Chapter 129: Verbal Duel
The third prince gulped and took a deep breath before telling the emperor what Ji Bo had told him to say, "This son knows that Royal Father would be unhappy with this request. However, the empress treated me with kindness when I was young. She taught me how to be someone who can shoulder some of Royal Father's burdens. Now that she is grounded in the Cold Palace. It would be disgraceful of me to cut our ties completely."
He squeezed two drops of tears out of his eyes. The emperor frowned. The third prince's mother had always been prone to disease. When the prince was little, she almost died of an illness. At the time, the empress used to let the prince stay at her palace. The prince therefore saw the empress as another mother.
The emperor sighed. "Since you care about her so much, you can go. But don't stay too long. The Cold Palace isn't a place for someone like you to be."
"Thank you, Royal Father." The third prince couldn't suppress his smile. He bowed before the emperor and made his way to the Cold Palace.
He knew the Cold Palace was supposed to be a desolate place, but he still felt a pang of melancholy when he saw it with his own eyes. He had spent a big part of his childhood with the empress. He couldn't imagine how a woman like that would fare after her fall from grace.
He went through a winding path and entered the palace. Some of the older concubines turned to him with foggy eyes and pointed at him with shaky fingers. The empress happened to see him when she left her room to retrieve some water. She frowned and approached him after some hesitation.
"What are you doing here? You are a royal prince. You shouldn't step foot in such a place." Even after being banished to the Cold Palace, the empress's presence remained as strong and imposing as a blooming peony. She had not lost her grace.
The third prince tensed up. He wasn't as close to the empress as the emperor believed. He had always been more afraid of the empress than he respected her.
Taking a deep breath, he cupped his hands at the empress. "This son has not entered the palace for a while. Today I came to visit the empress. Please forgive me for not doing so sooner."
The empress glanced at him before leading him back to her room. She offered him a cup of tea and asked, "Tell me, what are you here for?"
"I am truly – "
"You won't visit unless you have something you want from me," the empress cut him off. "There's no need for you to come up with an excuse. Even if you find a good one, you still have to tell me what you need in the end. Might as well skip the formalities." The empress took a sip of her tea and looked up at him with her almond-shaped eyes.
The third prince took a deep breath to muster his courage and said, "This son is here to ask for the empress's help in dealing with second brother."
He called Qi Chen his second brother, but from the dark look in his eyes it was clear he wanted nothing but to skin Qi Chen alive.
The empress huffed out a surprised laugh. She didn't expect the third prince of all people to aim for the throne. He had been so incompetent no one even considered him a potential candidate! She scoffed inwardly. She knew what the third prince was made of. He would not be successful.
The third prince knew that the empress doubted him. He hurriedly added, "This son has gained the support of the talented Mister Ji Bo, empress. I can not only gain the throne, but also avenge big brother and get you out of this place."
At the mention of the son she had lost, the empress's heart clenched and her hands tightened into fists. Her nails dug into her flesh, but the dull pain never registered in her brain. Even after all this time, she still held this hatred close to her heart. She even dreamed taking Qi Chen's life with her own hands to console her son's spirit.
The third prince suppressed a smirk. He could tell he had caught the empress's attention. He added, "Second brother is more than willing to hurt his own brother in order to gain the throne. He isn't going to be a good leader. This son may not be the most talented prince, but I care about the country – "
"Enough. Just tell me what you want from me." The empress didn't want to listen to a fool pontificate about how noble his intentions were. It was so laughable it made her stomach churn.
The third prince wasn't smart, but he could tell when other people were annoyed with him. He cleared his throat and told the empress that he needed her support to eliminate Qi Chen. He asked for the empress to rally her supporters for him. In exchange, he would avenge Qi Yin for her. And once he became the crown prince, he would do all he could to free the empress from this glorified cage of a palace.
After the time for an incense stick to burn, the third prince got to his feet and smoothed over his robe. When he left, there was a hint of excitement in his expression.
The empress watched him go. She now had two princes on her side. She had all she needed to take her revenge. These two princes both wanted the throne, however, which could cause some problems.
She was smart enough to recognize that the more support she had, the more likely she would be able to achieve her goal. She would not let this opportunity to eliminate Qi Chen slip by. No one would stand in her way.
Her eyes grew frosty. With a huff, she shut the door.
The third prince's new-found confidence was clear in the way he held himself. Since he obtained the empress's support, he had come to stand taller and walk with straighter back. The once lazy prince now even attended the morning meeting early. The emperor was impressed with his change.
