The emperor vomited blood.
Pei Zhang was dead. It was an unspoken understanding that Pei Jin was the unofficial crown prince.
The imperial guards escorted the emperor back to the palace.
The maids and servants cleaned Pei Jin’s manor. But they were repulsed by Pei Zhang’s blood.
Inside Pei Jin’s chamber, Yan Shi Ning hugged Pei Jin. Her heart was overwhelmed with happiness and relief. She was happy and relieved her family survived that dangerous night.
‘Pei Jin, did we win?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
‘Yes,’ Pei Jin said.
‘Pei Jin, when do you think imperial father’s edict will be delivered?’ Yan Shi Ning asked. ‘He never wanted you to be crown prince. I don’t think we should accept it.’
Although Pei Jin won, he didn’t feel triumphant. He looked out the window and thought of the distant past. He wondered when he cared about the throne. Was it when his imperial uncle was alive? Or was it Huang Guo’s continual persuasion?
Pei Jin struggled a lot in the past. He was grateful toward the people who silently helped him built his strengths. For years he hid his real self. If his father or his brothers detected his real self then between him and them the first person to die would have been him.
Even though Pei Jin’s biggest rivals have fallen, he didn’t know why he felt even more anxious.
The following day the court officials were surprised the emperor appeared in the imperial court after a night’s ordeal.
The emperor sat arrogantly on his throne. He wanted everyone to know he was still the powerful emperor that couldn’t be easily defeated.
There were many court officials missing that day. Some were killed during the night and others were locked in the palace dungeon awaiting execution.
Those court officials killed and detained were surprisingly supporters of ninth prince. The emperor replaced their positions with ordinary people.
The court officials who were spared shivered during the meeting until the emperor dismissed them.
The emperor wasn’t foolish. He eliminated the biggest threats to his survival. As long as he and Pei Jin were alive, the threat of rebellion would exist unless he eliminated Pei Jin’s supporters.
The court officials who escaped death and punishment walked outside the imperial court and were frightened to hear screams of torture.
‘Where are the screams coming from?’ the first official asked.
‘Sounds like it’s from the imperial physicians’ chamber,’ the second officials said.
‘What?’ the first official asked.
‘It’s death by a thousand cuts… the emperor hates anyone who deceives him,’ the second official said.
They quickly returned to their manors to protect their heads.
Gentleman Tao was a gentleman. But he was unrecognisable after his flesh was slowly cut to pieces. Each time a piece of flesh fell off, the eunuchs were ordered to throw salt onto his exposed muscles under his skin.
The emperor knew one of his four trusted imperial physicians had exposed his plan. His imperial guards found secret letters Gentleman Tao wrote to Consort Mu so he awarded Gentleman Tao the harshest punishment, death by a thousand cuts.
Consort Mu was fearful throughout the night. She was anxious about Pei Zhang. She wanted to send her servants to see what was happening at Pei Zhang’s manor, but the emperor’s imperial guards detained her in her chamber and didn’t let anyone enter or leave her chamber.
In the morning Consort Mu was the last to know Pei Zhang and his men were killed for treason. She didn’t know what happened but she knew Pei Zhang died because of his biggest weakness, his impatience.
Consort Mu thought about escaping. But the emperor’s imperial guards dragged her into Gentleman Tao’s chamber and forced her to watch Gentleman Tao being cut to death. She knew she had no hope of escaping.
The emperor watched Consort Mu silently cried after Gentleman Tao died.
‘I’m rewarding you three white fabrics,’ the emperor said.
The emperor glanced scornfully at Consort Mu and left the chamber.
Pei Jin and Wang Fu Mu reacted differently to Gentleman Tao’s punishment, they were relieved it wasn’t them in Gentleman Tao’s position.
Wang Fu Mu followed the emperor outside the chamber.
‘It was you!’ Consort Mu accused Pei Jin.
It didn’t matter if Consort Mu was intelligent, she was deceived many years by Pei Jin’s weak appearance.
‘Pei Jin, you’re a cruel man!’ Consort Mu said.
‘Thank you Consort Mu,’ Pei Jin said.
Consort Mu’s throat felt choked.
‘I’m only returning the cruelty you showed my family,’ Pei Jin said. ‘You killed Consort Chen, harmed my wife and son and tried to send me into death’s corner many times.’
‘Is this your revenge?’ Consort Mu asked.
Pei Jin didn’t deny Consort Mu’s accusation.
Consort Mu laughed coldly. ‘You think I killed Consort Chen?’
‘Who else can it be?’ Pei Jin asked. ‘You used Fu Gui to poison my wife, it’s the same poison you used to kill Consort Chen.’
‘Pei Jin, the person who killed Consort Chen wasn’t me,’ Consort Mu said. ‘It’s your imperial father.’
Pei Jin was shocked but he listened to Consort Mu’s recount of what happened to Consort Chen.
‘That year Huang Guo’s army was becoming too powerful,’ Consort Mu said. ‘Huang Guo planned a rebellion after Consort Chen was pregnant. Huang Guo was behind the assassination attempts on your imperial father’s life. Your imperial father survived and knew Consort Chen and her son must be killed otherwise Huang Guo would rebel if his grandson lived. Your imperial father used Fu Gui to kill Consort Mu and her son.’
