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In the twenty-eighth year of Wuwei, the Prince, adhering to a plan devised by Army Supervisor Jiang Zhe, fourth-ranked Marquis of Chu, mobilized a significant number of troops to serve as the auxiliary force in the execution of Tan Ji. Afterwards, the auxiliary force marched hundreds of li to attack the main Northern Han army. At the same time, Long Tingfei, learning that the Prince was not with the main Yong army, launched a fierce assault. The Marquis of Chu personally beat the drums to encourage the army as the two armies battled continuously all day and all night without stop. On the ninth day of the eleventh month, when the Prince and his household troops were forty li from the battlefield, Long Tingfei recognized the difficult situation and retreated to avoid defeat. The Prince pursued for three hundred li. Long Tingfei personally commanded the rearguard, as the two forces fought over a dozen engagements without a clear victor. On the fifteenth day of the eleventh month, Northern Han’s Duan Wudi personally led troops to provide support. Recognizing the exhaustion of his troops, the Prince withdrew back to Zezhou. During the fortnight that the two armies had battled, the Yong army had suffered sixty thousand casualties, while the Northern Han army suffered close to forty thousand casualties. Some say there was no victor in this battle. However, henceforth the Northern Han army no longer had the ability to plunder and invade Zezhou and Zhenzhou.…—Yong Dynastic Records, The Prince of Qi’s Family

In the Yong capital of Chang’an, ever since the arrival of the eight-hundred-li express military report from Zezhou, the entire court was deeply worried. This time, Long Tingfei had marshaled a large number of soldiers to invade Zezhou. Although Zezhou had plenty of troops and commanders, this did not mean that victory was assured. Ignoring the fact that Long Tingfei was one of the most capable and famous generals in the world, although the Prince of Qi could resist Long Tingfei’s offensives with difficulty, it was still hard for the prince to be victorious. Further, the rancor between the Prince of Qi and the emperor had yet to be resolved, and there was friction between the commanders within the Zezhou main army encampment. These layers of worries were enough to give anyone a headache. These dark clouds could not be cleared by the appointment of a new army supervisor—the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe. After all, Jiang Zhe was only a scholar. Very few people believed that he would be able to control the Prince of Qi. Even if Jiang Zhe were capable of resolving the grievances between the Prince of Qi and the various generals, it did not mean he was capable of dealing with Long Tingfei.

Moreover, once the Northern Han army entered Zezhou, rumors soon spread throughout Great Yong. Some claimed that Long Tingfei had mustered all of Northern Han’s strength to invade Zezhou and that the Yong army no longer had numerical superiority. Some even claimed that the Yong army had suffered a disastrous defeat and it was yet unknown if the Prince of Qi had survived. Some others even claimed that internal turmoil had occurred within the Yong army, and as a result, they were unable to halt the Northern Han invasion, allowing the Northern Han army to wreak havoc in and around Zezhou, killing countless soldiers and civilians. When the rumors spread to Chang’an, the common people fell into a panic. Although Great Yong’s prosperity filled the commoners with confidence in its strength, the rumors were very lively and realistic causing them to be believed. As a result, it wasn’t long before another rumor began to spread—Great Yong’s famous generals all considered Li Zhi to be the best; only if the emperor personally led the troops would the defeat be reversed.

On these undercurrents, Princess Changle served to stabilize popular sentiment. Princess Changle had only just returned to the capital. While on the road, she had heard these rumors. It reached the point where the Prince of Qing had privately asked if Jiang Zhe was capable of restraining the Prince of Qi. Princess Changle had naturally smiled and comforted the Prince of Qing, stating that there would not be any disputes between the Prince of Qi and her husband. The war would naturally be handled by the Prince of Qi. However, the Prince of Qing still worried. Although he did not speak of it openly, he had covertly increased the escort’s protection. It wasn’t that Princess Changle wasn’t worried about the front lines, it was that she completely trusted that Jiang Zhe would be able to stabilize the situation in Zezhou. She also trusted the Prince of Qi’s tactics and command ability. Even if the Prince of Qi were unable to win, it would be impossible for a serious defeat to be sustained. Moreover, Jiang Zhe had Xiaoshunzi by his side.

