Chapter 75: Hurtful Words
The Cold Palace was even more devoid of life. Concubines banished there either became so depressed they fell ill, or they slowly lost their sanity. Most maids took detours to avoid getting anywhere near it. Some were even terrified to the point that they fainted. Gradually, less and less people were willing to step foot in the Cold Palace.
The eunuch had heard about the rumors. He bunched his shoulders up nervously. The emperor threw him a glare. "If you can't control yourself, get the hell away from here."
The eunuch fell silent and followed the emperor without a word. The emperor traced the sound of the flute into where people considered to be the land of filth. The Cold Palace presented itself before him.
The ground was covered in wilted leaves. It was clear that no one had been here to sweep them. Concubines banished to the Cold Palace were crammed into the limited space. Many had lost their beauty as they aged. Because of the lack of sunlight, their faces were littered with hideous pigment spots. They looked at one another with unfocused eyes. The emperor couldn't help but frown.
The empress was the first consort he had ever banished to the Cold Palace. He didn't known it was in such a terrible condition. How could that prideful woman stay in a place like this?
It struck him where he was most tender. He covered his nose and mouth and pointed at the concubines. "Tell these people to leave."
The eunuch readily accepted the order, but he was worried. He wondered if these concubines would lose control. He had underestimated these women, however. They were kept in the Cold Palace, but they were once daughters from important families. Despite how long they had been here, they had not abandoned their upbringing. They left after greeting the emperor. It was as if they hadn't been the ones blocking the entrance earlier.
There was a room of which the door was always shut. It was where the sound of the flute was coming from; it must be the empress's room. The emperor made his way there. He told the eunuch to stay outside the door before walking in.
The wooden door creaked open. The music persisted and didn't waver. The emperor parted the silk curtains and walked further in. The empress was behind the screen.
There was no makeup on her face. Her features were as gentle and delicate as the first time they met. She wore a plain dress with a green jade flute in her hand. Every turn of the melody was filled with emotion. It seemed to be the same song she was playing that day long ago.
The emperor listened to the song silently. The empress had noticed his presence the moment he walked in, but she wasn't willing to stop her performance. She wore neither her old phoenix robe nor the phoenix hairpin, but she had her head held high. At that moment, it felt just like old times.
The song faded into silence. The empress looked back at the emperor. Her hair was put into a bun like it had always been. Her relaxed brows and expressive eyes transfixed the emperor.
She put away the flute and dropped to her knees before him. "This guilty woman is honored to see Your Majesty. Forgive me for not welcoming Your Majesty in. I did not know you were coming."
This woman had not knelt down before him ever since she became the empress. Her gesture now was a great irony. He was rendered speechless.
The empress was once the master of the harem after all. She hadn't lost her backbone. She looked up at the emperor without flinching, her eyes welling up with tears. The emperor came to his senses and helped her up. Without waiting for her to talk, he pulled her into his arms.
"You have suffered, my beloved wife," said the emperor.
The empress let out a quiet sob. She had been waiting for him to say this line for a long time. Some days, she wondered if she would ever hear a word of comfort from him before she died. Now her wish was granted; all her grudges and hatred for the emperor melted away, leaving only a great sense of sorrow. She sobbed harder.
The emperor patted her gently on the back and wiped her tears away, his heart aching. They held each other for a long time before they let go.
"This place is but a bare room with a roof. I cannot serve Your Majesty your favorite tea. These tea leaves are fresh, at least. If Your Majesty is willing, you should have some." The empress poured the emperor a cup of cold Kuding tea.
He took a sip and almost spit it out because of how bitter it was. He watched the empress with sympathetic eyes. This was a woman who was used to having the most premium brand of tea. She had never had something this bitter and atrocious. He felt that he had wronged her.
It was as if he suffered a sudden case of amnesia and had forgotten about what the empress had done. He remembered only that this woman had lost her son. In his eyes, she was merely a mother who had lost everything she used to depend on.
He remembered all the good memories he had of the empress. She was still the same woman he had fallen in love with.
That night, the emperor stayed the night with her, listening to her playing the flute. The eunuch tried to convince him that this wasn't a good idea, but the words flew right over his head.
When the emperor woke up the next day, he felt boneless and weak. The empress got off the bed and put on some clothes before ordering someone to bring her hot water. She helped the emperor out of bed, her face lined with obvious concern and her eyebrows drawn closely together.
"Your Majesty doesn't look well," the empress said worriedly. "You should skip the court meeting today. Have the royal doctor check on you. You shouldn't risk your own health."
The emperor waved a hand in the air and coughed. "I'm fine," he said with a smile. "Don't worry too much. The meeting must not be delayed. I will take my leave now. After everything is dealt with, I will take my beloved wife back home."
The empress nodded with tears in her eyes. She leaned against the door frame watching the emperor leave. Her heart was filled with a bittersweet feeling.
