The Jianping Emperor sunk into a long period of shock.
But he was worthy of being a monarch. Mount Tai collapsed right before his eyes, yet his countenance remained unchanged, so his composure soon recovered. After returning to the dragon desk, he sat down and peered at Prince Wei kneeling before him.
“She’s a woman. How did she obtain a scholarly honor?”1
“Fang Feng Fu was her brother who died young. The two of them were born to the same mother.”
“How did you and her come to be?”
“This son2 had several fateful encounters with her, and only by coincidence learned that she’s a woman.”
“Then why didn’t you say anything when she accused the Crown Prince in court?”
“There was no use exposing her identity at that time.”
Prince Wei was not wrong. Things had advanced to that step, so it no longer mattered what Fang Feng Fu was. Those who wanted to pull the Crown Prince out of power had grown deranged. They resorted to every conceivable means to overthrow the Crown Prince, biting everyone they saw amidst their mania.
Since then, the entire court had been billowing smoke. In the end, rather than succumbing to the law and the court officials, the Jianping Emperor had instead succumbed to the stifling atmosphere, ultimately yearning to put an end to all of it. Should that sort of atmosphere prevail, he felt that the country would soon perish.
However, the root of all this was Fang Feng Fu. If not for her, no one would have opened this hole, and even if they wanted to, they had to find an opportunity. She had created a once in a lifetime opportunity for those people, driving them to insanity.
Now, he was told that Fang Feng Fu was a woman!
So, what role did he, this good son, play behind the scenes?
Prince Wei did not notice, but this moment, the Emperor, who was sitting on the dragon chair, studied him with intense scrutiny, the Emperor’s suspicion reaching its peak this very moment.
Perhaps he understood, or perhaps he no longer cared. Even if the Emperor were to be suspicious of him, he still had to do something——to use himself as a straw rope to get the woman back.
It was a very risky move on his part.
Afterwards, Prince Wei spoke in a very calm tone, narrating the origin of his relationship with Fang Feng Sheng.
It was nine parts true and one part false. He said only what was necessary, not a word of what couldn’t be said. He began from the moment he met Fang Feng Sheng at the Sun family, how she had leveraged him to successfully acquire a separation agreement, to their encounter in Yangzhou. At that time, the other party had been disguised as a man, and he couldn’t recognize that it was her.
Then, by chance, he saw through the other’s identity. After several interactions, he began to secretly admire her, but the other party’s disdain for him was beneath contempt.
Prince Wei spoke very tersely, but his affection for her in those words couldn’t be fake.
Combined with the fact that he was usually unmoved by feminine allure and had been acting like he was planning to become a monk, the absurdity he exhibited now was rather understandable. A typically unfeeling man, once enamored, would be deeply passionate.
“She had intended to deal with the crown prince. Don’t tell me you didn’t know?”
The most crucial part of the highlight finally came.
Prince Wei closed his eyes and bowed low. “This son knew, but also didn’t.”
The Jianping Emperor didn’t say anything. His eyes were deep, evidently awaiting an explanation.
Prince Wei elaborated, “This son knew that she wanted to reverse the verdict for her father and was investigating that year’s case. When this son was first ordered to leave the capital, Empress Mother had summoned this son to Kunning Palace, so this son had been informed of some things. This son had assumed that with her status, she wouldn’t find anything. This son didn’t take her seriously, but later on realized that she had discovered a lot more than this son expected, so this son did a few things.”
“This son misled her and attempted to deviate her from her course, but this son didn’t expect that Fang Yan had left her a letter. Song Xian had been her initial target. Later, to stop her from discovering things she shouldn’t, Song Xian’s men pulled several strings, creating more and more loopholes. This son couldn’t fill them in quickly enough, so this son could only find another way. When Fan Jin Chuan was attacked in Taizhou, this son ventured to sneak into the salt gang’s base and later led troops to wipe out the salt gang. This son had imprisoned her for a period of time, yet she herself sought death. This son was disheartened and let her go, no longer getting involved in this matter.
“Later, Imperial Father assigned another task. This son wholeheartedly devoted oneself to duty and returned to the capital thereafter. Not until the incident happened did this son learn that she had instigated such a catastrophe. Actually, thinking about, it might also be this son’s fault. If she hadn’t been suspicious of this son’s behavior, she would never have guessed that the man behind was the Crown Prince.”
