“Debated?” Ji Zeyu challenged coolly. “That was insubordination and misconduct. How dare you attempt wordplay in front of His Majesty!”
“You may be the temporary commander of the Valiant Tigers, but you know nothing about our internal affairs and give nonsensical orders. That easily destroys troop morale! Since His Majesty has confidence in us and entrusts us with important duties, our loyalty to the emperor is at the forefront of our minds at all times. You’re just a new official freshly installed in your position, but you want to concentrate all power in your hands. Now you speak of army orders? What army orders??”
“That’s right! You just want to control everything! You don't care how the army operated before and act on whatever half-cocked idea strikes you at the moment. Are you even thinking of the nation’s best interests?? What of His Majesty’s trust in you?!”
The six of them criticized Ji Zeyu in rapid denunciation of his words and actions. The prince consort both lacked a glib tongue and was greatly outnumbered. Perhaps he also didn't care to argue with these people, so he remained standing with his hands behind his back and a frigid expression on his face. The only reaction he gave was a continuous darkening of his face; it was plain to see that he was reaching the end of his patience.
Observing the scene with calm composure, Li Qitian made use of the opportunity to watch their faces and expressions. He wanted to see if they were truly clashing with each other or was putting on this act together.
To be honest, while he trusted Ji Zeyu more, he didn't fully trust the prince consort. Some skepticism and wariness toward the man still drifted in the emperor’s heart. Ji Zeyu had been given the most crucial task of taking down Pang Xiao, but he’d failed in such a spectacular manner right when he was needed. How could Li Qitian not suspect him?
After prolonged scrutiny, however, the emperor didn’t find any flaws or hints that there was anything beneath the surface than what it appeared to be. Ji Zeyu and the six rough and ready fellows really did hate each other—to the point of wanting to kill the other party. Li Qitian felt that if it wasn't for his presence, they might've already drawn swords on each other.
Since Ji Zeyu wasn't colluding with the Valiant Tigers, then there were only two possibilities. Either the Valiant Tigers were acting on Pang Xiao’s orders and had perfectly timed their disobedience, or Ji Zeyu’s stubborn temper had brooded public ire in the Valiant Tigers. The troops chafed at his leadership and resentment had built until Pang Xiao’s return turned into a catalyst.
While Li Qitian pondered over the truth of the matter, the tension in his study stretched so taut that it seemed a fight was about to break out. He didn't want things to get out of control and wanted even less to see them cause trouble right in front of him.
“Silence, all of you.” His voice was measured and not particularly loud, but it was an imperial decree all the same.
The group immediately fell silent, lowering their heads when realization crept in that they’d behaved inappropriately by arguing in the imperial study.
Li Qitian snorted coldly. “How dare you scream and gesticulate in Our study! Do you wish to rise up in revolt?!”
“Your subjects know our crimes. Please forgive us, Your Majesty.” The group knelt at the same time.
“No matter what Ji Lan’s orders were, he is Our handpicked commander,” Li Qitian berated. “That means We trust his ability to lead and planned to hand over everything regarding the Valiant Tigers to him. All of you need only to obey the orders of the army, do you understand?!”
The six had no response to that. After prolonged silence, they uniformly answered, “Yes.”
As he scanned the six men again, Li Qitian confirmed that they were all Pang Xiao’s right hand men. Delight crept into his heart at the thought of this golden opportunity. If he could use this chance to arrest them all, then wouldn’t Pang Xiao lose six confidantes in the army in one fell swoop?
The emperor almost leapt to his feet to order their immediate execution.
However, he quickly reconsidered this impulsive action. Though these six weren't as famous as Pang Xiao and Ji Zeyu, they were still army officials that had served the imperial court for many years. If they all lost their heads like this, he could explain it away that it was well-deserved punishment for confining their commander and attempting insurrection. However, it wouldn’t be an explanation watertight enough to stave off skepticism.
After the issue of Pang Xiao, Li Qitian could endure no further gossip and doubt from his subjects and people.
“The crime of confining one’s commander and defying an imperial decree is punishable by death!”
Color drained out of the men's faces, but none of them fell into a panic. They remained with their heads down and awaited the final imperial order.
Renewed doubt swirled in Li Qitian’s mind to see them so calm and collected. Perhaps they really were acting at Pang Xiao’s behest and were confident that he wouldn’t kill them?
He tightly gripped the armrest of his chair. Truth be told, he really wanted to slake his frustration with an execution or two. But his reputation was the most important, so he couldn't act on this desire.
“However, seeing as the six of you have faithfully served the nation for many years and shed your blood in the battlefields of war, We shall see fit to let this pass. Though your death sentences may be commuted, punishment of the living shall not be foregone. Guards!”
“Aye!” Thirty imperial guards surged into the study, nervously taking up positions inside.
“Strip these six of their uniforms and administer twenty beatings of the plank each. Send them back to their residences afterwards and strip them of their positions. They will never be employed by the government again.”
“Understood!” The guards moved forward.
The six allowed themselves to be manhandled out of their outerwear without a word of protest. With only undergarments left on their bodies, they were dragged outside for a vigorous beating. Eunuchs escorted each of them back afterward.
While the six underwent their punishment, Ji Zeyu remained kneeling in the study. Li Qitian didn't give him the order to rise, instead keeping him on the ground for wordless scrutiny.
The prince consort’s expression was as aloof as ever; nothing flickered across his face when the mens’ grunts and plank thwacks traveled back into the room. He lifted a noncommittal expression to meet Li Qitian’s eyes.
The emperor looked straight into the perfectly impersonal eyes. “Ji Lan, you have greatly disappointed Us.”
Ji Zeyu lowered his head again, pursing his red lips while his fine lashes cast shadows across his cheeks.
“You were the main general of the Dragon Riders for many years, We do not believe that someone of your caliber and ability would’ve allowed things to devolve to this state.” Li Qitian rose and walked up to the prince consort. His fury boiled over when he looked down at Ji Zeyu’s ramrod straight back. He lifted his foot and kicked the prince consort’s shoulder.
Ji Zeyu neither flinched nor dodged, taking the blow head-on and falling to the ground.
“Ji Lan! Do you dare claim that you didn't do this on purpose?! You knew how important this morning court was, that it was the best opportunity to take down a brewing threat. But Our plans and efforts have all gone to waste because of your inaction. You have made Us a laughingstock in front of the nation’s officials!”
Ji Zeyu crawled up and resumed his kneeling position, his voice as cool and emotionless as ever. “This subject did it all for Your Majesty.”
Li Qitian’s wrath exploded to new heights at this response.
“So you do admit that you did this on purpose? You admit to it! Li Guanwen’s observation of your control over the Valiant Tigers wasn’t false, you directed them as you would use your own arms! There was no reason to believe that they would confine you in a moment of critical importance! Do We not know of your abilities? We didn’t believe it in the first place when you said you were grounded to your quarters!”Previous Chapter Next Chapter