Within the Roosting Clouds Nunnery, when that peerless beauty reported to the Fengyi Sect Master, Fan Huiyao unenthusiastically said, “It is difficult to control the Prince of Qi. This is something that this seat long ago knew. Were it not that he had no chance of succeeding the throne, this seat would absolutely not have permitted him to be so willful and unruly. It is simply that he chose this moment to have a secret meeting with the Prince of Yong. Wushuang, do you think it is possible that the Prince of Qi will change his support to the Prince of Yong?”
After hesitating a moment, Yan Wushuang answered, “In this disciple’s view, the Prince of Qi won’t completely place himself in the hands of the Prince of Yong. There is no traitor who can genuinely be valued and trusted. Even if the Prince of Qi were to surrender to the Prince of Yong, it will only be enough to preserve his life after the Prince of Yong seizes the throne. If the Prince of Qi were to support the Crown Prince’s ascension to the throne, then he will be only under one man in the future. It is unlikely that the Prince of Qi does not understand this principle. Master, should we have Senior Apprentice Sister Zheng ascertain the intentions of His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi?”
The Fengyi Sect Master shook her head. “We cannot take the risk to warn him. Alas, Qin Zheng is the most useless of my personal disciples, not only unable to constrain the Prince of Yong, she has even given her heart away. Originally, the most important teachings I taught to you disciples were to absolutely not experience true feelings. Regardless of intelligence or resourcefulness, or ambitious ability and sagacity, we women are not lacking when compared to men. Our only shortcoming is that we easily lose our sense of self because of those cheap emotions.”
“Master worries too much,” replied Yan Wushuang. “Although Senior Apprentice Sister Qin does not have the power to constrain the Prince of Qi, this is also because of the distinctive personality and the respected status of the Prince of Qi. If Master is resolved, Senior Apprentice Sister Qin will certainly be able to obey orders and execute your commands, and take control over the Prince of Qi.”
With a cheerful expression, the Fengyi Sect Master expressed, “Wushuang is truly outstandingly intelligent. This time, Yu’er successfully injured the Ghost-Faced General and you have discovered such important intelligence. This seat is extremely gratified. You have to perform your tasks properly and allow this seat to take a good look at your efforts.”
“This disciple will definitely not betray Master’s high hopes,” acknowledged Yan Wushuang with a bow. Hesitating for a moment, she continued, “Master, does this matter need to be reported to the Crown Prince?”
“What’s the use of reporting to him?” asked the Fengyi Sect Master, smiling callously. “To have him become suspicious of the Prince of Qi? At present, the Crown Prince is likely easily frightened. There is no need to give him another psychological blow. Besides, if we get ahold of material to blackmail them, when the Crown Prince ascends to the throne, it will be easier for us to control the Prince of Qi in the future. Presumably, he would understand what would happen if the Crown Prince were to learn of his dealings with the Prince of Yong and was of mind to betray the Crown Prince.”
“The Sect Master’s strategies are far-reaching and profound. This disciple admires them greatly,” said Yan Wushuang with veneration. Pausing, she inquired, “However, there is one matter that this disciple does not understand. Princess Changle is usually never concerned with politics. Why is the Sect Master determined to force her to marry? If the Prince of Yong’s dissatisfaction is aroused because of this, it is likely that our gains will not make up for our losses.”
The Fengyi Sect Master sighed softly. “You will understand in the future. However, there is a reason that you must understand now. Who is Princess Changle’s beloved? Although that man’s intelligence, ability, and wisdom are matchless in this world, he is a bright and frail individual. We all know that he was once both mentally and physically exhausted during the invasion of Shu, requiring several years of recuperation. This seat has dispatched people to investigate in Southern Chu, confirming that his health was truly critical at the time. A famous doctor diagnosed that his heart had sustained injuries, and he was near death on several occasions. Last time I went to the Prince of Yong’s residence, I paid especial attention to his condition. As reported, his arteries and veins have sustained heavy injuries. Over this last year, Princess Changle and he have sent secret messages back and forth, inevitably creating deep-seated feelings of love and affection. If at this moment, Princess Changle were to marry another, given his health, he would inevitably be bedridden and perhaps even be in danger of losing his life. You know full well how useful his incapacitation would be to us.”
