The sunshine of an early summer afternoon was already quite intense. In the shade under a tree stood two imperial bodyguards who gazed at their surroundings with solemn expressions on their faces, carrying out their duties to protect the imperial household. Behind them was a small, exquisite palace hall. At the entrance stood several palace maids and eunuchs, chatting and laughing in low voices. This was the quarter of the emperor’s newly favored concubine, Concubine Chun.1 She was only nineteen years old, possessing a gorgeous appearance. She was charming to the bone and carried an innately beautiful disposition. She was greatly doted upon by the Yong emperor. But, the Yong emperor was, after all, old, and none of the ranking members of the harem—the empress and the noble consorts—were willing to allow the emperor to indulge in his lust to his heart’s content. Consequently, Li Yuan did not visit this hall frequently.
It was presently afternoon. These palace eunuchs and maids did not have any responsibilities and work, thus allowing them to be so leisurely. However, if one were to look closely, the expressions of these individuals carried a faint trace of dread and worry, and would frequently turn to look towards the palace hall.
Within the depths of the hall, behind layers upon layers of curtains, atop a mahogany soft couch, a man and a woman were intertwined. Delicate moaning and heavy panting reverberated throughout the hall until finally, after a hysterical venting of energy, the two stopped. The woman embraced the man’s bare-naked and robust body, refusing to relinquish her grip on him. After the two embraced for some time, the woman finally released her hold. She lazily stated, “Your Highness, you should get up.”
The man was reluctant to leave, stroking the woman’s snow-white, tender, and lovely skin. Eventually, he rose to his feet and walked to the side chambers. There, a tub filled with water had been prepared. After he had bathed and changed, he returned to the main chambers. He wore the apparel of a prince, yellow dragons embroidered on the clothing. Only the crown prince was permitted to wear robes of this color. The lust filling the palace hall was actually the result of incest.
Li An was infatuated with this woman. In reality, when speaking regarding loveliness, although this woman was good-looking, she was probably inferior to Concubine Lan and many of the other women that he had indulged himself with. When thinking back to when he took Xiao Lan as his concubine, he was also so frenetic with his lust. As a man, to have a magnificent, noble, and fairy-like woman was heavenly. But afterwards, he gradually became tired of Xiao Lan’s earnest face, awaiting instructions. In the beginning, he would secretly hunt for beauties, but at the time, he was unfortunately afraid of the Prince of Yong’s pressure to the point that he was unable to breathe freely. In order to obtain the approval of Imperial Father and those sanctimonious elderly subjects, he could not but be cautious and prudent, and thus did not dare to be wanton and impudent. Even during family dinners, he did not dare to be frivolous or act rashly.
Only after he had substituted for the emperor when making sacrifices at the Imperial Shrine and his position as heir apparent was stabilized could he not but relax greatly. In the beginning, he used the dancers and songstresses of his household to satiate his lust. By lucky coincidence, he was able to obtain the services of a considerate imperial bodyguard, Xia Jinyi. Although the man’s martial arts were mediocre, he was adept at a dissolute and loose lifestyle, training all of the household’s dancers and songstresses to be capable in both their arts and sex. These women allowed the crown prince to become continuously and endlessly intoxicated with such a life. This was particularly the case after last year’s incident in the Ministry of Revenue. Although he had not been punished by Imperial Father, he could still sense the cold indifference from Imperial Father. Recalling this, he could not help but become indignant. The fortunate appearance of a Devil Sect disciple in the Central Plains had drawn away everyone’s attention. He couldn't care less that there were disciples of the Fengyi Sect affected. However, it wasn’t long before that Liang Jinqian had died from poison. That Liang Jinqian deserved death and he, the crown prince, had no intention of letting him off. However, Liang Jinqian should absolutely not have died at that moment. Not only was the emperor furious, sternly reprimanding him, but he also had to carry the charge of silencing Liang Jinqian. Even Lu Jingzhong and Xiao Lan grumbled at him. As a result, he was gloomy and worried for a good spell. Ultimately, it was Xia Jinyi who drove away his worries. Xia Jinyi gathered together the dancers and songstresses. In a private room, Xia Jinyi held an orgy. Even the debauchery of King Zhou of the Shang Dynasty2 was not more than this. Originally, the crown prince should have been careful in speech and conduct. However, this kind of depravity caused the gloom and fury in his heart to vanish. Gradually, he discovered that he could only use Xia Jinyi’s methods to calm himself. In any case, he believed that his conduct was secret enough. Moreover, even if Imperial Father knew, the emperor would not become angry with him over this matter. Wasn’t the emperor himself enjoying the three palaces and six courtyards?
