The speed that Li Yuan’s edict was issued naturally filled all with amazement. Virtually all assumed that this decision had been made long ago. However, they did not know that the decision to issue this edict was actually made overnight. That day, after the Prince of Yong and company had departed, Li Yuan was filled with anxiety and worry. Since long ago, whenever he ran into a Gordian problem that he could not resolve, he would discuss these matters with his top ministers. However, today’s problem was completely different. Wei Guan was always neutral and would inevitably not say much. Qin Yi and Cheng Shu were all military men, and never had been willing to get involved in politics. Zheng Xia, alas … Zheng Xia’s character was upright and outspoken, handling everything impartially, but at present, he was seriously injured and could not offer his advice. As Li Yuan’s mind turned, he realized the only one he could discuss this matter with was Noble Consort Ji. However, Li Yuan was unwilling to speak with her. If Li Yuan had his heart set on ensuring the succession of his crown prince, then Noble Consort Ji’s advice would naturally be of use. However, now that Li Yuan was utterly disappointed with the crown prince, the attitude of the Fengyi Sect was very clear. Reportedly, the Fengyi Sect master had already personally arrived in Chang’an. Although Fan Huiyao had not come to see him, Li Yuan knew from her conduct that she still supported the crown prince. With this, Noble Consort Ji’s attitude was already set. At this moment, Li Yuan sincerely hoped for someone without selfish and ulterior motives to discuss the situation with. The more he thought, the more vexed he became. Within his harem, practically everyone was involved in politics. The sole exception was Noble Consort Zhangsun, unselfish and undemanding. After thinking it over, Li Yuan decided to go to her chambers to idle away some of the time. Looking up at the sky to determine the time of day, Li Yuan did not dispatch someone ahead and walked in the direction of Noble Consort Zhangsun’s Eternal Spring Palace Hall.
Entering the palace hall, the supervising eunuch promptly came over and kowtowed, informing Li Yuan that the noble consort and the princess were strolling in the palace hall’s garden. Li Yuan walked towards the garden. Before he had even entered, he heard a peal of lively laughter. He could not help but feel his gloom reduce. Entering, Li Yuan saw Noble Consort Zhangsun sitting within a pavilion, while Princess Changle, dressed in the garb of northern barbarians, played cuju with Roulan and two palace maids. Although Roulan was still young, she was extremely nimble, running all over the garden, chasing after the ball. Helped by everyone yielding to her, she played quite well. Seeing her innocence, unaffected by the worries of the world, the vexations in his mind were reduced to nothingness.
At this moment, the eunuch declared in a loud voice, “His Imperial Majesty has arrived!”
Hearing this, everyone promptly came over to welcome the emperor. With a laugh, Li Yuan stated, “We are only here to take a look, there is no need for everyone to stand on ceremony.” Finished speaking, he stepped forward and picked up the rosy-faced Roulan, asking her, “Little Roulan has played quite well. How are you free to enter the palace today? Every single time, you will come into the palace only if your Auntie Changle personally invites you.”
With gleaming eyes and in an innocent voice, Roulan replied, “Imperial Grandfather, Roulan wishes to frequently come see Her Imperial Highness, the Princess, and Imperial Grandfather. However, some people have said that if Roulan comes too often to see Her Imperial Highness, the Princess, there will be people who get angry with the Princess, thus Roulan does not dare to come.”
Li Yuan could not help but get angry. He naturally understood the meaning behind Roulan’s words. There were those who were worried that Princess Changle would get too close to the Prince of Yong’s household. The change in his complexion caused Princess Changle to be frightened, promptly stepping forward and stating, “Imperial Father, Roulan is thoughtless, please don’t take offense.”
Heaving a sigh, Li Yuan waved his hand, dismissing all of the palace maids and eunuchs. Seeing this, Princess Changle had Lü’e also take Roulan away. Understanding that they needed to discuss a private matter, Leng Chuan and company also withdrew into the distance. Li Yuan unenthusiastically stated, “Changle, you’ve truly suffered greatly. It’s fine if your older brothers haven’t made something of themselves, but their conduct has even implicated you …”
Princess Changle promptly smiled and replied, “Imperial Father, it’s only second brother who is overthinking things. In reality, there is no one who would take out their anger upon this child over this matter.”
