The road to the capital was long and arduous, but since there were canals, they could simply take the waterway.
Tong baihu was in charge of escorting Feng Sheng to the capital, and Feng Sheng was on friendly terms with everyone, so Uncle Yu and the others were allowed to venture alongside them.
They could also be regarded as additional forces to safeguard Feng Sheng. After all, even Tong baihu was acutely aware that the journey would be nowhere near peaceful.
They all already knew this, but they had not anticipated it to be so turbulent. After only a third of the journey, the other side had already attacked them thrice, and dozens of Jinyiwei were injured. Tong baihu had no choice but to halt on the spot and temporarily dwell in the local government residence. After sending a letter to the capital, he had to await the order from above.
After a few days, the order was passed down, and the local guard station deployed an extra team of men and horses to assist them. So far, the team had grown so large that nearly a hundred people were in their company.
Even so, there was no shortage of mishaps along the way. Uncle Yu and the others had sniffed out several cases of poison added to the food or attempts to set the ship ablaze. Further on, the waterways grew dense and complicated. Should a crisis occur, there would be no chance to escape, so the team of soldiers split into groups of three.
Two groups switched to the overland route, while one continued by waterway.
This completely distracted the attackers’ attention. They had all assumed Fang Feng Fu to be among the two groups on land. After all, traversing by waterway was too conspicuous and vulnerable. Only one route existed, and with the reduced number of guards, it was as if they were putting their lives in the enemy’s hands.
Never did they expect Feng Sheng to be part of the group coursing the waterway with great fanfare.
Feng Sheng herself had proposed this idea.
Afterwards, although there were some minor disturbances, the journey was comparatively smoother. In the end, the enemy’s sights had dispersed. By the time they disembarked at Tongzhou, everyone felt as though an entire lifetime had passed.
Tongzhou was known as the gateway to the capital, and it was also the canal’s cut-off point. From here to the capital, it would take as fast as a day or as slow as two days. For this journey, they were all too exhausted to continue, so they settled here to rest for a day before leaving.
By midday, this group of people who had been wandering outside finally caught wind of the occurrences in the court hall.
To be more precise, the development of the trend was quite favorable to Feng Sheng.
Previously, because Feng Sheng had touched too many people’s interests, the officials in court wanting to impeach her were as many as crucian carps in a river. The Jianping Emperor had decreed to have her escorted into the capital specifically for this reason. Before, the situation was almost entirely one-sided, but after the decree, more officials were suddenly vouching for her in court.
In the beginning, only a few sagacious officials1 spoke on her behalf. Because they were small in number and meager in strength, their voices were soon drowned out. Gradually, more and more people were vying against officials who wanted to impeach her. These people cited various authorities, elaborating with utmost eloquence the evils and detriments of the Liang Huai Salt Administration’s political malpractices in the recent years, and asserted that Fang Feng Fu’s actions were beneficial to the country. How come, through all your mouths, this person’s actions would ‘wreck the country and bring ruin to the people’?
In brief, whether or not Fang Feng Fu should be killed aroused a heated dispute in the imperial court. At the same time, someone very keenly broached a crucial point. Even if Fang Feng Fu investigated the corruption in the salt administration on such a grandiose scale, in the end, first, he had neither taken bribes nor bent the law; second, his people had not accepted benefits and were utterly devoted to their duties. Why would someone want him dead? Whose nerve did she touch?2 And who was afraid of further investigation?
Some proposed to have Wei Tong Xin escorted into the capital for interrogation, thus triggering another war of words. It was reported that someone even started a fight at the court session, and it was the Jianping Emperor’s anger that ceased it.
However, they all knew that this was not the end of the story. Fang Feng Fu would soon enter the capital, and his entry would be the climax of this great play.
Now that Tong baihu and his entourage had reached Tongzhou, many in the capital received the news. For a time, although not obvious on the surface, more than one or two parties actually had their eyes peeled on their movements.
When Feng Sheng roused from her sleep, Tong baihu personally delivered her food.
Now, Tong baihu himself kept a close eye on those preparing Feng Sheng’s daily meals, in case someone would tamper with them.
Knowing that Feng Sheng disliked being watched as she ate, Tong baihu set down the tray and promptly left. However, guards were still stationed outside the door, so if an attack were to happen, Feng Sheng could simply call out and someone would rush in. In the current situation, this had been the only way to keep her safe while relatively giving her some privacy, because Uncle Yu and the others had left once they set foot on Tongzhou. This place was under the watchful eye of many, so it would be inappropriate for them to stay here.
The food was sumptuous, with three dishes and one soup.
Feng Sheng raised her chopsticks and ate very slowly. Indeed, after swallowing a few mouthfuls of food, she found a small slip of paper in her dish.
