“I was simply telling the truth. The emperor may have suspected the same thing before. He can easily find out what Nan Xun and Qi Yun have been doing. He’s a mistrustful man. His doubt toward his own blood will be his downfall.”
Prince Duan spoke slowly, deliberately, which made him sound eerie. Qi Chen shuddered but remained quiet.
Prince Duan didn’t intend to continue with this conversation. The eunuch outside was urging him to leave. He changed into his court attire and followed the eunuch to the palace.
The emperor had been on edge since last night and only relaxed when Prince Duan arrived. He hurried to Prince Duan to help him up and invited him to take a seat.
“What has Your Majesty summoned me for?” Prince Duan put on an innocent look, hiding the gears turning in his head. He snuck the emperor a glance and noted how tired he looked. He lowered his eyes bemusedly.
The emperor had summoned Prince Duan for advice. He didn’t intend to hide anything from him. Prince Duan was known for being a man of integrity. The fact that he’d told the emperor what was happening in the palace proved him to be trustworthy.
“I’ve looked into the speculations you made a few days ago,” said the emperor. “You’re right. However, I’m getting weak lately, and may not be able to live for long. I’m feeling lost and therefore asked you here for advice.”
Prince Duan looked thoughtful for a moment. “Ah, I hear the ninth prince is doing well with his studies and is growing into a fine intellect. He’ll be able to assist Your Majesty in no time.”
He didn’t tell the emperor that Qi Chen was living in his manor. After all, the emperor hadn’t explicitly pardoned his son. There was no telling if he might get angry if Prince Duan brought Qi Chen up. It was better to put the ninth prince on the spot first. Once the ninth prince became the crown prince, they’d be on track to victory. They boy would be nothing but a puppet ruler after the emperor died. He would listen to whatever Prince Duan said.
“What do you mean exactly?” the emperor asked with a frown.
Prince Duan put away his thoughts and nodded respectfully. “This official shares the same thought as Your Majesty. The ninth prince is young, but he is your son. I also hear that he’s a pure-hearted boy. The best solution now is to educate him well and help him become the crown prince. Then, Your Majesty will be able to rest easy.”
The emperor considered the proposal carefully. He looked up at Prince Duan, who sat by his side with a faint smile on his face. It seemed as if everything he said was for the good of the emperor.
The emperor deemed the plan viable after some deliberation. He nodded. “That may work. However, the boy is still too young. There are things he won’t be able to deal with properly and things he won’t understand. I’m afraid I’m not healthy enough to teach him myself.“
Prince Duan rose to his feet and knelt down before the emperor. “Your Majesty doesn’t have to worry. This official will do all I can to assist the ninth prince and teach him how to tackle court affairs.”
The emperor didn’t immediately respond. He considered Prince Duan for a long time.
For reasons unbeknownst to him, Prince Duan felt as if the emperor was trying to convey something through his look. He held his breath.
There was no basis to his sense of foreboding. He wondered what the emperor was thinking.
Just when Prince Duan started to feel suffocated, the emperor finally said, “I believe you. I know you want the best for me, and I think the ninth prince will make a good leader as well. How about you be the prince regent assisting the ninth prince? He’s young, and I am ill. I’ll be more at ease with you helping him.”
That caught Prince Duan off guard. He bowed down and hit the floor with his head earnestly, his heart skipping in excitement.
“However… this official worries that those with ulterior motives may refuse to acknowledge Your Majesty’s decision. Would Your Majesty issue a decree to avoid complications?”
Prince Duan had thought everything through. He wasn’t willing to leave any loose ends.
The emperor paused for a long moment before getting to his feet. “If so, please give me some privacy. You may return after I’ve drafted the decree.”
Prince Duan nodded. He knew the emperor didn’t want other people to see the imperial seal. He wasn’t too worried. In his mind, the seal was already his.
After he’d left the room, the emperor’s personal eunuch approached the emperor and laid a blank decree scroll on the table under the emperor’s order. He then started grinding ink.
After a brief bemused pause, the emperor wrote the decree in one swift attempt. The eunuch sighed, which sounded almost offensively loud in the silent room.
“Is something the matter?” asked the emperor.