At the beginning, the crown prince was only indulging himself in degenerate pleasures within his residence. Afterwards, he became bored with these pleasures. These women were either ingratiating themselves towards him or pretending to smile, causing him to feel dreary. He could not help but remember the last time he had indulged himself. That famous Southern Chu courtesan was magnificent. Her dance blazed fiercely. However, she had refused to engage in a carnal relationship with him. Angrily, he had raped her. The taste and feeling from that time was completely unforgettable. Presumably, the courtesans of Great Yong were not necessarily inferior. However, as the heir apparent, how could he visit prostitutes? Thinking of this, he could not help but envy Prince Li Xian of Qi.
Afterwards, he had expressed his intentions towards Xia Jinyi. Xia Jinyi was quite intelligent, dispatching men in disguise to pick up several famous courtesans of Great Yong to keep at a separate manor. Then, Li An would dress as a commoner to tease and titillate these courtesans. Sometimes, he would succeed easily. Sometimes, he could only strenuously and stubbornly pursue them. However, this allowed him to feel a different experience. Later on, Li An became weary of these ordinary experiences, beginning to dally and play with all sorts of women. From that point on, the manor became a deathtrap. None of the women who entered would ever leave. The number of beautiful young women buried there were incalculable.
Xia Jinyi even provided a one-of-a-kind aphrodisiac. After taking it, he would not only be able to have intercourse with several women, he would also be filled with vigor when he got out of bed. As a result, Li An became even more unbridled and wanton.
Unfortunately, even before he had completely satiated his lust, he had been stopped from continuing by Xiao Lan. With an eerie expression on her face, Xiao Lan had spoken to him in an icy voice, “If Your Highness wishes to ascend to the throne to become emperor, how can you permit anyone to hold evidence of your conduct? To not speak of others, if my master learned of this, she would be furious. When the time comes, if my master ceases to support Your Highness, I’m afraid that it will be too late for regrets. This time, your servant will deal with everything for you. If this happens again, it is unlikely for your servant to help Your Highness again.”
Although Li An was somewhat angry, he knew that he was being excessive. The following days, he could only melancholically stay within his residence. However, he was always restless,3 feeling the concubines and maids of his household too dull. It was only during one of the family dinners hosted by the Yong emperor, when he saw an incomparably beautiful woman sitting at the last position amongst the imperial concubines, that he felt all of his blood blaze with lust. That was a gorgeous young woman. Her smile was like the blossoming of spring flowers. When her lithe body advanced to present her dance, Li An could no longer restrain his desires and lust. The woman was from the north, and was adept at the whirling dance of the non-Han people of Central Asia. At the moment, she stood barefoot on a circular rug, spinning rapidly, her diverse and ever-changing movements and high-level difficulty spinning leaps caused Li An’s heart to pine. When he saw his Imperial Father advance to raise the kneeling concubine to her feet, Li An could not help but sigh with regret when he saw the youthful Concubine Chun with the already aged Imperial Father.
Although Li An admired and lusted after her, he was not that muddleheaded. Even though the woman was only a lower-grade concubine, she was still his mother. And though incest in the harem was frequent, it was not an honorable and aboveboard matter. What’s more, he was still only the crown prince and did not have the courage. However, the more he tried to endure this, the greater the allure. For several days, Li An continuously tossed and turned in bed, his head filled with visions of that woman’s enchanting spinning.
The Vice Supervisor of his personal imperial bodyguards, Xia Jinyi, saw his melancholy. Unable to improve the crown prince’s mood, Xia Jinyi asked directly what was going on. Li An already greatly trusted this subordinate of his. This subordinate was not only intelligent and capable; he was also tight-lipped, never revealing any of the crown prince’s secrets. Xia Jinyi’s contributions were not shallow. Li An ultimately explained the load on his mind. This kind of matter, Li An was unwilling to discuss this matter with Lu Jingzhong, no matter how much he respected him.
At the start, Xia Jinyi awkwardly replied, “Your Highness, this subordinate’s life, position, and wealth were all bestowed by Your Highness. Even if I were to sacrifice my life, I do not fear difficulties. However, this kind of matter is different. If this matter were ever to be revealed, this subordinate would be unable to take the blame for Your Highness.”
Li An was also very discouraged. His anxiety became a disease and he unexpectedly fell ill. This deeply frightened Xia Jinyi. Ultimately, he could not bear but to say, “Your Highness, you should have plenty of operatives in the palace. The empress is also your biological mother. Noble Consort Ji is also your support. Although Concubine Chun is greatly favored, she is only a lower-grade concubine. You can use your power to force her, using power as enticement. That woman is not a widow faithful to the death of her husband’s memory. What’s more, you are the future emperor. Once you have ascended to the throne, her life, death, and reputation will mostly be in your hands. To speak of nothing else, once the emperor passes, if Concubine Chun does not have any children, she can only become a nun. When the time comes, she will spend her days praying to Buddha while accompanied only by lamplight. Such a life is desolate and lonely. She is young. How would she be able to endure? The emperor is already aged and it is unlikely that Concubine Chun will become pregnant. If she were to become yours, it may even be possible for her to have children. When the time comes, she will have something to rely on. Even if she doesn’t, she will have Your Highness’s support, allowing her to spend the rest of her life without any worries.”
