Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
In the night, a brilliant fire arrow broke out from the darkness, rapidly moving toward the center of the imperial palace. The sounds of horse hooves were like drums being beat, coming from afar. The faces of Wei De, the empress, and King Fu were pale. Soon, the sounds of fighting and clashes between soldiers sounded outside Qianqing Palace. Firelight mingled into an expanse, and the leaping light and shadows shone on the faces of everyone inside the hall, illuminating faces filled with fear.
“Hurry! Kill the second prince!” roared Wei De.
Noble Consort Li hugged her child and screamed, “Don’t!”
King Fu roared loudly, “I’ll do it!” He immediately grabbed the second prince’s collar, pulling him out of Noble Consort Li’s embrace. Noble Consort Li hugged her child tightly, and the child cried and wailed shrilly in her arms. Wei De rushed up and grabbed the noble consort, pulling her back. King Fu got the child out, carried him to the outer room, and drew the saber at his waist.
The gleaming light of the saber shone on the boy’s panicked face. The thin and weak second prince was like a young sparrow amid bitter rain, trembling mournfully. The maids and eunuchs all around shouted loudly and pounced over, holding onto King Fu’s hands and feet.
“Who dares to move! Leave!” The empress roared, “Chen’er, kill them! Kill them all!”
However, King Fu only struggled desperately but didn’t swing his saber. Wei De shouted, “Your Highness, hurry!”
However, a feathered arrow congealed with a cold light whistled as it came obliquely, piercing through the paste gauze door, plunging directly into his black gauze hat. He suddenly paused. In the cries of Empress Zhang, dark red blood flowed down windingly from his forehead, like a red snake as thick as a finger leisurely sliding past his fat and whtie cheeks, containing a suffocating horror.
The eunuchs and maids grabbed the second prince down, and King Fu fell to the ground heavily.
“No!” Empress Zhang screamed mournfully.
The vermillion gate suddenly opened, and in the light, a tall man walked in. As soon as he came in, it was as if all of the light in the hall had gathered on his body, and each of the complex and gorgeous embroidered pythons and gold-traced lines on his yesa robes flowed with a tranquil light. Looking higher, quiet gold shone on his cheeks, outlining his delicate eyes and brows.
“I have come late to rescue the emperor. Forgive my offense, Your Majesty!” Shen Jue nodded and saluted with clasped hands, the smile on his face difficult to fault.
Situ Jin, who was carrying a bow and arrows on his back, was behind him, and he also nodded and saluted with clasped hands.
Wei De’s lips trembled and he pointed at Shen Jue, yet he didn’t say anything.
The old emperor gazed at King Fu’s corpse on the ground. A crystal clear teardrop slid down his face that was as gloomy as withered wood, congealed with the light of the candle flames and strikingly bright. The emperor’s grief was like tidewater, silently surging open on his old man that was about to die.
“Not late, Chief Officer Shen, you’ve come just in time.” He propped himself up and said, “In former years, I had three brothers, but they fought for the emperor’s throne so that their heads were broken and bleeding, killing each other and dying tragically one after another. I only have two children, but I did not think that they still wouldn’t be able to escape a life-or-death stalemate.” He looked at Wei De and said calmly, “Old Companion, I knew you and the empress were colluding long ago, so I already gave the tiger tally to Shen Jue long ago. I demoted him to go to Nanjing, actually to avoid your eyes and ears and wait for the opportunity to return to the capital and save me. But not until the last minute, I was still unwilling to give up and hoped that you would repent. It seems now that it was in vain.”
Wei De took off the gold-traced black gauze curved hat on his head and kowtowed on the ground. He knew that he had already lost cleanly, so at this point, there was nothing to say. He could afford to gamble, so he could naturally also afford to lose.
