When these words were spoken, shock rippled through the hall. But as the initial astonishment faded, different expressions appeared on different faces.
Noble Consort Yue’s face was stretched tightly, the Crown Prince’s colour was like dust, Prince Jing and the Princess looked thoughtful, the Empress and Prince Yu looked to be hiding their glee, and as for the Emperor high up on his throne, his face was clouded, betraying complex emotions.
After a silence so long it was almost suffocating, the Emperor waved a heavy hand, signalling for the eunuch to leave.
“Consort Yue…do you have anything else to say?” Unlike his previous severe tone, this sentence was spoken with unusual gentleness and fatigue, but to those listening, it was for this reason all the more chilling.
Noble Consort Yue’s radiant make up could no longer hide the pallor beneath, and after turning to look at her beloved son, she rushed forward and fell before the throne, grabbing onto the Emperor’s leg and crying with a trembling voice, “Wronged!”
“Even now, you insist you were wronged?”
“Your servant knows she was not wronged,” Noble Consort Yue raised her head, eyes brimming with tears, her expression touchingly mournful. “But the Crown Prince was wronged!”
“What are you saying?”
“All of this was your servant’s plan, all arranged by your servant. The Crown Prince knew nothing…I lied to him saying I wanted to have a look at Sima Lei, so he brought Sima Lei into the palace, but he was only following his mother’s orders. Your Majesty knows Xuan’er has always been a filial son, not only towards your servant, but towards Your Majesty as well!”
“If the Crown Prince is truly innocent, then why has he not uttered a word of argument since we summoned you to this hall?”
“What does Your Majesty want Xuan’er to say? Would you ask him to cast all the blame onto his own mother in front of so many people? Xuan’er is filial and pure by nature, he could not do such a thing! It is because he doesn’t know how to protect himself, and always carelessly falls into the traps of others intending to do him harm, that I have done all of this, in order that he might have more people by his side to support him, so that he would not be so easily deceived in the future….”
“Nonsense!” The Emperor was suddenly furious, and knocked Noble Consort Yue to the floor with one strike. “The Crown Prince is the heir to the throne; who would plot against him? As his mother, you were supposed to teach him to act morally, to perform his duty diligently, to share his father’s burdens above him, and to be a model for the people below him – that would truly be for his good! But now look at what you’ve done? You actually dared to use such base, despicable methods? If Nihuang was harmed in any way today, you could not have been redeemed with a hundred deaths! Even the Crown Prince’s honoured position would have been threatened because of you! What incredible stupidity, incredible stupidity!”
This scolding speech was like a thunderclap of imperial power, enough to strike fear into hearts and cause the soul to scatter. But upon hearing this ferocious scolding, Nihuang’s face showed a bitter smile instead, and the Empress and Prince Yu looked disappointed.
Because, no matter how fierce his scolding, in the end, he was only scolding Noble Consort Yue, and his last few words had already shown that he intended to direct the blame away from the Crown Prince. In this kind of situation, whether the Emperor truly believed the Crown Prince to be innocent was not important; what was important was that, with the crimes of ‘plotting and assisting his mother in trapping the Princess, and attempting to silence his brother by murder’ before the Crown Prince, the fitting punishment for crimes of such immorality, injustice, and impiety would likely endanger his honoured position. And the Emperor did not want to depose the Crown Prince because of these events, and risk disturbing the current, relatively peaceful palace environment. So, with Noble Consort Yue’s confession, he had an opportunity he could take advantage of.
After this episode of scolding, the Emperor let out a breath, and didn’t go on to immediately lay out Noble Consort Yue’s punishment, but instead summoned Meng Zhi.
A moment later, Meng Zhi entered the hall and bowed. The Emperor asked him a few questions about how he had captured Sima Lei, and Meng Zhi replied that his soldiers had come across him on their routine patrols, and had only discovered after apprehending him that he was the noble son of Wei, and so, not daring to handle the matter themselves, had brought it before His Majesty for further instruction. The Emperor did not hear anything unusual in his report, and only reflected that the best laid plans of men could not stand against Heaven¹’s interference, and let out a sigh before asking, “Where is Sima Lei now?”
“He is currently being held in the courtyard where the guards take their rest, watched over by some of my people.”
The Emperor made a noise of affirmation, and thinking that this case pertained to the Princess’ reputation and should not be handled by the courts, ordered one of the guards to bring the man over so he could personally interrogate him. The guard was gone for a long while, then hurried back fearfully to report, “Sima Lei has been beaten badly; his face is swollen all over and he is currently unconscious. He is not fit to see Your Majesty.”
The Emperor raised an eyebrow, and sternly fixed his gaze on Meng Zhi. The Commander of the Imperial Guard looked blank for a moment, then said, “Impossible. My men would not hit prisoners without permission.”
