Chapter 74: Waiting in the Dark
Qi Yin was arrogant, but he had never outshined the emperor. Qi Chen, on the other hand, stood out too much. It made the emperor feel threatened. He never expected himself to be jealous of his own son. It was a ridiculous thought.
Qi Chen was now in the county town, far away from the palace. The praise from the people made him even more eager to eliminate those immoral plutocrats. The next day, he received an unexpected royal decree.
The emperor showered Qi Chen with generous praises. At the end of the decree he asked Qi Chen to return to the imperial city. He stated that the county town was in a remote area; therefore, no one knew what could happen around there. Moreover, the problem had been mostly solved. For Qi Chen's safety, the emperor had ordered an imperial commissioner1 to take Qi Chen's place.
Qi Chen was flabbergasted. What did the emperor mean? Jun Huang didn't give Qi Chen a chance to finish his train of thought. She smiled and told Qi Chen that he had won the emperor's recognition, and that the emperor was only worried that Qi Chen might be unaccustomed to living in a remote area like this town.
Qi Chen wasn't totally convinced, but in the end, he decided to take Jun Huang's words for it. He planned to leave after the imperior commissioner arrived and the handover was done.
The palace had been quiet the past couple of days. Wan'er used to wander around making a ruckus. Now, however, she had settled down and started learning how to sew for Jun Huang. She swore to herself that she would become the perfect wife.
Qi Yun sat in the palace with a teacup in his hand, his eyes half closed. He listened to a songstress in white playing a song of great sorrow with a lute, filling the quiet place with a sense of desolation.
A string broke with a snap. Qi Yun opened his eyes to look at the songstress. The incident caught the songstress off guard. She rushed to kneel down before Qi Yun, trembling, ignoring her injured finger.
"Forgive me, Your Highness. Forgive me." She cowered on the floor. Her whole body was shaking.
Everyone in the palace knew that despite Qi Yun's usual gentle demeanor, he despised being interrupted when he was listening to a song, let alone interrupted because of a broken string. It was a bad omen.
Qi Yun let out a breath and put down the teacup before walking up to the songstress. The songstress curled her body further in at the sight of his white boots.
Qi Yun looked out of the window. It was a good day. The cloudless sky was a vibrant blue. The air was a little humid. It might drizzle in the afternoon.
"It seems to be the time for me to visit Royal Father," he calmly said, his expression distant. He threw a glance at the songstress before bending down and helping her up. His lips quirked up.
He could feel her shudder so very clearly the moment he touched her arm. There was a panicked look on her face.
"You're dressed in white. You'll dirty your clothes if you stay like this. Go get your finger treated." He let go of the songstress and left without a glance back.
The songstress stood rooted to the spot dumbly. Her finger was still throbbing, but she couldn't feel the pain. Droplets of blood fell to the floor and splattered onto her white silk dress, dyeing the fabric red.
Qi Yun left his chamber. Outside, the palace seemed even more lonely. There were a couple concubines clashing with one another in the royal garden. They mocked and insulted the one concubine who didn't enjoy the emperor's favor. She was an educated woman with good manners. She lowered her head and meekly took the abuse.
Qi Yun was reminded of his mother. A woman like her always attracted jealousy from other people, and in the end, she was killed because of it. He clenched his fists. This was none of his business. There was always infighting within the harem. But today, he chose to step in. Maybe it was because he saw his mother in the bullied woman.
The concubines didn't expect the fourth prince to leave his chamber and show up here. He was normally immersed in the world of poetry and songs.
Qi Yun greeted them with a soft smile. He was the perfect embodiment of a gentleman. "Greetings."
Qi Yun didn't enjoy the clear favor of the emperor, but he was the emperor's son. The concubines fawned over him as anyone would have expected. Only the bullied one stayed on the sideline with a quiet smile.
He looked over at her. She nodded and curled her lips. Behind her was a turquoise lake, the color blending with her blue dress.
Once the other concubines had walked away, Qi Yun smiled and stopped the bullied concubine from leaving. She was new around here. The emperor granted her the title Consort Jing – the quiet one. She was born a woman who didn't follow the mainstream, which was why she became a pariah.
"The consort is not suited for a life in the palace," Qi Yun said bluntly.
Consort Jing smiled a little and looked at Qi Yun with gentle eyes. "Your Highness should take care not to let the emperor hear you. Otherwise he will get angry. Lately, the emperor has not been feeling well. He must have overworked himself. If Your Highness is willing, you should persuade him into taking some rest. You are his son after all. The emperor will listen to you."
"If there's nothing else I can help you with, I will take my leave." She walked away with her maids, her dress brushing against the meadow. The dew wetted her dress without her noticing.
He watched the concubine leave until she disappeared at the corner of the white wall. He stayed there unmoving for a while before making his way to the emperor's study.
The eunuch spotted him from a distance. He hurriedly came up to Qi Yun and gave him a servile smile. "Your Highness! Should this servant notify the emperor for you?"