A look of admiration appeared on Yan Wushuang’s face. “Once this man entered the Prince of Yong’s household, we have met with adverse situations at every step. Now that we can’t attempt to assassinate him again, if we are still able to eliminate him, it is worth it to take the risks.”
“In fact, this would be of benefit to Princess Changle,” observed the Fengyi Sect master with a slight smile. “Wei Ying’s character and appearance are both fairly decent. It is already quite a good outcome for her in attaining such an excellent husband. What is the point of yearning for a sickly and short-lived individual?”
I have heard that Princess Changle appears to be yielding, but is in actuality firm,” replied Yan Wushuang, worried, before asking, “I wonder how Sect Master will get her to agree?”
Smiling lightly, the Fengyi Sect Master did not answer her disciple’s question. At this moment, a clear and melodious voice came from outside. “Reporting to the Sect Master, His Imperial Highness, the Prince of Qi, has entered the capital. The Crown Prince has led the court to the outskirts to welcome him.”
After the grand welcoming ceremony concluded on the outskirts of Chang’an, Li Xian was invited aboard Li An’s carriage to head straight for the palace for an audience with the emperor. Upon hearing this invitation, Li Xian sneered inside. He wasn’t an idiot. Although the crown prince could do nothing to him before, unless the crown prince wished to use him, the crown prince would never be so courteous. It seemed like second brother was correct; the crown prince was already itching to rebel. Should he explain that the Prince of Yong was bluffing? After thinking it over, Li Xian decided that if the crown prince were to sincerely inquire after his well-being, then he would not conceal a single thing. However, if the crown prince only wished to exploit him, then he would not utter a single word. As long as he was not forced to mobilize his army to rebel, Li Xian was resolved to listen to the crown prince’s commands.
Aboard the crown prince’s carriage, Li An hesitated momentarily before speaking, “Sixth brother, you also understand the present state of affairs. The Prince of Yong is close on my heels, while Imperial Father does not understand. My position as heir apparent is already in grave danger. Sixth brother, you have always been my man. If I were to lose my position as heir apparent, even if the Prince of Yong wouldn’t charge you with a crime because of Imperial Father, there would be no further opportunity for you to lead an army into battle. When that time comes, even if you aren’t placed under house arrest, you will be dismissed from your present offices. At that point, it will be too late for regrets.”
Li Xian’s expression darkened. How did he not understand this? But regardless of what was happening, he could mobilize his army and rebel. Wouldn’t that be a betrayal of Imperial Father’s trust?
Not waiting for Li Xian to respond, Li An continued, “I won’t say much. You must know that at present, you do not have any path to retreat. If I can ascend to the throne, I will enfeoff you as a Supervisory Imperial Prince. When that time comes, you will be second only to me. Sixth brother, what do you think?”
“Then where will big brother place the Fengyi Sect?” inquired Li Xian icily, before continuing, “Big brother must be well aware of why they have supported you so wholeheartedly.”
Li An then appeared awkward. “Of course they have some demands. However, I can handle those demands. Sixth brother, you and I are brothers. In the future, if we join hands and act together, we will definitely have ways to restrict the Fengyi Sect.”
Li Xian sighed softly and replied, “This younger brother understands. There is no need for Your Imperial Highness to worry. As long as Imperial Father’s intentions do not waver, this younger brother will absolutely not permit harm to Your Imperial Highness.”
Li An frowned. This was not the result he wanted. He desired that Li Xian express the willingness to help him rebel. However, Li An could not bring this subject up himself. If he were to utter such intentions, it would cause no end of trouble. After hesitating for a moment, seeing Li Xian’s indifferent expression, Li An ultimately was unwilling to take such a risk. At present, he already could not do as he willed.
After the Prince of Qi concluded his audience with the Yong emperor, as he walked out of the imperial palace, Li Xian saw a gorgeous carriage waiting outside. As he hesitated, a trusted personal guard by his side spoke up in a low voice, “Your Imperial Highness, the Princess of Qi has personally come to welcome you back. If you don’t see her, it would be a bit too excessive. It is better to do it half-heartedly.”
