Crown Prince Li An wrathfully swept all of the documents on his desk onto the floor. Once again, the Prince of Yong had slyly taken action. These days, Li An could not understand what insanity had afflicted the Prince of Yong to go so far as to continuously submit memorials to impeach officials for their unlawful behavior. Originally, this was of no consequence to Li An. However, the Prince of Yong’s actions were directed at the officials of his faction. Not only was the evidence complete, the methods were thunderous. In the morning, the official would still be working. In the afternoon, after he had been impeached, he would be imprisoned in the imperial dungeons. Right now, the entire court was trembling, everyone afraid of being implicated. After all, as officials, how many were truly honest and upright? Some of the officials even went so far as to express goodwill to the Prince of Yong. When all was said and done, the Prince of Yong’s primary targets were the crown prince’s trusted subordinates.
Frowning slightly, Lu Jingzhong stated, “Your Imperial Highness, the Prince of Yong attacking you is within expectations. At present, in their eyes, it is an unprecedented, amazing opportunity. The Emperor is suspicious towards you. If the Prince of Yong did not seize this opportunity, then he wouldn’t be the Prince of Yong. However, this subject worries that Your Imperial Highness was previously able to suppress the Prince of Yong because of the Emperor. If the Emperor has now devised a plan to depose Your Imperial Highness, then Your Imperial Highness’s position as heir apparent is in dire jeopardy.”
“That’s right. It is very likely that the Emperor has changed his mind,” declared a beautiful sounding voice. However, both Li An and Lu Jingzhong frowned.
The door to the room was pushed open and two women, as beautiful as fairies, entered. In front was Li Hanyou. Behind her was Xiao Lan.
Enraged, Li An questioned, “Our study is now a location without security. Where are the Imperial Bodyguards?”
“There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry,” replied Li Hanyou with a smile. “They dared not obstruct us because they saw Senior Apprentice Sister Lan.”
Li An became even more aggravated. In his mind, he remembered the rigorous security when Zhang Jinxiong was the supervisor of his household’s imperial bodyguards. Back then, who would have dared to barge into his study? As a result, he inquired, “Jingjiang. You should release Supervisor Zhang. Why have you had him under house arrest for so long?”
Li Hanyou’s heart skipped a beat. She quickly answered, “Your Imperial Highness, Xia Jinyi cannot be absolved of blame for this past incident. Zhang Jinxiong is Xia Jinyi’s Senior Apprentice Brother. My master worries that he is involved. For stability’s sake, he can only be temporarily placed under house arrest. After some time has passed, if he has no problems, we will naturally release him.”
Hearing her words, Li An grew even unhappier. Although in order to pass off responsibility he had pushed all of the blame onto Xia Jinyi, he had only done so because Xia Jinyi was already dead. Zhang Jinxiong was different. Not only did Zhang Jinxiong strictly adhere to his duties, Li An fundamentally did not believe that Xia Jinyi had any ulterior motives. As a result, Li An’s favor was also transferred to Zhang Jinxiong. Just as he was about to speak, Lu Jingzhong gently nudged him. Li An immediately came to his senses. Now was not the time to be arguing over this trivial matter. As a result, he could only endure his anger and ask, “How do you know that Imperial Father has changed his mind?”
Li Hanyou let out a light sigh. Sitting down, she explained, “Although we do not have any evidence, we have already found some clues. Your Imperial Highness, your pardon this time was not a result of anyone submitting memorials to preserve your position. My master originally intended to personally meet with His Imperial Majesty to plea for leniency on Your Imperial Highness’s behalf. However, before she could do so, Your Imperial Highness was pardoned.”
Li An was overjoyed. With this, he no longer needed to owe a favor to the Fengyi Sect. However, Lu Jingzhong’s brows furrowed and he observed, “This is highly unusual for the Emperor. To speak inappropriately, Your Imperial Highness’s crime this time is too grave. Even if His Imperial Majesty is willing to forgive Your Imperial Highness, it would only be after some time has passed and his temper has cooled. Further, it would require a petition submitted by someone the Emperor highly values. Only then would the Emperor’s pardon be genuine and sincere. At present, we have yet to move and still the Emperor has already pardoned Your Imperial Highness. If that is the case, then it is a problem. This is my carelessness. Would the Princess please explain?”