“You mean to say that, in the beginning, Song Xian was her only target?”
“At least that’s what this son was told before this son stopped meeting her. Perhaps this son’s actions aroused her suspicion, or perhaps another person did something in the throes of it. The specifics of which, this son doesn’t know.”
“All that being said, zhen’s son, a dignified prince, was played in the palm of a woman’s hand?”
Prince Wei remained unspeaking, but he hung his head and mustered a bitter smile.
He smashed the bright yellow teacup to the ground, and it landed next to Prince Wei, shattering into pieces and splattering in all directions.
Fu Lu, who had been standing at the side with a lowered head, witnessed this and promptly took a step forward. “Your Highness Prince Wei……”
The Jianping Emperor looked over, only to see some bloodstains on Prince Wei’s face.
Prince Wei seemed to want to say something, but Fu Lu stepped forward to persuade him, “Your Highness Prince Wei, His Majesty is in the midst of anger. Your honored self must not provoke His Majesty’s ire.”
He sent Prince Wei out, but as soon as he turned his head, he heard the eunuchs around him exclaim in utter fright. Only then did he discover that Prince Wei was kneeling outside.
He could only shake his head and sigh again. He then scurried in to report to the Jianping Emperor.
The Jianping Emperor did not say a word. His face was so glum and daunting that he dared not say anything more.
The sky was overcast, and the transition from spring to summer induced more rain. In just a moment of distraction, a continuous drizzle completely shrouded the outside.
This kind of rain couldn’t kill anyone, but the weather was still cold. Watching layer upon layer of drizzle beating down could chill people to the bone.
The news of Prince Wei kneeling instantly spread throughout the six palaces. All began to wonder how on earth Prince Wei had angered His Majesty.
Prince Wei’s character had been of eccentric disposition since childhood, and the Jianping Emperor had never openly favored him. However, in the recent years, without anyone realizing which direction the gust of wind blew, his imperial favor had risen. All wanted to become the crown prince, but only a few princes possessed the ability to fight for the position of the heir apparent to the throne. Prince Wei was among the list, but with today’s matter, perhaps that list had now become unreliable.
While they were all waiting to see the big show, one person couldn’t sit still, and that person was Consort Li.
In the main hall of the Xianfu Palace, Consort Li had been pacing back and forth for almost an hour. A few palace maids were guarding at the side, her brisk movement almost turning their eyes into flowers.
Suddenly, Consort Li instructed, “Qian Ru, dress me up and do my makeup for me. This palace is going to Qianqing Palace.”
“Your Ladyship, why don’t we wait a little longer? Maybe when His Majesty’s temper cools?”
“No more waiting. All other palaces are now waiting to see a joke out of us mother and son. What else should I wait for?!”
When Consort Li hastened to the Qianqing Palace, the rain outside was already falling in torrents. From afar, she could make out the figure of a man kneeling in the rain. Consort Li clenched her teeth and averted her gaze. She trod to the palace hall’s door to ask for an audience.
When the news reached Fu Lu’s ears, he hesitated over and over. Gathering his courage, he reported to the Jianping Emperor.
“Your Majesty, Her Ladyship Consort Li is here.”
“What is she doing here? Send her back!”
Fu Lu followed the order and returned after a while, his expression mournful. “Her Ladyship Consort Li is not leaving.” After a pause, he added, “Your Majesty, it’s raining heavily outside. This slave saw that Her Ladyship Consort Li came in a hurry and wasn’t wearing a cloak.”
At this point, he ceased talking and snuck a furtive look at the Jianping Emperor’s face, but his sight unexpectedly bumped right into a pair of eyes.
“What kind of ecstasy did she give you? You old thing, you usually never intercede when someone begs, but today you’re speaking on Consort Li’s behalf.”