She put down her chopsticks and opened the small note. It was in unfamiliar handwriting. Not even sparing it a bit of thought, she crumpled it up and tossed it on the table.
One of the dishes was a type of river fish. Feng Sheng used her chopsticks to pick at the fish’s stomach, and sure enough, one was ensconced inside as well. As she unfolded it, she glimpsed another unfamiliar handwriting.
Such a situation had been happening to her a lot recently. Sometimes, she couldn’t help but admire those people. How exactly did they stuff several notes in one meal?
Moreover, these notes were invariably imparting the same type of knowledge: how to remove the Crown Prince from power.
The content of these messages were all sorts of strange things. Because of these, Feng Sheng was now privy to many of the Crown Prince’s confidential matters. For example, a certain young concubine of his was the concubine-born daughter of a certain official’s brother’s family, as well as which official gave him some benefits in a certain year and month.
Almost imperceptibly, she had become an arrow——a bow and arrow to incapacitate the crown prince. Many were now handing her arrows, itching to dismount the crown prince off his horse with a single shot.
Weren’t these people thinking too highly of her?
Feng Sheng laughed in spite of herself and lost her appetite for food, so she ladled out soup to drink.
While ladling the soup, she sensed that the handle felt amiss, a little rough. This had happened twice recently, so Feng Sheng was no stranger to it. She turned the soup ladle over to examine it.
There was finally a normal message. On the handle were engraved these minuscule characters: do not move, do not speak, wait for me.
It was from Prince Wei.
He alone would deliver a message with this content.
Such a message, she had also received one the last time.
Feng Sheng continued to drink the soup. After finishing half a bowl, she rubbed the soup ladle’s handle against the bottom of the bowl for a while, and the words on it vanished. As for those little notes, she tore them up to shreds and threw them into the soup, stirring them with the soup ladle. Still a bowl of soup, but with added ingredients.
She got up and went to wash her hands and clean her face. As she was wiping her face with a handkerchief, Tong baihu’s voice drifted in from outside.
“Feng Fu, are you done eating? Once you’re done, get ready to depart.”
Feng Sheng ambled over and opened the door. “Brother Tong, why are you in such a hurry?”
“One day earlier to the capital, one day earlier to settle down. Perhaps you didn’t know, but the brothers are already at their limits.”
Yes, this day and a half of rest in Tongzhou was actually meant for Feng Sheng, while the Jinyiwei were all still using twelve over ten parts of their fighting spirit, lest something bad would happen in this place.
“I might as well. I can leave at any time.”
Soon, this group of people set off once again, gradually pressing on towards the capital.
The news that Fang Feng Fu’s group had arrived in Tongzhou was naturally handed over to the Crown Prince as well.
Unlike others, he was riddled with anxiety.
What he feared was not Fang Feng Fu, but the possibility that someone would use that person to create a stir. As a matter of fact, these recent troubles, which among them wasn’t incited by this person? Therefore, even before meeting Fang Feng Fu, the Crown Prince loathed him so much that he wanted him dead. Had he known earlier that this person would be the source of his peril, he would have had him killed long ago.
But no one, including Crown Prince Duo, had anticipated the recent events. He had never even seen this nobody before, yet the other party kept targeting him for inexplicable reasons.
In fact, it was just a misconception. There never existed enmity between him and Fang Feng Fu, and the other party had also never mentioned a word about him. However, it was precisely the Crown Prince who suffered heavy losses in this incident, while the other party was moving step by step at a leisurely rhythm. On his side, it was impossible to tell how many arms had been cut off. Now, only the most powerful and most deeply involved person remained. He had surmised that the other side would not have the guts to make a move, yet he did.
The Crown Prince paced to and fro, marking two very distinct traces on the fine Persian carpet.
No person had the courage to interrupt him. Even when one of his most recently favored young concubines was outside clamoring to see him, no one dared to inform him. These days, all knew that their master, the Crown Prince’s temper had been nothing but irascible. When he was behind closed doors in his study, it implied that no one must disturb him, else, punishment would await them; the lightest would be peeling off a layer of their skin, the heaviest would be chopping off their heads.
Still, someone knocked on the door. The soft voice spoke with sheer trepidation.
“What is it?”
“Your Highness, Her Majesty3 the Empress sent someone over.”
That quelled the Crown Prince’s fury, and with a wave of his hand, he ordered, “Let him in.”
Soon, the person entered. It was a palace eunuch.
When the man raised his head, the Crown Prince realized that this person was He Nian, Empress Chen’s most trusted eunuch, one she heavily relied on.
“Eunuch He, what brings you here today?”
“By Her Majesty’s order, this slave has come to pass on a few words. Her Majesty bid this slave to come because she was afraid you would not listen to the warnings of others.”
The Crown Prince smiled and did not speak.
