Xie Cheng Dong walked to the upper floors as the stall keeper greeted him warmly. "The weather is very cold today. Waiter, get our guest some hot wine. Would you like to have your meal upstairs?"
Xie Cheng Dong reached the second level wordlessly. There were three private rooms on this floor, each separated by a screen. One of the rooms was filled with six men eating and drinking wine. These men seemed like they were tipsy.
Xie Cheng Dong chose a room which gave him a view out the window and picked several dishes. Within the adjacent room was a Daoist who wore his Daoist robes and kept his hair in a bun. He offered to read fortunes of several men.
A scholar laughed, "We are scholars and we don’t believe in such things."
The Daoist then replied to him, "You’ve always been intelligent since you were young, but lost your mother when you were seven years old. Your stepmother convinced your dad to forbid you from studying, hence you fled to your uncle’s house."
"Your uncle found some money and sponsored your studies. As soon as the dynasty resumed its peacefulness, you took the imperial examinations, and became an Elementary Scholar at the age of seventeen. You started to tutor to sustain yourself, but you only became a High Scholar last year. Hence, you’re here to take the final examinations. Am I correct?"
"Do you believe me now? Your fortunes are thin and difficulties lie ahead. You will always find it tough to become a Palace Scholar. However, if you agree to join my sect, I shall dispel all your ill luck for you."
The scholar laughed, "I am a High Scholar, even if I never pass the final examinations, I have no need to worry about food or survival. I am guaranteed at least a ninth rank official placement. What have you got to attract me?"
The Daoist sighed, "Fortunes might change, when it’s too late, you might regret it."
As he finished speaking, he walked over to Xie Cheng Dong, before he cast a glance towards the direction of King Lu’s Palace.
"How is it?" Xie Cheng Dong whispered.
"King Lu’s title has been stripped, and he had been demoted to the rank of Canton Prince. This seems like a major setback for him, and yet the black veil over his palace has mostly disappeared. Although some small traces remain, it’s not a big deal and won’t impede with your plans."
"The Crown Prince’s fate seems rather solid and steady at this point. From my perspective, it would be difficult to sabotage him further. Besides, we have several men within the Daoist’s department of the Imperial Court. I’ve heard that the Crown Prince is investigating us at this point."
"If we don’t do anything, our foundations within the capital city might be completely plucked out."
"Senior Brother Xie, you were sent from the sect, think of a way to solve this problem." At this point, the Daoist was respectful, unlike how he was earlier while he told fortunes. In fact, he even sweated.
"Don’t worry. I have a plan. Contact King Lu, I wish to meet with him." Xie Cheng Dong replied plainly.
King Lu’s Palace
Butler Qing looked up and saw several men who wrote names down on in books, and looked rather uneasy. He laughed, took the piece of paper, and handed it to someone else, "Look at this."
The person received the note and saw that there were an entire list of names scribbled down.
"These are the famous officials working within the palace!" The man sucked in a breath of fresh air before asking, "Do they all wish to leave?"
Butler Qing laughed coldly, "You’re right, these ungrateful people who had always wore a look of diligence on their face. Once a little rain and wind comes, they’re so afraid that they soil their own pants. According to what I know, how can it be this easy for them to leave us and when they like?"
"We have to be more vigilant, don’t allow any of these people around the palace. Especially the secret rooms."
"Yes!" This person replied loudly.
Butler Qing swept a glance across the room before he walked off angrily. Seeing that he had left, an official then raised his head and drank some tea. However, he realized that the teacup was empty and nobody had refilled it. He sighed silently.
When the sun rose this morning, many more people had left King Lu’s service. Their hearts were cold and fearful.
As for the ladies who sold their bodies, along with the eunuchs, they didn’t have the choice of leaving. However, they were all clearly worried and was it evident with the fact that they sent as much money as possible back to their homes.
Their Prince had just been demoted to the rank of Canton Prince, who wouldn’t worry? Most of the lower-ranking officials who were tasked with documentation had left as well. As soon as the edict was announced, many packed their bags and left, while others just didn’t return.
Only half the population of people who still worked were left, and yet most of them were prepared to resign after they had finished their tasks.