“No,” the guard hurriedly spoke up. “It wasn’t the imperial guards who beat him up, it was…was…”
“Hurry up and say it!”
“It was the little Lord Mu, who somehow heard something and came charging in. The guards couldn’t stop him, and he personally punched and kicked Sima Lei, and even broke one of his arms….”
The Emperor let out an “Oh,” and glanced over at Nihuang to see her response. In fact, it was a crime for Mu Qing to charge into the courtyard for personal revenge against the accused before he had been convicted. But when the Emperor looked over, the Lady Commander of the Southern Border was still sitting expressionlessly, unmoving, not even standing to say anything in defense of her brother, such as “Pray His Majesty forgive my brother’s recklessness”. The Emperor was a bit embarrassed, and turned to scold the guard, “If it’s broken, then it’s broken, don’t bother us with unimportant details. Dismissed!” After saying this, he again cast his gaze over, but Princess Nihuang still sat with a cold expression, without any hint of intending to thank His Majesty. This fierce, unyielding nature was rare even in men, and, rather than upsetting the Emperor, instead stirred up admiration in his heart, and he silently praised her strength.
Even if Sima Lei could not be interrogated, he was easily dealt with, and interrogation or no interrogation, it didn’t make much of a difference. When the Emperor hurriedly sentenced him to exile for the crime of trespassing into forbidden areas, and demoted his father, the noble Sima Wei, in further punishment, no one expressed any sign of protest.
But the matter of Noble Consort Yue was much more difficult. This woman had entered the palace in her youth, and thanks to the Emperor’s heavy favour over the years, her status had become second only to the Empress, and moreover, she was the Crown Prince’s birth mother. He could not quite bear to punish her too heavily, but if he punished too lightly, the Princess would be bitter. Not to mention with so many looking on, he could not avoid considering the problem of ‘fairness’. As he was deliberating, the Crown Prince fell to the floor, crying, “Your son is willing to repay the Princess on behalf of my mother’s crimes. Pray Father Emperor consider Mother’s many years of loyal service, and deal with her lightly….”
“You evil creature!” The Emperor lifted a leg and kicked the Crown Prince away. “Your mother has resorted to such disgusting methods, why did you not stop her? Where is your filial piety?”
Crying loudly, the Crown Prince crawled forward and wrapped his arms around the Emperor’s leg, his face filled with tears.
Lowering his head to look at the person sprawled over his knee, the Emperor’s gaze suddenly blurred, and a crushing sensation arose in his chest, pain twisting within him.
A figure he had purposefully chosen to forget for many years drifted now into his mind: that tall, straight posture; that clear face; that arrogant, unyielding expression; and that fierce gaze, eyes burning as if lit by blazing flames.
If that person had been willing to fall prostrate at his knee, crying like Jingxuan was doing now, would the Emperor’s heart have softened, and would he have drawn him anew into his embrace?
But time flows like water, and what has gone cannot come again. Perhaps he was becoming soft in his old age, to be suddenly realizing that the harsh punishment he had dealt out so long ago had not only destroyed others, but had also likewise become a hidden wound over his own heart, one that no one else could see.
The Emperor’s shaking hand finally came to a rest on the back of the Crown Prince’s head. Noble Consort Yue, relieved, supported herself with one arm as she fell gently to one side.
“The lady Yue has behaved immorally, her actions despicable, and violated palace rules. From this day forward, she is stripped of her status as noble consort and degraded to imperial concubine, and is likewise stripped of all noble titles, and will be relocated and confined to Qingli Courtyard, which she may not leave without imperial permission.” The Emperor pronounced each word slowly, and finally turned his gaze to the Empress. “Does the Empress have anything to say about this arrangement?”
If the Empress had her way, she would of course have preferred to see this woman confined to the Secluded Court. But she was an intelligent person and knew that, as the Crown Prince had been spared, the Emperor could not punish his birth mother too harshly, and so, as nothing she said now would achieve anything, she chose to keep quiet.
Seeing the Empress silently lower her eyes, the Emperor turned his gaze to Nihuang and asked, “Does the Princess have any protest?”
The reason Nihuang had brought this matter to the Emperor was only to obtain justice for herself, and she understood in her heart that the Crown Prince could not be deposed over the events of this day. Now, although the Emperor had covered up some of the details, he had nonetheless punished the Crown Prince’s birth mother, a first-rank noble consort, for her sake, and his effort was sincere. If she still showed dissatisfaction now, then she would be lowering herself to their level, and so she said nothing, and only shook her head.
“As for you,” the Emperor eyed the Crown Prince disdainfully. “You will be confined to the Eastern Palace² for three months to study hard and reflect on the morals befitting the heir to the throne. If you are involved in such things again in the future, we will not be so generous again!”
