Early the next morning, Yan Qiu Yue arranged for a carriage to take her back to the Ning Duke Estate. She'd woken up alone once more and while riding to her paternal home in the glorious but empty Prince Rui estate carriage, she couldn't help but curse at Wei Tian Ao in her heart.
At about that time, her cursed husband was at one of the imperial academy libraries doing research for a case. His current role as an assistant in the Ministry of Justice was an awkward one. As a member of the imperial family, even if many thought his position nominal, he was one whom others couldn't afford to offend. At the very least, the name of Prince Rui was one that commanded respect and Wei Tian Ao was his heir. Yet because of his unofficial position, he could not be trusted with any delicate cases or information. It was still unknown exactly when the emperor planned on having him become an actual junior minister, but Wei Tian Ao needed something to do in the meantime. Thus, he was often sent on menial tasks or told to study more about the justice system under the guise of "doing research".
As he read through a few bound books and scrolls, Wei Tian Ao was flanked by Yi Cheng Rui and Hua Yan Ting. The two of them were studying for their civil service exams while keeping their friend company. Though those were still more than a year away, it wasn't a rare sight to see men--young and old--studying in advance. Yi Cheng Rui and Hua Yan Ting were noble sons and couldn't spend all day surrounded by books like some of those "professional scholars", but in any case, it wasn't a bad thing to enrich their knowledge. Thanks to their status, everyone else in the library was giving them a wide berth. It was a peaceful environment for studying or doing "research".
Just then, Wei Tian Ao felt a chill run down his spine and he sneezed.
"Someone is talking about you," Hua Yan Ting teased without looking up from his scroll.
"It's probably his wife cursing him for his idiocy," Yi Cheng Rui couldn't help but also take a jab. "You do realize that everyone in Yinchuan is talking about how you abandoned her yesterday? She's gaining a reputation in court as a jilted wife."
Wei Tian Ao frowned but didn't answer. He was no match for either of them in eloquence and arguments. No matter how he defended himself, his friends would find a way to make fun of him nevertheless. It was highly irritating.
"Just wait until the gossippers hear that Tian Ao let his new bride visit her paternal home all on her own."
"Oh, is it already the third day since the wedding? Time passes so swiftly!" Yi Cheng Rui exclaimed without much sincerity. "At least there is some precedent for that." It wasn't strictly required for husbands to accompany their wives on the latter's visit back to their paternal home, though it was considered gentlemanly behavior. Certainly, he was not acting like a gentleman these days.
"Stop. Is it possible for you two to converse without nagging me in the process?" Wei Tian Ao finally responded helplessly, a little stung by the truth of their statements.
"Can you blame us? Just look at your behavior!"
Wei Tian Ao sighed. "I have no choice. I... I'm not confident that I can keep my promise to her father if I see her too often. You know, the two of us were never alone together before our marriage."
Yi Cheng Rui tilted his head to one side, confused. "Is that special? What noble couples ever spend significant time together before marriage? These unions are determined by the parents. If every new husband acted as you do, the capital would be filled with angry, jilted wives." he shook his head in disgust.
"You forget that our innocent friend here didn't live as a noble before coming to Eastern Wei. I hear that among commoners, there is such a thing as 'courtship'. How many stories have been written about poor scholars chasing after their ideal women?" Hua Yan Ting pointed out. "Tian Ao surely isn't used to being alone with his wife."
Yi Cheng Rui nodded as he listened. Hua Yan Ting's words were reasonable. "Speaking of 'courtship', it would seem that your brother has had more time to spend with her. Despite being a noble prince heir apparent at the time, he certainly approached his fiancee many times... Unlike a certain somebody." Naturally, he had been apprised of Wei Hong Sheng coming to visit Yan Qiu Yue in her personal chambers on the day of the wedding.
"Must you poke at my sore spot?" Wei Tian Ao grumbled.
Hua Yan Ting laughed. "All right, all right, listen to me. Yan Qiu Yue is--was--a typical noble young lady. Her interactions with men were largely limited to the men of her family. It's true that she and your brother are currently more familiar with each other, but if you put together all the time they've spent together, would that time even equal the length of a shichen?"
"What Hua Yan Ting is saying is that you now have the opportunity to override that time, yet you're not taking that opportunity. When all is said and done, you two are already married. Are you planning to avoid her forever?"
"Of course not!" Wei Tian Ao snapped. "But I... I need time to acclimate."
"Stop being so sensitive! Acclimate? Forget that. You are a man of Eastern Wei and should act like one!" Yi Cheng Rui rose from his seat, incensed. "How will Yan Qiu Yue learn to like you if you're never around? Worse, if you keep avoiding her like this... Let alone liking you, at this moment she probably is already feeling resentment instead!"
"Come now, Rui Rui. Don't be so hard on Tian Ao. He is merely pure-hearted and delicate." Hua Yan Ting helped Yi Cheng Rui to sit back down, patting his back in an exaggeratedly reassuring way.
"This fellow... Who are you calling 'Rui Rui'!? Just when did you start calling me 'Rui Rui' so naturally? Are we so close?" he replied sulkily, shaking off the Golden Barley Scholar's hand.
Hua Yan Ting smirked, not at all offended. "Are we not close? You may call me 'Ting Ting' or 'Xiao Ting', if you like. If it'll make you feel better."
"I'll refrain, thank you!!"
"I say..." Wei Tian Ao sighed dramatically. "Did you two really come along to support me or just to raise a ruckus?"
"Mm... Perhaps both?" Twin smiles lit up both of his friends' faces.
"In all seriousness, Tian Ao, you'd best be careful." Yi Cheng Rui settled back into his seat, raising his book. "It's all well and good that the emperor plans to assign you as a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice. It's a solid position and you'll better be able to find your footing in court. However, this is also a ministry where it is particularly easy to be trapped by others' schemes."
Hua Yan Ting explained seriously while nodding, "Especially when dealing with cases involving nobility... If evidence isn't handled well or cases aren't resolved to everyone's satisfaction, you'll be made a scapegoat."
Yi Cheng Rui nodded sagely.
"You have a good point, but what can I do? It's not as if I can refuse the position."
They all sighed.
"Just be careful. And don't be afraid to use us when you need to. Don't hesitate so much that you miss out on something important." Hua Yan Ting's voice was gentle. He'd said such words before to someone else and was hoping that this time they wouldn't fall on deaf ears.
"...Thank you." Wei Tian Ao was always fast to voice his appreciation for his friends. Though he was growing increasingly used to his new life situation, he was not yet independent. He especially relied on the Yi family for many things. But what else could be done? If he closed his heart and put no faith in others, he would be completely unable to act. That would arguably be worse.
"Still, working in the Ministry of Justice... You're well on your way to becoming a living, breathing Inspector of the Whistling Pines!"
"That might be for the best. Yan Qiu Heng has told me before that his sister is a very big fan of the series." Hua Yan Ting said.
"I can't compare to such a perfect personage. He is fictional, he doesn't make mistakes. I'm a flesh and blood man, so of course, I am always making mistakes..."
"Alright alright, well don't worry about that now. You'll be busy soon whether you like it or not, so when you go home you should cultivate more good feelings with your wife instead of being so shy," said Yi Cheng Rui.
Still, the future prince did not sound all that confident in his own words.
A shichen is basically two hours. I've felt a little strange about using the word "minutes" when that's not how time was counted during those times... So I might use shichen more often. It feels better than using "length of time it takes an incense stick to burn", at any rate.
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