Thinking it over, Li Xian walked towards the carriage. A maid within raised the curtains, revealing the Princess of Qi’s radiant smile. With a hint of teasing and slipperiness, Li Xian smiled and stated, “So Zheng’er has come to personally welcome this Prince’s triumphant return? Truly an honor.”
Blushing, Qin Zheng replied, “The Prince is always so lighthearted.”
Li Xian laughed and leapt aboard the carriage. The curtain fell, hiding the happy lovemaking within.
In comparison, Li An returned to his residence with a calm and collected face. After he had informed the result of his meeting with the Prince of Qi to Lu Jingzhong, he only hurriedly stated, “I will hand this matter to you to take care of.”
Afterwards, he returned to the inner residence. A short while later, an invitation extended under the name of the crown princess to Madam Shao, Lady Huo, was sent out. After an hour, a gloomy Lady Huo entered the crown prince’s residence and was led to crown prince’s private rooms where he indulged in degenerate vices. As the crown prince vented his moodiness with a berserk fury, the blood and tears of an innocent woman flowed.
In the afternoon of the same day, the Fengyi Sect Master entered the palace and met with the empress. Not long after, Empress Dou dispatched a female palace official, her lady-in-waiting, Lady Zhao, to summon Princess Changle.
Princess Changle’s elegant eyebrows wrinkled, as she gazed at the female palace official issuing an edict from the empress to summon her to an audience. This was not a good portent, especially with the empress’s lady-in-waiting coming personally. According to the harem’s regulations of Great Yong, aside from highest maids of the empress and the noble consorts that were known as ladies-in-waiting, the head maids of the other palace halls were a rank lower. These female palace officials were mostly relatively older palace maids. Like her own head maid who was once a trusted maid of her mother and was thirty years old. Regardless of their rank as head maid, their position in the harem was quite high. This kind of edict should not be served by such a high-ranking maid. Moreover, lady-in-waiting Zhao was tight-lipped, only explaining that the empress was inviting the princess over and refused to explain anything. Although she was worried, Changle knew that she could only adopt measures appropriate to the actual situation. She was a greatly favored princess. Even the empress could do nothing to her. As a result, a look of unswerving determination appeared on her face. Smiling, she replied, “Lady-in-Waiting Zhao, please lead the way.”
Lady-in-waiting Zhao led Princess Changle to a high pavilion. The furnishings within were delicate and refined, and had a chessboard and zither. The empress was playing weiqi with a woman wearing a snow-white dress and veiled face. Seeing Princess Changle enter, the empress pushed aside the chessboard and stated, “Fine,. We concede defeat. Come over, Changle, and pay your respects to the Fengyi Sect Master.”
Princess Changle’s heart pounded, and she advanced and kowtowed. She stated, “Changle pays her respects to Your Imperial Majesty and the Sect Master.”
A cloudy expression appeared in the woman in snow white’s pair of clear and icy eyes. Rising from her seat, she walked over and helped Princess Changle to her feet. With a smile, she replied, “The last time I saw you, you were still a small baby. Now your graceful, jade feet are on the floor.”
The empress sighed. “It is unfortunate that this child was born under an unlucky star. Before, her Imperial Father married her off to Southern Chu. Now she lives the life of a widow at home.”
The woman in snow white smiled and remarked, “Changle is dignified and elegant. How can she be permitted to live a solitary existence? I have heard that the Emperor has already selected a worthy husband for you. Presumably not long in the future, you will be able to enjoy marital bliss and harmony.”
Not permitting Princess Changle to even utter a single word, Empress Dou was already smiling and stating, “The son-in-law that her Imperial Father has selected is Prime Minister Wei’s son. Although the date of the wedding has not been set, this matter cannot be allowed to drag out for long. Changle, don’t you think so?”
Although Princess Changle has long been prepared for this eventuality, her heart could not help but tremble. Tightly gripping the folding fan that had been by her side for years, feeling like that man was with her, she smiled and replied, “The Queen Mother is overthinking matters. Changle is now accompanied by the Buddha and am at peace with myself. There is no need for Your Imperial Majesty to worry. Changle has already declined this betrothal with Imperial Father.”
Hesitating somewhat, the empress glanced at the Fengyi Sect Master. Fan Huiyao spoke in praise, “Changle speaks the truth. We, women, do not necessarily need to be accompanied by a husband. Her Imperial Majesty is only taking pity on your youth. You should still think this matter over. Your folding fan is quite elegant. Would you permit me a look?”
