The empress dowager stumbled in, surrounded by a large group of eunuchs and maids. The flower banquet was canceled at the last moment, and the young ladies from different families were sent away. Seeing Lin Haihai lying on the floor like a lifeless piece of wood struck the empress dowager with sorrow. She struggled to breathe and ended up losing consciousness.
Lin Haihai panicked. The old lady wasn’t in her best health and should avoid strong emotions. She immediately returned to her body and squeezed out the water in her stomach, coughing it out. The maids hurriedly helped the empress dowager away.
Everyone in the room took a collective sigh of relief, and Yang Shaolun felt as if he’d been crushed by something heavy. He was finally able to relax, but a numbing pain prickled all over his body. He watched as his imperial brother held Lin Haihai tight in his arms. If this is the price to pay to ensure her safety, I’ll accept it gladly.
Soon, Lin Haihai was lifted to a bed. She heard an imperial physician murmur, “Your Majesty, the handprints left on Consort Lin’s clothes tell us that the culprit must be a woman!”
Lin Haihai sighed. Consort Zhuang had been careless, leaving such obvious clues on her clothes.
Veins popped out of Yang Shaolun’s forehead, and his eyes blazed with fury. A woman? There’s a woman who knows martial arts in the harem? A cruel sneer tugged at his lips. Whoever dared hurt his woman must be prepared to face his fierce retaliation!
“How’s the Sixth Princess Consort?” Yang Shaolun bit out, his trembling lips making his fear clear.
“In response to Your Majesty, Consort Lin isn’t in a critical condition,” Imperial Physician Shangguan responded respectfully. “The palm strikes didn’t shatter her heart, but the damage is not to be underestimated considering the force of the attack. This official will make a prescription first. We’ll need Physician Li to further diagnose and treat her!”
Chen Luoqing considered Lin Haihai’s pale and composed face, his heart filled with disbelief. He knew what Lin Haihai was capable of, and he didn’t believe the culprit would be able to injure her so badly. That was unless the culprit was more powerful than she was. Was there really such a woman in the imperial harem?
“Summon Li Junyue to the palace!” ordered Yang Shaolun.
“In response to Your Majesty, Physician Li has left for a medical visit and hasn’t yet returned!” answered Imperial Physician Chen.
“Medical visit?” Yang Shaolun said coolly. “Where to? Summon him back!”
Fearfully, Imperial Physician Chen responded, “Only Master… Consort Lin knows. We never ask them where they’ve gone.”
“Bastards! This Emperor has sent you to the Linhai Hospital to help, but you know nothing about the hospital?!” Yang Shaolun flew into a rage. Lin Haihai sighed inwardly. He might as well be announcing to the world the secret they had been keeping. Someone as sensitive as Yang Hanlun wouldn’t have missed the signs.
“Please calm yourself, Your Majesty. Let us check Consort Lin’s condition!” Chen Luoqing said. The emperor was too anxious, and people would talk!
Yang Hanlun gave Lin Haihai a conflicted look before turning to Yang Shaolun, and a sharp pain shot through his heart. They do love each other. What does that make me then? He couldn’t even claim Lin Haihai as his princess consort since he had given her the divorce paper as soon as she was married into his residence. She was his divorced wife. He was in no place to interfere with her romantic affairs.
Lin Haihai opened her eyes to see Yang Hanlun’s bloodshot gaze and smiled faintly. Yang Hanlun squeezed her hands tight, too overwhelmed with emotions to form a sentence. Lin Haihai couldn’t help but feel touched. The young man cared about her so deeply. How could she ever repay him? She had nothing to offer in return. Her heart belonged to someone already, and there was no room for others.
Her eyes turned red as tears streamed down her face. The sight broke Yang Shaolun’s heart. He understood her feelings. He could read them in her eyes. She felt guilty, and he felt the same. But his love for her had gone bone-deep; how was he supposed to cut her out of his life? How could he ever give up on her? He met her gaze. The tearing pain in his heart kept him silent.
“Do you recognize the person who attacked you?” asked Yang Yonglun, the second prince.
Lin Haihai shook her head. “I don’t.”
“The culprit attacked you head on,” the second prince pressed in confusion. “You must have gotten a look at her!”
“I don’t recognize her, Second Brother!” Lin Haihai closed her eyes with feigned exhaustion. She knew she mustn’t let Consort Zhuang off the hook, but she didn’t want her to be executed.
Reading Lin Haihai’s thoughts, the empress hurriedly said, “Please leave the room, Princes. She’s just woken up and needs her rest. This Empress will stay here to take care of her. Please return for more questions once she’s feeling better!”
“Alright, we’ll check on Imperial Mother first,” the second prince said seriously. He could sense Lin Haihai’s reluctance. “If there’s anything troubling you, Sister-in-law, you should tell this Second Brother. I will make things right for you!”
“Thank you, Second Brother!” Lin Haihai’s gaze was brimming with gratitude. These people had been treating her with so much care, especially the brothers in the imperial family. If her relationship with Yang Shaolun would drive a wedge between the brothers, she rather they had never started anything in the beginning.
Chen Luoqing led Yang Shaolun out of the room, while Yang Hanlun told the empress, “Please take care of her, Sister-in-law!”
Once they were out of the room, the second prince turned to Yang Shaolun and said, “This Brother has something to talk to you about, Imperial Elder Brother. Would you mind giving me some time?”
Yang Shaolun looked up at him for a good while before responding, “Let’s go.”
They made their way to the shade of a tree. Yang Yonglun looked Yang Shaolun straight in the eyes and said, “This Brother has always respected you like a father, Imperial Elder Brother. We brothers have stayed away from the imperial court because we don’t want to give anyone any reasons to hurt the bond between us. Even if there’s only a slim possibility that it may happen, we’ll avoid it at all cost.”