“Your son…obeys His Majesty’s merciful edict….”
“Rise then.” The Emperor’s face cleared, and he raised his head, his piercing gaze sweeping through the hall and coming to a rest on Prince Jing.
“Your son is present.”
“Do you admit your crime?”
Prince Jing swept aside his robe and knelt stoically. “Your son admits his crime.”
The Emperor scoffed coldly, then said, “Tell us, how did you know the Princess was in danger, to enter at just the right moment to rescue her?”
Prince Jing had been considering his answer to this question the entire time, but now that the moment had arrived, he still had not thought of a suitable answer, and hesitated. He had arrived to rescue the Princess because Mei Changsu had asked him to go, but he himself had no idea how Mei Changsu had known that the Princess was in danger, and so didn’t dare to rashly drag him into the mess.
“What is it? You can’t answer?” The Emperor had waited long enough, and his tone became severe.
“No…I…it was because….”
“Your Majesty,” a steady voice suddenly rose up. “It was I who asked Prince Jing to go.”
“You?” The Emperor raised an eyebrow. “And how did you come to know about this?”
“It was like this.” Prince Yu stepped forward and continued respectfully, “Your son had entered the palace by the Puqing gate to greet my mother Empress, and was passing by Zhaoren palace when I saw one of the Princess’ palace servants running out in fear and begging for help, saying that something was going wrong inside. I knew that this was no small matter, and that even if I ended up accused of wronging a noble consort, I could not let my hesitation cause danger to the Princess. But I knew my martial skills were too poor to enter the palace without being stopped and further delayed. Fortunately, Prince Jing walked by at that moment, and I asked him to enter first to secure the situation, while I went to find the Empress. Prince Jing has an upright heart towards helping others, and instantly agreed, but I never thought that the Noble Consort…no, that the lady Concubine Yue would act in such a deranged manner and actually order a prince to be silenced by murder, and so lead to the resulting events. Although it was not my intention for Prince Jing to take up arms against the Crown Prince, he was nonetheless involved in the situation under my orders. If my father Emperor must punish him, then I am willing to share the punishment.”
He spoke with assurance and composure, as if there was not the slightest flaw in his logic. Of course, Consort Yue and the Crown Prince were well aware that Prince Jing arriving because of a servant girl calling for help was simply impossible given the timing of the events, but neither had any remaining right to speak, not to mention arguing over such details could not change anything, and so they did not open their mouths. The Emperor was sure that Prince Yu’s intentions were not as noble as he claimed, and that likely he had been delighted on discovering information he could use against the Crown Prince, but he nonetheless believed this explanation, and nodded. “So that was how it happened. But, for the crime of threatening the Crown Prince’s esteemed person, according to the law, Jingyan should be severely punished.”
Princess Nihuang’s face discoloured in anger, and the Emperor continued, “But on reflection, the situation was not without provocation, and Prince Yu has expressed his willingness to share in the responsibility, and besides, you have expended no small effort in rescuing the Princess, so we will neither reward nor punish you. Prince Yu was acute and perceptive, and was able to notice these events and halt their progression, which pleases us greatly. We hereby reward him one hundred bolts of brocade, one thousand pieces of gold, and bestow one royal pearl, in reward for his work.”
“Your son thanks His Majesty for his great mercy³.”
“We are tired. You may all leave.”
The Emperor closed his eyes tiredly and leaned wearily back against his cushions. No one in the hall dared to speak further, and all quietly left.
Empress Yan was naturally responsible for the punishment of Consort Yue, and the Crown Prince stood by helplessly as his mother was led away to the Inner Palace, while he himself could only glare hatefully at Prince Yu.
Prince Yu, who had not stepped in until the end, had nonetheless emerged as the greatest victor: he had simply appeared and had received the Emperor’s rewards, he had openly defended Prince Jing and so now Prince Jing owed him a great favour, and from claiming the responsibility for the Princess’ rescue had now even become the great saviour of the Yunnan Mu clan. The only down side was that he had directed all of the Crown Prince’s wrath upon himself, and further deepened the hatred between the two. But he and the Crown Prince had long been at odds, and both harboured a fight-to-the-death kind of attitude, and so this one more offense did not add up to much, and therefore really, he had reaped rich rewards with hardly any loss. His heart was joyful as he silently admired the qilin prodigy4‘s insight. It was fortunate that he had come across him while he was hurrying into the palace at the Empress’ notice, and it was fortunate that he had, out of respect for his wisdom, explained the situation and asked for his advice. Otherwise, without his help, he would never have thought to use the opportunity of protecting Prince Jing to take responsibility for all of the work. To be honest, Prince Jing was truly bold and daring; it was just too bad that he was too reckless, prone to acting carelessly, and therefore wasn’t a worthy contender. After he had protected him in front of the Emperor this time, he must be feeling grateful. And as for Princess Nihuang, certainly she would be even more…
At this point in his thoughts, Princess Nihuang had already come over to bow and say, smiling, “I am grateful to His Highness Prince Yu for his loyal rescue today. In the future, I will certainly repay you in kind should the opportunity arise.”