“Her Majesty also said to tell Your Highness to stop being arrogant and rash……”
With an irritated tone of voice, the Crown Prince interrupted him, “Eunuch He, you’re also aware of the recent events. Under such circumstances, Empress Mother is still asking me to stop being arrogant and rash?”
He Nian smiled and responded, “The more chaotic it is, the calmer Your Highness should be. Only then will you not lose your head in disorder. Your Highness probably doesn’t know that when Fang Feng Fu’s group was on their way from Tongzhou to the capital, they were intercepted halfway and encountered an assassin……”
“Who is it? Who’s planting evidence on this humble one’s head?!” The Crown Prince raged.
This wasn’t the first time this had happened. In fact, from the time Fang Feng Sheng’s group had been on the road, multiple groups of people had been watching them, so the attacks they had encountered along the way were well known to these people.
The Crown Prince had once thought of silencing them, but Empress Chen thwarted him before he could even attempt. Who would have thought that, although he hadn’t made a move, quite a few people would move in secret?
This was undoubtedly to plant evidence on him. Now, everyone in the court knew why Fang Feng Fu was being escorted to the capital. Everyone was looking forward to his arrival, while he was the only one who wasn’t. Should something happen to the other party, need they doubt the perpetrator’s identity?
The so-called ‘unable to cleanse oneself even after diving into the Yellow River’,4 the Crown Prince now had such a profound perception of it for the first time in his life.
“Was it Empress Mother who ordered to do it?” Seeing that He Nian didn’t answer, the Crown Prince harbored some suspicions.
It wasn’t that Empress Chen wasn’t one to do such a thing. Before, the Crown Prince was infuriated because someone was trying to frame him. Empress Chen balked him from doing anything, yet she herself ordered people to take care of Fang Feng Fu.
According to Empress Chen’s words, whether or not Fang Feng Fu entered the capital didn’t matter, what he would say after entering the capital didn’t matter, and how others would attack him didn’t matter. What really mattered was the Jianping Emperor’s thoughts.
To silence the other party so blatantly and ostentatiously, although the Crown Prince was perfectly aware it was a crime, he still made an attempt. Was it deliberate? It seemed a lot more like someone was trying to frame him.
That was why, the more the Crown Prince suffered accusations, the more the Jianping Emperor would favor his side, because that was also how the Jianping Emperor handled matters when he was still a crown prince.
“Her Majesty didn’t do it. Anyway, that person is fine. After his trip to Fahua Temple, His Highness Prince Wei rescued him and is now protecting and escorting him to the capital. He will probably arrive tonight.”
“Prince Wei?” The Crown Prince muttered to himself and suddenly grabbed He Nian’s hand. “Eunuch He, you’re saying……”
“Your Highness, don’t have any rash thoughts. Her Majesty asked this slave to come for this reason. If you do anything rash, Prince Wei definitely won’t listen to Your Highness. If Prince Wei really makes a move this time, you could never wash clean even if you jump into the Yellow River. Her Majesty bid this slave to inform you that, if there are no other mishaps and that person safely arrives, he still isn’t worth fearing. Although His Majesty ordered to have him escorted to the capital, this is only for show. He merely wants to sound out how many people secretly covet the throne. Your Highness, remember that no one can shake your position as long as you and Her Majesty don’t become muddled.”
He Nian left, and the Crown Prince settled himself on a chair, finally at ease for the time being.
On the other side, the team that had been intercepted and scattered apart combined with Prince Wei’s team to set out on their journey once more.
Under the guise of protection, Prince Wei slipped into the carriage Feng Sheng was sitting in.
His face was dark from the moment he boarded the carriage, and Feng Sheng didn’t know what to say to him. She wanted to pretend she didn’t know him, but this man had done so much for her that she really didn’t have the face to go that far.
“This meeting is fated. Meeting Your Highness here is quite unexpected.”
Prince Wei almost greedily scrutinized her body. The person was now darker and skinnier. Now, Prince Wei really wanted to give her a beating. She was the most audacious and unscrupulous woman he had ever encountered all his life.
Even before he came, he had already planned on teaching her a good lesson. Yet, after seeing the person, he realized that he was still reluctant to part with her.
“It’s not fated. This prince is specifically here to see you.”
Feng Sheng was appalled.
In other words, Prince Wei deliberately orchestrated the attack just now. Was he playing the trick of a thief crying, ‘stop thief!’?
“Aren’t you afraid of being found out?!”
“No one will find out!” Since he had planned it, he was certain it was foolproof.
“Come here?” He held out his hand.
“Come there for what?” A bit flustered, Feng Sheng ended up asking a stupid question.
“Just come over if I tell you to. What’s with all the nonsense?!” After saying that, he tugged her over. The man kissed her.
Called you over, of course it was to kiss you.