Changle tensed up, but she could only hand the folding fan over, acquiescing, “For Sect Master’s appreciation.”
The Fengyi Sect Master took the folding fan and took a look at the poetry written upon it, reciting it softly, “‘The cold water of the pond is fresh in the autumn, / The distant road is exhausted when it arrives at the crossing. / Fortunately, the painting could not be painted, / The completion of the painting is a life’s regret.’ An excellent poem, truly deserving of his reputation as the most gifted scholar of Southern Chu.”
Finished speaking, her chilling gaze fell upon Princess Changle and she questioned, “Is Princess truly unwilling to get married?”
Princess Changle felt her breathing quicken and tense, almost as if pressure akin to Mount Tai was assailing her. Although she was usually delicate, with a yielding exterior, her temperament was firm and unyielding. Obstructed by her status, the Fengyi Sect Master could only use her aura to assail Changle. As a result, Changle was surprisingly able to endure the pressure. The Fengyi Sect Master’s clear and cold voice reached her, “Princess, Wei Ying is a husband that the Emperor painstakingly selected for you. If you are to comply with the Will of Heaven and the people, not only will the rest of your life be filled with happiness and bliss, you will also calm the worries of your Imperial Father and Noble Consort mother.”
Princess Changle could feel her mind being hypnotized1 by Fan Huiyao’s words. The intense pressure was almost enough to have her open her mouth and agree. However, from deep within her mind, an image materialized of that ashen and weak-looking scholar in azure robes. Her gaze falling upon his folding fan, she spoke in a trembling voice, “Many thanks to the Sect Master for your concern and care. At present, Changle has no intentions to remarry. Although Wei Ying is good, he is not my husband to be.”
The Fengyi Sect Master’s long, shapely eyebrows rose slightly. Softly shaking the folding fan, she stated, “For the Princess to refuse the Emperor and Empress’s kind intentions in such a manner, presumably your intentions are firm and unyielding. It is inconvenient for this seat to continue to try to persuade you.” So speaking, she suddenly used force, crushing that exquisite folding fan into powder.
Princess Changle let out a miserable cry, a hint of tears appearing in her beautiful eyes. Faking remorse, the Fengyi Sect Master apologized, “This seat slipped up and destroyed your folding fan. How about this? Allow this seat to compensate you with another one?”
Princess Changle could feel a fire ignite in her. Furiously, she declined, “There is no need. It is only a folding fan. There is no need for the Sect Master to blame herself.” Although her words were polite, her eyes emitted a rancor and hatred that would be etched in one’s memory.2 Even the Fengyi Sect Master could feel herself tremble inside.
At this moment, Empress Dou opened her mouth and spoke, “Changle, your health is poor. Seeing that your complexion is pale, presumably you are exhausted. It is better if you go back and rest.”
Resisting with great difficulty the grief and indignation in her heart, Changle withdrew, adhering to the proper etiquette and ceremony. As she walked away, her steps became a bit unsteady. Having stood at a distance, Lü’e came over to help, but did not detect anything off, only feeling that the princess’s expression was ugly. She promptly lent her arm to support the princess and helped her back to her chambers.
Before they had gone far, a voice exclaimed, pleasantly surprised, “Your Imperial Highness, why are you also here?”
Tiredly, Princess Changle looked up and saw Wei Ying standing there beside a young eunuch. If it was as before, Changle would have definitely made an excuse and departed. However, right now, she had not the energy to ponder and instead asked, her heart palpitating with fear, “Why is Wei daren here?”
His face carrying a hint of happiness, Wei Ying answered, “This subject has already entered the Imperial Secretariat and is waiting upon the Emperor. Just now, the Emperor learned that the Fengyi Sect Master had come to visit and specially dispatched this subject to report to the Empress, inviting the Fengyi Sect Master to stay within the palace longer and have dinner with the Emperor.”