One of the officials looked around and realized that nobody was around, he then complained, "We were all laughing at Ren Wei for leaving the palace and yet we realized that he had foresight. I even heard that he’s now with Ying Prefecture’s Top Scorer, Mister Pei. He’s helping to handle his accounts and business. It’s such a glorious job. The last time we met, he even invited us to a restaurant. We ate a meal which cost three taels of silver, which he footed effortlessly. He’s the subject of envy."
"King Lu has shown magnanimity towards us, we should just go and speak no more. How can we speak ill of our master?" Another official spoke.
"Alright, alright, I shan’t speak further. I shan’t speak further." The official looked rather downcast as he spoke.
When King Lu had overshadowed the Crown Prince in his bid to become the heir apparent, the days were glorious. Now that King Lu had become a Canton Prince, there was nothing left to say. Everyone who worked for him just had to accept the fact and bite the bullet.
This study room was rather unique in its layout. When a person looked up, he could see the lake some distance away. Beneath the tiles was a heater, which produced warmth through the cracks in the tiles. Installing this special feature had cost 4,000 taels of silver. Even the Emperor’s Palace didn’t have such an expensive feature installed.
At this point, King Lu’s face was pale, and he scribbled within his study room. He had an expression of utmost severity. If one was to say he wasn’t angry, it would be a lie. It’s just that the only thing now he could do to quell the anger within his heart, was to write.
The words which he wrote all had something to do with peacefulness within the dynasty. However, his calligraphy wasn’t as good as his usual standard and his words were crooked.
The butler walked in anxiously, "King Lu, not good. There are several more officials who made a scene and insisted on leaving. There had also been several more who left quietly without a word."
"King Lu pressed down on his parchment and sucked in a breath of air as his face turned red. He then placed his quill down and took several steps forward in hesitation before he broke out in a smile, "Let them go then. It’s good that they’ve gone. At least now we can differentiate the truly genuine and those with false hearts."
As he said this, he sounded slightly lonely. Would there be a day where he would rise up again?
At this point, Eunuch Liao begged for an audience, to which King Lu responded irritably, "Enter."
As soon as he granted permission, he picked up the cup of tea from the table and took a sip, while Eunuch Liao entered. The eunuch then reported, "King Lu, the situation is clear now."
"Speak. I am listening." King Lu managed to compose himself as he leaned into his chair which had a coat of tiger’s skin draped around it. He looked outside while he waited for the eunuch to speak. He still looked very young, without a single wrinkle on his face. His every movement had the fearsome aura of a stern Emperor.
"I’ve received a note from within the Imperial Court, Official Ge Yun. An official statement has been given, it says that King Lu is now of the Canton Prince rank and has too many properties for your given status. To be precise, you have thirteen too many pieces of lands and is thus regarded as overstepping your authority. They’ve asked you to reduce your holdings."
Ge Yun was the official in charge of rites and was a highly learned scholar. He had always been very courteous and warm to King Lu, yet now it seemed like he’s turned against King Lu as well. King Lu’s face swelled red, as his veins bulged across his body. He stood up and paced several steps, his eyes were fixed at the lake. After a long time, he finally spoke, "What did the Emperor say? What did the Crown Prince say?"
"The Emperor wanted to punish you, but the Crown Prince insisted that this fault didn’t lie with you. The Crown Prince asked for a small punishment on your behalf. He even said that he couldn’t ever take over your property and cause you to lose income."
Hearing these words, King Lu wasn’t pleased but was immediately upset. His eyes started turning red as he shouted, "When did the Crown Prince become so cunning? What did my Emperor father say?"
"The Emperor said that rules were meant to be followed. Since the Crown Prince mediated on King Lu’s behalf, two properties have to be taken away from you."
King Lu smiled slyly and asked, "So that’s the case. Which two?"
"Black Wind Farm and Prosperity Farm."
Both of these are huge properties and are worth 150,000 taels of silver. Every year, he earned 10,000 taels from these farms. Now they were gone. King Lu then asked, "What else is there?"
"General Chen Hu, Li An Jun, and Ji Sheng have all been put to death. This happened yesterday."
