The third prince slumped onto the floor once the emperor was out of eyeshot. A smile tugged at his lips. The day the truth was discovered would be the day he was released.
The prison suddenly seemed a little brighter. He fell asleep lying on the floor.
The honored consort had planted an informant at the emperor’s side. The young eunuch recognized the gravity of the news. He snuck to her palace while the others weren’t paying attention and told her what had happened in the prison. The consort broke into cold sweat in reaction.
“What should we do, Consort Zhen?” asked the consort’s personal maid.
The honored consort took a deep breath to calm herself. She didn’t expect her secret to be exposed. She felt an intense resentment for the one responsible. She, however, didn’t have time to think about getting back at whoever it was; her top priority was to survive the storm. “The emperor’s going to do a paternity test through blood. The emperor is a careful and mistrustful man. He won’t sit idle and do nothing after getting the news. Take this to the royal doctor and buy his cooperation.”
“Honored Consort, the paternity test can’t be faked. What if - ”
Sweat streamed down the consort’s face. She knew she must remain calm. “Take Prince Duan here. We’ll deal with it.”
As she thought, the emperor summoned Qi Chen immediately and had the royal doctor take both his and Qi Chen’s blood. The royal doctor secretly swapped out the emperor’s blood with Prince Duan’s as the honored consort instructed. The swapped sample mixed with Qi Chen’s blood easily.
The emperor stormed into the Cold Palace and beat the banished empress up. She almost died from the injury. The emperor ordered the royal doctor to treat her. He didn’t want her dead despite his fury.
The crisis was successfully averted, but the seed of suspicion had been planted in the emperor’s heart. The honored consort and Prince Duan had grown up together; that always plagued him. The memory faded over the years, but now the history was brought to the table again. He felt like he’d been slapped in the face.
As a result, he wasn’t able to treat Qi Chen as he’d done before, which frustrated Qi Chen. However, he could only work harder in taking care of the state affairs, hoping that one day he’d be able to gain the emperor’s approval.
Jun Huang and Nan Xun had thought that they would be able to get Qi Chen with their plan, but the honored consort had gotten herself out of trouble. If Nan Xun’s men hadn’t found out afterwards that the consort had bought the royal doctor, they’d have doubted their speculation that Qi Chen wasn’t the emperor’s son.
They couldn’t relay the information to the emperor, however. He was in an easily-triggered state. If they kept trying to make him see the truth, he’d grow irritated. What was more, Prince Duan had been alerted after the incident. If they made another move, Prince Duan would discover them.
They pretended nothing had happened and stayed in Jun Huang’s manor every day. They seemed like they weren’t doing anything, but in secret, they had been plotting.
Ji Bo secretly went back to the imperial city when he heard the news. He hid in Jun Huang’s manor, his presence known to only a few of her confidantes.
Ji Bo thought differently from Jun Huang and Nan Xun. The two of them believed that they should wait for their enemies to relax their guard, while Ji Bo believed that they should strike again while the wind was at their back.
“We risk exposing ourselves if we make another move,” Jun Huang said disapprovingly. “Prince Duan would be even more alert after the incident.”
Ji Bo thought for a moment. “You can’t achieve anything if you don’t dare take any risks. Be bold. Prince Duan may have be vigilant, but the emperor is now suspicious of Qi Chen. It’s a once in a lifetime opportunity. Prince Duan doesn’t dare do anything big now. We should take the chance to take out those officials who haven’t been doing their jobs.”
Jun Huang thought deeply. He had a point. The emperor was suspicious of not only Qi Chen, but also Prince Duan. Qi Chen had a lot of supporters in the court. If they didn’t do anything now, the courtiers would become a great threat. It was too risky, however. They were likely to expose themselves in the process. Jun Huang and Qi Yun, who had been invited here for the discussion, were put in a dilemma.
Qi Yun looked up at Ji Bo. “I’m as doubtful as Gentleman Feng. This is a sensitive time. Does Mister Ji Bo have a plan?”
Ji Bo nodded with a smile. “We don’t have to do anything ourselves. The emperor is volatile. Your Highness may hand the evidence to the emperor, and he’ll take care of the rest.”
“Aren’t second brother and Prince Duan going to find out it’s me?”
“Qi Chen has lost the emperor’s favor. He’s going to work hard to garner more support from the courtiers. The emperor’s suspicious of him. If he noticed what his son was doing, he’d be furious. Those should be killed will be killed, and those should be exiled will be exiled. No one is going to suspect Your Highness. What’s more, the emperor has lost his trust for Qi Chen, and the third prince is imprisoned. You are the only one he cares about now. He must be moved that you’ve been attending to him day and night. He’ll protect you for nothing if not for your devotion.”