Hearing the words “Fengyi Sect Master” Princess Changle could not but feel the raging fury in her ignite again. Just as she was about to depart, she felt dizzy. Her delicate body weakly collapsed. Lü’e cried out in surprise. She was not that strong. Although she could hold up the princess with some difficulty, and her spirit was willing, however her flesh was weak.3 For this audience with the empress, Princess Changle had not brought many maids with her. In addition, for some odd reason, there were no other eunuchs and maids present, aside from quite young eunuch. There was no way to help the princess back to her chambers. Without any other options, Lü’e could only shoot a glance at Wei Ying. Although Wei Ying was a man, he was, after all, the princess’s fiancé. Although Lü’e knew that the princess loved another, there was no way that she could allow the princess to lose consciousness and collapse to the ground.
Wei Ying hesitated momentarily before rapidly walking forward and holding out his hands. He asked, “Is there a room nearby to allow the Princess to rest temporarily and permit the Imperial Physicians to take a look?”
Lü’e happily replied, “Many thanks for Wei daren’s reminder. This is the western part of the Imperial Gardens. Nearby are Concubine Duan’s chambers. Would daren please help me deliver the Princess there?”
Wei Ying picked the princess up. “Then would Miss Lü’e please lead the way?”
To the little eunuch, Lü’e commanded, “Go report this quickly to Noble Consort Zhangsun. Tell her that the Princess suddenly fainted. Please invite the Noble Consort to Concubine Duan’s chambers.”
The little eunuch immediately replied in the affirmative, turning and running off. With Princess Changle in his arms, Wei Ying followed behind Lü’e. Although Lü’e was walking quickly, she paid close attention to the one behind her, seeing looks of pity and love appear on Wei Ying’s face. Lü’e could not help but feel sympathy for him. If the princess were to change her mind because of this incident, then the end result wouldn’t be too bad. Before they had gone far, Lü’e slipped and fell, probably because she was in such a rush. She could only hold her ankle and cry out in pain. Wei Ying anxiously inquired, “Miss Lü’e, are you okay?”
Forcing a smile, Lü’e responded, “Wei daren, this servant can’t go on.”
Wei Ying yelled loudly, “Is there anyone nearby?”
Lü’e also shouted. But ultimately, Lü’e could only helplessly state, “Wei daren, can I trouble you to follow this path forward? Not far off are Concubine Duan’s chambers.”
After hesitating, Wei Ying replied, “It is already inconvenient for me to be within the harem.”
Worried, Lü’e asked, “Can’t you see the seriousness of the situation? If you are still apprehensive, it is likely that the Princess’s condition will worsen. Also, you are engaged to the Princess. There shouldn’t be any problems.”
Wei Ying helplessly responded, “Miss Lü’e, please wait here for a moment. I will go get someone to come and rescue the miss.” Finished speaking, he followed the path forward. It wasn’t long before Wei Ying became confused. Before him, the path split off in two. Which one was he to take? After thinking it over, he took the left hand path. Not long afterwards, a palace hall appeared in front of him. He happily walked forward and knocked on the door. An elderly eunuch came out to greet him. In panic, the elderly eunuch exclaimed, “How did this daren arrive here?”
Smiling wryly, Wei Ying replied, “I am Wei Ying. Princess Changle suddenly fainted nearby. I want to deliver her to Concubine Duan’s chambers. I didn’t expect that I would go the wrong way.”
In fear and trepidation, the elderly eunuch said, “This place has long been uninhabited. Wei daren, please bring the Princess inside to rest. This elderly servant will go to report this situation.”
Wei Ying could only consent, “Then I’ll have to trouble you to find someone to tend to the Princess.”
After the elderly eunuch departed, Wei Ying was alone with the princess in this quiet palace hall. Gazing at the beautiful woman with a pale face, lying in bed, Wei Ying felt his mind roil. As a descendant of a prestigious house and possessing innate intellect, he received the respect of others. However, Princess Changle obstinately rejected him. Thinking of this, Wei Ying could not help but grow angry. But when his gaze fell upon Princess Changle, he immediately became tender and warm. Although he was filled with regret, Princess Changle was a woman that he deeply admired. The gloom of the tightly closed doors pervaded, giving off a sense of ambiguity. Wei Ying could feel his heartbeat accelerate. From the corner of the palace hall, the scent exuded from the incense in the burner became increasingly thick. Wei Ying could feel that he could no longer hold back his desire, as his gaze towards Princess Changle became increasingly dark and murky.