Zheng Feng took Consort Zhuang out of the palace and stopped in an alleyway, where a horse carriage was waiting for them. He gave her a set of peasant clothes, asking her to change out of the outfit of a palace maid. He himself did the same, changing into a handsome everyday attire.
Consort Zhuang accepted the clothes and got into the carriage. After she got changed, she curled into herself, and her icy heart gradually regained its ability to feel pain. How disappointed Father will be! Her family had great expectations for her, but the glory her father and brothers had earned through bloodshed would soon get destroyed because of her! She covered her face with both hands and choked, her low whimpers gradually evolving into quiet sobs.
I’ve doomed my family for a dream that would never become reality! It was a bet she could never win. If the emperor held her accountable, her crime would be so great that her entire family would be dragged down with her. How was she supposed to face her elders? Her siblings?
Zheng Feng hated her for what she had done, but her heartbroken wails tugged on his heartstring. He parted the curtains and said, “Consort Lin told me to send you home. It must mean she would be able to convince His Majesty to pardon you. I hope you’ll put away your vicious thoughts for General Xie’s sake!”
Consort Zhuang looked up at him, the venom in her eyes long replaced by deep sorrow. She muttered, “How can I face my father? This is where I end up in this life. I might as well die here!”
She took out a dagger and drove it toward her own heart. Startled, Zheng Feng shot out a hand and grabbed the blade, his action as swift as lightning. Blood dripped down from his split skin and dyed Consort Zhuang’s yellow dress red. She stared at him, dumbfounded. She had committed a great crime. Why would he save her? She didn’t deserve the kindness, she didn’t!
Mournful tears streamed down her face. She tore apart the palace maid outfit she had changed out of to bandage Zheng Feng.
Remembering the respectable old general and her brothers, who he was acquainted with, Zheng Feng couldn’t help but pity the young woman. With a sigh, he said, “Your father and brothers are admirable heroes who fight fearlessly on battlefields, never giving an inch even when they are bathed in blood. You’re a daughter of the Xie Family. You must share their perseverance. Fight for your life, for it is precious. Physician Lin… Consort Lin has been fighting to save others from the clutch of death every day. She wouldn’t want you to kill yourself! If you now understand your sins, make up for it with the rest of your life!”
Consort Zhuang met his gaze with a dazed look on her face. “What kind of a person is Consort Lin?”
Zheng Feng thought for a moment before answering, “I don’t know how to describe her, but I’ll put it this way: If you managed to kill her today, all the citizens of the capital would tear down the Xie Residence!”
Consort Zhuang didn’t expect the response. From his serious gaze, she could tell his words were no hyperbole, which confused her. Lin Haihai seemed just like an ordinary woman.
After some hesitation, she asked, “You respect her, don’t you?”
Zheng Feng silently jumped onto the carriage and cracked his whip at the horseback with appropriate force. The horse neighed before galloping through the street.
Silence stretched for a good while until Zheng Feng finally spoke up, “If she tells me to give up my life, I will.” His voice was quiet, but Consort Zhuang had heard his belated response. It shook her to the core. Who is this princess consort?
The horse carriage came to a halt before the Xie Residence. Zheng Feng got off the carriage. The guard at the door noted his impressive and imposing presence and went up to him, asking, “How may I help you, sir?”
“I came from the palace,” Zheng Feng said. “I’ve escorted Consort Zhuang home to visit her family!”
Consort Zhuang heard his explanation when she got out of the carriage. She knew he was trying to preserve her face. The guard recognized their young mistress and immediately got to his knees. “Greetings, Consort Zhuang!”
Consort Zhuang felt a myriad of emotions warring in her heart. “Rise. This Consort has returned to discreetly visit my family in plain clothes. Please keep my presence a secret!”
“This servant understands!”
Zheng Feng bowed and said, “Farewell, Consort Zhuang. This official will take my leave!” His duty was to escort her back home. The rest she would have to deal with herself.
“Thank you, Commander Zheng,” Consort Zhuang responded bitterly.
“I’m not the one you should thank, but Physician Lin!”
He got back into the carriage and rode it toward Linhai Hospital. With a heavy heart, Consort Zhuang made her way home.
The empress was surprised to see Zheng Feng waiting for them when she accompanied Lin Haihai to the hospital. “Didn’t you escort Consort Zhuang back home?”