Li Hanyou smiled grimly. “From the palace, I have received information that before the Emperor made his decision, he discussed this matter with Princess Changle.”
“How is that possible?” exclaimed Li An with great alarm. “Princess Changle has never involved herself with politics!”
“That was our thought as well,” responded Li Hanyou, heaving a sigh. “As a result, although we wish to force her to be married, it is only to put some distance between her and the Prince of Yong’s household. Who could have expected that she would strike us so heavily at this critical juncture? Although we do not have any intelligence as to what she said to the Emperor, from the present situation, we can conclude that the Emperor has intentions to depose Your Imperial Highness. What he lacks is a reason. Furthermore, as Your Imperial Highness was the heir apparent for many years, you have many supporters and subordinates. During the Emperor’s several private discussions with the Prince of Yong, none of our people had the opportunity to get close. It is likely that the Emperor has truly changed his mind.”
Feeling as if a bucket of ice-cold water had been dumped on him, Li An felt chilled his bones. He had never been so terrified in his life. He knew clearly how and why he had attained his current position. Without the emperor’s protection, how could he compete with the Prince of Yong? He had never regretted seducing Concubine Chun. Upset with himself, Li An could not figure out how he had been so insane as to infuriate Imperial Father.
Glancing at the callous smile on the corners of Li Hanyou’s mouth, Lu Jingzhong became unhappy. He knew that the Fengyi Sect was going to seize this opportunity to blackmail the crown prince. However, Lu Jingzhong understood that the current predicament needed to be overcome first, and thus stated, “There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry too much. Although the Emperor has currently already begun to waver, he has yet to make his final decision. Therefore, Your Imperial Highness still has the opportunity to redeem the situation. The Fengyi Sect Master is not on good terms with the Prince of Yong. If the Prince of Yong were to become the heir apparent, it is likely that the most regretful individual would be someone else and not Your Imperial Highness.”
Li An was a bit confused by Lu Jingzhong’s words. However, Li Hanyou immediately understood the threats in Lu Jingzhong’s words. If the crown prince were to lose his position as heir apparent, then the damage to the Fengyi Sect would be severe. It was best if they did not seize this opportunity to blackmail the crown prince. Although she was enraged, she knew that this was the irrefutable reality. At present, the Fengyi Sect and the crown prince were in the same boat. As a result, she smiled slightly and expressed, “Your Imperial Highness, the only thing that can be done right now is to ascend to the throne as early as possible.”
Frightened, Li An sprang to his feet. Gazing upward, he saw the calm eyes of all three. At first, Li An wished to forcefully reject their proposal. However, after thinking it over, with his position as heir apparent currently in jeopardy, he could not utter a single word of refutation.
Exchanging glances, Li Hanyou and Xiao Lan rose to their feet and stated, “Although Your Imperial Highness has scrupulously abided by the laws of filial piety, vile characters have deceived the Emperor. If we are unfortunate and the Prince of Yong is permitted to ascend to the throne, then he will likely be a bellicose and militaristic tyrant. With this, Great Yong will never be at peace. If Your Imperial Highness is able to make this resolution, we will definitely support Your Imperial Highness in the ascension to the throne. The Emperor is already old. It is better that he retires to rest. What does Your Imperial Highness think?”
In a weak and feeble voice, Li An said, “But our present strength is too weak. Sixth brother has gone to the northern frontier. It is difficult for us to control the Imperial Guard. What’s to be done?”
“The Sect Master has already made all the arrangements,” replied Li Hanyou with a faint smile. “As long as Your Imperial Highness gives the mark of approval, our Fengyi Sect will take risks and act. Your Imperial Highness, do not worry. We will definitely be cautious and careful, and succeed in one go.”
Hemming and hawing, Li An finally asked, “What plan do you have?”
Proud of herself, Li Hanyou smiled and answered, “Your Imperial Highness, do not worry. We already came up with an appropriate plan. We will only need a few months and Your Imperial Highness will be able to ascend to the throne. However, Your Imperial Highness must speak and act carefully so as to avoid the Emperor’s rage. If the Emperor deposes Your Imperial Highness, I’m afraid that we can only slowly pull back.”