Consort Mu laughed at Pei Jin’s shock. ‘Pei Jin, now you know who killed Consort Chen. What are you going to do to avenge her death?’
Pei Jin’s whole body was cold.
‘No one completely won this battle,’ Consort Mu said. ‘But I lost my son because your scheme is more treacherous than mine. So you win and I die. Pei Jin, you should be cautious, your imperial father hates to be deceived. If he knows you deceived him, you’ll die more pitifully than us!’
Pei Jin regained his composure. ‘Thank you mother for reminding me.’
Pei Jin left the chamber.
A while later the white fabrics choked Consort Mu to death.
End of Chapter Seventy-Nine
The arrival of autumn added to the sombre atmosphere in the palace.
It was a windy morning, Pei Lam stood outside his chamber in thin white clothes.
Outside Pei Lam’s chamber there were fresh blood on a wall. The empress had sent someone to kill one of Pei Lam’s palace maids who was a spy and a secret lover of seventh prince.
Pei Lam could have saved the dead palace maid. He caught her reporting to seventh prince. She begged him to spare her life while she was being dragged to his courtyard. Why should he save her? She was another ant trapped in a cage who wasn’t allowed to see her family and friends outside the palace. The wind blew through his cold body and he smiled, death was an escape for her.
‘Xiao Lam, why are you standing here?’ the empress asked. ‘It’s too windy, you’ll be ill.’
Pei Lam didn’t turn around, he continued to stare at the blood stain on a wall.
‘I received news your imperial father is conscious,’ the empress said. ‘You should go and visit him. Seventh prince had been acting like a filial son by his bedside these past few days.’
‘There’s nothing good to see there,’ Pei Lam said.
‘You… this little boy!’ the empress said.
‘Imperial mother, aren’t you tired?’ Pei Lam asked.
‘He’s your imperial father!’ the empress said.
Pei Lam turned around and looked sadly at his mother. ‘Imperial mother, put your hand over your heart and ask yourself if you love imperial father.’
‘What are you implying?’ the empress asked.
‘How much you love imperial father is how much I love him,’ Pei Lam said. ‘So I don’t need to see if he’s conscious.’
The empress couldn’t refute her son’s words. She and the emperor were married for more than twenty years but there was no love between them.
‘Imperial mother, don’t waste your energy anymore,’ Pei Lam said.
‘What are you saying?’ the empress asked.
‘Imperial mother, I’m tired,’ Pei Lam said. ‘I don’t want to battle anymore.’
‘You’re insane!’ the empress said.
Pei Lam let the wind blow through his tired heart.
‘That day did you truly requested your imperial father to take away your crown prince position?’ the empress asked.
Pei Lam nodded his head.
‘I’ll never let that happen!’ the empress said. ‘I’ve planned this future for you for many years. What do you mean you’re not going to battle anymore? You must keep battling even if you don’t want to.’
Pei Lam laughed coldly. ‘Imperial mother, don’t force me.’
The empress felt helpless. Was it her son who was standing in front of her? Why did he become a stranger?
‘Imperial mother, it’s windy,’ Pei Lam said. ‘Go back to your chamber.’
Pei Lam glanced at the blood stain on the wall again then he left his courtyard.
The following day news of the emperor was awake and alert spread outside the palace. It was rumored the emperor was deeply moved by the filial seventh prince who never left the emperor’s bedside while the emperor was ill.
At Pei Jin’s manor, Yan Shi Ning’s body felt tired so she napped on the bed.
During the period the emperor was ill, Pei Jin was free. On those free nights he would bathe together with Yan Shi Ning, roll on the bed with her, let her nap and roll on the bed with her until dawn.
One of Pei Jin’s guards knocked on the door. Pei Jin opened the door and the guard reported the news about the emperor being awake and alert.
Pei Jin closed the door after the guard left and returned to the bed.
Yan Shi Ning opened her eyes and looked at Pei Jin. ‘The emperor’s conscious?’
Pei Jin nodded his head. ‘It’s been three days, of course the emperor needs to be conscious again.’
‘I’m waiting for the emperor’s edict,’ Yan Shi Ning said.
Yan Shi Ning felt lethargic, she didn’t want to move her body but she didn’t want Princess Kang Hua to live another peaceful day.
Pei Jin held Yan Shi Ning’s hand. ‘Shi Ning, I want to hear how you feel about your father.’
Yan Shi Ning frowned. She knew Pei Jin was asking her before the emperor’s edict if she wanted him to ask the emperor to spare her father’s life.
‘Although he’s my father,’ Yan Shi Ning said. ‘We’ve lived together for two years but there’s no love between us. I think only losing his prime minister position is too soft on him. He’s the reason why my mother was killed. But he’s still my father, I don’t want him to lose his life.’
‘I understand,’ Pei Jin said. He hugged Yan Shi Ning. ‘Shi Ning, don’t worry. I’ll ask imperial father to spare his life. Also, Yan Jing isn’t someone who idly wait for death. Yan Jing looks like a weak man, but he wouldn’t have kept his prime minister position all these years if he wasn’t a capable man. That’s why I think he’ll do everything to save his own life.’
