Rou’er had grown up with the maid. She knew she could trust her. She nodded and bathed herself properly before putting on a robe and walking out.
Qi Chen was in a good mood from being praised by the emperor for his work. Seeing the tender look in Rou’er’s eyes, he pulled her into his arms.
Rou’er lowered her eyes bashfully. “Your Highness? There are still other people here.”
Qi Chen laughed heartily and patted her hand in reassurance. He waved a hand to dismiss everyone before sitting down on a stone stool with Rou’er by his side. “It’s a good day.”
“If so, let me play something for you. It’s been a while since the last time Your Highness came. I’ve learned a new song. Your Highness would like it.”
She stood up to go get her zither, but Qi Chen caught her wrist.
Rou’er had snuck out earlier. She panicked a little when Qi Chen stopped her, worried that he’d noticed something. When she turned to him, though, she was met with a smile. She relaxed a little. “What is it?”
“Are you mad at me for not visiting you lately?”
Rou’er paused but quickly figured out what Qi Chen was talking about. She sat on his lap with a smile and murmured, “Your Highness has asked Rou’er a difficult question. Even though I’m a woman, I know Your Highness is facing a lot of challenges outside the manor. I’ll be satisfied as long as Your Highness thinks of me every once in a while. I don’t dare ask for more.”
She looked meek and obedient with her eyes lowered and her brows relaxed. Her long hair ran down her back and flew in the breeze.
Qi Chen was pleased by her consideration. His smile deepened. He let Rou’er go after planting a few kisses on her.
Her smile dropped as soon as she entered her room, but she quickly adjusted herself. She walked out with her zither in her arms.
“Your Highness, if you’re satisfied with my performance, may I ask for a favor?” Rou’er said, placing the zither before her.
Qi Chen raised an eyebrow at her and nodded. Rou’er placed her hands on the strings and started playing a pleasant melody. Afterwards, she came to Qi Chen’s side and poured him a cup of tea. “I want to visit your mother in the palace tomorrow, Your Highness.”
“That’ll be good,” he agreed readily. “It’s been a while since mother saw you. She’s mentioned you lately.”
Rou’er pretended to be hesitant and cast her eyes downward, her fingers clutching her robe. “Will the princess go as well?”
Qi Chen blinked at her. Now he knew why Rou’er was so unlike her usual self. After Nan Guyue lost her child, her personality had changed drastically. She often humiliated his other spouses. Rou’er must have become scared of her.
“Don’t worry, you’ll be the only one.” He picked Rou’er up and carried her into the building.
The next day, Rou’er entered the palace with two maids. She’d given them the instructions beforehand. As soon as they entered the palace, the two maids disappeared. When asked, she said that it was the first time the young maids entered the palace, so she let them go for a walk.
The two maids went to the royal garden and hid behind a fake mountain to change into the clothes of palace maids. They made their way to the Cold Palace.
The Cold Palace was almost free of any activities. The empress was alone in the garden, enjoying the sunlight. The two maids shared a look and sauntered inside through the front door, attracting the empress’s attention.
She saw something fall off one of the maids. Curiosity got the better of her. She got closer to them. Their conversation reached her ear in snippets. She closed their distance again.
“I heard that Honored Consort Zhen and Prince Duan grew up together.”
“I heard that too. It’s said that the crown prince may be Prince Duan’s child! After all, the honored consort and Prince Duan used to be madly in love. She got pregnant not long after entering the palace. Anyone would suspect her of bearing his child. I also heard from a maid stationed in the honored consort’s palace that the consort has met up with Prince Duan in private. He’s also unusually close to the crown prince.”
“Makes sense. No matter how tolerant Prince Duan may be, he can’t possibly help the son of the man who robbed him of his lover become an emperor.”
The two maids talked animatedly, as if they’d witnessed Prince Duan and the honored consort’s love story themselves.
The sound of a twig breaking told the two maids that the empress had been hooked. They put on a fearful expression and turned to the empress in unison.