Fu Lu shrank his neck and smiled, explaining, “It’s just that this slave doesn’t find it easy to face Her Ladyship Consort Li. She is usually polite and amiable to this slave, always enquiring solicitously about this one’s health. It’s been so many years, and this slave suffers from a guilty conscience every day. As a matter of fact……”
Fu Lu spoke the truth. It was indeed not easy to face her. Knowing that the majority in the palace exhibited a hypocritical show of affection, it truly was rare for one to consistently treat slaves well for decades. As one of the four consorts with an adult prince, it was reasonable to say that it wasn’t worthwhile for Consort Li to be like this, but she was precisely like so.
Why? Because she lacked confidence.
The women in the palace were like weeds in the wilderness, countless in number, and all of them, even a mere noble lady, had more confidence than Consort Li. This all stemmed from the fact that those who had been in the palace long enough were cognizant of her origin. At that time, Empress Chen’s maternal family had sent her over to solidify the Empress’s favor.
When Prince Wei was six or seven years old, Consort Li did not even have her own palace and was still living in a side room in Kunning Palace. She was a noble lady, yet her treatment was not up to the standard of a noble lady. Because Empress Chen said that she was accustomed to having Consort Li in her company, she could only stay in Kunning Palace until she moved out two years later.
All these years, Consort Li waited upon the Empress and was always at her beck and call. Who had not witnessed it? The slave mother had given birth to a slave son. The mother and son pair were destined to spend their lives devoting themselves to Empress Chen and her son. In the past, hearing these words throughout the palace wasn’t rare. However, after Consort Li took a consort’s seat, the rumors and slanders gradually disappeared until there was practically nothing left.
Why this was so, it was clear to people with a discerning eye. The Jianping Emperor was also clear that Empress Chen was using people, and that she was afraid they would climb over her head. Hence, she suppressed Consort Li, that mother and son pair.
When she could no longer suppress them both, she praised the son overtly, yet suppressed the mother covertly. After so many years of suppression, it had finally become less obvious once Prince Wei was nearly an adult.
The Jianping Emperor recalled the past and remembered the first time he saw Consort Li.
A very tender and young green sprout was hiding behind the palace maids, looking timidly at himself. Too young. The Empress said that because of the inconvenience of her pregnancy, she bid the girl to serve him. He had disdained how young she was. He had thought, how could such a young person withstand the wind and rain?
After that, the Empress asked him twice more. The girl had held onto his sleeve without letting go and told him that, if she didn’t serve him, she would receive a scolding. He believed her. Unexpectedly, she tasted so pleasant that he couldn’t help but covet her twice. Later on, he discovered that the palace maid by the Empress’s side would look derisively at her. Only then did he learn that the Empress, whom he had believed to be graceful and magnanimous, was actually not so magnanimous.
Nevertheless, she was merely a plaything, one he didn’t need to reprove the Empress for. Later, he stopped going of his own accord and only went when the Empress mentioned it. He did not expect that after several visits, she would get pregnant. Once, when he visited the Empress who had just given birth, he caught sight of her leaning against the door with a protruding belly.
Such a small person with a large belly truly made people’s hearts churn, yet he still never graced her a visit. However, because he had feared that she had too low of a position for an imperial physician to take her seriously as one of the masters, he secretly instructed Fu Lu to order an imperial physician to carefully check if her pulse was safe and sound.
Later, when she gave birth to Prince Wei, he never visited because the Empress had just lost the second prince. Only when Prince Wei was almost on his full moon3 did he drop her a visit. Lying in a dusky room with turbid air permeating inside, she had gazed at himself with a pair of such large and lucid eyes.
“Your Majesty, hasn’t this concubine never begged you for anything? If Prince Wei really did something wrong, you can beat or scold him, but don’t punish him like that. He’s grown, save him some face. With so many younger brothers below him, how can he take up the stance of a big brother in the future?” When Consort Li charged in, she collapsed by the Jianping Emperor’s knee and began to whimper.
“Do you know what he has done to the Crown Prince?” the Jianping Emperor pursed his lips, but placed his hand on Consort Li’s shoulder.
“What can he do to the Crown Prince? Your Majesty, this concubine is just a woman who knows nothing, but for several years, if Kunning Palace points to the east, this concubine, us mother and son dare not go west. Yes, this concubine is a lowly woman, and Her Majesty is this one’s greatest benefactor. However, my son is not lowly. He is a prince, a dragon’s son. Don’t try to involve us mother and son every time something happens at Kunning Palace. If you involve someone, involve me alone. What’s the point of involving my son? Do we really have to force him out of the family to satisfy everyone?”