“That’s right, Your Imperial Majesty,” agreed Noble Consort Zhangsun. “Zhen’er is your most beloved daughter. Who would dare make things difficult for her?”
Li Yuan sighed again. “Alas, We are extremely disappointed with the Crown Prince. But how can he be deposed so lightly? At present, the entire court is either seeking to preserve the Crown Prince’s position to take credit in front of him or wish to set the Prince of Yong as heir apparent. We are in an extremely difficult situation.”
A look of worry flashed across Noble Consort Zhangsun’s eyes. Although she did not involve herself in the affairs of state, she knew full well what was presently going on. Speaking from the heart, the succession had barely anything to do with her. Although she had a somewhat favorable impression of the Prince of Yong because of Lady Gao, the Princess of Yong, it was not enough for Noble Consort Zhangsun to support him. Now that the emperor had openly spoken of this matter to her, if she were to say something, it was likely that her words would be known tomorrow. From this point forward, there was no way that she could continue to live in peace. Consequently, she could only speak obliquely, “There is no need for Your Imperial Majesty to worry. It is only natural that these subjects all have different thoughts. The decision regarding the heir apparent can only be made by you.”
Although these words were vague and shallow, when Li Yuan heard them, he felt comfortable. He could not help but declare, “Be that as it may, We are in an impossible situation. Although the Crown Prince is no good, he has been the heir apparent for many years. Although the Prince of Yong is good, his ambitions are too great. We understand the difficulties of founding an empire and are worried that he would be shortsighted and look for a fast return,1 ultimately destroying the empire.”
Noble Consort Zhangsun wished to say something, but hesitated. Although she was extremely gratified that Li Yuan trusted her so much, involving the members of the harem would cause no end of trouble. Li Yuan understood the difficulties that she faced. From the beginning, he had no hopes that Noble Consort Zhangsun would be able to give him any suggestions and only wished to voice his complaints. As a result, he did not pry deeper, only voicing his difficulties to reduce the weight upon his heart. As he spoke, he noticed that Princess Changle was thinking pensively. Curious, Li Yuan asked, “Changle, do you have an opinion?”
Hesitating for a moment, Changle answered, “Imperial Father, although this child does not understand anything about the affairs of state, regardless of what Imperial Father thinks, the most important thing to do at present is to pacify the situation. Regardless of what Imperial Father decides, everything can be arranged in the future. For the situation to remain suspended like this, not only will the Crown Prince be worried and second brother vexed, even the entire court will be anxious and apprehensive, worried that they misinterpret the trend.”
Li Yuan’s heart leapt. Changle’s words were quite reasonable. As long as he continued to mull over how to handle this issue, the more the crown prince would be worried about his position as heir apparent, resentment stirring in his heart. Even the Prince of Yong would inevitably have expectations. If the end result did not conform to his intentions, he would also not be happy. If he could temporarily placate them until he had made up his mind and made the arrangements, wouldn’t it be the best of both worlds? Thinking of this, Li Yuan rose to his feet happily and proclaimed, “Changle speaks the truth. All right, We need to go issue an edict. You can do as you wish.” So speaking, Li Yuan immediately returned to the Imperial Study, issuing the edict. Not tolerating the remonstrations of any of his subjects, he swiftly and decisively promulgated the edict.
The issue of this edict caused everyone to be delighted and satisfied. The crown prince was naturally overjoyed. When he kowtowed to accept the edict, Li An, moved to tears, vowed to the Heavens that he would turn over a new leaf.2 The Prince of Qi was also overjoyed. These past two years, he had basically been confined to the capital. Aside from visiting brothels, he hunted with dogs or falcons. He had long itched to return to the borders to fight a few battles. With this opportunity, he was naturally very happy. Practically just after the edict was issued, the Prince of Qi did not even bother to say anything to the crown prince and immediately left the capital. Naturally, this left the crown prince furious.
