"Tell me, Qi Chen," the emperor said severely. "Who pushed you into committing such treacherous act?"
Qi Chen looked up at him and scoffed. "No one. It's all me."
"Do you know what you did is a capital offense?"
"Of course I do. If Nan Xun hadn't arrived in time, I'd be the one sentencing you to death. If I had been a little crueler, I wouldn't have been stopped! Do you know that? It's your fault. It's your fault from the very beginning."
Qi Chen broke into laughter. He laughed so hard that tears burst out from his eyes. He curled into himself and held his hands over his abdomen.
He'd always been a proud man. He wasn't going to submit to other people anymore. He stayed on the floor, motionless, a whirlwind of thoughts filling his head.
The emperor gave up. Qi Chen was no longer the obedient boy he remembered. He took a deep breath and motioned at the guards to take Qi Chen away. The way Qi Chen bared his teeth at him made his heart spasm.
Qi Chen was put back into the wet and dark cell. It was cold, but he refused to get up. He fell asleep lying on the floor.
It was dark outside when he woke up. He could hear noises of mice grinding their teeth. His face contorted into a scowl. He'd been used to living in luxury. He took a deep breath and stood up.
He stomped on the mouse, killing it in an instant. It was cathartic to imagine himself stepping on those who betrayed him.
There were noises coming from the outside. Qi Chen had thought he was imagining things. The man called out for him again when there was no response. Qi Chen turned to the door and saw a familiar face. He frowned. Where had he seen this man before?
"I'm here to rescue Your Highness," whispered the man. He took the key to the cell from an unconscious warden and unlocked the door, urging Qi Chen to leave with him.
Qi Chen didn't hesitate for too long. If he stayed, the only thing he'd receive was the poisonous wine gifted by the emperor. There was no way back for him. He must leave if he didn't want to die. He'd wait for a chance to make his comeback.
He approached the man and let him unlock the chains on his hands before walking out.
He hadn't been paying attention. Now he saw for himself how much trouble the man had gone through to rescue him. The prison was littered with dead wardens. They must have been weakened by incense first for them to suffer such great casualties.
It had nothing to do with him now. He left without a glance back.
There were a few men waiting for them outside. Qi Chen and his rescuer got into the coach, setting for the city gate. Qi Chen didn't ask where they were going.
Nan Xun and Jun Huan hadn't seen each other since their argument. He wasn't mad at her now, but he didn't know how to apologize to her. He debated over what to do as he paced his garden.
He was panicking a little. He knew what kind of a person Jun Huang was. He should have anticipated Jun Huang's reaction. He'd been too forceful. He was to blame for their fight.
"Your Highness," a shadow guard muttered into Nan Xun's ear. "Someone broke the second prince out of prison."
Nan Xun stilled. The fact that someone broke Qi Chen out wasn't surprising, but he didn't expect them to act so quickly.
Someone else was involved. He told the shadow guard to describe what had happened in the cell. He came to the conclusion that Prince Duan was the one who did it. He shot to his feet, ignoring the shadow guard's confused expression.
"Follow me to Gentleman Feng's manor." He rushed outside. The guard quickly caught up with him.
Qi Chen was close to falling asleep in the shaky coach. It came to a halt before a small residence. Disgust flashed through his expression, but he didn't say anything. He jumped off the coach and followed the servants inside.
The building was as small as a regular house. He'd never been in a place like this. It got on his nerves. He was a tiger fallen from his grace. Even a dog could bully him.
He shook his head tiredly. Prince Duan was the one who welcomed him when he reached the backyard. Prince Duan frowned at his unkempt look. "See what you've done to yourself."
Qi Chen scrunched up his nose and growled, "I would have succeeded! If Feng Baiyu hadn't betrayed me, I wouldn't be here!"
Prince Duan frowned deeply and hit Qi Chen's forehead with his fan. Qi Chen sucked in a breath, looking up at Prince Duan, and muttered, "What was that for?"
"To remind you to learn from this experience," Prince Duan said coolly. "Think about how foolish you've been."
Qi Chen pouted and took a seat. Prince Duan sat down next to him. "What do you plan to do next?"
Qi Chen turned to Prince Duan, his heart filled with resentment for Jun Huang. He would explode if he didn't do anything. "I'm going to take revenge on Feng Baiyu and let him have a taste of failure. Then I'll storm the palace and kill the emperor straight away. I'm not going to be merciful ever again."
Surprised by Qi Chen's impassioned declaration, Prince Duan stared at him without blinking. Qi Chen cleared his throat and looked away, his face flushed and his muscles tense. "Don't look at me like that. I meant what I said."
"Then you must listen to me no matter what you do next," said Prince Duan, waving his fan. "Don't be so reckless again."
Qi Chen knew he'd been hasty. Prince Duan had told him to be patient, but he got careless and ended up falling into Jun Huang's trap. He nodded without a word.
Prince Duan sighed in relief. His son wasn't too helpless yet, at least.
Some time into their conversation, Prince Duan realized that Qi Chen was still dressed in the same clothes he'd worn in prison. He looked pitiful. Prince Duan ordered a few servants to prepare a hot bath and help him clean up. Qi Chen followed the servants obediently. He knew how terrible he looked now.
When Nan Xun reached Jun Huang's manor, she'd already gotten the news. She sat in the garden in deep thought.
She turned around when she heard footsteps and was surprised to find Nan Xun staring back at her. She quickly schooled her expression and got to her feet. "Do you know that Qi Chen's been rescued?"
Nan Xun nodded. "That's what I'm here for."
"I think it's Prince Duan."
Nan Xun didn't immediately respond. "No one will believe us if we say so. I've heard about the emperor's interrogation. Qi Chen insisted that it was his idea all along. Prince Duan is known for being a man of integrity. People may still stand behind him even if we've collected all the evidence, let alone when we don't have any."
Jun Huang knew he was right. That was their biggest challenge now. She thought for a moment with her head lowered before looking up at Nan Xun. "I'm sure it was Prince Duan. Do you believe me?"
"Or course," Nan Xun said without hesitation, his eyes serious. The answer made Jun Huang feel a little better. Neither of them brought up their argument, but their strained relationship recovered somewhat.
"Prince Duan has taken Qi Chen away, and you're exposed," Nan Xun said. "They aren't going to let you off the hook. Your manor isn't safe. Come to my place. I'm a general and a prince. No matter how bold they are, they won't barge into my territory. The world is still the emperor's, after all."
Jun Huang had thought of the same thing. Although they had been fighting, this wasn't the right time to let their personal affair get to the big picture. She nodded readily.
A few officials gathered in the biggest tavern in the imperial city, their expressions serious. They made sure several times that they were alone before talking about the political situation in the court.
"The first prince is gone, and the second prince had his title taken away for staging a coup," said a second grade official. "The third prince is still locked in prison. The fourth prince is our only candidate. The rest of the princes are too young to be taken into consideration."
The others shared a look. Their eyes widened when they figured out what the official was implying. "Do you mean we should assist the fourth prince in becoming the crown prince?"
The official nodded. "That's the reality now. That's our only choice."
A man sitting in the corner shook his head disapprovingly. "You may think the fourth prince seem free of desires. I suspect that he's actually a shrewd man. Perhaps this is all part of his plan."
The official laughed. "Do you think the fourth prince is a god? That he could force the second prince to commit treason?"