Hearing this news, King Lu felt a sudden onset of dizziness. When he had heard the previous bad news earlier, he didn’t respond half as much as this. The three generals were his core henchmen and biggest supporters. Now, they’ve died.
King Lu took some time to compose himself before he stood up, "What else is there?"
"The Emperor made several revisions to the leaders of the different army camps within the capital city. This is the new list of names."
King Lu took a look at it, and only responded a long time later. His eyes gleamed and his tone was collected, "Indeed, he’s gradually clamping down and restricting movement of the military. What else is there?"
"Several of the high-ranking officials have also written in a request to impeach King Lu. Here are the names of the officials."
King Lu received the list and swept a glance at it before he threw it to the ground, "All of this, I’ve already expected. These officials only follow the winds. What else is there?"
"Nothing else. Oh no, the Imperial Court have received reports that the cavalry had just launched a sneak attack on the army camp, but have already been forced to retreat. It’s been said that around 200 lives were lost. Also, food rations and reinforcements are thin and they requested for more."
That was a small matter, and King Lu listened for a moment before replying, "What else is there?"
"King Lu, apart from Xie Cheng Dong requesting an audience, there’s nothing else."
"Xie Cheng Dong requests an audience?" King Lu was surprised. "Dark Altar Sect and Xie Cheng Dong haven’t left my service?"
"I recall the night where Xie Cheng Dong was here, the night when this big misfortune befell us, he left the Palace abruptly. I don’t believe it was a coincidence, these Daoists!’
Silence befell the pair before King Lu spoke to eunuch Liao, "Lead him in through the secret passageway. I wish to see what’s his intent for meeting with me."
"Yes!" Eunuch Liao responded.
Although it sounded like Xie Cheng Dong wanted an audience, it took several days before Eunuch Liao was able to locate Xie Cheng Dong. When it was dark, the eunuch then led him to the location.
The location was an ordinary looking residence which was located to the north west of King Lu’s Palace. It was an old place, which looked to be at least a hundred years old. Even people seemed to avoid this place due to how run down it was.
They went into the mansion from the backyard, before arriving at a study room. The shelves within the study were old and broken, with very few books on them. There was some ink and quills on the tabletop. Xie Cheng Dong scrutinized the room as the eunuch pushed through the shelf and revealed a hidden stairwell. They both didn’t go down immediately and waited for the stale air to diffuse before they lit their lanterns and headed down.
"When King Lu built his palace, he ordered someone to install this underground passageway!"
"The soldiers are still standing guard outside King Lu’s mansion. Although they don’t restrict visitors from coming and going, there are still people watching the records of visitors. You are a Daoist and your movements must be discreet. The Emperor must not know of your relationship. If not, there could be problems. Hence, you have to suffer such humility and enter through a secret passageway." Eunuch Liao spoke, and Xie Cheng Dong understood. In fact, his presence within King Lu’s Palace a few nights ago had already been noticed by many people. Hence, he laughed, "King Lu has foresight."
As he spoke, the pair walked and through the winding corridors.
It was still cold in winter and there was a certain gloominess within the cold. However, it seemed like King Lu’s Palace was especially cold. Eunuch Liao led him as he waved a hand, "After you!"
Xie Cheng Dong nodded his head and followed the eunuch through the passageway. When they emerged, they arrived at a small park filled with flowers and trees. The cold wind blew, which caused Xie Cheng Dong to shiver.
A eunuch greeted them, and made pleasantries before he led them down another paved path which led into a study room.
King Lu looked himself in the mirror at this point and realized that he hadn’t tidied himself up in days. He then sighed and ordered, "I wish for a change of robes."
A pair of serving maids entered and bowed before they helped him to disrobe and wash up. They even helped to shave his beard.
It was a common misconception that people of the olden days never trimmed their hair. In fact, there was a room specially for them to trim their facial hair and cut excessively long hair as well.
After King Lu received a fresh change of clothes and shaved his beard, he looked sharper than before. He sat down within the room and heard a eunuch announce, "King Lu, Xie Cheng Dong requests an audience."
"Enter!" King Lu spoke plainly.