Wei De knocked his forehead on the back of his hands and said, “I have accompanied the emperor for more than sixty years, and I originally thought that I was Your Majesty’s close confidant. Your Majesty could keep anyone in the dark, but not me. However, I didn’t expect that it turns out that Your Majesty has been wary of me long ago. I forgot that Your Majesty is Your Majesty! The fourth prince at the time with whom I was to try my best to protect each other has already grown up long ago. Your Majesty, I was confused and relied on your favor to do evil, and committed this unforgivable felony. I am ashamed of your entrustment. Your Majesty, dispose of me.”
The old emperor was silent for a very long time, and Wei De kowtowed on the ground, unmoving. Wrapped under crimson python-embroidered robes, his withered body appeared to become even thinner.
The emperor said, “You and I have been together for more than sixty years. When I was in the concubines’ residence and disliked by people and hated by dogs, it was you who accompanied me. When I became the emperor and was worshiped all over the world, it was also you who accompanied me. I already couldn’t leave you a long time ago. After I die, come to my Jian Tomb and guard it.”
Wei De was shocked all over. “Your Majesty, you aren’t going to kill me?”
“Kill or not kill, the people who have died are already dead, so what’s the use? A few more deaths is also increasing sorrow. Guard the mausoleum for me, do your best as atonement.”
Wei De’s head that was on the ground seemed to weigh a thousand kilograms, unable to be lifted up. Immediately, he kowtowed heavily and said hoarsely, “Thank you for your great grace!”
“As for the final edict, I have already signed it.” The emperor pointed at his pillow and said to Shen Jue, “Tear the pillow open.”
Shen Jue did as he said. Sure enough, an apricot yellow final edict was indeed sewed into the pillow. Shen Jue held the edict in his hands and stepped forward.
However, the emperor waved and said, “Keep it well, no need to give it to me. Everyone, leave, I’m tired.”
The dragon and phoenix candlesticks burned sizzlingly. The old emperor was sitting under the bed curtains, and the bright yellow satin covered a layer of gloomy shadow on his face. It already didn’t look like a face, but instead gray charcoal that had gone out, so gray it was turning white, and it had a deathly stillness.
Everyone said yes and was about to retreat. The empress, who was hugging King Fu, suddenly screamed, her hands holding a handful of cotton she had pulled out from the fold of King Fu’s clothes. She shouted loudly, “He’s not my son! He’s fake! He’s not Chen’er!”
Under “King Fu’s” clothes, white and round cotton leaked out, and it was as if his entire body was leaking air, swiftly becoming skinny. Everyone watched, dumbfounded. Shen Jue didn’t have any expression, and he only lowered his head as he put the edict into his sleeve placket and said calmly, “The cat’s already out of the bag, what are you still lying down for? Get up.”
Right after Shen Jue said this, the person on the ground rolled up and chuckled. “Governor, you can’t blame me. It’s the empress’s fault for hugging me and not letting go, so the cotton was all squeezed out.” As he said this, he took off his black gauze hat and the bag of chicken blood on his head. Then, he pulled on his facial skin, and a plump skin mask was torn down, revealing his own face underneath——smiling and looking joyous.
Empress Zhang’s finger trembled as she asked, “Who… Who are you?! Where is the prince?! He’s not dead, right? Right?”
The underling didn’t answer. He stood up and walked behind Situ Jin, wholeheartedly becoming an invisible person.
The empress straightened up, and his face became a little redder, as if a few sparks had leapt up from the charcoal fire that was about to go out. “Shen Jue, what’s going on?! Who is this? And where is King Fu? Ah, I understand, I ordered you not to hurt King Fu, so you thought of this method to make a fake King Fu and hide the real one. This way, the real one is protected, but you could still expose them.” As he said this, he smiled slightly. “You’ve always been resourceful, I was indeed right about you.”
Wei De’s expression changed. “I’m afraid this is not the case…”
Shen Jue didn’t reply and only saluted with clasped hands toward Noble Consort Li. “This matter is already over. Noble Consort, the second prince has been frightened, so why don’t you take His Highness away to rest.”
The emperor still hadn’t spoken, though Shen Jue doing this was really overstepping. However, it had gotten to this point, and the old emperor didn’t care about these anymore. He only gazed expectantly at the man standing on the floor tiles.