Jun Huang contemplated Ji Bo’s words. He’d made some good points. The emperor didn’t trust easily, but Qi Yun had been taking care of him for a long time. He wouldn’t let the son who’d prioritized his needs be harmed without doing anything.
The emperor knew better than anyone how dangerous a place the court could be. He wouldn’t hesitate to offer Qi Yun protection.
“Mister Ji Bo is right. Your Highness may give it a try.”
Qi Yun had been doubtful, but he relaxed once Jun Huang gave the plan her approval. He nodded and did as Ji Bo said.
The emperor’s mood took a downturn as he read the evidence Qi Yun had collected. He sighed and stared at Qi Yun. “Pretend that this has nothing to do with you. Understand?”
Qi Yun’s breath hitched. Both Ji Bo and Jun Huang had said that the emperor would protect him, but he was still a little moved to hear it himself. The emotion faded quickly once he was reminded that the emperor had gotten his mother killed.
When Qi Yun failed to respond, the emperor helped Qi Yun up. “Remember, the court is not a playground. You’ve seen yourself how your second brother and third brother fight for the throne. Your second brother is especially cold-blooded. If they know you’ve collected all this information in secret, there’s no telling what they’ll do to you. Your Royal Father...”
“This son understands Royal Father’s consideration,” Qi Yun spoke up.
The emperor had aged a lot lately. His hair was turning grey, and his stoic appearance melted away. He seemed more like an old father comforting his own son than an emperor.
The emperor sighed and patted him on the back of his hand, telling Qi Yun to leave first. The rest he’d take care of himself. Qi Yun turned around without a word. He gave the emperor a last glance before he walked away, his heart filled with a mess of pain and emotions. He decided against saying anything in the end.
Once he had left, the emperor’s expression went dark. He looked at the evidence in his hand. He’d turned a blind eye to what Qi Chen had been doing in the court and pushed it to an unseen corner in his mind. His son had grown disrespectful of him. It bothered him to see the evidence presented to him.
After all, he never fully trusted Qi Chen.
The emperor summoned Qi Chen through a eunuch. The eunuch didn’t dare cause a delay. He immediately went to the crown prince’s manor and relayed the order to Qi Chen, who was on his day off.
Qi Chen was observant enough to know that there must be a reason for him to be summoned to the palace on such short notice. He wanted to get the information out from the eunuch, but the eunuch was the emperor’s confidante and remained silent on their way to the palace. He had no choice but to brave his way into the door. His stomach dropped when he saw the dark look on the emperor’s face.
“This son greets Royal Father.” Qi Chen took a deep breath and bowed to the emperor respectfully. He didn’t dare make another mistake. He thought back to what he’d done recently. Had he failed to clean up his mess?
The emperor shot him a glare and walked up to him without a word. The frigid anger radiated from him was intense enough to stop one’s breathing.
“You’ve gotten bold,” he said gravely. “There’s nothing you don’t dare do, is there? Do you think I’ll let you do whatever you want just because my health is in a bad condition?”
Qi Chen’s heart did a flip. He wasn’t sure what the emperor was talking about. His robe was drenched by his sweat and his fingers started trembling. He took a deep breath and swallowed down the lump in his throat before looking up at the emperor. “What does Royal Father mean?”
The emperor scoffed. “I’ve turned a blind eye to the fact that you’ve been colluding with the officials. Now, however, you dare sell positions in the court to bribe people? What else are you going to do?”
Now Qi Chen knew why he was here. He had been exposed.
“Are you going to replace me next time? I was the one who made you the crown prince, Qi Chen, and I can take the title away as well. Do you really think you’re irreplaceable?”
In rage, the emperor’s words grew harsher and harsher. Qi Chen’s face fell, but he didn’t dare talk back. He remained on his knees and let the emperor vent.
The emperor kicked him a few times. He suspected that Qi Chen was planning to take the throne through force. He was even more convinced he should take his title as the crown prince away.
Qi Chen’s muscles grew tense as he speculated the emperor’s thoughts. He gritted his teeth and stared at the floor with his head lowered without a word.
1. In ancient China, people would drip their blood into a bowl of water and see if the droplets come together. If they do, it’s interpreted as the two people being related. Of course we know now it’s not how it works.