Qi Chen, on the other hand, was alerted. The third prince's sudden change in behavior was clearly a warning sign.
Qi Chen's concern was proven right. When Qi Chen was making his report on the reconstruction of the border, the third prince suddenly stepped forward and put on the expression of a martyr risking his life to save the others. "Royal Father, this son has heard a rumor. I'm not sure if I should speak of it…"
The emperor frowned. The third prince had changed for the better recently. He nodded and decided to give the prince a chance. "You may speak your mind."
"I heard that second brother has taken full responsibility for the reconstruction of the border. According to my informants, however, second brother has embezzled quite a lot of funds during the process. Is it true?" The third prince turned to Qi Chen. Every word he uttered was a jab at him.
Tension built up in the court. The officials talked among themselves. They had known about Qi Chen's crime a long time ago. They just didn't dare to bring it up before the emperor.
The emperor had actually got wind of the news. He didn't expect the third prince to be reckless enough to bring it up in public. No matter how much the emperor disapproved of Qi Chen, Qi Chen was still the crown prince he had chosen. He couldn't criticize Qi Chen before others.
The third prince was oblivious to his own mistake. He was pleased with having made Qi Chen speechless.
Qi Chen looked up at him and pulled his lips into a cold sneer. "I don't know where third brother heard of this rumor. However, by insulting me before all the officials, is third brother truly trying to seek justice for the people? Or is there something else you want?"
"You can't twist the truth, second brother!" the third prince persisted. "Everyone is waiting for your answer. Are you trying to change the subject because you feel guilty?"
Qi Chen shot the third prince a glare, but it wasn't going to deter someone whose brain was filled with nothing but water. The third prince pointed at Qi Chen and retorted, "What's that for? Have I been wrong? If I'm mistaken, why don't you give us an explanation?"
Qi Chen dropped down to the floor and looked up at the emperor. "This son has volunteered to go to the border out of my love for the people. I know how much they have been suffering. Why would I steal money from them for my own use? This son doesn't know who has been spreading the rumors with such malicious intent. If Royal Father doesn't believe me, you can check my accounting book. If any of the incomes seem suspicious, this son is willing to take my punishment."
"Oh, you've given your word!" The third prince would not let Qi Chen off the hook. He continued, "If we do find something, is second brother willing to give up your title as the crown prince?"
"You – !"
"Enough!" The emperor slammed his fist against the table. The loud bang startled everyone into silence. Qi Chen knelt on the floor without a word. The third prince stood on the side with his head lowered, wondering what the emperor meant by this.
The emperor swept his gaze over his two sons and scoffed. "It is unbecoming for the crown prince and a royal prince to argue in such a childish way. Where are your manners? You are brothers. It would be bad enough for you to refuse to help each other. But you two? You were at each other's throat like rabid dogs! Have you forgotten your place? Have you no respect for me?"
Qi Chen bowed down until his head touched the floor and said respectfully, "This son dares not do so."
Feeling weak in the knees, the third prince dropped down to the floor as well. With a shaky voice, he said, "This son has made a mistake."
The emperor didn't even spare them a glance. They stayed there until the meeting concluded, and they only got to their feet after the emperor had left. Qi Chen glared at the third prince and huffed before leaving with a flourish of his sleeves. The third prince ignored him like he had been a stone on the sidewalk.
Just like that, the third prince had replaced Qi Yun in becoming Qi Chen's biggest concern. Qi Chen had always been decisive. He pulled out the men he had put to watching Qi Yun and assigned them to keep an eye on the third prince. He ordered them to report back to him as soon as the third prince did anything unusual.
Without Qi Chen's people constantly watching his back, Qi Yun felt much more relaxed. Before, in order to not rouse Qi Chen's suspicion, he either stayed in the palace or in the Court of Judicial Review. He truly had Jun Huang to thank. Otherwise he would still be living under close scrutiny.
He had his people make a reservation in a tavern. Then he went to Jun Huang's place to invite her for dinner.
When he arrived, Nan Xun and Jun Huang were having tea. Qi Yun chuckled and said, "Big brother must have a lot of free time. I didn't expect you to be here."
Jun Huang stood up to greet him before taking her seat and pouring a cup of tea for Qi Yun. Qi Yun didn't try to be needlessly formal with her. He sat down and finished the tea before saying, "If not for you, gentleman Feng, I wouldn't be able to visit today. Second brother's attention is now solely on third brother. I've finally regained some freedom. Thus I made a reservation in the tavern to express my gratitude. I'd like to ask you to join me."