As a result, Princess Changle remained calm, only bringing along Roulan and Li Lin to view the passing scenery. Of course, she would also sometimes hold Jiang Shen. Speaking of this, of the three children, it was Jiang Shen who was the most inquisitive. If he were not allowed to look out the window and instead forced to sleep, he would frequently raise a ruckus and cry loudly.

However, with the rumors so rampant, Princess Changle could also feel that something was off. Moreover, after receiving a secret edict from the Yong capital, she had slowed her journey, taking roundabout routes to pass by numerous prefectural capitals. Wherever she arrived, she would voluntarily receive the families of local ranking officials. Although she did not mention a single word about the battle in Zezhou or the rumors, her calm and cheerful mood infected all those titled women. Everyone knew that her husband, the Marquis of Chu, was presently at Zezhou. If something had happened in Zezhou, there was no way that the princess would be so serene and tranquil. This information was quickly spread throughout the low- to mid-ranking officials of Great Yong. When Princess Changle returned to the Yong capital, although military reports had not yet been received from Zezhou, the rumors no longer affected the court officials. Although this was partly a result of the control that the dynasty had over the officials, everyone could clearly see the contributions made by Princess Changle.

On the seventeenth day of the eleventh month, Princess Changle finally reached Chang’an. The Yong emperor issued an edict, dispatching Crown Prince Li Jun to lead all third-ranked and above officials in welcoming her thirty li outside of the capital. Based upon Changle’s status as the Princess of Ning, this was not overdoing things. Moreover, everyone within the capital knew of her meritorious service in placating fear during her journey.

Parting the curtain of her carriage, Princess Changle had a hazy expression as her memories flashed past her eyes. In the seventh year of Wuwei, she was selected to be married to Southern Chu. At the time, she felt full of sorrow, hating that her carriage was going too fast and that she could no longer see Chang’an. In the twenty-third year of Wuwei, she had returned from Southern Chu. Although she had come home, her heart was like a dried-up well, only hoping to spend the rest of her life by her loved ones. Afterwards, no matter how she had tried to avoid it, she had been disturbed by the regretful struggle over succession, preventing her from living peacefully within the palace. Although she was a widow, great waves began to form in her heart. However, the one she loved was so near and yet so far.2 It was only in the twenty-fifth year of Wuwei, when she recklessly eloped with that man and left Chang’an, that she finally was able to experience peace and happiness. Now that she had returned to Chang’an, they would likely no longer be able to return to that life of seclusion in the Eastern Sea. Although she was joyous that she would reunite with loved ones, she also felt helpless at being forced to return to the mundane world.

At this moment, Head Maid Zhou walked over with several palace maids, taking over management of the several children. Calming her emotions, Princess Changle revealed a smile and stepped out of the carriage, calmly studying those who had come to welcome her.

Crown Prince Li Jun, close to ten years old now, impatiently waited for his aunt to arrive. To speak the truth, he was not that familiar with this aunt of his. After all, they had only met a few times. However, he knew of this aunt’s status. Without Princess Changle of Ning, his father likely could not have taken the throne while he would have lost his life long ago. However, Li Jun naturally also understood that in his father’s eyes the most important aspect of this aunt of his was that she was married to the Marquis of Chu, Jiang Zhe. Using Imperial Father’s words, this was the best way to bind that leisurely3 genius to Great Yong, while also ensuring that there weren’t any misunderstandings or reluctance. However, to Li Jun, the most important reason for his presence today was that the little sister whom he had not seen for many years was returning with his aunt. Thinking of this, Li Jun recalled with annoyance what had happened when he had returned to Chang’an from Youzhou. He had hoped to meet Roulan there again after years apart. However, when he arrived, he discovered in a bolt out of the blue that Roulan had been taken away by Sir Jiang. Moreover, in these three years, there had not been a single message, leaving him anxious. Hopefully, Roulan had not forgotten about him.