The emperor had lost conscious in the morning meeting because of his cold. The news soon reached Consort Zhen's ears. She was having tea when her maid barged in, for which she scolded the maid severely. When the maid delivered the news, Consort Zhen was so shocked that she dropped her teacup. Fear seized her by the heart.
The cup shattered into pieces on the floor. Her breathing quickened. She had used the poison Jun Huang gave her on the emperor for a few days now. Had the poison been too potent? The news that the emperor was sick pushed her into panic. It took some time for her to regain her calm. She had one of her confidantes leave the palace and arrange a meeting with Jun Huang.
Jun Huang and Qi Chen returned to the imperial city a few days ago. She had just woken up when the messenger sent by Consort Zhen arrived. She wondered what Consort Zhen wanted from her.
Once she reached their meeting spot, Consort Zhen asked coldly, "What are you planning, Feng Baiyu? Who are you exactly?"
Jun Huang tensed up. Had Consort Zhen found out about her identity? She maintained a calm expression and replied with a steady voice, "This gentleman doesn't know what the consort means. Don't you already know I'm the crown prince's strategist? Why did you ask?"
Consort Zhen scoffed. "Explain to me why the emperor fell ill after taking your medicine. Did you do it on purpose?"
"That's not possible," Jun Huang said without hesitation. "The medicine I gave you will never make anyone ill." She met Consort Zhen's eyes fearlessly.
Consort Zhen gave Jun Huang a good look. She decided to give Jun Huang the benefit of the doubt. She took a deep breath before she said, "Then why did the emperor fall ill so suddenly?"
Jun Huang gave the question some thoughts before turning to the maid standing next to Consort Zhen. "Do you know where the emperor has been these past two days?"
The maid opened her mouth, then quickly closed it. She didn't dare to look at the consort. Consort Zhen was a clever woman. She noticed the maid's panicked expression.
"You know something, don't you?" she demanded.
Hearing the anger in Consort Zhen's tone, the maid became weak in the knees and she dropped down to the floor, trembling and cowering. "Yesterday the emperor went to the Cold Palace. Servants there said that the emperor even stayed the night in the banished empress's room. When he woke up today, he started coughing non-stop. The emperor must have caught a cold."
Consort Zhen flew into rage and kicked the maid in her torso. The maid didn't dare to defend herself. She took the beating with clenched teeth, her eyes brimming with tears.
Consort Zhen clenched her hands into fists and ground her teeth together. Jun Huang was surprised as well. She didn't expect the banished empress to regain the emperor's favor even in the Cold Palace. And the empress was able to pull herself together after the pain of losing her dear son – she was not one to be underestimated.
Before Jun Huang could remind Consort Zhen to be careful of the empress, the consort said, "Tell Chen'er about this, Feng Baiyu. Tell him to take good care of Nan Guyue. Don't let anything happen to the child. After the child is born, we will deal with the banished empress."
Consort Zhen's eyes were terrifyingly sharp and feral. Jun Huang nodded and gave her a meaningful look before excusing herself.
The empress was clearly thinking about gaining the upper hand again. No one knew what she would be capable of after she made a comeback. Nothing good, that was for sure. Jun Huang would have to pay more attention to the empress from now on.
There was also Consort Zhen. She may appear to be harmless, but she was much more careful than Qi Chen was. Jun Huang would have to be more cautious.
Once back to the manor, she went straight to Qi Chen.
On her way to the study, she contemplated the current situation. The emperor only caught a simple cold. He would recover in no time. The effects of the poison in his body, however, would start to manifest because of the cold. With some careful maneuvering, she would be able to make Eastern Wu her scapegoat.
Now was not the time yet however, Qi Chen's position in the imperial court would not be easily overturned for the time being. If she was too hasty, she would lose the battle before it started, and she wouldn't be able to help Qi Yun.
She had only one chance. She couldn't afford to miss it. She must defeat Eastern Wu with the help of the Northern Qi army. She must avenge Western Que and its people, who had died an unjust death.
Qi Chen happened to be leaving the study when Jun Huang arrived. He was surprised by her visit. He hurriedly came up to her. It was clear that he was in a good mood.
"Has Your Royal Highness gotten some good news?" Jun Huang asked with a smile.
She had guessed right. Qi Chen was delighted and he gave her a bright smile. Jun Huang snorted silently. Did Qi Chen know that his mother and the empress were again competing for the emperor's favor? Most likely not. If he knew, he wouldn't have been happy because of something trivial.
"Someone from the palace came earlier," he said, patting Jun Huang on the shoulder. "Royal Father is satisfied with what I've done this time. He sent in many gifts. Brother Feng should take two jade ceremonial sceptres for yourself. It's thanks to brother Feng that I'm able to win Royal Father's approval. If not for you, I wouldn't have even thought about taking this responsibility. I would still be a crown prince with no real power."