“Not so fast!”
A stern but indignant voice stopped Emperor Kang Cheng in his tracks. Aside from Western Zhou’s Empress Xue, who else would have the audacity to act so wanton in front of the emperor? She was not only favored by her husband, but also supported by the massive strength of her clan. She still ruled over the imperial harem with no rivals to match and played a significant part in eliminating much of Crown Prince Ye’s dissidents at court in his early years.
Before she even showed her face, Emperor Kang Cheng was already angry. “Empress, your indulgent spoiling led the crown prince to this day!”
“Heheh, in any case, it was also my spoiling that caused Yao Yao to be expelled from the imperial family. I have plenty of crimes to bear, so one more won’t make a difference!” Empress Xue kept her stubborn personality as she walked out from behind the folding screen. She lacked the regal poise and stately elegance of other empresses, nor was she bedecked with jewels. But despite getting on in years, her figure was excellent, and she wore a snow-white dress of fine gauze beneath an ash-gray fox fur robe. Age had left lines on her face, but it didn’t detract from her fresh and noble carriage. If she wasn’t in the palace, she might have been mistaken for some celestial fairy instead.
Duanmu Yao had inherited her ethereal looks from her mother, but Duanmu Yao possessed much more celestial beauty than Empress Xue at the same age.
“Someone come, drag the crown prince outside!” Emperor Kang Cheng was truly incensed.
“If Your Majesty insists on caning the crown prince, then please cane chenqie first!” Empress Xue moved to stand in front of Crown Prince Ye, who then ducked behind her for cover.
Emperor Kang Cheng picked up the secret missive and tossed it at her. “Look at it yourself, see what he wrote. He’s lost all face for Western Zhou, but instead of repenting, he’s still writing to that damned girl with plots. Does Zhen really have to depose him of the throne?!”
“Your Majesty, chenqie allowed the crown prince to write these things. May Your Majesty spare the crown prince this time in light of the fact that chenqie was thinking about my daughter, just as the crown prince was being partial to his little sister.” When Empress Xue finished, tears streamed down her cheeks. “Your Majesty, Yao Yao, that girl, she didn’t know any better. How could she bear with that cheap liar, Jun Yixie? It was only a moment of foolishness on her part, but that venomous Han Yunxi seized the chance to plot against her. Now the whole world knows and there’s even rumors that Yao Yao and Jun Yixie...had a tryst! Your Majesty, what’s wrong with the crown prince hating Han Yunxi? Aren’t you even distressed over your own daughter’s sake, Your Majesty?”
Emperor Kang Cheng couldn’t take it when the empress cried. His stone heart melted in front of her tears. “Enough, enough. We won’t talk about this any more!”
He turned to leave, and Duanmu Baiye rejoiced, but his mother leveled him a severe glare. “You behave yourself these days!” she murmured in a low voice. “And also, keep in contact with your sister. Find out how the old master of the sword sect’s faring.”
Crown Prince Ye resentfully nodded his head as Empress Xue hurried to chase after Emperor Kang Cheng. He was silent to start, but eventually asked, “How is Yao Yao doing?”
Emperor Kang Cheng’s love for Princess Yao was comparable to his care for Crown Prince Ye---perhaps even more. It wasn’t just because Princess Yao resembled her mother in her youth, but because she was the favorite disciple of the Celestial Mountain Sword Sect’s master. That made her an important bridge in relations between the sect and Western Zhou. Although he’d driven her out, Emperor Kang Cheng still cared for her in private. He never made real moves to forbid the empress and crown prince from exchanging letters with the girl.
“I heard that she’s been practicing a new style of swordsmanship recently and has made great improvements,” Empress Xue said under her voice. “Your Majesty, chenqie knows that you’re anxious for Ye’er to improve quickly as well. Actually, if the Duke of Qin hadn’t gotten involved, it’s very possible that Ye’er could have made a laughing stock out of Han Yunxi instead.”
“You shouldn’t underestimate Qin Wangfei. That woman has the power to influence the Duke of Qin’s decisions. Would it be that easy to make a laughingstock out of her?” Emperor Kang Cheng retorted.
Empress Xue didn’t reply. Like her daughter, she refused to acknowledge any of Han Yunxi’s merits. Soon enough, a eunuch came to report the arrival of the Duke of Qin and Qin Wangfei.
“Your Majesty, shall chenqie accompany you to see them?” Empress Xue probed. When Emperor Kang Cheng didn’t refuse, she simply followed after him.
Emperor Kang Cheng had arranged to formally meet the Duke of Qin in a side hall off of the southern palace. The empress didn’t show her face, but remained hidden in the bedroom next door where she could listen in on the conversation. Even General Chu had been dismissed after he escorted the duo to His Majesty.
It was obvious that this was a private meeting. Emperor Kang Cheng was clueless about what the Duke of Qin wanted to discuss. Would he bring up Western Liang or the Chu Clan, or perhaps Tianan instead? After all, these were the only topics they had in common. It seemed unlikely that Long Feiye would come to Western Zhou to talk about an alliance with the southern central regions.
But instead, Long Feiye started talking about the pestilence that had plagued the Northern Li horse farms last year!
The biggest of Northern Li’s three major horse farms, located in South City, had caught a plague that quickly spread to their herdsman's horse pastures too. Although the sickness had passed, they’d suffered heavy losses as a result. Supposedly, South City’s horse farm was all but ruined, thus greatly diminishing Northern Li’s military strength.
“I heard that the horse farms in Vast City and Skypool City have all fallen under the crown prince’s control?” Emperor Kang Cheng probed. From what he knew, parts of the farms used to belong to the Duke of Kang Jun Yixie as well before he lost his dukedom following the Medicine City fiasco.