At long last, Princess Changle’s convoy arrived. When Li Jun saw his aunt walk over with a smile on her face, his eyes widened to the size of saucers. He still remembered his aunt’s appearance. However, right now, even though there wasn’t any change to her features, it seemed like she was a completely different person. That kind of tender and elegant, calm and joyous expression gave everyone spontaneous4 feelings of admiration and envy.

When the welcoming ceremony on the outskirts of the capital finished, a pampered and adorable little girl charged out of the maids from behind the carriage. Grabbing onto Li Jun’s sleeve, she impatiently asked, “Elder brother Jun, do you remember Lanlan?”

Li Jun gazed down at that somewhat familiar little girl. His earlier recollections seemed to immediately appear in his mind. At this moment, he forgot about etiquette and ceremony. Like before, he picked the little girl up and happily exclaimed, “Lanlan, you’ve come back! Why didn’t you write any letters to me these last three years? I thought you’d forgotten all about me! Sir Jiang, no, Uncle hasn’t been bullying you, right? If he has, I will tell my mother. Mother Empress will definitely take revenge for you!”

Roulan stared at the no longer childish and increasingly handsome Li Jun. She suddenly began to wail, “Daddy has bullied me! He didn’t let me send letters to elder brother Jun.” Finished speaking, Roulan sobbed and sniffled as she took out a thick pile of papers, letters she had written but had been unable to send.

Li Jun felt his eyes grow misty without knowing why. Right then, he remembered that he could not afford to lose his self-control in front of everyone. With great difficulty, he lifted his head and stemmed the flow of tears that threatened to gush out. With a solemn expression, he accepted the pile of letters. “Okay … I’ll read them one by one. Lanlan can just pretend that they’ve been delayed for a long time on the road.”

Only then did Roulan’s tears transform into happiness.5 With a bit of a guilty conscience, Li Jun looked behind him. Fortunately, he saw that all of the officials had tactfully withdrawn to a distance. Li Jun sighed with relief. As he set Roulan down and raised his head, he caught sight of Princess Changle’s smiling face. He could not help blushing, stating, “Imperial Grandfather, Imperial Grandmother, Imperial Father, and Mother Empress are all waiting for Imperial Aunt.”

Smiling, Princess Changle took Roulan’s little hand and replied, “Okay then. Let’s get going.” Finished speaking, she led Roulan back aboard her carriage. By that point, Head Maid Zhou had also sent along Jiang Shen. Now that they had arrived at Chang’an, it wasn’t convenient for Li Lin to continue to sit within Princess Changle’s carriage. Princess Changle glanced at the stubborn expression on Li Lin’s face from the corners of her eyes. Before she entered her carriage, she whispered a few words to Li Jun.

When the princess’s convoy began moving again, Li Jun walked to Li Lin’s side. In a gentle voice, he asked, “Are you younger brother Lin? Want to ride a horse with me?”

A hint of warmth appeared on Li Lin’s initially aloof and distant face. The jealousy he felt from being cast aside by Roulan and her subsequent conversation with Li Jun gradually disappeared. In a rough manner, he dryly said, “I know how to ride a horse.”

A look of surprise appeared in Li Jun’s eyes as he replied, “You’re this young and you know how to ride? That’s really impressive.”

Then Li Jun had his imperial bodyguards bring over an imperial horse. He stated, “This is an imperial horse that Imperial Father bestowed upon me. He’s docile. Climb on and try for yourself. Don’t be afraid!”

Li Lin woodenly nodded his head. Although he was small, the reins and saddle were specially designed. As a result, after he had climbed aboard, he was able to quickly take control of the horse, following behind the carriage with Li Jun and heading towards the Gate of Illustrious Virtue. As they traveled, Li Jun frequently asked Li Lin questions. While he found Li Jun to be pesky and long-winded, Li Lin also felt increasingly warm at heart. It seemed like he would not have a difficult time in Chang’an.

