“His Majesty arrives!” The shrill voice of a eunuch reverberated in the garden.
The hushed conversations of the ministers and their families fell quiet and everyone stood to bow toward the Emperor.
Emperor Mu looked at his subjects with a smile. “You may rise.” He went to the seat heading the tables that had been set up for the festivities, the Empress following behind.
The ministers waited for the royal couple to be seated before they went back to their own tables and sat down. All of them couldn’t help but look at the little boy that had run into the garden after the two of them and was now sitting to the side.
This person was none other than the young crown prince, Mu Chang Min.
Nothing official had been said but everybody knew that His Highness would choose a study companion today. Naturally, it would be a great honor if one of their children was chosen. Especially since the crown prince was the Empress’ child while his two younger brothers were merely the children of a royal consort and a concubine. Regardless of what happened in the future, as long as the Empress’ child lived, he would definitely continue to be their crown prince. He couldn’t go so wrong that his father removed him from that position. After all, it was a known fact just how much he loved the Empress.
With that in mind, all the ministers wanted to establish a connection with Mu Chang Min early on. After all, that might bring endless benefits to their family. Just imagine what would happen if the crown prince fondly remembered his childhood days when he came of age and finally ascended the throne one day! Wouldn’t he have a special place for this friend that always accompanied him in his heart? He might make him a minister or even the next prime minister! Oh, the glory they would be able to achieve …
While the ministers dreamed of the future they would have if their plan succeeded, the crown prince wasn’t paying attention at all. He didn’t care about these old people. His father always made him spend time with them and listen in on his conversations with them but that was utterly boring. He wanted to have fun!
He couldn’t help but look over at the children instead. There weren’t many children around in the palace and most of those were acting strange whenever he got close. One moment, they would be playing with each other but the next, they would get all frightened when he appeared and quivered like quails. He didn’t like that as all.
Maybe these children here were better? His father had promised that he could choose one that would enter the palace so that they could study together from now on. He wasn’t looking forward to studying together but they could probably sneak out every now and then to play.
The question was how to choose the right one. His father had said that if he wanted to, he could talk to them and even ask them to display their skills so that he could see if they were worthy.
Looking at the children, Mu Chang Min didn’t feel like asking anything though. Obviously, with how smart he was, he could see at a glance who could be allowed into the palace and who couldn’t. Most of these … definitely couldn’t! No, he wouldn’t put up with seeing them every day! If he let anybody enter the palace to be his playmate, then he would only take the very best!
The little prince’s expression didn’t look too well, making the old ministers sweat. They were only hoping that it wasn’t the brat of their family that had made him this displeased. If they were … Not only would their dreams of establishing a connection with their future emperor be a part of the past, but the crown prince might even remember and hold a grudge. What then? Instead of reaping rewards and gaining honor, their family might fall to ruin then!
The ministers weren’t the only ones eying the crown prince. The Emperor himself also watched his child. While the ministers were worried, his brows almost twitched in exasperation. It took a lot of effort for him to disguise his reaction and just give a breezy smile.
This child, ah! Did he want to shame him on this occasion?! Why was he looking like this? It seemed as if he hadn’t invited his most valued ministers and their sons or grandsons but instead some people from the common folk that were ruining his good mood with their boorish behavior. His whole face screamed ‘I’m looking down on you!’
Next to him, the Empress picked up the cup of wine on the table and shielded her smile behind her wide sleeve.
Seeing his wife like this, the Emperor sighed inwardly. No wonder his son was behaving like this. Who knew what she had told him before? Why hadn’t he insisted on having a long discussion with him as well to make sure his son understood how important this decision was? He shouldn’t just have kept it to the basics.
Alas, it was too late now. He could only hope his son would take this seriously and not make a blunder. Although … He did have to admit that it didn’t look like that. Mu Chang Min was still looking around with a bad expression.
Being subjected to his dissatisfied gaze, the children sitting next to their parents or grandfathers straightened up as well as they could in the hope of making a good impression. Each of them had been instructed on what to do and what kind of expression to show.
A prince, especially a royal prince borne to the Empress, wouldn’t like haughty children. No one had a higher status than him among their generation. How how could they dare to be arrogant in front of him? No, they couldn’t try to show off even if they thought of themselves as talents.