Prince Wei kissed greedier than the previous times. Feng Sheng had originally wanted to escape from his hold by squirming for a little while, but after letting her thoughts go, she weakened her struggle. Only after kissing each other to the point of suffocation did Prince Wei let go.
“Do you remember the message this prince passed on to you?”
“What?” A little confused, Feng Sheng thoughtlessly asked.
She could hear the sound of gnashing teeth.
“Fang Feng Sheng, this prince is not joking with you. This prince knows that you want to take revenge, but don’t forget who you are facing. He’s the crown prince of a country. He was crowned at the age of five, and it’s been more than twenty years since then. He’s from the central palace, and as the eldest legitimate son of His Majesty and the Empress, his status is unspeakable. Empress Chen is His Majesty’s first wife, and they’ve been husband and wife since their youth. If you think you can kill the Crown Prince just with your mere arrangements, the Crown Prince would have already died numerous times over the years.”
Prince Wei uttered these words through gritted teeth, his mouth against Feng Sheng’s ear, making her ear feel a little itchy.
Of course, Feng Sheng knew that this Crown Prince was not easy to deal with. If he was easy to deal with, she wouldn’t have taken such a risky move this time. But as he said, he was such a person. If she let this opportunity slip by, she might never get another chance.
“How will we know if we don’t try?”
Feng Sheng displayed a brilliant smile and took a small step back. “Now that this is the case, Your Highness Prince Wei should stop saying useless words.”
“You must know that the moment you set foot in the capital, you are a dead man. If His Majesty wants to protect the Crown Prince, he will not let you go.”
“What if His Majesty doesn’t want to protect the Crown Prince?” Feng Sheng snickered.
“If His Majesty didn’t want to protect the Crown Prince, you wouldn’t be here right now.”
Therefore, this was a dead end. Feng Sheng knew it very well, but she came anyway.
“I’m aware that my own little life is about to perish. What did His Highness Prince Wei even make this trip for?”
That infuriated Prince Wei.
“Are you counting on this prince to save you?” Prince Wei never used to be an easily angered person. Outsiders had always judged him to be stoic and indecipherable, but he just had to encounter Fang Feng Sheng, for whom he had incessantly violated religious precepts, as if his many years of studying Buddhism were in vain.
“I would never dare to think like that,” Feng Sheng subconsciously replied.
Noticing his jaw tense, she could no longer endure it. She somewhat bitterly deplored, “Actually, if I could choose, I’d rather not see Your Highness here right now. You’re a prince, and your status is noble. I’m merely a common woman, one who is extremely obstinate, shameless, and defiant. I’m not worth it.”
These words dug deep, so deep that Prince Wei couldn’t bear to look straight at her.
He never questioned himself why he wasted his time on this woman again and again. His usual character was not like this at all. For every step he took, he would always consider the next ten steps he would take. Only with her, he didn’t want to ask so many whys.
“Remember this prince’s words. Don’t move, don’t speak, and this prince will do the rest. You still have a slim chance of survival.”
The words of rejection were already on her lips, but Feng Sheng chose to swallow them.
She agreed so readily, but Prince Wei was still a little uneasy.
“This time, you must listen to this prince. Don’t be capricious.”
Feng Sheng nodded her head. “I’ll wait for Your Highness to save my life.”
Such a Fang Feng Sheng was something Prince Wei had never seen before, so he believed her, and his expression eventually relaxed.
Afterwards, the two teams separated in front of the West An Gate. Feng Sheng was sent straight to the Court of Judicial Review5 while Prince Wei returned to the Wei Prince Manor to conduct the next step.
However, he soon realized that that woman Fang Feng Sheng had once again deceived him. Instead of keeping her promise, that woman poked a hole in the sky.
1 清流官员: The term 清流 here is called the ‘uncontaminated group’—scholars who were concerned with politics but held themselves aloof from those in power. But it seems to be describing the officials (官员) in this context, so I figured the word ‘sagacious’ would be an apt adjective for it.
2 There was a pronoun change in the raws. Unsure whether this is a typo or intentional. We could take it as the author writing it from two perspectives. As the author is talking about how, with her male persona and status, everyone wants her dead, but the switch most likely alludes to her actions eliciting the assassination attempt.
3 娘娘 (niáng niang): Previously translated this as ‘Her Royal Highness’, but changing it to ‘Her Majesty’ for the Empress and ‘Her/Your Ladyship’ to other imperial concubines to distinguish them from princes, who are addressed as ‘His/Your Highness’ (殿下, diàn xià).
4 跳进黄河洗不清: unable to cleanse oneself even after diving into the Yellow River (idiom); find it hard to clear oneself (of a charge)
5 大理寺 (dà lǐ sì): Court of Judicial Review, functions similar to today’s supreme court. Translators from other novels directly translate it to ‘Dali Temple’, which some of you might be more familiar with.