When Princess Changle walked into the Compassionate Peace6 Palace Hall that served as the Empress Dowager’s residence, she immediately caught sight of her mother’s loving and affectionate gaze. Princess Changle could not help but shed tears as she advanced and kowtowed gracefully. Empress Dowager Zhangsun walked over and helped her beloved daughter to her feet. The empress dowager could see the radiance on her beloved daughter’s face, no longer showing any trace of her previous haggardness. After speaking a few formal words, Empress Dowager Zhangsun led her daughter to sit alongside her. Only then did Princess Changle realize that Noble Consort Dowager Yan was also present, seated on the other side. Princess Changle promptly rose to her feet to pay her respects.

These last few years, Noble Consort Dowager Yan had worried so incessantly over the antagonism between her beloved son and the emperor that her complexion had hints of age, even though she was just as favored as before. The information in the palace was spread like wildfire. She had long learned of Princess Changle bringing her grandson back. Although she hated and resented Qin Zheng for implicating her son, Noble Consort Dowager Yan knew that without Qin Zheng’s suicide, the entire situation would have been even more intractable. In addition, Li Lin was her favorite. If they had had any alternatives, she would not have allowed the Prince of Qi to bring Li Lin along with him. Hearing that Princess Changle had brought Li Lin back, Noble Consort Dowager Yan was filled with gratitude. In addition, she had heard that Princess Changle’s husband had gone to Zezhou to serve as an army supervisor. Her son’s honor and disgrace would likely depend on Jiang Zhe and his wife. As a result, Noble Consort Dowager Yan was extremely polite and amiable as she helped Changle up, requesting, “Zhen’er, I’ve heard that you’ve brought Roulan and Shen’er over. Elder sister has already been thinking about her grandchildren. Quickly have them brought over.”

Hearing this, Empress Dowager Zhangsun clapped her hands and said, “Younger sister, do you feel that We are becoming a bit forgetful? From the start I had wanted the children to come in. But once I saw Zhen’er, I forgot everything. Lady-in-Waiting Tian, quickly bring the children in!”

It wasn’t long before Head Maid Zhou walked in with Jiang Shen in her arms. Behind her, Roulan and Li Lin followed Crown Prince Li Jun in. In all honesty, Li Jun could not bear separating from Roulan, and had come over as well. Empress Dowager Zhangsun first gestured for Roulan to come over, then picked her up and put the little girl in her lap. The Empress Dowager said, “Little Lanlan, do you still remember Us?”

A radiant, excited look flashed past Roulan’s eyes as she embraced the empress dowager and replied, “Lanlan misses Your Imperial Majesty a lot and misses Imperial Grandfather, too.”

The empress dowager intimately spoke, “Now that you call Zhen’er mother, you should call Us ‘maternal grandmother.’ These last several years, the Emperor Emeritus frequently talked of you and yet, today, he made an excuse and went off hunting. Alas, he is so fond of his face … always remembering that he refused to permit Zhen’er and your daddy’s marriage, worried that you would make things awkward for him.”

Although everyone who heard this found it funny, they all resisted the urge to laugh with great difficulty. While the empress dowager could say such things, they could not mock the emperor emeritus. Afterwards, the empress dowager added, “All right, quickly bring over Shen’er and let Us take a gander at this grandson of Ours.”

Princess Changle personally went to get her beloved son, bringing him to the empress dowager. Roulan obediently slid off the empress dowager’s lap, allowing Empress Dowager Zhangsun to take the little child. Tears appeared in her eyes. In this child’s veins flowed her own blood. She was naturally filled with love and affection. Jiang Shen was very spirited, not fearing strangers. Although he would stumble when walking and still relied upon crawling, this did not prevent him from reaching out with his hands to touch the empress dowager’s phoenix crown. After being intimate with her grandson for some time, Empress Dowager Zhangsun suddenly asked, “Why hasn’t the Empress come over yet? Wasn’t it said that she would come first thing in the morning?”

Lady-in-Waiting Tian respectfully replied, “Reporting to the Empress Dowager, Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress, was originally going to come over. But this morning, Talented Lady Duan suddenly felt a bellyache. She is likely going to give birth prematurely. Her Imperial Majesty was extremely anxious and thus sent someone to report that she would come a little later.”