“I let her enter on her own after taking her to the front of the Xie Residence,” Zheng Feng responded.
The empress jumped. “That’s bad. If Consort Zhuang reveals the truth, she will die given the kind of person General Xie is!”
That got Zheng Feng worried. He hadn’t considered the possibility. “She can’t be foolish enough to tell her father everything, can she?”
“There are many who are in General Xie’s debt. I’m afraid news may have reached him already. He may have heard about what happened without his daughter confessing to him!”
“Hurry, let’s go to the general’s residence!” Lin Haihai rushed out of the hospital. She didn’t seem at all like a person who had been seriously injured. The empress considered her with some confusion, but then she thought about Lin Haihai’s impressive medical skills and attributed her unusually quick recovery to some rare medicines or unique constitution.
Once in the carriage, Lin Haihai asked, “What kind of a person is General Xie?”
“He’s a man of unwavering integrity and iron will,” said the empress. “He’s devoted to the nation and its ruler. If he knows what Consort Zhuang has done, I believe he will exert justice even when the culprit is his child!”
Consort Zhuang deserved to be punished for her crime, but her death, however little impact it would make, might end up as a knot in the old general’s heart that remained unsolvable until the day he passed away!
“Hurry, Zheng Feng! Hurry!” Lin Haihai anxiously urged Zheng Feng, who cracked the whip hard. The horse flinched and reared its front legs, tipping its head up to let out a stretched neigh. It then widened its strides and galloped at full speed.
As soon as they reached the general’s residence, Lin Haihai leapt off the carriage and helped the empress out. The guard at the door remembered Zheng Feng. He went up to him and greeted, “What matters are you attending this time, sir?”
“The young madams and I would like to meet General Xie!” Zheng Feng said, cupping his fists.
The guard turned to the empress and Lin Haihai. The two women held themselves with a grace that rivaled or even exceeded the young mistress of the Xie Family. “Please wait for a moment,” he said. “This servant will notify the general for you!”
“That won’t be necessary. Take us to General Xie!” Lin Haihai demanded with a frown. The time it took to rally the message was enough for Consort Zhuang to be killed!
“I - this servant dares not do so!” The guard couldn’t afford to offend an imperial consort now that Consort Zhuang was back. Although he could tell the three guests were no ordinary people, he didn’t dare forgo the rules of propriety.
“We’ll take responsibility should anything happen. Lead the way!” Lin Haihai’s voice was faint when she made the order, but her gaze was overbearing enough to make one avoid her gaze.
The guard lowered his head. After some struggle, he said, “Please follow this servant!”
The three of them followed the guard to the main hall. The residence was built in a simpler, more practical style, giving off an air of solemnity. The layout was similar to a closed courtyard house in Beijing. There was a small garden, but it was empty save for a few mango trees. Next to the garden was a small bamboo garden - populated by the rare square bamboo.
Lin Haihai felt admiration rising in her heart. The Xie Family had achieved many feats on battlefields, and one of their daughters had become a consort in the imperial harem. They must have accumulated unimaginable wealth and fortune. However, their residence was no more extravagant than a regular merchant’s, and there weren’t many servants around. It was clear how simple they had kept their lifestyle. The family must have subscribed to a life of strict disciplines.
There was a servant cleaning in the main hall. The guard asked, “Where’s the general?”
The servant wasn’t fazed when he saw Lin Haihai and the others. With a smile, he nodded and said, “The general is catching up with Consort Zhuang in the study!”
Lin Haihai and her two companions exchanged a look before saying in unison, “Hurry, take us to the general!”
The servant didn’t hesitate for too long before saying, “Please come with me!” He had been serving the general for many years. He could tell that the three guests were of impressive status. The two women, especially, had a noble air about them.
The group hurried to the study in no time. The servant knocked on the door and said, “You have visitors, General Xie!”
“Please turn them away. Tell them this old man is feeling unwell and cannot see any guests!” A weak voice spoke up with suppressed anger and sadness, which didn’t escape the notice of Lin Haihai and her companions.
Lin Haihai used her spiritual energy to take a look inside. Consort Zhuang was on her knees, covered in lashes left by a whip. Blood had dyed her clothes red, and she was close to collapsing. In the heat of the moment, Lin Haihai told Zheng Feng, “Kick the door open!”