Apart from this, it would be reasonable to state that the Prince of Yong, who originally had the opportunity to take the crown prince’s place as heir apparent, had his hopes dashed and would inevitably be distressed. In reality, however, over the past few days, the Prince of Yong maintained a natural and poised bearing. He was the first to congratulate the crown prince. Of course, what he was congratulating was the crown prince’s recovery from his “illness.” Afterwards, the Prince of Yong personally saw off the Prince of Qi and then paid a visit to Palace Attendant Zheng to check on his recovery. Contrary to what one might expect, he was busy every day. Although he had a veneer of calm, there was not a hint of joy on his face. As a result, everyone concluded that he was resentful and annoyed. However, these same people also praised the Prince of Yong for his magnanimous bearing and the broadness of his mind. What they did not know was that without the veneer, joy would likely have covered the entirety of the Prince of Yong’s face.
After he had received Li Yuan’s imperial edict, Li Zhi was originally filled with gloom, blaming Imperial Father for being partial to the crown prince. He had not idea that as soon as he walked into the Cold Courtyard, Jiang Zhe would actually congratulate him. Li Zhi worriedly inquired, “Suiyun, Imperial Father’s prejudice is clear. Why are you celebrating?”
With a smile, Jiang Zhe replied, “Your Imperial Highness, you are someone involved and thus cannot see things clearly. At present, the Emperor is extremely disappointed with the Crown Prince. If the Emperor had secretly reprimanded the Crown Prince, then the Emperor still holds out some hope for the Crown Prince. However, from what this subject has learned, the Emperor did not reprimand the Crown Prince. Like the proverb goes, ‘the deeper the love, the more intense the criticism.’ At present, in spite of everything, the Emperor did not reproach the Crown Prince in the slightest because the Emperor is unwilling to waste a single moment. In this subject’s view, Your Imperial Highness is only one step away from the position of heir apparent.”
In distress, Li Zhi worried, “Even if I am one step away, I am still worlds apart from it. At present, the Fengyi Sect Master has arrived at the capital, greatly increasing the Crown Prince’s strength. It is possible that they will try to assassinate us. Additionally, under her supervision, the Crown Prince will speak and act cautiously. For Imperial Father to not depose the Crown Prince means that there is still some ground for the Crown Prince. If this matter drags out, it is likely to be unfavorable for me. Besides, there needs to be a reason to depose the Crown Prince. If the Crown Prince does not err going forward, even if Imperial Father wishes to depose him, it will still be impossible.”
With a smile, I explained, “At present, it is likely that the Crown Prince does not think this way. Although the Emperor let off the Crown Prince this time, the Crown Prince is prohibited from handling affairs of state in the Eastern Palace. The alienation between them is already becoming clear. It is likely that the Crown Prince is presently full of anxiety and suspicion, worried that the Emperor would take action against him. In order to protect himself, the Crown Prince will likely only fall deeper and deeper into the abyss. At present, Your Imperial Highness need only spread rumors that the reason why the Emperor did not depose the Crown Prince is because of the strength of the Crown Prince’s backers. Afterwards, we can seize upon the offenses of the Crown Prince’s faction to launch an offensive. We will not attack the Crown Prince directly, only blaming his supporters for failing the responsibility of having the Emperor and the Crown Prince’s favor. With Your Imperial Highness’s prestige, it will be a piece of cake. For us to take these actions, on the surface, it will not harm the Crown Prince’s safety. As a result, the Crown Prince will not believe that our actions are deliberate, believing instead that we have received a secret edict from the Emperor. Therefore, Your Imperial Highness needs to find the opportunity to hold a few private discussions with the Emperor, making sure that no one finds out the truth. In this way, the Crown Prince will become increasingly suspicious that the Emperor has already made up his mind to set Your Imperial Highness as the heir apparent, thus having arranged for Your Imperial Highness to eliminate the Crown Prince’s supporters. This strategy will serve the purpose of inadvertently alerting the enemy.3 As long as the Crown Prince is bewildered, he will rush indiscriminately and act blindly, naturally making mistakes. When the time comes, with the right conditions, success will occur without any effort,4 and the Crown Prince will be deposed.”
Hearing Jiang Zhe’s words, Li Zhi accepted them wholeheartedly. He replied, “It could be said that Suiyun thoroughly understands the minds of others. That’s right. Who would expect that our intentions for eliminating with great fanfare the Crown Prince’s supporters is not to attack the Crown Prince’s faction?”