Empress Dowager Zhangsun sighed. “As expected. The Empress is worthy and virtuous. The Emperor does not have many offspring. So far, he only has one son in Jun’er. If something unexpected happens, won’t that cause the Emperor worry? At present, the court is agitated and the frontier is at war. It is fortunate that the Emperor has such a good wife in the Empress. Four months ago, if it weren’t for the Empress personally showing an interest, Talented Lady Duan’s child likely would not have been kept.”

Seeing the bafflement on Princess Changle’s face, Noble Consort Dowager Yan explained, “This was a result of a disaster in the harem. After the Emperor ascended to the throne, he had the Ministry of Rites reorganize the harem’s hierarchy. They are, in order of succession: the empress; the four consorts, Noble, Elegant, Pure, and Virtuous; the nine concubines, Bright Demeanor, Bright Countenance, Bright Beauty, Decorated Demeanor, Decorated Countenance, Decorated Beauty, Complete Demeanor, Complete Countenance, and Complete Beauty; the nine Fair Ladies; and the nine Talented Ladies. Everyone else were dismissed.

“The former Princess of Yong was naturally given full authority. Ladies Zhao and Yun had served as the Prince of Yong’s concubines for years and had given birth to princesses. They were named the Pure and Virtuous Consorts respectively. Because the harem was too barren, the Empress Dowager issued a decree to select new members. Of those, the most outstanding was Lady Sima of Decorated Beauty, the mistress of the Perpetual Harmony7 Palace. Although the woman was a bit spoiled, she could be considered as both talented and beautiful. Who could have expected that she had a vicious and savage heart? In the Pear Fragrance Pavilion of the Perpetual Harmony Palace lived Talented Lady Duan. Hailing from humble origins, Talented Lady Duan had a gentle and agreeable temperament. After copulating twice with the Emperor, she fell pregnant. Talented Lady Duan could not be said to be favored by the Emperor, and was a bit vacuous. Not taking any care, Concubine Sima found out about the news. After first locking the gates to the palace, Concubine Sima barged into the Pear Fragrance Pavilion with her people, forcing Talented Lady Duan to take abortion medicine. The Perpetual Harmony Palace was completely controlled by Concubine Sima. In addition, the Pear Fragrance Pavilion was a bit remote. This combination permitted Concubine Sima to recklessly act as she pleased.

“However, Talented Lady Duan had soft façade and a spine of steel. Taking advantage of the lax guard, she escaped with her life in tow to a western palace hall, the residence of Imperial Concubine Cheng. This Concubine Cheng was a distant relative of the Duke of Wei and hailed from a military family. She had the heart and mind of a brave and chivalrous individual, frequently protecting those within the harem whom were bullied and humiliated by Concubine Sima. On this occasion, in violation of harem regulations, she climbed over the wall and left the Perpetual Harmony Palace, making her way to the Empress’s Palace of Earthly Tranquility that very night. After the report was made, this incident became serious. The Empress rushed over on the same night, placing Concubine Sima under house arrest and summoning imperial physicians to rescue the fetus. Because of the strong health of Talented Lady Duan and her struggling that caused only half of the medicine to be consumed, her life and her fetus were saved. Unfortunately, now that she had gone into premature labor, it is no wonder that the Empress was so nervous and did not give any consideration to your return.”

This was a common occurrence within the harem. However, Princess Changle still felt unhappy, asking, “What is this Lady Sima of Decorated Beauty’s background for her to be so arrogant and unbridled? Ignoring the fact that she is the Lady of Decorated Beauty, none of the four consorts would dare do such a thing!”

When Empress Dowager Zhangsun heard Noble Consort Dowager Yan begin to speak of these things, she had maids take the children out to play before dismissing all of those in attendance. At this moment, with a gloomy expression, she answered, “Who doesn’t say that’s the case? In past dynasties, unless it was someone who was spoiled by the Emperor to become undisciplined and out of control, there has never been a concubine who would dare to be so presumptuous. Right now, the Emperor is quite distant towards the harem and the Empress can control everyone, We find this situation to be truly strange. Afterwards, the Empress investigated and discovered that Concubine Sima originally hailed from an aristocratic family of the Kingdom of Shu. Right now, her family is the most important family in the Hanzhong region. Were this not the case, no matter how talented and beautiful she was, it would have been impossible for her to enter the harem to become the Lady of Decorated Beauty. Right now, the Sima family is the Prince of Qing’s biggest supporter. The Prince of Qing even went so far as to personally enter the palace to plea for leniency. In order to show him respect, the Empress could only issue an edict delivering Concubine Sima into the Cold Palace.8 For her service, Concubine Cheng was promoted to become the Lady of Complete Countenance. Although she suffered and was innocent, Talented Lady Duan has not yet been promoted, as she is confined to bed rest and the child has yet to be born.”