The empress had been deprived of her title. Therefore the two maids didn’t kneel down to her. She didn’t dwell on that and instead stared at the two maids. “Is what you just said true?”
The two maids shared a look. One of the maids walked to the empress’s side and bent down to pick up the hairpin she’d just lost. “We servants can’t validate if the rumors are true, but that’s what everyone says. Maybe there’s some truth to it. Maybe not.”
The empress watched them walk away, stunned. She’d entered the palace before the honored consort. She knew the woman had been in love with Prince Duan and was forcefully taken away by the emperor. As the two maids had said, the honored consort got pregnant not long after, and Prince Duan never seem even slightly angry with the emperor for taking his lover from him. She hadn’t considered the situation carefully before, but now that she thought about it, it did seem suspicious.
This was no simple matter. She considered telling the emperor directly, but in the end decided against it. She was reminded that Jun Huang had left her with a way to contact her. It seemed like she’d need Jun Huang’s help.
Jun Huang smiled widely when she received the message from the empress. It went all according to her plan. As a woman, she was able to get a good grasp on the empress’s thought process during their meetings. She’d made the right move.
“Does it go as you’ve predicted?” Nan Xun asked, standing next to her.
She turned to him and handed him the letter. He raised an eyebrow after reading it. “She wants to meet with the third prince. What are you going to do?”
“Since she’s asked us for help, we will,” she said with a smile. “The third prince’s in the prison. I can’t do this on my own as a peasant. I’ll need your help, general.”
Nan Xun nodded without thinking. “I’ll take care of it.”
Nan Xun made the necessary arrangements. He smuggled an imposter to the Cold Palace in the empress’s stead and had his men take the empress to the prison.
The empress was smart enough to know what she could and couldn’t say. When the third prince asked how she left the Cold Palace, she said her brother had helped her.
The third prince calmed down from his surprise. He knew the empress must have come for a reason. “What is the empress here for?”
The empress told him what she’d heard. He gaped at her as he listened to her explanation. He didn’t dare even think about the possibility. After the empress swore that the information was legitimate, he knew it was his chance to make a comeback.
He fell in deep thought in the prison infested with cockroaches and mice. He might be reckless, but he knew the way politics worked. He was confident that he’d be able to execute his plan. He knocked on the cell door.
When all was said and done, he was a prince. The prison guards didn’t know what he was jailed for. They didn’t dare treat him with contempt, lest he make them pay after he was released. They rushed to the cell when they heard the third prince knocking.
“Tell Royal Father that I have something important to tell him,” the third prince said, stretching his neck.
The guards were puzzled, but they worried it might be an emergency. One of them rushed out to notify the emperor, who came to the prison after some hesitation. He’d like to hear what the third prince had to say.
The other guards were shocked when the emperor came. They knelt on the ground, terrified of offending the emperor. The third prince assumed that his father would take him to the court; it surprised him that his father had come personally. It made no difference to him though. He bowed to the emperor in greeting.
The emperor stood before the cell door, frowning at the rundown place. “Talk. What do you want to tell me?”
The third prince took a deep breath and relayed what the empress had said to the emperor. The emperor flew into rage, scaring the guards into further lowering their heads. The third prince met his eyes with resolution, silently showing the emperor his earnestness.
“Are you telling the truth?” the emperor asked, suppressing his anger.
“This son isn’t the only person who knows,” said the prince. “If Royal Father doesn’t believe me, you may investigate yourself. There are many people who know about it in the palace. Besides, has Royal Father never suspected them? After all, the honored consort and Prince Duan have grown up together. It’s better safe than sorry.”
Doubt festered in the emperor’s heart. He’d never questioned Qi Chen’s origin before, but now he had to investigate. He asked the third prince where the information came from. He frowned when he heard it had been the banished empress. Without another word, he left with his entourage of servants.Previous Chapter Next Chapter