“This Prince will be prudent,” affirmed Li An, his face scarlet. “However, you must be careful. It is best to wait for the return of the Prince of Qi before acting.”
Smiling lightly, Li Hanyou replied, “Your Imperial Highness, do not worry. We have been preparing for this exigency for a long time. At the latest, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, will return in the tenth month. When that time comes, it will be the perfect opportunity for us to act. Right now, we must take this opportunity to make arrangements. Presumably, Your Imperial Highness also wants to completely take care of the Prince of Yong’s faction?”
At this moment, Lu Jingzhong spoke up in an indifferent tone, “For the Fengyi Sect to place such high importance on Your Imperial Highness’s great aspirations, one has to wonder what demands it has?”
“It is Junior Mentor Lu who understands reason,” responded Li Hanyou, continuing to smile. “In reality, our demands aren’t high. After Your Imperial Highness ascends to the throne and enfeoffs Senior Apprentice Sister Lan as the Empress, then our Fengyi Sect will be sure to wholeheartedly serve Your Imperial Highness.”
A look of reluctance on his face, Li An asked, “Lady Cui has never lacked in virtue and has given birth to my heir. How can I demote her?”
Li Hanyou explained, “Your Imperial Highness, before, you have always refused to demote Lady Cui because of the Emperor. Now that the Emperor no longer supports you, if you are unwilling to agree to this condition, what reason is there for us to take such risks that would harm our good reputation? In addition, we are only requesting that you appoint Senior Apprentice Sister Lan as your Empress and not asking you to demote Lady Cui. It should be enough for her to become a noble consort.”
Seeing the heartless smile on the corners of Li Hanyou’s mouth, Li An understood that if he did not agree to this demand, then it would be impossible for Lady Cui and his heir to survive. How could he steel himself for such a result? Seeing Li An hesitate, Li Hanyou did not continue to force him, only stating, “Your Imperial Highness, please think carefully. This matter is not urgent. You can discuss this with Junior Mentor Lu.”
Finished speaking, she rose to her feet and bade her farewell, “Your servant still has business to attend to. Your Imperial Highness, please think this over carefully. After making your decision, you can inform my Senior Apprentice Sister Lan.”
After watching Li Hanyou and Xiao Lan leave, Li An was so infuriated that he threw a teacup onto the ground. Enraged, he shouted, “Junior Mentor, tell me, do they even treat me with proper respect? I fear that if I agree to this demand of theirs, I would become their puppet.”
With his expression severe and stony, it was some time before Lu Jingzhong spoke, “There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry. There is still room to save the situation. They have quoted a sky-high price.1 Your Imperial Highness can haggle and make an extremely low counteroffer.”
Hesitating for a moment, Li An replied, “Junior Mentor, now that We can’t even ensure Our own safety,1 it is better to sacrifice Lady Cui and the heir. If the Prince of Yong were to succeed the throne, they would likely be killed. Let’s discuss this matter with the Fengyi Sect. I can depose the Crown Princess and give a principality to the heir.”
Lu Jingzhong sneered in his mind. As expected, the Crown prince was a heartless individual to so easily discard his wife and child. However, not a single hint of scorn appeared on Lu Jingzhong’s face. He only neutrally observed, “Although Your Imperial Highness is sacrificing the Crown Princess and the heir, you have acquired the entire support of the Fengyi Sect. However, if Concubine Lan were to become the Empress and her son became the Crown Prince, then if Your Imperial Highness fails to adhere to their intentions, it is likely they would assassinate Your Imperial Highness and have Concubine Lan’s son take the throne. When that time comes, it will be too late for regrets.”
Smiling ironically, Li An returned, “But if I do not agree, it is likely that they will abandon me. If that were to happen, wouldn’t I become the Prince of Yong’s prisoner?”