Scorn flashed across Princess Changle’s eyes. Once again, it was the Prince of Qing meddling.… Princess Changle did have some sympathy and admiration for this brother of hers. After meeting him this time, Princess Changle had personally witnessed his persistent efforts to make things difficult for the Prince of Qi. This in itself could be ignored, as it was likely a result of residual hatred against the Fengyi Sect. However, this incident relating to Concubine Sima was a bit too coincidental. Empress Dowager Zhangsun and Noble Consort Dowager Yan exchanged looks. Both of them were extremely dissatisfied with this incident. Noble Consort Dowager Yan was, of course, acting because the Prince of Qing was the prime culprit in the attacks against her beloved son, while Empress Dowager Zhangsun empathized with Talented Lady Duan. Her own sons had died early. As a result, she could not stand anyone injuring children. Concubine Sima had crossed her bottom line. However, although she had the respected position of empress dowager, she was not interested in meddling in the affairs of the harem. After all, she wasn’t the emperor’s birth mother. In addition, she did not want to interfere with the empress’s authority. However, Princess Changle was different. She was the most honored and respected princess in the Yong imperial clan. Her husband was a trusted adviser to the emperor. If Princess Changle were to get involved, no one would dare to criticize.

Hesitation flickered in Princess Changle’s eyes. She also desired to kill Concubine Sima. That year, when she was forced to abort the child in her womb, she would frequently wake with nightmares, her clothes soaked with tears even though it was the child of someone she did not love. However, Princess Changle could not help being somewhat worried at getting involved in the matters of the imperial household. She knew Jiang Zhe’s temperament quite well. He was someone who was not fond of inviting trouble.

Just then, hurried footsteps thudded from outside. The three women looked up. The head maid on duty outside announced, “Her Imperial Majesty, the Empress, has arrived!”

Princess Changle rose to her feet while Empress Dowager Zhangsun and Noble Consort Dowager Yan gazed impatiently outwards. With a somewhat wan and haggard appearance, Empress Gao walked in with the ranking concubines of the harem. After all of them kowtowed and paid their respects to the empress dowager, Empress Gao sadly reported, “Talented Lady Duan was able to endure and give birth to a prince. However, she has piteously left her child behind and departed.… She wasn’t even able to see her child’s face.”

Everyone sobbed incessantly. Princess Changle felt wrath welling up inside her. Walking over, she paid her respects to the empress. Empress Gao promptly helped Changle to her feet. Forcing a smile on her face, she said, “We were unable to go and welcome younger sister’s return. We have truly been impolite.”

After speaking a few mollifying lines to her sister-in-law, Princess Changle’s eyes fell upon the sorrowful face of a concubine with a graceful and heroic demeanor. Glancing over, she gave a look of inquiry to the empress. Empress Gao sighed and said, “Concubine Cheng, there is no need for you to feel such sorrow. This is all destiny. We know that you were close to Talented Lady Duan. We will definitely not shortchange her burial affairs. Empress Mother, daughter-in-law believes that, since Talented Lady Duan performed a meritorious service by giving birth to a prince, she should be posthumously promoted as the Lady of Bright Countenance.”

Lady Cheng of Complete Countenance kowtowed and said, “Your Imperial Majesties, Empress Dowager, Noble Consort Dowager, and Empress, this servant begins without the qualifications to talk. Although this servant was on close terms with Concubine Duan, it’s nothing to speak of. It’s just that this servant is indignant at the fact that the murderer is still alive even though she’s been thrown into the Cold Palace. In a few years, if there’s a general pardon, she will be able to leave the palace. However, the pitiful Concubine Duan died. I hope that Mother Empress and the Majesties give her justice.”