Hearing this, Li An became radiant with delight, feeling his breathing clear and crisp. Immediately, he made up his mind. After discussing the plan with Xia Jinyi, he first submitted a petition requesting to help the emperor deal with matters of the empire. As it turned out, Li Yuan’s anger had already dissipated, permitting Li An to handle matters in the Eastern Palace. Moreover, Li Yuan was also exhausted by the heavy workload of being emperor, dispatching ranking ministers to assist Li An. Li An would seize the opportunity to visit his mother every afternoon, and also seduce Concubine Chun. As the honored crown prince, he had enormous power and authority in the harem. With the help of money, he was quickly able to successfully approach Concubine Chun. In the beginning, Concubine Chun tactfully declined. But afterwards, she could not stand up to the crown prince’s fervent wooing. In addition, with Xia Jinyi’s threats and enticements, intentional or otherwise, Concubine Chun ultimately threw herself into the crown prince’s embrace. The effect of this taboo, passionate love caused the crown prince to forget the women on the outside. Every day, he would always handle matters in the Eastern Palace, only spending two hours in Concubine Chun’s chambers. The emperor was not aware of the scandalous incest that was going on and was instead extremely pleased at the crown prince’s recent diligence.
When Li An reluctantly departed Concubine Chun’s chambers, Xia Jinyi and the other imperial bodyguards, keeping a lookout, came over. They escorted the crown prince back to the Eastern Palace. Li An did not notice that Xia Jinyi’s expression was somewhat restless.
Xia Jinyi was filled with anxiety over this last year. He had used all of his methods and skills to curry favor with the crown prince, going so far as to perform many deeds that he would previously have never dared to do. He had arranged for more than half of those young women beside the crown prince. Moreover, he had dealt with the aftermath, personally killing all of those women. He did not dare reveal these matters to anyone, only telling himself, if he wished to take revenge and sink that gorgeous woman into hell, then he had only one path. It was the path that had been given him by that man: allow the crown prince to indulge himself. Xia Jinyi was convinced that he could accomplish this. However, his hands were covered in blood, his sins grave. He knew that he would not have the face to meet his parents in the underworld. What caused him to be even more restless was that he had never had the opportunity to meet with that man, not even once. He knew that the man lived in the depths of a prince’s residence and would not leave the Cold Courtyard without reason. The imperial bodyguards by that man’s side were ruthless. Xia Jinyi knew that he would not have the opportunity to transmit any information to that man. Moreover, he also did not dare. Having been beside the crown prince for so long, he deeply understood how formidable Junior Mentor Lu Jingzhong and Concubine Lan were. He did not dare rashly contact the man and could only hope that his conducts and deeds could help that man, to allow him to fulfill his long-cherished dreams one day. However, how could he deal with his present crisis?
Yesterday, Xiu Chun had stealthily come to inform him that she had heard Concubine Lan speak with the Crown Princess, Lady Cui. Although Xiu Chun could not make out the details, she had heard Xia Jinyi’s name. Xia Jinyi had a guilty conscience. Last time, Concubine Lan had ordered all of the guards and women of that manor killed. Although their corpses and all traces had been destroyed, if he hadn’t been taken away by the crown prince, he would probably have also died. However, he could never forget the look in Concubine Lan’s eyes as she gazed at him, filled with grimness and heartlessness. Would he be so lucky this time?
Returning to the Eastern Palace, Li An began to doze off as he read the memorials. At last, he could not help but bend over on the desk and take a nap. Xia Jinyi covered the crown prince with a cloak, quietly retreating outside the door. He waited, perking his ears to listen carefully, waiting for the crown prince’s summons. At this moment, an imperial bodyguard quietly walked over and whispered, “Vice Supervisor, the crown princess dispatched someone to transmit an order, stating that there is something for you to take care of.”
Xia Jinyi frowned and replied, “You must know that I am in middle of serving upon His Highness. His Highness is inseparable from me.”
The imperial bodyguard smiled wryly. “Vice Supervisor, how do I dare speak of this matter with the crown princess? It is best if you return.”
After thinking it over, Xia Jinyi asked, “Did the crown princess personally summon you to transmit this order?”
The imperial bodyguard confirmed, “Do not worry, daren. I personally heard the crown princess speak. She has matters that require your attention and handling.”
Xia Jinyi was slightly relieved, continuing to ask, “Is my senior apprentice brother in the residence? What matter is there that he can’t handle?”