Rising to my feet, I stated, “Your Imperial Highness, at present, the situation has reached the most critical state. Your Imperial Highness should recall Sir Ziyou back to Chang’an to preside over the present situation. Although this subject is resourceful, there are many matters that only Shi daren can handle properly. Shi daren has the talent to be a Prime Minister. It will be a great pity if he does not return.”
“Suiyun speaks correctly,” agreed Li Zhi, touched. “The present situation truly requires Ziyou to return. Right now, the state of affairs in Youzhou is already stabilized. Ziyou has already attracted a number of worthy talents. He is of no further use in Youzhou. It would be better if he returned. Ziyou handles matters with caution and care. Right now, this Prince truly needs him to come back to take charge of things.” Finished speaking, Li Zhi mentally praised Jiang Zhe’s broadmindedness in his heart. When Ziyou returned, although Li Zhi would still rely upon Jiang Zhe to give advice and provide strategies, Li Zhi would trust and heavily utilize Ziyou slightly more. After all, in his thoughts, Shi Yu was his future prime minister, the head of the civil officials. However, Jiang Zhe was unafraid of the consequences of having Shi Yu recalled in the slightest.
What Li Zhi did not know was that I paid no attention to power, riches, and honor. Further, my health was poor. Many of the particulars were already being handled by Guan Xiu, Dong Zhi, and Gou Lian. Shi Yu’s return would not affect me in the slightest. Besides, Shi Yu’s return would also be of great benefit to me.
After discussing the affairs, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, departed. Before he had gone far, Li Zhi caught sight of a youth in the uniform of an imperial bodyguard walk over. This man’s appearance was handsome, his temperament apathetic. With one look, Li Zhi knew that this man was not normal. However, what was strange was that Li Zhi felt he had seen this man before. But no matter how he racked his brains, Li Zhi could not figure out when and where he had met this youthful imperial bodyguard with such a unique bearing.
I noticed as soon as Li Zhi’s stride slowed. However, I did not make a single sound. His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong, had met Xia Jinyi several times. This was the perfect opportunity to test whether Xia Jinyi’s disguise was effective. Speaking of disguises, I had once been fooled by a story in the unofficial histories that it was possible for someone to be so disguised that even their closest friends would not be able to recognize them. However, this was actually impossible. First of all, there were many limitations to transforming a person’s face. The nature of a person, no matter how handsome or ugly, was capable of giving people a harmonious feeling. If blindly changed, it would be easy to cause people to become suspicious. Moreover, to disguise someone, one’s distinctive characteristics were extremely important. If there was something particular about someone’s appearance and build, even if that person was disguised, it would be difficult to fool others. Even if one’s facial features are successfully changed, one’s manner of speech and bearing still needed to be changed. Many people could identify their close friends and relatives based upon their figure and hearing their voice. Therefore, it was extremely hard to make it difficult for close friends to be fooled.
However, this time, I had complete faith in my methods. Although I was only familiar with the art of disguise and had not ever employed it, Xia Jinyi had used disguising methods before. It was enough for me to guide him. After careful study, I had him make small changes to his facial features—having him change his hairstyle and altering his eyebrows. Combined with his completely transformed bearing, it was enough to entirely change him into a different person. Then, I had spent some time teaching him how to change his movements and changing the tempo and pitch of his voice when he spoke. He was a quick study. His current display was the best evidence of this. The Prince of Yong did not recognize him. Moreover, since Xia Jinyi had already “died” from the emperor taking out his anger on him, as long as Xia Jinyi stayed in seclusion for a period of time, no one would be able to recognize him again. Besides, in a year or two, no one would even remember Xia Jinyi’s death.
Seeing the hesitation on the Prince of Yong’s face, I smiled and inquired, “Has Your Imperial Highness seen a stranger? He is called Dong Que and is a new imperial bodyguard that this subject has taken into my service. Although he is not from the military, there is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry. There is no need to worry about this man’s loyalty.”
Nearly instantaneously, the Prince of Yong replied, “So it’s one of your new imperial bodyguards. No wonder this Prince feels that he looks familiar and yet can’t remember his name.”
Xia Jinyi, now known as Dong Que, stepped forward and saluted the Prince of Yong, strictly adhering to proper etiquette.5 However, his expression was extremely distant. Li Zhi did not pay much attention, only smiling and stating, “It is rare for Suiyun to accept a subordinate. Presumably, you are a talent. You must spare no effort to advance yourself so that Major Jiang’s high regard is not in vain.”