Prince Yu hurriedly returned the bow and said with a broad smile, “The Princess is too polite. The Princess’ rank and status is worthy of any effort I might expend for her person.”
A perfect smile floated across Nihuang’s features, and she was about to exchange a few more polite words when she saw Prince Jing leaving quietly out of the corner of her eye, and though she was impatient to follow, her face betrayed no trace of her emotions, as she said unhurriedly, “My anger towards Lady Yue knows no bounds, but it would not be proper for me to witness her punishment by my lady Empress. Would Your Highness….”
“The Princess does not need to worry. Leave this matter to me. I will enter the Inner Palace to speak with the Empress immediately. I will not let the Princess down.” Prince Yu chuckled for a long moment, then turned and walked swiftly towards the Inner Palace. Princess Nihuang waited until he was a good distance away before running to catch up with Prince Jing.
Hearing Nihuang calling him, Xiao Jingyan stopped and said, “Does the Princess have another matter to discuss?”
“Just now as I was thanking Prince Yu, you really wanted to come over to tell me that it wasn’t anything to do with him, right?” Princess Nihuang smiled knowingly. “Why didn’t you say anything?”
Prince Jing lowered his head, and didn’t reply.
“The real reason you came to rescue me was because of Mister Su, wasn’t it?”
Prince Jing jumped at her words. “How do you know that?”
“Because Mister Su warned me earlier to beware of the methods of the Inner Palace. But he spoke vaguely, and I only kept my guard up around the Empress, and wasn’t careful around Noble Consort Yue….”
Prince Jing frowned, and suddenly a great suspicion arose in his heart as he asked slowly, “He didn’t tell you to beware Noble Consort Yue? But when he asked me to enter the palace, he was very certain about Zhaoren palace?”
“Oh, our conversation at that time was cut short, so perhaps he did not have the chance to tell me.” Princess Nihuang didn’t seem to take this to heart, but continued to smile. “But even though he orchestrated my rescue today, I cannot thank him openly. Instead, I can only thank Prince Yu, and not only thank him with words, but prepare to visit him tomorrow with Qing di to thank him again in person.”
Prince Jing didn’t understand. “Why would you do that? You said you know….”
Nihuang laughed faintly and turned her head towards the Eastern Palace. “Although Consort Yue has been convicted, the Crown Prince is still the Crown Prince, and his power is still great. The more I openly thank Prince Yu, the more the Crown Prince will direct his hatred towards him, and naturally will not trouble you instead. Your current situation is not one that can afford making an enemy of the Crown Prince, so isn’t it better to push Prince Yu out into the open instead?
In fact, it wasn’t that Prince Jing didn’t understand such games of power, but rather that he was unwilling to think about them. With Nihuang’s brief explanation, he instantly understood, and couldn’t help turning away, shaking his head with a sigh. The two walked out of the palace side by side, and did not continue their previous conversation.
They had just walked out of the Shenwu gate when a great cry of “Jiejie!” was heard, and Mu Qing came charging up to them, only stopping directly in front of Princess Nihuang, shouting, “Jiejie, are you alright? You scared me to death!”
“You are of age now, and still so easily excited? Such a small thing to scare you to death. There are far greater things than this under heaven and earth!” Nihuang spoke scoldingly, but her hand was lovingly rearranging the clothes her little brother had disturbed in his frantic run.
“I was afraid jiejie had suffered some harm,” Mu Qing spoke tenderly. “The palace is not a good place; you should not come here often in the future. Although our residence in Jinling is not as large as the one in Yunnan, it should still be enough for jiejie. Let’s go back quickly.”
Princess Nihuang smiled and patted him gently, then turned back to Prince Jing. “Is his Highness also returning to his residence? We can go back together.”
“There’s no need; I won’t be returning right away.” Xiao Jingyan thought for a moment, and finally said firmly, “I must go first to the residence of the Marquis of Ning.”
¹Heaven = the gods of heaven (it’s a common feature of Chinese culture / literature to refer to the gods as ‘Heaven’)
²Eastern Palace: the palace of the Crown Prince; follows the title and not the person (i.e. it is the dwelling place of whoever is Crown Prince, not of Xiao Jingxuan himself)
³Chinese nouns don’t implicitly differentiate between singular and plural, so it’s impossible to know whether this was said by one person (Prince Yu) or multiple persons (both Prince Yu and Prince Jing). I suspect the latter.
4see Levvy’s explanation from her translation of Chapter 11 (at the bottom)