On the other hand, they couldn’t be too servile. This was the crown prince, after all, and he was searching for a study companion, not a servant. He already had enough of those. No, they had to strike the balance between showing off their talents and being too conceited. It was a hard task for a child below ten but most of them felt that they were doing a good job. Certainly, their crown prince should be impressed?
Unfortunately, Mu Chang Min was everything but that. Most of these children looked like idiots to him. Anyway, he had quite a few requirements of his new playmate and those definitely weren’t what his father and those old men had in mind.
First of all, this person wasn’t allowed to be afraid of him. Otherwise, how would they play together? Then, the person needed to have a pleasant personality so that he would like to spend time with them. And, last but not least, he wanted somebody who was handsome. After all, it was much better to look at a beauty every day than to have to bear with an ugly duckling.
With these three requirements in mind, Mu Chang Min continued to look around. Finally, he spotted a child sitting in the second row that fulfilled his third requirement completely: The boy had a small, round face with big eyes and a slightly pointed nose. His lips were a bit big for the small face but he could look past that. Anyway, he was cute and that was enough.
The boy also didn’t seem like the kind who would be afraid of him. He wasn’t sitting as ramrod straight as the other children so he probably didn’t feel as pressured in his company. Yes, this child should be good.
The longer Mu Chang Min looked, the more his eyes lit up and his lips unwittingly curled into a smile. He reached over and unceremoniously tugged at his father’s sleeve. Then, he proceeded to point at the child. “I want him!”
This time, Emperor Mu’s brows really twitched. He hurriedly plucked his son’s fingers from his sleeve and pushed down his hand. “It’s good if you found somebody you deem worthy.” He leaned slightly closer to his son and lowered his voice. “That’s no reason to point like that though. Think of your image! Those are all our most important ministers.”
Mu Chang Min nodded but he didn’t think it was too important. Since they where his father’s ministers, they should be alright with whatever he as his father’s son did. What was wrong about pointing at a person? He liked this boy, so he should say so.
Seeing his son nod, Emperor Mu was satisfied. He turned to look for the child but wasn’t too sure just who his son had meant. There were just too many people around and since he had hurriedly pushed Mu Chang Min’s hand down, he only knew the vague direction.
He looked at the children over there and finally spotted the son of minister Nian. He wasn’t too sure what to think about this. From the children sitting over there, this child looked like the best one. But as for the minister … He wasn’t one of the highest-ranking ones even though he had been a minister for several years already.
The Emperor could only lament internally. Ah, his child was still too young! He should have decided on his study companion instead of letting him choose. Unfortunately, he had already promised Mu Chang Min that he could make the choice and the Emperor would never go back on his word, so he had to live with that now.
Emperor Mu put on a smile and turned back to his son. “Are you talking about minister Nian’s son? He seems indeed like he has the right attitude!”
The child in question got up with an excited expression and then knelt down. “Thank You for Your praise, Your Majesty! May You live ten thousand—”
The child’s enthusiasm was smothered by Mu Chang Min’s angry yell. “Who’s talking about him?! I’m talking about the one behind him!” He didn’t remember his father’s previous words and once again pointed at the child he wanted.
The one in question looked up with a surprised expression that made him look a little dim-witted. This was not the kind of child Emperor Mu had imagined as his son’s study companion. In fact, the longer he looked on, the more he regretted rashly promising his son that he could decide.
Minister Nian also wasn’t happy. In fact, this boy in the row behind him was also his child. Unfortunately, he wasn’t the son of his main wife but just that of his concubine.
The minister got up and clasped his hands toward the Emperor. “Your Majesty, this minister’s family is honored to receive the crown prince’s regard. Unfortunately, the child over there is only this minister’s concubine’s son. I’m afraid his status is much too low to accompany someone as lofty as our crown prince in his studies. He might actually disturb him instead of being of help.”
Normally, the Minister wouldn’t have minded if his concubine’s child accompanied one of the princes and especially their crown prince. That was much better than having none of his children associated with the Royal family, after all. But now, his legitimate son had already been mentioned so he felt that it would be better to try and convince the crown prince to choose him instead.
After all, the Emperor had already praised this child and his main wife’s son had been educated much better than that the one born by his concubine. If the latter was chosen and maybe thrown out again because he couldn’t perform sufficiently, he would embarrass their family deeply. He couldn’t let that happen!