The eunuch didn’t voice his thoughts and instead shook his head with a smile. The emperor knew what was left unspoken. After a moment, he said, “This is the best thing I can do now.”
“This old servant doesn’t understand, but Your Majesty would make the right call,” the eunuch said comfortingly. “We’re all walking on a predestined path. Your Majesty doesn’t have to worry too much.”
The emperor silently put his writing brush aside and read the decree over. Seeing that there was no mistake, he stamped the decree with the imperial seal.
“Deliver this to Prince Duan. I’m tired.”
The emperor rose and made his way to the bed. He seemed to have aged overnight. The eunuch felt a pang of guilt watching him. It must be hard for him to have everyone betraying him in the end.
Once the ink was dried, the eunuch carefully rolled up the decree and gingerly walked outside, shutting the door behind him.
Prince Duan sat with his back straight when the eunuch walked out. He sighed in relief as his gaze landed on the decree in the eunuch’s hand. He walked up to the eunuch with a wide smile, intending to exchange some pleasantries with the old man, but the eunuch didn’t seem willing to talk. He handed the decree to Prince Duan and said bluntly, “His Majesty has gone to bed due to exhaustion. Prince Duan should return as well.”
Prince Duan was confused, but he hadn’t noticed anything wrong when he glanced at the decree. Without another word, he returned to his manor.
Once Prince Duan was out of eyeshot, the eunuch turned around and beckoned over a young eunuch. He whispered a few words to the boy, who nodded in understanding. He snuck out of the palace and made his way to Qi Yun’s residence without attracting any attention.
When the young eunuch arrived, Qi Yun was dealing with court cases. He had too many tasks to deal with every day. He had no choice but to take his work home. That also left him with no time to visit the emperor.
He’d seen the young eunuch a couple times. The emperor’s personal eunuch always delivered message through this young boy. It was late. Something serious must have happened for the young eunuch to come here. He put aside the documents in his hands and asked the boy what had happened. His eyes grew darker and darker the more he listened. The young eunuch timidly went on to describe what the emperor had said to Prince Duan.
Qi Yun could barely contain his rage. He took the young eunuch straight to the emperor’s chamber. The old eunuch went up to him and said in a voice only the two of them could hear, “His Majesty has issued a decree to make Prince Duan the prince regent. Fortunately, Your Highness has foreseen what could happen and prepared accordingly. Therefore everything is still under control. Your Highness doesn’t have to be too worried. This old servant has done as you said.”
Qi Yun took a deep breath to calm himself and smiled at the eunuch, his eyes dark. Before he entered the palace, he told the young eunuch, “Since we’ve come to this point, there’s no need for us to hold back. Tell Nan Xun to be prepared.”
The boy nodded and rushed away. The eunuch dismissed everyone outside the palace. Some of them were puzzled, but they recognized the eunuch as the emperor’s confidante and didn’t dare disobey him. They thus left without hesitation.
Qi Yun exchanged a look with the eunuch and nodded before he opened the door.
The emperor was on the bed, but he was wide awake. Too many thoughts occupied his mind, giving him a massive headache and preventing him from falling asleep. Still, he was tired. It might help to lie down for a while.
The door creaked. The emperor assumed it was the eunuch. He rubbed at his forehead and asked for a cup of water to clear his throat, but then it was Qi Yun who responded.
He jerked his head up to face Qi Yun, who was coming his way with a cup of water. His heart pounded in fear. Earlier, he’d ordered to keep anyone other than the eunuch from entering his room. He broke into a cold sweat, caught off guard by Qi Yun’s arrival.
“Why are you here?” the emperor demanded after calming himself down.
Qi Yun looked at him with a smile and placed the cup on the desk beside the emperor’s bed. “Why is Royal Father so nervous?”
The emperor frowned, perturbed by Qi Yun’s attitude. Qi Yun, however, met the emperor’s gaze squarely with steel in his eyes, which unsettled the emperor.
Qi Yun had always known that the emperor was heartless, but he didn’t know to what extent. He’d been so respectful and attentive to his father, and yet this was what he got in the end. He huffed. He couldn’t play the loyal son anymore.