Dong Que respectfully acknowledged, “This subordinate solemnly obeys Your Imperial Highness’s instructions.”
Watching the Prince of Yong depart, I smiled faintly and stated, “You can stop worrying about your safety within the Prince of Yong’s residence. Xia, no, Dong Que, you are most familiar with that person. Tell me, what does that person wish to do the most right now?”
While Dong Que’s expression remained apathetic, he respectfully answered, “That person’s temperament lacks restraint. He will likely be able to endure for ten to fifteen days. However, there is absolutely no way he can endure for a month. At present, he is fondest of engaging in illicit sexual relationships with married women. Only through this can he satisfy his excitement and stimulate his desire. In reality, although Concubine Chun was beautiful, she probably did not surpass his concubines. It is only that his wife is inferior to his concubines, his concubines are inferior to his maid servants, his maid servants are inferior to those he snatches, those he snatches are inferior to those he cannot snatch. That was why he was so addicted.”
After thinking it over carefully, a strange smile appeared on my face, as I wondered, “You spent quite some time in the Crown Prince’s household. Who amongst the Eastern Palace’s officials and the Crown Prince’s trusted subordinates have the most beautiful wives and concubines?”
Dong Que’s expression changed. Spending some time in contemplation, he said, “Hanlin Academic Shao Yan’s wife, Lady Huo, is a peerless beauty. Half a year ago, the Crown Prince met her in a Buddhist temple and was extremely tempted. However, not long afterwards, the Crown Prince met Concubine Chun. Shao Yan has only recently joined the Crown Prince’s faction. He is talented and the Crown Prince regards him highly.”
I meticulously inquired, “How is Lady Huo’s character?”
Without the slightest hesitation, Dong Que replied, “The Crown Prince once dispatched me to find out. Lady Huo hails from an influential family, and is a wise and virtuous lady. She and Shao Yan are extremely harmonious and affectionate.”
Letting out a light sigh, I stated, “What a pity … If that is the case, then it is inappropriate for me to act.”
Frowning, Dong Que asked, “Why is daren taking pity over a mere woman? She isn’t someone important.”
“I have never lightly forced anyone to do anything,” I expressed with a slight smile. “Even if I want someone to die, I want him to die willingly.”
At this moment, Xiaoshunzi’s figure appeared. With a strange look, he stated, “Young master, I do not know if the Heavens are helping you, but the Ministry of Personnel, under orders from the Emperor, just dismissed all of officials of the Eastern Palace. Shao Yan has been promoted to become a Reader-in-Waiting assigned to the Eastern Palace.” So speaking, Xiaoshunzi handed a list of names, composed of the newly appointed Eastern Palace officials, to me.
As expected, I saw Shao Yan’s name. I could not help but laugh and say, “This is exceedingly coincidental. I had His Imperial Highness submit a secret memorial to the Emperor, stating that the Eastern Palace officials could not escape responsibility for the Crown Prince’s misconduct, and should be discarded and replaced. My original intention was to arrange several people from our side. However, I didn’t expect the Crown Prince’s backing to be truly dogged and strong, only arranging for the Crown Prince’s people in. The only thing that I wonder about is if Shao Yan was the Crown Prince’s own choice.”
“Young master has hit the mark,” responded Xiaoshunzi with a slight smile. “This is a list of names that the Crown Prince handed to Noble Consort Ji. I had people make a copy.”
Taking the silk paper that he handed over, I took a look. Of the names upon the paper, the first one was Shao Yan’s. I could not help but sigh and reply, “When man brings calamities upon himself, there is no hope for escape. I had not yet acted but he is unable to bear it.”
Dong Que icily declared, “At present, he may not yet have such intentions. He probably only desires to see Shao Yan and thus subconsciously arranged to have him come to his side.”
Glancing at Dong Que, I smiled. “The Eastern Palace Reader-in-Waiting is not a typical position. According to proper rites, since Lady Huo already holds a title,6 she is required to have an audience with the Crown Princess. Tell me, what would happen if the Crown Prince accidentally meets Lady Huo a few times? Can he restrain himself?”
Dong Que was speechless. It was some time before he replied, “He cannot.”