The noble consort returned the salute and led the second prince out the door, even carefully closing the door for them. Only candlelight and darkness remained in the hall. Shen Jue stepped on the sparkling and clean ground and stepped onto the footrest, slowly sitting down on the throne before the floor folding screen. His right hand stroked the round and rotating tourmaline beads on his wrist, and he laughed lightly. “I disappointed Your Majesties. On the way back to the capital, we encountered a flood, and His Highness has already passed away. His coffin will be in the capital within a few days.”
The old emperor sagged down and held his face in his hands. After a long time, his voice came out muffledly from between his fingers. “Forget it, forget it, it’s all fate! This isn’t Shen Jue’s fault, so I won’t look into it. Everyone, leave!”
“Your Majesty!” Wei De said, “You’ve misjudged this brute! Even if His Highness had arrived safely in the capital, I’m afraid he still wouldn’t have been safe! Since he already knew that I was going to force the emperor to abdicate, why didn’t he stop me! He clearly has other evil intentions!” He looked at Shen Jue. “His Highness originally agreed with me to secretly arrive in the capital and enter the palace together. What method did you use to make him believe your words and go with you? …The tiger tally! You used the tiger tally as the means to deceptively obtain His Highness’s trust. When His Highness entered the capital, you would’ve released the news and gotten him arrested. His Highness entering the capital without an imperial edict would definitely be taken to the Imperial Clan Court for a trial. This way, you can ensure that the second prince will ascend the throne.”
Shen Jue let out a low laugh.
“No, no. His Highness going to the Imperial Clan Court still wouldn’t have been enough. If you want the second prince to sit firmly in power, you couldn’t have kept him alive!” Wei De’s cheeks trembled, and he stared closely at Shen Jue. “Shen Jue, exactly what plan did you have!”
Shen Jue said, “This is simple, I gave him a fake imperial edict.”
“Yes. Entering the capital without an imperial edict couldn’t have put him to death, but a fake imperial edict could! Passing on a fake imperial edict and rebelling by usurping the throne, these are heinous crimes!” Wei De sighed. “Unfortunately, King Fu passed away midway, and you had no other choice but to make a fake King Fu. But once the fake King Fu went to prison and was searched, he would’ve been exposed, so you definitely couldn’t let him enter the Imperial Clan Court. Thus, you met a trick with a trick and let him follow us to force the emperor to abdicate, and then you would enter the palace and save the emperor! And this fake King Fu would also be shot to death in the chaotic fighting. Since he died, there would naturally be no one who would look into whether he was real or fake! Passing off the fake as genuine and deceiving the skies and the seas!
“It really is a good plan, Shen Jue. King Fu died, so the only one who can ascend the throne is the second prince. And your contribution was immeasurable, so there is no one better to be the seal-holder of the Directorate of Rites than you. The second prince is a tiny person, and the noble consort is a woman who doesn’t understand much, so they would naturally have to rely on you. When the time comes, you’ll be the greatest winner, in charge of the six palaces and having power over all officials!”
The corners of Shen Jue’s mouth tugged upward, and he nodded. “Godfather, not a single word is wrong. I pondered this method for several days before I thought of it, yet you understood in the blink of an eye. Unfortunately, there is one thing I was wrong about. Even if King Fu had a fake imperial edict, I’m afraid Your Majesty still wouldn’t have been willing to take his life.” There was a bit of ridicule in his smile. “Your Majesty is benevolent, and you even saved my godfather from death after he plotted to rebel. It really is… breathtaking.”
The old emperor listened for a long time and finally understood. All of them who had fought back and forth, breaking their heads, had merely been pawns in Shen Jue’s hands. By giving the tiger tally to Shen Jue, he had let Shen Jue have a bargaining chip. By forcing the emperor to abdicate, Wei De and King Fu had fallen right into Shen Jue’s arms, letting him be able to openly kill King Fu. By ascending the throne, Muheng was merely Shen Jue’s puppet. The emperor and his descendants had all been like clay figures, letting Shen Jue pinch and play with them in his hands. If the fake King Fu hadn’t been seen through by the empress, they would all still be kept in the dark!