In a low voice, the imperial bodyguard muttered, “You understand that the supervisor’s temperament is solemn and stern. There are some matters that he refuses to handle. To speak the truth, I have heard from the crown princess’s maids that the crown princess’s nephew committed a crime and requires someone to facilitate matters. You surely understand that if you do not go to handle this, then no one will be able to handle it. The crown princess does not wish for this matter to be known by anyone.”
Only with this did Xia Jinyi cease to worry. Nodding his head, he accepted, “Fine. Be sure to properly wait upon His Highness. I’ll go back quickly.”
On his way back to the crown prince’s residence, Xia Jinyi felt restless. Remembering Xiu Chun’s words from yesterday, he felt something wasn’t right. Before entering the residence, he instructed his subordinate, “There’s no need for you to go in. Wait outside for me. The crown princess’s instructions shouldn’t take long. If I do not return in an hour, you must immediately enter the palace to request a meeting with His Highness to beg His Highness to save my life.”
The subordinate repeatedly nodded his head and acknowledged, “Understood, Sir. Vice Supervisor, please be careful.”
Xia Jinyi flashed a slight, wry smile. In his head, he thought, I am now covered with sin; it is acceptable for all to kill me. If it weren’t for my aspiration not being fulfilled, what do I have to fear of death? However, I cannot die just yet. I will definitely not rest if I cannot see her sink into the depths of misery.4 Thinking this, he raised his head and straightened his back as he walked inside the crown prince’s residence. Regardless of what, it would at most be one blow. With things coming to a head, he could not shrink back. Moreover, how could he decline the crown princess’s summons?
Entering the residence, Xia Jinyi saw that all of the imperial bodyguards and maids that he had dealings with had traces of sympathy and pity in their expressions. Xia Jinyi knew that he was in dire straits. Although he had received the crown prince’s doting and trust, his character was straightforward and generous, never stealing others’ meritorious service, and never bullying or humiliating the weak. Regardless of imperial bodyguard or maid, as long as they tolerated him, he was very friendly towards them. This last year, the crown prince had been temperamental. Without Xia Jinyi’s pleas for leniency, it was likely that many individuals within the residence would have received the crown prince’s punishment. Therefore, although he was actually a sycophant, he was really quite popular. And while none of these individuals dared to speak openly, many of them secretly signaled Xia Jinyi. Several of the imperial bodyguards that he was especially close with even secretly communicated that he run away. However, Xia Jinyi knew that he absolutely could not. He could only walk towards the rear reception pavilion. This was where the crown princess received subjects. Once Xia Jinyi entered the pavilion, he immediately caught sight of Xiao Lan seated in the seat of honor. Her expression was stern and foreboding. In the guest’s seat was a ravishingly beautiful woman. The Princess Li Hanyou of Jingjiang. A glimmer of unperceivable coldness flashed across Xia Jinyi’s eyes. Stepping forward, he kneeled and stated, “This subordinate, Xia Jinyi, greets Concubine Lan and the princess.”
Li Hanyou smiled indifferently. Glancing at Xiao Lan, she inquired, “Senior apprentice sister, so this is the presumptuous flunky? The fortunate subject that dares to instigate the crown prince to veer off the correct path?”
Xiao Lan coldly replied, “It is this person. Ignore his stately appearance. He is a toady with a seedy and rotten core who flatters his master. Truly reprehensible. Junior apprentice sister, today’s one of the rare occasions that you’ve come to see me, please watch my methods. Xia Jinyi, are you aware of your crimes???”
Xia Jinyi lifted his head. Although his expression was calm and tranquil, his mind was racing, violent with worry. Xiao Lan’s gaze was filled with bloodlust. It seemed that she was determined to kill. However, why was that woman present? Could it be that she remembered him? Impossible. Not only had his facial features not yet matured, now that she was so respected, how would she remember the ruthless way she had harmed that youth? He raised his eyes and looked at Li Hanyou. Li Hanyou seemed to be shocked by his calm and looked back at him. When the two looked at each other, Li Hanyou’s gaze did not seem to change in the slightest. Xia Jinyi stopped worrying. His temperament had greatly changed. Presumably, she would not recognize him as one of her old friends.
Li Hanyou looked upon the man. He obviously had a petty and low status, little moral integrity, and yet he was so calm and tranquil, possessing an easygoing and leisurely bearing. His handsome appearance would entice a woman’s amorous feelings. However, this man was a sycophant, a vile being with poor moral character. Truly a pity, she thought, shaking her head and looking at Xiao Lan.
Seeing Xia Jinyi not respond, Xiao Lan became even more enraged, interrogating, “Are you not answering because you view me with contempt? I ask you, Xia Jinyi, are you aware of your crimes?”
Xiao Lan’s rage burned so fiercely that Xia Jinyi felt as if his chest was hit by the bloodlust that she was exuding from her body. He could not help but bow and confess, “This lowly one is not aware of the crimes that he has committed. I ask that the concubine state them explicitly.”