“What I treasure the most in my life is the years we spent growing up together. Our brotherly love is unequivocally the most precious thing to me. There is no comparison. The Sixth Brother is the youngest among us, and he was birthed by the same mother as you were. You should be able to tell that he loves Sister-in-law like she is his life. Please preserve the bond between us, Imperial Elder Brother. If one day Sixth Brother gets hurt because of you, we brothers will not forgive you! Please pardon this Brother for crossing a line!”
His booming voice and righteous words slammed into Yang Shaolun’s chest and prickled his heart like thousands of needles. He could hear his heart dripping blood.
He opened his mouth to protest, but the dull pain filling his chest made it difficult to utter even a word. More importantly, there was nothing he could say!
Back in the room, the empress wiped away the tears at the corner of Lin Haihai’s eye and asked gently, “You know who it was, don’t you?”
Lin Haihai gave the empress a sorrowful look, but her tone was calm. “It was Consort Zhuang!”
Her? The empress paused, her expression conflicted.
“What’s wrong?” Lin Haihai asked. “Who is Consort Zhuang? Why did you frown when I mentioned her?”
The empress sighed and sat by her bed. “Why did she want to kill you?”
Lin Haihai’s tone turned serious as well. “She was the one who instigated Imperial Consort Li to set you up, not to get rid of you, but Imperial Consort Li and the other concubines. It was her intricate plan to send them into the Cold Palace through us, while she reaped the benefits! However, she figured out the emperor’s feelings for me then, and her jealousy turned into hate. She wanted me dead. I didn’t know she knew martial arts. I had thought I would be able to deal with someone frail like her. However, she turns out to be more powerful than I expected!”
The empress felt a chill running down her spine. There was someone this shrewd and adept at martial arts in the harem, and yet no one had noticed. With a sigh, she said, “I think I know why she’s skilled in martial arts. Do you know who her father is?”
Lin Haihai widened her eyes in curiosity. She was all ears.
“Consort Zhuang’s name is Xie Xue’er. She’s been polite and proper ever since she entered the palace, and her temperament was quiet. That was why she was given the title ‘Consort Zhuang’. Her father is Xie Guang, former General-in-Chief of Agile Cavalry. He lost his sight during a battle with Rong, and he’s well respected as a great hero. Her grandfather was a marshal serving the former emperor, who led countless charges throughout the nation to expand Daxing’s territory and drive away the barbarians, accumulating many feats and merits. The Xie Family is devoted to the throne. The men are capable fighters, and the women no lesser than their male counterparts. They’re a family of heroes. Consort Zhuang’s brothers now serve under General Chen as his vanguards and right and left hand men. Both of them are irreplaceable!”
The empress listed the many feats the Xie Family has achieved in service of the nation, and Lin Haihai was stunned. Who would have thought that the family of devoted officials would raise someone as radical as Xie Xue’er? This matter must be kept a secret, or Grand Councilor Yan wouldn’t let the Xie Family off the hook. Imperial Consort Li was the Yan Family’s treasured daughter. Trouble would follow if they knew their daughter had suffered a miscarriage because of Consort Zhuang!
“This stays between us, Empress,” Lin Haihai said seriously. “No one else must know!”
The empress nodded and said, “I agree. This is a troubled time, and nothing must go wrong. However, it’s unfair to you!”
Lin Haihai’s expression darkened, and she said with a sigh, “Unfair? I asked for this! You don’t love him, Empress, so you’re able to see things with clarity. If I fell for the man you hold dear in your heart, you wouldn’t be able to stand it! There are many men in the world. Why must I fall for her husband? It’s all on me!”
The empress felt her chest tightened. Affairs in the palace were always a tangled mess. It wasn’t about the fight for love. Conflicts always existed between women. If not for men, then for power and the title of the empress. She’d long grown tired of all the conflicts. When would she be able to break free?
Her silence unnerved Lin Haihai. She had planned to simply practice medicine as a physician in this era, staying far away from the complicated mess of relationships. Perhaps she had made a mistake from the very start. With the way Yang Shaolun had reacted today, his clever brothers must have figured out the truth. They were back to ground zero, weren’t they? Should she just pat herself on the back and tell herself it was better to have him, however temporarily, than to never be with him?
The empress broke the silence after a while, “Even if you don’t reveal the truth, the emperor will stop at nothing to find her. He will continue to investigate. Consort Zhuang will be found no matter how well she’s disguised herself.”
Lin Haihai gave the situation some thought. “I believe they’ll set up a trap for her. Tell Zheng Feng to come and hide here! How frequent do the guards change shifts?”
“That I don’t know,” said the empress. “I’ve been living in this palace for a long time, but I never pay any attention to that. Commander Zheng will know, though. I’ll find him first. He was ordered to escort the young women out of the palace. He must have come back already!”
“Remember, have Commander Zheng dress as a woman to fool everyone, especially the emperor and his brothers,” Lin Haihai said decisively. “Bring some palace maids and have Commander Zheng pretend to be one of them. Once he’s gotten into this room, you should leave with all the palace maids and make sure everyone sees that!”
“I will,” the empress said worriedly. “You should be careful!”
Lin Haihai gave her a reassuring smile. “I’m fine. Be quick!”
The empress left in a hurry.
Meanwhile, Yang Shaolun had spread the news that the sixth princess consort had been resurrected, but hadn’t regained consciousness. Then he assigned a great number of guards to watch over the An’ning Palace. They were to subdue anyone suspicious!
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