With a sinister smile, Lu Jingzhong expounded, “Your Imperial Highness is worrying too much. At present, even if Your Imperial Highness wishes to renounce your position as heir apparent, the Fengyi Sect will not agree. The Prince of Yong has clearly shown that he has no intention of working with them. Without Your Imperial Highness, they will not be able to legitimately rise in the court. Therefore, as long as Your Imperial Highness adheres to a hardline, the Fengyi Sect would absolutely not dare to fall out with Your Imperial Highness. It would be better to reject this demand and agree to appoint Concubine Lan as a noble consort. Moreover, you will agree to wait to appoint an heir apparent. If Concubine Lan’s son is eminently capable, then he can be the heir apparent. We should first delay this matter. Once Your Imperial Highness has succeeded to the throne, then it will be beyond their control. After all, without Your Imperial Highness, there is no way for those court officials to follow the Fengyi Sect and rebel.”
“You speak the truth,” acknowledged Li An, beaming with joy, before asking, “How should We inform Concubine Lan?”
“Your Imperial Highness should first console the Crown Princess,” responded Lu Jingzhong respectfully and cautiously. “If the Crown Princess were to find out, it is likely that she would be extremely worried.”
Nodding his head, Li An agreed, “Do not worry. Oh, that’s right … have the newly appointed officials of the Eastern Palace arrived to pay their respects?”
“They have already arrived,” answered Lu Jingzhong with a smile. “Although Your Imperial Highness is temporarily prohibited from handling affairs of state, these officials must still be carefully selected. In this way, we can ensure that others do not see the Emperor’s dissatisfaction towards Your Imperial Highness.”
Li An continued to nod his head. “You shall handle these matters. I’ll pay a visit to the Crown Princess and the heir. She has been frightened during this period.”
When he arrived at the inner residence, Li An saw several pairs and trios of women walk out, all of them accompanied by maids. Seeing Li An, they all kowtowed to pay their respects. One of the Crown Princess’s maids stepped forward and announced, “Your Imperial Highness, these are the womenfolk of the newly selected officials of the Eastern Palace who have come to pay their respects to the Crown Princess.”
“So that’s who they are,” said Li An, nodding his head. Without speaking any further, he proceeded inside to see the crown princess. But before he had taken several steps, he caught sight of a young woman with an elegant complexion in aristocratic garb, carrying an aura of dignified coquetry. Li An could not help but be infatuated. He recognized this woman. But because he was infatuated with Concubine Chun, he had not made a move towards her. This time, when he was selecting new officials for the Eastern Palace, he could not help but pick Shao Yan’s name. Although he did not have any definite intentions at the time, he did have a hint of an idea to coax the couple to his side to make it easier for him to act. It had not occurred to him that he would run into Lady Huo so soon. Having not seen her for half a year, she somehow seemed to be even more beautiful, especially her tender temperament. All those who saw her could not help but love and want to empathize with her. Feigning calm, Li An watched these women depart, a brilliant light dancing in his eyes. If Xia Jinyi were here, he would have immediately understood Li An’s intentions. However, with Xia Jinyi dead, there was no one present who could arrange things for him.
After hurriedly consoling the crown princess, Li An returned to his study. At this moment, he was the only one in the room. Although he knew that he could not act at this moment, given the critical state of his position, after thinking it over, he believed that he did not need to do a single thing. Everything would be taken care of for him by the Fengyi Sect and Lu Jingzhong. He need only to follow their plan, actions that he was extremely adept at. If that was the case, then couldn’t he let himself go a bit, and also make up for the terror that he had experienced these last few days?
After struggling with the decision for quite some time, Li An finally could no longer restrain himself. These days, he had been fasting or had been under house arrest. He was already dejected beyond belief. Although his household had dancers and songstresses, he did not have the slightest interest in them. Having indulged himself this past year, he had lost interest in those women who bent their heads towards him long ago. Li An began to calculate whether the situation would create any problems. After some time, Li An remembered that Concubine Chun was also reluctant at first. However, he had used threats and temptation to force her to yield. As long as he promised that Shao Yan would be promoted, why would he fear that that woman wouldn’t yield as well? Besides, even if Imperial Father were to find out about the affair, he would not get too angry. It was just the wife of an official.