“No matter who controls them, it’s all hopeless when the plague hits,” Long Feiye intoned. “Your lordship heard a piece of news recently. Actually, last year’s pestilence affected Vast and Skypool City’s horse farms as well. However, their losses were far less than South City.”
Upon hearing this, Emperor Kang Cheng grew apprehensive. Although Long Feiye didn’t say it outright, he could guess at the implications! It looks like Northern Li had suffered more than he expected. In other words, its military strength wasn’t as strong as it appeared.
No wonder. After Tianning’s civil unrest, the military split into three factions with Great General Ning of the cavalry, Great General Mu of the infantry, and Great General Baili of the navy in the south. Despite its splintered forces, Northern Li Country hadn’t moved to invade its neighbor even though it only (publicly) lost one horse farm.
So, they’ve suffered heavier losses than I thought!
Yet, why had the Duke of Qin told him such a secret?
“This would have been a golden opportunity for your Tianning if it hadn’t suffered the split,” Emperor Kang Cheng sighed with emotion. Historically, it had always been Northern Li who was constantly encroaching on the borders of Tianning and Western Zhou. If Tianning’s infantry and cavalry could united with Western Zhou’s own military forces, they could have attacked Northern Li together.
“If Western Zhou has such aspirations, your lordship could call over General Baili for a chat,” Long Feiye said simply.
Now Emperor Kang Cheng finally understood Long Feiye’s intentions. As it turned out, he really was here to propose an alliance! If General Baili could move from the sea and attack Northern Li’s eastern borders, then Western Zhou could ally with them for a pincer attack to trap the enemy. Emperor Kang Cheng’s heart was moved by the thought! But he kept his cool and quickly analyzed the advantages and disadvantages of such a proposal. As it turned out, the losses outweigh the gains!
For one thing, allying with Long Feiye would send a message to Tianning’s western capital that he was against them. If the other side got desperate, they might command General Ning’s troops stationed at the border to charge into Western Zhou, leading to unthinkable consequences.
For another, there were miscalculations for even the best of battle plans. Western Zhou and Northern Li were close neighbors, so they’d risk invasion from that side as well. Northern Li’s crack cavalry could really hold a grudge, so they’d wouldn’t hesitate to sacrifice countless lives just to avenge an affront. In contrast, Long Feiye’s southern central regions were located far enough from Northern Li by a buffer zone of Emperor Tianhui and Long Tianmo’s territories to be at risk. The Duke of Qin could simply withdraw his navy if he lost his battles without much consequence, but Western Zhou had no such luxury.
For a third---and the most dreaded reason---was the fact that cooperating with the Duke of Qin was like asking a tiger or fox for its skin. He wouldn’t even know how he died before he was screwed over! Heaven knows whether the Duke of Qin was targeting Northern Li with his proposal, or Western Zhou instead! Emperor Kang Cheng’s first instinct was to reject the proposal, but he still maintained a grateful expression since he wanted to ferret out more intel from Long Feiye’s lips about Northern Li.
Unfortunately, he didn’t manage to get anything at all after that. The Duke of Qin had started out talkative, but by the end it was just Emperor Kang Cheng speaking as the man listened. Sitting next to him, Han Yunxi didn’t even say a word. Although it looked like she was being neglected because she was useless to the conversation, the Duke of Qin still made sure to pour her tea at regular intervals. When Empress Xue saw this as she spied from the shadows, she couldn’t help but feel jealous.
She was the doted empress of an entire nation, yet she still had to hide away and listen in on this meeting from the shadows. Han Yunxi was only but a wangfei, but why could she still right next to the Duke of Qin while he discussed affairs of state? Moreover, the Duke of Qin was even pouring tea for her in public! If anything, it should be Han Yunxi serving him tea instead! Although Cloud Realm Continent was quite civilized, it was still a patriarchal society in the end. Men, especially men with power, could plea with women in private, but never wait on them in public. Despite this, the Duke of Qin’s actions were received quite calmly by Han Yunxi, indicating that the two of them were used to it.
Empress Xue couldn’t help but seethe at the sight, to say nothing of her daughter! She would have to find a way to tell this to Yao Yao so her daughter could control the elements she needed at Celestial Mountain. Even if Duanmu Yao had lost the chance for a marriage alliance and her own status as princess, they couldn’t let Han Yunxi simply sit there and reap all the benefits!
Long Feiye and Emperor Kang Cheng talked for less than two hours before the former agreed to attend the latter’s banquet tonight. Then he left with Han Yunxi. As soon as the palace was behind them, she exclaimed, “You’re not really planning to ally yourself to Western Zhou! Isn’t that right? You’re here to expose the truth of the pestilence instead!”
After being with Long Feiye for so long, her experience and intellect were enough to clue Han Yunxi into his schemes.
“Keep talking,” Long Feiye said, amused.
“Thus, Emperor Kang Cheng take advantage of the crown prince’s confinement to move against the Chu Clan!” Han Yunxi said earnestly. One with too many merits overshadowed the master, one with too much power only incurred disaster. No matter how tolerant and confidence Emperor Kang Cheng could be, he would never let the Chu Clan advance limitlessly. This was especially true after Chu Qingge had married Emperor Tianhui and became the empress in under two years. Emperor Kang Cheng’s heart couldn’t help but to dread the Chu Clan.
The reasons Emperor Kang Cheng hadn’t moved against the Chu Clan yet was because he was still observing the situation and wary of Northern Li’s powerful cavalry. After all, the Chu Clan’s superior archery skills were an invaluable asset against Northern Li! But now…
Han Yunxi smiled up at her husband. “Long Feiye, you’re too evil! You came to sow discord on purpose!”