Thus the Minister wanted to give it a try. Anyway, the Emperor would certainly prefer the legitimate child as well. The crown prince had no reason to associate with a concubine’s son.
Before Emperor Mu could answer, the crown prince already jumped to his feet and puffed up his cheeks, his brows drawing together tightly. “Who asked you for your opinion?! This prince said that he wanted that boy, so that boy will be his study companion!”
Emperor Mu’s expression soured. This child! He really was out to embarrass him, wasn’t he? How could he scold a minister like this? What if any of these old guys felt threatened or held a grudge? Wasn’t his son thinking about the consequences at all?
He really wanted to take him to the side and scold him, but he couldn’t do so with all the ministers watching. This was still about the prestige of the royal family! Thus he could only swallow the complaints in his heart and turn to his son to persuade him.
Unfortunately, he was too late. When the Empress saw her husband’s face, she put down the wine cup and intervened, opening her mouth before he could. She definitely wouldn’t let him scold her son in front of everyone! And she wouldn’t let him influence her Xiao Min either. A promise was a promise, after all.
Thus she chose a gentler approach than her husband and just leaned over, gently patting his arm. “Chang Min, are you sure that you want this person? That boy is just the son of a concubine and not of the minister’s main wife. So he might be less educated. Are you sure you won’t suffer a loss with this and that you won’t regret it?”
Mu Chang Min pursed his lips. “So this prince can’t have him as his study companion?”
The Empress wanted to reassure him that he could if he wanted to but this time, his father was already prepared.
“Well, We promised that you could so the choice is yours. But you have to think carefully. Your mother is right in that a concubine’s son will be less educated. That might be a disadvantage in choosing a study companion so you should think carefully.”
The crown prince fell silent and lowered his head in contemplation. His father had explained previously that choosing the right study companion was very important since he would form a relationship for life in the best case. He couldn’t arbitrarily decide on this. So if being the son of a concubine was a problem in that regard, then he probably couldn’t choose him.
What a pity. He still liked looking at this person very much. He was a lot cuter than any of the other boys that had come and with how he still looked at him, he also shouldn’t be timid. He would be great to play with!
Considering that, Mu Chang Min tilted his head. Actually, he didn’t need him to be his study companion. He just wanted him to be his playmate. So maybe if he made a deal with his father, he would be able to still get this person.
Mu Chang Min decided that this was the best idea, got up, and trudged over to his father, looking at him with bright eyes. “Father Emperor, you said that Ah Min could choose his own study companion, right?”
Emperor Mu had no idea what his son might be talking about. “That, We said.”
Mu Chang Min straightened up. “Then what if I don’t?”
The Emperor raised his brows. “You don’t want a study companion?”
“That’s not what I meant. What if I allow you to choose my study companion?”
Emperor Mu’s brows twitched. How nice of his son to ‘allow’ him, the Emperor, to choose his study companion! This really warmed his heart. He couldn’t promise that this wasn’t heat produced from rage though. This boy would make him faint from anger one day! “So, my son is saying that he’ll give that privilege of choosing his study companion back, yes? Then what do you want in return?”
Mu Chang Min turned around and pointed at minister Nian’s second son again. “This prince wants to take him as a concubine!”
Emperor Mu facepalmed. “You really have such great ideas! Why don’t you make him your crown princess, while you’re at it!”
Mu Chang Min blinked his eyes and then looked from his father to the child. Finally, he nodded. “Alright.” Then, he ran over to minister Nian’s second son, grabbed his hand and pulled him away.
The royal couple, the ministers and their families, as well as the servants currently serving them, could still hear him talk in the distance.
“Let me show you where I live! You can choose a room in my back courtyard already. I’ll reserve it for you until you come of age but you can come over and play with me before that as well. I don’t mind if it’s every day either. You would never annoy me. Well, you have to take good care of your face though. After all, my crown princess definitely couldn’t be ugly. That’s very important so you have to remember well. Oh, and —”
Finally, his voice faded away but the awkward silence in the garden ensued. Nobody could quite explain to themselves how the crown prince’s supposed study companion had suddenly first turned into his concubine and then into his crown princess. Anyway, could the Emperor who never lied still take back that hasty sentence? They really didn’t want to think about it any further.