The words fell, and there was not a single sound in the entire palace hall except for Consort Li’s sobs.
Fu Lu ran to her side, bowed to his waist, and whispered, “Your Ladyship, you have misunderstood His Majesty’s meaning. Why don’t you go back first so you don’t pour oil on the fire……”
“Take her to the side hall.”
Fu Lu swiftly complied and beckoned two young palace attendants to support Consort Li to the side hall.
This was also because it was Consort Li. Had it been a different person, perhaps they would have been directly kicked out right this moment.
Outside the palace hall, the rain was growing fiercer.
Prince Wei knelt there with half-lidded eyes, fully aware that his mother had gone in.
He had schemed countless times all his life, but he never once schemed against his mother. This time, to save that stubborn woman, he did precisely just that.
He silently counted the time in his heart. In the end, it was chilly and raining heavily, and he had been kneeling for so long. Furthermore, after toiling every day the past few days, he also felt that his body could no longer endure.
Just as Prince Wei felt some feverish heat on his forehead, the ground before his eyes suddenly darkened.
Fu Lu stood before him, holding an oil umbrella.
“Third Highness, His Majesty wants you to go in.”
Prince Wei followed him in, and while still outside the palace hall, a young eunuch offered a piece of cloth, which he took and casually wiped himself dry with before stepping into the palace hall.
“Do you know where you are wrong?”
“This son knows.”
The fault lay in the hero’s short-sightedness. A dignified prince made the mistake of getting played in the palm of a woman’s hand, yet knew not the slightest bit of remorse and even preferred to risk being suspected. Furthermore, he still had the audacity to beg to marry the person the Emperor wanted to kill.
But if he didn’t do it like so, how could he avoid the Emperor’s suspicion?
Each and every person inevitably had their weaknesses. Everything being too perfect was enough to make people suspicious in itself, so he mixed in one falsehood with nine truths as he spewed out everything about himself and Fang Feng Sheng, because he knew that if the Emperor wanted to investigate, those things couldn’t be hidden at all.
He then fabricated a self trapped by passion as a means to save her. Moreover, with his mother’s appearance, he was successfully dissociated from the matter of the Crown Prince’s downfall.
However, these were not enough to obtain the Emperor’s trust. He needed to do something else.
“Now that you know, do you still want to marry her?”
“This son knows that Imperial Father will not believe any of these words now. From beginning to end, this son has never wished for anything that doesn’t belong to this son. This son has no way to prove myself. This son can only say——this son has no intention of taking the great throne and only hopes that Imperial Father will grant the permission to marry her, for us two to become an immortal couple, and for this son to live as a leisurely prince from now on.”
If the first words were not enough to confound the Jianping Emperor, the latter words were enough to move him.
It wasn’t unusual to have no interest in the throne, but to marry a person the emperor was wary of was tantamount to killing himself on the list of heirs to the throne.
“Do you even know what you’re saying?”
“This son knows.”
Actually, Prince Wei made a very clever move. Why this is so will be discussed later.
1 功名 (gōng míng): Could mean scholarly honor or official rank. The scholarly honor he’s talking about here is the one obtained from imperial examinations. De Cai mention in Chapter 21 when he investigated Feng Sheng’s background that Fang Feng Fu became a “distinguished talent” (秀才, xiucai) at the age of twelve, meaning she passed the second level of imperial examinations, which was the township (or prefectural/college) examination held in provincial capitals twice every three years. Prior to exams, students have to submit an application, like their household registry and such. And, well, since this is ancient China, only men could take the imperial examinations. Prince Wei was trying to say that she assumed Fang Feng Fu’s identity after his death.
2 儿臣 (er chén): imperial offspring use this illeism when they’re speaking to the emperor or the empress, where 儿 means child and 臣 means minister/subject. I previously translated it as “subject-son”, but we’re in the capital now and the princes will probably be using that a lot. I find it awkward, so I’m just gonna simply translate it as “this son”.
3 满月 (mǎn yuè): full moon; whole month; baby’s one-month old birthday