Anger surged like a mountain in the emperor’s heart, and he suddenly sprayed out a mouthful of blood, which splashed onto Wei De’s face. Wei De turned pale from shock and hastily stroked the emperor’s back. The old emperor panted with gasps and recalled Noble Consort Li’s obedient appearance toward Shen Jue just then. He said, “Is… Is the noble consort also in cahoots with you?”
Shen Jue said, “Naturally.”
“Hahaha!” Empress Zhang had already gone crazy. Her hair was loose, and her phoenix hairpin was inserted obliquely. “Your Majesty, look, isn’t this ridiculous? You, the emperor, and I, the empress of Great Qi, were deceived by a eunuch! You say that Chen’er lost your face, but this is shameful, shameful!”
Wei De gritted his teeth. “Shen Jue, when did you start colluding with the noble consort?”
Shen Jue looked down and thought. He smiled and said, “About ten years ago. Godfather, I still have to thank you for sending poisoned ginseng soup to Noble Consort Li. If you hadn’t acted and harmed her, I also wouldn’t have been able to save her life. For self-preservation, she can only cooperate with me.”
The emperor was shocked, and he glared at Wei De, saying, “Poisoned ginseng soup, what poisoned ginseng soup!”
“Your Majesty, did you forget? When the noble consort had just given birth, she was weak and sickly. As a token of grace, you sent ginseng soup to her every day. Unfortunately, the good ginseng soup was poisoned by your old companion. First, it was strychnine, and later, it was aconitum. Little by little, even silver needles couldn’t detect it.”
The old emperor was extremely angry, and his strength came from an unknown place as he pushed Wei De away, his body trembling.
“You people! Not a single good thing! What a Shen Jue, with a monstrous audacity! Your splendor and prosperity were given by me! Your high position and large salary were conferred by me! You should be killed, you don’t think of ways to return kindness but instead manipulated and withheld the truth from the emperor. I want to take your life that’s worth as little as a dog’s!”
Wei De sighed sorrowfully and said, “I thought that what I was raising was a dog, but he was actually a wolf! When a dog grows up, they’ll protect their master, but when a wolf grows up, they’ll eat people! Your Majesty, I am sorry. I betrayed your favor and even raised this cruel and merciless wolf cub. I can only repay your great kindness in my next life!”
After he said this, Wei De suddenly burst out. In his hand, he was holding a sharp blade that was like a willow leaf, and he fiercely stabbed it toward Shen Jue.
The icy light of the saber flashed past Shen Jue, reflecting the coldness on his face that was like frost and snow. Shen Jue remained motionless, and even his eyelashes never quivered. A sharp whistling came in the air, as if cloth and silk were being torn. A feathered arrow sliced through the air and penetrated Wei De’s temple. It then pierced out from his other temple, nailing his entire head to the wall.
The willow leaf saber fell to the ground with a clatter. Behind Wei De, the emperor’s eyes nearly popped out. “Old Companion!”
Shen Jue looked at Wei De’s corpse indifferently, his expression high and cold like the Buddha statue without sorrow and without joy in a temple.
The emperor’s white hair was disheveled, and he wept bitterly. “Shen Jue, now you’re satisfied! Every one of your steps has succeeded. Chen’er is gone and my old companion is gone, so all of your stumbling blocks are gone!”
“No,” Shen Jue said in a low voice, “there is still one last step that has not been completed.”
The old emperor looked up, his muddy gaze facing Shen Jue, who slowly stood up. He suddenly felt an iciness to the bone, as if snow and ice were falling from the sky.
Shen Jue restrained the smile on his face, bowed his head deeply, and made a long salute with clasped hands.
“May I, Shen Jue, be so bold as to request Your Majesty’s death!”