The next day, Lady Huo received a message from the crown princess, inviting her to go to the crown prince’s residence. Lady Huo did not find this strange. Yesterday, when she had met with the crown princess, she could sense that the crown princess was in a poor mood. Aside from the scandal involving the crown prince, one of the crown princess’s beloved maids had died. The crown princess had been very affectionate towards Lady Huo and was very appreciative of the embroidery that Lady Huo had gifted her. As a result, Lady Huo did not find anything strange. In addition, her husband was the Eastern Palace Reader-in-Waiting. If she were able to receive the favor of the crown princess, it would be benefit to her husband. As a result, Lady Huo went without any worries.
Under the guidance of several maids, Lady Huo was led into an elegant building. She felt something was off. This location did not seem to be the crown princess’s chambers. Although it was refined, it seemed to lack in grandeur. Entering the reception hall, Lady Huo immediately cried out in fear. This was an extremely gorgeous private chamber. Thick carpet was laid out on the floor. The entire room was filled with gorgeous furnishings. In one corner of the room was a spacious bed veiled by pink muslin curtains. As for the four walls, they were covered with erotic art. After taking one look, Lady Huo did not dare to look any further. Fear consumed her. Just as she was about to withdraw, she saw a man standing by the doorway. Lady Huo immediately recognized him as the crown prince and shivered. Although information about the latest scandal was not spread, she had still heard some rumors. Resisting her fear with great difficulty, she stated, “This subject has barged into this place by mistake. Your Imperial Highness, please forgive me.”
Li An smiled ambiguously. “It was I who dispatched someone to invite you here. How can I not forgive you?”
Greatly alarmed, Lady Huo replied, “Your Imperial Highness, this does not comport with proper etiquette.” As she spoke, Lady Huo began to retreat out of the room, but was stopped by Li An.
Having trained a bit in martial arts, Li An was very easily able to wrap his arms around Lady Huo’s waist. Just as Lady Huo was about to continue struggling, Li An suddenly, fiercely declared, “If you don’t stop, I will send someone to immediately murder your husband.”
Lady Huo quickly ceased her struggling, an expression of alarm and terror clear on her face. Li An continued icily, “If you are obedient, then your husband will see rapid promotions to a high post.”
Lady Huo’s mind was already lost. Taking advantage of this, Li An dragged her to bed. After allowing the pink muslin curtains to fall, the sound of crying could be heard coming from within.
On the afternoon of the second day, when Lady Huo boarded her palanquin and returned home, a pair of eyes sized her up. After seeing everything clearly, a ruthless light flashed in the eyes.
Not long afterwards, Dong Que returned to the Cold Courtyard. After removing the disguise that concealed his identity, he callously stated, “The Crown Prince has already become successful.”
Fanning the folding fan in my hand gently, I replied, “Are you sure?”
“There is no one more clear about these things than I,” replied Dong Que, revealing a hint of a smile. “The woman has definitely been violated as much as the Crown Prince desired.”
I smiled. “I naturally trust your judgment on this matter. What do you think will happen to Lady Huo?”
Without the slightest hint of sympathy, Dong Que answered, “According to the Crown Prince’s customs, he will not become tired of her for the time being. As a result, even if Lady Huo wishes to commit suicide, there is nothing she can do. From her facial expression, she wants to weep, but she has no tears. For now, she does not have any intention of dying. For the time being, I believe she won’t commit suicide. Moreover, Lady Huo is not someone who can be cowed using martial might.”
“Would she inform her husband?” I inquired offhandedly.
Shaking his head, Dong Que responded, “In the short-term, she won’t say anything. Additionally, Hanlin Academic Shao is an old-fashioned intellectual. It will be difficult for him to forgive her. I believe that she won’t be that foolish.”
I sighed lightly. “Honestly, we could have told that woman to be careful.”
Without any remorse or sympathy, Dong Que replied, “Young master, it is useless to be so merciful. Even if you warned that couple, they would only believe that you were seeking to frame the Crown Prince. In addition, such an act would inadvertently alert the enemy.”
“I understand well this argument,” I remarked with a wry smile. “Thus I have watched this tragedy unfold with the cool eye of a bystander.3 Dong Que, right now, I truly feel like the mission that I assigned to you before was too cruel.”
Dong Que remained silent for a while. “I was willing to take up that mission. The Crown Prince is the one doing these kinds of things. What does it have to do with us?”