. If Chu Qingge managed to become empress and give birth to a son, there might be another struggle for the position of crown prince!
As the imperial uncle mused and fretted over the possibilities, Long Tianmo continued to be out of sorts. That was because Mu Liuyue was annoying him to death! As soon as he reached the Eastern Palace, Mu Liuyue came to greet him.
"Your Highness, so you've returned. Chenqie prepared a thick soup of tremella, lotus seeds, and jujubes, may Your Highness-"
"Withdraw!" Long Tianmo waved his hand impatiently. He didn't even want to listen to her voice.
Mu Liuyue's happy little face instantly turned aggrieved. "Your Highness, chenqie personally spent a long time making this."
Long Tianmo was too lazy to reply. If not for the sake of the general's estate's face, he would've sent this woman to the western mountains long ago to wait upon his imperial mother. When Mu Liuyue saw that he was about to leave, she couldn't help but chase after him. "Your Highness, chenqie's heard of His Highness Duke of Qin's embezzlement practices. From what chenqie knows of Han Yunxi, this matter must be-
Long Tianmo stopped and spoke, his voice stern, "You're not qualified to speak of the Duke of Qin and Qin Wangfei's matters! If this crown prince hears things like that again, be careful I don't pin you with the crime of meddling in state affairs from the harem!"1
1. meddling in state affairs from the harem () - hougong ganzheng, traditionally speaking, members of the imperial harem had no right to directly interfere with government policies or national politics.