Qi Yun nodded and cupped his hands. "Much appreciated, gong gong.2"
The eunuch waved a hand at him before entering the room. Qi Yun waited quietly outside.
Soon, the eunuch returned. With a smile, he told Qi Yun to go ahead and enter.
Qi Yun smelled the faint fragrance of medicine the moment he stepped inside. He frowned and quickened his pace.
Yellow silk curtains were lifted by the wind coming from the window. Smoke rose from the sandalwood incense on the desk and wavered in the air. The emperor was resting on a soft divan with his eyes half closed. It was clear that he was almost asleep.
Qi Yun tiptoed around to pick up a robe, but the emperor heard him and shot up from the divan. He looked at Qi Yun with wide eyes.
Qi Yun bowed at him respectfully. "This son has been careless. Please forgive me for disrupting Royal Father's rest."
The emperor waved a dismissive hand and sat up to look at the reports piling on the desk. He rubbed at the skin between his eyebrows. "Worry not. I'm simply tired and a short rest is quite enough. What is Yun'er here for today?"
"In half a year this son is going to move out of the palace into my own manor," Qi Yun said earnestly. "I won't be able to accompany Royal Father every day then. I want to spend more time with you before I move out. Moreover, I heard people said that Royal Father has been feeling tired recently. I came to check on you."
The emperor sighed. Qi Yun had always been quiet and considerate. He never liked conflicts. He became even quieter after his mother passed away. He stayed in the palace immersed in his own world and had no intention to get involved with matters in the imperial court. It comforted the emperor. Qi Yun was the one that the emperor worried about the least among all his children.
He stood up and led Qi Yun to a seat. Qi Yun hurriedly poured a cup of tea for the emperor, which he accepted readily, pleased by Qi Yun's attentiveness. He looked out of the window and let out a sigh.
Qi Yun drank the tea without a word. His silence was comforting to the emperor. The emperor had been worried about the mess with Qi Chen. Simply having tea with his son was a welcome change.
After they finished the pot of tea, the emperor asked, "Is your manor ready for you to move in?"
Qi Yun nodded. "Reporting to Royal Father, the construction of the manor was finished a few days ago. There are everyday items that haven't been bought, but I won't be using them for the time being. This son will have someone make the purchase when I'm moving in."
The emperor nodded and put down the teacup. He sighed and lamented, "Children grow up so fast. Before I realized, all of you have moved or are moving out of the palace and into your own manors. There will be no one by my side then."
"That's not true," said Qi Yun. "We have moved out of the palace, but we can always come back to visit Royal Father. It's just that we won't be able to be by your side as much as we used to. Besides, Royal Father has concubines as beautiful as the finest jade in your harem. Why will you be lonely?"
"You are the only one who cares to offer me any comfort. Many want nothing more than for me to die sooner." The emperor's tone was careless, but his words shocked Qi Yun and he broke out into cold sweat.
He dropped down to his knees facing the emperor. "Royal Father has scared this son. We all wish with all our hearts that Royal Father can live a long and healthy life. Why would anyone wish you dead?"
The emperor sighed and helped him up. "It's just words. I didn't mean it. There is no one but the two of us here. This is a conversation between father and son. You need not be so on edge. I know you have a pure heart."
Qi Yun tensed up further. What did the emperor mean? He didn't dare to ask, lest he angered the emperor. He could only speculate on his own.
After Qi Yun had left, the emperor felt even more exhausted. The room was dimly lit. He could not bear to stay here any longer. He got to his feet and inhaled deeply. Time to get some fresh air.
Seeing the emperor leaving the room dressed in only a thin layer of clothes, the eunuch jumped and jogged up to him. "Where is Your Majesty going? Why didn't you put on something warmer?"
The emperor waved him away and walked down the stairs. The eunuch threw the servant next to him a look.
The servant rushed to get a robe from the room and handed it to the eunuch, who draped it over the emperor's shoulders.
The front yard seemed almost lifeless. The emperor found his concerns draining away as chilly winds hit his body. He strolled along the pebble road. The eunuch followed closely behind him, worried that something might happen to the emperor. He didn't dare let his guard down.
Walking past the royal garden, the emperor heard the sound of a flute playing. He frowned. He had not heard a performance like this for a long time. It made him nostalgic. When was the last time he heard this song?
"It must be someone new who doesn't know the rules," said the eunuch. "If Your Majesty is bothered, this servant will have someone educate her properly."
The emperor laughed, the wrinkles on his forehead disappearing for a moment. He let out a wistful sigh, but a smile remained on his lips. "It's not that she doesn't know the rules. She must have felt lonely being on her own. Come, let us take a proper look at this woman." He left for the Cold Palace.
The eunuch organized his thoughts. He remembered that the former empress was good with a flute. It had been her performance that had won the emperor's heart and affection. After that she became the empress immediately. Over the past decades she had been the emperor's loving wife. They were as close as regular couples who married for love.
An official sent by the emperor to deal with important matters away from the imperial city. ↩ How one calls a eunuch. ↩