Reluctance appeared on all three individuals’ faces. Looking at Princess Changle from the corner of her eye, Empress Gao replied, “Lady Sima has already been disciplined … it is difficult for Us to punish her further.”

Grief and indignation clearly written on her face, Concubine Cheng tearfully rose to her feet. The empress bowed to the empress dowager, suggested, “Mother Empress, the Second Prince has lost his mother after being born. By rights, We should be raising him. However, We are occupied with matters. How about handing the Second Prince over to Concubine Cheng to raise?”

Empress Dowager Zhangsun nodded her head and asked, “Lady Cheng, you are a descendant of loyal and devoted individuals and are the Second Prince’s savior. Are you willing to raise him?”

Although Concubine Cheng felt sorrow, she could not help feeling overwhelmed by this honor. She replied, “This servant is only afraid that I will fail to discharge my duties properly.”

Empress Gao used warm words to console her until Concubine Cheng finally accepted this grace. Seeing that the matter had been temporarily quelled, Empress Gao smiled and said, “The time has just about come … We have organized a family banquet at the Palace of Earthly Tranquility to welcome Changle back. The Emperor will come a little later. Mother Empress and Noble Consort Dowager, how about we go over now and see whether the delicacies We have prepared are to one’s taste?”

Both Empress Dowager Zhangsun and Noble Consort Dowager Yan were beaming with joy. Accompanied by the concubines and palace maids, they walked out. Empress Gao deliberately fell behind. Taking Princess Changle by the forearm, she said, “Younger sister, We have already completely tidied up your official residence. You will be able to move in immediately. However, today, you won’t be allowed to leave the palace.”

Princess Changle’s heart warmed, and she slipped her hand into the empress’s hand, replying, “This has truly troubled Imperial Sister-in-Law.”

Afterwards, she leaned in and whispered, “What has Imperial Brother said?”

Although Princess Changle spoke quite ambiguously, Empress Gao immediately answered, “The Emperor said that it’s time to give a small warning to the Prince of Qing. However, now isn’t the right time to reorganize the defenses of the Hanzhong region. As a result, it is inappropriate for the Emperor and Us to not give the Prince of Qing face.”

Princess Changle understood, lightly nodding her head, saying no more.

That night, within the splendidly illuminated Palace of Earthly Tranquility, Emperor Emeritus Li Yuan was finally unable to cope with his longing to see his daughter, and returned. There was nothing that made him happier than seeing Princess Changle beaming with happiness, seeing his daughter glowing with health and vigor. Shen’er was still young and naturally could not participate. Roulan was pulled by Li Yuan to sit by his side. Though arriving later, Li Zhi had arranged for Li Jun and Li Lin to sit beside him, causing Li Kang’s complexion to appear gloomy.

After the banquet ended on a happy note, Princess Changle still had not gone to sleep even though it was already the third watch.9 Princess Changle barged into the Cold Palace leading Head Maid Zhou, Xiaoliuzi, and several sturdy and strong palace maids and eunuchs. After cold-heartedly studying the originally beautiful and pampered, but now thin and pallid Lady Sima, Princess Changle ordered Lady Sima to be beaten to death. That night, Lady Sima’s miserable howls disturbed the entire Cold Palace.

The next morning, Princess Changle personally went to apologize for her offense before the empress dowager and empress. Just when Empress Dowager Zhangsun pretended to reprimand Princess Changle, Li Yuan, who had rushed over upon hearing the news, spoke a few words to absolve his daughter of guilt. As a result, this matter ended without being settled. Even the Prince of Qing, Li Kang, did not dare to protest his father’s decision.

Three days later, at the same time that news of the victory at Zezhou arrived, an urgent message turned up from the south. Lu Can had marched out of Luocheng and occupied the neutral territory of Sichuan, sweeping away all opposition before him and advancing upon Jiameng Pass. A request for emergency assistance arrived from Jiameng Pass. With this, bilateral relations could no longer be recovered.

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