Zheng Feng never questioned her words. He marched forward and kicked the door. Lin Haihai immediately rushed in to help Consort Zhuang up.
“You may go,” Zheng Feng said to the servant, who took his leave in understanding.
The old general had been blinded by poison on battlefields. Even after getting treated, his vision remained blurry. Seeing a few figures swarming into the room, he raised his whip and demanded, “Who are you?”
Lin Haihai gave Consort Zhuang medicine that improved circulation to unblock her du meridian before sending inner energy into her body. Consort Zhuang forced her eyes open and stared at Lin Haihai in shock. She knows martial arts!
Lin Haihai had thrown reservations out of the window and revealed her secret. Saving people had always been the top priority for her.
The empress glanced at Lin Haihai with realization. She then turned to General Xie and said, “It’s been a while, General Xie!”
Recognizing the cool voice, the old general immediately got to one knee and said, “This old official greets Your Majesty the Empress!”
“Please spare the formalities, General!” the empress hurriedly said. “Please rise!”
The old general stayed on the floor, his face covered in tears. “This old official is guilty! This official is guilty!”
Her father’s sorrow stabbed at Consort Zhuang’s heart like a thousand daggers. She broke down and bawled.
“Rise, and we’ll talk!” The empress gestured at Zheng Feng, ordering him to help the old general up. Zheng Feng did as she instructed.
Lin Haihai let go of Consort Zhuang and came up to the old general, saying respectfully, “Lin Haihai greets General Xie!” She had always admired loyal officials who devoted their entire being to serving the people.
General Xie narrowed his eyes and made out the contour of a human figure. Lin Haihai? The physician who has won over the capital? He asked, “Are you a physician?”
“I am,” Lin Haihai said with a smile.
“Did you open the Linhai Hospital in the capital?” he asked with uncertainty.
“I did!” Lin Haihai answered respectfully.
General Xie admired her for what she had done. “Physician Lin is a skilled physician lauded by many. Your reputation precedes you!”
“You’re too kind,” Lin Haihai answered with a chuckle. “I’ve long admired General Xie. It’s a great honor to meet you today!”
The old general’s expression dimmed. “I don’t deserve that. I don’t!”
The three of them couldn’t help but feel a sympathetic pang in their hearts.
Consort Zhuang knelt down before Lin Haihai and pleaded, “This crime is mine and mine alone, Consort Lin. Please show mercy to my father and siblings!”
Lin Haihai bent down to help her up and said earnestly, “Family shouldn’t be blamed for the mistake of one of their members. Even if I am to hold you accountable, it’ll have nothing to do with your family. Since I’m letting you off, why would I go after your family? What crime have they committed?”
General Xie was shocked to hear that Physician Lin was the sixth princess consort. He dropped down to both knees with a heavy thud with tears falling from his greyed eyes. His wrinkled brows drew close together, projecting his emotions for all to see.
Lin Haihai panicked and dropped to her knees as well. She respected the old general too much to be on the receiving end of such a gesture.
“Please don’t lower yourself before this youth, General!” Lin Haihai said anxiously. “Please get up!”
The old general could vaguely see that Lin Haihai had knelt down as well. He couldn’t possibly accept that. He was a guilty official who had done a terrible job raising his daughter, who almost killed the princess consort. He couldn’t possibly allow the princess consort to kneel before him.
“Please get up, Consort Lin! Please!” He turned to Consort Zhuang and snarled, “Bastard, what are you waiting for? Help Consort Lin up!”
Consort Zhuang was feeling much better after Lin Haihai treated her. She crawled to Lin Haihai and lay prone before her. “Please get up, Consort Lin. This is too much for us to take!”
Lin Haihai got to her feet and said, “You two please get up as well. Commander Zheng, help the general up!”
They couldn’t hold a proper conversation if everyone was too busy kneeling on the floor. After Consort Zhuang helped her father up, Lin Haihai said, “The imperial palace has decided not to pursue this matter, General. Would you please drop it as well?”
“Even if His Majesty the Emperor and Your Highness the Princess Consort decided not to hold her accountable, this old official can’t possibly do the same,” General Xie said with a grave expression. “Otherwise, how is this old official supposed to face the people of this nation?”
Who's the winner of the kneeling competition? :P