‘What will he do?’ Yan Shi Ning asked.
Pei Jin hugged Yan Shi Ning tighter and he looked outside the window.
As Pei Jin expected, after Yan Jing heard the emperor was awake Yan Jing dressed and rushed to the palace to see the emperor.
The emperor was reading reports when Wang Fu Mu entered the emperor’s chamber.
‘Your majesty, Prime Minister Yan requests to see your majesty,’ Wang Fu Mu said.
‘I don’t want to see him,’ the emperor said.
Wang Fu Mu walked outside the emperor’s chamber and Yan Jing begged Wang Fu Mu to persuade the emperor to see him.
Wang Fu Mu sighed and returned to the emperor’s chamber. ‘Your majesty, Yan Jing said he has something important to discuss with you.’
The emperor laughed coldly. ‘He still has something important to discuss? Bring him in here.’
The emperor was amused Yan Jing dared to see him.
Yan Jing wore ordinary clothes, kowtowed in front of the emperor, cried and held up his folded prime minister uniform.
‘Your majesty, I’m here to appease some of the injustices your majesty had to endure,’ Yan Jing said.
‘Appease me?’ the emperor asked.
‘Yes your majesty,’ Yan Jing said. ‘I’m not suited to be the prime minister. My wife and my youngest daughter has committed a grave offence against your majesty. That’s why I came to see your majesty. I’m willing to resign to appease your majesty.’
‘What you’re saying is laughable,’ the emperor said. ‘Don’t you know what the punishment is for deceiving an emperor? Death for everyone involved.’
‘Your majesty, I was deceived too,’ Yan Jing said. ‘I didn’t know anything about it.’
The emperor laughed coldly. Even if the imperial guards reported to him that Yan Jing wasn’t involved in the deception, he was repulsed to see the Yan Jing who was crying and begging in front of him.
‘Your majesty, I have another grievance I want to discuss with you,’ Yan Jing said.
The emperor thought Yan Jing didn’t understand boundaries.
‘Your majesty, I want to divorce Kang Hua,’ Yan Jing said.
‘Do you think I’ll spare you if you divorce her?’ the emperor asked.
‘Your majesty, there is something you don’t know,’ Yan Jing said. ‘Why I want to divorce Kang Hua has nothing to do with her offence. She had deceived me for many years and committed adultery with another man.’
The emperor looked at Yan Jing with contempt.
‘Your majesty, the truth is Yan Shi Ting isn’t my daughter,’ Yan Jing said. ‘Yan Shi Ting is Kang Hua and her older cousin’s daughter. Kang Hua deceived me for more than sixteen years. I only found out the truth recently. I didn’t think Kang Hua was this despicable. That’s why I want to divorce her. Your majesty, please grant my request. If your majesty doesn’t believe me, you can send someone to investigate. If you discover I have lied to you then I’m willing to die.’
The emperor laughed at the sight of Yan Jing’s hypocritical righteousness. He knew Yan Jing was someone who valued dignity and status. He didn’t think there would be a day Yan Jing would cry and beg. Nor did he expect Kang Hua would dare to commit adultery and Yan Shi Ting wasn’t Yan Jing’s daughter.
‘Your majesty, these past few days I’ve thought this is my retribution,’ Yan Jing said. ‘That year I abandoned my first wife and daughter and made them suffer… I have no confidence to face the past. Kang Hua is an unreasonable woman, I’ve suffered under her control for many years. But I can’t swallow her adultery and deceit. Your majesty, I beg you to grant my request to let me divorce her. After divorcing her, I’ll return to Xuan Qing and guard my first wife’s grave until my death.’
Yan Jing acted pitiful in front of the emperor. He wasn’t certain the emperor would spare his life and the emperor’s silence made him more anxious.
‘Yan Jing, I’ve underestimated you,’ the emperor said. ‘If what you said is true then you should accept this token from me and return home. Kang Hua has mistreated you like this then she doesn’t need to live anymore. But she is the empress’ sister and it’s not good for this news to be spread outside. I’ll let you deal with the situation discreetly.’
Yan Jing’s body shook at the sight of the emperor’s token, three long white fabrics. He understood the emperor wanted Kang Hua to die and keep Kang Hua’s adultery a secret. If he couldn’t expose Kang Hua’s adultery then other people would think that it was his decision to kill Kang Hua and the emperor was innocent.
‘Do you have anything else important to discuss?’ the emperor asked.
‘Your majesty, I’ll listen to your advice,’ Yan Jing said.
The emperor laughed. ‘You’re a good man. After you have dealt with the situation, I’ll let you return to Xuan Qing to be with your first wife.’
Yan Jing couldn’t laugh freely as the emperor, he knew he would die before returning to Xuan Qing.
The emperor watched Yan Jing leave hopelessly and his ruthless heart cursed Yan Jing, ‘Yan Jing, I did consider sparing your life. But you overestimated your intelligence. Do you dare to oppose my edict?’
End of Chapter Forty-One